It's already been a week since the World Trail Championships in Italy. A successful run at the Haworth Hobble on the 11th of March, secured my place on the men's GB team, along with fellow Llanberis resident Matthew Roberts. Four men and six women were selected to represent Great Britain for the event. Tom Payn and Kyle Greig were also selected on the merits of their run at the Hobble, a race that culminated in a sprint finish between myself, Math and Kyle after nearly 32 miles of racing, placing 2nd, 3rd and 4th respectively with only a second between each of us. Tom won the Hobble and was keen to represent GB for a second time, hoping to improve on his 47th position the previous year in Portugal.
The women's team comprised of 6 ladies; Julie Briscoe won the ladies Hobble race, followed by Sally Fawcett, Katie Kaars Sijpesteijn and Helen Bonsor. Jo Meek and Jo Zakrzewski were pre-selected and represented GB in the same event in Portugal the previous year, along with Sally, achieving bronze in the team standings.
This year the event was hosted by the Italians in the quintessential Tuscany town of Badia Prataglia. The 50km course would weave it's way through the Sasso Fratino Forest, a place of extraordinary beauty with some remarkable trails, both technical and fast running with tough climbs throughout; totalling 3000m of ascent.
The first half of the course would almost entirely be enclosed in the forest, this was duly appreciated with a forecast estimating temperatures of 28 degrees celsius on race day.
We arrived a few days prior to the event, it was arranged for us to stay at the Monastero di Camaldoli, a monastery dating back a thousand years, nestled in the hills and surrounded by the Sasso Fratino Forest; roughly 10km outside Badia Prataglia. Originally built as a place of solitude, it provided the perfect retreat in the lead up to the race, allowing us to prepare ourselves in a relaxed environment. Many other countries were hosted at the monastery as well; including USA, Latvia, Poland, Germany, Norway, Sierra Leone and more. It was quite the melting pot of cultures and languages over the weekend and a pleasure to interact with fellow athletes from different countries.
The monastery wasn't the only building in Camaldoli, luckily there was a cafe and local shop opposite where we could eat well and be served authentic Italian Cappuccino's.
On the Friday evening, we had to attend the opening parade and ceremony in the town of Poppi. The town's skyline is dominated by the 12th century castle that would host the ceremony, we marched in our respective teams with the Country flag in tow, starting at the bottom of the hill and making our way through the narrow streets to be announced and greeted enthusiastically on stage. Shortly after a few speeches and some dancing by the local children, we were invited to the buffet meal, an impressive spread of food to top up the energy levels in time for the race.
We woke at 5am on race day, had a light breakfast and got ready to board the bus to Badia Prataglia. The race would start at 8am sharp, once at the venue we made our way to the race HQ, here we could leave a few items and shower after the race. The time passed quickly, a little jog up the nearest hill provided a warm up, then a quick kit check before we were allowed to assemble behind the start line. Loud upbeat music was being played, marginally drowning out the enthusiastic commentator as he rallied the crowd in the lead up to the start.
I took my position immediately behind Tom and among the dominant force of the Italian and Spanish runners near the front, Kyle was just behind and Math to the side; taking a keen interests in proceedings between the Sierra Leone runners and race officials as they seemed to be interrogated regarding their race kit or lack there of. Fortunately, all seemed to be resolved and they were allowed to race.
All too quickly the countdown was over, a loud siren signalled the start of the race as the lead pack made a rapid dash to the first hairpin, causing initial havoc as everyone tried to find their place in the pack. The first climb allowed us all to settle into the race and find our own pace. Math, Kyle and myself ran together for the first 10 miles, it was a fantastic feeling to run as a team, donned in the GB kit.
The first descent was incredible, sustained, technical and steep, with fresh legs it could be enjoyed fully, remaining vigilant at all times, watching out for the fiendish tree roots that seemed to litter the trail floor. Kyle had a tumble early on but it appeared as though he never stopped running, getting up instantaneously, bushing himself off, remaining calm and focused.
I started experiencing moderate camping in my calves at around 11 miles, not ideal by any means but I'm aware that it's possible to work through them. I tried to regulate my breathing a bit better, taking deep breaths and elongating my calf and hamstring muscles as I power walked the steeper up hill sections, it didn't seem to interfere with my performance so far, Kyle and myself seemed to be progressing through the pack comfortably.
We stayed together up to the first team support point at the dam; approximately 15 miles into the race or half way. As I replenished my supplies I could see Kyle leaving the station, making his way towards the steep zig zagging steps that led to the gorge. I never fully caught up with Kyle after this and was happy to run my own race.
The support by the locals from here on in was remarkable, I was given countless bottles of water to drink, cool myself, even dousing my feet at one point. The full heat of the day was apparent as we embarked on a short road section after crossing the dry river bed, the heat radiating off the black bitumen combined with the effort sustained in maintaining speed and position, made this section very difficult.
The second half of the race was relentless and it was a battle to keep the cramping at bay while maintaining a decent pace. I kept myself well hydrated and ate regularly. There was a silver lining; a section of ridge line that provided uninhibited views over the forest. The technical climbing was a welcoming distraction as I climbed above the canopy to take in the splendour of the vista. A short section of exposed trail ensued, it was roped so we could hand rail across swiftly, then immediately back into the forest, intermittent open spaces on the trail offered another opportunity to take in the view.
I was looking forward to seeing Adrian (Team Manager) at the last support point, but at the same time I knew the last 6km descent would follow; this I was dreading, in my current condition it was going to be very painful. It lived up to my expectations and I unfortunately lost 5 positions but still managed to finish 2nd Brit to Kyle Greig and 33rd overall in a time of 5:00hrs.
It was great to be reunited on the finish line with Kyle, but also Sam (Team Manager) and Spencer (Team Leader) who had supported us throughout the day.
Relaxing at the finish line with Math Roberts.