Tuesday, 30 June 2015

IAU World Champs 2015 - Annecy Maxi Race

 This was a late inclusion in the calendar.

Obviously I was disappointed with my run but it was fantastic. The team always bond and I just loved my time with them. I discuss a few issues I have with the race and issues around it in this blog post bit don't let it detract from how much I loved my time in this race and with my team mates and management. Tom, Kim, Lee, Paul, Paul were just class to be around and it was great fun. I think some imagine more egos but it has always been super relaxed and just a good laugh. Add to those guys and Tracy, Bonnie, Lizzie, Sally and Sarah and it was great. Our management team just could not be flustered; they ooze confidence but also that they care about the person, not just the team. Their treatment of Lee back in 2013 when he was injured, and his rewarding their treatment now was a great testament to how we are treated as people. 

Following the withdrawal of a teammate I was promoted from ‘Non-Traveling Reserve’ into the full squad for the Great Britain and Northern Ireland ultra-distance trail running team. I’d represented GB & NI back in 2013 in this same competition where I finished 4th, helping the team to the Gold medal on a controversial 5 lap 48 mile course with 2400m of ascent. This time around the course was 53 miles and 5300m of ascent over much more technical terrain surrounding Lake Annecy in the French Alps. This time with the race getting enhanced status and the iconic Maxi-Race route the field was far stronger with around 40 countries represented.

Following my call up I had basically 6 weeks to get mountain fit. Every weekend from then I’d been away in the mountains and had averaged a good 10,000 feet of ascent a week so felt I could handle the climbing. I had hoped to make the GB team outright but to be honest could understand not making the 1st VI, I also felt I’d had the rub of the green making the team in 2013, but the UK ultra scene is now incredibly competitive. Add to that my base in the US and my lack of top class racing in Alpine settings and I couldn’t really find fault with the selections especially with the class of runner selected, and who also missed out.

The course was spectacular; I went out the week before and checked out a good 80% of the course. It didn’t suit me, I knew that, despite my 4th place in 2013, I’ve never excelled at ultra-distance mountain trail running. Even my top 50 UTMB finish of 2009 was really just a solid run than anything special. The races I do well at are quicker undulating technical trails with spells of fast running like in Wales, and at the JFK. An Irunfar preview described my 4th place of 2013 as an ‘outlier’ but I think my 4th place and sub 6-hour at JFK (at the time that performance put me on the top 20 all time performers at the US’s oldest 50 mile race) demonstrated that it’s those races I can do well at. However I was hoping to put that right at Annecy and perform well in an Alpine setting.

Training went OK, I had the ascent in but was feeling too beaten up cramming the ascent into the weekend’s or multiple reps of Mts Misery and Joy at Valley Forge. Those runs crammed 2500-3000 feet of ascent and descent in 12-14 miles of hill reps but lacked the long quad pounding descents needed for conditioning. Had I been called up earlier I’d have planned more races in preparation and invested more in weekend visits to the Southern snow-free areas. Whilst snow-shoeing in the NE provided me with the ascent I didn’t feel ‘Fell-fit’ as Asquith put it in ‘Feet in the clouds’.

Anyway after a few days rest I met up with the team on the Thursday before the race and as usual with the GB set up everything was spot on. We have a hugely experienced management team in Elenor, Adrian and Walter. These guys just exude calmness, are well organized and go out of the way to remove any stress from the runners. Thursday night we had the opening ceremony and it was a tad chaotic, prolonged and the food not great.. that worried me.

A late change had seen the GB team amongst others (notably not the French) moved further away from Annecy meaning a longer bus journey in for the 3:30 am start on Saturday morning. Friday was pretty relaxing, we sorted out kit, ate and went to bed early. I was sharing with Paul Giblin, with Tom Owens, Kim Collinson, Paul Raithstick and Lee Kemp also in the team. Most of us knew each other so from the off it was just a great laugh.

