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Top-ten at Giir di Mont (Running)

This summer I decided to come to the mountains with my family, to make the most of my having recently completed my PhD and my wife being on maternity leave, and to have a good go at some big Skyraces, something I’ve had in mind to do since I was a teenager, but somehow have never got round to.

When you decide to give something a proper go – in this case living in the mountains and training as well as I know how and as much as I dare – it’s hard to handle when you don’t do as well as you hoped. So it turned out at the Dolomites Skyrace a week ago. After feeling fit but losing a lot of time due to choosing the wrong shoes for the course at Zegama, the first round of the Skyrunning world series, I was keen to race well at the Dolomites. Having had two weeks in the mountains by then I was hopeful I could do a lot better, since Zegama had been run with “Flatlander” legs. I’d been feeling good in training, felt well acclimatised and had had time to look at most of the course, but on the day I was just… well… rubbish. Nothing was specifically wrong, I just couldn’t keep up. I wasn’t even close to keeping up, and I finished a disappointing 48th. In many ways it’s harder to take a bad race if there is no obvious explanation. I was left with the gnawing doubt that perhaps I just wasn’t nearly as good as I’d hoped I could be and that every race this summer would be a disappointment.

Dolomites Skyrace course

Dolomites Skyrace course

The best way to vanquish such thoughts is to have a good race as soon as possible, and so one week later I lined up at Giir di Mont, a classic and competitive Italian Skyrace, unsure whether I was properly recovered. What followed was a rare (for me) bit of excellent pacing and confirmation that I am actually pretty fit at the moment; I went off with “fast but steady” in mind, and after the crazy downhill start I just settled into a good rhythm, occasionally catching another runner or getting glimpses of others in striking distance. By the time I passed my cheering family near the bottom of the final climb I had little idea what position I was in, but I knew I was still feeling pretty good.

Sweeping in for a kiss

Sweeping in for a kiss

Summer villages

Summer villages

On height gain the final climb looks like a short one, but there turned out to be a lot of traversing and small descents that weren’t shown in the race profile. On every flattening I tried to ramp up the pace, and to run as much as I could of the steeps. I passed one runner low down, and just before the top caught a glimpse of another three who I looked to be gaining on. One by one they were picked off on the slippery rocks of the final descent and I arrived at the road far enough away from anyone that I could enjoy the final run-in, high-fiving the many cheering children on the streets of Premana. I crossed the line with little idea what position I’d come, but the other runners in the finish area all seemed to be famous faces, and they were in various states of sprawled disarray, as if they’d only just finished; perhaps I’d done OK? My wife arrived back with one sleeping baby and one very tired two-year old, who’d walked an hour and a half each way to support. I think I felt as proud for him as for my run! We worked out I was probably in the top ten, but we weren’t sure until my name was called in ninth to share the stage with a host of Skyrunning superstars in front of thousands of cheering Italians to win an enormous pair of secateurs (Premana is famous for its scissors and other steel goods). Game on for the rest of the summer!

Winnings

Winnings

Gripless in Gipuzkoa (slip sliding in Spain) (Running)

The rain in Spain falls mainly… in the Basque country. Or so it seemed to us as we counted down the days to Sunday’s iconic mountain race Zegama-Aizkorri, with the weather ranging from light drizzle to diluvian downpours. Over the years British runners have done very well at this race – Rob Jebb held the record since 2005, Ricky Lightfoot won in 2009 and Tom Owens gave Kilian Jornet a run for his money in 2011. Having seen the course it was easy to see why – a lot of the terrain was like you might find in a tough fell race in the UK; some steep, some technical, some fast but above all a lot of wet and mud, and all of that without the altitude that typically disadvantages Brits travelling to European mountain races (the highest point is just over 1500m).

But instead of relishing the advantage I might have the wetter the course got, waking each morning to more rain deepened my sense of foreboding. In a massive oversight I’d failed to bring any studs with me – I’d been very impressed with the Sense Ultras on the technical 56km of La Bouillonante and hoped they would be grippy enough for Zegama. I had heard it could be “a bit muddy” so had tried to get my hands on the more aggressive ‘Softground’ version before travelling, but with no luck. As race day approached, various other possibilities turned up for getting a pair, but they all fell through and I lined up on Sunday, in the rain, wearing a pair of shoes that are amazing on dry ground but that I knew didn’t have enough grip for the steep, muddy ground I was about to race over.

Although training and racing had been going well, I hadn’t managed any big hills in preparation for this race – eight weeks and counting to process my newborn son’s passport application had stymied a trip to Scotland which would have helped, but without that I decided to rein in my ambitions a little. 4 hours 20, which would have placed me in the top 15 in all previous editions of the race, seemed a reasonable balance between ambition and flatland realism. I’d also heard that the start at Zegama is notoriously fast and that many people burn out. Having suffered through the ‘start fast and try to hold on’ tactic in my last two races I aimed to be outside the top 50 leaving the village.

