Thursday, 22 September 2016

Form Is Temporary...

Saw this semi-literate graffiti when driving home from a race last year.  Captured my mood perfectly.  Why is my mind so weak when it comes to self-belief?  I can really be my own worst enemy!  I was a bit sad when the council replaced the sign.
I'm worried...

I've not had a decent training run in what seems like forever.  I've lost that sparkle, the one that drives me on and convinces me I'm making constant progress.  My last PB is a distant memory.  Is this the start of my inevitable decline?

But what are you talking about?  This is periodisation.  Your last race was only five weeks ago and it went really well.  Since then it's been all about long and slow, building the miles again.  It's the same plan as ever. 

But the PB thing... I FEEL slow.

And so you should!  The PB's should come again after two weeks of speedwork, then you taper, then the next race.  It's always like this, why are you beating yourself up?

But that last long run, I had to actually stop and take on fluids, I'd nearly ground to a halt.

But you've just answered your own question you idiot, you were chronically dehydrated.  Getting your fuelling wrong was daft but that doesn't mean you're losing fitness.

But I feel so tired, sluggish.  There's no spring in my step.

Look at your diary, you did over 8,000m of ascent last week, and even more the week before.  And didn't you just win a mountain bike race at the weekend?  Relax, recover and start the speedwork as planned.

But that was mountain biking, this is running and there was no real competition, it was a gimme.  And I ache, what if the speedwork doesn't show results?

Hang on a minute, you've been sneezing, you're snotty and your resting heart rate was up this morning.  You're ill, and possibly overtrained.

But it's just a head cold, I've been on Google and read up, unless it hits my chest it shouldn't effect my training.

But listen to yourself, you've been doing big miles, loads of ascent and you've got an illness.  Hardly a recipe for feeling sprightly is it?!

I suppose you could be right, but what do I do?

Stick to the plan!  Couple of days rest, let the cold clear and then on to the speedwork and don't forget to rest and rest properly.  A decent nights sleep wouldn't go amiss.

Ok, ok, Mr Sensible, I'll do what you say.  You know best...

Damn right I do, you've been following this cycle for years and it nearly always works.  Why are you so insecure?

I don't know, it's just that I really want this next race.

I know and you really wanted the last race too and what happened there?

Yep, you're right, I know you are, it's just hard sometimes.  I get the fear... I'll try to keep the faith...

2 Days and One Decent Tempo Session Later

That was awesome, I'm back!  Can't wait to get back out, reckon I could squeeze a mountain session in later tonight.

Wait a minute, what about the recovery?

Yeh, whatever, did you not see my splits?

Give me strength!  Do you learn nothing?  Rest hard, train hard.

Nice idea, but I think I'd better capitalise on this form whilst I can.  Maybe some hill reps...

LISTEN TO ME!!  You need to recover.

Aye OK, maybe later, now where's my X-Talons...


Friday, 2 September 2016

Five Go Wild In The Tweed Valley

Every movement seemed laboured as I became aware of adjustments that normally pass unnoticed, fatigue forcing them into my consciousness.  Head turning on weary shoulders and hips forced to drive the bike into the steep and perfectly crafted turns.  My back tyre was skittering across the flinty surface, an oh-so satisfying intermittent ripping noise before I released the brake, just a touch earlier into each corner, daring myself to squeeze out more from this trail.  Finally I got it wrong, my front wheel drifting too wide on exit and leaving the sanctity of the berm.  Instinctively I hauled it back but the back end was already too upright, my sudden body movement destroying the equilibrium of cornering style.  The bike kicked one way and then pinballed me the other, explosions of opposing forces.  Realising the inevitable I relaxed and tried to pick a decent crash line but a large immovable stump stopped the bike dead and hurled me over the bars into the trees.  My worst fears were realised as my right foot stubbornly stuck in my clipless pedal, worn cleats refusing to disconnect, twisting and tearing at my previously damaged right ankle.  Shots of pain tore up my leg and the sudden silence was punctuated by expletives.  The mental stocktake began instantly and all quickly seemed alright except for the ankle which I still couldn't free.  Through the awkwardness of my position, head down below my feet and trapped beneath the bike I was unable to move and so I lay there wedged until Andrew arrived to assist.  A few more deep breaths, some painful steps and I was good to go again.  To be honest, on a trail that incredible it would've had to be a serious injury to stop me.

The crash was no surprise.  After five full days of the most mind blowing trail riding and having explored virtually every riding area throughout the Tweed Valley our bodies were pretty spent.  The sensible thing would've been to back off on that final morning and heed the warnings of the alarmingly common close shaves but the natural competitiveness and inherent confidence were too powerful and so we attacked to the last.  Reaching the bottom of 'Flat White' the smash was briefly dissected before we raised saddles and commenced the long fire road climb once again.  We were going to eke out every last ounce of energy before finally dropping the curtain on one of the best riding trips ever.
Davy shredding a perfect berm
Scotland has long been recognised as one of the World's best biking destinations with a perfect mix of amenable morphology, motivated and dedicated trail builders and some clever and targeted marketing placing it well on the MTB map.  It may lack the weather and elevation of Alpine regions and the glamour of Whistler but it offers incredible scenery, great riding variation and well thought out facilities for anyone prepared to make the effort to seek them.  With it being so close I really should've managed more than my two previous trips but the draw of the sun has always been too strong as I've chosen instead to explore many of Europe's other classic destinations.

This trip largely came about due to the overwhelming enthusiasm of Davy whose rapid transformation from paddler to biker over the last few years and recent move to near Edinburgh had brought into clear focus the need for another visit.  Having mentioned that I had a free week in August, Davy hit me with an irresistible barrage of YouTube edits highlighting the plethora of local trails and any resistance was rendered futile.  A crew of Northern Ireland's finest biking guides and one Dublin based architect were quickly assembled and squeezed into the van before loading on to the extortionate Stena ferry and making the short trip across the Irish Sea.
'We go that way!' Pointing down the epic Gypsy Glen descent
Day 1
A 5am start did nothing to dampen the excitement as myself and Brian collected Tony and Andrew who were already sat on their wall awaiting the pick-up.  The journey was pretty straightforward with the only challenge being keeping my eyes open for the duration as we cruised through the increasingly picturesque countryside towards the Scottish Borders.  The Kailzie Bunkhouse was our destination which proved to be both perfect accommodation and also ideally located between Peebles and Innerleithen in the heart of the Tweed Valley.  Davy had a suitable warm up loop planned for us, a steady two hour jaunt around the Gypsy Glen and so after a quick unpack we were straight on the bikes and up on to the open moorland.

Not bunkhouse facilities!

Unfolding the legs after a lengthy spell in the van is always a joy but in combination with the stunning views and steep, techy open mountain singletrack it put us on an instant high.  Trying to stay upright in the deep and sloppy ruts was challenge enough, especially with some lung busting rises but also attempting to simultaneously take in the vista made for some comedy slips and slides.  I savoured the increasing anticipation that accompanied the long climb, safe in the knowledge that we'd get our reward.  And what a reward it was, a high speed, rock clattering, bunny hopping sprint down a beautiful ridge line.  Like kids let out for playtime we whooped and hollered as we dived back towards the valley floor, tempered only by a burning throat from an ill-advised summit slug of poitin from Andrew's hip flask.  I'll have to learn to not be such a sucker for the ceremonial drinks!

