Britain’s Got X-Talon

X-Talon

I’ve always been a huge fan of the inov-8 X-Talon. I bought the first ‘original’ pair in 2008 and ten years later I still can’t bear to part with them. In my opinion, the X-Talon 212 is THE most iconic off-road shoe of all-time and I’ve kept them because they’re a little piece of inov-8 history.

X-Talons

Almost a decade after the original release, I found myself in the privileged position of being asked to test the latest additions to the X-Talon family, the X-Talon 230 and the X-Talon 210.

Inov-8 gave me the simplest of briefs; don’t ask any questions, just go out, test them to the limit and let us know what you think. So for the next 3 months I did exactly that. I wore both shoes for almost every single training run and race. I wore them on every type of terrain, in all weather conditions, and I tested them in 3 different countries.

THE X-TALON 230

MODEL SPECIFICATION

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Pictured above: The X-Talon 230; Men’s design (L) and Women’s design (R)

First impressions were excellent; I’m a big fan of the new colours and design.

Then I tried them on…and in all honesty, I wasn’t convinced. I was worried that the upper was (dare I say?!?) too robust, perhaps a little too rigid. I wore them round the house for a few days, just to get used to the new fit and feel.

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During my first test run, I quickly realised that the material of the upper was non-water absorbant. My feet were still warm and dry after I’d been running through water, mud and bog – a HUGE thumbs up! Especially as I do most of my training on wet, open moorland in the Yorkshire Dales. The shoe also has a gusseted tongue, which like the ROCLITE 305, helps to keep out unwanted mud and debris.

Black & White230_3_MG_0590 with logoPictured above: Testing the inov-8 X-Talon 230 in Threshfield Quarry, North Yorkshire  (Photography by Andy Jackson)

The first thing that caught my attention was the grip. This has always been the most impressive feature of the X-Talon range and like its predecessors, the new 230 does not disappoint. This shoe is fantastic on all surfaces; thick black ice the only possible exception. I have tested it on all types of terrain and I can say with confidence that it’s a grip I can trust. This of course is the most important factor for any fell shoe. The design of the sole and 8mm lug pattern is the same as all other previous generations, except that the new X-Talon 230 has a different type rubber, with STICKYGRIP technology.

THE X-TALON 230 IS INOV-8’s TOUGHEST AND MOST DURABLE SHOE YET

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Over the next few weeks I wore them again and again. Eventually they began to mold to my feet. It’s the first time I’ve had to ‘break in’ a pair of inov-8 shoes, but one of the major features of this shoe is the strength and protection of the upper. It was worth the effort and I’m glad I persisted with them.

I’ve used the X-Talon 230 as my main training shoe over winter. I’ve done much of my running high above the snow line, in the Yorkshire Dales, the Lake District and Scotland. In cold, wet and challenging conditions my feet have managed to stay a little drier and warmer for longer. The robust upper is noticeably thicker and stronger than that of previous X-Talon models. After months of rigorous testing, the uppers have shown no signs of wear and tear. This is a shoe that’s made to last and the X-Talon 230 is by far inov-8’s toughest and most durable shoe yet.

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Quarry2Pictured above: Testing the inov-8 X-Talon 230 in Threshfield Quarry, North Yorkshire  (Photography by Andy Jackson)

The fit and feel is very different to any of the other shoes in this range. Something else that’s worthy of note is that this is a precision fit model and suits runners with very narrow feet. Inov-8 now use a 1-5 scale (most narrow – widest fit) to help their customers choose the correct fit. The X-Talon 230 is classed as a ‘1’ on the scale and it probably explains why the shoe took me a few runs to wear in. One advantage of this however, is that the shoes mold to your feet and there is less movement inside them when you are descending at pace or running across challenging terrain.

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IMAGINE THE OFFSPRING OF TWO BEAUTIFUL MODELS. IN THIS PARTICULAR CASE, I’M TALKING ABOUT THE INOV-8 X-TALON 225 AND THE X-TALON 212. THE RESULT? THE NEW X-TALON 230

Any fans of the classic X-Talon 212 and the X-Talon 225 will have noticed that the 230 is a shoe that shares much of both designs, combining all of their best features, with a few new additions of its own. The protective rand, made famous by the 212, wraps around the foot to provide comfort and protection. This, coupled with the tough upper material, an improvement of the 225, makes the new 230 feel like an indestructible shoe. I later discovered that there is also a rock plate built into the sole, which helps to protect feet against sharp rocks. This is a new feature of the X-Talon range after successful implementation in models such as the TRAILROC 285.

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WITH SO MANY GOOD FEATURES, WHAT WOULD I IMPROVE?

I suppose the obvious improvement has already been mentioned. These shoes need wearing in, I wouldn’t recommend racing in them straight from the box. They’re also harder to get on (and off!) than other models, mainly because of the thick upper material and precision fit. The pair I was testing also happened to be a size 9.5 and I’m always a 10 in inov-8. Only a slight difference, but the 9.5 fit me perfectly, so perhaps they’re worth trying on for size before you buy. Finally, I did notice that when my feet were completely immersed in water, after a while, the shoes began to foam a little whilst I was running. I later realised that it was probably my own fault, as I must’ve used too much detergent in my washing and the foam was from my socks! It’s happened a couple of times so I’ve come to the conclusion that I’m probably best not doing the washing in our house anymore. It’s now a ‘pink’ job rather than a ‘blue’ 😉 Worth mentioning if you end up having the same problem, or if like me, you just want to cleverly avoid household chores.

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Aside from these tiny details, the X-Talon 230 is the ultimate off-road running shoe. It borrows the best features from all of inov-8’s most successful models and can be worn with confidence on the fells, mountains, trails and cross-country. So if you’re looking for a tough, versatile shoe with outstanding grip, then look no further. The 230 can do it all and is built to last.

Quarry3Pictured above: Testing the inov-8 X-Talon 230 in Threshfield Quarry, North Yorkshire  (Photography by Andy Jackson)

 

THE X-TALON 210

MODEL SPECIFICATION

210_3If you were to ask me which of the previous inov-8 X-Talon models was my all-time favourite, it would be an easy answer. It’s a bit like asking me to choose my favourite Italian aperitif. Obviously it would be Aperol Spritz and for my choice of X-Talon, it would be the blue and green X-Talon 190. Over the years, I’ve probably owned more pairs of 190’s than I’ve drank bottles of Aperol; both well into double figures. So when inov-8 eventually discontinued my favourite model, I’ve been looking for a worthy replacement ever since.

190

Pictured above: The previous generation inov-8 X-Talon 190

Despite the fact the 230 and 210 are from the same X-Talon family, that’s pretty much where the similarity ends. The only thing they really share is the same STICKYGRIP technology and 8mm lug pattern. The latter has been stripped back for lightweight competition. No rock plate in the sole, plus a much lower drop and reduced footbed, 3mm rather than 6mm for both. This means that you’re slightly closer to the ground in the 210’s and you feel much more of the terrain underfoot.

THE X-TALON 210’s ARE SO LIGHT AND COMFORTABLE, IT FEELS LIKE I’M WEARING SLIPPERS ON MY FEET

Both shoes have uppers made from a non-water absorbing material, but that of the 230 is much thicker and stronger. The 210 is more breathable and feels like a completely different shoe altogether. This is also down to the fact that they are slightly wider, 2 on the fit scale, but still precision fit. Unlike the 230, I raced in these straight from the box and they felt like slippers as soon as I put them on my feet.

210 Threshfield Quarry_Orange.jpg210.jpg

_MG_0885Pictured above: Testing the inov-8 X-Talon 210 in Threshfield Quarry, North Yorkshire  (Photography by Andy Jackson)

Now, you might be thinking why and how I can champion another X-Talon shoe, when I’ve just been waxing lyrical about the new 230’s for the most part of this review. It’s a good question and here is the answer…

When I race, I like to run light and fast. When I train, weight is not an issue, but rather comfort and protection. I wear different shoes for different purposes. The X-Talon 230 is suitable for both training and racing, but given a choice, I’d personally prefer to use it for training and then race in the X-Talon 210. The only exception to this (self-made) rule, is if I were to compete in a long race, or if I felt I needed a more durable shoe to cope with extreme conditions or terrain. Therefore, the X-Talon 210, like the old 190, is my new lightweight racing shoe of choice.

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Amalfi Trail RunningPictured above: The inov-8 X-Talon 210 in action (Rupert’s Trail, Amalfi, Italy)

SO WHAT WOULD I IMPROVE?

In truth, there wouldn’t really be much I’d improve about the X-Talon 210. Perhaps the only thing I would change is the width, to a ‘1’ instead of ‘2’ on the fit scale. It’s a personal preference and not a huge issue at all, but I have very narrow feet and that’s one of the reasons why I run in two pairs of socks. I like to reduce any movement in the shoe and prefer a narrower toe box. The fit of the 230’s is absolutely perfect for me.

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_MG_0862Pictured above: Testing the inov-8 X-Talon 210 in Threshfield Quarry, North Yorkshire  (Photography by Andy Jackson)

Like the 230, I’ve tested the X-Talon 210 on all types of terrain and in all kinds of conditions. They’re so light I hardly notice them on my feet. There isn’t a better lightweight shoe on the market that offers this much grip and comfort.

I’ve even got used to the colour! Although I have to confess, red and white instead of bright orange would certainly match both my inov-8 and Calder Valley kit!