My concerns proved true on the race morning.. the 2:15 am bus was now, according to the driver, a 2:30 am bus, which eventually left at 2:45 am… after getting to the race and watching the French Athletes warm up we then do a U-turn further on and disembark the coach gone 3:05 am.. less than 25 minutes to get to the actual start, sort our bags out, warm up, stretch etc… it was a shambles. Add to that I could see every shitting gear advert or store in the trail running world but not a toilet. We had 4!! Portaloos for 300 runners. The next race starting at 5:00 am had almost 2000 runners. That is simply appalling and money pinching.

So after not getting my required 3 pre-race number 2’s in, I knew I was in trouble. Sprinting back to the start line at 3:28 and I’m also without water as I forgot to fill up my bottle in the rush and I’ve also done no stretching. With recurrent core/groin/hip issues I know I need a good 1 hour at the start area running, drills and stretches…  then all the toilet and organizing..

The weather had been good all week, bar a Monday storm, but we had unforecasted rain Friday night resulting in wet slippy limestone and muddy trails.

We set off bang on 3:30 am and went off down the road, I really put in a burst to get towards the front and ran hard through the town, up the first hill and then when the race went straight I jumped right into a campsite to fill up water. I knew we had a hard 10-11 miles of ascending before the first water stop so could not risk carrying on. I quickly rejoined and was in an OK position and climbed but didn’t feel great. The race route climbs fairly steeply until about 850 m and then climbs in steps over the next 10 k or so with plenty of technical flatter sections. Early on maybe I slipped on a white piece of limestone, a route or mud I didn’t go down but straight away my groin tightened and from that moment things just got worse. One by one my muscles just ached in that whole right hip region. Climbing I was Ok, but I just couldn’t open my stride on the descents. I hit the summit of Semnoz, the highest point on the course at over 1600m elevation, just ahead of Paul R but he soon passed and sped away on the descent. 10’s of people seemed to pass on the upper ascent and descent on Semnoz.

I tried not to panic and slowly pushed on, now joined by Barry an Irish runner and soon Cassie from the US team. Cassie and I climbed well through the surprisingly muddy trails, it must have really rained up this end of the lake, and I stated to feel better so pushed on but again couldn’t descend as we dropped down to Doussard at the half way point on the course. Even on the final few k’s on the road into Doussard I just was not running freely and was constantly dropping places.

The course had three aid stations and in 85 km’s of tough running this puts a lot of importance on each aid station. The first was at the summit of Semnoz after 11 miles, the 2nd at Doussard after 27 miles and the 3rd at Menthon St Bernard after 45 miles. This meant the next aid station was crucial. With calm crew assisting at aid station there was no rushing through so I grabbed my poles, had some smoothie and filled up supplies and set off. The next leg was the toughest. It had a gradual climb up to Col Du Forclaz then a long gradual climb up anther col, before a stunning section up the highest point on this side of the leg at ???, up here I was passing many and feeling better but on the descent I again lost a few places but this time at a less rapid rate. Using the Poles on the ascent I had a nice rhythm and moved through the field well. 

At the final aid station I quickly grabbed one last smoothie and took off past a stunning chateaux and climbed upwards Col du Bluffy to begin the last leg over Mt Veyrier. Here I saw Yassine up ahead who runs for the US. I soon caught him and it turned out he was with Henrik and the three of us had been chatting at the opening ceremony so we had a good few miles together before I pushed on when we entered the forest. The temperatures really climbed later in the day but in the trees it was at least manageable and every time I caught someone, another person enticingly appeared ahead so pushed me on. With just one final descent and with most on very tired legs this was the only descent where I actually held my position and gained a few places. I hit the road just outside of Annecy and swore when I swore the 1km to go sign, I was hoping to nick under the 10:30 time but with this to go I had little chance but seeing a runner ahead gave me a kick, then in the distance one more and he seemed finished so I quickly caught him and finished in 10:30:19. My aim before the race was sub 10, sub 10:30 as the B time. I’d love to go back again, without the groin issue I’m sure sub 10 is feasible, add in the wet muddy trails and heat and a quicker time is certainly plausible.

