The Italian Job

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

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

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

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

TEAM GB

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

Team GB.jpg

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

THE PRE-RACE BUILD UP

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

IMG_4709

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

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

RACE DAY!

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

Heidi’s blog: The Piano Runner

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“IN THE FAMOUS WORDS OF EMMA CLAYTONI EMPTIED THE TANK

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Results | Video | Photos | Strava

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

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

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

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

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

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

IMG_4702Pictured above: With the legend Tony Tamussin.

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

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

Heidi Davies (2016)

I couldn’t have put it better myself.

 

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Every second counts!

Every second counts

It’s 4:35am.

I’m restless. I’ve been awake for what seems like hours and my mind is working overtime. I’ve played out the race over and over again in my head. I keep asking myself if I could’ve gone any faster.  I think about parts of the course where I lost time and what I could’ve done to grab a few more precious seconds. What about that final climb? Yeah, that final climb – that was it! If I could’ve just put in more effort on that last kick to the top then perhaps I might have gained another place? Damn! I knew I should’ve pushed harder! Every second counts. I play that bit back in my mind again for what feels like the hundredth time. It’s such a clear memory I feel like I’m almost back in that exact moment. Oh God, I remember that pain. How breathless I was at the summit, how much my legs hurt and how I struggled to switch from the climb and hit the descent at pace. No, there’s nothing more I could’ve done. I guess I need to stop being so hard on myself. I try to convince myself that I did everything I could. I remind myself of how trashed I felt when I crossed the finishing line and I try and think positively. I ran a great race. I just pray that I’ve done enough for selection. Anyway, time to stop beating myself up – there’s nothing more I can do now.

The trouble is, I’m like this after every race, even when I win. I over-analyse everything, I’m always thinking of what I need to do to improve rather than taking stock of what I’ve achieved and allowing myself to celebrate success. I don’t know if it’s a good thing or not. I wonder if other runners feel like this. Will I ever be happy with a race result? I guess there’s always room for improvement. I immediately think about tomorrow’s training run. I’ll be ready for the next raceI’ll make sure I am. No excuses at the next one. I need to do well. OK, enough now. Time to roll over and try and get some sleep. STOP THINKING ABOUT THE RACE….AARGH!!!

534973672.jpgPictured above: The stunning setting of Whinlatter Forest, near Keswick (courtesy of Getty images)

‘THIS RACE IS SUPER STACKED WITH A CAPITAL ‘S’!’

12 hours earlier. 

I’ve arriveat Whinlatter Forest, near Keswick, for the European Mountain Running Championships trial race. I’m desperate to make the GB team as this year the event is being held in Arco, Italy. It looks an amazing place with a stunning course and spectacular backdrop. This one’s ‘a biggy’ – I need to do well. I remember writing it down in my diary at the start of the season. I even wrote it down with a pen so it must be important. In fact what I am talking about? I actually wrote a race down in my diary! – that’s a sure sign of importance in itself!

Strangely, I’m not actually that nervous. I’ve purposely tried not to spare the race too much thought so I don’t get too worked up about it. What will be, will be I suppose. Besides I’ve seen the start list, if I make the top 10 I’ll have had a blinder. This race is super stacked with a capital ‘S’. There are only 4 places available on the team and let’s face it, I’m gonna need a worldy run or a miracle to get selected. Yeah, top 10 – that’s the aim.

As I walk to registration I notice a few of my rivals already warming up. I do that thing in my head where I start to rank people and decide where I need to finish and who I need to beat. I start with my mate Andy Douglas, he’s clearly the favourite for the win. I mean, the guy’s unreal. He finished 6th in the World Championships last year and he’s cut from the very same mould as Robbie Simpson. There must be something special in the Scottish water. I go over for a chat and Andy, being Andy, starts the conversation by congratulating me on my win at the inter-counties two weeks ago. I explain that I rode my luck and I thank him profusely for not turning up. He politely laughs it off but I’m being deadly serious. That’s Andy all over. He’s such a modest and down to earth guy, you’d never even realise how good he is unless you knew who he was. That’s exactly why I like him so much, an extremely humble and very brilliant champion.

