I left Sydney Wednesday afternoon, 30 hours later I was in Krakow. The cruelty of fate had ensured I’d had no sleep, the change in time zones seemed to line up so it was mostly day making it even more difficult to sleep on the plane. The venue was 3 hours bus ride from the airport. The rest of the Australian team had arrived a day earlier and had caught an earlier bus. Luckily for me some of the Americans, Ugandans and Canadians were on my bus so I hung out with them. One of the Canadians had trained in Australia with Ken Green for a while so we had a good chat about how everyone was going. The venue for the race was a ski mountain in the town of Krynica Zdroj. It wasn’t particularly high, being only 1100 meters, which I was grateful for being a Sydney sider used to living pretty close to sea level. The non-European teams were staying in a hotel at the bottom of mountain, about a 15-minute gondola ride from the start. After being pent up on the plane and then the bus for so long I was itching for a run by the time I finally got to the hotel, so the Americans and I went off and explored the trails. It was an extremely beautiful venue, with a stream running through the center of the valley and tall pines covering the surrounding mountains. There were lots of trails to explore, leading through the trees. The only negative was that trying to find a flat stretch of ground to run on was totally impossible, something I wasn’t particularly happy about considering I didn’t want to exert too much effort a few days before the race. I think this probably had a bit of a negative impact on the performance of all of the non-European teams on race day. At dinner that night I managed to catch up with the rest of the Australians. The mens open team consisted of Nick Wightman, Dejen Gebreselasi and myself, Mark Bourne having had pulled out due to injury.
(Me with 300m to go)
Over the next few days we didn’t do much, mainly just hanging out around the hotel chatting to the other competitors, that and eavesdropping on the Americans numerous team meetings. We found that it was much more effective doing that than holding our own, their contact in Poland seemed to be more informed, plus we got to play pool at the same time, win-win. Dejen was certainly the social butterfly of the group. Within half a day of being there he seemed to know everyone, including the Ugandans, who he seemed to be able to talk to in their native language. I think his confidence rubbed off on me, a normally more reserved person and I had a great time getting to know all the other teams. I spent a fair bit of time with the Americans who were all a lot of fun. I’m quite jealous of their collage system and how much support they get. Quite a few were from Colorado and I don’t think they quite believed me when I said that we get a bit of snow in some places in the winter, Australia to them was the Great Barrier Reef with a lot of kangaroos jumping around.
(Nick with 300m to go)
Leading up to the race I was having a lot of trouble with my calves. They had tightened up on the plane, and in a desperate attempt to get lose in the two days before my race I overstretched them. Combined with only being able to do downhill or uphill strides, which put a lot of stress on my calves, I wasn’t in the best shape on race day. We were all still trying to adjust to the 8-hour time difference as well, waking up many times during the night and falling desperately tired around mid afternoon. We only got 3 meals a day, something Nick in particular struggled with, being used to constantly grazing, 5 hours between lunch and dinner is a long time. We’d get to the dining room right on open and eat for 2 or 3 hours, trying to get as much in as possible for the long break till the next meal. The food itself wasn’t ideal for race preparation. There was a lot of meat and not a lot of food with high carbohydrate content.
(The Australian team at the opening ceremony)
Race day was unseasonably hot, about 25 degrees at 12:30 when the mens open race started. The course was three laps of a roughly 4.6-kilometer loop starting from the top of the mountain, going down then back up again. The downhill section of the track was reasonably gradual for a mountain run, but had a few sharp bends and was quite rocky underfoot. The grade made it easy to develop quite a bit of speed, making the rocky corners quite dangerous with a number of athletes rolling ankles. A few people also commented that the rocks were quite sharp to run on, digging into their feet through the soles in their shoes. Saucony had given me a pair of Kinvara TR2s and I found these to be great at protecting my feet, I really didn’t feel any discomfort from the rocks. The uphill section of the course was much steeper. It consisted of two really steep sections with a more gradual uphill between. The first uphill was a switchback course up a ski slope, which apart from being a steep uphill had a steep camber to it. The upper steeper section was along a single track running parallel to the ski slopes. Being shorter in length than the downhill, the uphill was a lot steeper to climb the same altitude.
