Monday, July 25, 2011

The battle of Snowdon

Finishing time: 1:16:40 (Summit 51:40)
Distance / ascent / descent: 10 miles (16.2km) / 1085 metres of ascent and descent
Finishing position: 27/500

The Snowdon international mountain race is one of the big races on the British fell (mountain) running calendar, and this year became a ‘stage’ on the European Sky Race series. The race offers big prize money (£10,000) and attracts plenty of top runners from across Europe.

The course is an exciting and demanding 10 mile ascent and descent of Snowden, the highest mountain in Wales. The route is out and back (5 miles each way) from the village of LLanberis at the base of Snowden, and involves 1085 metres of vertical ascent/descent. I was thankful this year to finally secure myself an elusive entry for the race (only 500 entries available), after getting in early for a change.

Having reccied the route last summer, I was anxious and a little unnerved by the epic nature of the race. The climb was long and painfully steep in parts. For this reason, I altered my training over the last few weeks by running hill repeat work-outs each week in place of a second track session. And I added some additional mileage on the hills to prepare the legs for the climb.

There was a large and intimidating contingent of international team runners crowding the start line in their national vests. This included the Irish team of Tom Hogan, Stephen Cleary, Roger Barret and Robert Malseed, whom had staked their claim for the Irish vest with strong performances at the Irish European mountain team trial last month.

I took off at a cautious pace from the gun, watching unconcerned as the Irish vests moved ahead on the steep tarmac. Climbing has never been my strong point, and on this unforgiving and grueling ascent it is essential to conserve leg strength for the latter part of the climb (if you think it's bad blowing up in a road race, you should try blowing up half way up a mountain). Having said that, the hill repeats seemed to be doing their job because I felt comfortable hopping up the boulders. I tentatively pulled up beside Stephen Cleary about 15 minutes into the climb and went ahead, for the time-being.

I then passed a Northern Ireland Irish runner who seemed already to be struggling, and pulled up next to a local runner, before recognizing him as Iain Ridgeway. Uncannily, Iain is a flying Welshman whom inspired me to take up the sport of mountain running years ago when I met him in Wellington, NZ. I hadn’t seen him since he’d moved back to Wales in 2006. We exchanged a few surprised words upon recognizing each other, then back to the matters at hand.

The field thinned out after 30 minutes of climbing and the legs began hurting. I was reduced to a clambering walk on the last steep boulder climb, but was still moving well and pulled back a couple of struggling runners. Iain passed me about 500 metres before the summit, and Stephen Cleary (in the Irish vest) then came past and I followed the lads over the summit boulder steps.

My quads were burning furiously at the summit. The first few boulder steps of the descent are very steep, and I struggled to keep my legs from buckling under the weight of my body. I took a few seconds to gather my breath and collect myself. All was going according to plan. Regain composure, it's almost time to attack the descent.

First thing is first. In a mountain race where you’re not overly familiar with the route, it normally pays to follow a local guy who knows what he’s doing. I knew that Iain would know the course like the back of his hand because he lives at the foot of the mountain, so I decided that I would do everything I could to stay with him.

The leaders were being diverted off the summit onto the train tracks. Iain dived through a gap between boulders off the edge of the trail below the summit, down onto the train tracks. I followed him and exclaimed to Stephen – this guy knows where he’s going - gesturing towards Iain.

I knew that Iain was a class mountain runner, but the way he tackled the descent took even me by surprise. He took off so fast from the summit that he managed to put 100 metres on us by the time we hit the tracks. Stephen and I launched into overdrive to pull him back over the next five minutes. Tearing down the mountain dodging the multitudes of meandering and unpredictable pedestrians.

We had managed to get within about 25 metres of him, when he followed a goat track onto the grass to take an alternative route alongside the main track. By doing so, we managed to avoid many more tourists whom littered the main trail. Our efforts to close the gap on Iain paid off, because we were now able to follow his line, which (being a local) he had no doubt run and tested hundreds of times before in training.

Over the ensuing ten minutes, Iain, Stephen and I descended like mad men and passed over ten runners whom had beat us to the summit, including two of the Irish team runners – Robert Malseed and Roger Barrett, who were less accustomed to the terrain. Such was the pace (sub 5 minute miles over steep grass and boulders) that with 2 miles to go I began to feel fatigued. Stephen moved ahead of me on a flatter section of the course, and I lost a few seconds on the pair of them. But did my best to stay in touch before the final steep technical descent down onto the road.

