If you had asked me 12months ago where I thought my running would take me the answer would certainly not have been “to Chamonix for the Sky Running World Championships”. After all I am just an amateur runner, a Queensland boy who was once overweight and known more for his drinking ability than his sporting prowess. So it was quite surreal to find myself sitting in Chamonix…the home of mountain adventure staring up at the majestic peaks the night before the race.
Even more surprising was my complete lack of pre-race nerves! I was completely clam, relaxed and content, perhaps I shouldn’t have been? But I knew why I was so relaxed…. I had already well exceeded my wildest dreams just getting here and to be honest I was almost certain an amateur like me wouldn’t be factoring in anywhere NEAR the pointy end of the field. I mean let’s get real here, this was the world championships and the start list included the absolute best mountain/ultra runners in the world, professionals who made a living from the sport, who trained full time, who I had only ever read about or watched on TV.
Race morning came quickly, as it does at 2am!! I made my way down to the start line and after a quick mishap with my bottles (thanks Marcus for the loner ones!!) I took my spot in the sea of headlights.
The first section of the race went straight up hill to the La Brevent a 1500mD+ climb. A big pack broke off the front quickly and I settled into the second group just behind the ever positive Emile Forsberg, content to take the start easy. About halfway up Ben came powering past and I joined in, we left Emile and quickly started to pick off others on the way towards the top. It was very quiet, no one spoke a word, only the sounds of laboured breathing and poles on rocks broke the still mountain air. Just as the sun was rising we cleared the tree line and were greeted by a spectacular view of MT Blanc, half in twilight with glimmers of the new day breaking on its summit. We had caught Blake by now and the three of us along with plenty of others crested the summit of La Brevent in about 1:20hr to the distinctive European sound of cow bells.
Once over the top I let myself work into the descent, nothing too hard but not messing about either. My race plan was simple; use the descents to my advantage. I quickly dropped Ben and started to pass a number of other runners on the mildly technical fire road descent. I hit the first checkpoint on the way down and filled my bottles joining Blake as he came past for the rest of the descent to the valley. It was nice to run with Blake again and we enjoyed some banter and conversation as we admired the incredible place we were racing in.
At the bottom I came into the Le Buet checkpoint and was surprised to see Blake already leaving!! I took the time to fill up again and set off after him knowing that what was about to come would be the hardest climb of the day, a technical, arduous 1300m accent to Col De La Terrasse at 2800m . Once on the climb I set into a good rhythm of hiking and running. I had recced this climb a few days before with Ben and knew what I was in for. It was steep and much of it was fit only for power hiking with sporadic running thrown in, I could still see Blake just ahead. I quickly started to reel in those in front on the steeper terrain, it was becoming obvious that many runners had gone out too hard.
Towards the top of the climb the trail became completely covered in snow and close to the summit Ben came powering past again! This section was super steep maybe 30-35% grade and his hiking pace was impressive; I was feeling good but didn’t pursue him this time as I figured with my downhill legs I would likely catch him (and hopefully Blake) again on the descent.
Once on the summit it was pure snow, all rutted out from hikers in the previous days and with the help of my La Sportiva Anakonda’s gnarly grip I made short work of the slippery technical frozen snow. When the trail did finally turn downwards I caught Ben quickly and witnessed an impressive commando roll as his foot punched through the snow and sent him flying, thankfully he was okay and we pressed on together navigating the route as we went.
Not far into the descent we came to perhaps my favourite section of the course. It was a drift of deep softer snow and the course went directly down it, a slope of about 30% for perhaps 300m. Both Ben and I slid into the drift on our bums and then proceeded to fall, slip, slide, ski and generally look like cats on ice, we hurtled towards the rocky trails below at breakneck speed bumping into each other and laughing at the ridiculousness of the situation.
Back on the hard technical trail the pace clearly increased and we danced our way down the mountain, I saw we were catching someone and was surprised to see it was Jason Scharlb.
The three of us made the Col Du Passet checkpoint at 39km together, I asked in my best French accent (though still speaking English) what position we were in and was completely shocked to hear 10th! I thought it must have been a mistake lost in translation so I put it out of my mind and headed back out after Ben with Jason close behind.
The next few KMs of the race are where things got interesting for me. Ben and I dropped Jason quickly on the steep chained section that followed the checkpoint. Ben then put a small maybe 15sec gap into me just before we hit the more runnable single track.
Ah ha I thought flat stuff! Great somewhere to put my speed to work but just as the thought crossed my mind……
I hit the deck, and hit it HARD …and kept rolling! Once I had come to a stop I just lay there for a few seconds with my eyes closed praying that I hadn’t broken anything and waiting for the pain to set in.
I opened my eyes, checked no bones where protruding from my legs or arms….they weren’t…Phew! I got up, dusted myself off and did a quick damage assessment: Pack still on – Yep , sunnies still on my head – Yep, watch ok – Yep. What about the body….hmm blood from the hand, knee and shoulder…okay not great but what about running? I took a few painful steps and realised the knee had taken a beating and I rolled my ankle.
