Italian adventures (Part 1)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ResultsPhotos | Strava

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

“THE BEST THINGS IN LIFE ARE FREE

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

 

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

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

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

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Râs Yr Wyddfa

Snowdon3

I knew July would be a tough month for running but I didn’t realise just how tough…

2nd July: The European Mountain Running Championships (Arco, Italy)

9th July: Sedbergh Sports (The British & English Fell Running Championships)

16th July: Râs Yr Wyddfa (The Snowdon International)

30th July: British Mountain Running National Championships incorporating the World Championship Trial (Uphill) and Senior Home Country Internationals (Skiddaw, Keswick)

It was a fixture list I was both relishing and dreading at the same time. Three unbelievable opportunities to compete for my country and one huge race that could potentially decide who would be crowned the winner of the English and British Fell Running Championships. It was also set to be an extremely busy and stressful month at work so I knew I’d be pushed to my absolute limit both mentally and physically.

First up was the European Mountain Running Championships in Arco, Italy where I was fortunate enough to represent Great Britain for a second successive major competition. Finishing in 26th place was a slight disappointment but winning team bronze more than compensated for my lack of personal achievement. It was also an experience I’ll never forget with memories to last a lifetime. The race however did leave me feeling very exhausted and the prospect of racing hard again the following week left me wondering if I’d perhaps bitten off more than I could chew.

Sedbergh Sports

At the beginning of the season, trying to win the English Fell Running Championships was never on my radar, and if I’m honest it still isn’t. However, I’m currently topping the table so it would be a real shame not to complete the series. Therefore I decided that I’d race at Sedbergh and as it was only a 4 miler it wouldn’t trash my legs too much before Snowdon. I also decided that because the latter was more important, I’d train hard right through the week and not rest up before the race. I knew I needed a top 5 finish to keep myself in contention for a medal at the end of the season. The only problem was that almost every top fell runner in the UK had turned up to earn valuable championship points.

27626325373_d7aa4e0dcf_o.jpgPictured above: Where’s Wally? Can you spot the red & white stripes of CVFR? The start of the race (courtesy of Stormin’ Norman Berry)

As the race began I did wonder if I was being overly ambitious with my aim of a top 5 – the pace at the front was frightening. Perhaps someone had told Carl Bell (above right) that it was a 400m race because he set off like a stabbed rat through the first field. Either that or the prize money on offer was clearly enough to pay off his mortgage. He was a man on a mission. I had to remind myself that although this was a ‘short race’ there was still one hell of a climb to negotiate. I could only smile as half the field sprinted past me like I was stood still. I tried not to panic about being in about 40th place but instead put faith in my climbing ability to save the day.

“IT FELT LIKE I WAS SUMMITING EVEREST. MY LUNGS WERE ON FIRE, MY HEART WAS READY TO EXPLODE AND MY LEGS WERE LIKE JELLY

As the hill rose sharply, the race began to open up and I made a bold move on the climb. My cautious tactics had paid dividends and as we hit the summit I was safely into the top 10. I was beginning to feel more confident about a top 5 finish especially as my good friend Kirsty Hall had assured me that the second climb was ‘easy’. With this in mind I’d hammered the first ascent and was all set for coasting blissfully towards the highest checkpoint.

28241762445_6447f46220_o.jpgPictured above: The steep climb to the summit (courtesy of Stormin’ Norman Berry)

Now I can only assume that Kirsty ran up a different second climb to me, OR that she’d descended too early OR perhaps she just has a really s**t sense of humour, because ‘easy’ was not a word I’d have used! It felt like I was summiting Everest. My lungs were on fire, my heart was ready to explode and my legs were like jelly. To be fair to Kirsty the gradient wasn’t actually that steep, but I was breathing so hard that I thought I might be having an asthma attack and I don’t even have asthma. I dug really deep and endured a few minutes of extreme physical torture (which felt like hours) before I finally caught sight of the summit. I drew my breath, increased my stride and made the swift transition from laboured climb to mindless descent.

