IAU World Trail Championship 2011
Connemara National Park, Ireland
8k of climb
I will start this report by thanking my wife. This is because I left my passport at home, and she and Gavin drove through rush hour traffic in Boston to get me my passport twenty minutes before my plane left the earth. Thanks Steph!
The real story around any good trail race should revolve around the course, and this was definitely true in Ireland. While I will try to give a good description of the course in this report, I’m hoping that the photos and helicopter video coverage that will be posted somewhere soon will give you a better idea of what we literally went through. On paper, it sounded like it could be a fast course if dry, with only 6k of climbing in 44 miles. However, a closer examination of the course info revealed that the elevations of the climbs were off, and there was clearly more than 6k of climbing. My estimate is 8k. In addition, the course was definitely not dry, it was soaked with rain. I brought both 255 road shoes and my trusty 315’s with me to Ireland. I raced Bear Mountain in the 255’s and they were outstanding. I took out the 255’s and hiked up a hill behind our lodge two days before the race. Going uphill was OK, but as soon as turned around to go down, I instantly fell. I could barely stay upright as I tried to get to the bottom of the hill. I’ve never been on such slippery terrain, and can’t compare it to anything in the US, other than something covered in snow or ice. I would clearly be going with the 315’s, which had incredible traction on the same descent. This was the type of terrain they were designed for, and they did a good job! It was a real fell running course, and there were tons of athletes wearing Inov-8’s. I spotted 295’s, 212’s, 285’s, 315’s, and a couple of Terrafly models.
Important features of the course were the 1300’ climb of Diamond that we did twice at the start, the climbs of Ben Baun mountain (2000 and 2200’), and the bogs. The route was out and back after the two climbs of Diamond Hill, with the last climb being the toughest. Although I did not think this was physically possible, some of the bogs were uphill. Yes, water usually tends to seek a level surface, but things are different in Ireland, and I have first-hand experience with steep uphill bogs. When someone asked what the bog trails were like, the RD, Richard Donovan, replied that they were Irish trails. Translated into American, this means that there were no trails; we would just be following flags.
Roy Pirrung and the lovely Chris = You can Google Roy if you don’t know who he is. He’s done a few long races, and really likes bogs. Chris is his lovely full time support staff.
Liza and Eliot Howard = Liza was supposed to run, but a stress fracture kept her out of the race. She and Eliot were awesome at the second aid station at 28k.
Jason (JB) and Allison Bryant (AB) = Ultra good mountain runners that were both running for the US team.
Gabe and Perla Rodriguez (G ROD and P ROD) = Gabe and Perla came to Ireland looking for new challenges. Mission accomplished. Gabe also won the team support MVP, as he was able to get us all very nice Underarmour singlets. They both competed for the US team.
Dave James (DJ) = Dave is a bog specialist, and spent a great deal of time during the race in the bog searching for new bog species. His aunt gets a second team support MVP.
Josh Brimhall (J BALL) = Josh misinterpreted the meaning of Irish trails as something you could actually run on. DJ also told him that there would be Guinness at the aid stations, so he signed up to run for the US team.
The 7am start at the front door of Kylemore Abbey was incredibly scenic with early morning sun shining into the valley. A few runners went straight to the front, including Jason Loutitt of Canada, DJ, and 2 Norwegians, and then a large pack formed just behind them. I settled into the back of the pack for the 5k trip to Diamond Hill. As soon as we started the climb, I started passing runners without much effort, and could tell it was going to be a good day. I immediately thought about Steph and Gavin, and wished they had made the trip to watch the race. The view from the summit was spectacular, and I mostly held my own on the first descent, with the exception of few guys that were really hammering down the hill. It was a very runnable descent, but I knew that running downhill at this point in the race would cost me later on, so I tried to find a pace that was quick, but not punishing. I picked up my bottle at 12.5k at 58 minutes and headed up for the second climb. I was 12th at that point, and passed 6-7 guys on the next climb while still running easily, and then the same 5 guys that passed me before went by once again.
