It been a week since I have been back in the country and a little over a week since I was standing at the top of the Marble quarry barely able to hold myself up at the end of a fairly epic 11.7km with 1100m of climb. It was a world wind trip over to Italy and and World wind trip back again but once again a fantastic trip that I was lucky enough to go on.
Before arriving in we had spent a few days in Ziano, near Bolzano, and were once again hosted by Jono Wyatt. He showed us around the local tracks, the local restaurants, took us on a high ropes course and let us play on Antonella’s (his wife) roller skis. A relaxing few days in the mountains and it was hard work to not do too much running in such an amazing place.
A few days prior to the race the NZ team arrived in Massa in Italy (near Pisa) after a long drive down from the mountains and checked into our accommodation. The summer holiday season was over and all the hotels were winding down however the look of the place did suggest that this town had had its hay-day back in the mid-eighties and fallen out of favour as the place to go. We were quite excited to see our hotel tower over the beach as pointed out from the registration but once we got up close it was looking a bit dilapidated. The rooms were pretty basic too but none the less adequate for what we were here to do.
Two days before the race our buses complete with a full police escort arrived for the course inspection. In typical Italian style everything was organised… but when it came to execution there was a bit of waiting around….anyway I did a full walk of the technical sections of the course around 10km or so of walking. Not too surprisingly it took quite some time to walk, and luckily we had a jeep to take us through the final sections of the race otherwise we would have been there half the night walking around. Some resting the following day ensued, which is always hard work… although made somewhat easier by having a beach and a pool to laze around on. That night there was an opening ceremony held and suddenly everything turned from being somewhat relaxed into business mode.
Race day. There is always a bit of nerves on race day especially for one of the biggest races of your life, although having been there a few times I am not sure now that it ever gets any easier. The beginning of the course was relatively flat and started with two loops through the narrow streets of the small town of Forno, after coming out of Forno the track openned up a bit for approximately 1km then turned up some steps and onto the first technical section of the race. There was approximately 160 mens starters, and not much room on the start line. My strength is definately steep and technical running so the first flat bit of the course was not dealing me any favours. I planned to hold back a bit and not get into oxygen debt too early before hitting the hill and the single track, but the obvious downside to this was once on the single track passing was going to be hard. Anyway I felt this was the best way to play to my strengths and went with it.
We arrived pretty early for the start, 90mins beforehand largely thanks to our very efficient police escort. Beforehand there was a bit of photo taking, bit of banter and a bit of exploration to find some toilets with toilet paper… eventually we made it through the call room and onto the start line where the masses of runners began to gather. It was about 20m wide and we were about 5-6 people deep and not wanting to go out too hard I sat near the back. As the start came nearer and nearer the push came and eventually the starter had to give in and start us as the masses were moving, and we were underway whether they were ready or not! I managed to get away without getting caught up and we were quickly 200m into the loop taking the sharp left hand turn into a constriction. Runners were basically walking around the inside of the turn and squeezing around the outside too. I took the inside which seemed to work well. The narrowness of the village and the mass of runners allowed me to hold myself back quite well and stick to my plan.
It wasn’t too long before we got through the two loops and the race could really start to begin. It was this point now where I realised I was quite far near the back so I needed to grab back a few places so that once on the single track I could run unrestricted…. the down hill bit gave me that slight advantage but it all got taken away from me once we hit the road just before the stairs. At the stairs it finally felt like we were at the World Mountain Running Champs and we were actually running up a mountain. I felt like I was in the lower mid pack and it was pretty claustrophobic, lots of pushing and shoving and speed was largely dictated by how fast the group in front of you were. I was close by a couple of the kiwi’s, Stephen was just behind me on the stairs and soon passed me, Dallas was just behind and Peter was a few places in front. Jono and Glenn were well ahead and nowhere to be seen. The previous days in Massa it had been overcast with patches of open skies so not super hot, come race day however there was not a cloud in the sky and the full heat of the sun was baring down on us through this section. Near the end of the section where we entered the town of Cassette we were lucky enough to have the TV Helicopter hovering above us providing some inadvertent breeze to make the heat somewhat tolerable.
As we entered the town of Cassette, I was not feeling wonderful, we still had a long way to go and I felt like I was struggling. In Cassette we also did a small loop of the town and here I caught a glimpse as I was heading out on the loop of Jono and Glenn at what didn’t even look close to the front of the race which was a little disheartening. I rallied however and the short downhill allowed me a few seconds to half catch my breath. Eventually I started to feel like I was almost human again but the steepness of the course had reduced most of those in front of me to a walk.
In the back of my mind I knew there was some downhill sections that I needed to be in open space to get through unrestricted to gain some places back. I just couldn’t dig that extra 50% required to get past some of the guys walking and ended up siting tight and remaining calm. When the downhill came I was able to run just off to the side of the track to get past but when it came to the real single track stuff I was stuck in single file… The steep uphill section that followed was going to be my savior and where I was going to really make my move but when it came too it I fell into the same conundrum as before, just that extra 50% wasn’t quite there to get that little half a step in front so it was a matter of fall in line and follow the leader. Finally as the track opened out of the forest and moved onto some rocky stuff I started to feel strong and was able to make some passing maneuvers. I made a quick pass past Peter and slipped into that 4th NZ spot which gave me a little boost of confidence. sadly the section where I was making ground quickly came to an end with some downhill, which wasn’t the worst thing int he world for me and I was able to maintain my positioning.