(The switchback ski-hill)
At nationals I had gone out too hard so my race plan was to hold back on the first lap, see where I was at, then make a move. I though this plan was going well, feeling quite comfortable till I had hit the top of the first uphill, and then everything fell apart. My calves were the first to go; possible due to the problems I had had with them earlier in the week, shortly followed by my quads. I struggled through the rest of the first lap, only walking on a short particularly steep section of the course. By the end of the first lap I was seriously considering calling it. I remembered Nick saying the night before that the mentality of mountain running is quite different to a normal race. He’d said that if you felt as terrible as you do in a mountain run so early in a normal race you’d be in serious trouble. In this race the grade of the uphills was just so steep, that to run forward, I was exerting more effort than I could comfortably maintain. It was steep enough that walking, which required considerably less effort, wasn’t all that much slower. As I passed through the start finish to complete my first lap I decided to cruise down the downhill, so I could pull myself together and regain a bit of strength for another crack at the hill. I was sitting in about 65th at this point. Right at the bottom of the hill Nick came past me. I hadn’t seen Dejen all race, assuming him to be in front of me; I found out later that he had already pulled out by this point. Nick and I hit the uphill at roughly the same time, and the pain started again. I couldn’t hold a run so slipped into a walk, Nick gradually ran away from me. At the top of the steep ski hill section I broke into a run again. I was feeling really awful by this point but was somewhat comforted by the fact that most of the other people around me had walked the steep sections as well, and I hadn’t lost too many positions. At the top of the ski-hill I was pretty desperate for a drink, trees shaded most of the course but the ski-hill was exposed and it was hot by then. At the drink station I got an unpleasant shock, the water was carbonated. Believe me, carbonated water is neither thirst quenching, nor enjoyable to drink halfway through a tough race. The rest of the lap was a struggle; I walked the steeper sections of the course and ran as best I could the rest. With only one lap to go there was no way I was pulling out no matter how terrible I felt. I had now dropped back to about 75th place and was desperate not to drop much further back. The final lap progressed fairly similarly to the previous lap, except by now my quads were so gone the steeper sections of the downhill were a real struggle, particularly trying to pull up on the rocky ground to turn a corner. I dropped a few less places than the last lap, as the rest of the field seemed to be equally exhausted. With 300m to go I put in all I had left, clawing back a few places, coming in 80th out of 137 starters. As I crossed the line I felt extremely dizzy and nauseous, almost spewing my guts up. Nick finished 58th, 2 places behind his best result but I think he was still quite happy with how he’d performed, it was certainly a fantastic performance, he beat me by about 3 minutes.
There is no doubt in my mind that I put everything I had into the race, I’ve never felt worse during or after a race. Knowing that I’d beaten a lot of guys who live in the alps and do this kind of event far more regularly I wasn’t too disappointed with how I ran. Being a runner though there is always a part of me that isn’t happy till I reach my full potential. I think that I could possibly have done a bit better though if I had worked the downhills instead of easing off a bit and trying to regain strength. That’s easy to say in retrospect though, at the time I was convinced that if I didn’t let my body recover a bit I wouldn’t have made it back up again, which might have been true, who knows, maybe next year I’ll find out?
After the race all the non-European teams went back to the hotel for some lunch and a swim. One of the Ugandans jumped in with us. The pool supervisor tried to teach him to swim, he wasn’t too successful but the Ugandan had a wonderful time. I know it’s petty, but I must admit that I enjoyed seeing that he wasn’t freakishly talented at everything, he’d beaten me in the race by about 10 minutes. We all then headed down to the center of town to meet up with the European teams for the official closing ceremony and after party. Most of the Europeans cut out pretty early, there was no alcohol and the music wasn’t great so they found other places to party. Never fear, Nick to the rescue, trust an Australian to get a party started right. He single-handedly managed to get the DJ to play some decent music and got everyone dancing, not a bad effort. The moonshine the Americans started distributing probably helped a bit too. Considering it tasted like metho retrospectively I don’t know if I’d thank them for it.
It was then time for the long plane trip home, the multiple change of time zones, stopovers, delays, aeroplane food, crying babies, cramped chairs, bathroom lines, customs inspections and finally home. I really enjoyed the whole experience and am looking forward to hopefully making the team next year and go on the trip to Italy.
I’d just like to finish by thanking Bankstown sports for covering some of my travel costs and Saucony for giving me some shoes and adding me to their ambassador program. Without this support I wouldn’t have been able to afford to compete.
Till next time