For what it’s worth, this is my improved design for the 210’s. Inov-8 please take note ;-)…

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The ‘Running Hard’ Blog Tour 

blog tour

It is a great and enduring argument to determine just who is the greatest sporting athlete of all-time. Exactly what criteria would determine the winner? Should their success be simply measured in honours; or is it the influence and impact that they have on others? In my opinion, it should always be both. Therefore, it’s not possible for everyone to agree on the matter. What is certain, however, is that we would all choose a different sporting hero for reasons of our own.

I am often asked who I consider to be the greatest. For me, a passionate and seasoned fell runner, it’s an easy question. My answer is, and will always be the same; the legendary fell runner, Kenny Stuart. Now you may be reading this and perhaps wondering exactly who he is. It doesn’t surprise me if this is the case. The fact that you might not have heard of him is one of the many reasons why he is my number one choice. Aside from the obvious, in my opinion, a sporting hero should be humble, down-to-earth, hard-working, respectful and honest. Kenny Stuart has all of these qualities and more. He is one of the greatest athletes our country has ever produced. A modern day, unsung hero. A regular, working-class, no-nonsense kind of guy. A real person, with real values. Someone who we should all aspire to be more like. An idol and an inspiration.

IMG_4135Pictured above: With my fell running hero, Kenny Stuart.

It is therefore, with great pleasure, that I am able to introduce a new guest blog which features my own sporting hero, Kenny Stuart. This superb literary contribution has been provided by renowned author, Steve Chilton, as part of his ‘Running Hard‘ Blog Tour.

I have requested this particular extract from his book, because it holds a very special and personal meaning to me. It features an account of the Snowdon Race in 1985 and Kenny’s attempt at winning this iconic race. Something, I myself might hope to accomplish one day.

 

CHAPTER 19: Like winning the FA Cup

A few weeks later came what I consider one of the greatest fell racing performances ever. On 20 July 1985 Kenny Stuart set a new record for the Snowdon race that has not been bettered since, against a top field that included some of the leading Italians. Fausto Bonzi held the record of 63-46 from the previous year’s race, but Stuart took this apart with a startling time of 62-29.

Kenny Stuart has very clear memories of that day. ‘I got three quarters of the way up and Robbie Bryson started to push hard and I went with him. I expected the Italians to follow suit and they didn’t. I was really on a knife edge when we hit the summit. So I let him get there, about nine seconds ahead of me. I was more frightened of the Italians coming from behind than Robbie. I just felt I could beat him going down. He wasn’t a brilliant descender, and I had the strength to do it. I caught him and the Italian challenge didn’t materialise. It was a bit like the Butter Crags race [earlier that year], in that I felt really good on the day, conditions were good. It was warm but not too warm, with probably a slight wind behind you going up. Everything just fell into place.’

At the turn in the race, Bonzi was 30 seconds adrift of Bryson and Stuart. The television report on the 2015 Snowdon race (which was the 40th anniversary of the event) noted in the commentary that on this day in 1985 the first five runners at the summit took under 40 minutes for the ascent, and that no-one has done that since, which Kenny thinks is quite likely to remain the case.

1984 Snowdon race.jpgPictured above: Kenny Stuart (106) sandwiched between two Italians (102 and 103) on the climb towards the summit of Snowdon (1984).

Bryson lost his lead going down, and Bonzi closed on him. Stuart pulled clear to win by over a minute. Renowned as a fast descender, Jack Maitland thundered down in a time that was actually six seconds faster than Stuart, taking 2nd place for his troubles, with Bonzi 3rd – well beaten yet still only 10 seconds off his record time. Colin Donnelly also distinguished himself, coming down in a time that matched Maitland to take 4th place from Italian Pezzolli, with Bryson 6th. Hugh Symonds was 12th, commenting, ‘Bryson may still have the fastest time to the summit. He was good. But the path here burns your feet on a hot day, possibly worse than Skiddaw.’

Symonds went on to point out, ‘that there is no point in being first to the top in a race if you are not first to the bottom. That was very much my attitude.’ Taking up this point, I wondered whether Symonds was actually better at going up or down. ‘At first I was much better at ups. I thought if I am going to be any good I need to train for downs. I had a good training partner in Bob Whitfield from Kendal AC. He lived in Clapham (in the Yorkshire Dales) and we used to alternate our training between Sedbergh and his patch (and run around the Ingleborough area). Bob was a fantastic descender. I think training with him helped me learn to descend. I would also choose some of the steepest places in the Howgills and specifically practise running downhill fast. I would do rep sessions with downhill as well as uphill in them.’

Although he admits he was beaten by the better man on that day Jack Maitland is justifiably proud of how much he and Bryson contributed to the result that Kenny Stuart achieved. ‘Robbie was a great Irish guy, a good climber but not so good as a descender. Although I was well beaten by Kenny, I would be interested to see all-time records for times down Snowdon. Mine was a pretty fast descent time.’

As part of the race build-up in 2010 Kenny Stuart was interviewed, now 25 years on, about his memories of the day, and thoughts about the record’s longevity. In part, he commented:

I remember the conditions being very good. I do recall being pushed at least until three-quarters of the way up by the two Italian chaps, who were very good. Bonzi held the record actually. Then it was taken on by Robbie Bryson who pushed very hard to the summit. It was a memorable ascent because it was very fast and I knew it. I held back a little coming off the top as I didn’t know if Robbie had taken it out too fast. I think he had taken it too fast for himself, but I recovered and went on to break the record, fortunately.

I think every fell runner knows when they start a race, within the first half mile he knows how he is going to feel, and I felt good right from the start. The year before that, it was a very red hot day and the Italians set a blistering pace and I died a death at three quarters. I managed to come back and hold on to third position but I ran 65 minutes and it felt a lot slower than that.

I am quite amazed it [the record] still stands, but is something I am reasonably proud of. I think it is time it was broken. The record might stand for a number of years. If athletes of a certain calibre, maybe Africans, came over en masse they might break it. But it will take some breaking.

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Pictured above: The ‘Top 10’ results at the Snowdon International Race, 1985

About the book 
Running Hard: the story of a rivalry. Sandstone Press. Format: Paperback. ISBN: 9781910985946. Publication Date: 19/10/2017. RRP: £9.99

For one brilliant season in 1983 the sport of fell running was dominated by the two huge talents of John Wild and Kenny Stuart. Wild was an incomer to the sport from road running and track. Stuart was born to the fells, but an outcast because of his move from professional to amateur. Together they destroyed the record book, only determining who was top by a few seconds in the last race of the season. Running Hard is the story of that season, and an inside, intimate look at the two men.

His book Running Hard: the story of a rivalry is published in paperback on Thursday 19th October.

About the book’s author

Steve Chilton is a committed runner and qualified athletics coach with considerable experience of fell running. He is a long-time member of the Fell Runners Association (FRA). He formerly worked at Middlesex University where he was Lead Academic Developer. He has written two other books: It’s a Hill, Get Over It won the Bill Rollinson Prize in 2014; The Round: In Bob Graham’s footsteps was shortlisted for the TGO Awards Outdoor Book of the Year 2015 and the Lakeland Book of the Year Award 2016. He blogs at: https://itsahill.wordpress.com/.

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Summer of Run

For as long as I can remember, I’ve always wanted a campervan. The idea of being able to travel, eat and sleep in a vehicle is something that greatly appeals to me. It’s a holiday on wheels, a golden ticket to a lifetime of adventure.

I suppose my camper obsession can be traced back to the time when my Dad took us to look round a motorhome dealership. Prior to this, we’d always stayed in a caravan during the summer holidays, typically on the South West coast. So when my Dad suggested that we might finally ‘upgrade’ and buy something of our own, you can imagine how excited I was. I had this vision of us travelling around the country as a family, visiting new and exciting places every weekend. I was going to be the envy of all my friends. Unfortunately for me however, it wasn’t meant to be, especially when my Dad saw the price tag for purchasing such a luxurious commodity. So the dream was firmly put on ice, but it never disappeared from my mind.

“I’M AN IMPULSIVE KIND OF GUY”

Fast-forward 25 years and my dream suddenly became a reality. I was finally in the enviable position of being able to afford a campervan. Although, given that I have absolutely no DIY skills or practical skills whatsoever, I knew I would have to buy something that was already converted or pay someone a great deal of money to do the work for me. Now, when I say I have no DIY skills, perhaps I’m doing myself a disservice. Last year I changed a lightbulb in the kitchen and 5 years ago I also changed a fuse in a plug. So although I’m not completely useless, I still figured it was best not to attempt to carry out any work above my skill level.

So I began some extensive research into which campervan would be best for me to buy. This extensive research involved typing ‘VW camper’ into Google and then clicking on the ones that looked the best. It didn’t take me long to find one that met my criteria and a few days later I found myself driving it home, after almost having to sell one of my kidneys to pay for it. Now, if you get the impression that I’m an impulsive kind of guy then you’d be absolutely right. I don’t do forward planning, organising, researching or reading instructions. This will become even more apparent as you continue to read this blog…

Our plan for the summer was to head to Italy (shock horror!) for a few weeks as we had 3 races planned during August; the PizTri Vertikal (a VK), the FlettaTrail, both in Malonno, and Staffetta 3 Rifugi, in Collina. I was especially excited about the first two races as Malonno was somewhere I’d never been before, which is surprising, given the fact I spend around 5-6 weeks in Northern Italy almost every year. It’s also famously considered as the ‘home of mountain running’, so of course it was only a matter of time before I had to pay a visit.

