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)

 

If you enjoyed reading this blog then please SHARE and FOLLOW on social media.

Facebook | Twitter | Strava | Instagram

Supported by inov-8 | Powered by Mountain Fuel

The Mountains Are Calling…

Moutains-CallingSMALL

Like a drug, I need my regular fix. I can’t stay away for too long, it’s an addiction that needs feeding. Thankfully my problem is easily cured – a trip to the mountains is my only salvation.

The mountains are calling and I must go.

Ben Mounsey x Keswick x Shot By Robbie Jay Barratt-6

My love affair with the Lake District began 12 years ago. I’d been persuaded by a friend to join him for a weekend break in Keswick. It was my first experience of walking the fells and at the time I had no idea what to expect. Little did I know that this would prove to be a life-changing experience.

‘THERE STOOD BLENCATHRA, ITS SWEEPING CURVES BATHED IN GLORIOUS SUNSHINE’

My first glimpse of the impressive Lakeland peaks was from the car. As we drove down the A66 towards Keswick, the view in front quite literally took my breath away. It was a beautiful day and there wasn’t a single cloud in the sky. There stood the majestic Blencathra, its sweeping curves bathed in glorious sunshine. A little further on our left was the steep face of Clough Head, standing tall and proud at the head of the Helvellyn range. There was a stunning view in every single direction I turned. I was already getting excited and we’d not even reached our destination.

We were heading towards the tiny village of Grange, to walk up my first ever Lakeland fell, Catbells. I was promised a steep and challenging climb, with unbelievable panoramic views at the summit as my hard-earned reward.

I wasn’t disappointed. From the moment we began to rise above the valley bottom, I was in complete awe. That feeling of being immersed in the outdoors, with the sun on my back and amazing views of mountains in every direction will always remain one of my favourite memories.

unspecified

‘HE WAS MOVING EFFORTLESSLY, COMPLETELY WILD AND FREE

As we approached the summit we were passed by the lonely figure of a runner, I couldn’t believe it. Why would anyone want to run up a mountain? I was out of breath just walking! In comparison to me, he was moving effortlessly, completely wild and free. What was this strange and wonderful sport? I’d never seen anything like it in my life. It was an image I couldn’t get out of my head and when I returned home after the weekend I was determined to try ‘fell running’ for myself.

16th April 2016

Fast-forward 12 years. Today I’m making that very same journey I did all those years ago. As I head down the A66 I’m once again greeted by the ever-changing face of Blencathra and the range of impressive peaks that first helped me fall in love with this beautiful place. I can’t wait for my latest adventure to begin.

FullSizeRender (5)NEW

I’ve been invited to Keswick to take part in a blogging event hosted by the outdoor retailer George Fisher, in partnership with Patagonia. The aim – to raise the profile of the organisation Fix The Fells and to make others aware of the fantastic work that they do. The event is also being held in conjunction with Patagonia’s Worn Wear tour. The Worn Wear program celebrates the stories of the clothes we wear. The company’s dedicated repair team keeps outdoor gear in action longer and provides an easy way to recycle Patagonia garments when they’re beyond repair.

I’m excited to meet the other bloggers and then embark on my own adventure for the day. It’s my choice what I decide to do today, but there’s only one thing I have in mind. I’m eager to return to the place where my fell running obsession began back in 2004.

Ben Mounsey x Keswick x Shot By Robbie Jay Barratt-56

‘TODAY, FOR A CHANGE, I CAN ENJOY THE FELLS AT MY OWN PACE AND LEISURE

After a quick meet and greet at George Fisher, I make the short journey from Keswick to Grange and begin my steep walk to the summit of Catbells. It’s a fantastic opportunity to try out all my new inov-8 gear in the environment it was designed for. There is of course another reason to climb this fabulous peak, as today, I can watch the two fell races that are taking place on this mountain range – The Anniversary Waltz and the Teenager With Altitude. Both are extremely tough challenges and not for the faint-hearted, especially the latter which has a strict selection policy for those even attempting to make the start line. I was initially planning on taking part in the Waltz, but time constraints mean that I’ll have to settle for spectating. To be honest, I’m not too disappointed, as after a few months of hard racing, my body feels ready for a break. It means that today, for a change, I can enjoy the fells at my own pace and leisure.