SedberghPictured above: Flying down the final descent (wearing inov-8 x-talon 225)

Thankfully it didn’t take long before I was back in full flow. The steepest part of the descent allowed me to fly past Morgan Donnelly and Joe Symonds before setting my sights on the Great White Hope (AKA. Rob Hope). I passed Kirsty on the way down but I was too short of breath to shout profanities, although I had forgiven her by this point. Instead my mission was to try and catch Rob, which quickly turned into trying not to get caught myself as I realised that I was actually suffering too much to launch any kind of attack of my own. Besides, I was more than content with 5th and there was clear daylight in front and behind. Best to save my legs and energy for Snowdon next week!

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

Râs Yr Wyddfa

At the beginning of the year I made my intentions very clear. I wanted to try and win the Snowdon International and represent Great Britain at the European Championships. I’ve been training hard over the last few months, trying to improve my climbing ability as much as possible with some tough sessions on Trooper Lane. These weekly hill reps have been the foundation of every racing success I’ve enjoyed so far this season. However, just lately I’ve been feeling less confident about my chances of winning and in hindsight I was probably running at my peak in May. I couldn’t help thinking that this race may have come two months too late.

“I ACCEPTED THE FACT THAT I MIGHT NOT BE AT MY ABSOLUTE BEST AND I TOLD MYSELF THAT WHATEVER HAPPENS ON THE DAY I’D GIVE IT 110%

The week before the big day I was still feeling tired and lethargic. I did the worst thing possible and convinced myself that I was more ill than I actually was. There was almost a point where I considered dropping out of the race but then I feared I may have to rename my blog to something more suited to my negative attitude. I had to have a strong and very firm word with myself to alleviate any self-doubt in my mind. All athletes at some point lack confidence but I wasn’t going to allow myself to suffer anymore. There was absolutely no way I was going to pull out. Instead I thought about all the hours of training I’d done to earn my England vest and that feeling of immense pride I get whenever I represent my country. I thought about all my family and friends who were supporting me either with kind words of encouragement or by travelling hundreds of miles to watch the race. Plus I’d booked my hotel now and being a tight arsed Yorkshireman there was no way I was going to cancel last minute and lose any money! I accepted the fact that I might not be at my absolute best and I told myself that whatever happens on the day I’d give it 110% and I just hoped it would be enough.

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

RACE DAY

The stage was set for a classic showdown, with Luca Cagnati (Italy), Julien Rancon (France), Chris Smith, Rob Hope and Ricky Lightfoot (England) a few of the main protagonists. As I stood on the start line I gave myself a realistic aim of a top 5 finish. The field was super stacked but I knew I was still one of the favourites and if I could climb well then I’d be difficult to beat on the descent.

IMG_4834Pictured above: The start of The Snowdon International 2016

I sat cautiously in the middle of the pack as we ran out of the race field and along Victoria terrace. I knew only too well what lay in store for us as we began to climb steeply up the road and onto the mountain path. It would be another 4.4 miles before we hit the summit of Snowdon and there was 994m of ascent standing in our way. With an average gradient of 13.4% (and a max of 32%) it’s always wise to hold back in the first few miles or risk paying the price for overcooking the start. Unless of course you’re Andi Jones or perhaps Chris Smith, who today was clearly flexing his muscles by taking full control of the race on the lower slopes of the mountain. He set a fast but consistent pace on the climb and the rest of us could only watch in amazement as he continued to open up a huge lead by the halfway cafe. It was obvious that he was the man to beat and such was his dominance that we were clearly now contesting a race for 2nd place.

IMG_4836.JPGPictured above: Leaving the road and joining the mountain path

“I WAS HANGING ON FOR DEAR LIFE AND TRYING NOT TO LOSE TOO MUCH TIME TO MY RIVALS – THE VERY DEFINITION OF DAMAGE LIMITATION

Chasing him was a small group led by England’s Chris Farrell, with Rancon and Nicola Pedergana (Italy) in hot pursuit. I was running with Cagnati and Hope and working hard to maintain the pace. At this point I was perfectly placed for a podium finish but I was concerned about how hard I was having to work to stay in touch with the leaders. I didn’t feel great and I was breathing heavily as I laboured on the climb to Clogwyn, one of the steepest sections of the course.