I was disappointed somewhat in my time but do think with a longer build up I could have been more competitive. In the 6 weeks I’d managed to get strong enough to climb well but just did not have the descending skills nor did I feel ‘fell fit’; when you are ‘fell-fit’ your body can tolerate slips, falls and tiredness, little injuries don’t happen like they did to me here. Maybe for this I actually got my training wrong, I came into it with a strong aerobic base from the Boston marathon training but I think the consecutive weekends of 20-45 mile hilly training runs probably hurt me more than I admitted at the time, such long weekend runs also impacted on my midweek training. I was certainly strong on the ascents and felt I could have kept going but I was too poor descending, especially with the injury and need to race more in future. I’m not going to comment on my personal issues with the late call up. butI broke my golden rule of never running long 16+ trail runs on consecutive weekends and felt too beaten up. I got it wrong, my training was wrong and I need to work on that but, again, late call up, you take risks. I showed in 2013 at the IAU and JFK50 that give me 3-4 months and I can compete… give me 6 weeks and it will be hit and miss.

I’m not going to comment on my personal issues with the late call up. I Well I wasn’t until others had their say, I think it was forgotten that although I was given a great opportunity through an athletes withdrawal, it need not have been so late, I need not have spent so many $100’s on other races. Needless to say I totally disagree with the Solomon stance and their issues with this World Championships being about trail running unity and a single start… it was, I believe, about them wanting their runners to represent their brand at a world championship and not their runners’ countries. They basically wanted to insert a Barcelona into the Soccer World Cup depriving nations of their best runners, then claim to be the trail Running World Champions. The toilet issue was bad enough, add in another 2000 runners and it would have been chaos at the start and subsequent feeding stations.  Regardless of their issues this is one race every two years, keep some perspective, not some huge threat to what we know as trail running. This is a race between runners and their countries, not brands. 99% of trail races are Solomon against some other brand; is one race every two years not being brand centered really the end of the world? If anyone is threatening trail running as we know it, it is those who have somehow caused lapped and out and back trail races to not technically be trail running according to the ITRA (International Trail Running Association), just because such races are not needed in France. Without such races, trail running doesn’t exist for thousands of US runners. Iconic races like IceAge50, TNF 50 San Fran and the new classic of Cayuga Trails 50 are now no longer trail races according to these organisations! So remind me again who is threatening the sport and unity of trail running again?

Regarding all this bullshit about the lapped Welsh race and out and backs? What was the Irish race in 2011? Where were the French complaints then when they were world champs....

Anyway, back to GB & NI success if we add Ricky Lightfoot and Andrew Symonds to this team can be at the forefront for a good few years yet and there are more in the wings to get involved, guys like Paul Navesy, Adam Perry to name a few.. . I’d urge any runners who want to be involved to search for competition, not race wins, not top 3’s, go and search the strongest fields, race in the alps, target the biggest races, be prepared to have your arse handed to you. I still think the UK lacks a true championship race or like TNF 50 SF, provide that top quality race and field in one well advertised official championship race. Before the race I thought we honestly stood little chance of a podium as I expected the Alpine countries to absolutely dominate, those who could train and race in this terrain on a weekly basis. Huge credit must also go to the USA men’s team. Too often USA runners have failed to show their true talent abroad due to a myriad of factors including injury, flights, tiredness, terrain etc (obviously with a few notable exceptions: Sage, Alex and Krissy to name a few), so personally I was pleased to see them excel at this level. I know some have doubted the ability of US runners and have seen it was excessive media hype and this answered those questions and no doubt more US success will come.

Lastly Talk Ultra listed this as a weak field "But the recent Transvulcania Ultramarathon, particularly in the men’s race had a far greater quality of field than what will be assembled in Annecy".. that just was not true. This was one of the strongest 80-100km fields you will see so lets build on this. Look at the times from the winner in the top 20/top 40 in both races.. which is stronger...

The IAU hold the future as one sport..