Thursday, 7 September 2017

Switching on the Lights - The World Long-Distance Mountain Running Champs 2017

The sky blackened almost instantly, a malevolent darkness banishing all shadows, accompanied by a foreboding deep rumble. The thunder stretching out a baritone roar before cracking in a spectacular crescendo. Huge droplets began to fall, instant saturation and brown rivers for trails, icy flows shocking a reaction from exhausted feet. 

I’d best describe the feeling as if someone had just turned on the lights. The hazy sluggishness that had blighted the last 150 minutes instantly ejected. Eyes suddenly focused and a primal energy, finally feeling the mental re-connect between brain and body, previously eroded as a defence mechanism against the pain, anguish and disappointment. It may be too late to really matter but it was suddenly time to race. 
Winning the qualifier - Maurice Mullins Wicklow Way Ultra
Here I was again, the World Long Distance Mountain Running Champs.  Another chance to represent Ireland, another chance to pit myself against the best and an opportunity to renew old friendships and create new ones.  This lifestyle could never be a chore, being sent to incredible places by generous federations simply because of the ability to move faster than the norm over steep, uneven and technical ground.  Yet personal ambition can serve to taint these occasions, to create undue pressure that can overwhelm the undeniable enjoyment.  Ultimately, I try to rise above such frivolities, just being there and experiencing is reward enough, but intrinsic desires can be difficult to silence; this year I wanted top twenty. 

Preparation for these landmark events has become a self-perpetuated cliché.  Train well early season, excel at the qualifying event to guarantee selection and subsequently injure myself in the interim, hindering progress at key junctures.  At least this year it was a mountain bike smash rather than the usual over-ambitious mileage.  A torn rotator cuff at the end of April was poorly timed, destroying domestic race ambitions and forcing some creative session planning.  Stints of one-armed turbo-training and terrifying fights for footing on treadmills, rapidly succumbed to pain-defying journeys back into my beloved Mourne Mountains.  Adopting a stiff, right-side dominant style created numerous physiological issues, and descending in slow motion through terror of falling was humiliating, but at least I was out doing what I love.  Ultimately, the distances, and corresponding physical attributes came through, with a first-ever quadruple Slieve Donard (22.4 miles and 3,400m of ascent/descent) dispatched, convincing my fragile mental state that I’d at least last the distance. Unfortunately, the shoulder had prevented any speed work, denying that amazing race-tuned feeling that breeds vital confidence. 

Torn shoulder and some creative training
The Giir Di Mont is a wish-list event, famed for spectacular beauty, inhumanely steep rises and a massively vocal and passionate crowd.  The Italians certainly know how to do mountain races and Premana was no different to previous experiences, a tangible feeling that you’re undertaking something that matters to more than just your own ego. Being swooped from the airport by classically attractive Italian ladies to a waiting BMW reminded me instantly of the advantages of international selection, as did the breath-taking view from the hotel window.  Being the sole Irish representative guaranteed the luxury of a huge room and nobody else to annoy with hastily strewn kit, but also forced an unfamiliar sociability, beyond the usual ‘bubble’ of team mates.  Despite my social anxiety, I needn’t have worried, the mountain running fraternity were, as always, as friendly as they are interesting, and very soon I was at home amongst new friends. 

Usual preparations, unfolding journey-fatigued legs and fretting over weather conditions and footwear selection. There was talk of course alterations if the threatened lightning appeared, ridges and peaks are no place to be with millions of volts marauding free.  Come race time though and the skies were clear, an oppressive mugginess like a physical weight, a sheen of sweat from the lightest of warm-ups.  Packed-in like sardines, the elbows-out hustle of initial exchanges and then settling into a rhythm designed for efficient forward propulsion. The race was on. 
Always a proud moment.  Team Ireland (me!) at the opening ceremony
A downhill start was an unwelcome novelty, hard not to cause lasting damage when the field are set on sub five-minute miles.  Torn between maintaining contact with the front, and fear of over-cooking, I allowed myself to be swept along mid-field.  Plenty of time for making up places when the ascents began, or so I hoped.  The reality was the horrific realisation that my feet were sucking invisible quicksand, muscles weary and head lolling despite the race being very much in its infancy. Climb one, an 800-vertical metre brute with steep, narrow trails should’ve been bread and butter, not the tumultuous mental struggle that it proved.  Knowing you’re going so badly, so early on is a double blow, dreams rapidly disappearing and the bleak realisation that the suffering has barely begun. 

