This should have been released much earlier this year, but I decided to wait for UTMB to score the race with their performance index system. Unfortunately this took almost 3 months, but more on that later.
Having travelled out to Spain In February, I'd managed a great build up to Slovenia, including the win at Ultra Sierra Nevada in April. A wet and cold spring, prematurely turned into a blisteringly hot summer. I was luckily well heat adapted by June, which as the temperature in Slovenia was higher than anticipated. I'd also accumulated 3,000km of running with over 100,000m of vertical gain by then, so felt I was prepared for 5 back to back days in the mountains.
Ultra X released the start list the week before the race, with some huge names. I had researched the very top guys (Pau Capell and Tom Evans etc) who were down as attending, but knew they would be preparing for UTMB in August, so probably wouldn't turn up. There were still a huge number of other top level runners (world top 100) down as attending, with 30 having a higher performance index than myself (777/1000)! I tried to identify the key players (Darren Thomas, Ricardo Montani, Benedict Hoffman, Daniel Jung etc) in order to know who to try and stick to during race week.
I got to Adjovscina, Slovenia a couple of days before the start. The trails, rivers and landscape in Slovenia were simply stunning... mountains covered in bright green forests with crystal blue waters so clear that you could see the fish swimmimg in them! As race day approached I realised that even fewer of the top named athletes were actually attending, and I would have a genuine shot for the title. The thing with multi-day races is that you can guarantee there will be a few dark horses though.
DAY 1, 43km, 1,200m+
It was a hot and humid start to the week (34 degrees c, 68% humidity). Lining up on the start line I had a good idea of who the main threats would be, but wanted to see if anyone would attack from the gun. We had been warned in the race briefing by Sam Heward (one of the Ultra X directors) that a certain individual would likely go out hard from the start, and not to go with him. I set off near the front and found myself side by side with a an athlete called Luke Hanson, who had recently one Tribes multi-day race in Croatia just 2 weeks prior...was he the dark horse to be afraid of? After 300m no one was pushing the pace, so I gradually started increasing mine to about 3:50/km for the next 4km. The only athlete who came with me was Salameh Al Aqra, a previous Marathon Des Sables champion but who had limited race experience in the mountains, not to mention he is now 52 years old!
He was certainly still a tactical master though, as he tried to slow the pace down by moving to the front and then easing up. Despite moving back in front, surging off corners and accelerating over rolling terrain, I wasn't able to shake him. It wasn't until the fist hills that a gap opened up.
At the first checkpoint I had 30 seconds, and continued to press, but after another 3km he had stealthily closed back up. As the trail became more technical and steeper, I was finally able to drop him out of sight.
I pressed on as hard as I could, not stopping for water at the 2nd checkpoint, going through a bit of a rough patch around 28km as a result. I held it together to finish 8 minutes ahead of 2nd place. The battle early on had also taken its toll on Salameh, who slowed considerably in the 2nd half of the race to finish 26 mins down in 4th place...It turns out Sam was talking about me.
DAY 2, 51km, 2,400m+,
The race start was an hour earlier at 0600 to avoid the heat. Again I made a more aggressive start to the day, which left all but Salemeh out of sight as we started the first climb that took us up to 1,200m above sea level.
I knew that Salemeh had struggled on the more technical terrain on day 1, particularly as he was wearing basic road shoes. I thought it would only be fair to offer him my spare pair of new trail shoes, which he had gladly taken. I was confident that he would not pose a threat going forward though, as I still had something he didn't for the bigger climbs.. poles. As we went up the first climb I put in an attack and was able to get out of sight of Salameh as we wiggled up the canopy covered trail. By surging ahead and then settling in to my own pace, I was using the same tactic that I had experienced 3 years ago racing Salemeh in Sri Lanka, only this time it was him that was chasing.
At the top of the climb the wind was so strong, it was blowing me off the trail or causing me to catch rocks or branches hidden in the grass. I built myself a lead in the first half knowing that Luke Hanson would be a threat on the technical descent. Luke had run a 6 day Ultra marathon just 2 weeks before this race, so I thought he would be a write off.... I was completely wrong as he built on his day 1 performance by winning the prize (£250) for the fastest descender, and was still in touch at the end of day 2.
