Friday, 26 July 2013

4 Out Of 4!

If I only learnt one thing last year, it was that racing when you are not really up for it has no benefits, and can actually lead to injury and despondency. I was due to be taking part in the inaugural Snowdon Supercup (an invitational uphill only race to the cafe on top of Snowdon - just my cup of tea!!) just 2 weeks after the World Trail Champs. Having sustained the psoas injury in the trail race, I wasn't sure of either my body's recovery, or my ability to get a "race head" back on in time, and so I withdrew from the race. I was disappointed to do so, but lesson from last year taken on board, and hopefully the Snowdon race will develop and be there for me in the future.
Post-party chilling with friends
The Pentlands seen from East Cairn summit
Making the most of a suddenly free weekend, I went up to Edinburgh to stay with my Wales roomie Fionna - and was introduced to running in the Pentlands (admittedly after a party the night before). The Pentland Hills are a range of hills running about 20miles from the southwest of Edinburgh towards Biggar. We did not go to the more popular area near the skislope, but to a beautiful quiet part, where we hardly saw a soul, but had great views from the summit of East Cairn Hill (567 m). Fionna told me that it is usually very muddy, and you would expect to come back filthy, but the fact that it hadn't rained for weeks meant that the ground was bone-dry with springy turf rather than boggy peat. I loved it - definitely a place to come back to and explore further!

Having felt relatively OK on the Sunday, I felt that I could join in with the Gelston 5 mile road race on Tuesday night. This race is part of my club's Grand Prix, and a race that I've not been able to do for the past few years, so I was keen to better my previous course best-time of 30:30. The only problem was that the race started at 7pm and I was due to work from 7am-6pm, but as registration was only possible on the day, there was plenty of time as the start was delayed due to so many people wanting to enter.

The start was very low-key - a whistle was blown and people started running, but as we headed out of the town I fell in with a couple of guys in a small pack - with the two leaders (my clubmates - Steven and Alan) just up ahead. Even though it was very warm and muggy (the forecast storms held off until we were in the pub afterwards), my legs seemed relatively fresh from not having run much in the previous fortnight. I did wonder how long it would be before the "Trail-tiredness" kicked in.....but I hoped it wouldn't be before the finish!

The start of the Gelston 5

By the time we got to the 2 mile marker, I was amazed to have left my initial group and joined up with the guys in front, though they did make it look like they were "running easy". The 3rd mile did involve an uphill drag and Steven then started to pull away, stretching the rest of us out along the road. An extra water station was kindly provided (due to the heat on the night) just as we turned a sharp 90 degree bend, but as I was on the outside of the corner, I couldn't get to it. Alan passed a plastic cup across, but clumsy me didn't manage to get anything into my mouth.

The road stretched away on front of me and appeared to go on for ever, with many undulations. I really thought that I couldn't keep going as it felt so hot and I thought that I must have been slowing down considerably. Still, I figured that if I can force myself to push to the end in an ultradistance race, then I had better do the same in a short race - and if it doesn't feel uncomfortable, then you're not trying hard enough. I couldn't remember when the final turn across the grass into the park was.....and seemed a lot further away than I'd remembered, but finally I saw it, and went for the line.

I was surprised that nobody has come past me in the final miles - and checking my watch later shows that I still have little idea about the speed I run at, as I hadn't really slowed down much at all. Not only did I beat my previous time on the course, but I broke the course record by 46seconds in my 2nd fastest 5mile time! Then again, I had to push all the way as my clubmate Lisa ran superbly also finishing under the previous record and gaining a well-deserved PB.

The Gelston 5 was the 4th GrandPrix race I've run this year, and I'm so happy that I managed to achieve my private target of breaking the CR, as I'd set a quiet trend with new records in the 3 previous ones. Maybe now I should just quit while I'm ahead?

