After I went on antibiotics in April I was sleeping better, and my mood and appetite were getting better as well. For the first time since getting covid I didnt't feel run down, and was able to get back to 30hr training weeks. There seems to be growing evidence that covid may cause "gut dysbiosis" , so I suspect that that antibiotics may have helped "re-set" my biome.
After 3 weeks of base conditioning with lots of cycling, I moved up to the ski resort in Sierra Nevada for 3 weeks in a rented appartment, sleeping at 2,300m above sea level. The first week was tough! The sessions themselves felt harder, but I found that the body naturally compensated by going slower for a given effort, the problem was that the recovery was awful. I massively underestimated how hard this would be, even only doing easy sessions in the first week. I dropped down to 1,000m for a 55km trail race at the end of the first week and could already feel a small benefit. I pushed hard in the race without going too deep, and felt only slightly more tired than I would after a hard Sunday long run, so I decided to head straight back to the Ski resort. I felt like i'd just run a 100 mile race that night. I was a total zombie the next day and still feeling rough on Monday. I was ok by Tuesday, but then started re-introducing high intensity sessions to the programme, and I was straight back in a "hole" for most of the 2nd week. I felt acclimatised toward the middle of week 3, but at the same time I did 190km of running with 8,000m, so was then suffering from fatigue. I made a big effort to eat loads of food, including an almost daily slab of milk chocolate, and recovery/protein shakes after every session, which helped keep me going.
I travelled out to Austria 10 days before the race, and initially felt good being back down, but this sooned turned into nauseau with headaches and travel sickness, which I haven't had in years. My resting heart rate started going back up instead of down. I noticed I felt a lot better when I went above 1,800m of altitude during the course recconaisance, so I think I was suffering from reverse altitude sickness, which is a thing apparently. I probably was also just struggling to absorb the last 6 weeks of training and suffering in the heat after 3 weeks of snow in Sierra Nevada. My last long day of recconaissance was scorching hot, and I started suffering from another gastro bug. Unfortunately this wiped me out for final taper week, with loss of appetite, mood and sleep, but at least I was resting more and the team Doctor gave me some melatonin pills to help a bit with sleep.
Thanks to fellow team mate George Foster driving us to the start, we didn't have to catch the 4am bus. Unfortunately we were still too early for breakfast in the hotel so made do with some last minute "brown bag" rolls. I hadn't slept well the night before, but as we arrived at the start line I felt ready to race. Angela Mudge (Fell, Hill, and Mounatin running Champion) the team manager, explained that the adrenaline on the day would get us through. She was right, as with my nerves building, I put on my race belt and tightened the front strap, ripping the front drinks compartment off with seemingly little effort! Luckily the GB singlet has a wide opening around the shoulders, so I could use my "Kangaroo pouch" set up, by placing my second bottle down the front of my top with the strap of the belt holding it in place. With 300 runners in our race, getting into the starting pen was challenging, as every runner wanted to be close to the front. With the start delayed slightly, the marshals linked arms and forced us all back into the pen, and I ended up about 6 rows back.
What annoyed me was that all those fighting to be at the front of the starting pen set off at a very modest pace. I knew It wasn't long until we hit single track, so I started weaving and dodging to get to the front. I made it just as we went through the first gate, checked my HR (153 BPM), and decided to push on at the front of the main group. To clarify I was in 2nd at this point, as there was already a Japanese runner 100m ahead on his own in true Kamikaze style. I took the opportunity here in the space to extend my poles out. We soon hit the climb at around 30% gradient. Even as 10th man now, I was held up as everyone was funneled into single file. The intensity then really turned up a notch. I kept glancing at my watch to see my heart rate rocketing to 178 bpm. I was trying my best to maitain contact with the front pack. A frenchman in front of me was letting the gap open, so I moved around him, cutting the corner of the trail. He shouted "shortcuts not allowed", I replied back there was no flag on that corner, and that I wanted to get past. I must have annoyed him as he moved back in front of me immediately. Turns out it was Baptiste Chassange (this years French champion) who went on to lead the race for an hour before a pace correction around halfway, finally finishing in 17th.
I knew I had to ease off at this point, or a blow up was almost guaranteed. This meant moving back through the field to 26th at the top of the first climb! I was having negative thoughts as a result that something was wrong, or that this field of athletes was too strong! It was already heating up so I started drinking and took on my first gel with caffeine. Having had no coffee that morning I suddenly started feeling a bit better.