For the first couple of hours things went OK. I had to concentrate really hard on the climbs, picking my foot placements carefully to avoid slipping over, but my cautious start seemed to be paying off and I was steadily passing the fast-starters. Descents were a different story, and I was slipping all over the place, which was frustrating since they are usually the strongest part of my race, but they were mostly gentle enough that I was able to hold my position then start picking people off on the next climb.

One of the several thousand souls at Sancti Spiritu (the other thing this race is famous for is the support of the spectators, on some sections it feels like you are in the Tour de France!) told me that I was 12 minutes behind Kilian, which, after 2 hours of racing seemed encouraging in the circumstances; I was still feeling easy and like I had plenty of racing in me. However, from reccying the course I knew the toughest descents (steepest and muddiest) were still to come. At the summit of Aizkorri the ground turns very technical with steep, polished and wet limestone on the traverse to Aitxuri. I was in a group of three and managed to stay with them to the top of the race’s steepest descent. Then it started. Rock turned to steep grass and mud interspersed with rocks and I was on my arse for the first of countless times. By the time I emerged onto ground where staying upright and running once again became feasible I felt lucky not to have broken any bones. The group I’d been with were long gone.

That descent felt a lot like my early days of racing on skis; competent enough on the climbs but a mixture of scared, embarrassed and frustrated on the descents. In addition to the time you lose directly by falling, it is pretty exhausting, especially when you fall hard, and it’s difficult to get your mindset back into racing once you’re back on more reasonable ground. I persevered though, and caught a runner on the long undulating section who had clearly gone off way too fast (he was walking on the flat!), and another in a similar state at the top of the last big climb.

The descent to Zegama is cruel. To go direct would be quick and steep, but instead the race does a big out-and-back traverse. On reaching the final summit you feel you must be nearly there, but actually there is more than 10km to run, much of it ankle deep in mud! I managed OK for a while, holding my own at the front of a group, but then had a series of falls, including one very bad flying face-plant that left me winded and despairing. I lost touch with that group but luckily the gap behind me was large enough that I didn’t get passed again despite now being in ‘survival’ mode.

The last half of the race had been so bad, and I knew I was in a much lower position than I had hoped to be, that I was expecting a disappointing time. As I hit the road just above town I glanced at my watch to see it wasn’t actually going to be too far outside the 4:20 I’d been aiming for. It turns out the field was stacked this year; I ran 4:26 for 39th place, a time which last year would have earned me 22nd, and in other years much better than that. The first four managed to break Rob Jebb’s record, Kilian by 6 minutes (on his 7th attempt, mind you!). I find that incredible. The only thing I could imagine would make it slower underfoot would be snow (which they do get, some years). Just goes to show what good athletes pushing each other can achieve.

It’s difficult to estimate how much time I lost because of my mistake with the shoes. Directly on the last two descents I lost about five minutes on those around me. Factoring in slipping on the climbs, on the other descents and generally exhausting myself falling over repeatedly feels like it should add up to a lot more. Three days after the race my legs feel fine but my arms and shoulders are in a bad way from all the falling. I hate to be left with a feeling that I very nearly had a really good run, but thankfully I’ve got a whole summer of racing ahead of me to improve.

Nice video of the race here.

Brussels 20k (Running)

Yesterday 40,000 runners took to the streets of Brussels for the annual 20km race. This race is THE mass-participation race in Brussels, much more popular than the autumn marathon, and has a noticeable effect on the number of people out training in the parks in the weeks preceding the race!

Last year I ran it for the first time and was pretty happy with 43rd and a shade over 1:09, this seemed to bode well for a summer focussing on running a fast marathon in the autumn. Unfortunately that plan was derailed by illness and PhD stress.

This year my training had been very different, with no track sessions in the past few months, a couple of long trail races (a 30k and a 56k) and as little flat running as possible, in preparation for a summer spent racing in the mountains. Despite the lack of flat training I was feeling fitter than ever so was hopeful of a good performance at the 20k, aiming to take a couple of minutes off my debut time. In the event I was only 20 seconds faster, but I moved up a dozen places to 31st. Given that last year everyone said the conditions were perfect (cool and no wind) and this year it was hot and sunny that seems like an encouraging result, and some good warm-weather preparation for next weekend’s race in Zegama.

For me 20k on the road feels about the hardest distance I ever race. It’s short enough to be almost intolerably fast, but long enough that the end never seems near until it really is. It’s hard to compare, but yesterday’s race felt harder than racing a road marathon (although I’ve only done one), from about 2km in all I wanted to do was stop and sit down. Perhaps I went off too quickly (I ran the first 3k in 9:25), but I didn’t change position much so if I did so did most of the people around me. I wonder how the very best road runners experience these races, they look like they are just cruising along at unimaginable speeds, maybe that kind of ease (although at lower speeds!) would come if I raced more on the flat, or maybe they are also thinking constantly about whether all the half-excuses they can think of add up to a reasonable justification for dropping out.

