The Italian Job

The-Italian-Job_NEW.jpgTHERE ARE MANY REASONS WHY I LOVE TO RUN. I RUN FOR THE CHALLENGE, I RUN TO DISCOVER, I RUN TO FEEL GOOD, I RUN FROM ROUTINE AND I RUN FOR FUN

Running has taken me to some amazing places over the last 12 years and I have a wealth of amazing memories to last me a lifetime. Take last weekend for example. It was the European Mountain Running Championships, held in Arco, Italy, at the head of Lake Garda. I’d been selected to run for Great Britain, by far one of the greatest achievements of my career so far. Nothing makes me prouder than competing in the GB vest, for me it’s the best feeling in the world.

IMG_4495Pictured above: The stunning view of Arco from the castle.

Alongside the Snowdon International, this was a race that was right at the top of my ‘to do list’ for 2016. I was desperate to make the Great Britain team as I love competing in Italy, the true home of mountain running. Arco is a spectacular place and the race is very unique. The 12.5km three-lap route is like no other. It’s an up-and-down course that climbs through the elegant streets of the town before arriving at the castle of Arco, one of the most beautiful medieval fortresses in the Italian Alps. What’s most interesting about this course is the diversity of the terrain – with everything from concrete steps, man-made wooden stairs that scale the castle wall, rock slabs, grassy banks and tight switchbacks. This means that the eventual winner will of course be the most ‘complete’ athlete; the type that can cope with the ever-changing gradients and a wide variety of challenging terrains. Watch this video for a sneak preview.

TEAM GB

Joining me on this Italian job was a team of outstanding athletes, some regulars in the squad and others about to make their mark on the international scene.

Team GB.jpg

Management team: Sarah Rowell (senior team manager), Mark Croasdale, Helen MacVicker (team managers), Graham Everard (team physio) and Meinir Jones (team doctor).

The men’s team, headed by Andy Douglas, boasted a wealth of experience. All four of us had competed for GB at the World Championships in Betws-Y-Coed last September and we’re really good friends. Unfortunately Alex Pilcher had pulled out of the team a few days earlier through injury but we couldn’t have asked for a better replacement in Tom Adams. Over the last few years we’ve achieved some amazing things together for Yorkshire, England and Great Britain. I was delighted to be sharing another running experience with him. I was also very happy that Chris had been selected too, especially as it meant I wasn’t the oldest in the team! At 39 years young Chris is like a fine wine that just gets better with age. He’s someone who I really admire and look up to. I hold Andy in very much the same regard – he’s Mr Cool, Mr Modest and Mr Super-talented. I was extremely proud to be part of such a strong team.

IMG_3363.JPGPictured above: The Great Britain European Mountain Running Team 2016.

“SINCE THEN SHE’S BEEN AN UNSTOPPABLE FORCE AND WITHOUT DOUBT ONE OF THE GREATEST MOUNTAIN RUNNERS THIS COUNTRY HAS EVER PRODUCED”

Great Britain has always boasted some of the finest mountain runners in the world and thankfully we’re not about to break this trend just yet. This year Emmie Collinge was starting the women’s race as the overwhelming favourite for the win and deservedly so. She made her GB debut at the World’s last September and finished second only to Uganda’s Stella Chesang. Since then she’s been an unstoppable force and without doubt one of the greatest athletes this country has ever produced. It will probably come as no surprise when I tell you that she’s also extremely modest and very humble – a true champion of our great sport.

Joining Emmie were three other athletes who are all world class. Sarah Tunstall has been there, seen it, done and won it. She’s a born leader and a really great laugh. I was also really pleased that Heidi and Rebecca had made the team too. I’ve enjoyed spending time with them both in training and at races and I was excited to see them both competing on the international stage after some fantastic performances this season.

Both junior teams were full of new faces. Prior to this event I only knew Heidi and Scarlet so I was really looking forward to meeting the rest of the team. I can honestly say that it was an absolute pleasure to share the experience with such a great bunch of people, we really bonded as a team and it made the trip so enjoyable from the very first minute.

IMG_4512Pictured above: The stunning view of the town from the top of the castle.

THE PRE-RACE BUILD UP

We had the luxury of arriving at the championships a few days before the race which meant that we had plenty of time to rest, check out the course and get acclimatised to the heat. The latter is one of the biggest problems for GB athletes as when we compete abroad we’re certainly not used to running in hot weather!

I was very grateful that we had a couple of days to prepare as I honestly felt shattered. It’s been a really frantic term at school and I’ve been struggling to juggle a full time training schedule with a very stressful and pressured job. As an elite amateur athlete it’s been difficult to stay in top physical condition for the entire season and to try and peak for the big competitions, especially when I’m so busy with work. Striking a work/life/running balance has always been my achilles heel and I was concerned with how tired I was feeling prior to the race. Thank god I wasn’t racing until Saturday – I really needed the rest!

