Albania is a great place to hold a championships. It’s one of those countries that I’m not likely to travel to unless I have a good reason. The World Mountain Running Champs gave me a good reason. Most of you reading this are wondering, where’s Albania? Albania is a small country that sits on the Adriatic Sea and is bordered by Greece, Macedonia, and Kosovo. It’s little known because, well, they’re not really known for much that I can tell. They do have some incredible mountain ranges that being a mountain running championships, it would have been nice to see the mountains but instead we were staying at the beach. The best we can figure, the championships bid was put together by the tourism office and highlighting the tourist areas was quite important. Understandable. Albanian’s also have a love for the beach more so, it seems, than the mountains. We stayed in the beach town of Durres outside of the capitol city of Tirana. The course was situated basically in downtown Tirana on some of the foothills to the larger mountains behind. In the 3 lap, up/down format of these championships, there was plenty of climbing on the course even without a true mountain to run up.
The mountain running championships are unique to other running disciplines in that each course can be laid out to favor a very specific type of runner. So, every other year the course is laid out as uphill only (in even years) and up and down (odd years), assuring that the courses don’t favor one type of runner every year. This is what I’ve been waiting for for two years now. UP and DOWN. As some of you know, I was 16th at Worlds last year in an uphill year. A respectable showing for my first mountain running champs for sure but I’ve known for years that I can run with on a downhill that I can’t stay with going up. Going into this year, I knew I could improve on my showing from last year, I just didn’t know by how much. Last year I had been working on my uphill strength for about 4 months before Worlds and in the two months between nationals and Worlds I improved considerably. Now that I’ve had another year to work on my uphill strength I feel much more comfortable and am able to hold my own on uphills with some of the Americans like Joe Grey and Tommy Manning and the Euros.
So a little about the race. We knew it was going to be hot, since it had been hot all week and temperatures gradually were going up while we were there and Sunday was forecasted to be the hottest day at 94 degrees. Coming from Bend, I knew I wasn’t going to be ready for that type of heat even in the middle of summer. That’s where acclimation comes in. The past couple years I’ve had a number of hot races like NACAC cross country in Tobago in February and WXC in Spain this last March so I’ve had some practice acclimating to heat and whatever I do seems to work pretty well. Now, you know, I can’t give away all my secrets but I suppose if you’re really wondering you can get ahold of me and I’ll spill the beans. I’d been working on acclimating since Monday before the race. Enough time, but not quite optimal. In the days leading up to the race I was so hot on some training runs that my heart was fluttering and my heart rate wouldn’t go down until I cooled off. Then on race day, it’s all about keeping yourself as cool as possible to delay the onset of heat fatigue.
I don’t think Albania is known for their organization skills. The start line for our race was a mess. They had a start banner but no line or boxes so everyone lined up about 10m in front of the line and organizers trying to keep us back were useless against everyone jockeying for position on the line that was about 10m wide. Finally they just started counting down once we were in roughly a straight line and on 2 Uganda went. Two must mean start in their country, either that or they were so excited to run up a hill that they just couldn’t wait. Everybody else fell in behind them and made their way up the rolling first mile of the course. I tucked in ahead of the Euros and right behind the 4 Ugandans. During a few openings in the course in the first mile I made a few little surges to get in and break them up but they were bound and determined to control at least the first climb. It was hilarious and at one point I burst out laughing as I came up on two of them and they full on sprinted to keep me behind them. I was having so much fun playing with them. It was fine to let them control the climb as they certainly weren’t the best climbers in the field. We had gotten out pretty quick since it was pretty gradual the first mile and the rest of the true climbers took until the very top steepest pitch to catch and pass us. There was 1 Italian, 1 Turkish dude, and someone else that were just in front of me at the top of the first climb but that’s the beauty of downhill. I was back on them and past them within a few hundred feet of heading down and on my way to catching back up with Uganda. They got quite the jump on the downhill road section since they’re pretty quick but were loosing time on the more technical sections that they just didn’t have the leg strength to run fast on. At about 2 miles in the course cuts straight off the downhill road onto a very steep hillside. I caught up with the four Ugandans right as they hit this turn. They started to slow up to ease down the hill and I sped up with a quick surge and flew off the top lip, past the four of them and down the hill opening up a 20m lead in about 50m of trail. I wish I could have seen their faces. Hitting another road section it didn’t take too long for them to catch back up but they were missing one, apparently one of them had face planted down the hill and was covered literally from head to tow in dust. So, I was in 4th at the bottom of the first lap. The rolling start of the second lap saw another one of the Ugandans start to drop off as he fatigued from the downhill. Now in 3rd. I followed the two of them up the 2nd climb still being careful to run within myself not knowing exactly when the heat would hit me and wanting to save enough for the 3rd lap. Toward the top of the climb the Turkish dude, Ahmet, caught and passed me but knowing how much time I could put on him on the downhill I knew I just had to keep him near me on the 2nd lap and the 3rd climb. Other than that I didn’t see anyone else. As we started down I quickly passed Ahmet back for 3rd, then another of the Ugandans dropped back, now in 2nd. I pushed down the hill the second time putting time on Ahmet and trying to catch the Ugandan. He did pretty well down the hill this lap and I still had a 20-30sec gap to make up at the bottom. The third and final climb I pushed as much as I could on, running the whole top pitch which I had power hiked the last two laps to keep my HR down. At the top there was good news and bad news: Good news, no Turkish dude, bad news, Ugandan was still 30 sec up meaning I hadn’t put any time on him on the climb. I figured he’d be fast enough on the down that I couldn’t catch him so I focused on keeping Ahmet behind me and running as well and safe as I could down. I was still having fun on the technical steep downhills so I just enjoyed going fast and feeling good as I headed toward the finish line. Then about 800m to go I come around a corner and see a Ugandan literally shuffling along, almost walking. I’m like, great, they threw out a decoy to make me think I’m winning. I figured he was one that I was lapping that had completely blown up. I hadn’t been looking at the leader’s number to know whether it was him or not. So I continued to roll down the course to the finish. As I started to make the turn to head into the finish course officials were yelling at me to take another lap, confused but not really, I stopped for a second and turned around and said no, I’ve done my three laps. Of course all the Americans were standing there yelling at me to just keep going and finish. Then I see the tape across the finish still. Then I knew that I was in the lead. Whoa. No way. That Ugandan was the leader and he was in a bad way. With just 800m to go when I saw him, he didn’t even end up finishing. Ouch. The heat got to them just as much as anyone out there I guess.
It was a huge win for me (obviously) and with a double gold from Kasie Enman on the senior women’s team and on 9/11 it was almost too good to be true. I believe it was the first men’s gold since 1987 and the first women’s gold ever. Pretty cool.
Both men’s and women’s senior teams ended up with 4th place finishes. Strong, no doubt, but I know most of us were disappointed to not be in medal contention. My awesome Montrail team mate Megan Lund-Lizotte had a great race to place 12th in the senior women’s race. A finish I think she’s very happy with. Congrats Megan. The heat and the course definitely took its toll on our runners but they all ran with heart.
I won’t bore you the details from the rest of the day of drug testing, awards ceremony, and Albanian network TV interviews because I’m running on Albanian time now (I was supposed to be at work 30min ago).