BOOKED IT, PACKED IT, F*****D OFF” Peter Kay

Our holiday checklist was almost complete, I now had a van and I roughly knew where we were heading. All that was left to do now was carefully and meticulously plan our journey. So the night before (yes – the night before. That wasn’t a typo), I booked a ticket on the ferry to Calais for the following day and bought a Sat Nav from Halfords. Obviously I spent time copious amounts of time researching which was the best one to buy. Basically, I just went in the shop and bought the most expensive one that had the biggest reduction in price, figuring it would be the best. No point in messing about. Plus, time was of the essence; I still needed to finish packing and buy everything else I thought we might need for a few weeks on the road.

IMG_4326Pictured above: The beautiful view from the end of the Mont Blanc tunnel – crossing the border from France into Italy.

With our journey now fully planned (cue me typing Malonno into the Sat-Nav), we were soon on our way and heading towards sunshine and mountains. A quick stop over in France en-route, then through the Mont Blanc tunnel and into Italy. The journey was surprisingly problem free, all except for the fact that I’d not budgeted or planned on paying toll fees, for what felt like every motorway in Europe. To be fair, I’d not planned anything at all, so it shouldn’t have come as that much of a surprise. However, I soon forgot about everything the moment I took my first glimpse of the mountains. Or was it my first sip of cheap French wine? Either way, both did the trick and we enjoyed a fantastic night in the Aosta valley, near Cogne, before heading to Malonno the following day. The views of the mountains were simply spectacular and I’ll certainly visit again, although next time for more than a few hours.

IMG_4335Pictured above: A charming view on my evening run, the Cogne valley, Gran Paradiso.

Eventually we arrived in Malonno and thankfully had a couple of days to relax before our intended races. The GB representatives, aside from myself, were Kirsty Hall (VK), Heidi Davies (FlettaTrail), Jack Wood (FlettaTrail) and Karl Gray (FlettaTrail). I planned on running both the VK and FlettaTrail, as I just wanted to make the most of every experience and opportunity.

FullSizeRender 2Pictured above: The view of Malonno from our bedroom window.

The organiser Alex, who also runs the Corsa in Montagna website, made us all feel extremely welcome and we were literally treated like celebrities around the town. It was an amazing feeling, especially when we arrived at the pre-race celebration to be presented with our numbers. It can only be compared to the start of a wrestling or boxing match, with Alex doing an amazing job of introducing each one of the invited elite athletes to the stage. Check out the video below to get an idea of how a mountain race is organised in Italy… #TheBullet #JackWooooooooooooooooooood

20861800_1606778012722951_3159098109873626804_oPictured above: The elite male athletes take to the stage.

RACE NO.1: THE PIZTRI VERTIKAL

The day before the FlettaTrail, I had the small task of racing in the PizTri Vertikal. Kirsty Hall was also competing in the ladies’ race, both of us making our VK debuts. Once again we were introduced to the crowds of spectators in similar fashion, before tackling a brutal 1000m of climb in little over 2 miles. Now I love to climb, but this was something else! It made Trooper Lane look flat. I began the race at a sensible pace and for the most part I was jostling for a top 15 position, pretty impressive considering that nearly all of the Italian national team were competing.

I felt pretty good in the first half of the race, probably up until 750m of continuous ascent. Then we hit the final section and my wheels well and truly fell off. The incline ramped up more steeply than ever before and by the end I was literally clawing my way to the finish (see evidence below).

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The reward for my effort was a few pints of Bèpete BAM at the finish. At first I thought the beer pump was a mirage, but after drinking three at altitude, I knew it was the real deal. A surreal post-race experience at the top of a mountain, but one I could certainly get used to. It’s a shame I had another race to prepare for, as I’d probably still be sat at the top with a beer in my hand right now.

RACE NO.2: THE FLETTATRAIL

Glorious sunshine? ✔

Amazing mountainous location? ✔

Perfect organisation and hosts? ✔

Elite competition inc. the full Italian national team? ✔

12.5 miles of mountainous trail? ✔

4,500ft+ climb? ✔

Free food and beer at the finish? ✔

Priceless experience? ✔

I was really excited, but at the same time extremely nervous. I wasn’t well prepared, especially considering the fact I’d not run over 10 miles for months. I was however, determined to enjoy the atmosphere and the spectacular surroundings. I wasn’t going to let a few nerves spoil my day because I knew I was part of something very special. As a mountain runner it doesn’t get much better than this.

IMG_4420Pictured above: Digging deep during the FlettaTrail, Malonno, Italy.

I set off sensibly and let the main protagonists slowly disappear from sight. I had to run my own race or risk blowing up on the first climb. I’d not had time to recce the course either, so I was unsure of what to expect. Although, after studying the race profile, the first half of the race looked much harder than the last. Therefore, I worked hard on the initial climbs and placed myself inside the top 15, aiming to hold this position all the way to the finish.

IMG_4846Pictured above: Halfway into the FlettaTrail, Malonno, Italy.

My race tactic was working perfectly, I was climbing well and feeling strong. At one point I even thought I might improve on top 15. However, about 8 miles later I really began to suffer. I was desperately thirsty and in need of an energy gel or a sugar boost. By mile 11 my wheels had well and truly fallen off. I reached the last checkpoint after a long descent and just stood for a minute whilst I downed about 5 cups of water. I walked for a small section and then dug deep for the last 2km until I reached the outskirts of the town. I’d lost 4 places in the last couple of miles but it wasn’t a complete disaster. 18th was still a respectable result and considering I wasn’t anywhere near top shape before the race, I can’t really complain.

IMG_4528Pictured above: The finish line with the FlettaTrail GB team and organisers

 

RESULTS | PHOTOS | STRAVA

IT’S NOT ABOUT THE WINNING. IT’S ABOUT THE JOURNEY, THE EXPERIENCE AND THE FRIENDS WE MAKE ALONG THE WAY.

Of course the race finished in the usual fashion, with plenty of wine, beer and food at the finish, followed by a party of EPIC proportions. The Italians might be the undisputed kings of mountain running, but we proved that the English are world leaders in drinking. What began as a fairly tame evening, suddenly transformed into one of the best nights I’ve ever had. By 8pm, it was like a scene from a typical FRA annual dinner. The beer was flowing, men were dancing topless and people were being thrown around the dancefloor as it began to turn into a mosh pit. Rob Jebb would have been proud. One of the funniest moments was when Marco Filosi, AKA. The Condor, took to the stage, grabbed the microphone and belted out some unplanned karaoke to hundreds of onlookers. The carnage continued long into the early hours. I unleashed a catalogue of my finest dance moves e.g. ‘The Chainsaw”© and “The Carrier Bag”©, Jack Wood was last seen licking men’s nipples and Heidi Davies drank more in 4 hours than she has done in 4 years.

It was certainly a night to remember.

IMG_4412Pictured above: Enjoying a beer with my friend Francesco Puppinho AKA. Puppi

PARTY.jpgPictured above: Heidi with the Italian team at the beginning of the night (Pre-carnage).

It’s not about the winning, it’s about the journey, the experience and the friends we make along the way. This was another unforgettable trip that I’ll never forget and I thank everyone who made it so memorable.

Of course, I couldn’t finish this blog without a huge thanks for the man that made all this possible. Alex Scolari AKA Skola, is a truly amazing guy. The time and energy he devotes to mountain running and the passion he has for the sport is unrivalled. It’s not possible to praise him enough. The FlettaTrail is a very special and unique race, and one that I’d recommend goes on every trail runner’s bucket list.

It’s true what they say, Malonno really is the home of mountain running.

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Pictured above: Enjoying a run in the mountains on our final day in Malonno with Jack, Kirsty and Puppi.

 

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The 63rd Yorkshire 3 Peaks Fell Race

It’s been no secret that one of my major targets this year was to do well in the Yorkshire 3 Peaks fell race. I was looking forward to it for a number of reasons; firstly, this iconic event is now sponsored by inov-8 and it’s always an honour and a privilege to represent the brand; it is also a race that would serve as selection for the GB long distance mountain running team and I knew if I trained hard enough then there might be a small chance of me making the cut; and finally, I’ve always felt like I’ve had unfinished business with the 3 Peaks. I’ve competed twice before and never performed well, just thankful to finish on both occasions. Perhaps this was the year where I might finally make my mark.

18238474_10155527919897446_1076604862502096597_oPictured above: The impressive view of Ribblehead viaduct (courtesy of MountainFuel)

I was under no illusions that I’d always have my work cut out if I was going to perform well. I’ve never considered myself a long distance specialist, always favouring speed over endurance. So I set about entering longer, tougher races at the beginning of the year in preparation. I enjoyed good results at both the Hebden 22 and the Wadsworth Trog. I even entered the Haworth Hobble for training and experience, although a bout of illness before the race meant I sensibly had to withdraw. I did however, manage to get a number of long distance training runs under my belt and I knew I wasn’t in bad shape. On reflection, my training prior to the race was a little hit and miss. It lacked the consistency and quality I really needed, but I was still confident I could run well and put in a respectable performance.