Toothy grins and wide-eyed fist bumps were shared at the bottom along with hundred mile an hour recalls of sketchy moments experienced by all.  There was definitely no notion of calling it a day and so we took the short ride over to Glentress to take in the best of the trail centre.  Regardless of your views of man-made trails it's hard to deny that the 'Spooky Woods' into 'Super G' combo is a stunning piece of design.  Dropping in fast I took advantage of my Ragley's big wheels forcing Tony to pedal more than he wanted to keep me at bay.  We kept dualling through 'Matrix' and into 'The Bitch' before getting our first taste of the twisty 'off trail' routes on offer in the valley with 'Ponduro'.  Tight and slippery it was the antithesis of the sure surfaced sanctioned tracks and a perfect appetite whetter for the challenges to come.
Bunkhouse facilities

The early start dented our social plans for the evening although we did get out for dinner where an extremely inebriated chef managed to rustle up some decent nosh at the local steakhouse.  Back at the bunkhouse where we had the whole place to ourselves we didn't make a single dent in the beer collection as exhaustion sent us to early beds.

Day 2
This was the day I'd been anticipating so eagerly.  The reputation of the Golfie preceded it, no longer a locals only secret spot, the EWS and some extremely useful trail apps have made this previously hidden gem accessible to all.  All, that is who like their trails unbelievably steep, off-camber, rooted, rutted and physical.  The climb to the top was pleasant enough, initially trekking through the trees at an easy gradient with eyes bulging at the amazing looking ends and beginnings of various trails, it then steepened out on to the open moorland past an old concrete reservoir.  Views from the top were predictably breathtaking and we padded up whilst the boys discussed which route to tackle first.  With hindsight 'Nae Spleens' was a bit of a baptism of fire, rooty corners on to seriously steep drop-ins weren't for the faint hearted but we loved it and were chomping at the bit on the next climb just to get to more of the same.  Over the next three hours we span the climbs and sprinted the descents, chasing eachother hard and picking up the pace as we regained confidence on the uber-tech.  Crashes were surprisingly few despite continually clipping bars on trees and feeling the front wheels slide on the steep roots.  Ultimately Andrew came down on 'Flat White' and from my position right on his tail I couldn't prevent myself ploughing into his Cotic which had managed to block the entire trail.  No damage done we dusted ourselves off and resumed the race to the end.  Seven stunning trails, thirty kilometres and over a thousand metres of ascent and descent ridden, we were happy souls as we re-crossed the golf course and splashed the bikes in the river, pausing to laugh at Brian as he fell in before commiserating as his Garmin was lost to the current.
Look where you want to be, practicing what I preach!

A ceremonial post-ride beer was followed by several others as the Kailzie BBQ got an airing and we happily recalled the highlights of a truly incredible day.

Day 3
Davy inexplicably cut all the corners on the steep climb up Innerleithen's lower slopes whilst the rest of us opted for the mellower zig-zags.  Perhaps he wanted to burn off the thousands of calories of consumed meat or maybe with his prior knowledge of the day's ride he was just dying to get into the descents.  Natural order was restored as I burned him off towards the summit of Minch Moor, pausing to take in the view and the living art installation before stopping again at the top to savour yet another sun drenched landscape.
Glorious Minch Moor
A living installation
The initial trail centre burnout was deceptively tricky with a narrow, pedal grabbing rut tracked at warp speed with serious consequences for slipping off line.  We'd been joined for the day by Gordy, another Scottish ripper who helped keep the pace high through the trail centre jumps of 'Make or Brake' before the brilliant twists and turns of 'Green Wing'.  The trails on this slope seemed more reticent to drain than others and despite the recent dry spell they were axle deep in places, particularly on one bog of a trail that Davy tricked me and Brian on to.  The other lads had wisely opted to relax in the sun and eat pies whilst we drowned in the gloop.
The Inners slop!
 A couple more superb natural trails set us up for the most daunting and technical trail of the week, the infamous 'Too Hard For The EWS' which is literally what it was.  The rumour goes that the Tweedlove organisers decreed that rider safety would be compromised if the World's best were set loose on this vertical rock fest.  Andrew and Tony both had prior experience of the trail and through their descriptions I was a touch apprehensive.  They certainly hadn't painted a false picture and I took a battering through the severely committing drop-off corners, 'yeoooowing' with delight at each one successfully navigated.  Ultimately I blew out two of them and found myself tumbling down the hillside sans-velo, the inability to stop sliding highlighting the sheer angles involved.  Riding the rest clean and finding some flow through the most technical section I redeemed myself and shared in Tony's delight at his first clean run in three attempts.  Next time...
Tony enjoying cake at No.1 Peebles Rd

Buzzed up by surviving that challenge we somehow dragged ourselves back up to ride the bottom of one of the Innerleithen DH lines, a trail that matched huge compressions with floaty tabletops and entertaining rock drops and guaranteed more smiles as we headed off for a top class feed at the immensely welcoming Number 1 Peebles Road Cafe in the village.  That evening we celebrated Tony's birthday with another meat fest and the traditional Tesco Caterpillar Cake, a true classic of our time!

More cake!!
Day 4
Bodies and minds were clearly starting to degenerate as a sluggish start was punctuated with monosyllabic grunts on the drive to Yair Forest.  Luckily Davy's eternal motivation raised the spirits as we ground out the standard first climb, lost in our own personal struggles.  By the summit my mood had lightened significantly as I checked out the striking 'Three Brethren' and stared into the mist, hoping it would lift soon.
One of the impressive Three Brethren
Yet another quality trail awaited us, a delicious mix of moorland looseness and woodland singletrack.  The heavy water vapour splashed from heather disturbed by our carving wheels and made for slippery corners as we dived into the darkness of the forest.  Riding trails 'blind' always adds an extra frisson of excitement, braking late and decisively over unknown rises and rock drops, blowing out bends that became visible too late for tired reflexes.  I can vaguely remember a gem of a trail called 'Yair Man' and a general feeling that the forest was less developed and visited than the other areas.  It certainly has acres of potential!

Bikes were thrown back in the van and we made the short trip to Thornilee, an area that none of us had prior knowledge of.  Parts of it reminded me of some of the Northern Irish riding with a smaller elevation gain and some twisting and pedally sections.  There was no disguising the Scottish steepness at the bottom end of the trails though and we twice dropped into one of the best sections yet ridden, a confidence inspiring dream of a track with shapely catch berms that allowed an aggressive approach to the steepest of drops, slamming into the apex and being handily redirected towards the next drop with minimal rider input.  Feeling like heroes we trekked up for yet more fun before Brian's front brake decided that enough was enough.  Rather than admitting defeat, Brian discovered the benefit of riding with four qualified Mountain Bike Leaders as we all reached for well stocked toolkits and bags of spares, changing the pads and fitting a longer caliper bolt in an attempt to alleviate the issue.  Sadly a leaking piston was diagnosed signalling game over but by that point exhaustion was hitting hard and a trip to the pizza shop was calling.
How many MBL's do you need to fix a torn tyre?!
Day 5
We couldn't believe it had come around so fast, the hallmark of a great time being had!  We'd slipped into a daily routine of top class biking and laddish interaction followed by huge feasts and quality beers.  This last day required a bit more organisation as time was limited so we finished the last of the sausages for breakfast, packed up, cleaned up and were back in the Golfie before 9am.  The plan was simple, a high speed two hour smash and grab of our favourite trail selection.  We were definitely suffering the combined effects of upper body trail battering and leg tearing climbs from over five thousand metres of combined ascent so far and although we still felt fast, the boy's Strava times said otherwise! 
Taking it serious on the last day!
We managed to get in '3G', 'Community Service' and 'Flat White' twice before the tentative glory run on 'Final Fling' back to the van.  Miraculously despite the tiredness in our movements and Brian riding on just one brake and excepting my own ankle wrenching moment we got away with very few crashes, experience creating luck right up until the end.  Cheesy handshakes and man hugs signalled the end of the biking and all that remained was to wash the bikes, pack the van and head for home, the warm glow of an amazing shared experience keeping the smiles etched on our faces.

