Saturday, 1 October 2011

Covered in bees.....well, sand anyway!

It’s been a week since I did the Commonwealth Ultra Trail Championships, and now that it’s been and gone, it feels like it was a bit of an anti-climax. I was expecting far more from the event yet I can’t really put my finger on why I feel a bit indifferent about things.

I’d been focused on the Commonwealths since May time, having decided to concentrate on the trails rather than the 100km on the road, and whilst training had been going well, I’ve had a lot on my mind for the past month or so, and I genuinely feel that this had a huge impact on my performance. Add to that a Mediterranean Cruise (where I did put on a little bit of weight – the deserts were divine!), and the fact that I was so busy trying to reassure others about how well they would run, when I stood on the start line last Sunday, I really hadn’t had the opportunity to think about how I would tackle the race!

If you delete my race result, the weekend really was a great success, and I was proud to be a part of it. Watching the 24 hour race was truly amazing, and I’m in complete awe of those athletes that do such events. It was great to witness the amazing Lizzy Hawker setting a new World Best Record for 24 hours and winning the race overall, but it was also great to watch so many familiar faces giving it their all – John Pares who won the men’s title, Jen Salter and Emily Gelder, Matt Giles and Sharon Gayter, Heather Foundling-Hawker, and of course all the other new friends that I made over the weekend.

Unfortunately we missed the mountain races, but it was a clean sweep for the English team, with the other home countries not doing so bad either, and it put the pressure on trail running teams to maintain the standard for England.

Sunday morning dawned, race day, and yet I felt no nerves, no pressure, nothing. I ate my breakfast without any problems, and even managed a couple of rounds of toast – something that is completely unheard of when I have a big race. The rest of the team were quite nervous, and yet I was quite relaxed and still felt nothing. Even driving to the start, I was more excited about running on the trails and having that solitude more so than the competition I would be facing, and I just couldn’t seem to get my head into what I was about to do.

Arriving at the start in Newborough Forest on Anglesey, the surroundings were absolutely beautiful – inviting woodland trails alongside open sandy beaches, and across the sea in the distance, the mountains of the Snowdonia National Park. The location couldn’t have been more perfect, and even the cloudy weather and brisk wind couldn’t dampen things. I just wanted to explore the area, but of course I was here to do a job – to run for England and do my best for the team.

Due to high tide, the race started quite late for an ultra and at 10.45am, a clutch of countries from all over the Commonwealth toed the start line. I had a look around, expecting in excess of a hundred athletes to be standing there, but the field looked much smaller than what the start list had indicated, and I felt a sense of disappointment.

Unlike the majority of the England team, I hadn’t had the opportunity to reccie the course in advance, so was at a disadvantage to some degree about what to expect. I’d heard so many things – steep sandy climbs, a tough course across the beach with a mixture of wet sand and sand dunes, a stretch across the headland that was really exposed – but then I’d also heard that it wasn’t that hilly and that most of it was runable. I just figured that being a 5 lap course of around 55km, I’d soon find out what the course was like and would soon get used to it!

England Ladies Trail Team plus Allen Smalls
 The start was fast, which surprised me somewhat given that I’d heard it was tough course. I started more cautiously as I didn’t want to burn myself out on the first lap, but with such a fast start, it wasn’t long before I was at the rear of the field with just five or so people behind me. I suppose I should have tried to keep in contact with the lead runners, but in all honesty I really couldn’t be bothered, and realised that I was in no mood for a race today, and in fact, was in no mood for anything.

Setting off across the beach for the first time, I was too distracted by the surroundings and whilst it was heavy going running through the sand, I didn’t really notice as I absorbed the views. I’d heard some people saying they hated the section around the headline, but I found it quite dramatic with rocky cliffs and the waves crashing against them. Even the sand dunes were enjoyable and not as hard as I had anticipated, and it wasn’t long before we hit the woodland trails.

Running through the woods, the tracks were still on the sandy side to start with but soon became carpeted in pine needles and resembled the woods back home where I’ve had many enjoyable runs.