MY PLAN WAS TO USE EXPERIENCED ATHLETES LIKE ROB JEBB, ROB HOPE AND IAN HOLMES AS A MEASURE

Without doubt the most surprising thing about race day was the weather. Last year I remember wading through snow at the top of Whernside to spectate. Roll on 12 months and it couldn’t have been any different! The sun was shining and the ground completely bone dry. I almost wondered if I’d turned up on the wrong date. Definitely vest weather and a day for the Roclite 290s. Record breaking conditions for sure. I had my fingers crossed that Victoria Wilkinson would do the business, especially with the blistering form she’s been in so far this season

 

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The start of the 63rd Yorkshire 3 Peaks Fell Race (courtesy of inov-8 & MountainFuel)

When the race began I tried to settle into a steady pace from the start. I had no choice but to run sensibly, after all I wasn’t in any shape to challenge for the win. At my very best, I’d hoped I could push for a top 5 place and perhaps even break 3 hours. However, realistically I knew based on current form, a top 10-15 would be a good result. My plan was to use experienced athletes like Rob Jebb, Rob Hope and Ian Holmes as a measure. These are guys who always perform well every year and know how to pace a good 3 Peaks. So on the climb up to Pen-Y-Ghent I tried to sit behind Holmesy and Jebby and let them dictate my early effort. Easier said than done as I watched the latter slowly disappear into the distance.

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Pictured above: The climb and descent on Pen-Y-Ghent 

I expected to enjoy the first half of the race. It’s not really until Ingleborough that I usually begin to suffer. But today was different. In all honesty, I felt laboured from the start. I should’ve cruised to the top of the first climb but instead I felt heavy, tired and lethargic. I knew there and then that I was going to be in for a long day. As I shuffled towards the summit, I glanced at my watch and saw I was way down on my target pace. I can’t even begin to describe how tempted I was to pull out. I just didn’t feel good. Only a week ago I’d trotted up and down Pen-Y-Ghent and felt amazing. Today couldn’t have been any different. One by one I watched people sail past and there was nothing I could do in response. I had no choice but to convince myself that things might feel easier as the race progressed, but deep down I knew I was preparing myself for a 3 hour suffer-fest.

“I HAD CHRIS BARNES’ BIG GINGER HEAD IN MY THOUGHTS ALL THE WAY ROUND”

To try and make the distance more manageable I broke the race down into smaller sections in my head. The next milestone for me was Ribblehead. On the approach, it was such a relief to see so many familiar and friendly faces as we hit the main road. I made the most of every offer of food and drink and guzzled down as much liquid as I could. In fact I swigged so much flat Coca-Cola during the race that I wouldn’t be surprised if they offered me a new sponsorship deal. The combination of that and some Mountain Fuel powered me up the steep climb to the summit of Whernside and it was easily the strongest section of my race.

18216673_10155527919902446_1733979316284418867_oPictured above: Ribblehead viaduct and the climb to the summit of Whernside (courtesy of MountainFuel)

I can honestly say that in terms of running, I really didn’t enjoy the race. But in the back of my mind I knew I had to finish. Quitting wasn’t even an option. For a start, I had too many people supporting me on the route with drinks and kind words of encouragement. But most importantly, the absolute main reason that I didn’t quit was because I knew Chris Barnes would publicly humiliate me on Twitter if I had to catch ‘the bus of shame’ back to the start.

Barnesy.jpgPictured above: Chris Barnes in his prime *note his colour co-ordinated socks (courtesy of Woodentops)

Now don’t get me wrong, I wouldn’t even think twice about pulling out if I was injured or ill, or if I thought my effort would hamper my chances of doing well in other important races. However, today if I threw in the towel then I’d be doing it because I wasn’t going to finish in the time or position that I wanted. I’d be doing it out of pure selfish pride because I didn’t want to get beaten by people I’d usually finish in front of. It’s not the fell running way and it’s certainly not my style. I’d not blown up, I was well hydrated, the conditions were perfect and I wasn’t suffering from a serious injury. I had no excuses, other than the fact I was just having one of those days. I just never got going from the start. So instead, for over 3 hours (more than should be legally allowed), I just had Barnesy’s big ginger head in my thoughts ALL the way round. When the going got tough, I imagined Barnesy tweeting pictures of him driving the bus with me sat in the front seat. When Vic Wilkinson came steaming past me on the track near the bottom of Whernside, I thought about all of the interesting hashtags he’d use to take the piss on social media. And when I fell on the final descent, after swearing and crying out for a cuddle from my mum, I thought about nothing but crossing the finish line so that I could put Barnesy firmly back in his box.

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Pictured above: The descent from Whernside and the climb towards the summit of Ingleborough (courtesy of Andy Jackson, Racing Snakes & Sport Sunday)

The last few miles of the race were a real slog and they weren’t pretty. But I eventually finished, albeit a little battered and bruised, in a respectable time of 3:13:43. I can’t tell you how relieved I was to see the finish line.

I must say that one thing I did enjoy about the race was the atmosphere of this iconic event. Hundreds of spectators had turned out to support us all on the route and I was grateful to every single person who cheered, gave me jelly babies and numerous offers of drinks. The support was nothing short of amazing. It really does make a huge difference when you’re out there racing, so please consider this as my thanks to you all.

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Pictured above: Enjoying the finish and posing with my CVFR teammates Karl Gray (C) and Andy Swift (R) (courtesy of WoodentopsMountainFuel)

PRIOR TO SATURDAY, I’VE ONLY EVER BEEN ‘CHICKED’ TWICE BEFORE IN MY CAREER

I couldn’t finish this blog without praising the race winners. Firstly, Murray Strain, who demonstrated his class by beating a highly competitive field in a sensational time of 2:49:38. Also a special mention to my teammate Karl Gray, who at the tender age of 50, finished 4th and broke the V40 record in 2:56:37 – amazing!

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Pictured above: 2017 Race winners Murray Strain and Victoria Wilkinson (courtesy of Woodentops)

However, the day belonged to one person (super-woman!), Victoria Wilkinson. Prior to Saturday, I’ve only ever been chicked* twice before in my career. The first time, about 10 years ago, when I got mudged** on a long race in Northern Ireland. Then in 2008, when I got czeched*** at the 3 Peaks, and now finally in 2017, when I got well and truly vicked****. Words cannot express or signify the enormity of this result as she set a new female course record in 3:09:19, knocking over 5 minutes off the previous record set by Anna Pichrtova in 2008 (3:14:43). I can only describe it as one of, if not THE, finest ever performances on the fells by a female athlete. Vic was simply outstanding and it was a privilege to watch her in action as she ripped through the field and completely obliterated the record. She had an enormous amount of pressure on her to deliver this result and I’m so, so pleased for her. I can’t think of a more deserving, humble and talented champion. She’ll absolutely hate me for writing this, because she never allows herself to bask in the limelight, but Vic you are simply amazing.

*Beaten by the first female **Beaten by Angela Mudge ***Beaten by Anna Pichrtova ****Beaten by Vic Wilkinson

It’s safe to say that this wasn’t my finest 3 (and a bit) hours and I can confirm that I never, EVER want to run the 3 Peaks again. But it wasn’t all bad so please don’t let me put you off if you’re thinking of doing this race next year for the first time. It really is an amazing event (I promise!). I’ve tried to reflect on my experience by summarising my highs and lows from the race…

10 THINGS I LOVED

  1. The AMAZING support and atmosphere!
  2. The food before, during and after the race
  3. 3 x bottles of flat coke
  4. Pints of Mountain Fuel (thanks Rupert!)
  5. Swifty taking a dump at the bottom of Whernside
  6. Vic Wilkinson!
  7. Phil Winskill’s abuse and his jelly babies
  8. My Roclite 290s
  9. FINISHING!!!
  10. Having my photograph taken many, many times 😉

10 THINGS I HATED

  1. The climb up to the summit of Pen-Y-Ghent
  2. The descent from Pen-Y-Ghent
  3. The flat bit towards Whernside
  4. The climb up to the summit of Whernside
  5. The descent from Whernside
  6. The flat bit towards the Hill Inn
  7. The climb up to the summit of Ingleborough
  8. The descent from Ingleborough
  9. Cramp
  10. Falling pathetically near the finish

So there you have it, my 3 Peaks report before I completely erase the race and thoughts of Chris Barnes from my memory forever…

…I can’t wait till next year’s event already! Please, please, please don’t forget to remind me when the entries are out. Roll on April 2018! Training starts now!

Results | Photos1 | Photos2 | Photos3

 

 

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A rough guide to fell running

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What is fell running and how is it different to cross country and trail running? Is there a clear distinction between fell running and mountain running?

Fell running is traditionally a British sport that shares many of the same characteristics as other forms of off-road running; cross country, trail and mountain. However, it is unique in the sense that races are so unpredictable in terms of the weather and terrain. You have to be a much stronger and hardier athlete to cope with the environment. Speed isn’t necessarily the key, but rather strength and resilience. Experience and mountain-craft also play a huge part. You need to be able to find the best lines, because often you are running on a vague trod (or not!) between two checkpoints. There isn’t always a clear path and it’s usually safer to trust a compass rather than other people in a race!

The video below shows footage from a typical Lakeland fell race (Blackcombe 2017 – courtesy of Lee Procter and inov-8).

In comparison, cross country has significantly less climbing, and is contested on runnable terrain in more controlled environments. It’s much easier to predict a winner as there are fewer factors to consider and usually no chance of anyone getting lost! (Although I should confess to getting lost at least once OK twice in a cross country race!!!)

In the UK, trail running is similar to fell running, but again there is significantly less climbing and the trails/paths are more obvious to navigate and easier to run on.