By this stage the soles of your feet are burning due to the pummelling they've been getting for more than twenty minutes. Massive blisters had formed and I could swear the soles of my shoes were melting. Just to make things worse, the last half-mile involves an extremely steep paved road which flattens out towards the finish line.

I managed to pull back a few seconds on the steep road but had nothing left to give once the road flattened out. Iain was 30 metres ahead and Stephen was about 10 metres ahead. I was operating on the threshold between running an optimal race (leave nothing in the tank), and collapsing in a heap a couple of hundred metres short of the finish line. The short uphill stint at the road junction into Llanberis (I'm talking 30 metres) nearly finished me off. The best I could do was to keep pace with my two comrades and cross the finish line just in behind them.

Well done to the lads, I enjoyed the epic battle. It was the most intense and physically demanding mountain race I’ve ever run. The climb was a killer (51:40) but the descent was even more gruelling (5 miles down a mountain @ 5:00 mile pace or 3:06 min/km).

Days later, I’m still hobbling around like a geriatric, in significant pain all through my legs from the pounding – D.O.M.S. No chance of running until later in the week. Will have to hit the pool instead.

Back in the game

After taking a few weeks out to concentrate on training and hitting the hills for fun, I decided to race last week as a warm-up to the International Snowdon mountain race on Saturday 23 July.

So I tentatively took to the start line at the Phoenix Park 5 mile on Saturday 16 July. On the one hand I was confident because training had been going well. But I hadn’t posted a good performance in a race in 9 weeks, so was worried that my form in training might not translate into race fitness. The hilly and wind-swept course was not about to deliver fast times, so my best hope for the race was to finish strong and take back my confidence by racing smart.

Things went to plan. After running a steady race throughout with several runners sitting in behind me, I attacked at the magazine fort where the course turned left uphill and into the wind for the last mile of the race. In doing so I shook off the runners who had been sitting behind me, pushed past a couple of runners and made some ground on some usual (friendly) adversaries who were up ahead.

Most runners were disappointed and somewhat alarmed by the ‘slower-than-expected times - checking in with each other to make sure that they weren't the only one to fall short of time expectations. But slow times were inevitably due to the course and race conditions. On the whole, this was a promising first race back for me.

Four days later I took a bold step and signed up for the Dublin Graded 3000m at Irish town track, alongside a few fellow Rathfarnham W.S.A.F club mates.

The 3000m event involves 7 ½ laps of the Olympic distance athletic track. Track racing is often very tactical, and it takes practice to get the hang of the pacing and race-strategy. Unfortunately I missed most of the track season due to illness in the first half of June. So as it stands this was my first, and will be my only, track race of the 2011.

The top lads went off ahead while myself and a couple of club mates settled at a tempered pace of 74/75 second laps (3:06min/km or 4:58 min/miles) and ran more-or-less together for the first 5 laps (2km). The pace seemed to slow a bit after the first two laps and I was feeling ok after three laps so I tried to push past, but my club mate Brian Furey had different ideas, and accelerated as I pulled beside him. I wasn’t used to running 3 minute kilometres and was nervous about blowing up, so I decided not to rise to his challenge at this early stage of the race (after painfully watching too many breakaway cyclists last week getting pulled back by the peloton throughout the TdF last week).

Two laps later, I felt strong and decided to go for it. I pushed to the front of the group with 600m to go and imagined myself running intervals at Bushy Park (Tuesday training ground). The adrenaline kicked in then, and I surged ahead, confident that I had enough gas to shake off any late challenges. I then had a clear run into the finish.

Finished in 9:19 on the stopwatch, so approximately 3:06 min/km pace. I would have needed to run harder in the middle part of the race to run a fast time, but I enjoyed the race and it was a good confidence booster for the Snowdon race, so it served it’s purpose.

My season goal after returning from Kenya was to run under 9 minutes for 3000m. That was based on a plan to race and train for track all through the summer. So this result was quite acceptable considering how things actually turned out.

Observation: track racing, alongside a fast paced mountain descent, is probably the most exhilarating type of running race. There is something about the pace, combined with the shoulder to shoulder battles that play out on the track, that make it such a buzz.

I look forward to having a decent crack at the track next season. Fingers crossed for a clean run into it next time.