Returning to polite society following the mickey-taking atmosphere of the trip was like a decompression session and I was glad of the tinted van windows and loud radio to drown out the social commentary from the kids in the back!  Amazingly we were still all on good speaking terms right up until the end when we threw out Tony and Andy's kit at 11pm, another surefire sign of a successful trip.  Brian and I headed for my place and were unable to resist new found habits, horsing into the Doritos and last of the Belgian beers before collapsing, the comfort of my own bed guaranteeing the commencing of the recovery process!

Huge thanks to all the lads for a superb trip.  Davy, Tony and Andrew's guiding was impeccable and Brian's ability to design an office space at will was always reassuring!  Massive appreciation also goes to Ragley Bikes for producing a 29'er hardtail that excelled in all of the huge variety of trails we encountered.  I never once felt under-biked and although my trail leg took a battering my overwhelming love of the hardtail never wavered.
Clean it like you love it, the superb Ragley Bigwig
If you haven't been to the Tweed Valley and you class yourself as a very good Intermediate to Advanced rider with a decent level of fitness then get yourself out there now.  By my reckoning the riding was every bit as good as the Alps with the added bonus of a really positive attitude towards bikers from literally everyone we met.  It was great being able to walk into a cafe or shop covered head to toe in mud and no doubt smelling like death and be asked what trails we'd hit rather than shuffled out the door as quickly as possible.  Scotland is a beautiful and heavily underrated country and even if you don't share our luck with the weather you'll still get to ride World Class trails before chilling out in purpose built, biker friendly accommodation.  What are you waiting for?
Glorious Scotland!
Oh and just for the lads, I Googled 'worst band ever' and it definitely is Maroon 5, told ya so!

Loving the mud

Unsociable mushroom on Tuesday

Became party mushroom by Friday!

The diet was varied

Cheers lads!!
Steamy bog drying rapidly

About to get Enduroooooo

Disastrous half day closing at the butcher on Wednesday meant a Tesco raid!
And finally.... What the hell is going on here?!!

Sunday, 28 August 2016

Emptying The Tank

I just broke a record.

Not, as sometimes happens as a by-product of a battle for the win between athletes at the top of their game.  Instead this was totally calculated, planned meticulously, specifically trained for and executed effectively.  It was one of my key season's goals and I achieved it with time to spare.

My 3:36:04 clockwise lap of the iconic Seven Sevens race took exactly two and a half minutes off Stevie Cunningham's ground shattering 3:38:34 from 2010.  I really coveted this record simply because Stevie's time was so unbelievably quick.  To put it in context, only a handful of runners have ever been under four hours on this course and only two in the slower direction.  Four hours remains the benchmark time to aspire to and in most years is also enough to guarantee the win on the epic 19 mile assault on the Seven Mournes' peaks over 700m in elevation.
Some FAST splits there but some average ones too
I should be delighted so why do I feel so flat?

As is often the case I've been left bereft of the emotions you'd expect to attach to such an achievement.  For the sake of therapy and future understanding I've decided to try to explore my psyche to seek an answer.  Here are the possibilities.

1) I'm just a miserable person

Very possibly so!  I'm a complete perfectionist by nature and am unbelievably hard on myself.  So far this year I've been left utterly gutted with a third place in my first ever Ultramarathon (despite successfully hitting the World Champs qualifying time) and pretty annoyed when breaking my own record on Slieve Donard at Ireland's most prestigious race.  Unless I feel I've got everything right then I'm unable to shake a deep-seated discontent.  Bizarrely, the only race I was truly satisfied with this season was the Worlds where crippling cramp and extreme conditions battered me severely and cost me untold time.  The pleasure in that case came from destroying my legs to get a result and also allowing myself leeway as a relative newcomer at International level.  The intention with the Sevens was to put in the first ever sub 3:30 time and so 3:36:04 fell some way short.  I guess this was a disappointment even though training showed me that it was virtually impossible for me lapping in this direction, with required splits that would be ambitious for a team running it as a relay.  Nevertheless, I went all out and managed to stay on target for the first third of the distance before inevitably fading and having to consolidate mid-race.  It was a gutsy performance that saw me actually get back on to 3:30 pace for some of the later interim sections between the peaks despite the headwind and increasing heat.  Plenty of reasons to be satisfied!
Record breaking but unsatisfied on Slieve Donard
2) It wasn't a real race

Well, as a round of the Northern Irish NIMRA series it very much was a real race with plenty of people out to push themselves hard.  The problem for me was that, at risk of sounding like an arrogant prick, I knew that barring injury I was going to win comfortably.  I'd been training specifically for it since June and had been round the whole route four times in the preceding three weeks, more than most Irish runners manage in a lifetime.  I kicked hard off the start line and probably effectively sewed the race up before we'd even run the length of the football pitch that it started on.  I knew that nobody would be silly enough to come with me, borne out by my winning margin of over 31 minutes. 

There's little doubt that competing against people is fun!  The camaraderie, tactics, panted snippets of conversation and extra motivation that come from running in close proximity to your rivals can't be understated.  The temporary bonds of mutual suffering are powerful and racing against split times, stealing glances at my watch at key predetermined moments definitely lacked that poetry.  As a result there wasn't anyone to share my experiences with whilst collapsed at the finish line, instead I had a quick chat and then headed to the pub to watch the Olympic Steeplechase.

3) Post achievement blues

This is a pretty common phenomena when you become so focused on a particular goal that it can't help but be an anti-climax once it's all over.  I did get fairly fixated on this race, dragging myself out on some awful days to scope the route despite zero visibility rendering the recce almost entirely pointless bar the physical aspects.  The completion, satisfactory or not of an all encompassing target can leave me feeling empty until the next one is ascertained.  In this case though I already know my next goal and therefore lack this excuse, in fact I can get away with viewing the Sevens result as a stepping stone towards greater achievements, something that makes subsequent training easier to handle.

4) The shitty diet blues

As previously mentioned I'm a perfectionist and leave nothing to chance when seeking to achieve a goal.  I simply don't see the point of doing things half-baked and won't bother doing a race unless I feel I've prepared 100%.  That doesn't mean that I don't sometimes toe the line carrying injuries, or feeling leggy from recent efforts but I'll never sabotage my performance through poor nutrition.  What this means is that I eat a very regulated diet, denying myself the 'treats' that most people take for granted, the upshot being minimised weight and constant training without dealing with sugar lows or hangovers.  Unfortunately the human brain has a cheeky and self-destructive side that demands childish rewards despite knowing that they're toxic.  Like the Olympians that posted pictures of post-competition McDonalds binges I can't resist having a spell off the wagon after meeting a big goal.  For about a week after I'll ride the sugar rollercoaster with ice-cream, beer and buns back on the menu.  Needless to say this leaves me sluggish, sleeping worse and therefore mentally drained and low.  It's not long before I feel satiated and the logical part of my brain regains control but in the interim I can definitely experience post-event diet related mood swings.

