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.

1 comment:

  1. Top notch Tesa. Well run and written. Hope to catch up soon.