Wednesday, 6 July 2016

European Mountain Running Championships

Inhale. Exhale. The finish line in sight. The crowds cheering, screaming with excitement. 

A girl on my shoulder, suddenly sprinting past me. A barrier between a medal and fourth place. I could not finish in fourth place. I would not finish in fourth place.  

My arms pumped harder. My knees rose higher. My stride extended. My lungs; barely able to take oxygen in. I was a tiger about to pounce on it's prey and I would not give in to the pain.

I suddenly found an extra gear. Surging forward towards the finish line. Flying past the girl. Feeling like my legs and lungs were on fire. So much momentum. I would not stop until I was past that line.  

Crossing the line in the bronze medal position. Arms raised triumphantly in the air. Collapsing from the lactic acid swimming in my muscles. Kneeling, my head in my hands. I couldn't believe I had done it. 

My first international individual medal....

crossing the finish line
 
Back to the beginning

The plane left British soil and soared off the runway, up into the sky towards a new adventure. On board were the excited British Mountain Running team, ready to touch down in Italy and begin their quest for success at the European Mountain Running Championships in the scenic tourist town of Arco near beautiful Lake Garda.

I was part of the Junior Women's team and this was to be my fourth British mountain running vest and my second time racing at the European Mountain Running Championships. Having missed the British trial due to a niggle, I knew I was very lucky the British selectors selected in my favour. I couldn't wait to get out there in Italy to prove I was worthy of the selection by racing to my absolute best.

The strong British team were as follows...

Junior Women:

Scarlet Dale
Heidi Davies
Laura Stark
Bella Williams

Junior Men:

Josh Boyle
Gavin Bryson
Ciaran Lewis
Jake Smith

Senior Women:

Emmie Collinge
Heidi Dent
Rebecca Hilland
Sarah Tunstall

Senior Men: 

Tom Adams
Andrew Douglas
Ben Mounsey
Chris Smith

Team GB ready for the opening ceremony

The first thing we all noticed stepping off the plane and out into the Italian air was the heat. This was obviously something us Brits are not really used to and would make the races even more challenging. I think we can all echo the words of Ciaran as we left Italy on Sunday; "The only thing I won't miss is the constant sweating from the heat."

During the few days before the race, there was time to relax, become familiar with the course, swim in the hotel swimming pool, eat lots of Italian food and get to know the rest of the British team better. 

Walking the course

I know I've said it before in previous blog posts but I will say it again; the people and the community surrounding the sport are what make mountain running so special. There are no egos, everyone accepts one another for who they are and I am so proud to be part of such a close knit GB mountain running team. 

There was a good mix of old and new faces competing for the British team at these championships. The old showing the ropes to the new and soon everyone knew each other and felt welcome within the team. No matter who is in the team each time I have represented Britian, everyone has always got on with one another and it is a testament to the atmosphere within the sport.

Soon it was time for the opening ceremony but before that we all had to obviously have the obligatory team photographs. Chris had emailed us all prior to flying out to Italy to tell us to bring our club vests so we could get a picture of all of them as a way of saying thanks to our clubs for helping us along our journey's to running for our country. This was a lovely idea and the picture looks pretty good with a mixed array of Welsh, Scottish and English club vests. 

The Club Vests

So onto the opening parade and ceremony where the fell running legend, epic blogger and all round nice guy Ben Mounsey had the honour of carrying the British flag. 

With the legend himself

All the countries paraded behind their flags through the streets of Arco towards the square where each country was called up onto the stage and introduced. Whilst waiting to go up onto the stage everyone was trying to get away from the boiling hot sun and fit into the tiny patches of shade. This became a sort of game as every time we moved forward down the street we would have to find different patches.

Soon there was the official opening of the championships, speeches and dancing whilst us GB juniors moved a bench and made camp in the shade to once again get away from the sun. (Can you tell we're British?)

Opening ceremony

From the electric atmosphere at the opening ceremony, I could just tell that race day was going to be exciting with all the Italians screaming out on the course. I just hoped that there wouldn't be any chain saws in my face like at the World Championships in Italy in 2014.

