I knew July would be a tough month for running but I didn’t realise just how tough…
2nd July: The European Mountain Running Championships (Arco, Italy)
9th July: Sedbergh Sports (The British & English Fell Running Championships)
16th July: Râs Yr Wyddfa (The Snowdon International)
30th July: British Mountain Running National Championships incorporating the World Championship Trial (Uphill) and Senior Home Country Internationals (Skiddaw, Keswick)
It was a fixture list I was both relishing and dreading at the same time. Three unbelievable opportunities to compete for my country and one huge race that could potentially decide who would be crowned the winner of the English and British Fell Running Championships. It was also set to be an extremely busy and stressful month at work so I knew I’d be pushed to my absolute limit both mentally and physically.
First up was the European Mountain Running Championships in Arco, Italy where I was fortunate enough to represent Great Britain for a second successive major competition. Finishing in 26th place was a slight disappointment but winning team bronze more than compensated for my lack of personal achievement. It was also an experience I’ll never forget with memories to last a lifetime. The race however did leave me feeling very exhausted and the prospect of racing hard again the following week left me wondering if I’d perhaps bitten off more than I could chew.
At the beginning of the season, trying to win the English Fell Running Championships was never on my radar, and if I’m honest it still isn’t. However, I’m currently topping the table so it would be a real shame not to complete the series. Therefore I decided that I’d race at Sedbergh and as it was only a 4 miler it wouldn’t trash my legs too much before Snowdon. I also decided that because the latter was more important, I’d train hard right through the week and not rest up before the race. I knew I needed a top 5 finish to keep myself in contention for a medal at the end of the season. The only problem was that almost every top fell runner in the UK had turned up to earn valuable championship points.
Pictured above: Where’s Wally? Can you spot the red & white stripes of CVFR? The start of the race (courtesy of Stormin’ Norman Berry)
As the race began I did wonder if I was being overly ambitious with my aim of a top 5 – the pace at the front was frightening. Perhaps someone had told Carl Bell (above right) that it was a 400m race because he set off like a stabbed rat through the first field. Either that or the prize money on offer was clearly enough to pay off his mortgage. He was a man on a mission. I had to remind myself that although this was a ‘short race’ there was still one hell of a climb to negotiate. I could only smile as half the field sprinted past me like I was stood still. I tried not to panic about being in about 40th place but instead put faith in my climbing ability to save the day.
“IT FELT LIKE I WAS SUMMITING EVEREST. MY LUNGS WERE ON FIRE, MY HEART WAS READY TO EXPLODE AND MY LEGS WERE LIKE JELLY“
As the hill rose sharply, the race began to open up and I made a bold move on the climb. My cautious tactics had paid dividends and as we hit the summit I was safely into the top 10. I was beginning to feel more confident about a top 5 finish especially as my good friend Kirsty Hall had assured me that the second climb was ‘easy’. With this in mind I’d hammered the first ascent and was all set for coasting blissfully towards the highest checkpoint.
Pictured above: The steep climb to the summit (courtesy of Stormin’ Norman Berry)
Now I can only assume that Kirsty ran up a different second climb to me, OR that she’d descended too early OR perhaps she just has a really s**t sense of humour, because ‘easy’ was not a word I’d have used! It felt like I was summiting Everest. My lungs were on fire, my heart was ready to explode and my legs were like jelly. To be fair to Kirsty the gradient wasn’t actually that steep, but I was breathing so hard that I thought I might be having an asthma attack and I don’t even have asthma. I dug really deep and endured a few minutes of extreme physical torture (which felt like hours) before I finally caught sight of the summit. I drew my breath, increased my stride and made the swift transition from laboured climb to mindless descent.
Pictured above: Flying down the final descent (wearing inov-8 x-talon 225)
Thankfully it didn’t take long before I was back in full flow. The steepest part of the descent allowed me to fly past Morgan Donnelly and Joe Symonds before setting my sights on the Great White Hope (AKA. Rob Hope). I passed Kirsty on the way down but I was too short of breath to shout profanities, although I had forgiven her by this point. Instead my mission was to try and catch Rob, which quickly turned into trying not to get caught myself as I realised that I was actually suffering too much to launch any kind of attack of my own. Besides, I was more than content with 5th and there was clear daylight in front and behind. Best to save my legs and energy for Snowdon next week!
Râs Yr Wyddfa
At the beginning of the year I made my intentions very clear. I wanted to try and win the Snowdon International and represent Great Britain at the European Championships. I’ve been training hard over the last few months, trying to improve my climbing ability as much as possible with some tough sessions on Trooper Lane. These weekly hill reps have been the foundation of every racing success I’ve enjoyed so far this season. However, just lately I’ve been feeling less confident about my chances of winning and in hindsight I was probably running at my peak in May. I couldn’t help thinking that this race may have come two months too late.
