It looked as if the men's race at this year's World 100k championships was going to be an interesting one, as Jonas (the defending champion from Sweden) had returned to run, there were some fast Japanese men, a strong American team, and South Africa (after several years' absence) had brought over a strong group of runners, many of whom had won Comrades in recent years.
It was tempting to skip the run myself and just watch how their race unfolded......and indeed that choice was nearly taken away from me, as things seemed to be conspiring against me racing. The championships were being held in Los Alcazares, Spain, and when I arrived it became apparent that British Athletics had got their dates muddled up and so had not booked accommodation for that night. Luckily I managed to find somewhere to stay, only to get a late night call from anti-doping as I wasn't at the hotel I'd been told I was staying in. Some frantic running around the place by them and me, ensured I was tested at the end of my slot and all was well.
Team Zakrzewscy - the best support team!!
There were originally due to be 2 men running for GB as well as myself, but unfortunately they had to withdraw due to lack of fitness and so I felt the weight of expectation to do my country proud sitting squarely on my shoulders.
The 100k course consisted of 10 laps of 10km, of which 3.5km was on small 3x3cm tiles along the shorefront, and the rest was on tarmac, going out and back along several parallel roads in the town. I confess that I "amused" myself on one lap by counting the corners....there were 4 x 180 degree turns and 13 x 90 degrees turns to negotiate in each 10km.
The pre-dawn start
The World Championship races (along with the regional championships, the open 100k and the open 50k) started together at 7am, ie an hour before sunrise, so it was difficult to see exactly who was who. However, I managed to find my parents beforehand for a good luck hug, and caught up with a few friends in the starting pen. The streets were rather crowded with runners on the first lap, but by the second lap the field had spread out so I had time to look up from my feet and see a beautiful sunrise over the lagoon.
Running in the sun
There were 2 official feed stations on each lap, so I had regular contact with the GB team support, and the nature of the official areas meant that I was also cheered on by many other nations who recognised me, such as the USA, Canada and Denmark. A group of local men also amused me by playing "God Save the Queen" on a gettoblaster every time I ran past. The most credit must go to my parents, who seemed to cover more ground than me. They were everywhere....taking photos, shouting encouragement, and also cheering on other people they either recognised or I had pointed out to them by name.
The storm approaches
The lap from 60-70k was the most memorable as lightening forked across the sky, thunder rumbled loudly and then the heavens opened. Although the storm was relatively short lived it changed the nature of the course as the tiles became slippy, and large deep puddles stretched the width of the roads (though it did create some interesting photo opportunities). Some officials tried to help the runners out by moving barriers and tape so that we avoided some of the deepest puddles, but this led to other dramas, such a tightening up a corner so much that every time I rounded it, I nearly ran full tilt into a lamppost.
After the rains
I did not like the tiles!!
The tiles were not my friend.....for starters, you had to run a steep short downhill to get into them (and around a 180 degree bend), and they seemed to get harder and harder every lap (by the evening of the race I had rather swollen ankles with crepitus in the ligaments from the impact). The relief at leaving the tiles to hit the road was marred slightly by an ankle deep puddle which stretched from one side of the course to the other, and was far too wide to leap across.
One of the (least tight) 180 degree turns
I ran most of the race in second position - initially behind a Dutch lady, and later behind an Australian lady (Kirsten). At one point early on, I overtook the Dutch girl (I never thought I would ever find myself leading a World Championship race) but that turn of speed was probably more caused by panic that I had been unable to spot the portaloos. I could feel myself tiring in the latter stages, but luckily (or unluckily) the battery on my watch had packed up and so I had no idea what pace I was actually running.
A finisher's red carpet!
So happy to cross that line!
Kirsten seemed steady at the front but Nicolina (from Croatia) crept up on me and then powered away. The switchbacks in the final few kms of the last couple of laps meant that I could see how others were running. Nicolina looked to be by far the strongest runner in the latter stages and was closing Kirsten down, but Kirsten managed to dig deep and retain the lead. I knew that I wouldn't be able to make anything up on them but seemed to have a decent gal behind me, and I knew that I was also first in my age group, so I was very thankful to cross the line in the Bronze medal position.
Looking slightly further back, the Japanese ladies packed well finishing within seconds of each other to ensure they had a clean win of the team competition. Unfortunately the Dutch lady's fast start caught up with her and she finished about half an hour back from me......but still ran a national record.
Some extra medals for the collection ;-)
The ladies' podium
I was astonished to see my finishing time on the clock - 7 hrs and 41 minutes - as I've now run this exact same time for 3 of the 4 100k World Championship races that I've run in. I admit that thoughts of retiring have crossed my mind, as I've somehow managed to maintain my record of never coming home from a championship emtyhanded, which would just lead to more pressure next time!
There are many different forms of "good sportsmanship". I guess that the main thing that people think of when considering cheating or breaking rules these days is with drugs. I am not belittling the role of antidoping (in fact, even though I was only in Spain for three days for the recent World 100k championships, I was tested on 2 separate occasions - both blood and urine tests), but there are other situations when you can find yourself questioning what the "right" thing to do is.
I would like to think that I would never knowingly break a rule in a race, and would expect to be pulled up on it if I did, but what do you do if you see someone else doing this? It would be more forgiveable if it was the first time someone had raced at that level, but at a World Championships there is a technical meeting the day before the race, when rules are explained to the national support teams and runners are also aware of what can and cannot be done.
Recently, I had to make just that very decision - I heard another runner arranging to meet their support crew and pick up things outwith the regulated feed stations on the course. These feed stations are every 5km on the 100k course, so it isn't as if they are few and far between as they were in the World Trails. These feed/support points are in place to ensure that nobody is advantaged/or disadvantaged by having differing numbers of support crew available to help them in the race.
Deciding what to do...
While it upset my race at the time (as I ran faster than I had planned to run in order to make sure that I saw the arranged "out of station" support, and was so surprised by it that I dropped my own gel and hence went 20K between taking one and getting the next one ), I doubt it affected my overall result, but I did think that it might have affected others and so had to decide what to do. Do you comment at the time to the support crew/runner that is breaking the rules? Do you keep quiet and hope they keep offending and have others witness it? Do you wait until the race is over and then lodge a protest? Or do you hope that the individual does "the right thing" by holding up their hand, confessing to it, and apologising?
Bear in mind that you have to make these decisions while trying to execute your own race, and all protests must be lodged within 30mins of finishing the race - and many runners are not in a fit state to think coherently at such a time. Unlike with a "police offence", a "running offence" does not go on your record for the future, so it's something that must be dealt with at the time. What would you do?
Team discussion and resolution ;-)
In the end, I made what I think was the "right" decision for me - I didn't protest, but spoke to my team manager and the manager of the other runner to ensure that they were aware the breach had been noticed and to get an apology for those whose result might have been affected. This was well handled and done in person, so hopefully saved any embarrassment all round - all's well that ends well and we all had a good time celebrating post-race together!