Results, and Movescount “move”.

King of the Castle (Running)

La Bouillonnante is a collection of some of the best trail races in Belgium at a variety of distances up to 50km. In 2011, when I first moved to Belgium, I entered the 50km race. I was pretty fit after a decent stint in the Alps racing on skis, but I’d not got much running in my legs, the ski season having only recently finished. I raced well for the first 20km or so, swapping the lead and getting drawn into running too fast for such a long race. Then I fell apart, completely, totally and utterly. My legs gave out from underneath me. At 25km I was a minute or so behind the leader, at 40km I was an hour behind and struggling to run at all. For only the third time since I started running as a ten-year-old, I dropped out.

I returned a year later and won the 24km race. While that was fun, it was clear that the real deal was the long race, and I vowed to return and put in a good performance on that. This year it fitted well as an over-distance race in preparation for a summer of Skyrunning races.

At first it’s hard to imagine how it is possible to get a race with 2400m of ascent in Belgium, a country even less blessed with high mountains than the UK. But the region of the Ardennes around Bouillon has a beautiful river, la Semois, that snakes along near the border with France. Its sides are steep, forested and contain winding, often technical trails. The organisers of La Bouillonnante have devised a series of courses that make the most of this terrain and include very little road running. A real joy.

Bouillon castle

Bouillon castle

To top off a fantastic course, the race has the unique feature of starting and finishing in the grounds of a medieval castle.

This year the 50km race had been extended (or more accurately measured?  I’m not sure) to 56km, and a 35km race had been introduced, starting at the same time as the longer race and sharing the first 20km or so.

The logistics of getting a thousand runners into a castle courtyard at 8.30 in the morning proved too much, and the start was a bit chaotic, with runners starting to run out of the castle while others were still trying to get in. I ended up crossing the start line way back from the leaders, and having to chase them down on the run through town. By the time we had climbed and descended the first of the day’s innumerable steep hills I had caught all but the first two runners. Unfortunately they were going a little faster than I wanted at the start of such a long race, but I didn’t know whether they were racing the 35 or 56km. From the few glimpses I had of them I was pretty sure one of the runners was Michel Verhaeghe, the man who I had raced for the first 20km in 2011 and who had gone on to win (and again in 2012 and 2013). I decided that I couldn’t afford to let them get too far ahead.

Over the first few technical sections I tried to keep a mentality of running efficiently but not really racing, but my body was telling me it was fast. The gap was manageable though (spectator estimates were between 1 and 3 minutes), and I was confident that either the runners ahead of me were extremely good and I didn’t have a chance whatever I did, or they would blow up before the 56km was out.

After the longest climb of the race, the two courses split, and I asked the marshals how big the gap was; “you are in the lead, the other two runners are on the 35km course”. Ah. A dawning realisation that I’ve just ran quite a bit too hard for the first 20 km of a 56km course. I wondered how big the gap to my more prudent competitors was…

At times in the next hour or so I thought maybe I’d get away with it, that the slowdown would be minimal and I’d just have an absolutely storming run and win by miles. At other times I thought my pursuers were just behind me (mainly based on the passing-dog-bark estimation method). I happened to glance at my watch around 42km (and about 1600m of ascent) and was somewhat alarmed to see 3 hours 22; that seemed a pretty respectable time for a stand-alone marathon over that terrain, but I had another 14km and 800m of ascent to go…

Luckily for me the state of my legs was soon not the limiting factor as my course joined the 24km and 35km race, and I started to pass first a few, then hundreds of runners on the narrowest, most technical part of the race. I got pretty bored of shouting “excusez-moi”, but eight ascents (including two ladders) and two waist-deep river-fords later I dragged the shell of my body back up to the castle grounds a very happy man. It turned out Michel hadn’t been racing at all, and the man I’d mistaken him for was Vincent Wirtgen, who took a good win in the 35km. Furthermore the barking dogs had been barking at each other rather than other runners, and I’d won by over half an hour.

In 2011 my dropping out of this race preceded winning the Jura fell race so hopefully surviving an even faster start and winning here is a good sign for things to come this summer. Next up is the first round of the Skyrunning world series in Zegama in two weekends’ time.

Results, and Movescount “move”.

That was last weekend’s entertainment. This weekend I ran a 1500m race on the track for the first time since I was 13 or so. Managed to run 4:27 which I was happy enough with a week after La Bouillonnante. Very exciting racing on the track, everything seemed to happen so quickly compared to a 5 hour race!