“I ACCEPTED THE FACT THAT I MIGHT NOT BE AT MY ABSOLUTE BEST AND I TOLD MYSELF THAT WHATEVER HAPPENS ON THE DAY I’D GIVE IT 110%“
The week before the big day I was still feeling tired and lethargic. I did the worst thing possible and convinced myself that I was more ill than I actually was. There was almost a point where I considered dropping out of the race but then I feared I may have to rename my blog to something more suited to my negative attitude. I had to have a strong and very firm word with myself to alleviate any self-doubt in my mind. All athletes at some point lack confidence but I wasn’t going to allow myself to suffer anymore. There was absolutely no way I was going to pull out. Instead I thought about all the hours of training I’d done to earn my England vest and that feeling of immense pride I get whenever I represent my country. I thought about all my family and friends who were supporting me either with kind words of encouragement or by travelling hundreds of miles to watch the race. Plus I’d booked my hotel now and being a tight arsed Yorkshireman there was no way I was going to cancel last minute and lose any money! I accepted the fact that I might not be at my absolute best and I told myself that whatever happens on the day I’d give it 110% and I just hoped it would be enough.
Pictured above: Possible name change for my blog? No chance!
The stage was set for a classic showdown, with Luca Cagnati (Italy), Julien Rancon (France), Chris Smith, Rob Hope and Ricky Lightfoot (England) a few of the main protagonists. As I stood on the start line I gave myself a realistic aim of a top 5 finish. The field was super stacked but I knew I was still one of the favourites and if I could climb well then I’d be difficult to beat on the descent.
Pictured above: The start of The Snowdon International 2016
I sat cautiously in the middle of the pack as we ran out of the race field and along Victoria terrace. I knew only too well what lay in store for us as we began to climb steeply up the road and onto the mountain path. It would be another 4.4 miles before we hit the summit of Snowdon and there was 994m of ascent standing in our way. With an average gradient of 13.4% (and a max of 32%) it’s always wise to hold back in the first few miles or risk paying the price for overcooking the start. Unless of course you’re Andi Jones or perhaps Chris Smith, who today was clearly flexing his muscles by taking full control of the race on the lower slopes of the mountain. He set a fast but consistent pace on the climb and the rest of us could only watch in amazement as he continued to open up a huge lead by the halfway cafe. It was obvious that he was the man to beat and such was his dominance that we were clearly now contesting a race for 2nd place.
Pictured above: Leaving the road and joining the mountain path
“I WAS HANGING ON FOR DEAR LIFE AND TRYING NOT TO LOSE TOO MUCH TIME TO MY RIVALS – THE VERY DEFINITION OF DAMAGE LIMITATION“
Chasing him was a small group led by England’s Chris Farrell, with Rancon and Nicola Pedergana (Italy) in hot pursuit. I was running with Cagnati and Hope and working hard to maintain the pace. At this point I was perfectly placed for a podium finish but I was concerned about how hard I was having to work to stay in touch with the leaders. I didn’t feel great and I was breathing heavily as I laboured on the climb to Clogwyn, one of the steepest sections of the course.
Pictured above: Working hard (probably too hard!) on the climb with Italy’s Luca Cagnati (wearing inov-8 Trail Talon 250)
It honestly felt like I was breathing through a straw, I was forcing oxygen into my lungs and literally gasping for air. One of my friends said after the race that I was making more noise than the train and I don’t doubt it. I was completely destroying myself on the climb, on my absolute limit. In the back on my mind I knew I needed to get to the top in a decent position so I could at least try to claw back some time on the descent. It was here, exactly 12 months ago, that I’d made my move and climbed my way into 5th position by the summit, before propelling myself to a 3rd place finish. What a difference a year can make. Instead I was hanging on for dear life and trying not to lose too much time to my rivals – the very definition of damage limitation.
I’d describe the feeling of reaching the summit as sheer relief, although I think that’s probably an understatement. But there was no time to catch my breath as I was immediately forced into switching to descent mode and head straight back down the mountain. The first few hundred metres felt more like Slowdon than Snowdon. I was playing a real life game of risk as I tried to dodge and weave through the masses of people that swarmed the path before me. The inclement weather had done nothing to reduce the number of pedestrians and along with the hundreds of runners still ascending the mountain, there was little room to comfortably descend at any kind of pace. It wasn’t the other athletes who were the problem as they are always respectful towards the leading runners and fully aware of the lines we must take. However, the general public are just a walking nightmare and year after year the problem only worsens. I was jumping over dog leads, handing off children, swerving pensioners and desperately trying not to cause major injury to both myself or others. Unfortunately, apart from taping off sections of the course I don’t know what else the organisers can do to alleviate the problem as it’s not possible to close the tourist path to the public.
Pictured above: One of the less congested sections of the descent (courtesy of Pete Nicholson’s Go Pro)
Further down the mountain the crowds lessened and the path opened up. I was able to get back into my stride and descend at a free flowing pace. As I approached the bridge before Clogwyn Station I caught my first glimpse of Rob Hope in 6th place. I was making good time and beginning to close the gap. I took the grassy trod to the right which avoided the mass of runners climbing the path and began to increase the pace. To be fair to Rob he was descending well and when we reached the halfway cafe the ball was firmly back in his court. I’d run out of steep and technical terrain and we were now onto the runnable section of the descent. He was back in control and I just had to keep working hard in the vain hope that he might fade towards the finish.