The far side of the climb saw essential respite as crag-like technicality underfoot brought out a broad grin and my reckless side.  Unfeasibly steep drops were dispatched with lightweight skips and numerous places were gained.  Making the classic mistake of switching off once the slopes eased, I managed to badly turn an ankle, one of those where you get to see the tread pattern on the sole of your own shoe.  Admonishing myself loudly, I pressed on gingerly, you can run those off but it takes time. 
Stunning views but there's pain to come among
 the peaks
Climb two commenced with a shallow gradient and solid surface, my least favourite combination. The victims of my lightning descent cruised back past, their gearboxes on a different ratio to mine. A new experience as a helicopter downdraft created a micro-hurricane, fruitless to oppose such forces, progress slowed to a crawl.  As seems to be the case, the lowest ebb brings the kindest reactions from rivals who share that intimate knowledge of suffering.  Recognising the pain, a Slovenian offered motivational encouragement before top GB runner Vic Wilkinson invited me to run in her slipstream. Hanging gamely on for a few minutes, the elastic soon snapped, leaving me alone once again to the frustration and struggle. 

Anticipation of another lengthy descent drew enough reserves to survive to the col where a cacophony of noise barely registered with pain-dulled senses. Looking to salvage pride, I threw myself vigorously into the initial switchbacks, tripping, cramping and stopping dead.  Self-pity and acceptance of failure, all that remained was a prolonged death-march to the finish.  And yet, I wasn’t even half way through the distance, a fact previously shielded from my conscience by the internal drive of inevitable completion.  I don’t drop out of races, full-stop.  Never have, and barring genuine injury, never will.  What’s the point when you still have to make your way home, regardless of whether you’ve metaphorically torn off the number?  The numerous helicopters were busy enough extracting several genuine casualties, focus on the next mile and eventually sweet relief will come. Secretive deals brokered between brain and legs, finish this one and we’ll never force you this deep again, time to retire, out to pasture. 

The feed station represented a final throw of the dice. Team GB had kindly carried in essential sustenance, much required but never desired by a delicate, motion abused stomach.  Stopping to re-arrange gels and drinks cost a minute, normally an action considered beyond sacrilegious but I was way beyond caring.  The race could get fucked, one foot in front of the other, left, right and repeat.

Then came the deluge. 

Bright lights in the darkness, the sweet smell of mountain pastures and the noise, my god the pull of the din from an impending feed station.  As if woken from a coma I became suddenly aware of my breathing, my sleeping senses discovered a symbiosis with a newly athletic body.  TV camera in my face and a corridor of mayhem, like the Tour De France climbs, clapping hands, smiles, so much support from total strangers and that wall of sound.  My teeth appear for the first time in hours, not gritted now, opened wide in a disbelieving grin.  Legs churning, on the toes and feeling great, is this really a 25% slope? 

The final 5km ridge-line was a resurrection.  Climbing steadily, I pushed hard up the kicky rises, tempo pace round the cliff-hugging, bench-cut contours.  Passing others for fun at this stage of the race is a novelty, a delight.  Distant figures become targets in the crosshairs and a ridiculous tune trips into my mind, ‘the green train is coming, everybody out of the way’.  Rounding the final uphill corner, I re-pass Vic, never expected that!  One final huge descent, ultra-rocky, uneven, a real rhythm killer and a reality check.  Keep pushing hard but don’t forget to survive, I’m going to make it, tears prick at ducts, it’s been emotional. 

The cruel terminal rise is a step too far, an attempted sprint finish with Team GB’s Jack Wood ends predictably, his huge stride disappearing into the distance.  Push for the line, high fives with the kids hanging over the barrier and done.  Bent double, breathing hard and an overwhelming sense of relief, what the hell just happened? 

I finished 41st, an OK result, 41st in the World!  Comparative to ambition it’s a disappointment but running top 15 splits for the latter half of the race is a big consolation.  I can compete at this level, but still lack the undeniable evidence of finishing position.  Maybe next year. 

Exhausted but happy.  What the hell just happened?
From that point on it’s all smiles, alcoholic haze and the blending of cultures through the medium of drink and shared experience.  These people have a glow, the physical manifestation of health and fitness and a fire in the eyes.  Conversation comes easy, as does sleep once the party dies down.  I love mountain running and I love mountain runners, this was more than worth the suffering.  I hope I’ll be back for more. 

As ever, huge thanks to IMRA for sending me on these unique experiences and to Newcastle AC for some financial assistance. To Anna and the boys for tolerating my obsessive training. To the WMRA, Giir Di Mont organisers and the people of Premana who created such an incredible event, but most of all to the athletes, kindred spirits or as a drunken Bulgarian put it, ‘mountain brothers’; without all of you, this would be meaningless.

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