Friday 26th August (My Birthday)
21 pizzas and 54 Aperol Spritz later, I finally arrive in Susa for the World Masters Mountain Running Championships 2016. It’s hard to accept that at 35 years old I’m finally classed as a ‘mountain running veteran’. It really doesn’t seem right. I’m old enough by only 2 days to compete and the youngest athlete in the race.
My first impressions of Susa are good. The town is relatively small but very charming. It has easy access to spectacular countryside and is surrounded by steep, mountainous terrain. There is a constant stream of visitors because of its important Roman ruins and medieval monuments such as the amphitheatre, the Graziane Thermal aqueduct, Porta Savoia and l’Arco di Augusto. Worth a visit just to admire these impressive ancient relics.
Pictured above: The beautiful town of Susa (photo credit)
One of the things I love most about mountain running is that it takes you to some amazing places in the world to compete. Up until a few months ago I’d never even heard of Susa yet here I am, about to find out what this beautiful part of Italy has to offer. I’m not disappointed. I’m also not surprised. I’m yet to visit a part of this great country that hasn’t left a lasting impression on me.
“THIS IS A COURSE THAT DESERVES SOME SERIOUS RESPECT…THE STEEP GRADIENT IS RELENTLESS”
There’s a large contingent of GB runners who’ve also made the journey to Susa. I’m looking forward to racing but even more excited about spending the weekend with great friends. I’m 100% here for the experience and to create new memories both on and off the mountain. Needless to say my pizza and spritz tallies will have dramatically increased by Monday morning.
Pictured above: Spritz o’clock – GB crew on tour!
Saturday 27th August (RACE DAY!) For ALL Female categories and Male V55-75
I wake up on Saturday morning feeling extremely jealous that the women get to race a day earlier than the men. As Lou Roberts quite rightly pointed out to me yesterday – they get an extra day/night of drinking and we men have to prolong our celebrations until at least Sunday afternoon. It does however give me a chance to cheer them all on and get a sneaky preview of the course. Well, at least half of our course – the men’s race on Sunday is almost double that of the women’s race!
I’m carrying a full bag of bottled water up the mountain because we Brits aren’t used to racing in this heat. It’s seriously warm. Even at 9am I’ve a ‘full bead on’ (translation: I’m sweating profusely). I’m thinking if I do a good job as water-boy, then tomorrow the women will repay my kindness – well that’s the plan anyway! Although it’s very much dependant on how much they all have to drink tonight.
I slowly jog/trudge up the mountain like a cart-horse and I begin to understand why Lou has abstained from alcohol over the last few days. This is a course that deserves some serious respect. Aside from the fast flat run out on the road it’s ALL uphill and the steep gradient is relentless. Starting at 500m, it’s an 800m+ climb (6.5km) for the women and 1445m (11km) for the men. I’d best get used to the idea of climbing hard for well over 60 minutes.
Pictured above: Looking after the GB ladies and carrying out my waterboy duties.
It’s not long before the first lady appears and it’s amazing to see a GB vest at the front of the pack. Julie Briscoe is leading the way and she’s closely followed by Lou. Both are class international athletes and it’s no surprise to see them battling for the gold medal. However, what’s just as exciting is that my good friend Kirsty Hall is having the race of her life!!! She’s in 7th place and looking super strong. I urge her to jump in front of the chasing group and a few moments later she’s moved up to 3rd and pulling clear. Hard to believe that 18 months ago, following career-threatening knee surgery, Kirsty couldn’t even walk up a hill, never mind run up one! This is amazing to watch!
Pictured above: Lou Roberts working hard on the climb (photo credit)
Pictured above: Kirsty Hall in the hunt for bronze (photo credit)
Pictured above: The Golden Girls! Julie Briscoe (2nd), Lou Roberts (World V40 Champion!) and Kirsty Hall (3rd)
It’s official – a Great Britain 1, 2, 3!!! Lou Roberts is crowned the new WORLD V40 CHAMPION with Julie Briscoe in 2nd and Kirsty in 3rd!!! It’s a very proud moment and I’m absolutely thrilled for them all. The ladies have set the bar extremely high and I’m just hoping they’re not expecting the men to follow suit in the morning. I might even have to lay off the beer and spritz tonight!
Sunday 28th August (RACE DAY!) For ALL Male categories and Male V35-50
We’re gathered, shoulder to shoulder, on the start line and everyone is jostling for position. Quite funny really as there are clearly some overly ambitious people stood far too near to the front. In a race like this it doesn’t matter where you stand at this point. It’s a long way to the top and the best man on the day will always win. The mountain will ultimately dictate our fate, not a sprint start.
“THIS GUY HAS CLEARLY NEVER BEEN ON AN ALL-INCLUSIVE HOLIDAY WITH A YORKSHIREMAN BEFORE…I’VE NOT TOUCHED A SALAD SINCE JULY”
Pictured above: Calder Valley Fell Runners on tour! (L to R) Lee Shimwell, me, Karl Gray and Jason Williams.