We started onto the bog at 18k, and I really enjoyed this somewhat dry downhill section that was almost terraced. I passed a few runners on this section, including one where I practically jumped over him. We then hit a long road section that leg to the monster bog. This challenge started with a downhill stretch covered with thick bushes and was ankle to knee deep. We then crossed over a fence, and I saw trail markers and laughed out loud. There was no trail, just random posts sticking up from the bog. We followed this for a while, and then headed across a large open stretch. I was watching the French runner 100m ahead of me when he suddenly disappeared in a splash of water. I thought he had tripped, and laughed as I asked how the water was. As I got to the spot where he fell, I was swallowed by the bog past my waist. There was a bit of a panic attack before I managed to pull myself out. Another French runner behind me was laughing, and I told him he was going first next! There were a few more close calls on the remaining section of the bog until we finally reached a short road section to the 28k aid station. I had the 6th fastest time over this 16k section.
I was passed by two Italians as I picked up my bottle, and there were several more runners right behind me. I knew the toughest part of the course was starting and was pleased that my legs still felt good. The first Italian took off, but I passed the second one soon after we reached the trail that leads up to Ben Baun. The Irish trail heading up to the steep climb was quite rough, but it was nice to get off the hard dirt road we had been on. The mountain was quite imposing from a distance, and as I approached it became obvious that we were going straight up. I could see most of the field higher up on the climb, and the closest few looked like they were struggling. The steepest sections required the use of your hands, and the easier grades were 20-25%. I passed a Norwegian that had gone out very hard, and then a French runner on the rocky upper slopes.
The Norwegian passed me back soon after started the descent off the summit cone. We then crossed a small col, and then the course basically dropped off the mountain. I stopped in shock as I looked down at a grass wall that we were supposed to run down, and almost soiled myself. I’m not sure how far someone would fall before stopping, but it would surely be ugly, so I was extremely focused as I started my way down. Terror tends to do that. Any small slips instantly led to a grab onto the grass wall, which was just behind me. Due to the extreme angle, the upper section of this slope was somewhat dry, and I soon realized that the best tactic for staying on my feet was with very deliberate and confident foot placements. Hesitation and small steps tended to lead to slips, and throwing your heel or side of the foot into the grass with some force provided good traction. I became more confident in my downhill running with each step, and was pleased that no one passed me during this section. Unfortunately, the bottom of the descent was extremely wet and slippery, and I went down a few times as I desperately tried to find a stable foot placement. My 315’s saved me from total destruction on several occasions, and I was relieved to make it to the dirt singletrack where I ran past the RD, Richard Donovan. I told him how evil I thought he was for designing the course, complete with a few expletives. Despite this, he was kind enough to cheer me on. There were many spectators on this section of the course, and all the “ALLEZ ALLEZ!!” made me feel like I was back in France at the last IAU Trail Championship. The French were everywhere in Ireland, and were supportive of all the athletes. This was true for the staff of all the nations, and I recognized several of them from two years ago. I passed through the 40k aid quickly and started down the 8k out and back where I could find out where I was in the race. I was 7th fastest over the first traverse of Ben Baun.
I soon passed the Norwegian, and started to get excited as I kept getting closer and closer to the turn around without seeing anyone. I finally saw Jason Loutitt run past in the lead, followed by two French runners who were flying. Erik Clavery ran 31 minutes for this 8k, which was windy and included a couple small hills and some mud, as well as the aid station. I knew I was doing well, but had been too afraid to try and figure out my place prior to the turn around. I was incredibly excited when I suddenly realized I was in 7th place and close to the next few runners with only 22k left to run. I passed JB in middle of the dirt road, and like the coach he is, he yelled out instructions for the entire team in a span of about 10 seconds! I soon saw DJ and J BALL, and we all shared our shock and awe concerning the course and cheered each other on. The best part was that my legs were ready for the big final climb. My time of 36:19 was 7th fastest for the 8k.
