The 2021 season started with many doubts. With no racing at all in 2020, and a foot operation that required my fitness to be completely rebuilt, I was unsure about many things. Would I be able to run pain free? Would my fitness be as good as I wanted it to be and would I still have “the push” to go the distance in races. Ultimately, I was worried that I wouldn’t be able to race at the level I wanted to perform.
This fear drove me to prepare as well as I knew how; I had one of the best training periods I can remember from the start of the year through to my first proper race in Åre, Sweden. I had worked my way up with a few “race simulations” but nothing prepares you quite like toeing a start line…and I was of course a little rusty. The fitness was there though and the 45km Fjällmaraton was a lot of fun. The course took 3hr 38mins and I ended with an average grade adjusted pace (Strava GAP) of 3min 59sec per km.
The next race scheduled was “the big one” for the year and was just 19 days after the Fjällmaraton. This meant I only had enough time at home for a few key sessions before travelling down to Chamonix for the OCC. The competition was intimidating but I was intent on simply running as hard as I could. In the end I pushed myself harder and for longer than I ever thought I possible and it was mission accomplished. The 57km course took 5hr 3mins with an average GAP of 4min 00sec per km.
Some well-deserved rest for a few days before flying home meant that getting back into training a week or so later was a pleasure. The next race on the agenda was the Spartan European Championships, requiring a few extra skills than the trail races that had been my focus thus far.
In hindsight, perhaps I was a little too eager with the strength training in the 2-weeks heading into my first obstacle race for the season. A lot of jump squats and burpees in the training mix actually left me with an excruciatingly painful knee and having to use crutches for what turned out to be (just) 24 hours. Thinking my entire season (or career) was over I was amazed that 48 hours later I was running around completely pain free again. Weird, but a big relief.
The Spartan Euros was a great experience and a well-executed race proved I hadn’t lost the knack of doing obstacles or carrying stuff alongside trail running.
The Marato Pirineu, another trail race, was next up and another course I had never done before. Some weeks acclimatising to the altitude helped prepare me for this one, but it didn’t help my legs which felt destroyed after the first small downhill. Pushing through to the finish I still managed to average a GAP of 4min 00seconds per km. A pattern was starting to form.
With again just a 2-week buffer before the next race I was starting to worry about my form. Picking up a cold on a trip back to see family in the UK I tried not to contemplate what the 80km Templiers race was going to feel like. I had also been struggling with an ankle injury since my first race of the season which had now started to really plague me. I had very low confidence going into this race but then that also seemed to remove the pressure of thinking I should perform really well. As it turned out, this was perhaps the race I am most proud of this season. I raced strategically well and felt I executed everything to the best of my abilities. The 80km course took just over 6hr 30mins and I once again finished with an average GAP of 3min 59sec per km.
So my trail season was over and the results had shot me to 3rd on the overall ITRA ranking behind Jim Walmsley and Kilian Jornet. If you had asked me if I thought that was possible at the start of the year, I would have assured you that there was no chance.
The travel ban to the USA had kept me from taking part in the OCRWC but I had one last opportunity to prove myself in “the world of OCR”. 3rd place at the Spartan World Championships didn’t provide the cherry on the cake I would have liked but then I don’t think I could have asked for better on that day.
The real win for me this year has been being able to actually enjoy running again. To have managed a painful foot for so many years taught me many things but to be back running pain free is the best present I could ever hope for. With training about to begin for the 2022 season I am in a much better place than last year and ready to get my head down to do what’s necessary during the winter months.