13645216_10210025874346368_716936906825773174_nPictured above: Working hard (probably too hard!) on the climb with Italy’s Luca Cagnati (wearing inov-8 Trail Talon 250)

It honestly felt like I was breathing through a straw, I was forcing oxygen into my lungs and literally gasping for air. One of my friends said after the race that I was making more noise than the train and I don’t doubt it. I was completely destroying myself on the climb, on my absolute limit. In the back on my mind I knew I needed to get to the top in a decent position so I could at least try to claw back some time on the descent. It was here, exactly 12 months ago, that I’d made my move and climbed my way into 5th position by the summit, before propelling myself to a 3rd place finish. What a difference a year can make. Instead I was hanging on for dear life and trying not to lose too much time to my rivals – the very definition of damage limitation.

I’d describe the feeling of reaching the summit as sheer relief, although I think that’s probably an understatement. But there was no time to catch my breath as I was immediately forced into switching to descent mode and head straight back down the mountain. The first few hundred metres felt more like Slowdon than Snowdon. I was playing a real life game of risk as I tried to dodge and weave through the masses of people that swarmed the path before me. The inclement weather had done nothing to reduce the number of pedestrians and along with the hundreds of runners still ascending the mountain, there was little room to comfortably descend at any kind of pace. It wasn’t the other athletes who were the problem as they are always respectful towards the leading runners and fully aware of the lines we must take. However, the general public are just a walking nightmare and year after year the problem only worsens. I was jumping over dog leads, handing off children, swerving pensioners and desperately trying not to cause major injury to both myself or others. Unfortunately, apart from taping off sections of the course I don’t know what else the organisers can do to alleviate the problem as it’s not possible to close the tourist path to the public.

13692545_10154242213894088_1413546081744850188_nPictured above: One of the less congested sections of the descent (courtesy of Pete Nicholson’s Go Pro)

Further down the mountain the crowds lessened and the path opened up. I was able to get back into my stride and descend at a free flowing pace. As I approached the bridge before Clogwyn Station I caught my first glimpse of Rob Hope in 6th place. I was making good time and beginning to close the gap. I took the grassy trod to the right which avoided the mass of runners climbing the path and began to increase the pace. To be fair to Rob he was descending well and when we reached the halfway cafe the ball was firmly back in his court. I’d run out of steep and technical terrain and we were now onto the runnable section of the descent. He was back in control and I just had to keep working hard in the vain hope that he might fade towards the finish.

13659188_10210025874146363_3755834139120171514_nPictured above: Desperately trying to reel in Rob Hope on the descent.

“I ALWAYS TRY AND EMBRACE DEFEAT AS IT MAKES ME APPRECIATE WINNING SO MUCH MORE”

I remember struggling at this point last year. My feet were on fire and I’d ripped both my heels badly – the last 2 miles were pure agony. Although I wasn’t running as well today I was thankful that my feet were still OK. I was tired but I wasn’t dreading the final section on the road like I was back then. I worked as hard as I could to close the gap but Rob was running well and gave nothing away. If anything the end of the race for me was a bit of an anti-climax. I knew as I approached the final 800m that I couldn’t improve on 7th place. I’d missed out on a top 5 finish and I was only the fourth GB runner home, so I’d also missed out on a place in the Snowdon GB team that will travel to Morbegno in October to contest the Trofeo Vanoni relay. Needless to say I was disappointed with my performance. I’ve trained hard and raced hard all year with Snowdon in mind and when it came down to it I simply wasn’t good enough on the day. But sometimes that’s how it goes in sport – it’s swings and roundabouts. You can’t win every race, you can’t always run a PB and you can’t always be at your best. There have been times this season when I’ve turned up to races with little expectation, like the inter-counties fell championship and had the run of my life, and others like today, when I’ve ran well below par despite being one of the favourites to win. That’s why I always try and embrace defeat as it makes me appreciate winning so much more. Plus it wasn’t all doom and gloom, I was still part of a winning team and I have to keep reminding myself that I’ve still finished 7th in an international race. I really need to stop being so hard on myself!

