Commonwealth Ultra-distance and Mountain Running Championships
I like to think that I'm both an ultra distance and a mountain runner. Unfortunately, for the Commonwealth championships in Keswick last weekend it was a choice of one or the other. The mountain races were short: an uphill-only race to the summit of Skiddaw, and a lapped up-and-down course over Latrigg; while the ultras were firmly on the tarmac: a 24-hour event on a 1 km course around Fitz Park, and a 100 km route on a quiet road along the back of Thirlmere.
The championships kicked off with the 24-hour event. It started at 12, and after a while we sauntered down to watch the competitors gently jogging in circles around the park. Then we got bored (and dizzy), so we went back for an afternoon snooze. A leisurely meal. A cup of tea. A quiet evening chatting and reading books. As I climbed into my comfortable bed some time later I spared a brief thought for them still circuiting the park – and drifted off for 8 hours deep, restful slumber. In the morning we lay in awhile, did justice to a substantial breakfast, and sat around to digest it. Finally, we went back to the park to see how they were getting on. We'd almost forgotten they were still racing.
The closing stages of a 24-hour race are messy. Vomit-stained zombies shuffled slowly around the perimeter, bloodshot eyes staring hollowly from saggy grey faces. Just one or two competitors could still manage a painful jog. The winner though was approaching a staggering (in more ways than one) 160 miles – an astonishing distance to cover on foot in a day. Just a shame to do it all in circles.
I didn't see much of the uphill mountain race that afternoon, much though I would have loved to climb Skiddaw to watch. Better to save my legs for the 100 km race. Lucy Colquhoun and I had both been selected to run for Scotland – though for this race we'd be swapping our Vasque trail cleats for road flats and seeing how fast we could run on the level for a change.
A number of other competitors from the Vasque series were also running – the English team included Jez (currently leading the series with four race wins so far this year); Allen (not far behind with three wins) and Matt Giles (joint winner with Allen at Marlborough). But with some fast road runners joining them, plus the cream of ultra-distance runners from Canada, Australia and New Zealand, it would be interesting to see how our home-grown talent would compare. Personally, I was just hoping for a solid run and a reasonable position, for I knew I wouldn't be among the leaders on a tarmac course (far from my favourite terrain) with a field of elite international runners.
It was a good race, with the early lead being taken by a Canadian runner. By halfway though, the English runners had pulled through, and Matt Lynas was edging away. Not for long; his lead was soon being devoured by a fast Matt Giles, who then opened up a gap himself. By 95 km the distance was telling on both Matts though, and it was Jez, running his usual steady pace throughout, who came through to the finish just a minute ahead.
My own race was also nice and steady to the 75 km marker – not quite up in the leading pack, but not too far behind, and running smoothly. I felt like I should be able to keep that pace to the end - but my legs began gradually to seize up, and I lost a fair bit of time in the final quarter. I was still only just outside my personal best though, on a slower, hillier course, and my 12th place was good enough to help my Scottish team-mates pip the Canadians to the bronze team medal. In the ladies race Lucy ran an exceptionally strong race to take the ladies bronze (and lead the Scots to the team silver), so the Scottish squad had something to celebrate that evening.
I stiffly, gingerly picked my way up Latrigg to watch the last mountain race the following day. This was more my sort of racing: a forest track, a steep grassy climb, a sheep-track through the heather. Just a shame it was a short course and over so quickly! If this marriage of mountain and ultra-distance running is to spawn a second championship - and it was a great event, so I hope it does - surely a long trail race could be an appropriate addition? I'll be the first to sign up!