5) Emptying The Tank

This is a big one and probably the most important discovery in this mini spell of soul searching.  Most athletes will have heard people talk of 'emptying the tank'.  It's associated with pushing the physical boundaries, often resulting in diminished performance or if timed right, cramping and collapse at the finish line.  I'm very familiar with stretching my limitations, taking for granted the pain, dizziness and occasional hallucinations that go hand in hand with extreme exertion.  From the physical perspective the regenerative properties of a good meal, hot bath and a gentle spin on the turbo trainer are pretty remarkable.  It never ceases to amaze me that even at my advanced age I can go from limping geriatric to near full recovery often in little over 48 hours.  What I've never previously considered is the psychological damage of digging so deep and putting such excessive pressure on my body.  There was a period about eighty minutes into the Seven Sevens that required a huge injection of mental fortitude.  I'd come over Slieve Lamagan absolutely flying, on 3:30 pace and surviving well.  The subsequent half hour saw me pick an awful line, nastily turn an already damaged ankle and then fade badly in the deep heather on the short cut to Binnian summit.  Hitting the top at 1hr 41 instantly put the nails in the coffin of my 3:30 dream and with my quads unexpectedly feeling the strain I could see my record attempt falling off the rails too.  At times like this you can either give up or raid the brain's precious chemical supplies.  I always opt for the latter.
Tank emptied, body and brain at their limits at my first Ultramarathon
The positive links between exercise and mental well-being are heavily documented and indisputable but I can't recall reading much about the potential damage of digging so deep during races.  Following the Wicklow Way Ultra at the start of 2016 I suffered a deep mental and physical fatigue that left me drained and demotivated.  Undeniably pushing hard whilst unwell accounted for the bodily tiredness but disappointment at my performance almost certainly prolonged the symptoms.  With body and brain being so ultimately symbiotic it's surely unarguable that over-extending physically will negatively impact mentally and vice-versa.

So What's The Verdict?
The post-Sevens funk has left me already.  I've just enjoyed a brutal session on the bike and celebrated with a largely healthy meal.  Of the five explanations I've considered I'd say that on this occasion numbers 1,2,4 and 5 conspired to deny me my righteous sense of delight.  It's definitely been a useful experience digging deeper into the reasoning behind my post-race blues.  I'd be really intrigued to hear whether other people ever experience this phenomena. 

Thursday, 11 August 2016

Olympic Dreams - Can A Part Timer Be World Class?

I like the Olympics.  It's not just the fact that as a non Sky TV subscriber it actually gives me the opportunity to watch some live sport on TV.  It's not even the fact that the BBC's lust for medal coverage gives some relative minority sports and their talented proponents some otherwise non-existent mainstream TV coverage.  More than all that I like it because to some degree I feel I understand.

I love the fact that all these individuals are prepared and capable of being so totally focused towards a single goal.  The way that they'll put their bodies and minds through untold strain and pressure for years with the carrot of Olympic success as an incentive.  For the victors a gold medal can be a life-changing result, not just in terms of financial gain and personal recognition, they've got the opportunity at a young age to write a key line of their own epitaphs.  Whatever may befall them over the course of their life their names will always be preceded by 'Olympic gold medallist...' 

Listening to athletes being interviewed there is often a palpable sense of relief at ambitions realised and you'll hear mention of 'sacrifice' and 'pressure' above 'enjoyment' or 'satisfaction'.  At this elite, World Class level the need for results has often transcended the desire to enjoy their chosen sports.  These lucky few who are able to pursue their dreams full time, training and competing for a living, can also be tainted by the experience, losing sight of the reasons they compete in the first place.
Part time Internationals.  Professional preparation without the wages!
I'm not an Olympic athlete but I understand sacrifice.  I know what it is to drag myself out into horizontal rain and zero visibility, to condemn myself to hours of continual pain, to dread a session so much that I can't sleep even two nights before.  I know how it feels to deny myself things that most people take for granted, to stare into a kitchen cupboard six times in an evening before dragging myself away because weight is everything in my chosen sport.  And yet for me, and others like me who's sport doesn't get the Olympic seal of approval there isn't that all-consuming goal.  Instead we look to other events as the pinnacle of our achievements and accept that the financial rewards will never be there.

I'm not deluded.  There's a strong chance that if mountain running became an Olympic discipline then I'd no longer be one of Ireland's best.  Younger athletes with far fewer commitments would be able to potentially take my place, training almost full time and unaffected by the responsibilities that come with advancing age.  However, that said, I'd be surprised if my lab statistics were that different to your average Olympian, my resting heart rate, V02 max and fat percentages would almost certainly put me near that level so maybe I could've been there in Rio had my chosen sport been chosen.  As it stands I've competed at two World Championships, the peak of mountain running events, most recently finishing 39th in one of the strongest fields assembled.  I was very pleased to get that result and equally happy to initially meet the selection criteria to represent internationally but the fact is that I was 9% off being in the top ten which seems to me to be quite a lot.  It's left me with the quandary of how much faster would I need to be to realistically call myself world class?

So what does world class even mean?  Obviously my first port of call is Google, so a quick look turns up several similar definitions;

'Being among the best or foremost in the world; of an international standard of excellence'

'of or denoting someone with a skill or attribute that puts him or her in the highest class in the world'

'ranked among the world's best; of the highest caliber'

Given those fairly wide and subjective definitions I'd find it pretty easy to justify tagging myself 'world class'.  After all, amongst all of the World's mountain and trail runners I rank in the top 40.  However, when you dig deeper there are other factors to consider.  For a start, all the world's best mountain runners weren't present in Slovenia, just the top four selected from each nation.  That means that stronger nations like Italy, GB and the USA probably have runners on the bench who would have beaten me.  Likewise, there are many other top runners who would've chosen not to try for the Worlds, favouring other goals instead.  More telling for me is the consideration that Alessandro Rambaldini ran a 3:44:52, a full forty odd minutes and 15% faster than I managed.  If we equated those times to an Olympic discipline like the marathon then if we assume he would run something like a 2:10:00 (about average for an Olympic marathon winner) then I'd have run a 2:29:30, fast but still ten minutes outside the IAAF marathon qualifying time for the Olympics.
Crossing the line at the World Champs.  Fast but not World Class
So my World Championships performance probably wasn't a world class performance.  I can live with that, but a second question is then posed, have I ever done one?  There's no doubt in my mind that the Slovenia race wasn't my best ever performance.  The heat, humidity, distance and sheer size of the hills took a heavy toll and although I dug deep and beat plenty of excellent runners I was still hoping to go about 15 minutes faster, a time that would have placed me in the top twenty.  Over the last year a couple of results stick out for me, my records on both Slieve Donard and the Mourne Skyline, two very different races and two standout performances.

My 53:40 lap of Slieve Donard is almost a minute faster than anyone else has ever run for that exact route but realistically I know it probably wouldn't stand up to scrutiny.  I'm pretty confident that on the right day I could go sub 52:30 myself and given that my strengths seem to lie in the longer races I reckon the World's best could do somewhere near to 50 minutes.  That would put my record theoretically about 7% off the best achievable, definitely getting closer to world class.  The result that really interests me though is my October 2015 Mourne Skyline record.  Almost certainly my best ever run, it saw me beat second place Dan Doherty (17th in the World Ultra Trail Champs that year) by almost thirteen minutes with a 3:51:22.  My time also beat Kim Collison's previous record by almost six minutes.

Mountain race records are a bit arbitrary really, there are so many factors, primarily weather and ground condition related that have a huge impact on times on any given day.  The longer and more difficult a race, the greater the environment caused time variations.  However, I've reason to believe that my time last year may well be genuinely quick.  Given that the Mourne Skyline has only been run twice, my assertion is purely conjectural at this point but as the Skyline is part of the prestigious UK Skyrunner Series it has already established itself as Ireland's premier mountain race.  It's the only race here which draws top international names and as such my record will be challenged over the coming years by some genuine world classers.  I look forward to seeing if it stands the test of time.