IMG_4807Pictured above: The flying Englishman! A proud moment as Chris Smith takes a well deserved win for his country.

The day undoubtably belonged to my good friend Chris Smith. He had blown the rest of the field away to win in a very convincing time of 65:47 – one of the fastest times in recent years. He was obviously delighted with his win (as I’m sure you can tell from the photo above) and told me afterwards that it was the first ‘big’ win of his career. I found it hard to believe that an athlete of Chris’ calibre hasn’t won more races at this level. I’ve had the pleasure of racing in the same international teams as him over the last couple of years and the guy is seriously class, a real talent and a worthy champion. It always sounds like a cliché when people say ‘it couldn’t have happened to a nicer guy’, but I genuinely mean it. I was so happy for him and if there was anyone that I would have liked to have won the race (apart from me obviously) then it really would have been him. Finally he can enjoy the ‘big’ win he so rightly deserves.

IMG_4797Pictured above: All smiles as England win the international team prize (L to R: Me, Rob Hope, Chris Smith & Chris Farrell) photo courtesy of Mark Croasdale

I was also really chuffed for Chris Farrell who finished in a fantastic second place, narrowly beating the master descender, Luca Cagnati, in a nail biting sprint finish. Chris has been threatening a top international result for the last couple of years and I just hope that now he can now go one better and make the Great Britain team at the world trial. He’s a great lad, he works hard in training and he’s earned it. I can also assure you that he was very pleased with the result despite what the picture above suggests – that is his ‘happy face’ 😉 It’s also worth pointing out that although I was the last man home for England, I do have the best tan (and yes it is real before you ask Judy Howells). Obviously just another good reason to live and train in Yorkshire.

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Pictured above: England women also win the international team prize (L to R: Heidi Dent, Lou Roberts & Julie Briscoe) photo courtesy of Mark Croasdale

In the women’s race Ireland continued their Snowdon domination of recent years as Sarah Mulligan won for the second time in her career. She was chased hard by my ‘2016 runner of the year’ Heidi Dent, who has had an amazing season so far. Of course I have to mention the amazing talent that is Lou Roberts, who finished in 4th place behind Scotland’s Stephanie Provan. Lou’s in the form of her life and having been on the fell running scene for many years it’s inspiring to see her at the very top of our sport at 44 years old. Finally a big well done to Julie Briscoe, who finished 8th on her international mountain running debut. She has also represented England on the road and x-country proving she is quite the all round athlete!

As ever, the race was celebrated in style with the English, Irish and Italian teams bonding over a few beers and Braulio. It was a great night and I look forward to catching up with everyone at the next international fixture. Apologies to Luca, Nicola, Marco, Paolo and Botta for my poor Yorkshire/Italian! I promise I shall practise!

Pictured above: (L) ‘Old but Gold’ Me and Chris Smith (R) Post race celebrations with the Italian team.

Finally a HUGE thanks must go to my friend and race organiser, Stephen Edwards, and his team. This international race is unique in the sense that it looks and feels like a huge commercial and professional event, yet it’s organised by members of the local community and volunteers. If you’ve never done this race before then it needs to be top of your list for 2017! I’ll certainly be back next year to have another go. Who knows, maybe one day I might just be good enough to take the top spot. For now I can only dream.

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

 

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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.

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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.

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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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Super Trooper

Super Trooper

6:37PM

It’s a time when most people are sitting down to enjoy their evening meal or relaxing in front of the television to watch the soaps. I can’t help but feel jealous – it’s been a long and stressful day at work. In comparison, I’m running up Trooper Lane and I’m part way through my third repetition. I’m planning on doing 10 so I’ll be here for quite some time.