The same words can be used to describe the next person I bump into, the Welsh Whizzard himself, Andy Davies. The last time I saw Andy was on TV when he competed in the same GB team as Mo Farah at the Great Edinburgh XCountry back in January. It gives you a real flavour of the calibre of athlete that’s turned up today. I congratulate him on all his success over the last couple of years but he’s insistent on praising me also. I feel a little embarrassed as my own achievements pale in significance. Time perhaps to try to find somewhere quiet to warm up where I’m not freaked out by the ridiculous standard of competition.

‘AFTER SEEING RICKY I NOW KNOW THAT I’M REALISTICALLY FIGHTING FOR 4TH PLACE

I’m joined by a familiar face as I begin to jog up one of the less crowded tracks. My ex-Calder Valley team-mate Steven Bayton, winner of the Greater Manchester marathon, has turned up for the race to test his mountain legs. He’s unsure of how well he’s going to run but I know that he won’t be far off the pace (if at all!) because he’s been clocking some serious speeds on the flat. Note to self – maybe I should do more (or some!) speedwork! It’s certainly an aspect of my training that I seriously neglect. I find it difficult to work on speed when I have an incurable obsession for climbing. The thought of sprinting round an athletics track at full tilt is strangely much less appealing to me than repping Trooper Lane 10 times and climbing over 4000ft. Maybe my friends are right when they say I’m a bit weird.

With only a few more minutes before the race begins, the senior athletes are called to the start. I’ve just enough time for a quick catch up with the legend that is Ricky Lightfoot. Ricky’s a fantastic bloke and someone that everyone on the fell/mountain running scene really respects and admires. As we chat I’m quick to play down my chances of a top end finish today, despite the fact I’m clearly in form. This is after all a mountain trial and not a fell race! There’s a common misconception that the two disciplines are very much the same sport when in reality there are many differences. Today will be much faster and I’ll be racing against a different kind of athlete. After seeing Ricky I now know that I’m realistically fighting for 4th place, along with another 15-20 guys of a very similar ability. The odds of me qualifying for selection are decreasing by the second – I need to just get this race started, forget about who else is running and prove to the selectors that I’m good enough to make the team.

IMG_20160409_194344 (1)Pictured above: The race map.

The race begins and we’re off! It’s a super fast start and everyone is jostling for position. In my head I have a rough idea of my tactics and plan of attack – I’m going to hang back and pace myself. I know that many people are going to set off too fast and if I run sensibly then hopefully I can work my way through the field on the last two laps. Besides I’m pretty clueless about the route anyway. I looked at the map (above) a few weeks ago and it might as well have been written in another language – I couldn’t for the life in me work out where we are supposed to run. Thank God there’s no route choice or I’d probably end up hopelessly lost in another Lakeland valley. 

RIGHT NOW I DON’T RATE MY CHANCES OF A TOP 4 BUT ANYTHING CAN HAPPEN’

After the first short lap I’m way down the field, somewhere in the top 20. ‘Don’t panic’ I tell myself – there’s still a long way to go. We turn and hit the second climb. I can hear the unmistakable sound of Tom Cornthwaite destroying himself behind me and it’s not long before he comes past. Nobody gives more in a race than Tom – he’s famed for his commitment and effort. I really hope I’ve not misjudged this. Andy Douglas and Andy Davies are way out in front and I’m right at the back of the chasing group, headed by Ricky Lightfoot. Right now I don’t rate my chances of a top 4 but anything can happen. Despite the fact I’m working hard I’m still feeling pretty good. Perhaps it’s time to make my move…

IMG_4230Pictured above: Leading the charge on the second lap (courtesy of Debbie Martin Consani)

I watch some of the big names start to pop off the back of the chase group, clearly paying for big efforts on the first lap. I’m beginning to think that maybe I have timed this well. I start to move through the field on the climb. There’s no sudden change in my pace but I’m climbing strongly and it’s beginning to have an impact. It’s not a fast, punchy attack like cyclist Alberto Contador, more of a consistent and measured effort, Chris Froome style. We turn sharply towards the top of the steep climb to Seat How and I pass my friend Steve Bayton. He’s blown after a fast start and he urges me to press on and chase the leaders.

