If Carlsberg made athletes…

By’eck Yorkshire is famous for many things – everyone knows it’s t’best county in t’land by a mile. Anything that tastes or looks reet good has Yorkshire in its title – Yorkshire puddings, Yorkshire tea, Yorkshire stone and the Tour De Yorkshire to name but a few. Most importantly it’s also home of many of the country’s finest ever fell runners including the Brownlee brothers, Ian Holmes, Rob Jebb, Victoria Wilkinson and Nicky Spinks. No wonder it’s known as ‘God’s own county’.

Yorkshire

A few weeks ago I’d been selected to run for Yorkshire in the UK Inter-Counties fell running championship – the highest standard of competition in fell running. For me it’s always a great honour, nothing makes me prouder than wearing the vest with the white rose. Plus considering the insane standard of athletes in our county at the moment it’s almost akin to earning an international call up.

Below is the strict selection policy for the Yorkshire fell running team (as proclaimed by Dave Woodhead):

  1. Tha musta bin born or live in Yorkshire
  2. Tha must be able to speak fluent Yorkshire
  3. Tha must be able to run reet fast up’t big hills
  4. Tha must like pie and peas
  5. Yorkshire tea must be tha blood type

Thankfully I tick ALL the boxes.

ROB JEBB HAS BEEN THERE, SEEN IT, DONE IT AND WON IT (SEVERAL TIMES OVER)’ 

Joining me in the Yorkshire team was a stellar line up of fell running superstars. Tom Adams was the first name on the team sheet. Tom’s a great bloke and a good friend of mine. He’s a regular GB international and on his day is virtually unbeatable, especially on the faster, more runnable courses. The next name on the list barely requires an introduction. Rob Jebb has been there, seen it, done it and won it (several times over). He’s worshipped like a god in Yorkshire and the sheer mention of his name is enough to scare most opposition into submission. Last but not least are two young Yorkshiremen who are the future of fell running. Ilkley Harriers’ Jack Wood and Dark Peak’s Tom Saville. Jack has been winning everything in his path recently and, like Tom, is very much the real deal. Remember their names as they are likely to feature at the top of race results for many more years to come. This was undoubtably one of the strongest Yorkshire teams I’ve ever been a part of and unsurprisingly we were the pre-race favourites for team gold.

DSC_0057Pictured above: A pre-race photo with Rob Jebb (L) and Tom Adams (R) (Woodentops)

The inter-counties championship is an event which attracts a huge range of athletes from all over the country. This race is unique in the sense that the very best runners from every discipline can all compete together and the winner is always someone who is the most complete athlete. In the past many of the courses selected for the inter-counties have been more favourable to the faster trail or cross-country runners. However, this year would be different with Moel Eilio as the chosen battleground. The fact that Rob Jebb had decided to compete suggests that this is a classic fell race and not just a few hilly laps of a park. It was a race that I was also relishing. Previously my best ever finish in the inter-counties had been 7th (2015), followed by 13th and 15th. Today I was hopeful of at least a top 10 or perhaps even a top 5. I was already familiar with the route as I ran it 8 years ago when it formed part of the British Championships, finishing in 22nd place that day. I’d also taken some time to recce the final mile and steep descent of Moel Cynghorian on Wednesday with my good friend Math Roberts (CVFR) who lives in Llanberis. Preparation is, after all, the key to success. I think it’s because of this very reason that I felt very relaxed and confident at the start.

DSC_0066Pictured above: The start of the race (Woodentops)

‘I WAS RACING VERY SENSIBLY AND USING ALL OF MY EXPERIENCE AS A SEASONED FELL RUNNER

I began the race at a very steady pace and watched many of the favourites hit the front at pace. I didn’t panic. Like a bike race I could sense the others in the pack watching me closely to make a move. Instead, I held my ground and settled into a very comfortable speed and rhythm. As the gradient began to climb I started to work my way through the field, firstly into the top 10 and then up to 7th place. I was racing very sensibly and using all of my experience as a seasoned fell runner, I knew that some of the others would pay the price for a fast start on such a tough course.

DSC_0040Pictured above: The climb to the summit of Moel Eilio with Chris Farrell (Greater Manchester) just in front (Woodentops)

I felt good and as we approached the summit of Moel Eilio I’d managed to catch Tom (Adams) and I found myself in 4th position. This was a pivotal moment in the race. From here I worked together with multiple English and British champion Simon Bailey (Staffordshire). We encouraged each other to try and catch the leaders – Chris Smith (Middlesex) and Max Nicholls (Kent). It was one of those moments I’ll never forget, urging each other on, sharing water and working tactically despite being part of a different team. I remember saying ‘We can do this, these lads aren’t fell runners…we can beat them on the final descent’. To which he replied ‘I think we need to catch them on the climbs first!’. He was right. I was being very optimistic but it was the first time in the race when I remember thinking that we might actually be able to win. Chris and Max were clearly the fastest athletes, but fell running is about so much more than just pace. I knew in the back of my mind that I could descend quicker than anyone and I had a strong feeling that route choice would play a key role in deciding the fortunes of all.

We continued to chase but it was difficult to tell if we were closing the gap. The main thing was they were still in sight. I tried to catch my breath on the descent of Foel Goch as I knew we had a big climb ahead to the summit of Moel Cynghorian. It was here that made my killer move and managed to break away from Simon. We’d worked so hard together until now but I knew if I wanted to win this race then I’d need to attack at some point. I was feeling strong and I could sense a 3rd place finish on the cards providing I judged my efforts correctly – there was still a long way to go. It seemed to take forever to finally reach the top, there were a number of false summits teasing me along the way. I took a few deep breaths and composed myself before I turned to face the final descent.

