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 race, I’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!!!
Pictured 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 arrived at 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.
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…
Pictured 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.
Pictured 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.
Pictured 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!
The video above, filmed by my sponsors Mountain Fuel, is well worth checking out!
Pictured above: (L to R) The Top 3 men. Andy Davies (2nd), Andy Douglas (1st) and Ricky Lightfoot (3rd) (courtesy of Woodentops)
Pictured above: (L to R) Toms Adams (6th), Ricky Lightfoot (3rd) and me (5th) (courtesy of Woodentops)
Pictured 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:
Andrew Douglas (Sophie Dunnett)
Alex Pilcher (self-coached)
Chris Smith (Philip O’Dell)
Heidi Dent (Derek Hurton)
Gavin Bryson (Garry Robertson)
Ciaran Lewis (James Thie)
Jake Smith (Brian O’Hare)
Scarlet Dale (Colin Gemson)
Heidi Davies (Chris Jones)
Laura Stark (Arthur Smith)
Bella Williams (Rob Lewis)
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