As always it was massively proud moment to be asked to represent Ireland at the 5th IAU World Trail Running Championships in Annecy, France. I had not raced the route before or ran with the new Irish crew so I was really looking forward to it.
The course is 85km in length with around 5000m of climbing over a mix of technical trail. Some quick sections together with some slower technical climbs and descents, many athletes agreed that the first half of the course was fast whereas the second half was more technical and obviously slower. The course was treated with some light rain the night before so things were certainly going to be muddy and interesting!
The field was looking strong and included athletes from all over the world, including France, Italy, Norway, Netherlands, Spain, USA, Sweden, UK, South Africa, Japan, Australia and Nepal. Luis Alberto Hernando, Tom Owens, Alex Nicholls, Manuel Merillas to name but a few of a top field would be shoulder to shoulder at the start line. The starting pace was going to be savage.
Team Ireland included Paul Tierney, Jonny Steede, Justin Maxwell and Barry Hartnett. The team were being managed by Gary McConville, Ryan Maxwell and Robbie Williams.
The race kicked off at 3.30am(!) the first few kilometres were alongside Lake Annecy and most of us went out as though we were knocking out a quick 5km park run rather than a mountain ultra! It wasn’t long before things were put to order with a slower (but still savage) climb of around 1500m over a distance of 13 KM. Having started at the back of the pack on the start line it was nice to use the climb to pass a few people and find my ‘mountain bounce’, get my breathing under control and enjoy what I love doing, which is running up a mountain.
The atmosphere was great and it was good to see athletes from all over the world, some of which I recognised from the UK, Germany and France from other competitions.
The first climb was a little difficult to judge, if you take advantage of the adrenaline and atmosphere and hit the climb too hard you’ll pay for it later, take it too slow and a lot of the field will leave you behind. My approach was to take it steady on the climb and make up a few places but take advantage of the technical descents. I spend a good amount of time in Snowdonia and felt that the technical rocky descents would be the place to push.
It wasn't long before we hit the first peak and the first checkpoint where the lads were waiting for us. I picked up a few gels, quick drink and cracked on. The descent would be a nice long 10km ride. I decided to push hard on this section sitting in 28th place I needed to push on. The descent was great, single track forest, jumping over tree routes and rocks. It was really enjoyable.
Coming around a corner I must have hit a rock as the next thing I knew I was heading at some speed towards a group of embedded rocks. I landed really hard hitting the rocks with my knee and hip and then ‘cheesegrating’ my shoulder and back along the side. I lay on the path for while in shock with the athlete just ahead asking if I was alright. I told him to crack on.
The pain kicked in and when I looked at my knee I could see the cut was real deep just under the kneecap, I could also see something inside that was as white as a starbucks coffee cup and initially thought I had broken something. I gingerly stood up and hobbled down the path, it was obvious that nothing was broken but I had it in my mind that with the amount of blood pumping out of the gash (my sock was already soaked) that it was the end of the road for me.
The pain was bearable but I was not sure what was going on it was a mix of shock, adrenaline and fear of the athletes overtaking. I tried a wee jog and although it hurt when I landed on my leg it was bearable. It was still a fair distance to any aid station (behind me or in front of me) so I decided to crack on and see how the injury felt along the way.
Thankfully it wasn’t long before I had hit the bottom of the descent but to be honest at this stage I was confused, I wanted to push on knowing athletes were just behind me but also not sure if I could continue. The course is very much up and down so as soon as we hit the bottom of the descent (about 28km and down to an alt. of 700m) we were heading back up to around 1300m over a few kilometres. Again, I decided that as it was a climb I wouldn't be causing too much impact on the leg and it would mean I could give the leg a bit more time to settle.
I am not sure if it was the adrenaline caused by the fall but I managed to push quite hard despite the pain and was now sitting in about 23rd place passing a couple of athletes on the descent and on the second climb.
Once we hit the second climb, we hit a real sharp descent. I was gingerly running down this descent not wanting to cause more damage to my leg and afraid of falling again. The key to a good speedy descent is confidence, something which I lacked and made me a little slow and hesitant.
Thankfully I made the bottom of the descent and hit a road section which took us into the second aid station. Oddly I had managed to take a couple more places and was sitting in 21st. The support crew looked after me cleaned up my knee a little and I was off.
Straight out of the second aid station at around 45km, the excitement of it all wore off and the pain kicked in hard. I had forgotten to take some ibuprofen and I started to really struggle with the knee that was looking a little bruised and was still bleeding heavily I had also some pain in the thigh. It was fair to say I was feeling a wee bit sorry for myself.
I now had a 1200m climb which would take me to the 60km mark. It was not long up the climb when I had decided to DNF. My leg was hurting each time I lifted it. My hips and shoulder and back were screaming from the grit and crap stuck to it and I think I had also hit the wall at the same time. I had confirmed to myself that at the top of the climb I would hand myself in.
A lovely chap from Canada saw that I was done for and was having none of it. ‘C’mon Ireland’ he said. ‘My parents are from Ireland, look at my red hair!’ That gave me a wee boost but by now I was walking, head down feeling right sorry for myself.
I got to the top of the 3rd climb and saw the doctor. He gave the knee a quick look and wanted to cover it up but I told him that I’d get that done at the finish line. The English and French communication wasn’t great but considering it was only 10km to go to the next main CP and it was all downhill I decided I’d at least finish this race. I kept telling myself that I’m wearing the Irish vest and it’s a privilege to do so!
I took the long descent down the mountain with caution and dropped down to about 30th place heading into the CP. This time I was sure to take a couple of gels, an Iburprofen and hit the coke hard! I came out of the CP with 15km to go and positive that I would finish this race. A quick CP in and out meant I left in 27th place.
I don’t know whether it was a mental point having taken the Iburprofen (surely it couldn’t kick in that quick) and the coke but I felt good and strong again. I hit the final climb hard and the switchback descent harder.
It was on the final climb that I spent a few moments on top of the peak looking over the whole of Annecy and the lake. An amazing view and a reminder of why we do these events! I managed to take a few places on the last section pushing hard on the final 8-9 miles, unfortunately I had left it a little too late. I managed to cross the line in 17th place and salvaged a respectable place for the World Championships but in all honestly I felt a little disappointed with the overall performance and a missed opportunity.
One of the key lessons of course is that mountain running is not just about speed, ability to climb and descend but it’s about being able to deal with the challenges of the day, the conditions and terrain. I had perhaps been a little overly confident with my technical skills and arrogant and paid the price early on. However, it was a grand experience and great to be in such a place representing Ireland.
The team did great. We finished 13th overall with Johnny Steede coming in second for Ireland followed by Justin Maxwell who also scored. Barry Hartnet put in a hearty performance and even managed to craft two ‘o' natural’ branches into suitable poles for the course. He is certainly a guy to watch in the future. Unfortunately, Paul Tierney had to call it a day but will no doubt bounce back this race season.
A massive thanks goes out to the support crew who did an amazing job at looking after us during the race!