GB Trials and Home International: dealing with the cards dealt and lessons learnt

It’s Sunday 19th September. It’s a date marked in the diary as ‘A Race’. It’s a race to go ‘all in with’ and to perform to the very best of my ability. The preceding week consisted of sharpening, resting up, visualising and trying to optimise performance. It’s the GB Trials to run the classic mountain running distance at the world championships in Thailand in February. It’s also the Home International where I’m running for England against Wales and Scotland. This is my first mountain running vest and I’m very motivated to perform well.

However, sometimes life deals a different card.

On the Thursday I came down with a dodgy stomach and then real fatigue causing me to be in bed all day. The same thing Friday. I had caught some kind of bug. Thankfully I tested negative for Covid, however, the timing was extremely frustrating given that my big target for the season was in a few days time.

Trying to see the positives I told myself that I had rested my legs, after all, Emil Zatopek won the Olympics after being hospitalised with illness two weeks before his marathon.

To no avail.

I went out hard as I wanted to shoot my shot and strive for the top 4 places; anything else to me was not why I was there. However, I soon discovered that my body was not what it would be with full health. I immediately felt weak; I immediately realised that this was going to be a tough race mentally and physically. I went backwards in the race thereafter and if I wasn’t running for England I would have dropped out. It was rough.

After reflecting on this race for a few days, I’ve learnt some hard lessons in spite of being ill.

1. Sometimes you can care too much

The week of the race I was extremely stressed - all week. I wanted the race to go well so bad. I had worked hard, made sacrifices, but haven’t all the runners running? I wanted to make my family and myself proud. I think this overemphasis on race day performance combined with tapering and starting to advertise my coaching contributed to me getting ill. I was not relaxed, I was tense.

I also thought during the race, when top 4 was off the cards, what’s the point? This is not the kind of thinking that a runner needs during a race. Perhaps, I also tapered too much and started to feel fresh too early. I love running. I love mountain running. I cared too much and this constrained my performance and perhaps even made me ill.

2. Specificity is key

Mountain running is hard. That’s why we love it. It requires a different type of conditioning to road running in order to handle steep and fast downhills, lung busting uphills, and do them one after another. I’m in good shape - I’m confident I would have challenged for the top 4 if I was in good health. However, to be certain and intrinsically know this is where you belong, I believe a season dedicated purely to mountain running is key. Racing only on the hills with consistent mountain specific sessions rather than switching between road and hill. Or targeting the mountain running trials as the A race with a specific focus on it. Not having a Half Marathon for England three weeks before.

As Mark Croasdale said to me a few months ago, as you progress, you will have to say no to opportunities. I think a good way to do it from now on will be to do road and XC in the winter and mountains in the summer.

3. When everyone is in peak condition, marginal gains are important

It’s the trials for Great Britain - to go to Thailand. It’s a home International. Nobody is there to just bimble. All the top competitors have put in the miles, the hard yards, and have done specific sessions just for this race. What I’ve also took away is that there are many other things besides fitness to work on. How can I improve my nutrition? My tapering strategy? How lean I am? My choice of footwear? You don’t get too many opportunities like this. Next time, it’s important to maximise all of these marginal gains and ensure I don’t get ill before the race.

When life gives you lemons, make lemonade. Blessings to all. Namaste.