The commentator announces my name as one of the pre-race favourites – FFS! I can’t help but chuckle to myself. This guy has clearly never been on an all-inclusive holiday with a Yorkshireman before. It’s not a pretty sight. This trip has cost me an absolute fortune but after a week I was already back in profit. I’ve not touched a salad since July. I just hope no-one has any serious money on me to make the podium because it would be a wasted bet. Now don’t get me wrong – I don’t want to come across as negative because I’m really (REALLY!) not that kind of person. As soon as that gun goes off there won’t be a single person in the race trying harder than me. I’ll absolutely destroy myself to get to the top and by the end I’ll be laid on the floor in a horrible, sweaty mess. But I’m a realist. I’ve not specifically trained for this race at all. I’m doing it because A) I can B) It’s a great excuse to stay in Italy for another week and C) The most important reason of all – I just love running up and down mountains. Time to enjoy the views (yeah right!) and embrace the pain…
I let the Usain Bolt impressionists sprint off as I settle into a very comfortable rhythm. I’m determined to pace myself sensibly and run my own race. I’m cruising down the only flat section of the course, saving my energy for the brutal climb. So much so that I even strike up a conversation with Karl (Gray) and we talk race tactics. Operation ‘try not to blow up before halfway’ is going well so far. In fact I’m pretty proud of myself for not going silly on the road. I must be getting sensible in my ‘old age’ – perhaps one perk of being a mountain running veteran😉
The main problem with setting four age categories off at the same time is that nobody really has a clue what position they are in their respective race (unless you’re winning of course!). Right now I’m somewhere in the top 30 and aside from the guys directly in front of me, I don’t know who else I’m really racing – a strange feeling if I’m honest. Nevertheless, my steady start is beginning to pay dividends as I begin to work my way through the field. I’m just tapping out a constant rhythm, fully aware of how much climbing I still need to do.
“FINALLY I CAN HEAR THE THREE C’S – CHEERING, CLAPPING AND COW BELLS…MUSIC TO MY EARS”
It might come as a surprise to many when I say that this is the longest continuous climb that I’ve ever done in a race. 1445m of sheer ascent with no respite, aside from a very small section in the middle, before rising again sharply to the finish. It’s why I’m being overly cautious – I’m really scared of blowing up before the final ascent. Even though I’m climbing well within myself, I’m still managing to pass people and slowly but surely moving up through the order. However, I’ve still absolutely no idea how many V35 runners are in front of me and I won’t know until the finish.
Pictured above: The final climb to the finish (photo credit)
As I hit the halfway point (women’s finish) I feel in surprisingly good shape so I begin to increase the pace. Unfortunately it’s a false confidence. 5 minutes later I’m back on the ropes and hanging on for dear life. The path leaves the cool shade of the trees and the route becomes exposed. The intense heat of the sun is a real shock to the system. I’m absolutely gagging for a drink. Seriously, I’d do anything right now for a mouthful of water. As if my thirst isn’t enough of a problem I’m now being attacked by flies. Lots of bloody annoying flies. I can’t even run fast enough to escape them either. This finish can’t come soon enough!
Finally I can hear the three C’s – cheering, clapping and cow bells! Music to my ears. The end is in sight. With clear daylight both in front and behind, I cruise into the finish. I’m in 12th place overall and 8th in my category. There’s no need for a sprint and I’m relieved because my legs are heavy and the tank is empty. I’m just glad it’s over. Now, somebody pass me a beer.
Pictured above: All smiles at the finish. (L to R) The legend Mark Roberts, me, Karl Gray, Lee Shimwell and Jason Williams.
Race finished and it’s time to head back to the start. We have 2 choices – wait for the hot, crowded bus or run back down the mountain on tired legs. It’s a no brainer. Now it really is time to enjoy the views. It was honestly worth all the effort in the race just for this descent – pure bliss!
Pictured above: Descending back to Susa.
The best bit of course is yet to come. An opportunity to celebrate and enjoy the occasion with friends, both old and new. A particular highlight is meeting Chris Grauch, the 2016 US masters champion. He joins us on the run back down to Susa and even treats us all to a round of beers on our return – what an absolute gent! Note to self – I must plan a trip to Colorado to pay him (and Peter Maksimow) a visit one day. It’s also a real pleasure to finally meet Francesco Puppinho who is due to compete for Italy in the World Mountain Running Championship in Bulgaria. Without doubt a future world champion in my eyes!
Pictured above: Post-race celebrations with Chris Grauch.
Pictured above: Enjoying a beer with Francesco Puppinho.
Pictured above: Sandwiched between 2 champions! (L) 3rd in the world Kirsty Hall and (R) World Champion Lou Roberts
Of course, I can’t finish this blog without another mention of our golden girls, who quite rightly stole the show. However, I can’t believe this photo cost me 49 pence! Now Lou is world champion and Kirsty is 3rd in the world they’re making serious diva-like demands! I had to take 3 pictures to get the best light and they charged me for all of them! Both have also asked me to mention that they are available for hire at public events for a very reasonable fee. I hear Lou is opening a new supermarket in Wigton next week and her new book ‘How to get faster than Mark Roberts in 5 easy steps’ is due out in time for Christmas (signed copies also available). Kirsty is currently working on a new range of sports clothing for dwarves and really small fell runners, having spotted a gap in the market. I suppose with this in mind I should consider 49 pence per photo a real bargain!
Pictured above: Sandwiched between 2 legends (L) European Mountain Running Champion, Martin Dematteis and (R) Future World Champion Francesco Puppinho.
Finally, I’d like to take this opportunity to congratulate all of the athletes, the medallists (especially the GB and Irish athletes!), the organisers for putting on such a great event and, of course, all of my teammates and friends for helping to make my first World Mountain Running Masters Championship such an amazing experience. I’m looking forward to next year’s event already!
Roll on 2017…
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