I can’t believe six weeks let alone several months have flown by. As a teacher the school holidays disappear with the inevitable dull, wet weather. But these six weeks have zoomed past as the training days, expeditions and races were ticked off towards the UTMB.
I had notched up a few satisfying performances in my early races this year. The Highland Fling wasn’t a great race by any stretch of the imagination as I was just too tired on the start line as result of a number of factors but a new course record at the XNRG Pony Express and taking the spoils at Marlborough Downs 33 despite a huge diversion things were going in the right direction.
The Alps, Snowdonia, and the Lakes were to be my trails for the final six weeks specific preparation for the UTMB as my typical hunting ground of the Wiltshire downs didn’t quite offer the technical and extended ascents and descents of the mountains! If I could offer one piece of advice make training as specific as possible. Variety is important for motivation and to balance the body by strengthening areas which are neglected but specificity is key for any race preparation including surface, pace, your core or strengthening work and the technical aspects such as nutrition or gear you are expecting to use. We don’t have mountains in this country where we get to ascend a peak for three hours running but equally we can counterbalance this with long days in the mountains hitting peaks and descending again and again. Jez Bragg historically has used Snowdon reps in many of his training stints in preparation for the UTMB. Not quite as long as an ascent up Grand Col Ferret but the cumulative ascents and descents significantly help.
Prior to the UTMB I hit XNRG’s Round the Island and The Race to the Stones, to test my nutrition plans and some above (UTMB) race pace training. The 70 mile XNRG two day event around the Isle of Wight run parallel with the Volvo international Yacht race was once again an amazing event and I managed to knock 15 minutes off my 2014 time in beautiful sunshine again. The only thing conspiring against us runners was the buffeting headwind which was great for cooling but in the long 6 mile home stretch to finish day one I found myself doing intervals driving as the wind settled and then relaxing when the man upstairs blew his hair dryer. I think it is important to race during heavy training periods for variety and motivation and to test specific variables and for me just because I enjoy racing. However, the resultant recovery from this hard effort on the mind and body needs to be taken into account. Secondly, your expectations about performance need to be amended. A great weekend, but my sincere apologies to Laura Wren who on entering check point two on the first day, I ran in and accidently picked up her prepared drink from the table. I didn’t know this till the finish and luckily this didn’t affect either of our performances but an important lesson learnt.
The Race to the Stones followed but I seemed to lack my usual fluidity and the typically warming up after the early miles didn’t happen. The food I was consuming wasn’t going down well and shortly after half way my strength seemed to zap from the legs, cramps were in full flow and my pace dropped dramatically. The inevitable stomach issues played havoc with my resilience and focus. This was a lesson in determination and literally where my blood and guts for the hard miles in UTMB were being honed. Although, I didn’t get ‘the full monty’ back I managed to make some time up in the final miles after using every strategy in my red book to get back my ‘che’. Relaxing head to toe, Jens Voight self-talk, sugary-black tea, coke and I got within 1 minute of second place and 10 minutes of first. Post-race my legs felt pretty good but a few days of easy light running were needed as my body was literally empty from the issues in the race. Although, I have competed in the World 100km Championships within six weeks I would be toeing the biggest race of my ultra-running career. The UTMB loomed overhead. And I hit the serious work.
Within a day of finishing school I found myself in the Alps ascending my first peak in a great week of training out of Bride-Les-Bains, part of the Three Vallees ski resort in the middle of Courchevel and Meribel. Days of long strong ascents and descents including Mt Journet, Roc De Tougne and La Saulire amongst others I started to fill more confident my climbing skills were not just limited to 1000ft climbs and rolling hills. On my return the Lakes and Snowdonia and some faster running in my home County completed my block. Yes it was tough. Even surrounded by mountain peaks as the sun rose at six in morning the thought of hauling my heavy and tired limbs up and down those climbs was challenging but this is what I do and love. I embrace the pain. I revel in the difficulties. And like everyone feel the niggles which scare you to death but prevention is better than cure and my iron is already out on any creases from daily training with a repertoire of stretches, cold baths, conditioning exercises and ‘stick’ work.