Having passed the first feed station and had the usual encouragement from Andy Smith, I started to struggle with my breathing and wondered whether it was a result of the cold I had been trying to fight off all week (my Andy had been quite poorly leading up to the race, and we’d slept in separate rooms to avoid the lurgy!)  By now, I had been passed by a couple of ladies, and I really was at the back of the field. I started to feel quite drained, and then the negative thoughts started which caused me to slow down, and eventually stop completely. I remember sitting on a log in complete isolation feeling completely useless, telling myself I shouldn’t be there, and convincing myself that I needed to drop out of the race as I really wasn’t going to achieve anything. I’ve read so many blogs recently for some far better runners than myself that have DNF’d for one reason or another, and I began to think there was no shame in dropping out if the heart and soul aren’t in the race.

I passed the second feed station, and all the emotion I had been trying to contain suddenly came out. Karen Rushton and her chap Peter are absolute stars and they managed to convince me to keep going. I didn’t want to, but they said all the right things. Although  my mind still wasn’t on the job, physically I was fine and I’d always said that unless it was physical, I wouldn’t drop out of a race.

So on I went, back out across the beach for the second lap. The race continued in a similar format – I got slower, motivation was dwindling the further I went, and I really was just going through the motions. I had encouragement off people but it really didn’t have any impact on how I ran - I just felt extremely negative and lacking in confidence.

The beach section, and in no mood for racing!
By about lap 3, I’d been lapped by the leading men and that really did crush me – I was now 6 miles behind the leaders! – and shortly afterwards, the English chaps came past me. It was so great to see them, and having urged them on, I actually felt more reassured for some reason as I watched them disappear into the distance.

Things weren’t getting any better, and as I was half way round my 4th lap, I was lapped by Emma who was leading the ladies race.   A pat on the back and a “hang in there Del” worked wonders, as I knew that although I wasn’t needed on the team, I didn’t really want to let them down.

At last I started my final lap. The wind had gone incredibly strong by now making the beach section extremely tough. There was sand absolutely everywhere – in my eyes, up my nose, in my ears, in my mouth – it really was uncomfortable, but as the skies clouded over and a few spots of rain started to fall, I started to feel much much better and started to get a spring in my step. I LOVE running in the rain, and even Andy Smith commented on how I’d picked up the pace, probably as a result of the falling rain, and it was only then that I felt like I wanted the race to go on forever.

It was a lonely run coming up to the finish line. All the spectators had gone, the organisers had started to pack away the finish gantry and taped off areas, and even the coaches had moved down to the finish line. It looked like everybody had gone home and completely forgotten that there were still a couple of people out there running. AS I crossed the finish line, there was no well done or congratulations, there were no hugs and tears of joy off me or anybody else, in fact I didn’t even know I’d finished until I said to somebody packing away the tape “Is that it? Is that the finish line?” and he answered yes.

True to her word, Karen and Pete, and their young son Sam were still at the finish along with my Andy and the boys (Wilson and Sam). It was so nice to see them as they really were the only ones left, but had waited for over 5 hours for me to finish.

The good news is that the ladies trail team won team gold, with Emma winning the individual race (told her she would!), whilst the men’s team finished in silver medal position. I was so pleased for them, but personally I was disappointed - I really shouldn’t have kept going as I felt like I had humiliated myself once again with such a poor performance.

Post race party and some of the medal winning England Team - thankfully I  was able to keep smiling!

So now it’s all over, I can honestly say I’m relieved it’s done. I’ve had my confidence knocked again, but I like to think that I’m realistic about how things are going and genuinely think that whilst training had gone well, I don’t feel that it prepared me well enough and gave me the confidence I needed to do well in the race. I also know that I have too many distractions at the moment with lots of planning for the inevitable changes ahead over the coming months, which might explain why my running has for the first time in a long time taken a back seat.

For now though, cross country season starts next week, and I’m also planning my first proper fell race. I’m also going to revisit my training and change things a little, and I know that come the new year, I can refocus again. Things will have settled down by then, and I can start afresh with things – and maybe some of those long distant victories and racing confidence will return!

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