I looked behind expecting to see Jason round the corner…but he was nowhere to be seen. I could see Ben up in the distance and knew I just had to keep moving. I walk/hobbled for about 5min before the swelling kicked in on the knee and I could put some decent weight on it. I broke into a ginger light jog but quickly realised something else was wrong…..my right eye was killing me! I stopped and tried to wash what I thought was dirt out of it. No luck…damit! And what was that blurred line in my Vision? (it turned out to be a scratched cornea)
My eye was by far the most painful thing at the time and any wind or air that passed over it was excruciating ! I put my sunnies back on to stop the wind and tired to put the issue out of my mind…after all I didn’t really need an eye to run did I, I was more concerned about the mechanical issues from the knee.
So with one eye half closed I awkwardly jogged/shuffled what should have been my fastest section, along the flat and then down the technical descent into the Vallorcine checkpoint at 45km. I was gutted! My main weapon of choice in this race had been taken away from me, that being my ability to fly on technical descents.
When I reached the checkpoint my wife Tymeka and baby Indie where there to greet me and lucky they were to! I decided then that I wouldn’t focus on any of the injuries/issues and just do what I could to get to the finish as quickly as humanly possible.
I swapped some bottles and grabbed some Red Bull to perk me up. As I went to kiss Indie goodbye I saw Ben leave the checkpoint? What? Was I still that close? Impossible!
I kissed the girls and left, feeling better but still hurting like a…..well you get the idea!
The next climb to Aiguillette des Possettes started right away with a very steep section out of the checkpoint. I could see Ben up ahead but I couldn’t close the gap, my knee was too painful to take the long strides needed to hike fast. He quickly disappeared into the distance and I settled into the best hike I could manage and knew from here on in it would a matter of mere survival.
On the climb up to Aiguillette I noticed something digging into my finger and was surprised to see that my wedding ring was shattered! Dammit that’s two sky races and two wedding rings gone! (I previously lost my old ring training on the course of the Buffalo Stampede Sky Ultra)…”my wife is going to kill me” I thought as I stashed the ring in my pocket and continued the climb.
Once on the descent again I made the best I could with my knee, the swelling had really set in, which was a good thing as I was able to make half decent time on the long down hill. As I burst out into the car park of Le tour I was greeted by my fellow Aussies and they cheered me on as I passed 9th place right there in the car park!
Running down into Les Bois at 66km I started to realise that if I could just execute this race for another 20km then top 10 might be a real possibility. I had no idea how far in front the others where but assumed they had a large gap on me. Through Les Bois I knew I only had one more climb to go and was determined to put some time in between me and 10th place. I didn’t want a sprint finish like had been the case for my last two mountain races.
The final climb up to Signal at 2200m was technical but not very steep, I willed myself to run and knew I had it in me but my legs wouldn’t have a bar of it they had slipped into survival mode! Paranoid about 10th place catching me I pushed with all my might to hike as fast as I could slipping and tripping in the rush to the summit.
At the top there was a short technical traverse to the refuge before the final descent. Here was the first place that you could look a decent distance ahead (and behind) to see how close anyone was. I couldn’t see anyone up ahead and this confirmed in my mind that 8th and 7th where long gone. Likewise it was clear that I had a good gap on 10th and subconsciously I think I let myself slip into cruise control…a move that I would soon come to regret.
Through the final aid and onto the final descent I went! I was still feeling okay but choose not to push the descent too hard as I knew a fall here could ruin everything. As I worked the switch backs a smile came across my face….Oh My God I was actually going to finish this race AND I was about to (hopefully) run myself into the top 10!!!
I could hear the crowds on the finish line screaming as I made my descent it was like a homing beacon calling me in. Here come the last few switch backs and I could now see the road that would take me home to the finish…but what was that…a runner just in front, they can’t be in the race surely??
As it turns out it was Mike Wolf another complete legend who I had only ever read about right there just 25m away. I put the foot down and broke into what can only be described as a horrible slow-motion version of a sprint but with failing arms and legs and little control. Just as I was closing Mike looked back and he too broke into this awkward version of a sprint!
We both pushed hard but the gap now 20m never got any bigger or smaller, into the town we “sprinted” and through the cheering crowds who parted to watch our slow-mo sprint. I could feel the vomit rising and I knew I was close to my physical limit, lactic was setting in, I had no more speed to give!
I crossed the line in 9th place! Ecstatic, proud and completed wreaked just seconds behind Mike Wolf and as it would also turn out a mere 27sec behind Aurelien Dunad-Pallaz in 7th. Who would have guessed that after all those mountains, ups, downs and general craziness it would be so close!
My fellow Aussies as I would learn had awesome runs with Ben 3rd and Blake 6th….it was out of control!!! The day was a complete success and even now I struggle to come to terms with what we did as team and as individuals on this world stage, 3 men top 10, 3 women top 20 and 2 junior world champs.
What’s next? Well with a little experience in my pocket and a big dream who knows but in the short term I will be pitting myself against the altitude, snow and ice of the Ice Trail Tarentaise and hoping I come out the other side alive.
Shoes: La Sportiva Anakonda
Socks: Compressport Trail socks (Green and Gold)
Compression: Compressport R2 Calf sleeves (Green and Gold) + Trail 4 Quad sleeves.
Shorts: Ron Hill Advance Cargo
Shirt: Compressport Trail singlet.
Jacket: Outdoor Research Helium II
Nutrition: Endura Gel every 20min (36-ish in total)
500ml of Endura Rehydration every hour + water
1xRedbull @ 46km mark