Once on the flat we entered the Marble quarry and it was strange to be running on the flat again. I felt like I was moving very slow, which may very well have been true at this point in time too…before to long though the next section of up hill started and boy were my legs not enjoying that one bit. The uphill parts once inside the quarry consisted of ramped sections of about 10 vertical meters or so then followed by flat sections where they must access the marble. The marble was quite wet too, mainly from the days before where it had been raining but also water must have been spread about to keep the dust down. Anyway this resulted in a sort of milky splatter all over our legs as we passed through the quarry. I lost a place or too soon after entering this series of up/down sections but pulled it back and held my own on the downhill into the tunnel.
Into the hillside there is a huge tunnel which has been carved out to quarry the marble, I assume to help reduce the visual impact of the open cast method. Just before going inside I spotted Glenn coming out and I assume Jono was up the hill a little, next in line was Stephen and i was hoping he was within my grasp still. Anyway the most exciting bit of the race was entering into the tunnel, it was all lit up and special barriers had been put up to stop us falling below. Once inside the tunnel the temperature dropped a couple of notches which was such a welcome relief from the heat further down the mountain.
It was a strange experience running around on the slippery floor in the floodlighting. I was pretty determined to maintain my position here and I knew Peter who was top 5 at NZXC champs was right behind me and alot faster than me on the flat. Hopefully the hill had taken a bit out of him. As we went deeper into the tunnel we went around a corner and then another and another all the while I was hoping that around this next one was the turn around point. As the tunnel was an in and out section it was a good chance to eye up the other competitor and I spotted Stephen a good distance into the tunnel I thought he could be within reach still if the turn around was at the next corner….sadly there was another corner to turn before heading out again! Anyway as I went around the turn around spot I could see both Peter and Dallas chasing me down too, which kept me concentrating and racing hard.
Back out of the tunnel it was back into the last uphill section through the quarry. The real grind of the course, steep sections, followed by short flat sections then more steep sections. As I made my way up I heard my name being called out, I didn’t recognise at first but it was Jono Wyatt and Antonella cheering me on which was bit of a boost. More hill followed and the crowds seemed to get bigger at the side of the track. I forced myself to run even thought it was tough and every muscle in my body was screaming no. I slowed down quite a bit trying to maintain the running and eventually caved after one guy walked past me. Turned out all that Godzone walking training paid off and when I turned to a walk I was able to maintain a good pace and gain back one or two places I had lost by trying to run.
Only 600m to go and Barry was there yelling at me from the sideline to get up and pass the Kenyan just infront of me which was a bit of a shock, but I managed to pull him in along with a Canadian. The 500m and 400m markers went by quickly but the 300m one took ages to pop up, but the fan with the chainsaw was a good distraction. He was right at the side of the track but it was too much effort to deviate to the otherside so I was right alongside him and he must have seen me grin because he revved it pretty hard as I went past, another bit of a boost to get me to the top.
200m to go and as I walked over the crest of the hill I looked up and saw the lines of people eitherside of the track just like something out of the Tour de France. The sight of it made me get back up on my toes and the experience of running through the passage of bells, yelling screaming and cheering was something that I will never forget. It was something that just made the hairs on the back of your neck stand up and there was no way anyone could stop with cheering like that going on! With 100m to go we exited the cauldron of people rounded the bend and the finish line came into sight, such a welcome relief and an amazing experience to arrive and appear at the top of the mountain in such a way. Finishing was such a relief, I had pushed myself so hard that I could barely stand up, there wasn’t much left in the tank and I just needed a quiet place to sit down. I was craving some electrolytes but all there was at the finish was grapes and water so that had to do. During the race I had been pouring water over my head to keep me cool rather than drinking but as soon as i had hung around for more than 5mins or so I got pretty cold pretty quickly and we gradually made our way back walking down the hill.
Part way down the hill the others started to run back to the buses at the base in Cassette while I was a bit reluctant and managed to wave down a first aid jeep with Dallas that took pity on me and we jumped in before heading back to the Hotel for some long awaited lunch! The closing ceremony followed in the evening and I even managed to get in some sleep before getting up at 5am to begin my epic journey home….
When I originally booked my tickets there was some confusion with the dates and I thankfully left an extra day to get back to Milan before flying out… however the actual date of the race ended up being on the 14th instead of the 13th and I ended up needing to get from Massa to Malpensa early in the day, which was a bit of a problem as the earlest train did not leave until 6:15am which was not quite enough time to get there to check in. Eventually I worked out the Irish team was heading to Milan, not Malpensa but Linate but their flight was an hour earlier than mine which worked out well, or sort of well anyway. I quickly jumped off the bus in Linate, onto a bus into town which just missed the next connection to Malpensa by 2 mins… so a half hour wait and some stressing ensued, but I eventually made it there on time much to my relief with lots of unnecessary stressing!