Tuesday, 26 August 2014

Double Vertical KM - Matterhorn Ultraks

Well that wasn't my best race ever and I can't really explain why. My stomach wasn't great for a large part of the race, my foot hurt, I felt a bit dizzy. But I think these are more excuses than reasons as there are always things that go wrong in a race. I find the best thing to do is ignore them and a good performance is usually there if I want it. That didn't really happen on the 2VK.

I think I ran past this lake. Or at least one equally amazing.
Photo taken from Matterhorn Ultraks facebook page

The course itself was fairly brutal. For starters we had a decent climb out of Zermatt (1600 ish) onto nice forest tracks followed by a gentle flat section before more climbing up to Sunnegga (2250ish, 6.5km). Then a small descent before the main course of a relentless climb up to Gornegrat at 3150m (total race distance of 14km). Ouch.

Despite it being a bit of a tough day out, it was still better than not being out at all. There was a magic moment I will never forget: seeing the Matterhorn appear over the skyline of the hill I was climbing, centimetre by centimetre as I got higher. A perfect blue sky and not a cloud touching it.

There's something special about a view that you've run to. You earn it. I think it's the same biking and I imagine climbing. You can get some amazing views from your car window but it's never the same as if you've run there. So I earned the privilege of watching clouds form on the side of the Matterhorn, identifying the peaks of Monte Rosa, looking at the incredible patterns in the glaciers. It was well worth it.

Peaks include Monte Rosa, Castor, Pollux, Breithorn, Kleine Matterhorn and then the Matterhorn itself in the clouds far right.

As a footnote - I have to be a bit honest. Although bad races are just part of being an athlete, I can't claim to breeze over it as easily as this blog might make out. I'm annoyed at myself and it gives me a good lot of motivation to put things right in my last Skyrunning chance of this season at Limone in October.

Tuesday, 12 August 2014

Sierre-Zinal - A lesson in planning and patience

Sierre-Zinal. What an iconic race: the course, the views, the history.

Ian's photos and race summary here ( iancorless.com)

Sierre-Zinal has its place in my own running history as my first ever long race (in 2012). The first time I raced more than a half marathon and the first time I considered a race having climb of a four figure nature. And it showed. I took the short-distance racing attitude of 'how hard can it be?' where the punishment for misjudging it is a painful last few km. The result was painful last 20km.

A slightly older, wiser and more experienced racer stood on the 2014 start line. I had a race plan backed up with split times I thought were achievable. And this is how it broke down:

It's all in the planning.
I guessed at realistic times based on my 2012 splits, others' better paced races and a better knowledge of my own times on hills. It was deliberately generous on the first climb.
For info - rough actual splits: Chandolin 1.34, Tignousa 1.55, Weisshorn, 2.24, Finish 3.23

The crucial part of the strategy was the steady start. I refuse to let myself 'race' for the first hour, running with the head not the heart. I had to let girls pass me without any fight. I didn't rush to overtake people but kept a steady pace. I ran the climb but on occasions when I slipped I took care to relax for the next minute and get rid of any lactic. It was a real test of patience.
We all got our fair share of pain at the
refreshment points as Riina pointed out.

And then we hit the 'flat'. In rough terms it was about 10km with around 600m climb but there were some small undulations. It's fast if you've got the legs for it and after such a controlled start I hoped I would. Although you can play things safe, it's hard to know exactly what state your legs will come out in after 1400m of climb. I started to test them out by giving myself a few targets ahead to help pick up the pace and find a faster rhythm.

I found myself with a girl setting a very good pace and it helped to sit in and just follow the footsteps in front. We ran quite a few km like this, alternating occasionally, but I never seemed to be in front for long. Again I restrained from any racing moves to drop her - we hadn't reached the 2 hour mark and the white building of Hotel Weisshorn had only just appeared on the skyline.
These things are so much better shared with friends.
Thanks for the company Riina!

I remembered this climb being the final nail in the coffin last time, the altitude (reaching 2400m) seemed to grind me to a halt. This was the part I suspected I would feel bad so I zipped up the man suit in advance, ready to hit the wall. No sooner had I done this than the girl by my side disappeared as if in reverse. I looked back at the next bend and there was at least 100m between us. This climb can do funny things to people.

I kept on running, waiting for it to be my turn to really suffer. I'm not going to pretend I wasn't hurting, but I was still progressing and fast at least relative to the rest of the runners around me. I got the high point of the course and I was buzzing with excitement. It was all downhill and I was one minute ahead of my earliest expected time at Weisshorn. Sub 3hr 30 is on, sub 3hr 25 could be possible! To make things even better, I ran past a pipe band (yes at 2400m). I shouted a white lie at them 'I'm from Scotland and that's amazing!' (I wasn't really going to stop and explain my nomadic British origins) but the result was they struck up into 'Scotland the Brave' and my grin got even bigger.