Thursday, 18 July 2013

Drugtesting Revisited

Having come off the WADA "My Whereabouts" database earlier in the year, drug testing has been pushed to the back of my mind. However, I do believe that there is no real excuse for failing a drugs test, as you should know what you are putting into your body (even if it's just chocolate!). I know that any runner such as myself can be subjected to random tests, especially at the end of big road races such as Comrades, but I did not really think of trail racing as having the same testing procedures. Naive of me I guess, as there's no reason why trail runners should be exempt.
Hence it came as a bit of a surprise when I was stopped by one of the IAAF testers at the end of the World Trail Championships and taken off to the "testing tent". They were testing the ladies that finished in positions 1, 3 and 4  so unfortunately I was one of the lucky few!!!
Being tested in such circumstances was certainly interesting - samples have to be provided with a witness present - and portaloos are small enough when you are just trying to fit inside yourself, never mind fitting two people in. Luckily I was allowed to bring Eleanor (the ladies' team manager) along with me, so she could stand guard at the open door, as we were actually in a field with other finishers walking past, but hey......on a positive note, at least I had the privacy of the portaloo to get changed in afterwards!
Ah.....the glamourous world of running!!!!

Tuesday, 9 July 2013

World Trail Championships

In recent times I have become better known for road running, but I cut my "ultra teeth" off road taking part in mountain marathons with my friend and clubmate Doug, and running across the Atacama Desert in a multistage race. Being given the honour of representing Team GB in the World Trail Championships meant that I had an excuse to return to my old running!

The event is held every 2 years and this year Great Britain was to be the host nation, and so we were hoping for a good strong performance with home crowd support, though the reigning champions (France - male and female, individual and teams) were returning and Team USA were highly favoured.
The course (in the Gwydyr Forest) was described as approximately 77km long (including 5x 15km loops) with about 2500m elevation lost and gained overall.

The Opening Ceremony

I knew I had the endurance in my legs, and Comrades had shown me that I could produce a strong finish when it counted, but I just needed some more off road confidence. Although I had to let my body recover from the rigours of South Africa I managed to squeeze in a bit of trail running in the lead-up to the event in Wales : a local trail 10k (actually setting a new ladies' CR in the process), a couple of off-road tempo parkruns, and a run on the West Highland Way (an excuse to get to know my team-mate Fionna, and to support people we knew who were running the WHW race).

I have found that inov8 shoes seem to fit my feet well, and so Likeys kindly arranged for some new shoes to be sent to me. With perfect timing, they arrived on the Tuesday, I tried them out on a few laps of a school playing field on Wednesday and then took them down to Wales on Thursday.

With Iain at the Press Conference

My clothing was slightly less organised, as Adidas (who make the GB kit) seemed to have changed their sizing, and so I actually didn't have a vest that fit me until 9pm on the Friday night.....and the race started at 9am on Saturday. I did however, end up with a fitting tracksuit and shorts and so we felt very smart as a team at the Opening Ceremony in Llandudno on Friday morning, and also up at the press conference in Llanwryst on Friday afternoon.

Within Team GB there was a brilliant mix of backgrounds, occupations, experience and nerves. Some people considered me an old hand as I'd run for my country before, but then again, that was in 2011 and was on the road. Others were much more experienced off road, but in a different type of event. It meant that we could all share information and help each other out. I was sharing a room with Fionna Cameron (the Scottish Trail Champion) but as it was her first international race, she was understandably very nervous. In a way, this actually helped me, as I didn't really think about my own race at all, as I was trying to put her at ease and to help her build up her self-confidence.

Saturday dawned clear and sunny and it was already rather hot when the 124 international athletes were mustered in the Eisteddfod Stone Circle at Llanwryst. We knew that keeping hydrated and adequately fuelled was going to be the main priority of the day. I had been trying to drink all morning, and so by the time we had been walked to the startline I felt that I already needed to find a toilet (but I guess that was mainly nerves.......though it didn't help that a film camera was pointed at me when I mentioned it to my teammates)!

The 5 British men started at the front of the field and were strong throughout, being led home to a team Gold medal by the new World Champion, Ricky Lightfoot from Cumbria, who just kept stretching out his lead through the final few laps.

Here come the Girls!!!!