Mountain running is perhaps the closest discipline to fell running. Both have similar types of gradients (up and down) with the only difference being the terrain (see pic below). The fells are more difficult to navigate during a race, with fewer obvious paths and tracks to follow over much wetter, boggier and softer ground. I would also say that mountain runners are typically faster athletes than fell runners as pace plays a more crucial role in races.

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What makes it so special from your perspective?

Fell running is a very unique and specialist sport. It has taken me to places that I would never have imagined I’d ever visit. I’ve seen glorious sunrises, breath-taking sunsets, stunning views and beautiful wildlife. I’ve also been fortunate enough to run with the legends of the sport and shared precious moments with like-minded friends that I’ll remember for the rest of my life.

One thing that I love, across all its forms, is that the ‘superstars’ are a different breed of elite. There’s no arrogance or bravado. It makes a refreshing change given what you see happening in other sports. It accepts athletes of all abilities and encourages them to take part. The fact that it’s not elitist means you’re just as likely to share a post-race pint with the winner as you are with the person who finishes last.

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What are the key attributes from a physical perspective?

Fell running is like a drug, it’s seriously addictive. You’re not just competing against other people in the race, you’re battling against both the elements and the terrain. It’s seriously hard, both physically and mentally. There are no short cuts and no easy races. You have to learn to embrace the pain and push your body to the extreme. Your legs need to be strong enough to cope with the steep, challenging climbs and handle hair-raising descents at breakneck speed. It’s one hell of a tough sport but extremely rewarding.

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What does it give you that road running doesn’t?

Fell running couldn’t be more different to road running. The latter is a far more commercial sport. It’s also more expensive to compete and there is significantly less risk of getting lost, injured or being fatally exposed to the natural elements.

For me, I find road running too predictable, boring and safe. I like the challenge of the environment, competing against the mountain rather than the clock.

Within fell running there is also a greater feeling of camaraderie. My biggest rivals might run for different clubs but in reality we’re all part of the same team. A secret society of friends who all share a love and passion for the outdoors. It genuinely feels like you’re part of one big family and that to me is what makes our sport is so unique and special.

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How accessible is the sport to beginners and how do you get started?

Fell running encourages athletes of all abilities to take part and it’s really easy to get involved. It’s also very cheap compared to road running. A typical race costs around £5 and you can win anything from a bottle of wine, to vouchers for your local running shop. One of my most memorable prizes was a 4 pack of toilet roll, for finishing in 2nd place in the Blackstone Edge fell race! Proof in itself that fell runners compete for the love of the sport and certainly not for the money!

I ‘fell’ into the sport by complete accident (excuse the pun). After trying my hand at cross country, it wasn’t long before I was searching for another, bigger adrenalin rush. Someone I know suggested I do a fell race. It began with a steep uphill climb and finished with a wild and crazy descent. My body was working at its full capacity during the entire race, my lungs were on fire and my heart rate was off the scale! But despite the pain, the hurt and the jelly legs, it was a feeling I’ll never forget. I felt alive and free, enjoying the finest natural high in the world.

To try a fell race for yourself, check out the Fellrunner website for the full fixture list. There are also lots of fell running clubs throughout the UK and anyone can become a member.

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Explain the tactical and mental skills required – such as picking the best line, the importance of a recce beforehand etc.

Like any sport, preparation is the key to success. Races are won and lost by seconds, so it’s important to recce routes and choose the best lines. Knowing which direction to run definitely helps, but the weather is so unpredictable that no route ever looks the same on race day! I always recce my important races and train specifically for those key events because I don’t like to leave anything to chance. The more confident I am about a route and my own ability, the more chance I have of winning on race day.

Having experience helps to make you a better fell runner. You need to know how to race, judge your efforts correctly, know which lines to take and most importantly, learn how to navigate safely across dangerous and challenging terrain. Fell running is extremely tactical and unlike other sports the best athlete doesn’t always win. It pays to run smart.

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The gear required – how specialised does the footwear need to be for those starting out? What are the other key bits of kit?

X-TALON 212                                         X-TALON 225

In theory, you don’t need much kit to get started. However, if you want to improve and make marginal gains then you need to use the best equipment on the market. Shoes, for example, are the most important kit you’ll need in order to perform well. Comfort, grip and weight are essential when choosing the right footwear. I use the inov-8 X-TALON precision fit range for fell running because they’re light and provide excellent grip over the roughest terrain. The X-TALON 212 are my favourite for training and the X-TALON 225 are my preferred choice for racing.

ROCLITE 290                                         MUDCLAW 300

I use a range of specific footwear for all types of running. I favour the ROCLITE 290 for the trails and the MUDCLAW 300 for extreme fell. It’s important to wear the right shoes as they will give you the extra confidence you need on that particular terrain. Check out the video below to see exactly what I’m talking about (courtesy of Andy Jackson and inov-8).

Nothing claws through mud like the MUDCLAW 300! Read more about them here.

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inov-8 LS hooded merino base layer

In terms of apparel, the best piece of advice I can give is to wear merino.

I wax lyrical about the super powers of merino – it’s simply the best. When it comes to base layers there is no better alternative. I even wear merino underpants. However, by far the best bit of running clothing I own is the inov-8 long sleeved hooded merino base layer. Yes, it’s expensive gear, but it’s worth every penny.

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Given all of which, what makes the perfect fell runner?

 My fell running hero and teammate, Karl Gray, once told me…

‘To be the best fell runner you have to climb like a mountain goat, run like the wind on the flat and descend like a demon’.

He’s absolutely right. The perfect fell runner is someone who can do it all, over every distance. To win the English Fell Championship you have to be able to compete on all types of terrain, from anything between 3 – 25 miles and in all types of weather conditions throughout the duration of the season (February to October). It’s a tough ask. But then again, athletes don’t come any tougher than fell runners – we’re a different breed altogether.

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All photography by Dave McFarlane (courtesy of inov-8).

Related blogs: HOW I ‘FELL’ IN LOVE WITH RUNNINGRUNNING TIPS: 10 WAYS TO BEAT THE MUD

Kit: inov-8 MUDCLAW 300 | inov-8 LS hooded merino | inov-8 3QTR tights | inov-8 Stormshell jacket | inov-8 race ultra skull | inov-8 merino sock mid | inov-8 race ultra mitt

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The Hebden

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THE HEBDEN IS ESSENTIALLY THE CALDER VALLEY’S GREATEST HITS

The Hebden, is an LDWA event for both walkers and runners, with a choice of competing on either the 15 or 21 mile route. Such is its appeal, I’ve raced it for the last six consecutive years and I’m not about to give up anytime soon. Technically speaking, it’s not actually a race, it’s a long distance walking challenge that also allows runners to compete. It’s a low-key event and there are no prizes or medals at stake. Nobody really cares if you win, least of all the organisers. It’s purely for enjoyment, a chance to share an experience on the hills with other like-minded people and the reward of completing a long distance challenge in often tough and wintry conditions. The Hebden is essentially the Calder Valley’s greatest hits – a stunning collection of the very best views and landmarks that the local area has to offer. From the beautiful woodland paths of Hardcastle Crags to the imperious Stoodley Pike Monument, which dominates the moors of the Upper Calder Valley. This is a race that has it all and it’s easy to see why it’s become such an iconic and popular event amongst the running community.

I first ran The Hebden in 2011 by complete chance because that particular year it was included in our Calder Valley club championship. At the time there was a strong feeling of animosity between some members of the club because many were concerned we would be ruining a walking event by turning it into a race. I could understand their point but I strongly disagreed. Mainly because the organisers, Alan Greenwood and Carole Engel, were extremely welcoming and very happy that we’d chosen their event as one of our long distance counters. There was, and still is, no reason why the route cannot be shared and enjoyed by both runners and walkers alike.

Pictured above: The walkers and runners all gather in the church hall to register and fuel up before the race (Photos courtesy of Nick Ham).

Quite often before a race begins there is a tense atmosphere with people full of nervous energy. However, at the Hebden everyone is calm and relaxed, chatting about the route and enjoying the plethora of food and drink that’s on offer. I usually eat a light breakfast at home because I know that when I get to the church hall for registration, I can have as much coffee and toast as I like before the race gets underway. I particularly enjoy being mothered by the wonderful Carole and her army of helpers. They cannot do enough to make you feel welcome and looked after. The kitchen is a hive of activity, with a constant stream of happy, smiling people queuing patiently as they wait to be served. The food and hospitality are reason enough to compete in this fantastic event.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAPictured above: Chatting with Alan before the start of the race (Photo courtesy of Nick Ham)

I look forward to this race because it never fails to disappoint. Alan is an excellent race organiser – always in control, unflappable in a crisis and genuinely just a really great bloke. He always sends me an annual race reminder so I don’t forget to enter, and he regularly updates me on how the money raised from entry fees has helped to improve the paths and tracks on the route and around the valley. His team puts a tremendous amount of work into the race and the upkeep of the local area. Part of the reason I like to support this event is to help raise its profile and encourage more of this positive action to happen.

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Pictured above: A basic map of the route (anti-clockwise) with the start and finish indicated by the green dot.