Thursday morning began with an easy recce of the route. As far as races go this has to be one of the most original and technical courses that I’ve ever seen in my life. One of the hardest decisions we all had to make was choosing which shoes to wear as we were running on every single type of terrain. Lucky for me I’d packed about 5 different pairs! 😉

IMG_4560Pictured above: Testing the course to decide which shoes to wear (inov-8 Trail Talon 250)

My day turned out to be very productive. I managed to co-write a blog for inov-8 with Emmie over coffee and we talked about some of the races and adventures we had planned for the rest of the year. I always love spending time with her as we share the same passion for running and have a very similar outlook on life. She has to be one of the most interesting and inspiring people I’ve ever met. We were also given the task of running inov-8’s instagram and twitter accounts for the weekend but I didn’t consider the lack of internet access in the area – 4G in the mountains is a rare treat! Those of you who know me well will appreciate how difficult it was for me to cope without social media!!!

IMG_4710Pictured above: The story of our weekend – searching for signal!

The rest of our time before the race was spent relaxing, enjoying some fine italian food and swimming in Lake Garda – pretty much the same as my usual race prep back home in Elland 😉 The surroundings were absolutely breathtaking and it made me appreciate just how lucky I was to be here.

Chris also had the idea to take a photograph of all of our club vests together to say a huge thanks for all of the support our local athletic clubs have given us over the years. I/we are very grateful to all of the people involved in helping us to grow as athletes and compete at the highest level. It all starts with grass roots and I thought it was a lovely and very fitting gesture. It was also interesting to see the where we’d all come from in order to represent Great Britain. The spread of counties and countries was huge! Obviously the Yorkshire vest made an appearance so Dave Woodhead will be happy 😉 This was the pick of the photographs, taken by Josh Boyle, who I promised I’d give credit to.

13588745_1223077847711386_1584767535_o.jpgPictured above: The club colours of Team GB.

Without doubt one of the highlights of the entire trip was listening to the evening entertainment back at the hotel (unfortunately there isn’t a button for sarcasm on my laptop). I was however most pleased to see that Roy Hodgson has found a new job so soon after leaving his post as the England coach. Unfortunately he’s even less talented at singing than he is at managing players, which I’m sure you’ll all find very hard to believe.

IMG_4703Pictured above: Roy Hodgson banging out the tunes in the hotel.

By Friday the pre-race tension began to build as more teams began to arrive in Arco. I was particularly excited about attending the opening ceremony as Sarah had asked me to carry the Great Britain flag during the team parade. I considered this a great honour and was very flattered to have been asked. The atmosphere was amazing. People had lined the streets to welcome the athletes to Arco and there was a real buzz about the town.

IMG_4709

IMG_1609Pictured above: A proud moment as I carried the flag at the opening ceremony.

After spending a couple of days relaxing suddenly the race was beginning to feel very real. Quite a few people in the team began to feel very nervous and I can completely understand why. It must be so hard for someone like Emmie as she had the added pressure of being THE pre-race favourite. The weight of expectation on her was immense. At times like this it’s nice to have the support of your teammates around you. Both Sarah’s did a great job at rousing the team with pre-race speeches and their experience, along with others, really helped to reduce the tension in the room. I personally tried not to give the race too much thought. At this stage there’s never any point in wasting any nervous energy worrying so instead I took my mind off it by watching Wales Great Britain vs Belgium 😉 What an amazing result it was too! My only concern was that our Welsh team doctor, Meinir, might require medical attention herself when Wales scored their third goal! I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a woman quite as excited before…..about football 😉 It was an inspiring performance that left me in a really positive frame of mind before our very own big day of international competition.

RACE DAY!

Race day had finally arrived. It was time for us to do the business and get the job done. As the most successful mountain running team in the world the pressure was most certainly on all of us to deliver the goods. First up were the junior girls and they did not disappoint. They produced some outstanding performances and were led home by the super talented Heidi Davies, who finished in 3rd place and won individual bronze. Scarlet also had a super run in 5th and just a few seconds behind. I was delighted for them both, two really great girls with very bright futures ahead of them. Heidi also happens to be a top blogger and her account of the weekend is well worth a read! Laura rounded up the team scoring in 10th which meant that the girls had won team gold ahead of a very strong Italian team. Unfortunately Bella collapsed near to the finish so you can imagine our relief when we finally realised she was OK.

