Friday, October 7, 2011

Commonwealth Ultra Trail Championships 2011

A Captain’s Perspective

With the boom of trail running worldwide, the organisers of the 2nd Commonwealth Mountain and Ultra Distance Championships (CMUDC), wisely chose to include an ultra trail race into this biannual event’s program. This replaced the 100km road run which proved to be the least popular event on the program at the previous CMUDC in Keswick. Factoring in the 100km World Champs were less than a month before, and it would have been an easy decision for the organisers to make.

With team mate Mick Donges on a training jog around
the 'Great Orme'
Having arrived at the race headquarters in stunning Llandudno, Wales (a much less stunning name to pronounce!), the team gathered at the group hotel to settle in and meet each other, some for the first time. Staying at the same hotel as the 24 hour team was a benefit to the trail team. We got to know our fellow teammates and build team spirit. As the 24 hour event was first on the program, we were able to watch a considerable portion of our guys and girls go around in their event. If any of the trail team were lacking in inspiration, they would have gone away with a bucket load to take into our own race after watching the guts and determination of these incredible runners!

From my perspective, I couldn’t be happier with the swap to a trail event. I’ve really been focussing on trail running this year which culminated in some very good results at 6 Foot Track and The North Face 100, which was thankfully enough to be selected. Having represented Australia at the last CMUCD , I was given the honour of being named Team Captain of the trail team. Completing the men’s team was the ‘junior’ Mick Donges and the ‘all wise one’ Jonathan Worswick. Making up the ladies team were Verity Breen, Kirstin Bull, Katie Siebold-Crosby and Cindy Hasthorpe. What this meant was that as a nation, we would be competitive not only individually, but also in both team’s categories where the top three times from each nation go towards a team award.

With mate Jame Kuegler from NZ during the
'reccie' of the course
Three days prior to the event, the team convened and, borrowing Rob Boyce’s car, drove to the Newborough Forest on the Isle of Anglesey which was to be the venue of the 53.75km ultra trail race. Organisers had gone to a lot of effort to make the course both scenic for runners and friendly for spectators, and they did not disappoint. It was both beautiful and challenging, and although devoid of any major climbs, the course threw up a lot of challenges in terms of the terrain and weather conditions. The route was basically a 10.5km loop which we were to do five times during the race. The terrain was a mixture of smooth tracks through lovely pine forest, soft sand beach running and grassy single track. Initial thoughts after the ‘reccie’ were that this was one of the least technical ‘trail’ runs we had seen and that it would suit the faster marathoners in the field rather than the hardened trail runner used to big climbs and tricky terrain. Certainly it was very different to what we were all used to being called a ‘trail’ event in Australia!

I was more than happy with the course. I was sure my road running background would put me in good stead during the race, while others, such as Jonathan, was cursing his luck. Jonathan is, of course, one of the better ‘technical’ trail runners on the trail running scene, as his results on the toughest courses over his extensive career prove. The girls were in good spirits too, with Verity offering thanks to the heavens for the ‘flat’ course more than once!

The team was in high spirits pre-race!
L-R, Back : Kirstin Bull, Jonathan Worswick, Mick Donges, Me
Front: Cindy Hasthorpe, Katie Siebold-Crosby, Verity Breen
Prerace, as is usually a ritual for me, I glanced through the list of competitors. Some very big names were in the field. There was Vajin Armstrong from New Zealand who won last year’s Kepler Challenge and Huw Lobb from England who famously won the annual Man versus Horse race in Wales for the first time in its 25-year history. Also in the field were Richard Gardiner, the Welsh Marathon Champion with a 2:18 marathon to his name and the Canadian Jason Loutitt, who this year was second at the World Trail Running Championship in Ireland. Throw in the English, Scots and the usual mix of unknown Kenyans, Zambians and South Africans and this was truly an elite international field.

Race morning soon dawned and we arrived on Anglesey to be met by overcast and cool conditions. It was almost perfect conditions, the only worrying factor was a strong on-shore breeze (more like a gale!) that was blowing. It would ensure tough running on the beach section (approx 1.5km each lap) and the out and back section to the little island where, at least on the ‘out’ it would be coming right into our face. We were thankful however, that it would not affect us through the protected forest sections which made up the majority of the course. We all agreed that there would be very fast and very slow sections throughout the race and prerace advice to the team was to ‘run smartly’ to the conditions and terrain of the course and not to be sucked into racing the opposition too early.

The pace was hot early! I soon fell off this leading pack
and took a much more conservative approach!
As soon as the gun went off, the Africans took off like it was a 10km road tempo. They also managed to pull along a few others, notably Loutitt and Lob and the main pack, made up of the Africans, went through the first lap in 35 minutes! I settled into a much more circumspect pace, settling into the second chasing group. Most of us in this group agreed that the race was going to be a battle of attrition and 54km was going to prove the undoing of more than one competitor!

And how right we were. By the end of the second lap I began to pass the Zambians and South African runners who were paying the price of the early suicidal pace. A Kenyan runner was still maintaining the lead, followed by Lobb, Gardiner and Loutitt. The out and back section of the island allowed the chasers to keep track of the competitors in front. Not far behind me and on my tail was Mick, Vajin from NZ and two Welsh runners Lane and namesake Andrew Davies, who were pacing themselves perfectly.