I quickly switch into the fast descent and I’m up to 5th. I can see Ricky just in front and I use him as a marker to aim for. I’m not sure how much climbing is still left to do. Are we running towards the finish? Do we still have a small lap? Big lap to go? Jeez I hope it’s not another big lap, that climb to the top is seriously long! I shout to Ricky in front ‘How much more climbing is there mate?‘. He shouts something back but I can’t hear what he’s saying. I think he’s probably asking me what I’ve just said. Not really the right time to strike up a conversation so I shut up and let him get on with his race.

As we reach the end of the descent we swing straight back into the climb. It’s the last lap and I quickly realise it’s a long lap. Oh crap! I’m knackered! I think I might have gone too early…I hope I’ve not gone too early! I dig in and just think of what’s at stake. Alex Pilcher comes past me and he’s climbing really well. I can’t let anyone else past. In fact, what am I talking about? I need to start passing people myself! I’m currently sat in 6th and it won’t be enough. 

IMG_4228Pictured above: Climbing hard on the last lap (courtesy of Debbie Martin Consani)

I try not to think about how much climbing is left. Instead I break each section into manageable chunks and try to keep a steady rhythm and pace. I can see Max Nicholls in front and I’m closing in fast. I can see that he’s suffering and it gives me the motivation I need to keep working hard. Just one more climb to go. I pass Max and try to distance myself from him as quickly as possible. I’m not catching Alex in front but I need to at least try. God this hurts so much. Every single part of my body is screaming for me to stop and I’m breathing so hard that my infamous wheeze has kicked in. I’m working at my absolute limit. I just need to hang on until I reach the summit. I know once I hit the descent I won’t be caught but every second counts on this climb.

I’m so relieved when I reach the top. It takes a huge effort to switch straight into the descent but I know I have to chase hard and I also know I’m gonna be chased hard. I throw myself down the steepest section and take every corner at full pace. I’m taking risks but I have to. One mistake now and the dream of another GB call up is over. I’m praying for the finish but there’s still a long way to go.

535010038 (1).jpgPictured above: Squeezing every last ounce of effort out of my body on the final descent (courtesy of Getty images)

As the trail flattens I have to work even harder now to keep a fast pace. I can see Alex in front and I’m closing in on 4th place. I start to believe I can catch him. I know there’s not long to go so I have to keep pushing till the very end. I quickly glance back to see how much of a lead I have over 6th place. My heart sinks when I see Tom Adams flying into full view. I know he’ll run down this track faster than anyone in the race, it’s a gradient and surface that perfectly suits his style of running. If I don’t hold this pace he’ll catch me before the end. So I bury myself, squeezing every last ounce of effort out of my tired limbs. As we hit the final turn I’m forced to concede 4th place to Alex. Despite closing him down near the end it just wasn’t enough but if I’m honest I’m more relieved that I wasn’t caught by Tom.

‘ANYWAY, TIME TO STOP BEATING MYSELF UP, THERE’S NOTHING MORE I CAN DO’

I’m full of mixed emotion at the end. I know I’ve had a brilliant race but I just don’t know if it’s enough. I chat to Tom and he’s in exactly the same position. Then we share a moment of joy as we realise both Andy Davies and Ricky, 2nd and 3rd respectively, are ineligible for selection as they are already included in the GB team for the World Long Distance Mountain Running Championship in a few weeks’ time. Competing in both would be too risky as it’s unlikely they’d recover in time for the Euros. That means I/we might just have done enough! Well maybe. I really hope Tom has made the team too. We’re good friends and we’ve achieved so much together over the last few years. It would be nice to add another GB appearance to the list and fly the flag for Team Yorkshire in Italy. Anyway, time to stop beating myself up, there’s nothing more I can do. I guess I’ll just have to try and stop myself from over analysing the race whilst my fate lies in the hands of the selectors – easier said than done!