DAY 3, 61km, 2,400m+
Although it was the longest stage of the race, it was as "runnable" as day 1. In order to gain the most time it makes sense (in my head) to be faster on this day than any other, as any difference in pace per KM will add up to a greater time overall.
Apart from the same climb up to 1,200m absl that we had done on day 2, I was able to average close to 5 min/Km pace descending back down to sea level.
The tactical/time driven mind set was a success..gaining 20 mins from Salameh and Tommy Chen who finished in 2nd. However the distance itself and ability to run at a steady but high tempo put a lot of stress on an already tired body, and combined with 6 caffeine gels meant I scarcely got any sleep that night.
Luke came in 4th, looking even worse than me, to the point that he didn't think he would start day 4. Fortunatley after we got food together in town, he got a decent nights sleep and was able to start well the next day.
DAY 4, 56km, 2,300m+
I was baggage. After forcing my now slightly rancid homemade flapjacks down for breakfast, I felt really sick. The weather was also rank. Storm clouds overhead with thunder and lightning threatening to unleash heavy rain. I set off with my rain jacket tied round my waist, ready to slip on if it got bad at the top of the first climb.
I went out ahead of everyone once again, targeting the King of the mountain bonus on the fisrt climb of around 1,000m+. I gained substantial time over my nearest rival (15 mins over Luke) but it put me in an even deeper hole for the rest of the day. I could see from my wrist heart rate monitor, that my heart rate was heavily supressed.
Even though the second half of the race was relatively flat I only managed to hold Luke off by 7 min. He had found his 2nd wind, but I knew day 5 was next, where I could "empty the tank".
DAY 5 45km 1750m+
I did everything possible to regain my strength and energy for day 5, fearing that I could have overcooked it early in the week and that it would all come tumbling down. getting a solid 5hrs after day 4, I woke up feeling (relatively) more rested. If anyone was going to take the last stage, they were going to have to bleed for it.
I took the first 3km at 4:20/km pace until the others had dropped off, then settled not wanting to risk a blow up later on. What's amusing is that 4:20/Km pace by most serious runners standards is pretty average, even slow, but with over 200km of racing at 6:00/km, it feels incredibly fast.
I had saved listening to music for the last day, and waitied until the water point at 18km, when the fatigue was creeping in. The combination of a strong runners high with uplifting music, and knowing I could go all out, mean't I was in a total state of "flow". For the next 27km I floated over the ground with a sense of effortlessness never experienced before, with the finish line appearing as if "coming out of lightspeed".
I won the stage by 18 minutes, the greatest margin of victory for the week (accounting for distance). I think it suggests that I am better at single stage races (where you can "bury" yourself), and the longer and or harder the race the better I perform. This is all leading me to focus towards UTMB in 2023...
The UTMB performance Index I received for the race was 794 out of 1000, a decent score, but a little lower than I would have liked. Given the UTMB index comes originally from their previous partner ITRA (International Trail Running Association), I suspect it's not fit for purpose for multi-day ranking. The index relies on only a few main inputs (time, distance, vertical gain/descent, average altitude). They also moderate scores up or down based on the performance index of runners in the race, and their previous performances. As I was the highest ranked runner at 777, the score of 794 was likely moderated down from the algorythms original figure. Without seeing the algorythm itself or having any information from UTMB as to how they calculate the score, this is just speculation however.
Although frustrating, this is one of the great things about ultra-trail racing, you can't compare one race to another, or even the same race from year to year, there are just too many variables or conditions that can effect the finish time. The only true way of proving that you are a better runner, is by running agaisnt better oponents. So that's the plan, with Doi Inthanon 160 (UTMB Thailand) kicking off on Friday! The aim will be a top 10 finish, which would qualify me automatically for the actual UTMB in Chamonix next year. I am currently ranked 15th in the elite field, although thanks to my "confusing" surname the system hasn't identified me as such. This means the other runners won't have any idea who I am...something I plan on taking full advantage of!