Byline Robbie Jay Barratt ©

‘IT’S MY CHOICE TO BE HERE – I DON’T HAVE TO DO THIS’

To make matters worse my legs are already feeling tired from racing at the weekend and there’s a huge temptation to give up and call this my last one. Nobody else cares if I do 10 anyway, in fact no one will ever know. It’s my choice to be here – I don’t have to do this. If I set off back home I could be sat with my feet up in front of a warm fire and enjoying my dinner at a reasonable hour for a change. It would be really easy to give up now.

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Instead I have to remind myself why I’m here. I’m about to run up Trooper Lane for the 150th time this year. It’s a milestone achievement that only I will witness and appreciate. There won’t be a crowd of supporters at the top to greet me with rapturous applause and I certainly won’t win any prizes. This is a solitary and lonely task. It’s a hidden part of my world that no one else ever sees. Ironically it’s the most important part of my training and the foundation of every racing success. It doesn’t bother me that I’m alone. I haven’t got time to celebrate anyway – I’ve another 7 reps to complete.

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I’m often asked how or indeed why I run up and down Trooper Lane so many times. Admittedly it’s hardly the most enjoyable way to spend an evening, especially after a tough day at work. The thought of repping the same hill 10 times is a daunting prospect. The monotony of the task is reason enough to talk yourself out of it in the first place. As well as the obvious physical demand, it requires an enormous amount of mental strength to complete 10 reps. In fact the first thing I need to do is to trick myself into thinking I’m not really doing 10 when deep down I really know that I am.

‘I IMAGINE THAT I’M IN A RACE, EITHER BEING CHASED BY OR CHASING SOMEONE DOWN’

Byline Robbie Jay Barratt ©

It’s not all about pace either, I try and focus on form and technique. I’m more concerned with how well I run up the hill rather than how fast I can rep each one. I stay positive at all times and I tell myself over and over again that I can do this. Visualisation plays a key role in keeping me focused and motivated.I dream about running for England and Great Britain and what I need to do to earn those international vests. I imagine that I’m in a race, either being chased by or chasing someone down. If I stop or go slow for even a moment then I’ll lose so I work as hard as possible until I reach the summit. Needless to say I’ve never lost a mental battle with myself yet.

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The preparation for ascending over 4000ft takes almost as much effort as actually running it. Firstly you have to find the time to do it and usually a session like this requires a window of almost two and a half hours. Trooper Lane is 3 miles from my house so the run across is treated as my warm up and of course the return journey is my cool down. Every rep up and down usually takes between 8-10 minutes depending on the speed and intensity of each effort. It’s almost half a mile from the bottom to the top with a climb measuring over 400ft and an average gradient of 15%. I have to break down the session into manageable chunks to preserve my sanity.

‘TO DEVELOP AS AN ATHLETE YOU NEED TO ADOPT A POSITIVE GROWTH MINDSET.’

Byline Robbie Jay Barratt ©

At first I focus on 3 reps, that’s the absolute minimum I can accept as a worthwhile hill session. After this it doesn’t take me long to complete 5 and from a mental perspective this is a significant milestone. Once I reach 7 then I just tell myself it would be a shame not to hit double figures and when I eventually get to 10 I even consider doing a few more. To develop as an athlete you need to adopt a positive growth mindset. You should always try and set high expectations and work towards achieving great things. So of course the best thing about doing 10 reps is that when I do plan to run a smaller session then 5 always seems really easy!

Byline Robbie Jay Barratt ©

100 minutes of pure hill repping is a long time in which to stay focused. I make sure that on the downhill recovery I give my mind and body the break that it requires. I’m mostly visualising my next race, the physical shape I’ll need to be in and what I need to work on to improve my performance. Much of my time is also spent thinking about what I’ll be eating when I get home and most importantly what I’ll call my run when I upload it to Strava. In my opinion it would be a criminal offence to call a 10 rep Trooper Lane session something like ‘Evening Run’. I try and think of a catchy title that befits the effort I’ve made. Super Trooper or Ben 10 would be far more appropriate. However given that I couldn’t resist the urge to do an extra rep I finally decide upon ‘Legs Eleven, Trooper Heaven’.