Although I still felt strong, I was a bit worried about what would happen over the last 20k based on what I had witnessed in France. Several of the top five from the race in Serre Chevalier had passed numerous runners in the last quarter of the race, and I had a bit of a chase pack as I headed out of the 48k aid. G ROD and I crossed paths shortly after the aid station, and he was pretty excited to see how close I was to the leaders. I knew I was climbing well, so I just focused on getting to the grassy wall. By the time I reached the base, I could spot 4th through 6th up on the climb. I actually thought the French runner in 6th was a hiker, as he had trekking poles. Considering how soft the ground was and the steepness of the slope, I’m not sure how much they helped. I put my head down and hiked up the lower section with my hands on my knees. I caught the French runner as the race helicopter dropped down into the valley. When grade increased, I formed my hands into hooks and went at the slope with all four limbs. You could have used ice axes on this section. I pushed hard when I realized I was catching the Norwegian, but paid the price by the time I reached the rocky summit cone. I passed P ROD at this point, and while she shouted some words of encouragement, my response may not have been coherent. I’m pretty sure the Norwegian spotted me and picked up his pace, as the gap suddenly increased, and then he disappeared on the descent. I lost a bit of time getting off course on the way down the mountain, including a sudden stop on the edge of a 40 foot ledge. There was grass at the bottom, but that was at a 30% grade. It was a bit tricky following the course back to the 60k aid, and I was very thankful for the National Guard soldiers that were manning the course and directing the runners. I hadn’t really thought about exactly how close I was to the leaders since I couldn’t really see 5th place, so I was a bit stunned when I ran by Roy and he indicated that I was about 7 minutes out of the lead. That is not a long time in an ultra, especially on the Connemara course. Although I was pushing the pace, it seemed to take forever to reach Liza and Eliot at the 60k aid, where I grabbed a drink and headed back out to the bogs. I had the 4th fastest time for the second traverse of Ben Baun.
There was somewhat of a trail from our first time through the bog, and I could see the Norwegian and the Italian up ahead by the time I got to the first uphill bog. I tried hard to reel them in, but trying to run through the slippery mud was totally exhausting. I had a better idea of how to navigate the bogs, but my legs didn’t have much left. It took me a while to get back up to speed when I reached the long road section, and the downhill on the road was hard on my tired legs. I was spent by the time I reached the last 2k of fields and bogs and lost some time here. I was able to run up the last dirt hill and enjoyed the final 1k of pavement into the finish to place 6th overall. Erik Clavery held on to win over a hard charging Jason Loutitt, who had dropped down to 4th at one point. JB finished strongly to earn 21st place, and DJ was the third team scorer in 50th, with J BALL a few runners back in 58th. G ROD called it day at 48k to avoid self-destruction. AB was 12th in the women’s completion, followed by P ROD in 29th. We were all just happy to have survived the course, and although there were not many injuries, there was a fair amount of blood on a number of runners, and several of us strained our bog muscles. Our men’s team finished in 6th place, which is pretty good for a bunch of virgin bog runners. In case any Americans were unaware, the French are very good at trail ultras, as they won almost everything.
The highlights of the event included DJ falling NECK DEEP into a bog, J BALL announcing that the Connemara course made Zane Gray look like a freeway, Roy announcing that this IAU event was not actually a running race due to the bog swimming component, JB planning on passing a pile of runners in the last 20k while being unaware that that was everyone else’s plan, AB poaching brown bread from the French table, Roy being so bogged out and Ben Bauned that he tried to drop at the summit of Ben Baun, DJ getting passed on a downhill by someone sitting on their rump and paddling with their hands, and P ROD tripling the length of her longest run ever.
In addition to thanking my wife for getting me on the plane, I’d like the thank the entire American assault team that travelled to Boggemara, the family of the Kylemore Lodge who fed us incredible breakfasts and cheered for us at the turnaround, the IAU, and Richard and Paul Donovan and their entire staff for another outstanding IAU event.
Thursday, July 14, 2011
IAU World Trail Championship 2011