I was just behind a girl I'd caught on the last climb but she proved to be a great descender and I couldn't find a way past her. In fact she got a few metres on me and I found no way of getting them back. At least my competition was versus my watch and I was nailing that battle. But a few km later I found myself right back with her as we hit one of these brutal undulations. Thankfully my continental descending skills seem to be far superior to my Scottish ones and I pulled away in the final 3km steeper section. I hit the road at 3 hr 21 with 500m downhill to go. Doable.
My recent fondness for natural ice baths may have come to an end.

It felt amazing. Amazing to have so many people cheer you in. Amazing to have beaten those 2012 Sierre-Zinal demons. Amazing to have enjoyed the course how it was meant to be enjoyed. Amazing to sit and watch the hundreds of runners come in over the following few hours and I wondered what their stories would be. You couldn't run the race and come out without one.

Monday, 4 August 2014

World Orienteering Championships

It’s taken me a while to write this blog post but I’ve still not got anything really insightful to say. I knew I wasn’t running as fast as I wanted to be, I know the reasons, I know what I’m going to change for next year. But the World Championships was about getting the best out of the legs I had and actually I wasn’t too far off that.

I probably did max out in the individual sprint. I picked almost every route correctly, I kept hesitations to a minimum and 12th place was the result I got. I’m not going to lie - the position wasn’t what has got me out the door this winter but it had threatened to be a lot worse as I’d been making bizarre mistakes in every race and training session in the lead up.

Photo: worldofo.com and athlete profile here

But there were a lot of things about that sprint final day that put things into perspective. Running in the World Championships final around the streets of Venice was such a privilege and it was nice to be able to realise that at the time. It really felt special and looking back at the photos of that run in does give me that goosebump feeling again.

The other awesome thing was that my family came out to watch the race. Some of them haven’t been to an orienteering event before and it made me proud of our sport as they got really into it. It was also cool to see my Dad at the finish line who has been working in Ukraine since March. His near-daily emails have certainly put my ups and downs during this time into perspective. I’ll leave the politics to people like him but it was especially nice to see Nadiya Volynska make it onto the podium.

Amazing GB support every day despite the rain.
Photo: Dave Rollins
The sprint relay was the new one and we didn’t really know how it was going to go. The only thing we knew was four clean runs was essential. Gaffling had the potential to hide mistakes or exaggerate them so we just knew that as a team we needed to get round our legs cleanly and it would even out in the end. It was really satisfying to do that and we were dead chuffed to end up on the non-existent podium. However, I think if we are honest we’d probably all hoped that that performance might land us a little higher than 6th. Maybe we overestimated ourselves or underestimated others, or maybe we lacked something physically in the recovery from the sprint final or negotiating the treacherously slippy streets. 

Four clean runs! Four soaked athletes.
Photo: Dave Rollins
The relay was my final race of the week but first time in the team. I have really mixed feelings about the race. I knew my capabilities in the terrain, I knew that coming back in the lead pack was ambitious. I said I would run sensible and come back in that chasing group and if you’re generous, that’s what I did. Parts of my performance were really not sensible, I struggled with the relocating bit but I was pleased not to lose it completely. I pulled through in the last part of the course, helped by big hills, Emily Kemp and others losing it completely. So while it may not have been a great individual race, we were still firmly in the fight as I changed over in the 7-9th pack. Thanks to my teammates Claire Ward and Cat Taylor we managed another non-podium 6th place – the best GB women’s WOC relay result in 10 years.

First experience of WOC first leg.
Photo: Attackpoint.org

So am I happy with the season? I have to be to some extent. Measured against my own aims, I did manage to improve my forest orienteering. Time lost in mistakes has definitely reduced and I have even managed some decent international results. It’s hardly rocket science to attribute this to more hours in the forest in the winter/spring and I have to thank Silva for their support providing me with a headtorch that has opened up the world of night orienteering to me again! Although my WOC sprint result was disappointing, it was one of the best technical races I’ve run internationally. Ultimately I was just a bit too greedy this year, wanting success in forest and sprint orienteering, long and short hill races and all the local road and cross country races I like to do. And I was also a bit stupid, I didn’t deal well with things going wrong. But that’s all part of it and as bad years go I’ve been pretty lucky.

So, another WOC, another orienteering season done and the motivation is high. Next stop Inverness 2015*.

*via a few high mountains.

The first high mountain visited at 7am before the flight home. Monte Cornetto.