Strava

‘IF YOU TRAIN HARD THEN RACING IS EASY.’

Ultimately what gives me the most satisfaction about a brutal hill session like this is knowing that I’m now training as hard, if not even harder, than my rivals. It gives me absolute confidence in my own ability. So when I line up at the start of the race I no longer suffer from nerves and I don’t have any regrets about not training hard enough. I know that I’ve done everything I can to prepare and I’m always ready to face any man or mountain that stands in my way. It’s important to remember that if you train hard, then racing is easy.

Top tips

The very mention of ‘hills’ is enough to make most people run a mile (excuse the pun). Don’t be afraid – hills can be your friend. The more you do the easier they get. Hills are a staple diet for any wannabe fell or mountain runner but even those who prefer the road or track can enjoy their benefit. If you incorporate a weekly hill session into your training then you will see a huge difference in your performance. I’ve never been a natural climber but I’ve turned climbing into my secret weapon by regularly doing hill sessions and slowly increasing the difficulty and speed at which I do them. It’s also good to vary the incline and terrain so that your body learns how to adapt to the changes in ascent. Remember that no hill is ever the same.

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The main problem for me isn’t actually finding the motivation for a hill session, it’s finding a hill big enough to meet my requirements. Most of the big fell and mountain races I compete in have a serious amount of ascent and although I live in a beautiful part of Yorkshire, my local hills don’t even begin to compare to the size of those in the Lake District. It’s because of this that I’m forced to run smart and make the best use of what hills I have on my doorstep. Study what your local environment has to offer, get friendly with your own version of Trooper Lane and make it into your very own mountain. Failing that you could always come and join me on mine.

I have created a number of Trooper Lane segments on Strava and by doing them you can compare your performance over a number of weeks.

The 1 | 3 Peaks | High 5 | Magnificent 7 | Ben 10

Byline Robbie Jay Barratt ©

All photographs taken by Robbie Jay Barratt

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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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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.

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‘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.

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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

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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.

How I ‘fell’ in love with running

Ben Mounsey x inov-37

What on earth possesses you to run up a hill?

It’s a question I’m often asked by ‘normal’ people. I usually just shrug my shoulders and laugh, it’s pointless even trying to explain to someone who is alien to fell running. You simply have to do it to understand it. Fell running is a powerful drug and once it takes a hold of you it’s difficult to imagine what your life would be like without it.

‘A SPORT SO SIMPLE AND PURE’

Ben Mounsey x inov-24

The truth is I’ve not always been a runner. At school I was a footballer, and an average one at best. When I reached university I turned my hand to cycling, something I became quite good at, but ultimately I was guilty of not putting enough effort into my training. I even tried tennis… though my on-court career lasted all of about 30 minutes! I spent a fortune on a new racket, then halfway through the first set smashed it to pieces in a fit of rage! Yes, I’m ultra competitive and yes I sometimes struggle to channel my aggression in a positive way. In hindsight tennis was not a good idea – Andy Murray can rest easy. I suppose that’s when I found my love for running – a sport so simple and pure, plus there’s no chance of me destroying expensive equipment halfway through a race!

Ben Mounsey x inov-22

I started running to work out of sheer convenience. It was quicker and cheaper than catching a bus and I didn’t drive at the time. I soon realised that I had some degree of natural talent so I entered a local cross country race. I finished 11th and it didn’t take long before I was searching for another, bigger adrenalin rush. Someone I know suggested I do a fell race. ‘What on earth possesses anyone to run up a hill’ I said. My friend just shrugged his shoulders and laughed. ‘Try it…you’ll soon understand’ he replied.

‘JUST TEN SECONDS IN AND MY BODY WAS WORKING AT ITS FULL CAPACITY’

Ben Mounsey x inov-48

And so it was in May 2005 that I took to the start line of the Mytholmroyd Fell Race (West Yorkshire, England). At 6.2 miles and with 1,350ft of ascent, it was, in comparison to some of the other races I now run, a relatively short blast. At the time, however, it hurt like hell. The race started with a steep uphill climb. 10 seconds in and my body was working at its full capacity… My lungs were on fire and I was struggling to breathe.

