Monday, July 18, 2011

World Trail Championships

This past weekend in Ireland, I had the privilege to run for the US Team in the IAU World Trail Championship. Intending to make a nice vacation out of the trip, my family and I arrived in Dublin one week prior to the race. There, I spent the days leading up to the race, touring the city, which included many miles in the large and urban, yet, very runnable Phoenix Park.

I put forth some pretty solid training leading up to this race. A quick glance back at my Garmin stats displays nine consecutive 120-mile weeks or better. Additionally, with four weeks left to race day, I began to earnestly incorporate some speed and tempo sessions into my weekly runs. I figured the slightly higher than normal mileage would pay off with such a long build up to the race, but in hindsight, it may have been more than necessary.

Strangely, there was what I would consider to be minimal information available concerning the course layout and terrain. To be fair, the race organizers did supply some photos of the terrain and the distances on each type of terrain to be covered. Words such as “open grassland,” “bog,” and “crushed gravel” were prevalent and led me to believe that the course would be a nice compound of runnable terrain and technical terrain. Right.

The start of the race was nothing short of spectacular. Kylemore Abbey near Connemara National Park was easily the most amazing start atmosphere I’ve ever been a part of. It was evident from the previous night’s festivities that the European Teams (and to equal degree Canada) were taking this event very seriously. Multiple video cameras, helicopters (yes, helicopters), and ATV’s mounted with more cameras were there to see us off.

The course was a 70K run. This was decreased originally from the initially advertised 77K (not sure why). The race organizers chose to send us up over the misted Diamond Hill for two laps for what I can only imagine was to spread us out a bit prior to hitting the real fun stuff. The terrain up, down, and around Diamond Hill was all pretty runnable. Small sections of hiking were necessary on the stepped rocks near the summit and the precariously wet and muddy downs on the backside would be foreshadowing my day to come. I definitely lay on the brakes often on the downs, not having near the confidence of most of the European runners, who amazingly run down these sections nimbly as ever.

Concluding the second summit and descent of Diamond Hill, we were routed (by the Irish army no less) to what I soon learned was the “open grassland” section. Had my US teammate Jason Bryant not informed me of this, I would have sworn this was a bog section. Each foot strike would find itself sinking six to eight inches into what is easily the most sloppy, slick, and black muck I’ve ever seen. Seven-minute miles quickly became 13-15 minute miles (GPS watches were not allowed, thus estimating).

Luckily, there were only a few miles of this stuff, and soon we were back on to a rutty old dirt road. I was able to reel in a few runners who easily blew by me in the grassland, and estimated that I was roughly 20th place (out of 150 or so), at this juncture. One or two miles on the dirt road, and we then again came upon some nice Irish lads from the Army who directed us to run parallel to a fence line. At this point, I realized this might be a different type of running than I’ve ever been accustomed to.

Only a few steps into this section and I sink up to mid-thigh. Throwing both of my arms out in front of me for support, I’m able to pull myself up and out of what I now know is the bog section. This would go on for miles. No discernable trail, only flagging every quarter mile to follow. Run, run, run, and fall. Get up. Run, trudge, run, and fall. I was shocked at how slowly I was covering ground.

Knowing we had two hard climbs ahead, I kept my wits and plugged along in the bog until we came to the first major climb of the race. For someone unfamiliar with what I’m going to guess is considered fell running, this was a mind breaker. Craning my neck as far back as it would go; I noticed very small figures on all fours climbing up the face of a mountain. Again, no trail, but flags planted every 200 feet in a straight line to the summit. I would be lying if I said I wasn’t a little frightened. Alas, my handheld bottle was shoved in my shorts, knowing it would be a hindrance once the hard climbing began.

I felt I did pretty well going up. The few times I looked back down, vertigo would rear up and I quickly refocused my gaze at the rocks and grass in front of me. At the summit, I followed the flagging to what I soon realized would be a more horrifying decent. Sure enough, we would be heading straight down the other side of the mountain. I looked disgustingly at my racing flats and sighed. At this point many European runners are flying down the mountain in every direction. Apparently how you get down is totally up to you. Most ran down with no concern at all. At one point, I’m certain an elderly Italian woman passed me standing still (she went on to podium!)

I traversed down in all manner of fashion. Crab crawl, cut back and forth sideways, and at times actually scooted. Others were struggling, but it was rather frustrating seeing so many places go by me. After an excruciating amount of time, I reached the bottom. Here, I filled my water at the aid station, ate some solids and enjoyed one of the most runnable portions of the day around the lough. Unfortunately the out and back nature of this section only reminded me that I would have to repeat the death march that I had just undergone.

The return trip would ensue similarly to the outbound version, but with slightly more tired legs. At this point, I would estimate that I’d hiked as much of the course as I had run. Huh. While sliding on my behind the vast majority down the front side of Benbaun Peak, I laughed at myself thinking about last week’s speed sessions. My time would have been much better spent on a Stairmaster at the gym.

Finishing up, I chatted with a Greek runner about Yiannous Kouris, and he also lamented the difficulty of the course the Irish had provided us. A notable analogy that comes to mind when comparing this style of running to what we experience in the US, is akin to playing baseball your whole life, and then arriving in Europe only to find out that instead, you’ll be playing cricket. Yes, both use a spherical object that gets hit with a wooden object, but after that a lot of similarities are gone. To say I prefer a more “runnable” course is an understatement. However, it was the type of running that this geographical locale provided, and I’m glad I had the opportunity to experience it.

Ultimately, it took me 8:23 to cover the 44 miles (70K). I finished in 58th place and the US Team ended up sixth overall.


  1. Awesome write up Josh. I'm astonished at the difference between trail running in Europe and here in the U.S. We make such a big deal of Western States, yet it doesn't even come come close to the interest this race got.

  2. Nice write up, Josh. I really like the final photo best. Apparently pictures can be worth more than a thousand words, this one really conveys the feeling of the race. Great job, man. [shane sans account]

  3. Thanks, Shane. How is the land of wood chips and swooshes?