So, when it comes to mountain running I reckon that it's safe to say that I don't quite have what it takes to consistently rank amongst the true world class athletes.  I am however hopefully capable of occasionally reaching their levels when the conditions and course suit my talents.  I'm confident that as a 38 year old with a busy business, a permanent part-time job and two young kids I can certainly call myself a part-time athlete.  I train as hard as I can for as much time as I can fit in but my schedule is generally fitted around daily life with other factors taking precedence.  Surprisingly this does still allow me to often train around fifteen hours a week but the recovery time is non-existent and it's actually that lack of genuine rest rather than lack of training that sets aside my routine from professionals.  In other factors such as diet I could barely be more disciplined and probably put many pros to shame. 
On my way to setting another big record on Slieve Donard. How would the World's best fare on this route?

So can any part-timers be world class?

I need to make the definition here between amateurs and part-timers.  Mountain running is an almost entirely amateur sport but there are plenty of athletes who manage to live like professionals, getting by through bursaries, sponsorship and part-time jobs, often within the industry, that are very supportive of their athletic endeavours.  To all intents and purposes these are not part-timers and I occasionally jealously read of the exploits of running acquaintances who seem to be able to just train constantly with few other considerations.  I do however know for a fact that some of the top British fell runners are proper part-timers and are also amongst the World's best so it can be managed.  I just need to find that magic formula before age starts to signal my inevitable gradual deceleration.

So back to the title question and the simple answer is yes, I think extremely disciplined and driven part-timers can be world class.  As for myself, I'll keep plugging away at the mountain running and hope that the accumulation of miles will keep pushing me towards that World's top ten.  In the meantime I have the consolation that when it comes to parallel parking and hoovering I'm almost peerless and when they become Olympic disciplines you'll see me beaming out from cereal packets and Quorn adverts into your own homes.  Watch this space...


Monday, 8 August 2016

Ragley Bigwig - Mid Term Impressions

I've had half a season of thrashing my new Ragley Bigwig around the woods so it's time for a progress update.  I'll put in a couple of caveats before I start though;

1) I didn't pay for this bike.  As explained in my previous blog, Ragley have been kind enough to sponsor me this year.  However, they've put me under no pressure to say anything nice about their products or even say anything at all so there is genuinely no bias in this review.  I'd hate for people to make a purchasing decision assisted by my opinion only to find out it was totally skewed and luckily, unlike the magazines I don't have to worry about losing advertising revenue by offending anyone.

2) I've been riding mountain bikes for thirty years and am extremely fussy about kit.  I haven't bought an off the peg bike since the nineties because I just end up swapping out all the components.  Like an arse of a  boyfriend I'll be comparing the Bigwig to my exes.  Just bear in mind that those exes are a who's who of the best bikes and components of their time and so the Ragley has a very stiff job if it wants to impress.

Let's start with the important bit...

The Ride

I'm a definite advocate of the hardtail.  I love the required precision that forces the rider to actually pinpoint lines, reading terrain rather than hitting, hoping and hanging on.  I also adore the easy cleaning, low weight, lack of set-up time and visual simplicity of rigid back ends.  As a coach I firmly believe that everyone should spend at least a couple of years on one to develop fundamental skills before opting for a full bouncer.  In the past this decision has obviously been to the detriment of speed on the downs and in the tech but those days are over.  In the hands of a decent rider a well put together hardtail can compete on most trails and the Bigwig is definitely one of those bikes.  Drop any preconceptions you may have about 29" wheels because when combined with a super slack 65 degree head angle they make for a confidence inspiring combination.  Gaps between rocks and roots are drifted over rather than the bike stuttering and dropping into the holes and I became a convert within a matter of minutes.  The more technical a trail becomes, the more the Bigwig excels, well demonstrated when I turn around at the bottom of steep, extremely rocky trails punctuated by big drops to see my 160mm travel, 27.5" wheeled mates off and carrying.  The big wheels allow me to roll down drops that would hook up anything smaller and on this kind of trials type descending where the speed required to launch the drops is impossible to come by they are definitely the best option.
The Bigwig is a total downhill weapon!
At speed the Bigwig feels stable, no doubt assisted by the pretty lengthy 1162mm wheelbase (medium size) and I genuinely don't feel that I'm getting overly battered or fatigued by the constantly rough nature of our local trails.  I've always been a big fan of the dampening properties of steel as a frame material and have really enjoyed getting back on this steel frame.  The slight give in the rear end does enough to take the edge off the hits without ever feeling flexy, particularly noticeable with a super stiff carbon rim and 142mm bolt through back wheel.  As the old saying went 'steel is real'!  If you're put off by the old school look of the skinny tubes just consider the fact that most custom frame builders still opt to use steel as it can be made to provide such exceptional ride qualities in hardtails, particularly when they get the exact right tubing choice and seat tube diameter to provide that damped and controlled feel.  Obviously the Bigwig, like all hardtails needs a slightly more cultured approach to descending but this frame really has allowed me to carry speed with confidence and I've yet to get caught out in any really dodgy situations that the Bigwig hasn't dug me out of.

I've found that the Ragley rewards a really aggressive, front heavy riding style and because of this the 130mm Rockshox Yari forks have taken a consistent battering.  So far I've been delighted by their performance and noticed no discernible difference from the Pikes I was previously running.  They sit high in the travel, particularly important on a hardtail where the head angle steepens as the forks compress, and they track adequately with minimal twist or flex.

So it's great on the downs, confident at speed and brilliant in the tech.

But what about the cornering?

This is an area where I thought the long wheelbase 29'er would really suffer, how wrong could I be!  It seemed to take no adjustment in riding style with the big wheels and it carves with confidence.  Once back on familiar rubber I was happy to push really hard and as expected the breakaway points are the same regardless of wheel size.  Two wheel drift in our continually sloppy conditions is predictable and great fun and I've never been highsided and thrown out the wrong way when the traction kicks in.  The (slightly too) low bottom bracket makes for great cornering stability although I did have issues getting my feet positioned right whilst getting used to the bike, not entirely sure why but it felt a bit more difficult to do rapid foot swaps than on my other bikes.

Can it climb?

Yes it can!  I often read about slack head angles making front ends a bit light and drifty on technical ascents but personally I think that proper weight distribution technique can overcome this every time.  I've not noticed any detrimental effects of the slacked out frame, it climbs well in the tech and as ever I find that a 30/36 low gear combo can get me up anything.  The length of the bike does mean that it suffers when on really tight switchbacks but this is countered by its general ease in the rough sections.  Big wheels excel at getting up steps with a quick wheelie, the back end following happily and the 72 degree seat angle puts my weight nicely centred to shift around for traction and control. The low bottom bracket has definitely been a pain at times with plenty of jarring pedal strikes.  Having previously owned a Commencal Meta 5 and a Santa Cruz Nomad CC I'm well used to adjusting my riding style to counteract this but on a hardtail there is no cushioning to the blows and so the bike stalls frustratingly with every hit.

On the fire roads it trundles along nicely and maintains speed with the big wheels smoothing out any bumps and ripples and allowing a good cadence to be spun.  Having said all this it is pretty weighty compared to my usual bikes and so won't be winning any XC races.  The 31lb stock weight has been greatly reduced by my expensive upgrades (more on that shortly) but a near 6lb frame is disappointing and definitely noticeable in comparison to my Ibis Tranny which weighs half that.  Having said that the Bigwig complete costs 50 quid less than the Tranny frame so the value for money and overall performance of the Bigwig makes it a better choice for all but the most discerning riders.
Very happy with the current set-up

So, I've mentioned that I always build bikes from scratch.  Much of the joy and anticipation of a build for me is in painstakingly hand selecting componentry to make the ultimate combinations.  Bar widths, stem lengths, tyre choices, the list is endless and research exhaustive.  Like many experienced riders I've got my firm favourites when it comes to contact points and strong opinions on all other parts so riding a stock bike was always going to be a major compromise.  I did intend to ride it as received, but ingrained instincts die hard and my puritanical stance lasted all of two minutes!

