This was a weekend to remember for all the right reasons. Sometimes everything comes together on race day and it goes perfectly from start to finish and this was one of those occasions. After a close to perfect build up to the race I knew I’d done everything I could to get in the best shape possible. Even with the best training things can still go wrong but the more major championships you compete in the more you learn and then it’s easier to perform at your best. To compete in this race I had to miss my graduation which was a decision that although was easy for me to make it did let some people down. You have to make the most of the chances you have when it comes to representing Great Britain.
This was my 5th European Mountain Running Championships and 7th time on the GB team. In those previous six races only one went very well and the other five races were below par although I learned important lessons. Four years ago I was close to winning the Junior European Championships on a similar course but I made a bad decision and tried to open up a gap too early in the race and lost a lot of places in the later stages, eventually finishing 6th. This time round I knew exactly how to pace the race to get the best out of myself but I still wasn’t sure how I compared to the top Europeans as I hadn’t really raced them this year. A top ten position was my aim although I really wanted to get close to the top five.
The first 1km of the race was flat next to a lake then it climbed steeply on single tracks with some rough and rocky sections. There were a few flatter sections in the first half of the uphill to break it up but the second half was steep and relentless. The descent was less steep and it seemed to go on for ages. Most of it was on a rocky track with some technical sections although it was very fast all the way. After jogging the course two days before I was really looking forward to racing, it’s definitely the best course I’ve seen at a European or World champs with proper mountain paths and some steep gradients.
At the start I went off fast to avoid getting stuck behind people before the single track. The first kilometre was done in under 3 minutes but it didn’t feel too tiring and I was right behind the leaders and next to fellow GB runner Andrew Douglas. Once we started climbing I eased off slightly and got in to a good rhythm, still comfortably in the top 10. Andy was just ahead of me at this point running next to six time European champion Ahmet Arslan from Turkey and looking strong. I moved past him in the later stages of the uphill and joined the group of four of five guys in the chasing pack with only Italy’s Bernard Dematteiss ahead. The effort still felt comfortable and I was confident I could speed up on the 2nd and 3rd laps when it really mattered. Once we started the downhill I stayed at the back of the group and didn’t make the mistake I made four years ago by trying to go too fast.
- Chasing pack on the first descent with me at the back. (Photo by Gerry Brady)
I was still in this group at the start of the second lap but I quickly moved up a gear and sneaked ahead of a few guys. By now I had lost track of my position but knew Bernard was still ahead and maybe one or two others. I climbed strongly and opened a gap on the guys behind me although I couldn’t see anyone else ahead. It was a great feeling as I had dropped some of the top runners and now I was battling it out for the medals. People were cheering for me and telling me I was close to Bernard but I wondered how far ahead the other guys were though. It soon occurred to me that it was only him in front and I was in 2nd! That explained why the British, Irish and many other countries were cheering so loud for me. I got such a boost from this and I started the second descent determined not to let anyone past. By the end of lap two I was tiring but I knew I only had to dig deep one more time to get to the top of the hill then gravity would take care of the downhill. The cheers were getting louder from the team and I knew I was catching Bernard slightly, he also knew this and seemed to push even harder. On the last part of the uphill I was giving it everything to close the gap and keep ahead of the other two guys who weren’t as far behind me as I’d wanted.
- On the steep ascent, lap 3
When I turned at the top I felt dizzy from the effort and I took a few seconds to regain focus for the descent. This time round I didn’t hold back anything and I committed everything to going quickly over the roughest sections. It’s a long time since I’ve had to push so hard on a descent but everything was at stake until I was safely over the line. I could see Bernard on the long straights and he looked tired. On the flatter sections I still felt quite strong and clawed back one or two more seconds. By now I was about 10 seconds behind 1st and I was about 10 seconds ahead of 3rd which was Bernard’s twin brother Martin. The last 600m of the race had a few steep sections where I had to concentrate but once that was over and I was on the last 200m I knew I had a medal in the bag. The job was done. Not long after Andy came through the line after a really strong run in 10th place, followed by Tom in 15th. Both guys were making their senior GB debut so to get such strong results against a top field was brilliant and it meant our team were 2nd, only beaten by Italy! The only negative from the race was our 4th GB man, Shaun Dixon, had a bad fall at the start and didn’t manage to complete the course. He will be back though!
- On the finish straight, 60m to go
To begin with it felt just like doing well at any other race then once my brain recovered I realised that I probably had my best ever race and far better than I’d hoped for. It was one of those races where you’re running harder that you’ve done before and it feels so comfortable. Having such great support all round the course gave me a huge boost and it made me run even harder. Being part of such a successful team was a privilege with GB being the second most successful nation behind Italy. Three of the four teams won medals and as well as my 2nd place, Georgia Malir won gold in the junior women’s race. It looks like our team is on the way up and I think it’s possible for us to win a lot of medals at the World Championships in Wales next year.
One day I hoped to win an individual medal at a European championship but I didn’t expect it to come for a long time and I thought it would be the highlight of my career. Now it’s been done it’s a huge achievement ticked off the list but it makes it possible to set even higher aims now. I’ve sacrificed a lot over the last few years, especially this year so this result was a great reward. After a few easy days to recover I’ll be ready to work hard towards the next target.