“Our greatest glory is not in never failing, but in rising up every time we fail.” -Ralph Waldo Emerson
I thought I knew what it meant to suffer. I thought the hours of sweat and overwhelming training had taught me a level of pain unlike anything else I could experience in competition.
That was my whole game plan. Make training so unbearable, so taxing, that the final race wouldn’t even seem hard anymore. Spending night after night, staring at the ceiling of my room.. afraid of the workout planned for the next day, I thought I was doing myself some sort of sinister justice.
This didn’t turn out the way I predicted.
The Journey There
Unlike the quick and dirty nature of local races, Worlds necessitated months of planning itinerary and accommodations as well as several days of travel just to get to the venue. The location for this years World Championships was Cassette Di Massa, Italy, a beautiful coastal town home to an inspiring range of jagged peaks. It would have made for a fantastic vacation even without the race, but the underlying reason for being there still lingered in our minds on the flight over.
After several days of travel, late busses, lost luggage, and crippling language barriers, we finally made it to the coastal town of Massa. Massa is the name of the bigger town in which all the athletes stayed in; Cassetta Di Massa is the small village deep within the mountains where the race would be held.
In Massa we were shuttled to our hotel which we were to share with teams USA and Mexico.
The next day we got a chance to pre-sweep the course. This was the first glimpse at the absolute hell we were in for. Roughly 15 buses filled with athletes from around the globe were escorted through the city by the local police force. After 45 minutes of very impressive driving through the bustling city and narrow roads we reached the starting zone for the race. We had a few hours to walk the course before the buses would depart back to Massa.
The course was unlike anything I had ever seen before. Unforgiving, barren, scenic, magnificent? Words I had never thought could all apply to the same thing without being contradictory.
From a tactical point of view, it was a mountain runners paradise. With many different gradients and surfaces to run on ranging from 45% and muddy, to flat marble, there was something for everybody to enjoy. Too often courses are monotonous without much variation to keep the mind engaged. The Italians really did their homework creating this one.
Beginning in the paved streets of Cassette Di Massa, it began with 1km of quick flat running on a paved road before taking a sharp left uphill into a series of winding alleys and stone steps. After another kilometre of winding steeply through the city you entered the forest.
The second section was the core of the race and where the gradient really kicked back. The route went through the forest steeply up the mountain side for about 4 kilometres at an average gradient of 35%. To those of you who are familiar with the grouse grind, it was very similar to that. As you gained more elevation the trees thinned out until all that was left was thick grasses, shrubs, and the occasional withered tree.
After climbing for what seemed like an eternity, racers would reach an intermediate summit of the main mountain. From here you ran steeply down a winding road that lead into the massive marble quarry. The marble quarry was easily the most impressive location for a race I have ever seen. 40m high marble steps were cut into the mountain like an ancient staircase, and massive excavated holes dropped away from the side of the service road for what seemed like a mile.
Through the quarry we followed the service road up and down rolling terrain which lead us to a massive tunnel. The tunnel was a 1km out and back loop that took racers deep into the depths of the opposing mountain. The tunnel was completely black, except for the large work lights lining the path. This whole section was about 4k or more.
After the tunnel came the final sting in the tail. A 1.7km long section of 30% service road leading straight up to the summit. It was like something out of a movie, a service road that would only exist in a James Bond film. What made this section particularily memorable in the race was the thousands of people lining it the whole way. From the base of the final climb to the summit, there was a consistent crowd on either side, as thick as 4 people at times.
The moment before the start was so quiet.. you could have heard a pin drop.
All the nerves and predisposed desires to “do my country proud” and “show the world that canadians are tough” went out the window when that gun went off. For days, even months I tossed and turned in fear of how painful.. how intense the suffering would be. It almost felt heroic toeing the start line… but maybe that was just because I got a frontline spot next to the winning Ugandan runner.
My expecations of a fast race were not let down after running a brisk 2:52 first kilometre on the flat road. I knew right away I was faster than I wanted to be, and I was going to be in for a painful race.
The pace barely slackened as we reached the first sharp uphill turn. Runners all around me seemed like they werent even exerting energy as they floated up the stone steps. I gritted my teeth and focused on staying on the tail of the racer in front of me, but I new my HR was way higher than normal.
The first part of the race went quite well and I managed to stay right around the middle of the pack. I could start to see the runners around me feeling the same intense level of fatigue, which made my own suffering feel a bit easier.
The second section of the race climbing steeply up through the forest was where the real pain began. At this point my body had gone entirely anaerobic. I was gasping and wheezing with every step as the lactate bubbled in my calfs and quads.
And then, it all goes wrong
It was at this point, roughly 15 minutes into the race that my worst nightmare came to reality. A recent camping trip weeks prior to Italy gave me a little niggle on my right IT band that I was worried would come back to me on race day.
I took a particularily large step uphill with my right leg, maybe a meter in height, and immediately paid the consequence. My IT band and Vastus lateralis rippled up to my hipbone like a reloading shotgun. I winced with pain and was terrified at the prospect of having torn or pulled my IT band. I honestly can’t remember how everything went from this point on because I was so fatigued. But I could tell after a few more steps that it couldnt be torn, or else I would be on the ground. The dull aching pain remained, but I figured dropping out was not an option after having worked so hard to make it to this race. It wasnt about placing well anymore, it was just about crossing the finish line on my own two feet.
After what seemed like forever I crested the top of the first main climb and began descending into the quarry. My IT band was feeling a bit better at this point, probably because the swelling had numbed much of the pain.The section through the quarry went by quickly, and before I knew it I was on my way up the final climb. The atmosphere up this final climb was electrifying with the cheers from the crowd. Apparently most countries really like to cheer on Canada, because they made me feel like I was in first place for a second.
Do not go gentle into that good night
Despite the immense motivation I was receiving from the crowd, the last section was one of the hardest sections of any race I have ever ran. My HR was now sitting at 205bmp and every muscle in my body felt like jello. I was foaming at the mouth with sticky salivas and I was fighting the urge to puke with every step.
The pain in my IT band intensified throughout this last section to an unbearable point. With every step I took it felt like my lower limb was about to separate from my leg. My right quadriceps muscles were going through spasms, and the veins were thick and pulsating like a spiders web.
Despite not having the race I had hoped for, I cannot describe how happy I was to cross that finish line. To have worked for something so hard for so many months, and finally experience it in full was unbelievable. I gave everything I had on that final climb despite the circumstances; to me, that effort is all that matters.
As always seems to happen with every race I sign up for, there are a few important lessons that I will take with me back home. After speaking with so many high caliber mountain runners over the week I realized my training and preperation was very flawed.
I was so focused on getting my weight down to have an effective power/weight ratio that I left myself feeling weak and hungry day after day, severely sabotaging my chances of making fitness gains. My training was also far too unpredictable. On pretty much every workout I always had the goal in mind of giving it 110% at some point, feeling the biggest lactic burn I could handle. From the mouths of some of the fastest in the world themselves, the most effective training is nowhere near a max effort pace.. because this allows you to recover properly.
I could blab on for hours about all the mistakes I made, but at the end of the day this was my first time competing at such a high level of competition. I’d be lying to myself if I thought things were going to go well and I wasn’t going to be given a swift dose of reality. Things went well given the circumstances, and since the race I have recovered well from the IT band injury.
Here are some more pictures from the trip!