If I'm honest, I hadn't been feeling at my best in the run up to this year's World Trail Championships, with a lot of work-related stress overflowing into my day to day life which impacted on my sleep, my mood and my running.
The 2017 race was shorter than last year's - covering 49km with an elevation gain and loss of about 3100m.
It is always an honour to be asked to represent Team GB and I was still determined to be a team player to the best of my ability. In the run-up to the event, this meant getting involved in trying to help sort out flights and kit in good time for everyone, finding out information on compulsory kit and our accommodation, and keeping everyone connected and informed (no wonder I get asked if I want to help out on the management side in the future).
The monastery courtyard
Waiting for the bus "home"!
By the time we all got out to the monastery where we were staying (about 10km away from the race start/finish in Bada Prataglia, Italy), I'd put all thoughts of work away from me and concentrated on a good weekend with teammates old and new. It was certainly a beautiful place to be, and while on some gentle runs, several of us commented on how nice it would be to stay there a week and just explore the trails a bit more.
Team GB at the Opening Ceremony
Chilling at the ceremony
The opening ceremony was held on the Friday evening at Poppi castle (15k away from Bada in a different direction) - these events can seem long and tiring, but it's a chance to proudly fly the flag for GB and an excuse to catch up with friends from various other countries around the world in a more relaxed setting than while actually racing!
GB ladies set to rock the trails!
Despite them having checked out compulsory kit the night before, team management insisted on another check (right down to pulling our tracksuit bottoms down to show we had the correct shorts on!!!) before we boarded the 6:30am bus that took us to the start. Although the street was quite narrow and crowded by the start gantry, a cheeky recce the day before meant that we knew that the first mile and a half was a rather steep climb up into the hills, so my team mate Sally and I hung back from the initial crush and spent the first part of the race gradually passing people who'd already built up too much lactic acid in their eagerness to get going.
Leaving the first water station
The first 9K took us through beautiful shady woodland to a drinks station just above our monasterial accommodation. We dropped down a slope, popped out onto the road, were given a nice cheer and then were straight back into the woods climbing up again (I might have avoided taking on any water here, but I did manage to trip on a root right in front of a photographer though I hope that evidence remains hidden!!).
Spot the deer...
Sally, myself and another teammate Katie traded places through the next section with Sally and I preferring the climbs, while Katie ran the descents with glee. A long steep, hard, rutted, semi-cobbled downhill section saw Katie disappear off into the distance while Sally and I managed to keep in touch with each other so that we could chat, spot deer and generally enjoy the run, knowing we had 4 good teammates ahead of us.
Our "original" race route had seen us running alongside a reservoir (that looked so tempting in the hot Italian sun), but a revised course saw an extra 300+m hill to climb before the official feed station at 23K. Sally and I used this to reel in a couple of American ladies and a couple of Spanish ladies (we knew that both of these countries would be vying with us for team medals) and even managed a linked "hands aloft" picture for another photographer (again - sorry but we've not found evidence of that picture yet either!) before crossing the dam into the feed station.
Sally's partner Simon had joined the GB support team and could support her, while official management handed me my electrolyte drink and food packet (though unfortunately I did have to ask for my bottle of water and then ask for the lid to be removed so I could gulp it down).
The steps down the side can just be seen
We descended to the bottom of the dam via many, many steps (I definitely prefer losing height this way rather than via a rough technical trail) on which is was impossible to pass anyone, but then we had a kilometre of open road to get running again. This was before one of the main climbs of the day...up and down to the 35K water station. I'm not sure as to the accuracy of the distance descriptions as it seemed a very long way between these points (especially as my soft flask lid had jammed so that I couldn't unscrew it to refill it).
Some of the trails
I had some good company along this section as I'd caught up to Corinne (a friend running for the US team - she and I had become friends on a long climb in Portugal the year before) but then she had to drop back as her quads started to cramp. I was surprised to hear someone calling my name as I meandered down the dry single track, but spotted Nikolina (from Croatia) sitting down with a marshal as she had decided to withdraw after she had banged her knees pretty badly taking a couple of tumbles. I offered her help, but she said that the marshal was sorting her out with getting down to a road and a lift back.
An impressive run profile
I didn't know what was going on at the front of the field (but had confidence in my teammates) but by the 35K waterstation, I was ahead of the 3rd US lady so I figured we weren't doing too badly. Just after this I came across Matt (our 4th GB man - unfortunately though we were 6 ladies, we only had a team of 4 men) who was having a really bad time of it. Sally had just moved ahead of me so I was confident that my time wouldn't be counted towards our team total (the times of the first three over the line count for the team event) so I took the snap decision to end my "race" and stay with Matt. I might have had a few GB vests but it was his first and I really wanted to do everything in my power to get him across the finish line (even if it meant I dropped my trail rankings and didn't get selected again...sometimes you have to put your teammates ahead of your own results).
the "safety rope"...
The next 7K was a tough, exposed, hot, sunny, uphill stretch (with rope for safety at one point) - but we walked, jogged, chatted and climbed up together - with me alternating between encouraging, cajoling, distracting, gossiping, abusing him etc. He kept saying that he wanted to stop at the next feed station when we met our last GB support crew, but I tried to get him to avoid any hasty decisions and take it each section at a time.
Good pre-race nutrition helps
We spent about 15minutes at that aid station. I chatted to a few people I knew - IAU officials, other nationality support crew (eg the Irish) and runners who'd had to drop out - eg Nikolina had come to their to help support her teammates, and one of my teammates Julie who'd called it a day there (she could sympathise with how Matt was feeling as I think the distance, heat and terrain had taken them both slightly by surprise as it was their first European race of this nature). People kept trying to tell me to "get running" but I replied that I wasn't going on without Matt. He had some food and drink, a cheeky leg rub and although he felt really nauseated he couldn't be sick. I told him that I wasn't recording a slow time without him, so he'd have to get to the finish. Suddenly he was up and running away from the aid station, almost taking me unawares...
Happily picking up the flag
Matt definitely had the bit between his teeth as we ran the last few kms of "undulating" uphill - especially as we overtook and American couple that had also been struggling over the day and had gone past while we had been at the aid station.
Unfortunately the last 4-5kms were a continuous descent that got steeper and steeper. It is incredibly unusual for me to be able to descend faster than anyone, let alone a man, never mind a fell runner but poor Matt's quads were shot, so I made sure to keep looking back and waiting on him, ignoring a couple of runners who passed by and tried to urge me on to the finish.
Into the Finish
The final rise to catch people out :-)
We progressed from forest trail, to rocky forest road and then finally to the last few hairpins on tarmac (which we'd started up all those hours ago). Sally and Simon handed us a Union Jack as we descended through the houses to the final corner and we held it aloft between us as we finally crossed that line.
It was not exactly how I'd seen the race panning out when I started, but I was more than happy with my decisons on the day, and so pleased for Matt that he'd ground it out to finish what was a very tough day for him!