I'm 1x all the way and was really surprised that a 'hardcore hardtail' frameset with ISCG mounts was specced with a 2x set up.  The front mech is a dead and archaic addition to me, robbing bar space and adding unnecessary weight.  Allen keys out, front shifter, mech and chainset removed and an XTR/Blackspire single ring set up thrown in.  I hope that Ragley will be following my lead soon and with Shimano finally offering monster gear ranges on their cassettes and joining the 21st century with narrow/wide rings I'd imagine that the 2017 offerings will lose the granny rings.

The Ragley grips supplied were actually very good, not least because they're very similar (patent anyone?) to the all-time greatest ODI Ruffian.  Unfortunately they're just a couple of mm larger in circumference than the ODI's and so had to go.  I told you I'm fussy!

I've ridden on the WTB Vigilante/Trail Boss combo before and think they're alright performance wise but fundamentally flawed in mould quality.  Unfortunately, whoever built my bike decided to stick the Vigilante on the back and the Trail Boss on the front necessitating a three man fight to the death swapping them round.  I've been there before, thumbs aching, tyre levers snapping and forty combined years of spannering experience sweating, swearing and shaking our heads.  We got there in the end but as with my last Vigilante the fight took its toll in terms of a warped bead that made my wheel look like it was Pringled from the start.  Take note WTB, there is NO NEED to make your beads so tight and this was being fitted to one of your own rims.  I'm just glad we were fitting them close to my kettle and beer supply and not on a frozen Irish trailside.  Once out in the slop they performed OK but I find the Vigilante drifts wide whenever pushed hard into the types of mud that have epitomised this Irish year.  They're predictable but not precise enough for my liking and so I'm back to the Maxxis.  High Roller 2's instantly improved the Bigwig no end.

The Nukeproof dropper post also didn't get far before the chop.  I love droppers but am scathing of their dismal longevity.  I've tried most of the common brands and am constantly amazed that a 300 quid office chair shaft can never last more than a year, even with correct servicing.  The Nukeproof decided to get stuck in the down position half way through an early ride resulting in a chastening quad workout.  Close inspection revealed that the bottom screw had actually fallen out of the post and ten seconds with an allen key had it back to fully functional.  The thing that signed its death warrant was actually the fact that the post return could've been measured on a calendar and the plasticky lever is so un-ergonomic that I actually stopped using the drop at all.  In came a KS Lev with the Southpaw lever, an incredibly smooth and easily functional combo that is also showing almost immediate flaws with a continually loosening collar.  Give me strength...

The 180mm/160mm rotors supplied would generally slow a hardtail more than adequately in combination with the SLX hydraulics.  As you've read, this is no ordinary hardtail when gravity kicks in and even with my skinny ass eleven stone body I had to swap in a 203mm/180mm combo to get the required stopping power.

The Ragley Wiser bars are a good shape and really comfortable feel but they sent me some carbon Wiser bars to test so obviously they went in instead for the weight saving and improved trail dampening characteristics.

I had a couple of spins on the supplied wheels which are a combo of WTB STI23 TCS rims, laced to bolt thru-axle Novatec hubs.  They were OK but I definitely felt the weight dragging me back like a mini anchor.  I've witnessed quite a lot of 29'er wheels dismantle themselves over the last few years, the larger diameter rims and longer spokes seemingly more vulnerable to damage.  I'm glad that Ragley have opted for strength above weight saving in their choice but even so, with minimal use and no big hits the back wheel was getting out of shape.  One well-known downfall of 29'ers is their sluggish acceleration and I felt that this inherent flaw combined with heavy wheels would make the bike non-competitive.  I wanted to be hitting the top step of the podium this year and so made a quick call to the lovely people at 2Pure distribution and a set of the incredible Ibis 941 wide carbon wheels arrived.  Needless to say, a set of 1300 quid carbon wheels has improved the ride exponentially as they would improve any bike.  They are incredibly laterally stiff, light and strong.  Acceleration is no longer an issue.
I've swapped out the 2x and fitted a narrow/wide with a chain guide.  I hope Ragley will do this themselves in future

So obviously I ditched a fair few of them but I've been largely impressed with the stuff that remained.  The SLX shifters and XT Shadow+ rear mech have been faultless.  I don't like the shifters and brake levers being joined on the clamp as it robs you of the chance to make micro position adjustments but this is a minor gripe.  The SLX brakes have also performed very well with predictable power and modulation.  The levers themselves are slightly more rounded than my preferred XTR's and lack the grippy dimples. This has actually resulted in less grip in really muddy conditions.  I like to feel a good edge on the lever as I rest my finger on it so I know it's there when I need it, again a minor issue but these are the subtle differences that make me happy to spend top dollar for the range topping kit.  The Ragley Wiser carbon bars are superb with the rise, shape and 750mm width feeling perfect for the bike and the 50mm stem is a solid and stylish unit.  The Ragley saddle was a comfortable shape and I was happy to keep it until I bent the rails and had to bin it.  In its defence that was really a facet of me having to position it beyond the recommended limits so no blame attached.  I've actually finally got round to re-fitting the original SLX cranks with the Blackspire Narrow/Wide chainring.  They are a good looking and stiff crankset but the speccing of a 175mm length seems a bit bizarre on a bike with such a low bottom bracket and more pedal strikes are an inevitability.  This would be a really easy fix for Ragley and hopefully they'll switch to 170mm in future.  Cable routing is neat and tidy and although I'm not sure about the aesthetics of the industrial looking bolt on cable guides, they keep the cables firmly in place though so no doubts on their function.  The Stealth dropper port on the back of the seat tube comes with a neat cover for if you're not using it but I'd be concerned about water and dirt getting in if I was running an internally routed dropper.


At just shy of 6ft tall I often find I'm stuck between manufacturers frame sizes, usually opting for the nippier characteristics of a smaller frame over the gate like feel of XL offerings.  The Ragley was no different and I went for the 18" Medium frame rather than the 20" Large.  With a 50mm stem this has left me a tiny bit cramped by the 420mm reach and 605mm effective top tube length.  The upshot of this is that I'm running my seat a centimetre back beyond the recommended limit which resulted in me bending the rails on the Ragley saddle despite me hardly being a big unit.  I'd like to run a shorter stem and so maybe the Large would've suited better but I was put off by the length of the seat tube and have been burned in the past by buying frames that just felt too big to suit our tight and twisty trails.
Top step of the podium.  The Bigwig is definitely fast.

So far I'm really impressed!  The Bigwig has re-framed my preconceptions about what a 29'er can do with the all important frame angles making it a bike with an emphasis firmly on fun.  That's not to say that it can't be fast and Enduro race outings this year have seen me hitting the top step of the hardtail category whilst placing in the top 20% overall, putting hundreds of fully suspended riders put to the sword!  Technical problems with a jammed and then dropped chain in my second race have since seen me fit a chain device, something I'd definitely recommend since the ISCG tabs are in place and I'm really excited to keep pushing the bike to the limits that only competition can bring out.

It climbs well enough and really rips on the downs, corners with confidence and feels well balanced on the ground and in the air.  I really think it's a bike that questions the need for full suspension, particularly at its price point.  At £1550 for the complete bike it's a total bargain but I'd definitely be more tempted by the £450 frame only option given my love of hand picking all componentry.  If I had less than two grand to buy a bike then I'd choose a custom specced Bigwig over any company's mid-range suspension bikes every time.