Heidi’s blog: The Piano Runner

Junior girls: Heidi Davies BRONZE | Scarlet Dale 5th | Laura Stark 10th | Bella Williams –

IMG_20160703_192059Pictured above: My favourite picture from the weekend – Heidi Davies winning bronze.

Next up were the junior boys and each and every one of them gave their best, eventually just missing out on a team medal by finishing in 4th place overall. All four of the lads should be very proud of their performances, the standard of competition was insane.

Junior boys: Ciaran Lewis 13th | Gav Bryson 17th | Jake Smith 21st | Josh Boyle 26th

IMG_3423 (1).JPGPictured above: The start of the junior men’s race.

The stage was then set for the big showdown between Great Britain and Italy in the women’s race. My money was on Emmie to win gold and with the quality of our team behind her I really believed they could beat the Italians for the team prize.

IMG_7795.jpgPictured above: The amazing Emmie Collinge working hard on the climb to the summit (courtesy of Corsa in Montagna).

I desperately wanted to watch the women’s race but we had our own run to prepare for. I managed to catch a few minutes of the live coverage to see that Emmie was leading and the rest of our ladies were all in the top 15 and packing together really well. However, the strength of the Italian team was impressive and it was turning into quite a battle at the front. As I warmed up with Chris and Tom we headed towards the finish to try and catch a glimpse of the winner. It was a very nervous wait but when we finally saw Emmie appear into full view with a clear gap behind her it was amazing – I was so happy for her. It must’ve been an unbelievable feeling to break the finishing tape knowing that you’ve just become the European Mountain Running Champion.

IMG_7922.jpgPictured above: The top 3 women (L TO R) 2nd Alice Gaggi (Italy), 1st Emmie Collinge (GBR) and 3rd Sara Bottarelli (Italy) (courtesy of Corsa in Montagna).

Heidi Dent also deserves a mention after finishing in a fantastic 7th place on her GB debut. She’s always the first to congratulate everyone else on their performance so it was lovely to see her finish so high up the field herself. Unfortunately our ladies were beaten to the team prize by a dominant Italian side but they really did an amazing job to win team silver.

Senior Women: Emmie Collinge GOLD | Heidi Dent 7th | Rebecca Hilland 13th | Sarah Tunstall 14th

IMG_3443Pictured above: The start of the senior men’s race with GB’s Andy Douglas leading the charge.

As we lined up on the start line I felt as though we were back in England rather than Italy. The rain was bouncing down on the cobbles so hard that the street looked more like a river than a road. I was delighted! It felt like the start of a fell race. Although I was dreading the first lap through the town as it was pan flat for the first kilometre and I knew the pace would be frightening. I also had a difficult choice to make – do I try and run near the front so that I don’t get held back on the super thin paths to the castle or do I pace myself, save some energy but risk getting trapped in a bottle neck? In the end I supposed I tried to do both. It was hard not to get drawn into the early pace but also I had to start strongly or risk getting trampled on. How on earth nobody got injured in the first 200m I’ll never know. It was like being at the centre of a large cycling peloton where one false move can bring down the entire field in a domino style effect.

I breathed a sigh of relief as the field finally began to string out and focused my attention on the next job in hand – the climb to the castle. As predicted it was a real battle to pass people and whenever we reached a set of steps inevitably there was a wait as the volume of runners was far too great for the size of the paths. At this point I was feeling pretty good despite having to fight for every inch of space as we hit each turn at pace.

Pictured above: Digging deep on the climb to the castle (L) and heavy traffic on the descent (R).

For the first two laps I was running with my fellow Yorkshireman Tom Adams. I was climbing and descending well but I was finding the flat sections difficult and there were plenty of them! We ran through the town no fewer than four times and I reckon there must’ve been at least 3-4km of fast flat road. By the final lap I felt drained and I was beginning to fade fast. I’d lost sight of Tom but I knew I had to dig in really deep and try to beat as many people as possible to help the team. When I race, I always race hard and if I’m racing for a team then I’d sooner collapse than give up. Every second counts and every position matters. I was on the ropes but I absolutely destroyed myself on that final climb. I’d worked so hard just to get in the team so I was prepared to put everything on the line to finish as high up the field as possible.

“IN THE FAMOUS WORDS OF EMMA CLAYTONI EMPTIED THE TANK

It was sheer relief when we finally hit the summit for the last time and began to descend back into the town. I pushed as hard as I could and it wasn’t long before I was turning into the finishing straight. There was about 200m to go and this was the moment I’d been dreading – a sprint finish! Tomáš Lichý from the Czech Republic was on my shoulder and closing in fast. I gave it everything even though I felt I had nothing left. In the famous words of Emma Clayton – ‘I emptied the tank’. She would’ve been proud (perhaps not of my race but certainly my sprint finish). It was enough to hold my position and as soon as I crossed the line I hit the floor like a lead balloon. I was completely and utterly ruined.