StravaResults | Photos | Video

The video above, filmed by my sponsors Mountain Fuel, is well worth checking out!

DSC_0891Pictured above: (L to R) The Top 3 men. Andy Davies (2nd), Andy Douglas (1st) and Ricky Lightfoot (3rd) (courtesy of Woodentops)

DSC_0898Pictured above: (L to R) Toms Adams (6th), Ricky Lightfoot (3rd) and me (5th) (courtesy of Woodentops)

DSC_0509Pictured above: (L to R) The top 3 women. Sarah Tunstall (3rd), Rebecca Hilland (1st) and Heidi Dent (2nd) (courtesy of Woodentops)

Since writing this blog I’m delighted to announce that I’ve been lucky enough to make the GB team for the European Mountain Running Championships in Arco, Italy on the 2nd July 2016.

I made the team by 2 seconds. 2 seconds!!! The sum of marginal gains and proof that during a race EVERY SECOND COUNTS!

I can’t even begin to explain how happy and excited I am to have been selected. It makes all the effort and hard work that I put into training and racing completely worthwhile. Nothing makes me prouder than wearing the red, white and blue vest of Great Britain – it’s just the best feeling in the world.

The road to Arco starts now…

 

The full British Athletics team for the European Mountain Running Championships in Arco, Italy on July 2nd 2016:

Senior men

Andrew Douglas (Sophie Dunnett)

Alex Pilcher (self-coached)

Ben Mounsey

Chris Smith (Philip O’Dell)

 

Senior Women

Emmie Collinge

Heidi Dent (Derek Hurton)

Rebecca Hilland

Sarah Tunstall

 

Junior Men

Josh Boyle

Gavin Bryson (Garry Robertson)

Ciaran Lewis (James Thie)

Jake Smith (Brian O’Hare)

 

Junior Women

Scarlet Dale (Colin Gemson)

Heidi Davies (Chris Jones)

Laura Stark (Arthur Smith)

Bella Williams (Rob Lewis)

 

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Dare to Dream

Dare To Dream

There’s no doubt about it, the pressure was on.

I think I first began to feel the weight of expectation on Thursday when a flurry of Facebook notifications began to appear on my laptop. My sponsors, Inov-8, had posted a competition to win a pair of X-Talons for the person who could correctly guess the winners of the first English Fell Running Championship race at Black Combe on Saturday.

Screen Shot 2016-03-14 at 14.25.02Pictured above: The advert for the Facebook competition.

I couldn’t resist looking at the list of entries…‘Tom Addison and Victoria Wilkinson’ seemed the most popular combination and certainly the most sensible choices. Both proven championship race winners and worthy pre-race favourites. I was also flattered to see my name mentioned as a potential winner but I tried to ignore it.

Still, the notifications kept coming, many from friends and family and I wondered if people were voting with their hearts rather than their heads. It was a romantic notion that someone who’s never won a championship race before might actually start as the pre-race favourite and even more so if they could actually do the business. It would certainly make for a good story.

‘THE TIME FOR CHEAP TALK WAS OVER. I SIMPLY HAD TO DELIVER THE GOODS – NO EXCUSES’

Then came the game changer. For a time I stopped looking at the Facebook post but curiosity got the better of me and I was in for a surprise. Dave Woodhead AKA ‘Mr Yorkshire’ had thrown in his prediction…Ben Mounsey and Victoria Wilkinson. GULP! I froze. I immediately stopped what I was doing and began to try and soak up the hot coffee that I’d just spilt on my best work trousers. All I could think of was ‘Oh S**T! I might actually have to win this race now’.

Dave’s always been someone for whom I’ve had great respect and admiration. As one half of the Yorkshire fell running management he is the man to impress if I want to earn a vest at the inter-counties this year. So as far as I was concerned when he tipped me as the race winner, then the time for cheap talk was over. I simply had to deliver the goods – no excuses.