This year is much like any other. I’m running with my training partners, Karl ‘The Legend’ Gray and Gavin ‘Mad Legs’ Mulholland, and we’ve all signed a peace treaty by agreeing to race together. We’ll obviously run hard but this is essentially a training exercise and our journey will be filled with good conversation and quality banter. I’m pretty relieved to be honest, as I no longer have to worry about being dropped by either of them – Karl’s impressive training schedule is usually a pre-race concern. I’m also relieved that I’ve managed to get to the start line on time. A few years ago I actually missed the beginning of the race because I was queuing for the toilet. When I came outside everyone had already set off and it took me at least 2 miles to catch up with the leaders!

“I’M DREAMING ABOUT GIANT SLABS OF TIFFIN AND MONSTER SLICES OF CAKE

The route circumnavigates the picturesque market town of Hebden Bridge, which lies at the heart of the Calder Valley. It begins with a fast run out on a woodland track parallel to the railway line, before competitors turn and face the challenging climb of Brearley Lane. A few moments later this effort is duly rewarded with spectacular views and much of the route can be seen across the valley.

Pictured above: The climb to Old Town (L) (Photos courtesy of Nick Ham) and arriving at the first checkpoint in Old Town with Joe Crossfield & Gav Mulholland in 2014 (R) (Photo courtesy of Geoff Matthews)

I find it difficult to hold back during the first few miles of the Hebden because I get carried away with setting a fast pace. I have to force myself to slow down so that I have something left in the tank during the final stages. I glance behind and Karl gives me ‘that look’. His diesel engine takes a bit longer to warm up than mine (usually about 10 miles) so I take my foot off the gas a little. He doesn’t need to say anything. I know the legend well enough by now. A raised eyebrow speaks volumes. Instead, my thoughts turn to the first checkpoint at Old Town. I’m dreaming about giant slabs of tiffin and monster slices of cake. Forget everything I’ve already mentioned about this race, the food stations on the way round are THE best bit! There isn’t a single event on my calendar that has this many opportunities to eat DURING a race! I know that Gav is just as excited as me, and when we reach Old Town I grab the biggest piece of tiffin I can find. I don’t have a problem with eating and running at the same time because they are both my two favourite things in life – don’t ever let it be said that men cannot multi-task. If Shaun Godsman was here now he’d be in heaven. In fact he’d probably just sit here all day and finish off the rest of the cake before the next runner arrives.

10714054064_0a0c76aac3_c.jpgPictured above: The Wadsworth War Memorial above Midgehole (Photo credit)

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Pictured above: The view to Stoodley Pike with Heptonstall Church in the foreground (Photo credit)

I’ve lost count of the number of times that I’ve run on this route, but what amazes me is how different it always looks when I do. I always see something new that I’ve never noticed before. For example, it took me 4 years to spot the Wadsworth War Memorial above Midgehole. It looks like a mini version of Stoodley Pike, except it doesn’t stand as prominently on the horizon because it’s well hidden by the trees. It’s worth a visit if you’ve never seen it before, although you may struggle to find it! The view across the valley to Heptonstall and Stoodley Pike is also a treat, although today I don’t really have time to appreciate it.

8272066059_aeec9e14e8_b.jpgPictured above: Gibson Mill (Photo credit)

The route continues beneath the monument as it joins the Calderdale Way (leg 4 in reverse). Descending towards Midgehole is both fast and technical but once you hit the road then it’s a long runnable slog to Gibson Mill, through Hardcastle Crags. I always know that if I reach the mill in sub 50 minutes then I’m running well. I glance at my watch – 49 minutes. We’re bang on target. That means we can spend a bit more time stopping for food at the next checkpoint as a reward 😉

“THIS IS A MAGICAL PART OF THE CALDER VALLEY. A SECRET SANCTUARY OF FLORA AND FAUNA THAT EXUDES TRANQUILITY AND CALM

Upon reaching Gibson Mill we opt for the stepping-stones instead of the bridge as they’re not covered in ice or submerged underwater. A couple of years ago (after the floods) we didn’t have the luxury of choice, it was either swim or take the bridge!

30119948953_bd1560a876_b.jpgPictured above: The stepping stones at Gibson Mill (Photo credit: Paul Norris)

After crossing the stream it’s another long climb through the woods before we reach Heptonstall. Unfortunately, the route doesn’t take us past the church or through the charming cobbled streets of the main village, but I’d seriously recommend a visit if you’ve never been before.

The good news for me is that I know there’s another checkpoint at the top of the climb and it usually has lots of jelly babies. When we arrive I’m not disappointed. Both my mouth and bumbag are quickly refilled.

5649663467_f7bc1195f9_b.jpgPictured above: The church of St Thomas in Heptonstall (Photo credit)

From here we continue to follow the Calderdale Way (in reverse) until we reach Blackshaw Head, before descending back down the valley towards Burnley road. This downhill section of the course, through Jumble Hole Clough, is my favourite by far. I always feel like I’ve accidentally stumbled onto the set of The Hobbit and I’m being chased through the woods by an army of Orcs. This area forms the old boundary between Yorkshire and Lancashire. So if I do happen to spot any Orcs then they’ll probably arrive from Tod’Mordor’- the dark side of the valley 😉 Perhaps these feelings are heightened further because my tiny companions look just like hairy hobbits, especially Gav, who could easily be used as a body double for Bilbo Baggins. Jokes aside, this is a magical part of the Calder Valley. A secret sanctuary of flora and fauna which exudes tranquility and calm.

14760013922_54b6b9f65f_bPictured above: The remains of Old Staups Mill, Jumble Hole Clough (Photo credit)

My favourite descent is swiftly met by my favourite checkpoint. It’s like an Aladdin’s cave stacked full of sugary and savoury treats. There’s so much choice that we have to stop for couple of minutes just to make sure we don’t miss out on anything delicious. I’m offered a coffee on arrival and I’m very, VERY tempted to say yes but decide it won’t be the easiest thing to drink on the steep climb towards Stoodley Pike. Instead I grab a beef pate sandwich and another monster slab of tiffin (rocket fuel!). I chuckle to myself as I spot a pile of beef dripping sandwiches and wonder how many other races in the world offer this kind of food halfway round!?! I’m just waiting for the year that Gav (the herbivore) eats one by mistake!

Pictured above: My favourite checkpoint near Callis Bridge (Photos courtesy of Nick Ham)

The climb to Stoodley is the longest and steepest ascent in the race but today Gav is making it look easy. I exchange glances with Karl and we wonder if he’s on performance enhancing drugs or whether he really did eat a beef dripping sandwich by mistake. Either way he’s got far too much energy so I put him back on his lead, just in case he tries to run off and leave us. Besides, in another 2 minutes the KGB (Karl, Gav & Ben) will need to be camera ready for SportSunday so we can pose for team photos. It feels a bit like Groundhog Day because every year the lovely Laura and David Bradshaw stand in the same place taking images. The only difference being the weather, and today we’ve been very fortunate.

HEB 1_0002 (1).jpgPictured above: With the legend Karl Gray (C) and Mad Legs Mulholland (R) (Photo courtesy of SportSunday)

“THERE IS NOWHERE TO HIDE ON THE KILLER STEPS. IT’S DEATH OR GLORY

Although the route doesn’t travel directly past Stoodley Pike, Calder Valley’s most famous landmark dominates the skyline from start to finish. Very rarely does it disappear from sight and it looks impressive from every angle. The monument is almost within touching distance as we reach the summit of the climb but we immediately turn left and head in the opposite direction towards Erringden Moor. A few years ago we got lost in the mist whilst crossing the moor but thankfully there’s no chance of that happening today. Gav leads the way and within minutes we begin to quickly descend through Broadhead Clough towards checkpoint 4. This marks the point where the 21 mile route leaves the 15. In the past I’ve been sorely tempted to switch direction and just complete the shorter race. However, today I’m feeling good and another piece of tiffin helps persuade me to carry on.

4703293289_6e90bd9c21_b.jpgPictured above: Stoodley Pike standing tall and proud. The Hebden route can be seen in the top right hand corner of the image (Photo credit)

In my opinion, the climb out of Turvin Clough to the top of the valley is the crux of the race. After 15 miles, it separates the men from the boys. My legs feel heavy and I’m beginning to tire. Unfortunately for me there is nowhere to hide on the ‘killer steps’ – it’s death or glory. Survival mode kicks in and I’m forced to dig deep. I know once this climb is over I can make it to the finish. It’s a huge mental achievement. Gav skips up them effortlessly and I just try and hang on to the back of him. I can hear Karl behind me trying to do the same. Surprisingly, at the top I actually feel ok. In fact, I’ve not only survived them but I’ve somehow discovered a second wind. I decide it’s a good time to give Gav a taste of his own medicine so I push the pace to the next checkpoint. I think it’s the thought of more tiffin that spurs me on.

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Pictured above: The ‘killer’ steps (Photo courtesy of Brian Fisher)

The route briefly rejoins the Calderdale Way (Leg 1) before descending sharply down towards Cragg Vale. Then, just before we hit the main road we turn once more, back uphill to Hollin Hey Wood and the final ascent. Now, as much as I hate the killer steps, they don’t even begin to compare with how I feel about this climb. It absolutely fills me with dread. I can’t EVER remember enjoying it and I ALWAYS struggle to run up it without wanting to stop. But not today. Today I’m determined to put my demons to rest as I prepare to launch one final attack. I take a deep breath and give it everything I’ve got left in the tank. It’s very rare that I ever run faster than Gav on a climb so I must be going well. You can imagine my relief and excitement as I sprint the final few steps to reach the top. It’s only taken me 6 YEARS to finally conquer it! Thank God it’s all downhill from here.