You can get an idea of the tough headwind
faced in this section of the course
The beach and island section were undoubtedly the toughest sections of, on what you would otherwise call, an undulating cross country course. Faced with strong headwinds, soft sand, seaweed, crushed shell and rocky outcrops; it took a considerable amount of nous to negotiate this section. I did notice a lot of the front runners take the most direct line across the beach across the soft sand. My tactic was to run a further distance to the outgoing tidal mark on the harder sand and run along this stretch. Although longer, it proved to be much less taxing and allowed me to maintain my rhythm. I believe this section contributed to the demise of a lot of the early pacemakers.

Soon after I passed a fading Loutitt and found myself in 6th place at the 30km mark. I still felt very strong, although not as strong as Welshmen Davies and Lane who passed me soon after. Despite being passed, the little lift I undertook as I ran with them enabled me to put a comfortable space between myself and the chasing pack made up of Donges, Armstrong and the Scot Andrew Fellas. I soon found myself running on clear trail and I used this time to reassess my form and my strategy for the rest of the near 20kms. On the 2nd last lap I was surprised to see the Kenyan, Tum, lying face down on the trail clutching his hamstring. Although very unfortunate for him, it put me in the top 5 and not without a chance of snaring a medal. I really put my head down and suddenly all the memories from watching the 24h race flooded back. I was getting tremendous support from the impartial spectators (perhaps having a very Welsh surname helped!), from Rob Boyce who had set himself up at the halfway drink station and the Aussie crew at the start/finish line made up of David Kennedy and Justin Scholz.

Then the tailwind! This part of the course was bliss!
The big effort on the 4th lap was rewarded with the Welshman Lane coming back into view on some of the longer open stretches on the course and I was determined to pull him in on the last lap. Matt Bixley, the elite NZ 24h runner offered me great support along the beach section and, while beginning to believe a medal was perhaps just going to be out of reach, I was determined to finish as quick as possible to ensure a strong team position. Throughout the race I was constantly doing ‘rough’ team calculations based on competitors positions in relation to the Aussie guys and I knew with Mick being just on my tail and Jonathan putting in a great effort midpack, we would be up there for a medal.

Trail running heaven - pine needle soft trail...oh and I was
wearing my trusty INOV-8 X-Talons too!
At the last drink station, I was greeted with the trusty bottle of water and a “You’re in 4th!” message from Rob Boyce. I was shocked and I was later to find out the Englishman Lobb had ‘blown up’ at 48km and the new leader was now Gardiner from Wales, with the other Welshmen making up the top three. Suddenly a medal was within reach and seeing Lane only 150m ahead I began to call on the very last of my reserves for one last big effort. I was gradually catching Lane, and was planning my strategy for the pass until he turned and saw me on a straight piece of trail and that was all the impetus he needed to put in a big surge. With only a few kms to go, I had no choice but to go with his surge and hope that he faded late, but despite my intentions, the body was not as willing and cramping in the calves pretty much turned my thoughts of 3rd now into holding down 4th. This can be the price you pay for putting in a big effort and the finish line could not come quick enough! Entering the final stretch I was spurred on by the really respectful Welsh crowd and my Aussie crew and I threw my arms in the air as I crossed the finish line in a time of 3:38:57. I was very happy with that race, I don’t think I could have raced any smarter, or quicker, and as such it is a very satisfying result. The winner was Gardiner in 3:29:55 with the Welshmen Davies second in 3:34:34 and Lane third in 3:38:09.

Big sweaty hug for Mick Donges, who
finished 5th in his international debut!
Only a minute later, Mick Donges, looking very fresh crossed the finish line in 5th spot to be welcomed with a sweaty hug from myself, probably the last thing he wanted! It is a tremendous result in his debut international race. Watch out for big things from this guy in the years to come, he is truly a superstar of the sport in the making. Following Mick’s finish, I was told by an official that I had been randomly selected for a doping test. I won’t go into that story, it is another story worthy of a report on its own, but in a nutshell what it did mean was that I disappointingly missed the rest of my Aussie teammates finish.

When I eventually was freed from my ‘commitments’, I learned that our own Kirstin Bull had run a fabulous race to finish on the podium in third place. I did not see Kirstin on the course, but obviously and from all reports from the crew, she ran a particularly smart race, pacing herself beautifully throughout the entire distance. Watch out for Kirstin too in the years to come in the ultra scene. Katie finished in a wonderful 8th spot, Verity in 10th and Cindy in 14th, uttering something about doing the ‘24h race next time’! This ensured the girls won a very deserving team bronze medal. The men’s teams results were much closer and was very hard to make a ‘good guess’ due to the number of DNFs in the race and the top times being very close. With Jonathan putting in one of the fastest last lap times in the field and finishing in a superb 16th spot, we knew we were up there. However, with the race over and the typical British weather setting in, everyone was quick to leave the island and it wasn’t until the medal ceremony that night did we find out that we also managed to snare a team Bronze medal, behind the Welsh and the English team.
All the Aussie medallists!
L-R, Back: Katie, Verity, Me, Dave Kennedy (2nd Mens 24h)
Mick, Jonathan
Front: Kirstin (2 Bronze medals!), Meredith Quinlan
(3rd Women's 24h), Sharon Scholz
Absent: Susannah Harvey-Jamieson (part of Women's Silver
Medal winning 24h team)
I am very proud of our results, and very honoured to have represented Australia and captained the team. Two team medals and an individual medal to Kirstin in a world class field is a tremendously pleasing result and can only be great for Australian ultra trail running. I am most proud of the fact that we all stuck to our race plan and really dug deep for the team when going through the bad patches. On behalf of the trail team, I would like to thank Rob Boyce and Justin Scholz for managing the team and all behind the selections at AURA. I would like to think I will be back in two years time but who can tell what the future holds?

Trail Splits and Laps Times