‘I WANTED TO WIN ON ATHLETIC ABILITY AND MERIT. PROVE THAT I WAS THE STRONGEST ON THE DAY’

It’s easy for people to predict a championship race winner based on current form but in reality it’s not as simple as that. There are far too many other external factors other than form to consider – the weather, conditions, terrain, competitors, navigation and just how you feel on the day. You also need a huge amount of luck on your side. In short everything has to go your way, it’s certainly not a case of just turning up and winning – but I guess that’s what makes these races so unpredictable and exciting.

So when race day finally arrived I’m not afraid to admit that I was nervous. Don’t get me wrong – I was confident in my ability. I’ve certainly put in the necessary miles and climbing that’s required, but I was VERY worried about the thick fog that was covering the entire route. I can navigate, but not at pace, and certainly not as well some of the other top orienteers who were lined up alongside me at the start. Unlike the conditions it was perfectly clear that navigation and route choice would play a major part in deciding the fortunes of all 499 runners competing.

image_fullPictured above: The start of the Black Combe Fell Race 2016 (Photo credit to Pete Tayler BCR)

10401186_10153447762543671_7244002237652467099_nPictured above: The start of Black Combe Race 2016 from behind (Photo credit to Rupert Bonington)

Tactics – should I hold back and play it safe? Stick with someone good at orienteering? Probably the best and most sensible idea. But me being me wanted to win on athletic ability and merit. I wanted to go toe-to-toe with the fell running heavyweights and show that I was the strongest on the day. So I went out hard and I attacked the first climb. I was there to prove a point and I wanted to make my intentions clear from the start. I chose my line to the summit and stuck to it. I felt good. In fact, I ran pretty much the whole of the ascent and emerged as the leader at the top.

1st Climb.jpg

IMG_3903Pictured above: The first steep climb to the summit of Sea Ness (Photo credit to Alex Hinchcliffe)

The climb from Sea Ness to Black Combe is very ‘runnable’ by fell racing standards. I sensed my moment to attack and picked up the pace. This was my kind of gradient – living in the South Pennines I’m no stranger to the runnable climbs. I wanted to see who might respond so I could get an early measure of the competition. I didn’t have to wait long – up stepped Sam Tosh. After a few minutes he cruised past and took the lead. I was happy to sit in and follow his charge but it wasn’t long before I was breathing hard. Had this been a boxing match I’d have been well and truly on the ropes and soaking up a few punishing body blows. Except it wasn’t. This was ‘The Battle of Black Combe’ and not ‘The Rumble in the Jungle’ and unlike Ali, I didn’t have any ropes to lean against to help me deal with the pain. Needless to say I was looking forward to reaching the top of the climb.

As we approached the summit I took a moment to glance over my shoulder and was shocked to see we’d both opened up a sizeable lead over the rest of the field – there was no one else in sight. We quickly passed the crowd of supporters at Black Combe and descended back into the mist and headed towards the next checkpoint. We had a quick chat about the line we were taking as I felt we were dropping too far to the right. I was worried about losing too much height and ultimately getting lost (good job I’d done a recce!). We corrected our line but when we emerged back on the main path we’d lost the lead.

Black Combe to White Combe                                       

Pictured above: The line I took from Black Combe to White Combe in red – GPS data (mistakes highlighted by arrows).

Although we rejoined the race in 4th and 5th I wasn’t too disappointed. My prayers to the God of Nav had been answered and Lady Luck was smiling down upon me. Rhys Findlay-Robinson and Kris Jones (both Dark Peak) had now assumed control of the race. My tactics immediately changed. I wasn’t taking any chances on this tricky section and as Kris actually had his map and compass in hand I was confident that their navigation skills were good enough to trust. Sam made a different choice and he ran with Steve Hebblethwaite of Keswick, who was in 3rd place. I sat in between Rhys and Kris and just assumed that we’d dropped the pair of them. However, after analysing the splits (post-race) it turns out that they had somehow taken the lead and were the first runners to dib at White Combe! So when we arrived it was a big surprise to learn that we were only the second group through to checkpoint 3. The map above suggests that they most likely passed us where we lost the main path a couple of times (black arrows).