I check my watch as we begin to descend and I know we’re on for a sub-3 hour finish. I’m happy with that. We cross the line in 2:56, just 3 minutes outside of the record. Not bad considering all the time we spent pausing for food.

Strava | Photos 1 | Photos 2 | Results

The only way to finish a good run at the Hebden is to eat, shower and then eat some more. So I kick off the post-race celebrations with pie and peas (Yorkshire style), mint sauce on top and not a slice of beetroot in sight (take note Lancastrians). Apologies to Caroline Harding who has to witness me eating inhaling it in less than 20 seconds. After a (very) brief pause it’s straight on to the rhubarb crumble, countless mugs of tea and finally, all washed down with some glasses of mulled wine. I think at this point you can safely say I’ve got my money’s worth from the entry fee. Unfortunately the quality of the showers aren’t quite on par with the standard of the refreshments. I can confirm that the cold water does nothing to help revive Gav’s #PRP!

IMG_2510.JPGPictured above: The amusing race report in the Halifax Courier

kgb.jpgPictured above: The KGB (From L to R – in that order) with the wonderful Carole Engel (post-race).

So there you have it – the full Hebden experience. If you, like me, are a fan of running, eating, and spending a day on the hills with other like-minded people, then this is the event for you. But be warned – this race sells out quickly and there are only a limited amount of places available for both the 15 and 21 mile challenges. Keep an eye on SiEntries for the 2018 edition of the Hebden and other LDWA events.

Finally, I’d like to extend my sincerest thanks and appreciation to Alan, Carole and their amazing team for all their hard work and organisation. Without you it wouldn’t happen and it certainly wouldn’t be the same. See you again next year!

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Italian adventures (Part 3)

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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

alpes--1103-.jpgPictured 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.

img_0884Pictured 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!

dy3_72363Pictured above: Lou Roberts working hard on the climb (photo credit)

dy3_72493-1Pictured above: Kirsty Hall in the hunt for bronze (photo credit)

IMG_0881Pictured 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

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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…

We’re off!

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 BELLSMUSIC 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.

final-climbPictured 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.

img_0862Pictured 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!

img_0936Pictured 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!

img_0864Pictured above: Post-race celebrations with Chris Grauch.

img_0863Pictured above: Enjoying a beer with Francesco Puppinho.

img_0865Pictured 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!

img_0872Pictured 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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Italian adventures (Part 1)

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It was set to be the ultimate vacation – planned to absolute perfection. Two weeks of relaxing on the Amalfi coast in the Nastro Azzurro hotel, followed by two weeks of travelling around Northern Italy and racing in the beautiful italian mountains. Firstly in the prestigious Tre-Refugi relay and then the World Mountain Running Masters Championships a week later in Susa. It’s the stuff dreams are made of and needless to say after a month of hard racing in July, my body was definitely ready for a well-earned break.

OBSESSED IS JUST A WORD THE LAZY USE TO DESCRIBE THE DEDICATED

It will probably come as no surprise to most people reading this when I say I was still planning to train whilst on holiday. Mainly because I was staying in an all-inclusive hotel and there was a real fear that my GB vest may turn into a crop top after some serious over indulging on good italian food and fine wine. There was also another reason I wanted to continue training – I just love running! Now I understand that to 99% of the world’s population, running on holiday is a criminal offence. But to me it’s a lifestyle choice – it’s also the best way to explore new places and create memories that will last forever.

Path of the gods2.jpgPictured above: Il Sentiero degli Dei (The Path of the Gods)

The night before we were due to fly I searched the internet for mountainous places to run with spectacular views. It didn’t take me long to find what I was looking for – Il Sentiero degli Dei (The Path of the Gods). The name alone filled me with excitement. Within minutes I was downloading maps, visualising routes and planning my italian adventures. Then shortly after I had a major breakthrough – accidentally stumbling upon the Trail Running Campania website and completely hitting the jackpot! Unbelievably there was a night race in Praiano (15km from my hotel) the day after I was due to arrive in Sorrento – Night Trail Praia San Domenico. My mind was working overtime – would it be possible for me to enter and take part in the race? Would I be able to master the public transport system and find my way to registration? Most importantly  – would I be able to persuade my wife to let me run? The latter obviously was the biggest and potentially the most expensive barrier in my quest to do the race. I knew it would require some serious powers of persuasion and it would undoubtably cost me money in the airport duty-free as compensation.

locandina-praiano-16.jpgPictured above: The race poster from the Trail Campania website.

I think it’s pretty obvious what happened next. My running kit and x-talons went straight into my suitcase and I emailed the race organiser, Michele, who confirmed I’d be able to race. Next mission – try not to get too drunk on Friday night (er…didn’t happen! Whoops!) and then safely attempt to get to Praiano.

“I COULDN’T HELP FEELING HOW LUCKY I WAS TO BE IN SUCH A BEAUTIFUL PART OF THE WORLD

I’d barely even unpacked before I found myself waiting for a bus, dressed in full race kit. Needless to say I got a few strange looks from the locals as I stood on the roadside praying that the public transport service wouldn’t let me down. Aside from my hangover, it was here that I faced my first problem. The local tabaccheria had no bus tickets left and it was the only shop in the tiny village of Colli Di San Pietro where I was staying. I was just going to have to hope the bus driver would take pity on us.

After a nervous wait, the bus arrived and I did my best to explain to the driver (in my finest Yorkshire/Italian) that we didn’t have tickets. Cue a few fake tears, a dash of charm and major over use of the words ‘grazie mille’.  Finally he gave in to my pathetic plea and let us both on for free. I was so relieved I’d almost forgotten about how many cocktails I’d downed the night before and started to look forward to how amazing it was going to be running on the path of the gods.

positano_main.jpgPictured above: The beautiful town of Positano (www.winewedsandmore.com)

As the bus travelled down the famous Amalfi coast I couldn’t help thinking how lucky I was to be in such a beautiful part of the world. First we passed through Positano, the area’s most picturesque and photogenic town, with it’s rows of tiny houses tumbling down to the sea in a cascade of sun-bleached pink and terracotta colours. It’s the kind of town that should be on everyone’s bucket list of places to visit. A few minutes later we arrived at our destination, Praiano,  known as the heart of the Amalfi and perhaps boasting the most romantic and fascinating views of the coast. I’ve been fortunate enough to race in some amazing places but this has to be an entry that goes straight in at number 1.

“HE’S THE FINEST RUNNER IN CAMPANIA AND THE DEFENDING CHAMPION OF THE RACE

Perhaps it was a stroke of luck that we ended our bus journey in Praiano. For as soon as we’d stepped off, the driver ploughed straight into the side of an oncoming car and demonstrated just how dangerous it is to drive on the Amalfi roads. They must get paid a fortune in danger money! We didn’t hang about to observe the carnage it caused to the traffic, as we immediately faced our next challenge – finding the start of the race. In typical fashion I’d not researched the map to see where we needed to be, I just assumed there’d be signs pointing us in the right direction (typical bloke!). I put my finest Yorkshire/Italian to good use again and asked a few of the locals where we needed to go. ‘Up’ was the answer and sure enough after a few minutes of steep climbing we found a sign that convinced us we were on the right track. Now when I say ‘up’ what I really mean is ‘steep up!’ Getting to the start was the equivalent of climbing Trooper Lane. ‘This is going to cost me more money’ I thought, as I felt an angry burning glare from my wife.

After successfully finding race registration I then had to explain to the organiser that I was the crazy English tourist who had emailed him the night before. First question in italian – Did I have a medical certificate? Er…no! Time for some more Yorkshire/Italian, a woeful ‘please take pity on me’ face and a huge reassurance that I’d run a few mountain races in the past. Phew! It worked. Now just to translate the registration form…‘Parla Inglese’? Answer: ‘No.’ Thankfully someone behind me in the cue replies ‘Si’! It’s music to my ears. Cue the arrival of the hero in my story – Leonardo Mansi. He’s the finest runner in Campania and the defending champion of the race (although I didn’t realise this at the time). Leonardo looks every inch the athlete – small, light and exceptionally lean. He’s dressed in full Salomon regalia and it’s clear from his impressive physique that this is the man to try and beat. He also happens to be the nicest guy you could ever wish to meet and extremely modest about his athletic ability.

IMG_4952Pictured above: The smile masks my fear of getting lost during the race.

With registration complete, it was now time to focus on the race and pray that my £5 headtorch from China (Ebay special) would survive the night. Or rather – pray the batteries (I borrowed from a TV remote in the hotel) would last the duration of the race!

As clearly the only foreigner in the race I stood out like a sore thumb. I began to warm up, conscious of the fact that I was being sized up by all the other athletes. You didn’t have to speak italian to know what everyone was thinking. Who is this crazy Englishman who’s turned up to compete in this tough mountain race? Why is he not sat in a bar drinking cocktails and eating pizza like all the other thousands of British holidaymakers? He’s either a decent runner or one crazy loon! I suspected that most were thinking the latter. Leonardo approached. ‘Ben. What’s your best time for a 10K?’ I replied in my best italian. Instantly the mood changed and there was lots of frantic chatter amongst the other runners. It seemed I’d just suddenly become the pre-race favourite. Oh s**t! I thought. Why didn’t I just lie?!! I’m gonna have to win this bloody race now!

