From the recce I knew this was going to be a tough course, technical and requiring a lot of concentration. A lapse in that concentration at mile 17 put paid to my top 20, sub 12 hour ambitions. I had 37 miles of not being able to descend at the pace I knew my training would have allowed me to push. Although only superficial, the wounds to the knees didn’t allow me to push any speed. That said, I can only take the positives from what was a fantastic experience. I am incredibly proud of my result, 4th British female and 44th in the world, and to top it off we came away with a team bronze medal. The scars on my knees will be a reminder of the fun in Portugal for years to come!
The temperature at the 5 am start was 22 degrees and incredibly humid. This was not expected and it was set to get hotter, up to 27 degrees in the heat of the day. With that in mind, I tried to keep on top of my hydration from the outset. That was my downfall, quite literally! As I approached the Checkpoint at Vila do Geres I was finishing off my drink so I knew I had drank 1 litre and could set off with 2 x 500ml full bottles. In putting my soft flask back into my pack I tripped. It was a fairly steep downhill, chalky track and the slide onto my knees made for some impressive wounds. The photographer I fell in front off very kindly didn’t take pictures of me in my shocked state, instead helped me up! I had a few minutes of walking to compose myself, realised it was not game over, there was very little pain in the knees so I was fortunate not to have damaged the ligaments/ cartilage/ bones which would have ended my race. As I was now less than a mile to the checkpoint, I got into a run, trying to increase the pace just to make sure everything was okay. Other than being aware my shins were getting wet with blood I made the decision I could and would finish, all be it, slower than I wanted.
Sitting down at the checkpoint, I looked at the cuts for the first time, I’m surprised I managed to keep calm as the deep cut on the right knee was gaping open. The race medics were fantastic, cleaning and dressing the wounds. At one point I had 6 of them, 3 working on each knee!
The race took on a different twist from here. I could still climb well and the flatter sections, although few and far between were fine, so I just eased back on the descents but instead of having the race face on and being quite as focused as I usually would in a race, I chatted and worked with those around me. It became a game of trying not to let Polish mountain running champion, Edyta Lewandowska, get too far ahead on the climbs before I caught her on the descents, then using my fell running skills to pick the best lines for us both through the tough terrain. Regularly, myself and Fiona Hayvice, running for New Zealand, crossed paths, having a few motivating words each time. I also chatted with runners from Australia, Germany, Czech Republic and Spain, the sense of camaraderie on the trail was fantastic. If I had been racing flat out I would have missed out on that. I would also have no doubt suffered in the heat, I was fine but that’s probably only because of the lower intensity running.
As the top 3 counted in the team competition, still being in 4th for the British women, I knew it was important to keep going, just in case something happened to one of the three in front. Other than burning in my knees, I wasn’t in pain and wasn’t aware of any swelling. I’m amazed 8 hours after the fall, approaching the finish line, the bandages were still in tact. As I hit the red carpet, I jogged it in, I didn’t accelerate, just continued with the plod I had enjoyed for the vast majority of the day!
It was only as I stopped the knees seized up, and the pain started. I got them cleaned up and had planned to celebrate with a couple of beers but I couldn’t bare sitting at the table with the table cloth brushing against them. Instead, I went to lay down with my legs up. I’ve made up for it since though, the next day, after a very slow but beneficial walk with some of the team, it was all about pizza, ice cream and hydrating with some beers! This week has followed a similar pattern, enjoying a well overdue off season.
The main positive I can take from the event is my training had set me up perfectly for the race. I was strong on the climbs throughout the race and my quad strength was there despite not being able to use it to descend. I didn’t ache at all post race, not even the 2 day delay in muscle soreness you’d normally expect. This is encouraging for the next mountain race I do, fingers crossed there’ll be the opportunity to test myself fully in a GB vest again.
Despite the fall, and the result, I will look back on the whole experience fondly. The GB team are a great bunch of people. The hospitality, race organisation, unexpected sunshine and heat all made for an amazing weekend. Thanks to Carlos Sa and his team for all their efforts, all the GB team management and runners and my to sponsors, Montane, Injinji, Mountain Fuel and BetterYou.