Eventually I reached the summit. I was absolutely shattered and my heart rate was off the scale! By the time I hit the final descent my legs were like jelly; so much so that they didn’t even feel like my own. It was then that it dawned on me… despite the pain, the hurt and the jelly legs, I was still running downhill at a ferocious pace. It was a feeling I will never forget. I felt alive and free, fuelled on a heady mix of speed and courage. I was running on pure adrenalin; enjoying the finest natural high in the world.

Ben Mounsey x inov-51

‘I FELT ALIVE AND FREE, FUELLED ON A HEADY MIX OF SPEED AND COURAGE’

When I reached the finish I was a physical wreck – I’d been battered by both the hills and the weather. I lay flat-out on the floor for about five minutes until I could finally control my breathing and muster enough energy to sit upright. It was by far the hardest thing I’d ever done in my life. ‘Are you okay?’ asked a concerned onlooker. I took a deep breath…’When’s the next race?’ came my reply. I was instantly hooked on fell running and couldn’t wait to do it all over again.

Ben Mounsey x inov-33

Since that first race I’ve never looked back. I’ve been fortunate enough to compete at the highest level and against some the very best fell and mountain runners in the world. One thing that I love about the sport, across all its forms, is that the ‘superstars’ are a different breed of elite. There’s no arrogance or bravado. It makes a refreshing change given what you see happening in other sports.

‘THE SUPERSTARS OF FELL RUNNING ARE A DIFFERENT BREED OF ELITE. THERE’S NO ARROGANCE OR BRAVADO’

Here in the UK, fell running continues to rise sharply in popularity… and it’s not surprising. The beautiful thing about fell running, you see, is that it accepts athletes of all abilities and encourages them to take part. The fact that it’s not elitist means you’re just as likely to share a post-race pint with the winner as you are with the person who finishes last. For this reason alone I consider it to be the best sport in the world.

Ben Mounsey x inov-35

‘I’VE LOOKED DOWN ON A WORLD FULL OF PEOPLE WHO’LL NEVER APPRECIATE THE BEAUTY OF THEIR LOCAL ENVIRONMENT’

Another thing about fell running is that it’s seriously addictive. You’re not just competing against other people in the race, you’re battling against the elements and the terrain. It’s not just about the winning, it’s about finishing and beating the course. It’s seriously hard, both physically and mentally. There are no short cuts and no easy races. You have to learn to embrace the pain and push your body to the extreme. It’s one hell of a tough sport but by far the most rewarding one I’ve ever done.

Ben Mounsey x inov-129

Fell running has taken me to places that I would never have imagined I’d ever visit. I’ve seen glorious sunrises and breathtaking sunsets. I’ve seen stunning views and beautiful wildlife. I’ve run with the legends of the sport and shared precious moments with likeminded friends that I’ll remember for the rest of my life. I’ve climbed some of the tallest peaks and ran high above the clouds. I’ve looked down on a world full of people who’ll never appreciate the beauty of their local environment and every time I’ve felt grateful for the fact that I do.

Ben Mounsey x inov-14

For me running is a way to escape the pressures and stresses of ‘normal’ life. After a hard day at work I can take to the hills and leave all my worries behind. As well as keeping me fit and healthy it gives me extra confidence in every aspect of my life. I’ve come to realise that I’m at my happiest when I’m out running and I feel extremely fortunate to have fallen in love with the sport.

So if you’ve never been fell running before and you fancy a unique challenge, then don’t ask why, just give it a try. You never know, it might just change your life forever.

Ben Mounsey x inov-19

Kit: X-Talon 212 | Race Elite Windshell FZ | Race Ultra Twin Short | Raceglove

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http://www.inov-8.com/blog/fell-running-ben-mounsey/

All photographs taken by Robbie Jay Barratt 

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