Pictured above: Desperately trying to reel in Rob Hope on the descent.
“I ALWAYS TRY AND EMBRACE DEFEAT AS IT MAKES ME APPRECIATE WINNING SO MUCH MORE”
I remember struggling at this point last year. My feet were on fire and I’d ripped both my heels badly – the last 2 miles were pure agony. Although I wasn’t running as well today I was thankful that my feet were still OK. I was tired but I wasn’t dreading the final section on the road like I was back then. I worked as hard as I could to close the gap but Rob was running well and gave nothing away. If anything the end of the race for me was a bit of an anti-climax. I knew as I approached the final 800m that I couldn’t improve on 7th place. I’d missed out on a top 5 finish and I was only the fourth GB runner home, so I’d also missed out on a place in the Snowdon GB team that will travel to Morbegno in October to contest the Trofeo Vanoni relay. Needless to say I was disappointed with my performance. I’ve trained hard and raced hard all year with Snowdon in mind and when it came down to it I simply wasn’t good enough on the day. But sometimes that’s how it goes in sport – it’s swings and roundabouts. You can’t win every race, you can’t always run a PB and you can’t always be at your best. There have been times this season when I’ve turned up to races with little expectation, like the inter-counties fell championship and had the run of my life, and others like today, when I’ve ran well below par despite being one of the favourites to win. That’s why I always try and embrace defeat as it makes me appreciate winning so much more. Plus it wasn’t all doom and gloom, I was still part of a winning team and I have to keep reminding myself that I’ve still finished 7th in an international race. I really need to stop being so hard on myself!
Pictured above: The flying Englishman! A proud moment as Chris Smith takes a well deserved win for his country.
The day undoubtably belonged to my good friend Chris Smith. He had blown the rest of the field away to win in a very convincing time of 65:47 – one of the fastest times in recent years. He was obviously delighted with his win (as I’m sure you can tell from the photo above) and told me afterwards that it was the first ‘big’ win of his career. I found it hard to believe that an athlete of Chris’ calibre hasn’t won more races at this level. I’ve had the pleasure of racing in the same international teams as him over the last couple of years and the guy is seriously class, a real talent and a worthy champion. It always sounds like a cliché when people say ‘it couldn’t have happened to a nicer guy’, but I genuinely mean it. I was so happy for him and if there was anyone that I would have liked to have won the race (apart from me obviously) then it really would have been him. Finally he can enjoy the ‘big’ win he so rightly deserves.
Pictured above: All smiles as England win the international team prize (L to R: Me, Rob Hope, Chris Smith & Chris Farrell) photo courtesy of Mark Croasdale
I was also really chuffed for Chris Farrell who finished in a fantastic second place, narrowly beating the master descender, Luca Cagnati, in a nail biting sprint finish. Chris has been threatening a top international result for the last couple of years and I just hope that now he can now go one better and make the Great Britain team at the world trial. He’s a great lad, he works hard in training and he’s earned it. I can also assure you that he was very pleased with the result despite what the picture above suggests – that is his ‘happy face’ 😉 It’s also worth pointing out that although I was the last man home for England, I do have the best tan (and yes it is real before you ask Judy Howells). Obviously just another good reason to live and train in Yorkshire.
Pictured above: England women also win the international team prize (L to R: Heidi Dent, Lou Roberts & Julie Briscoe) photo courtesy of Mark Croasdale
In the women’s race Ireland continued their Snowdon domination of recent years as Sarah Mulligan won for the second time in her career. She was chased hard by my ‘2016 runner of the year’ Heidi Dent, who has had an amazing season so far. Of course I have to mention the amazing talent that is Lou Roberts, who finished in 4th place behind Scotland’s Stephanie Provan. Lou’s in the form of her life and having been on the fell running scene for many years it’s inspiring to see her at the very top of our sport at 44 years old. Finally a big well done to Julie Briscoe, who finished 8th on her international mountain running debut. She has also represented England on the road and x-country proving she is quite the all round athlete!
As ever, the race was celebrated in style with the English, Irish and Italian teams bonding over a few beers and Braulio. It was a great night and I look forward to catching up with everyone at the next international fixture. Apologies to Luca, Nicola, Marco, Paolo and Botta for my poor Yorkshire/Italian! I promise I shall practise!
Pictured above: (L) ‘Old but Gold’ Me and Chris Smith (R) Post race celebrations with the Italian team.
Finally a HUGE thanks must go to my friend and race organiser, Stephen Edwards, and his team. This international race is unique in the sense that it looks and feels like a huge commercial and professional event, yet it’s organised by members of the local community and volunteers. If you’ve never done this race before then it needs to be top of your list for 2017! I’ll certainly be back next year to have another go. Who knows, maybe one day I might just be good enough to take the top spot. For now I can only dream.
*Please contact me if I’ve used any photos without permission and I’ll obviously give you credit.
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