The day finished with a team talk by Sarah Rowell and a speech by the experienced Sarah Tunstall who was the team captain of the British team this time around. 
If you're not starting to feel nervous about the race during the opening ceremony then you certainly will during the team meeting. When both Sarah's were giving their inspiring talks, it really just hits you that tomorrow you are going to be wearing your country's vest out on the course. You are going to be competing against the best athletes in Europe. These are the moments you work so hard for in training and the reason why you continually put your body on the line both when training and racing. You had to give it your all.

As we left the team meeting Sarah's words were ringing in our ears; "Don't enjoy the race." If we were enjoying it, we were not pushing and working hard enough. I wasn't going to enjoy it. 

*********

Everyone assembled on the start line in the centre of the car park. Us Brits in pen nine. The steady bass of the music playing over the loud speaker echoing throughout the car park. The sound of excited voices, nervous exhalations. Athletes jumping, constantly moving up and down. Got to keep the blood flowing ready for the frantic start.

Eyes focused ahead. Going over the race plan one last time in your head. Turn the nerves into excitement. Let the butterflies fly into formation and assist you to run faster than you ever have before. Today is your day.


On your marks....
BANG

We were off...

Snaking our way through the pretty narrow streets of Arco. A group of girls all with the same dream. Who would want it enough?


Leading the pack up the first climb, concentrating on each step up. Pitter patter, pitter patter. Inhale, exhale. Up, up, up.

Breathing becoming more laborious at the top of the steps. Inhale, exhale. Someone's passing me. Don't panic. Flow. Pitter patter.

A long flight of steep wooden steps, a camera in my face. A flatter section. Flow, relax. People screaming my name. A cup of refreshing cold water tipped over the head.

Up, up, up. Up over the cobbles to the castle. Up the steps on the inside of the castle. Steep switchbacks. The summit of the climb. No time to look at the view.

Down, down, down. Extend stride. Quick, break into the corner. Stay on your feet.

More screams, cheering. "Keep at it Heidi!"

The end of the first steep descent. Time to go back up. Up, up, up. Work, work, work. Heavy breathing. Pitter patter. Keep the rhythm over the rocks.

Someone is getting closer. Breathing down my neck. Don't panic. Rhythm, rhythm.

She passes me and I am in third...

Legs moving faster. Down, down, down. More screaming.

Downhill on cobbles. Wrong shoe choice. Ouch, ouch, ouch. Keep flowing. I can still catch her.

Downhill steps. Interrupts the rhythm. Almost at the finish. I can still catch her.

BOOM! Onto the flat. Inhale. Exhale. The finish line in sight. The crowds cheering, screaming with excitement.  A girl on my shoulder, suddenly sprinting past me. A barrier between a medal and fourth place. I could not finish in fourth place. I would not finish in fourth place.

Arms pumping harder. Knees rising higher. Stride extended. Lungs barely able to take air in. I was a tiger about to pounce on it's prey and I would not give in to the pain. Who would want it more?
 

Find an extra gear. Surging forward towards the finish line. Flying past the girl. Feeling like my legs and lungs are on fire. So much momentum. I would not stop until I was past that line.

Crossing the line in the bronze medal position. Arms raised triumphantly in the air. Collapsing from the lactic acid swimming in my muscles. Kneeling, head in my hands. I couldn't believe I had done it. My first international individual medal....

Turning my head and seeing Scarlet, crossing the line in fifth. Another fantastic race from her. Laura, crossing the line in tenth. A superb debut in the GB vest.

Had we got a team medal, surely we had. Yes team gold!

Hugging, shaking hands, choruses of 'well done', 'congrats', 'you ran so well'.

The flower ceremony. Presented with a beautiful bunch of flowers. Flowers raised in the air. Photographers, smiles, more choruses of 'well done', 'good job'.
 
All that hard work in training paid off... At last.
 

































 *********
I am so so proud of all the girls in the GB junior women's team for all running so strongly and bravely. It still hasn't quite sunk in yet that we are the best mountain running team in Europe for our age group.

I must give a special mention to my room mate, Bella who ran so well being in the top ten throughout the race. Unfortunately and so gutting for her, she collapsed along the finishing straight and wasn't able to finish the race.  I'm just so happy that she was allowed to come and collect her team gold medal next to us and stand on the podium because it belongs to her just as much as it belongs to us. A team is a team, and we wouldn't have been a team without Bella.