‘THIS WAS GOING TO BE A REAL SPRINT TO THE FINISH – EVERY SECOND WOULD COUNT!’

I began to follow the leaders but realised they were taking a poor choice of line to the bottom. I could see that they were going too far to the right and they were heading towards what looked like an orange flag or a marshall wearing hi-vis perhaps. I knew it wasn’t the right line but it did make me question whether or not the organisers had added an extra checkpoint. Do I follow? Or do I trust my gut feeling and go my own way? I glanced over my shoulder to see which line Simon was taking. He was heading left. It confirmed what I was thinking and I quickly switched direction. I knew Chris and Max would soon realise their mistake and I knew Simon would be flying down the descent like a man possessed. This was going to be a real sprint to the finish – every second would count! I took the most direct line but it certainly wasn’t the easiest route. The ground was boggy and heavily saturated, there was a stream to negotiate and then a fierce little kick up to a track which led towards the finish. I knew I had to get there first to give myself any kind of chance of winning this race. This last mile was going to hurt real bad. As I reached the top I took one last glance behind. I didn’t have much of a gap but I knew it might just be enough. Simon was now in 2nd with Chris and Max right behind. I gave it everything I had left and tried not to look back. I was running scared and there was still a long way to go. I expected all three of them to pass me at any moment, it was like being in a bad dream and feeling like your not running fast enough. I was on my absolute limit but I knew what was at stake and I wasn’t going to roll over and concede defeat just yet. Keep working, keep sprinting I thought…you can do this. Not long to go now…jeez maybe I CAN do this!!!

13239392_217748495276012_1969911668960856083_nPictured above: The final sprint along the track – victory in sight! (Sports Pictures Cymru)

I ran as hard and as fast as I my legs and lungs could both manage and it wasn’t until the very last 100m that I knew I’d won. I couldn’t believe it! As I crossed the line I could’ve cried I was so happy, I never dreamed I’d ever win a race this big. To win the inter-counties championship whilst wearing a Yorkshire vest is quite literally a dream come true for me. It was just one of those days where absolutely everything went right and I ran the perfect race – clever, tactical and very experienced. I’d won because I was the best fell runner on the day, not because I was the fastest athlete. I found myself apologising to Chris and Max who finished in 3rd and 4th respectively. Had they not have taken a poor line on the final descent I would’ve been sat here writing about how pleased I was with winning a bronze medal. But this is one of the many reasons why fell running is such a fantastic and unique sport. To win a race at this level absolutely everything has to go right on the day. Yes you need to be fast and obviously you need to be able to climb and descend like a pro. But most importantly you need to be able to choose the right tactics, navigate confidently and, of course, have plenty of luck on your side. I’d done everything right and reaped the rewards. This had been a fell running masterclass.

DSC_0033Pictured above: The first 4 men (L to R) Chris Smith, myself, Simon Bailey and Max Nicholls (Woodentops)

I was also super pleased for Simon. We’ve battled against each other many times before on the fells but today I felt like it was a shared victory, we’d really pushed each other to 1st and 2nd on the day. I was disappointed for Chris and Max – they deserved more for their efforts but assured me they were happy with the result. They’re both really great guys and outstanding athletes. I’ve no doubt they’ll both teach me a lesson in mountain running at the next trials race!

13245418_654796408002359_1893029775781462515_nPictured above: UK Inter-County Fell Running Champions 2016! (Woodentops)

In the women’s race I was pleased to see my friend Heidi Dent (Cumbria) take the gold and demonstrate to everyone (once again!) just what outstanding form she’s in. This girl really is destined for great things. Run of the day however must go to Lou Roberts (Cumbria) for her amazing 2nd place. As a V40 she’s in the form of her life and deserves tremendous praise for all of her results so far this year. Annie Conway rounded up the top 3 to make it a clean sweep for Cumbria and showing that they really are the dominant force in women’s fell running.

DSC_0182Pictured above: UK Inter-County Fell Running Team Champions 2016! From L to R: Rob Jebb, Tom Adams, myself, Jack Wood and Tom Saville (Woodentops)

DSC_0591.JPGPictured above: UK Inter-County Fell Running Team Silver Medallists 2016! From L to R: Georgia Malir, Holly Page, Katie Walshaw, Sharon Taylor and Claire Green (Woodentops)

Unsurprisingly after such fantastic individual results we managed to defend our Inter-Counties team title which was truly the icing on a very large cake! The Yorkshire women finished in 2nd place behind a very dominant Cumbria. A fantastic day for our great county and one that will surely keep the Woodhead’s smiling until the next one!

THE finest day of my athletic career so far.

StravaMen’s Results |  Women’s Results | Team Results | Photos

DSC_0517Pictured above: Rob Jebb showing me how to drink like a Yorkshireman (Woodentops)

I may have enjoyed the rare treat of beating Rob in a fell race but when it comes to drinking he’s very much in a class of his own.

If Carlsberg made athletes…they’d be from Yorkshire and they’d be called Rob Jebb. What a legend.

 

P.S. If you’re a lover of Yorkshire like myself then it’s also worth checking out my two favourite Youtube videos…

Yorkshireman vs Predator | Yorkshire Airlines

 

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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.