I’m stood on the start line. I’m wondering if I’ve made the right decision to enter a mountain race on the first day of my relaxing 4 week holiday. I’m worried I might get lost, I’m worried about my crappy headtorch and now I’m worried about not winning. I don’t have a clue where the race goes and the finish is in a different place to the start. This could easily turn into an absolute nightmare. I know I have to start sensibly so the trademark ‘scalded cat’ start goes straight out of the window. I’m following Leonardo and I’ll see how it goes after the first mile.

As the race begins I’m caught in the middle of the pack and it’s a real fight to get to the front. I dodge and weave before eventually settling behind the lead group. We sprint through the narrow paved streets, full of twists, sharp turns and steps. Steps – I’d best get used to that word because I’ll be running up and down thousands of them before I reach the finish. There’s almost a good kilometre of fast running before we hit the first climb and begin to climb hundreds of (you guessed it!) steps which seemed to last forever. It was here that I decided to throw caution to the wind and abandon my race plan. In a moment of madness I injected some pace and quickly opened up a lead on those behind. There was plenty of doubt in my mind as I feared I’d gone too hard, too early. But it was too late now, I had to stick with my brave decision and continue to work the climb.

IMG_4955Pictured above: Working hard on the climb as I approach the ‘Path of the Gods’ (courtesy of Fabio Fusco).

THIS WAS THE MOMENT I’D BEEN WAITING FOR – THESE WERE THE VIEWS THAT HAD TEMPTED ME FROM THE COMFORT AND LUXURY OF MY HOTEL”

As I began to settle into a steady rhythm I was taking the steps two at a time and feeling pretty strong. I kept glancing back to see if there was anyone behind but to my relief I’d established a very commanding lead. My fears of getting lost were also put to rest, as the course was really well-marked with red and white tape. Leonardo had reassured me of this before the race but I wasn’t sure if he was just trying to tempt me into shooting off at the start in the hope that I might get lost. I should have had more faith in him, he is after all one of the nicest guys I’ve ever met.

Finally, the steps began to disappear (for a short time) and I turned a sharp right as the route joined the ‘Path of the Gods’. This was the moment I’d been waiting for – these were the views that had tempted me from the comfort and luxury of my hotel. Part of me wished I could’ve paused for a few minutes to enjoy the beautiful sunset and amazing panoramic views. Instead I was a panting, sweaty mess but it didn’t stop me from glancing round from time to time to appreciate exactly  where I was.

Path of the gods.jpgPictured above: The sun sets over the Amalfi coast (courtesy of Fabio Fusco).

As I reached the highest point of the race, I sensed that I was soon approaching the main descent. It was a relief because the light was fading fast and I didn’t trust my headtorch enough to solely rely on it’s beam. It was because of this I sensed the urgency to increase the pace, running so quickly downhill that I’m sure the local spectators thought I’d stolen something. The descent was a series of steep and very thin steps. I was taking some big risks. The kind of risks you shouldn’t really take when you don’t have additional travel insurance for a serious mountain race. I tried not to think too much about that but instead just focussed on not breaking a leg as I bounded down, taking 4-5 steps at a time. There were a couple of moments where I nearly lost control. There were lots of hairpin turns, sharp corners, steep rock jumps and all the time I was looking further down the path so I didn’t take a wrong turn. Although I was flirting with serious injury, I can’t remember the last time I felt so alive. It was an amazing feeling – charging down the mountain at breakneck speed. People pay good money to ride on rollercoasters and here I was getting nature’s version for free (OK aside my 10 euro entry fee). I knew then, in this moment, that I’d made the right decision to race. It was worth all the worry, the travelling and the effort to get here. I was completely in my element. This is what I’d come to Italy for.

I was disappointed when the fun finally had to come to an end. I’d descended to sea level and by now it was pitch black. As predicted my headtorch was as good as you’d expect for £5. I might as well have been running with my iphone in hand, using the glare from its screen to guide my way. Nevertheless it did make the last section of the descent a little more exciting as there was a small wooded section before the main road in complete darkness. I wasn’t hanging around either!

“I’M NOT EMBARRASSED TO SAY I WAS SUFFERING. SUFFERING BADLY.

What goes up, must come down. Or vice-versa in this case. I felt ready for the finish but a firm reality check told me there was still a long way to go with plenty more climbing to come. I glanced at my watch which read 8km. I still had another 3k to go and it was all up! This is gonna hurt! I thought. To be honest, at this point I don’t think I quite realised just how much! I felt strong on the first few flights of steps but then I quickly began to tire. Heavy legs from crazy descending and an unquenchable thirst that seriously threatened my chances of winning. I wasn’t used to this heat, even at night it was still too warm. I’d also drank the last of my water at 6km. Time to tough it out.

As a long-suffering Leeds United fan I’m no stranger to pain but this was one of those occasions where I was going so far into the hurt locker that I couldn’t see a way out. I had no idea how many more steps were left to climb and I was even glancing back to see if I could see the glare from another headtorch. I’m not embarrassed to say I was suffering. Suffering badly. I’d love to say that I felt amazing, that I blew the rest of the field away with ease. But I’d be lying, it simply wasn’t the case. I don’t think people always realise just how much elite athletes push themselves during races. Lots of my friends see me at the top of the race results and think that winning just comes naturally, that I just turn up on the day and cruise to victory. Let me just confirm that I’ve never in my life ‘cruised’ to a win. If anything I can’t remember the last time where I wasn’t absolutely trashed and completely ruined after a race. So trashed that I’m on the verge of collapsing and gasping for air, as I struggle frantically to get my breathing under control. This was another one of those occassions. I literally squeezed every last drop of energy to get the finish, used every ounce of strength I had to climb that last set of steep steps. A few of the spectators near the top were cheering me on but I couldn’t even speak or raise a hand to say thanks. I must’ve looked like the slowest, sweatiest and least impressive race winner they’d ever seen. But I didn’t care. Because as soon as I saw that finishing tape I sprinted across the line with everything I had left and collapsed on the floor, gasping for air and struggling to breath.

You might at this point be wondering if I still thought this race was a good idea? The answer is easy. Of course it was, it always is. Even when I’m on my absolute physical and mental limit, going through the worst kind of pain imaginable – it’s always worth it.

FullSizeRender (6).jpgPictured above: Leonardo Mansi (L), me and Luigi Ruocco (R)

What made this victory even sweeter was that I’d broken the course record and won by over six minutes. It seemed that the rest of the field were also suffering on that last climb. I was relieved to hear it wasn’t just me. Had I known at the time I might have walked those lastfew  sets of steps and taken it a little bit easier to the finish. Or perhaps not. Who am I trying to kid? I only have one race mode and that’s ‘eyeballs out’ all the way.

ResultsPhotos | Strava

I was really happy to see Leonardo finish in second place, followed by Luigi Ruocco in third. Luigi improved his time from the previous year by minutes and I think it’s also the first time he’s made the podium. It was the performance of the night in my eyes. After the race we chatted, we ate and we soaked up the amazing atmosphere. It was a world away from the bustling streets of Sorrento and I really felt like I was experiencing the ‘real’ Amalfi coast and not just the tourist hotspots. For me this race was all about enjoying a unique experience. I had the pleasure of running on new, spectacular mountain trails and I made friendships and memories that will last a lifetime. THIS is the reason I run.

“THE BEST THINGS IN LIFE ARE FREE

What also made the night for me was the generosity and warmth of the italian people. Firstly Leonardo who looked after us, the race organiser and his team who made us feel so welcome and finally Luigi, who gave us a lift home at the end of the night after we missed our bus. I was most grateful. Expecially as he’d travelled to the race with his young family and he’d clearly driven out of his way to take us back to our hotel. He asked for nothing in return so I offered him my prize of a one night stay in a 5* hotel in Praiano. I felt it was the least I could do to match his kind generosity. Besides, I’d also won a beautiful ceramic bowl, hand crafted in Positano, so this would serve as a perfect reminder of such a wonderful race. You’ll be pleased to know that it’s still in one piece and I haven’t dropped or smashed it…yet! 😉

 

A few days after the race I enjoyed an amazing day of running from Ravello to the top of Monte Cerreto with Leonardo, Luigi and Giovanni Tolino. I travelled over 4 hours in total that day via bus and moped but it was worth every effort. I must thank them all for giving me such amazing memories and showing me such a beautiful part of Italy that I would never have experienced on my own.

It’s true what they say…the best things in life really are free.

Leonardo’s hotel (Parsifal) is also worthy of a mention. If anyone is seriously considering a break to the Amalfi coast to relax (or run!) then this is the place to go. It also boasts one of the most amazing views I’ve ever seen from it’s terrace.

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Râs Yr Wyddfa

Snowdon3

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.

Sedbergh Sports

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.

27626325373_d7aa4e0dcf_o.jpgPictured 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.

28241762445_6447f46220_o.jpgPictured 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.

SedberghPictured 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!

Mens results | Womens results | Junior results | Photos | Strava

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.

IMG_4811Pictured above: Possible name change for my blog? No chance!

RACE DAY

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.

IMG_4834Pictured 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.

IMG_4836.JPGPictured 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.

13645216_10210025874346368_716936906825773174_nPictured 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.

13692545_10154242213894088_1413546081744850188_nPictured 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.

13659188_10210025874146363_3755834139120171514_nPictured 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!

IMG_4807Pictured 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.

IMG_4797Pictured 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.

IMG_4809.JPG

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.

Results | Photos | Strava

*Please contact me if I’ve used any photos without permission and I’ll obviously give you credit.

 

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