After our race it was then time to watch all the other races and cheer everyone else on. It's so inspiring when you're out there screaming for your team mates and you can see that they're are running to their absolute best and leaving everything out there on the course.

Laura's amazing GoPro skills

The Juniors

Yep, we do have GB flags on our legs

The juniors went to watch the races from the flat section by the castle and the atmosphere here was absolutely crazy. Everyone was shouting at the top of their lungs for their team mates and there was a continuous ring of bells and horns which added to the atmosphere.

All too soon, the races were over.

RESULTS

Junior Women:
Heidi Davies-BRONZE
Scarlet Dale-5th
Laura Stark-10th
Bella Williams-

Team-GOLD

Junior Men:
Ciaran Lewis-13th
Gav Bryson-17th
Jake Smith-21st
Josh Boyle-26th

Team-4th

Senior Women:
Emmie Collinge-GOLD
Heidi Dent-7th
Rebecca Hilland-13th
Sarah Tunstall-14th

Team-SILVER

Senior Men:
Andrew Douglas-4th
Chris Smith-12th
Tom Adams-17th
Ben Mounsey-26th

Team-BRONZE

All in all a successful day, wouldn't you say?

The long awaited post race pizza and ice cream was then on the cards. I remembered to take a picture of the pizza but not of the ice cream. You'll just have to take my word for it... It was delicious.

PIZZA

It was soon time for the medal ceremony. It still felt kind of surreal standing on the podium to receive my bronze medal and I was so happy to be standing on the top step to receive the team gold medal with such a nice group of girls. The national anthem played and Scarlet and I are sorry for hurting Laura and Bella's ears with our singing. It was such a fantastic moment.



The ceremonies went on for each race and the atmosphere got even more exciting helped by the fact that by the end the Italian national anthem was played three times in total. I felt very inspired when Emmie stepped up to receive her gold medal for winning the women's race. She is such a class athlete and so friendly. She is loved by the Italians as she lives out in Italy and competes in lots of their races and it was amazing to hear such loud cheers for her. She really deserved it. If I could be half the athlete she is in the future, I would be very happy.

After even more food and spending time in the square which had a crazy atmosphere as the Italians were watching their team play football, there was a water display to music and then a pretty wild party started out on the square. 

My mate from Scotland

The next day it was time to fly home. We were all sad to leave the town of Arco and Italy behind, nevertheless, we all have very special memories that we have taken home, even if it does kind of feel like a dream. 

Flying over Germany


I must be honest, my preparation into this event was not the best after picking up a small injury and not being able to run for a few weeks and having to miss the GB trial. Nothing but good old fashioned hard work won me that bronze medal as I poured myself into my cross training and then after my injury had disappeared, back into my mountain running training. Admittedly, I would have liked to have been challenging for the Gold medal at these championships but I will happily take bronze after the rocky preparation I have had. The fact that I was only one second away from silver is enough motivation for me for the future. I can only hope I can get fitter and stronger over the coming months and make the British team for the World Championships as I'm excited about seeing what I can produce there. 

Well done to everyone who competed at the championships on the weekend. You were all part of a very special event.

I would like to thank everyone that has been involved in my journey to my first individual international medal, whether in a big way or a small way. My family, friends, team mates, Norman Walsh UK, Sports Aid, The Ron Pickering Memorial Fund, Happy Home Gift Company, The Metropole Hotel, Junk n Disorderely, Arvon Ales, Chris Jones at Welsh Athletics, Matt Craythorne and Laurence Birdsey at Sport Wales... the list just goes on.

Thank you to everyone who has taken the time to congratulate me and thank you for the kind messages.

Finally last by not least, I would like to thank all my team mates, all the support staff, the organisers of the Championships this year and the people who helped to make this weekend so memorable. You are all amazing.

Mountain running. More than just a sport. More than just a race. 

It's about the inspiring people you meet, the incredible places you get to visit, the close friendships you build and the unforgettable memories you make. 

It's so much more than a run up a hill.

Ciao Arco

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