Its hard to believe its been a year since 2014 nationals at Kicking Horse Mountain. Before beginning the write up for this years race, I thought it would be interesting to look back on my post from last year and remember all the thoughts that were going through my head.
Back then, mountain running was fresh and new to me. I new few people that did it competitively and I was still surprised myself that there was even a World Championships for it. Not getting what I wanted from collegiate sport, I decided to drop from the UBC team and pursue it on my own.
It was clear to me reading over my recap that I was putting way to much pressure on myself before the race. After racing at last years Mtn Running Worlds and in Skimo Worlds this past winter, I’ve learned a great deal from others about the importance of calming oneself before a race. In order to perform at your best, you have to rid yourself of as much external pressure as possible and run the race to your own strengths.
Last year was a great example of not doing this. With so much pent up emotion and desire to win, I took off from the start line in the lead way faster than I new I could sustain. I paid for it, and suffered for the last half of the race, slipping deeper into the pain cave with each cumbersome step. I won, I qualified, but I was lucky. I did the exact same thing at World Champs and paid for it again, pulling my IT Band early on.
Back in grade school I used to thrive upon starting slow, patiently sitting at the back of the pack, letting my opponents sizzle out front with all cylinders firing. Then, as the race would progress I would pick up my pace, and slowly make my surge to the front. For the longest time, I lost my ability to do this. Maybe I’m not patient enough, or maybe its just difficult to employ such a strategy when you often cannot see your opponents (in the trails), but either way I lost it.Marco Pantani, the legendary Italian cyclist said it brilliantly. I’m at a loss for an exact quote, but it went a little something like, “I like to start at the back at the base of any climb so that I can pass people later on and watch them suffer.
This year, I’ve changed a lot of different things ranging from my diet to training plan. But I knew all of this would truly make a difference if I could find my old running tactics.
This year, nationals would be held at Cypress Mountain in conjunction with the local 5 peaks race series. This meant a few things for me. I would have an advantage being able to train on the race course, it would be a very technical course, and likely more athletes would show up.
I addressed the issues I could, working on my technical abilities with short snappy intervals on root infested trails, and did as many long rungs of the course as I could. I wanted to have each section memorized so I could have a better idea of where the best places to attack and hold off would be. I chose not to worry about who else would show up to race, something I would have worried about a lot the year before.
I felt this course strongly favoured me, especially because it was not an uphill only year as it was in Kicking Horse. I used to think the uphill was my strong point, but after seeing how unbelievably fit some people (Killian Jornet) are I’ve started to look more towards my downhill and flat speed. In track & cross country, flat speed is everything, something that many pure trail runners are not used to.
The course consisted of 3 climbs, one small one in the beginning (150m), one large steep one in the middle (400m), and a final rooty technical climb in the final section (100m). I knew from running the course the year before that going too hard on the main uphill would leave my legs dead and slow for the technical downhill. Attacking the uphill may give you a couple minutes advantage, but that pails in comparison to the 5+ minutes you could put into others if your fresh for the remainder after the climb.
The bulk of the race would be spent on a technical out and back section just after the main climb. This is where I planned to make my move, picking away at the people in front of me.
I warmed up slowly, earbuds in my ears, listening to the playlist I had selected carefully the night before. I always like to make a 20-30 minute long playlist before each race, beginning with soft, calm music, and progressively picking up tempo with each song. The benefit of such a playlist is two-fold. First, you can distract yourself from the usual pre-race talks with competitors of “how is your season going” or my personal favourite, “Are you feeling good today?”. It helps you focus on warming up properly. Second, it gets your adrenaline going, which is important with races that consist of so much suffering.
With every change of song, I felt more and more ready to race. I new my plan, and I was poised to execute it. “Thirty minutes to go” I finished up my jog and started on my FMS exercises, making sure my glute meds, psoas, and TFA’s were firing properly. “Twenty minutes to go,” dynamic warm up: High knees, butt kicks, karaoke, leg swings, priming my body like a gas stove. Ready to go, just waiting for the single spark of the gun. “10 minutes to go,” music out, deep breaths, slow down my heart rate and repeat the plan over and over again in my head.
The race took off at a reasonable pace up the first hill with runners strung out right away. I started off nice and easy, tucking in around 20th place. I stayed well within my comfort zone on the first climb, picking a few people off here and there, making sure I didn’t expend to much energy early on. When the first descent came I let my legs fly, putting a little bit of a gap into the group I was running with. At this point, I could see far ahead the lead pack (1-10) were putting considerable time into everyone else. Knowing that pretty much everyone in that pack was faster than me, I decided to keep my position and keep the HR low. If someone beats you every time you race them, and you know they are better than you on the day, there is no point in thinking your somehow going to be 4 minutes faster on the day. “Let them go, run your own race” I told myself.