Ben Mounsey x Keswick x Shot By Robbie Jay Barratt-80

‘IT’S POPULARITY IS WELL DESERVED, IT’S SHAPELY TOPKNOT ATTRACTS THE EYE OFFERING A STEEP BUT OBVIOUSLY SIMPLE SCRAMBLEAlfred Wainwright

I take my time to reach the summit. Just as I arrive the sun breaks through the clouds and I’m basking in its warm golden glow. I find a quiet spot to enjoy the breathtaking, panoramic views. There is no other place I’d rather be right now. Laid before me is the magnificent sight of Derwent Water, with the mighty Skiddaw rising into full view and Blencathra in all its splendour. To the east lies the Newlands Valley and beyond it the Coledale Round, with the intimidating summit of Grisedale Pike poking majestically through the clouds. Towards the west, I admire the great Helvellyn range and beyond. I can appreciate why Alfred Wainwright described this as a firm family favourite, a beloved place where people of all ages can climb the heights together. It’s in this perfect moment that I’m reminded exactly why and how, I fell in love with the Lake District.

Ben Mounsey x Keswick x Shot By Robbie Jay Barratt-33

‘NOW IT’S TIME I GAVE SOMETHING BACK TO A SPORT AND A PLACE THAT HAS GIVEN ME SO MUCH WITHOUT RETURN’

Since that first ascent of Catbells I’ve worked hard to become one of the country’s leading fell runners. The journey I embarked on all those years ago has been very challenging, yet extremely rewarding. I’ve so much to be thankful for and the Lakeland fells will always hold a deep and special meaning to me. I’ve enjoyed running on the trails and paths in all kinds of weather conditions. I’ve met some amazing like-minded people along the way and made lifelong friends. We’ve shared experiences that have changed my life and shaped the person that I am today. Each and every visit has been memorable – the mountains are where I belong and I’m always drawn back to them. Now it’s time I gave something back to the sport and to the place that has given me so much without return.

Ben Mounsey x Keswick x Shot By Robbie Jay Barratt-73

‘FOR YEARS I’VE TAKEN THEIR AMAZING WORK FOR GRANTED’

Fix the Fells protects our spectacular Lakeland fells from erosion. Their team of skilled rangers and volunteers repair and maintain the mountain paths that are used by so many of us. It should also be noted that they receive no government funding and rely solely on income generated from donations and partners. After the heavy flooding at the beginning of this year there is much work to be done. Without our help and support it would be an insurmountable task to repair all the damage that’s been caused by nature’s powerful hand.

Ben Mounsey x Keswick x Shot By Robbie Jay Barratt-24 2

For years, I’ve taken their amazing work for granted – it’s easily done. I’ve used the fells for my own benefit and enjoyment and not once contributed or spared a thought to the great work that they do. I know I’m not alone either. Millions of people each year walk, climb and run in this beautiful environment and it’s important that we now work together to preserve the trails and paths so that we may continue to enjoy them for many more years to come.

Ben Mounsey x Keswick x Shot By Robbie Jay Barratt-43

So what can we do to help?

Everyone can help by keeping to the paths wherever possible to avoid causing erosion damage and by raising awareness of why that is important. You can of course make a donation to the organisation to ensure that they can continue their superb work – every penny counts! You could also volunteer to help with vital restorative work and improvements to the appearance and functionality of the Lakeland fells. Most importantly, we need to make sure that we publicise and support this superb organisation as much as possible. Please spread the word, encourage others to get involved, but most of all respect our beautiful environment.

The mountains need us and we must obey.

Mountains

Ben Mounsey x Keswick x Shot By Robbie Jay Barratt-4

All photographs taken by Robbie Jay Barratt

Kit: X-Talon 190 | Race Elite Softshell Pro FZ | Base Elite Merino LS | Race Elite Ultra Short | Race Elite 2″ Racer Short | Raceglove

Powered by Mountain Fuel

If you enjoyed reading this blog then please SHARE and FOLLOW on social media.

Facebook | Twitter | Strava | Instagram

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.