‘WE KNEW THEN, AT THAT EXACT MOMENT, THAT THIS RACE WAS OURS TO LOSE

Now if anyone reading this is familiar with the tactics of road cycling then you’ll understand how a breakaway works. I was now in one, and we all knew exactly what was at stake. Rhys took the perfect line to the next checkpoint (Fodder Rack) and although we didn’t know it at the time, this proved to be the pivotal moment in the race. Somehow Sam and Steve had taken a bad line and gave us back the lead. We took full advantage of their mistake and sprinted towards the final ‘killer’ climb. We knew then, at that exact moment, that this race was ours to lose. Despite running for different clubs and competing against each other, we rallied as a team, urging ourselves on to push hard for a top 3 finish. This was our chance and we weren’t about to blow it.

In my own mind I knew that this was where I needed to make my move. I was unaware of what was going on behind me in the race, yet well aware that if I didn’t work hard enough on the final climb then I might get caught by the likes of Rob Jebb. I was also worried about Rhys – he is after all one of the best climbers in the country so I couldn’t risk letting him pass me on the ascent. So I just went for it. I grafted like my life depended on it and as I looked back I could see the gap widening with every effort. I reminded myself that this is the reason why I’ve climbed over 100,000ft so far this year. This was the moment I’d been training for and I was determined to win this race on my athletic ability.

‘I WAS RELYING ON MY PLAN ‘B’ – PLAN BUCHAN’

I thought I could hear a noise in the distance but it was nothing more than a faint whisper in the wind. Perhaps I was imagining things? To be fair my mind was working overtime and I was struggling to keep my cool. I knew that the only thing that would stop me from winning now was getting lost – which believe me was still a very likely scenario! I wasn’t imagining things…I heard it again but this time much louder. Someone, somewhere in the distance was ringing a bell so I continued to head towards it.

I’ve never been so excited and relieved to see Mike Fanning in my life. As a teacher, the noise of someone ringing a school bell usually fills me with dread but today it was music to my ears. I’d made it! Just the descent to worry about now…

I was relying on my Plan ‘B’ – ‘Plan Buchan’. My good friend Helen (Buchan) was waiting nervously for me at the summit and pointed me in the right direction, the rest was up to me. I was running the ‘safe’ option which was certainly not the fastest way down to the finish (see picture below). I didn’t really care about how quickly I got down, I only cared about being the first to the bottom. There was no way at this stage of the race was I about to risk getting lost!

Descent                                         

Pictured above: The final descent from Black Combe. The quicker ‘racing’ line (black arrow) and my ‘safe’ line (red arrows)

The feeling of relief when I hit the main path was palpable. I just hoped that I’d put enough time into Rhys on the climb because I knew for sure that he’d be taking the racing line. I wasn’t wrong. Less than a minute later he appeared from nowhere, out of the mist. That was my cue to run as hard and fast as I could. I was not losing this now. I didn’t look back. It was the most nerve-wracking descent that I’ve ever experienced in my life. I fell a couple of times near the finish and at one point I nearly took the path back up to the summit of Sea Ness. I can only think the pressure and realisation of winning my first English Championship race had turned my brain to complete mush.

‘I’VE BEEN WAITING 12 YEARS TO WIN A RACE IN THIS COMPETITION’

As I entered the final field I can’t describe the feeling of winning at the end – it was unreal. It was everything I dreamt it would be. Those that witnessed my reaction to the victory knew exactly what it meant to me.