I'll report back with an end of season write up when I'll have an idea on the longevity of the parts and will have smashed it through a few more races.  Some planned trips away will also allow me to test it on some different trail types.  Until then if you see me around then feel free to ask for a test ride on my bike and if you want more info then check

Wednesday, 13 July 2016

Dark Side Of The Mind - The World Long Distance Mountain Running Championships

'You lock the door and throw away the key, there's someone in my head but it's not me' 
Pink Floyd - Brain Damage.

Cramp hit instantly, a searing jolt up my calf with none of the familiar tickly warning shots.  Leaping high over the slippery jumble of wet rocks provided safety and speed but the repetitive jolts had extended my muscles too far.  The German I’d been tearing towards eased away and my mind went into instant overdrive.  I’m just 16km into a 42km race, there’s at least 1400m of climb and 2600m of descent still to endure.  If I back off and simply manage my physical state then I may be able to finish the course but this is the World Champs, I’m representing much more than just myself and it’s been an epic journey just to toe the start line.  There can be no let up, the World’s best mountain runners are biting at my heels and I’ve invested too much in this, too many hours slogging through the mire of a Mournes Winter.  Adjusting my gait I find a half skip that maintains momentum without further physical damage and try not to contemplate the suffering still to come.

Just twelve months ago I was a short course mountain runner, pretty rapid on unimaginably steep terrain but largely unproven on any distance over seven miles.  An unplanned sequence of events last season triggered a transformation familiar to many ageing athletes, I discovered an aptitude for the longer stuff and a liking for the protracted suffering of extended physical efforts as opposed to the horror of leg tearing, lung burning half hour sprints.  Twenty plus miles of mountain running requires a different approach, still constantly pushing hard but paying much greater heed to signs of physical degradation and playing off the odds of slower initial speeds to guarantee longer term survival.  This thoughtful, chess like approach to racing appeals greatly, it seems a more civilized way to suffer and so my pre-season race plans were devised around a totally different set of goals to previous years.

Half measures aren’t really in my make-up.  Having decided to focus on stamina based events I naturally sought out the race that would provide the greatest challenge.  The pinnacle of mountain running is the World Championships and so initial tentative contact was made with the Irish federation to ascertain what the selection criteria would be for the Long Distance Mountain Champs in 2016.  The upshot of that found me piling in the miles and battling serious injury over a stuttering, mentally draining but ultimately adequate Winter training block.  I’ve chronicled my unspectacular Wicklow Way Ultra attempt elsewhere.  It was an arduous and frustrating experience with a steep learning curve that ultimately saw me meet the Worlds selection requirements by just one minute in 250.  Duly chastened by my first ever Ultra I set about guaranteeing that Slovenia would be more positive. 

Subsequent training surpassed all expectations, particularly an eight week spell that saw me banging out multiple sub one-hour Slieve Donard repeats for fun, the fastest ever Mourne Skyline, a 3:34 Seven Sevens and all with minimal recovery time between epic mountain sessions and necessary tempo efforts.  I rounded off the block with a couple of races to check progress and duly broke my own Slieve Donard race record whilst comfortably defending the most prestigious of titles.  A late hamstring pull caused last minute concern but the enforced rest was probably beneficial.  I felt physically prepared and whilst obviously lacking pedigree over 26 miles I wasn’t overawed by the task ahead or the gathering of so many truly World Class athletes.
It's all about pulling on that jersey
The arduous journey to Bohinj, Slovenia took its toll with the final ninety minutes of impossibly narrow and twisting mountain roads compounding the nerve fraying madness of Italian motorways en-route from Milan.  It culminated in a vomiting child and a cramping arse muscle but this suffering was countered by the spectacular Alpine environment and the excitement of exploring a new country.  The timing of the Worlds, during a pre-planned holiday had presented a unique opportunity to drag my family along.  I was unsure whether the distraction would be a positive calming influence or would rob me of focus but having them there was a real joy and hopefully Anna and the boys were proud seeing me sporting the Ireland jersey.  The rest of the Irish lads arrived through the Thursday and so we gathered together on Friday to talk tactics and compare eating habits.  Although the usual Irish self-depracation was well in evidence as we mercilessly played down our chances I knew that we had a really talented squad.  Brian MacMahon, Eoin Lennon and Dan Doherty all have International experience in abundance and an enviable set of top class results in an extremely varied range of distances and terrains.  Having competed against Dan and Eoin before and followed Brian’s results I knew that I’d have my work cut out living with their abilities but evidently we had a very balanced squad and nobody could predict what order we’d finish in.  A Friday evening train journey to the race arena in Podbrdo allowed us a bit of time to scope out the finish area and stare up at the dauntingly steep surrounding cliffs as we guessed which of the distant ridges would form part of the Gorski marathon route.  The opening ceremony was predictably entertaining being paraded in front of the crowd accompanied by local school children and a repeat loop of ‘we are the champions’.  Formalities done we scoffed the available pasta and headed for bed, the familiar mix of excitement and trepidation multiplied several-fold by the unknown nature of the course and the stellar talent of the opposition.
Getting ready to be announced to the crowd inside
Race morning passed quickly, a 5am jog in already rising temperatures was a portent of the heat to come but I slipped into the standard routine and my automatic pilot landed me on the start line with a few minutes to spare.  The opening to the race was a confused affair with a mile long jog through the village behind a pace car.  The comfortable speed was a welcoming introduction but the additional unplanned distance certainly wasn’t.  As we passed under the huge inflatable barrier and over the timing beam the flags dropped and the car tore away, it was time to get down to business, months of prep over and no longer any hiding.  This was it, the World Championships, no excuses and no bullshit, just 120 of the best mountain runners in existence and a course that was deemed near impossible by local inhabitants when the Maraton Gorski was originally dreamt up.

The route itself can be summed up fairly simply.  Full marathon distance, from the start a continuous 15km climb gains 1250 metres of altitude before dropping about 1500m to the lowest point at kilometer 27.  Immediately kicking up again very steeply for another 1250 metre height gain over just 7km it then finishes with an eyeballs out 8km downhill sprint, quads screaming and feet burning, desperately seeking sight of the finish line and the relief of a dip in the river.

I was dreading the first climb.  I knew the gradient was too shallow and suspected the tracks too runnable to suit me.  I settled into a rhythm aiming to stay close enough to the front third of the race whilst hopefully not burning myself out for later efforts.  Initially going well it struck me that my pace would be tearing any Irish races to pieces but instead I saw the first forty runners gradually pulling away, lead by race favourite, team USA’s Andy Wacker, the differences between National and International competition perfectly encapsulated in one clear demonstration.  Just ahead of me Dan was plugging away with Eoin gaining distance and Brian long gone, he clearly had a slightly less tempered race plan than my own.
This initial effort lasted ninety minutes and passed through some of the most stunning scenery and enjoyable terrain I’ve ever experienced.  My body felt good and I was comfortably gaining altitude through the lower slopes before picking up places in the steep scree of the last kilometer.  I’d long dropped Dan who was clearly having a torrid time, form deserting him at the most inopportune moment.  He’ll be back in international duty again soon enough, defending his top 20 World Ultra distance ranking in October.  As the final rock strewn rise degenerated into loose switchbacks I passed Eoin, a friendly word and push on the back greatly welcomed, I can’t imagine athletes in other sports often being so warm spirited.  There was no sense of relief at topping out that first mountain, just a satisfaction that I’d got it right, my body felt strong and as I sprinted down the technical and broken initial track I picked up a couple more places, no indications of the sharp pain that was so imminent.