If I’m honest I had mixed emotions at the end. I’ve been in great form all season and worked so hard to earn my place in the team but today I really felt like I’d under performed. Not in the sense that I hadn’t tried hard, just that I know I wasn’t at my best. I can honestly say that hand on heart I’d given everything, I know that I couldn’t have physically performed any better on the day. Before the race I really felt like I was capable of a top 15 finish but I’d only managed 26th. In reality I was only really 30-40 secs off the pace but at this level you get punished for not being on top form and today it was the difference between finishing 26th and 16th – fine margins indeed! Part of me felt like I’d let the team down and everyone back home who was watching. I feared I may have cost us a medal, especially as the rest of the lads had done a great job. I was just praying that we’d managed to beat France to team bronze.

Senior Men: Andy Douglas 4th | Chris Smith 12th | Tom Adams 17th | Ben Mounsey 26th

IMG_8076.jpgPictured above: Martin and Bernard Dematteis celebrating on the podium (courtesy of Corsa in Montagna).

The race was won by Martin Dematteis who was gifted the win by his twin brother Bernard. Both great champions in every respect and thoroughly top guys. As they were representing the home nation everyone was ecstatic that they’d won the race, although I was obviously rooting for Andy. He finished in an amazing 4th place behind Turkey’s multiple world champion, Ahmet Arslam. Although I know he was disappointed to be so close to an individual medal, 4th place in the Europeans is a truly outstanding result. The level that he is competing at is nothing short of exceptional. Chris and Tom had also performed brilliantly to finish 12th and 17th respectively and I was really pleased for them both too.

“WE’D COME HERE TO WIN A MEDAL AND WE’D DONE IT – THAT WAS THE MOST IMPORTANT THING”

When the team results were officially announced I can’t tell you how relieved I was when I knew we’d won a medal. Tom’s result had been enough in the end to beat the French by 2 points, a marginal gain that thankfully we were celebrating and not them. At that moment I told myself to get a grip and to put the disappointment of my own result out of my mind. We’d come here to win a medal and we’d done it – that was THE most important thing. The success of the team far outweighs my own personal ambition and I’m old enough and experienced enough to know that you can’t always have your best race, it’s just not possible. The important thing is how you deal with disappointment. There’s always another race, always another time to shine. Besides, as a team we had won a wealth of medals and I was super proud and super pleased for everyone. This was a time to celebrate and I was going to enjoy this moment like I’d won individual and team gold. We’d ALL given everything in the race and we’d ALL done Great Britain proud.

Results | Video | Photos | Strava

IMG_4701Pictured above: A very proud moment – team bronze with an amazing team (L to R) Andy Douglas, Chris Smith, Tom Adams and me.

Our post-race celebrations were certainly worthy of a gold medal. We had such a good night socialising with each other and the rest of the teams. The Dematteis brothers are absolutely crazy and it’s hard to believe that they’re professional athletes and not a famous Italian comedy act – The Chuckle Brothers should be worried! There’s always a buzz around them and they are the heart and soul of the mountain running community. Both are very worthy champions and amazing role models.

IMG_4663Pictured above: Post-race celebrations with Martin Dematteis…and his dad (or so he tells me).

The highlight of the trip for me was most certainly the time spent with friends old and new. Thanks to Tony Tamussin, who made the journey from Collina, to see the GB team and wish us all good luck. I’ll next see him next month when I run leg 2 for a Great Britain team in Tre-Refugi, a classic relay race in Northern Italy that he organises.

It was great to chat to my friend Alex Baldaccini after the race too. He’s an italian mountain running legend and a massive hero of mine. Also a big shout out to Isreal’s Megal Atias – adopted by the GB team and someone who we all really enjoyed spending time with. Funnily enough she was probably the only person in Italy who thought that the weather was cold! Back home she has to train at 4am to avoid the intense heat during the day – now that’s commitment!

Finally the biggest thanks must go to the race organisers, my sponsors, my amazing GB teammates, our fantastic support staff and all of the people back home who sent us such wonderful messages of support throughout the competition. Without you all none of this would be possible and it certainly wouldn’t have been the same.

IMG_4702Pictured above: With the legend Tony Tamussin.

There are many reasons why I love to run and this trip reminded me of each and every one of them. It was an amazing experience and one which I’ll never forget.

MOUNTAIN RUNNING. MORE THAN JUST A SPORT. MORE THAN JUST A RACE

Heidi Davies (2016)

I couldn’t have put it better myself.

 

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