At the bottom of the first descent we ran through about 2km of winding flats. I could tell the runners behind me were trying hard to catch me, so I slowed the pace down a little so I could have some people to work off of on the main climb. The flats went buy quick, and it felt great to get going with a decent stride. Going into the main climb I fell back into 11th place, with the fellow who had just passed me sprinting up as if the very finish line was at the summit. “Your going to blow up” I thought. I let him go, I knew if he had that kind of speed he would have been with the front pack anyways, hopefully he wouldn’t sustain it and I could pick him off later.
At this point I started to get a little worried about how well my plan was going. I had run this hill many times before in training, but I started to really feel fatigued. Up until this point I felt completely in control, able to surge if need be, but suddenly the climb had turned into a bit of a death march. I decided right then and there I had to slow it down. It was to early on to risk going into the red, and I knew there would be plenty of terrain up higher to make up the ground. I still managed to run the entire 30% climb, taking a few minutes longer than I thought and losing a few spots, but I managed to recover a little bit.
At the top of climb I took a wrong turn, but thankfully local ultra running champ Mike Murphy gave me a shout and I came back on trail. Mike had made ground on me on the climb, coming to within about 10m at the top. I was glad I could start the decent with a little bit of a lead, knowing how impressive his downhill skills were, but unfortunately I would now have to somehow try and catch him.
With the little bit of energy I gained from slowing down on the climb, I started the out and back hard. Quickly making back the positions I had lost on the climb. I still had Mike within my sights, about 100m in front; I was absolutely determined to get him. After about 15 minutes we reached the turnaround point at the eagle bluffs. Whats quite cool about this race is you get to see exactly how far apart everyone is as well as how tired they look when you turn around to head back into he ski area. My immediate worry was the people I had just passed on the downhill. I had made a sizeable lead on most of them, around 4 minutes, but one guy managed to keep pretty close to me. Knowing he only had about a minute to gain on the technical uphill leading back to the ski resort, I knew I would have to absolutely empty the tank to fend him off. When I ran by him on my way back he looked like he was gaining speed, my work was cut out. Although the finish line wasn’t the end of the out and back, I ran the race as if it was, because the final kilometre would be straight down the ski run to the finish. No matter how tired I would be, I was confident I could rally for the final descent.
This was when the pain started. The racing tactics were done, I had made my move and the pack was chasing me. There wouldn’t really be another opportunity to gain much more time if they did catch me, so I knew I had to keep the gap. Mike was still in front, around the same distance as before, but I couldn’t focus on him at all. One thought crossed my mind, “Don’t let them catch you.” “Don’t let them see you, don’t give them that motivation. Give them nothing, you owe it to yourself. Prove to yourself that you still have the guts to lay it all out.”
My HR climbed as my hamstrings filled like balloons with lactic acid. I’d finish a short steep section, wanting nothing more than to recover a bit on the flat, but I knew I couldn’t. The air was hot and dry, making every step that much harder. I finally reached the final descent, with Mike about 150m in front and my chaser 100m back. I let my legs fly, and started making my final push. Everything hurt now, I could think of nothing but the finish line. I wanted to quit, I wanted to slip and fall, anything to give me a reason to stop. I kept going, injecting little bursts of pace to try and drop my pursuer. Each time I looked back he didn’t look any farther. I pushed harder, harder, “It will be over soon. If theres one thing you need to do right now it’s to not give up. Nothing else matters, there is nothing after this race. This it it, you must beat him.” Finally I saw the final corner before the finish line. I had about a minute to go. Mike was closer now, maybe 30 meters. I kicked, with every morsel of energy I had left. I wanted to vomit.
And then…. it was over. I crossed the line, keeping my pursuer at bay and just 10 seconds behind Mike. I was pissed I didn’t catch him, but this was the first time I had even been within 2 minutes of him, better to be happy with improvement than unhappy with not enough improvement.
I was spaced out in a trance, utterly exhausted, but so happy it was over. I didn’t give up, I fought with everything I had. I honestly haven’t been able to really feel like that for a long time. As a runner, its easy to fall into the illusion that you give your best effort every time, but deep down we all know it takes a special will to tap into that final gear. In the end I managed 12th overall and 7th Canadian across the line, giving me a spot on the Senior team for the World Championships this September in Snowdonia, Wales. I couldn’t be happier with how the race went, and I’m excited that for the first time in a while I was able to run a smart, tactical race.
It’s been a hell of a ride, and all I can say is I’m glad to say this roller coaster doesn’t seem to be ending any time soon.