We 5 British ladies took a more conservative approach, starting at the very back to ensure we didn't get dragged along the opening kilometre too fast. I did find it difficult to run that slowly on the road and so passed many people as we climbed steeply up to the forest, though I expected to drop back as soon as we left the tarmac. The initial climb out of Saw Bench carpark (which was later to become our second feeding stationg of every lap) was a real lungburster and so I decided to stick behind my team mate Tracy Dean (she's not the British trail running champion for nothing) and watch her foot placement. A nice winding trail gave us a chance to catch our breath and then we were clmbing again. Many runners shot past us up these hills, but we (along with Fionna who had joined us) maintained our steady pace, as we'd previously discussed that you cannot win a race in the first few climbs but you can certainly lose it! There was a nice runnable section on forest roads once the steep climb was over and so we ran along as a team, chatting away (or rather I babbled and the others humoured me!).

The extra water station

The steep downhill to an extra water station (kindly arranged by the race organisers due to the forecast heat) certainly made me test my "I love running downhills" mantra. Seeing my parents at the bottom certainly made me smile as my father was doing a good paparazzi impression and my mother made me laugh on later laps by imitating my "girlie arms" that tend to flail when I run downhill.

A sharp backwards downhill turn put us on a technical section along the lakeshore. Tracy whooped with delight as she ran along here......and I almost came a cropper. I had decided to go with the other two just to see how I fared over the roots and rocks, but a slight lapse of concentration meant my ankle rolled slightly. I slowed down and let them ease away from me but was back with them by the climb away from the shoreline. 

Another steep shaley descent came to an abrupt end with a switchback onto a small trail, and I don't think I ever made it without worrying about overshooting the corner. This was a truly beautiful part of the course as we ran up and down on single track, in parts exposed to the fierce sun, in parts overgrown, and in parts in the cool dark of thick forest. There was a fallen tree to hurdle and a steep wet scramble to negotiate but we stuck together as Tracy described everything just before we came across it (she had been down and reccied the course well). Coming out onto a forest road, the girls tucked in behind me to take my pace at this point and all too soon we were turning into the loop by the first feeding station. I felt like I was at home in Mabie forest, and certainly caused a cameraman some entertainment as I played "aeroplanes" on the mountain bike berms. 

Lee Kemp had unfortunately had to withdraw from the team before the race due to an ankle injury, but had selflessly come along to help support us all. As I came out of the trees into the sun, he spotted me and called to the feed station that I was coming in, so I shouted that all 3 of us were together in order to save them time looking for our dropbags and bottles. I can honestly say that I have no clue who was manning the feed station as it seemed important to run through strongly in front of all the other teams' supporters. I focused on Doug Brown holding out my bottle with attached food bag and Adrian Stott waving a sponge. Grabbing the sponge I squeezed it over me as quickly as possible and tossed it back to them while trying not to break my stride much.

Enjoying the banter

I felt really strong running out of the feed station and didn't seem to have the girls with me anymore, but I was sure we'd all be back together again soon, so I carried on while relieving my hungry rumbling stomach. I caught up to a group in front, which meant that my pace on the next section was dictated by others, which was probably a good thing as the single track was very overgrown, and you could really see the mud, rocks and roots until you were actually on them. Whenever the path widened I tried to chat with fellow runners as I remembered the advice I was given for the 100k, which was to ensure you chat to people to make sure you're note going off too fast, and to ensure you enjoy what can become a long day out. A Canadian lady and I chatted about how beautiful the course was, and then later on I pushed a bit to catch up with an American lady (her husband was away ahead, running in their men's team).

All too soon we were heading down into Saw Bench carpark, over the timing mat, grabbing bottles, gels and sponges from our support teams, and then back up the steep hill again. As I was heading up the hill, I could hear the announcer saying the Tracy and then Fionna were heading into the feed station, so it was good to know that we were still all close together (and I was sure they'd pass me as soon as we were back onto technical trail). I was really impressed with the cameramen that appeared out of the trees and managed to keep up with me while carrying a heavy camera. When I've run Comrades, I've noticed that other people powerwalk on hills, while I keep running (in a steps), and the same thing seemed to happen in this race. Again, I decided that I would run as long as it was working for me, but if people were walking faster than I could run, then maybe that was a sign I should also walk. As it turns out, I didn't walk a single step in the whole 77km.
Hot, Hot, Hot.....
The laps seemed to pass by in a blur, as I divided them up in my head : 2 tough climbs with a breather in between, then down to the water table, the technical lakeshore, steep shaley descent then lovely varied trail to the fun run into the feed station, undulating forest road and overgrown trails and mud back to the water station, then a steep sloppy descent followed by a nice run back to Saw Bench.