I caught up with fellow Brit, Harry Jones and we came into the first assisted aid station together. As we left I started pulling away from Harry, overtook a Frenchman then Hannes Namberger (one of the favourites).. and gained some hope that I wasn't doing too badly. That 2nd climb was still a struggle, I'd take a place then lose a place, and by the top, the effort from the first climb had caught up to me. I eased off a fair bit here and focussed on eating gels and chews to rescue me out of this low. I took the time to empty a water bottle over my head at the 28km aid station before drinking a bottle, then refilled again. At this point I was in a "USA sandwich" with Zach Miller in front and Drew Holmen and Eric Lipuma behind me. They were whooping and hollering as they went past spectators, and exclaimed "we can run into the top 5 from here"! Little did I know we would be back and forth for the rest of the day, and that Drew would indeed run from 20th at this point to 5th!
Alex Hutter who beat me by 5 mins at Trans Gran Canaria, caught up to me at 36km. I was determined not to let him pass, and he seemed equally determined to make a pass. So just like at TGC we pushed one another on. I jumped into a water trough, and he moved ahead, I retook the lead quickly and stopped to refill another bottle from a stream, as we ran together I got the impression he was fading. I pushed ahead as we hit the steep climb to Hoadl at 42km. On this 2km section I moved from 20th to 12th, passing a number of big name athletes! A spectator said "top 10 are ahead", Which was the first idea of position I'd been given all day. I caught two athletes on the next climb, then descended 1,000m over 4km as fast as I could. By the bottom, my quads felt wrecked and the intermittent cramping that had started at halfway was now a permanent issue. On the next 14km section I was on my own, on the most runable part of the course . Despite planning on keeping the speed high here, I was starting to suffer in the heat. I didn't lose much time to Zach, but the other two Americans managed to take back 4 minutes on this section. As Zach came out of the last assisted aid station the other two Americans and I came in, almost running into one another. We left close together as well, now joined by a Swiss athlete who'd been faster through the aid station. As we headed out I saw another two athletes coming in, and after the "lull" of solo running for the last hour, it felt like the race was back on. The final climb had 1,000m of ascent. I had reached the stage where running was barley faster than walking but I "ran" where I could, and by the top I could see 3 athletes 30-60 seconds ahead but also the swiss athlete only 30 seconds behind. I had continued to push through the cramping, and now my legs were in full spasm (with waves rippling across my quads). Stopping at a fountain for water, the Swiss athlete caught up, then "yo-yo'd" behind me before we hit the last aid station. It had been mandatory to leave each aid station with 1L of fluid (two bottles). As I was filling my bottles he took the opportunity to attack. I tried to speed up the process by filling from the tub of water (for athletes to pour over themselves). Somone grabbed my bottle and eptied it out, saying it wasnt for drinking. I grabbed a bottle of coke instead but I was losing time pouring it in. I got going again, but the Swiss runner was gone. I came down the finishing straight grimacing and feeling totally empty, but also to hero's welcome with crowds lining the finish chute, and masses of photographers and cameras at the finish.
Overall I finished feeling like it was a good performance, but 11th was "bittersweet", especially with 8 minutes seperating me from 4th. After talking to the Swiss athlete at the finish, he told me he had continued his momentous attack to run from 11th up to 8th! I was annoyed that I hadn't stuck with him or at least tried harder to. I was even more annoyed when one of the team reminded me that I didnt't have to stop for water at the last aid station.
However I was top Brit, and 11th in an incredibly strong field (average ITRA index of 907 for the top 10). I was ranked about 60th on the official start list (missing my latest score), but 30th with my actual index. When I think about it 8 minutes is still relatively marginal, and perhaps a better taper without illness, or better heat prep would have seen me make that time up. The real crux is not the 8 minutes to 4th, but the 30 minutes to the amazing 1st place performance of Benjamin Rubiol! Making up that kind of time will still require a huge amount more training and patience. I was just an amateur in the sport 18 months ago though, so with another year or so, I believe that I will be capable of such a performance. ITRA scored this perfomace as 893/1000 which is very consistent with my Trail Sierra Nevada score (890). This brings my Index up to 878, and 7th overall in the UK (across all distances).
Recovery hasn't gone very smoothly so far. I didn't help myself by going out drinking at the closing ceremony. The Doctor back in the UK suspects that the gastro bug the week before the race was viral, and that I am still fighting it. With that in mind a huge focus for UTMB apart from starting with good fitness, is to turn up to the start free of illness! After running my first 100 mile race with a virus, I know all too well how important it is to start healthy.
I have recently received lots of new kit from Inov-8. I am working on a little project at the moment working out for the best set up for UTMB, but can't give away any more than that at the moment. Given I also only used their shoes for 3 weeks before Austria, I also now have a proper amount of time to adapt my running style to the shoes. After this performance, the new kit, and assuming the build up goes well, then I am feeling confident that a top 10 performance is deffinately possible!