As previously mentioned, that initial burst of cramp was a real shock.  My body had given no indications that it was suffering and yet just a hundred minutes into a 270 minute race I was in real trouble.  A couple of minutes of a shuffling half-step relieved the pressure on the screaming muscles but the mental anguish wouldn’t dissipate so easily.  This wasn’t part of the plan; I’d paced well and am usually comfortable running these distances and elevations in training.  Perhaps the continual nature of the climb had pushed me further than anticipated and was compounded by the immediate repeated impact of the tricky descent.  I shoved a salt capsule into my mouth and awkwardly forced down a gel, no mean feat when skipping over such unpredictable terrain.  Shortly after this I was met by the unwelcome sight of Brian heading back towards me having abandoned the race.  His ambitious early pace, dualling with the front runners on the huge first ascent had emptied his legs beyond redemption.  Suddenly I found myself as the leading Irish runner, a thought that would have definitely buoyed me under better circumstances. 
I was praying to see this sight as soon as possible!
Missing out on the opportunity to pre-scope a course can be a serious disadvantage.  Mentally it’s extremely tough not knowing what awaits you around every corner and whilst I’d memorised the course profile it lacked sufficient detail for me to be truly confident.  I knew that this descent contained a short rise at some point but was completely unprepared for the length and degree of height re-gain.  Without fully recovered legs I crawled through this section, my mental state darkening as I slipped a few places, praying for the recommencing of the downhill.  The heat was beginning to play a part by now; sapping and oppressive every time we left the sanctity of the forests.  I’d joked with Dan prior to the race about the point of feed stations on downhills and why a 26 mile course had a full eighteen stops but with the fear of cramp and genuine prospect of chronic dehydration I was using every single one.  As an inevitable by-product of this re-hydrating I was hit by another unpleasant sensation, I was desperate to wee.  Dan had enlightened me about the ‘on-the-go’ technique sometimes employed during his crazy distance races.  Simply lifting your shorts a bit and maintaining stride whilst relieving yourself may be easy to the initiated but I wear knee length compression shorts and didn’t want to piss down my leg so decided to suffer on.  I had actually trained for this scenario, forcing myself not to go for hours during Mournes epics. The devil is in the detail!

After seemingly hours but actually only a handful of minutes the route descended again and my tough spell finally passed in time for me to speed through the low point where I grabbed a bottle off Brian and another off Team Ireland manager and all round gentleman Leo Mahon.  I was surprised to see Andy Wacker there, illness forcing his retirement, but unsurprised to see him smiling through his disappointment, I’ve never seen him not smiling!  The second climb wasted no time in kicking up to a 20% gradient and I glugged back some caffeine drink whilst settling into a rhythm.  Although I was now coping well I was disappointed at feeling sluggish.  This type of steep terrain is my speciality and would normally see me gaining time and places, even in such esteemed company.  I realised that all was still not well with my body and sank into survival mode, backing off to prevent blowing up.  With nothing to entertain me but the incessant grind my mind rapidly darkened again.  It’s at times like this that you really explore the inner workings of your psyche, drawing from more primal reserves to keep moving.  I have blurred memories of this epic ascent, a singing marshal, kind words from a Slovenian athlete, having to pull on fixed ropes as the trail was so steep and surprise at being passed by some top drawer athletes who I’d assumed were already ahead.  Rising beyond the tree line I finally saw the summit ridge laid out before me with about twenty athletes within striking distance.  I can recall shock at still being in touch with so many despite already having three and a half hours of running completed, I’d expected the field to fracture much more.  In better circumstances I’d have reveled in the task of chasing them down but the truth is that by that point the result was arbitrary to me; I just craved the relief of the summit.  A huge and vocal crowd at the top encouraged me to throw caution to the wind on the final descent and I duly responded, lifting my head from its stooped position and focusing on the narrow strip of rocky track ahead.  As with the previous descent I began well, immediately gaining a place but unfortunately another facet of that previous descent then took hold with the worst bout of cramp yet.  This time finding a comfortable stride proved near impossible and I had to ease off and simply see it through whilst frustratingly losing more distance and time.  As before, the contracting muscles ceased their most noticeable complaints after a few minutes and I was able to focus on the task of finishing with a bit of pace and pride.  This last drop proved to be a highlight as although the cramp had robbed me of the chance to gain many places I was absolutely flying for the last five kilometers.  I passed a Ukranian after a short tousle and then flew past a Japanese athlete as if they weren’t moving before fixing my gaze on the Dane about 200m ahead.  I was rapidly eating into his lead and having scoped this final kilometre I knew I’d be able to pass him shortly before the finish but a familiar tension was brewing in my calves and faced with the prospect of having to limp over the finish I gave up the doomed chase in order to finish in the style this race and my waiting family deserved.
Relief at crossing the line...
Sprinting down the picturesque final slope, adjacent to the Alpine stream and beautiful ornate water wheel towards an animated crowd lacked the emotion it deserved.  I was mentally and physically drained and craving the relief of the finish overrode any other feelings.  It was only after a few blissful minutes pouring water on my head, sat in the river and chatting to family and fellow athletes that the pride and satisfaction began to blossom.  I’d finished the race in 39th place, first Irish finisher at 4:24:33.  It had been a monumental effort, exploring my physical and mental capabilities way beyond expectation for a course with those statistics.  I’d anticipated a tough day but am more than capable of covering 26 miles and 2800m of ascent and descent without ever requiring that degree of soul searching and gut wrenching.  Eoin crossed the line just under five minutes after me in 43rd place; he too had suffered exceptionally, particularly given his undoubted and proven talent over greater distances than the Gorski Marathon route.
Soon turns to smiles!
I didn’t hang around long beyond a few thankyous and handshakes, we had a family holiday to commence and I had plenty of time to digest and analyse the race in the lengthy drive to Lake Garda where a chilled Belgian beer and a chilled Belgian friend awaited.

So what's the verdict?  Overall I'm pretty delighted, 39th is a big improvement on 81st at my last World Long Distance Champs in Colorado two years ago.  Even more satisfying is the fact that this was only my second ever marathon distance race and experience and miles in the legs count for a lot over longer distances.  I was only four minutes off the top 30 and twelve minutes off the top 20 in amongst some very classy athletes and I feel that with a bit more specific training I should be in that World's top 20, not bad for a 38 year old who's only been mountain running for five!  We spent the next three weeks enjoying the best of Italy during which I trained hard and discovered the only way to counteract that drained feeling is a constant flow of electrolytes rather than excess fluids to get past the sluggishness and unlock the underlying fitness.  I'll store that knowledge for next time.
Great Irish team relaxing post-race
Representing internationally is always a great experience and one that I’m immensely proud to do.  I came to mountain running relatively recently and so reaching this level and being offered these opportunities is slightly bemusing at times.  Knowing the sacrifices I make in terms of diet and lifestyle whilst dragging out the motivation to train endlessly in often trying conditions makes me eternally appreciative that there are other like-minded people doing the same thing.  Without fellow athletes to compete against I’d never have the chance to push myself so hard and explore my own weaknesses so thoroughly.  The dark side of the mind is a difficult place to dwell but visiting occasionally is a powerful drug, enticing you to seek the next challenge and further discover the limits of your capabilities.  I can fully understand why athletes are compelled to continually push further and harder in search of their breaking points, who knows where it will take me next?
Huge thanks to my fellow Irish athletes Dan Doherty, Brian MacMahon and Eoin Lennon as well as our excellent team manager Leo Mahon who made the Worlds such an enjoyable experience. Thanks also to Gerry Brady and all at IMRA as well as the organizers of the Gorski Marathon and the WMRA.  It was an excellent event, really professionally run and as ever the World Federation looked after us well.  Time now to get back to the Mournes and prep for a big record attempt.
Massive thanks to IMRA who even got Anna added as a team official!