Race week is always difficult. How do I feel? What should I eat? Have I got all I need? Am I doing too much or too little? The great thing with going away for a race is you’ve packed your gear early and can forget about that aspect. However, without the typical distractions your mind is constantly in contemplation of the race ahead. I reveled in the opportunity to soak up the atmosphere of a town literally taken over by running. But was I excited as many of my fellow ultra-runners seemed to be including my Wiltshire UTMB brothers Mark Fraser, Mike Berry and Chris Morgan? Honestly. No. I was bricking myself. Many may think this contemplation may come down to questions of your fitness, lack of training, injuries. But for me this was far from the case. I felt in the shape of my life, physically strong and confident and I had done the best training I could with what is at my disposal. I wasn’t born in the mountains and neither have I been able to transverse fells much in my running career. Yes I would love to be living in the alps traversing these trails each day, building trust in my ability to battle with these wonders of nature but I was happy with my preparation. I literally resided this down to contemplation of the task ahead and trusted my instinct that this was ok and how I usually felt. After the early miles this tension would fade.
In my final shake out jog the morning before the race I fell. My legs were fresh. A light jog part-way up Mt Brevent. A steady pass. Then descend back to the studio for some strides in the field, stretches, brekkie and a day of relaxing. Instead I found myself in hospital for X-rays, tests and finally 12 stitches in my knee. On the descent I had fallen straight onto a rock lacerating my knee below the kneecap causing a deep wound close to the bone. I knew it was bad when I first looked but we runners are good at denial. Even in the hospital when the words ‘non-UTMB’ were repeated from the nurses and doctors all I could think about was the race. Gutted, pig sick. Not even close. Man, I’d had so many falls in training over the years, why now? Luckily, the X-ray showed no damage to the bone. The ligaments and tendons were ok and although the laceration fed deep near to the cap, the clear out of debris and 12 stitches later I was ok. I was lucky. Lucky? That’s a thought. UTMB dream over. Embarrassment, self-pity, guilt, anger, laughter were just some of my thoughts over the proceeding hours and day but somehow I managed to channel my energy and thoughts into the support of my fellow athletes. Chris, Berry and Mark had worked so hard and their dreams were still alive. I wasn’t going to drain any energy out of them with self-pity and negativity so I tried my best to keep these thoughts to myself and set about helping them as best I could in preparing for their onslaught.
One thing I am blessed with is perspective. Round the corner I have the KAEM (Kalahari Augrabies Extreme Marathon) and this has made me more determined than ever. Seeing the finishers coming at that the CCC and OCC I watched in envy at their pain. Their smiles. Their grimaces and as they crossed the line, their raw emotion. I was jealous. I wanted that. I wanted that finish line. That is why I race. The finish line. 10km, marathon, trail, road, ultra I love that feeling when you cross the line. Good or bad race. Overcoming the process is amazing. Sometimes ‘that’ feeling lasts for hours. Sometimes, for days and weeks. But I wanted this and I wanted it at the UTMB. I will be back. This is another ghost I need to lay to rest and I will be even better. But first of all I have an amazing date in South Africa. I am lucky and I am running there with open arms.
The next step is to get my knee better and quickly. Forwards is the only pathway as I said at the start of the year. With every disappointment you need to believe there is an opportunity and thanks to Neil and Anna and the XNRG team I have one round the corner in my other A race of 2015. For the moment Ultramonty has his leg up being forced to lay down as much as possible. I’m climbing the walls. But to be an athlete you need to learn to rest hard as well. Rest is where all the training adaptations take place. It is where repair and recovery occurs and something I’m not very good at. I have been forced to learn. So now my final training begins for the KAEM.
Nathan Montague Team XNRG Athlete