Wednesday, October 14, 2009

14th at World Mtn Running Champs: 10th October 2009, Soll, Austria

If you had asked me before the race would I be happy with finishing 14th in this race I would of emphatically said #uck NO! However in hindsight, and after an analysis of the event I’m extremely satisfied with the result given factors discussed in this race report.

After sitting around and sight seeing in Austria for more than a week before the race, the big day finally arrived. I’d trained on many sections of the course, tested the altitude and was mentally ready for some serious gradient, both positive and negative.

All up 35 nations were represented in the men’s category in what some described (not just me) as the best cast of Mtn runners ever assembled for a race. The first 21ks were comparatively flat, however this only meant approx 500m of level ground.

Off the front from the start was a Swiss runner that the lead pack assumed would blow up. After all, this pack included last years LDMR World Champ, Jethro Lennox, Jonothan Wyatt (who needs no CV attached), 3 Kenyans flown in especially, and every other name in the sport, plus some guy from the running plains of Australia, known locally as sleep train.

At 14k the main pack was 90secs down on the Swiss leader. By 21k, prior to the hills, the deficit was 2 mins.

Up until this time I had just been running off Wyatt (NZL) and Jethro (Scotland), drinking and getting ready for the hilly second half of the race. When they surged, I surged. When they stopped to relieve the bladder, I stopped etc.

We all surged out of the halfway drink station and braced for the first major climb of the day that loomed in front of us (Hartkaiser Mtn 708m - 1,673m).

Wyatt and the Kenyans quickly put distance between Jethro and I. As we climbed higher and higher it became evident this was a type of running tempo new to me. Again, and following Jethros experience, I matched what he did. When he power walked, I power walked, both of us swapping turns at the front as we wrestled our way up the first major climb.

Half way up, a German runner came past quite convincingly and was soon out of sight. How the *uck was he doing it I thought? Leg speed and length of stride weren’t useful here were they? he was a stocky bloke with a short gait.

By the top of Hartkaiser (30ks) it had now become foggy, as we had run from warm green pastures in the first 21k to the top of a baron Mtn top that had its own Alpine climate. I was working hard aerobically to handle the altitude as Jethro and I sumitted the first major obstacle together that concluded with a jog through a restaurant!

I estimated we were in 6th and 7th places respectively. Then at last, the first major down hill section started and kilometres 30 to 36 flew by as I managed to surge away from Jethro down this awesome descent that included numerous switch backs and cattle grills.

By the 36km aid station Jethro was behind and out of sight. I had specifically trained to run this section of the race hard and it seemed to have paid dividends. However, just as I hit the bottom, a British runner came past very strongly (Ricky Lightfoot, eventual 3rd place getter).

Now this is where I would like to end the race report. I’m in the top 10 (7th to be exact) and have run well. Unfortunately, there is still 3.2kms of the story to tell.

While I knew the last 3.2ks was the steepest part of the race going from 1,100m to 1829m in 3.2ks, I’d thought like many others its only 3.2k, I’ll just push hard and get to the finish line. A simple plan right: WRONG

I will try and describe this climb with numbers first. At the beginning of the climb I was 6-7 mins behind the swiss leader. By the top of Hohe Salve the deficit was 20 mins. This 3.2ks took over 28mins.

There was footage played at the presentation dinner of all top 3 finishers walking the final kilometres. I even saw footage of a Kenyan within in 20ms of the finish tape, and in 3rd position, be walked past by a runner from GBR (Ricky Lightfoot) who stole bronze right on the line.

As I started the climb, Jethro came walking past. I was walking, he was walking. He was walking faster. The legs didn’t feel that bad, it was just that getting power into them was becoming increasingly difficult. Altitude. No matter what I tried running was not an option any more as I kept turning my head upwards to try and see the top of this monolith through the clouds above.

Kilometre markers were aptly replaced with 100m markers beside the course. The crowds had also arrived in droves on the Mtn that just kept spiralling up and up. Europeans love cow bells for some reason, and every spectator had one with them that was enthusiastically rung as "encouragement" in your face.

Over the sound of the cow bells, and through the sound of my own heart popping though my ears I could hear and see the helicopter above that was following the leader. The action was happening just above me right now, literally only a few hundred metres up, but I was hundreds of metres away trying to keep my legs heaving me up this monster.

I would look back and not see anyone. Then I would look back and see someone coming, then someone walking past. This is when you realise there could be girls walking faster than this and the very real fear of being “chicked” enters your nightmare.

I finally finished like many did, collapsing across the line in an oxygen depleted giddiness. Glad it was all over, and in 3hrs 26mins I found out later I finished in 14th place. More people had gotten past in the final climb than I could recount, going from 7th or so to 14th as a result of the final climb.

I have never experienced a climb like Hohe Salve. Talking to the European runners, they said they do a lot of ‘Up and Down’ races on courses similar to the race finish, and thus have the experience I lacked.

Both the male and female race winners had also done one month and two month training camps respectively at altitude before the race. The Swiss male winner had done a month of training at 2,400m for the race in August. The Russian female winner had been living in town since July training at altitude while I was running around Blue Gum Swamp in Winmalee!

While I hadn’t experienced the steepness nor the altitude of the race before, I had felt the shock of reality before. The race experience reminded me of Six Foot Track in 2007 when Tony Fattorini effortlessly ran past me up Pluvio and I thought then to my self, WTF? – how can someone run so strongly up a hill like that and not even be out of breath?

How? with specific training of course!

Next years race is at Pikes Peak, Colorado in the USA and is also at altitude (3,000m+). A race that will require altitude training and doing as Jonothan Wyatt suggested to me after the race: “find some really, really steep hills that you can run for longer than an hour, and do that a few times a week” – good advice I guess.

So all up, I’m happy with my performance of 14th place given what I came to learn about this type of running race. Running against the best competition in the world, being tested by the course, and pushing yourself to the limit. Helps keep me interested and motivated for next time.

Upon reflecting on 2009 it has been a great year of running. Starting on New Years day with a casual LSD up the Oaks F.T with Ollie in 37 degrees and making a small decision to enter 6 Foot Track on that run. A marathon PB at the M7 in July, and finishing with a personal battle up the side of a Mtn called Hohe Salve in the beautiful Austrian Alps at a World Championships – for a runner and competitor it doesn’t get much better I guess?

Now I will be having a good long break. Been running consistently hard since mid January and the body and mind is tired and needs rest. I look forward to more running and blogging in early 2010.

Enjoy the journey and keep training!

Signing off for 2009,

Sleep Train.