981198_1149904525053631_1419435140041429200_oPictured above: Tired, cold and wet…but VERY VERY happy at the finish (Photo credit to Pete Tayler BCR)

I’ve been waiting 12 years to win a race in this competition and there have been times when I thought I’d never see the day. I was reminded in this moment of all the hours I’ve trained, all the times when I’ve punished myself during tough hill sessions and all the sacrifices I’ve had to make to get myself in peak physical condition. It also made me appreciate just how good the top fell runners are. Here I am writing about my elation of winning ONE championship race when the likes of Rob Hope, Rob Jebb, Ian Holmes and Simon Bailey have won countless races between them. It’s the very reason they are the legends of the sport.

image_full-1.jpgPictured above: Record breaker Victoria Wilkinson storming towards the finish (Photo credit to Pete Tayler BCR)

I shared a moment at the end with Victoria Wilkinson, who only seconds earlier had won the women’s race. She knew what this result meant to me and I was just as happy for her too. In fact, she actually deserves even higher praise as not only did she win but she smashed the record in extremely poor conditions – what an athlete! She’d run the entire route on her own and perfectly navigated her way through the mist without the help of anyone which is an unbelievable achievement in itself. Special mention also needs to go to my good friend Kirsty Hall who finished 20th in the women’s race and 4th Vet 40. 12 months ago, following a serious injury, she couldn’t even walk without crutches so it’s fantastic to see her back competing with the best in the country.

Pictured above: The official race route (L), my GPS map from Strava and the GPS data of all Black Combe runners on Strava (R)

When I’d finally managed to calm myself down I switched my attention to the team results and waited patiently for a sea of red and white vests to arrive. I waited a few minutes…..then I waited some more. Daz Kay was the next man home but after 10 minutes I given up hope on the rest of them. I hadn’t realised just how utterly ‘Smithied’ some people were! In fact, many were so lost that Steve Smithies had somehow managed to navigate his way round and beat them to the finish. It was a comedy of errors and the map (above right) highlights some of the most remarkable and funniest lines that runners had taken. It’s probably a great opportunity for some people to read this fantastic blog written by one of my friends about tips for navigation in races. I’ll certainly be taking note for future reference.

I was pretty chuffed that I’d not been one of those navigational casualties for a change. The recce I’d done a few weeks earlier had definitely helped but ultimately I had Rhys and Kris to thank for getting me across the most challenging section of the course. It was obvious that I’d ridden my luck at times during the race but I also knew I’d earned this win on my climbing ability. Despite many of the big names getting lost in the mist I’d like to think that I’d still have been the victor on a clear day. If you don’t believe me then check out the race splits below and you’ll see where this race was won and lost.

Results / Splits / Strava

‘FINALLY – THE BIG QUESTION…DO I THINK I CAN WIN THE ENGLISH CHAMPIONSHIP?’

There’s still a long way to go – it’s only the start of the season. Despite getting terribly lost my money is on The Great White Hope (Rob Hope) or Simon Bailey. Tom Addison is my other favourite too as he finished 5th and that result puts him in a great position with 5 races still to go. All three men have the pedigree and the quality to go the distance. Expect Sam Tosh to win a race this season too. He’s in outstanding form and was very unlucky not to claim a top 3 finish at Black Combe and potentially even the win. Like Tom, he’s a fell running legend in the making.

Finally – The big question…do I think I can win the English Championship?

Honestly? I think it’s unlikely. Before this race I’d not even planned on completing the whole series. Black Combe was always on my radar but I’ve other major goals this season that will still take priority. The Snowdon International is my big aim for the year, as are the European and World Mountain Running Championships. However, after today I might just decide to change my plans to include another 3 counters. It would be a real shame after this result to just throw in the towel and not give it a go.

Whatever happens – expect fireworks. This is the most exciting and open fell running season for years. A chance for the young guns of fell running to try and shoot down the old masters. Could this be a changing of the guard? Only time will tell. Predicting a winner is going to be difficult. However, one thing is for certain, if I do decide to compete for the title then rest assured I’ll give it 110% and I won’t rest on my laurels. I’ll make the necessary sacrifices and I’ll live by my code…..

‘TRAIN HARD, RACE HARDER & DARE TO DREAM

This fell running performance was brought to you in association with hard work, an obsession and sheer determination. Special thanks to Strava, Trooper LaneInov-8Mountain Fuel and Back To Fitness Physiotherapy for all their help and support in making it happen.