I had a couple of laps swopping positions to and fro with Roburt (from Team Canada) as we discussed language and slang differences (girlie arms for me vs Herculean arms for him, and nappies for me vs diapers for him - his baby was 3/12 old that day). There was so much support out on course, from friends, clubmates, family and locals but also from other teams. My knowledge of French helped as I could exchange words with the many French supporters, which in turn meant they looked out for me on the next lap. It was also lovely to hear "Go Comrades girl" every time I passed the South African feeding station.

Clearly too happy!
I was slowly working my way up the field (being amazed when I passed the top American lady at the end of the second lap as I'd heard she was an amazingly strong runner and could beat some of their men's team, and also being stunned when I passed the defending champion, Maude, at the start of the 3rd lap) and I was being given feedback every half-lap about the gap to the lady in front. I wasn't sure whether to trust this information at first, as I'd been warned that the support team might lie if they though it would help, but when I was hearing the same ballpark figures everywhere, I figured it must be accurate.

With 2 laps to go, I heard that Ricky had a decent lead and had less than 1.5 laps left, so I really hoped that he wouldn't lap me. In fact, although there were 10 of us out there running for GB, and a couple of 2 way points, I didn't see any of the others after the first feed station.

I wanted to start to push on in the second half of the 4th lap, but unfortunately my body told me otherwise. I had a niggle in my left groin which seemed to hurt more when I tried to pick up the pace, so I settled back into my run and decided to see what I could do on the last lap. I had worked out (from lap 4) that when I hit the final water point, I only had 3 miles left to run, so hoped my groin would withstand pushing then.

As I passed the marshal (and her dog) at the sharp corner of the last wet, shaley, slippery descent, I commented "No offence, but I'm glad I don't have to see you any more times" and then tried to drive myself on. It didn't seem to happen as all I succeeded in doing was make myself limp slightly. I hadn't ever seen the lady in front and the last update I had had was that she was 2 mins ahead of me. A quick talking to and I did pick up the pace slightly, so that by the time I headed into Saw Bench for the final time, I was told that it was possible to catch her as the deficit was only 70seconds.

You don't really compute what people are saying at a time like that, but all I could do was kick as hard as possible. The distance to the finish was about 1km, half of which was down a really steep hill, up which a car was driving (causing me to shout and swerve). Hitting the final straight I finally caught sight of the Italian lady and although I didn't think it was humanly possible to catch her, I kept sprinting, as the team event is worked out on cumulative times, so every second counts.

Done in by the sprint finish!

In the end I crossed the line 7hrs and 56 seconds after I started, and I had decreased the gap to 3rd from 69s to 26s in that last km, so proving to myself that no matter how far I've just run, I can dig out a strong finish when I have to. Looking at my garmin later, I discovered that I'd actually run that last stretch at 6min/mile pace - not bad after having already covered 47 miles!

I was over the moon to finish so far up the field (4th lady and 37th overall) and my teammates were just as fantastic, as Fionna finished in 7:17:49 and Tracy in 7:24:02 giving us a cumulative time of 21:43:01 and securing us the team Bronze medal (along with our other amazing teammates Sandra Bowers and Isobel Wykes).

I found it hard to express myself in a finishing interview (probably due to the all out sprint) but I really loved the course (as the terrain was so varied- it had a bit of everything and you could never afford to switch off), the race, the support, and the whole experience. I'm still in awe and very grateful for the confidence that everybody has in my ability, both to recover from Comrades and perform well when it matters most.

A happy Team GB!!

The race will be broadcast on August 4th on Channel 4 at 7:30am. There are certain moments that were recorded that I seriously hope they edit out!