Saturday, September 21, 2002 - Athlete Perspective
Phil's XC Journal: Nightmare on Seegrube

By: Phil Villeneuve

It’s easy to feel on top of the world when your sitting back comfortably at 35,000 feet!  No training, no work, sit back and relax…then again, with 8 hours left to fly to my destination, I knew it was going to be another long and grueling day.  Yep, another blast across the Atlantic to challenge the best in the world…but this time as a mountain runner!

It perhaps seems fit that Innsbruck, Austria, host of two Winter Olympic Games (1964, 1976), be the site chosen to crown the 2002 World Mountain Running Champions.  With 800 years of history in its books, this Tyrolean city of 130,000 habitants has seen many battles fought, but none would compare to the ones fought on the steep climbs of its surrounding peaks during this annual mountain running test.  I arrived in Innsbruck a bit tired from the long flight and travel over the pond but felt confident that arriving 4 to 5 days before the event was plenty of time for me to recover and race fast.  I spent the first few days avoiding jet lag and the afternoon napping temptations by wandering through the streets of Innsbruck discovering all about the rich history surrounding this beautiful mountain city.

A new sport and a new team… This is only Canada’s second year to be represented in these Mountain Running Championships.  Team 2002 consisted of 4 juniors (Dustin, Dale, Stacy and Rhonda-all from Wetaskiwin), 1 women (Brooke Gosling-Orangeville, Ontario) and 4 men (Ryan Ervin-Vancouver, Jack Cook and Dennis Colburn-Edmonton and moi).  All of us were accomplished runners and we were confident in our ability to perform well.

The Canadian Mountain Running Association (CMRA) is the sport’s governing body responsible for the team selection.  Each country is allowed a quota of 6 men and 6 women (plus juniors) to be entered in the race.  In case you missed it, Canada is a big country!  This makes it very difficult to select a team with only 1 or 2 selection races and ask all the runners from either end to participate, especially when no funding is available.  This year, 2 races were the official qualifiers for the Worlds, one in Whistler and another in Canmore.  The winners of both races automatically qualified and others were selected by invitation.  The CMRA’s plan is to eventually offer selection races in the east but for now, the west is it.

Course inspection…With race day just around the corner, my roommate (Dennis Colburn) and I tore ourselves from our daily German television lesson and traveled across the valley to inspect our course.  Did I mention that this year’s race was entirely uphill?  Well, apart from the opening 2km of flats, the remaining 10km was up and very steep.  I couldn’t believe the terrain.  It was incredible!  The course went right up the double black diamond slopes of the world famous Seegrube downhill skiing resort.  We half ran, but mostly walked up the thing in over 2 hours.  I commented to Dennis that I would need a rest day just to recover from the walk.

Race day…10 degrees, pissing rain and thick fog in the mountains!

  What’s wrong with me?  I haven’t been this nervous since I was 15!  This is it.  No more playing tourist, it’s time to rock and roll.  The start was in what they called the ‘old city’ of Innsbruck, a beautiful little cluster of old houses and boutiques lining the narrow cobbled alleys that date back to 1420 when the great emperor of Austria, Maximillian I ruled the country (history lesson).  It was pretty cool.  Hundreds of spectators lined the course to catch a glimpse of the 170 entries from 41 nations.  Like I said…this wasn’t your local running club race!  These guys were no tourists either.  I was super stocked to be there, this is the kind of stuff I love.  This was my chance to strut my stuff against the best in the world of mountain running.  I knew I was fit, I knew I was fast and I was confident.  No matter what, this was going to be an awesome experience.  Ha!

And they’re off…Ever seen 170 guys squeezed like sardines in a 10 metre wide starting gate start a race?  Needless to say, the racers exploded off the line at Mach 80!  My plan was to start off steady and pick up the pace as the race progressed.  I did say that this was the plan, didn’t I?  With the adrenaline pumping I blasted out of the gate and followed along with the packfor the first km.  It wasn’t until I peeked at my heart rate monitor and realized I was red lining at 190 bpm that I eased off the pace…a little bit at least.

At the 2k mark the course turned uphill.  The switchback climbing had begun.  The course had been very well laid out passing beside the Alpenzoo, through a few little mountain ‘burds and then onto the steep muddy slopes of Seebruge.  In total, 1,330m of brutal climbing!

Back to racing…The climbing was going well as I kept a steady pace up the first grind.  My body was feeling good hovering around the threshold mark (any higher and you risk blowing up).  Even at this pace everyone kept flying by me!  I was probably sitting in 150th position and they were still passing me.  Unbelievable!   The other battle on this day was amongst the Canadians.  At 3k I was in 2nd place with Ryan ahead and Jack and Dennis a bit behind.  As I approached the 5km mark, I was still controlling my speed but was starting to feel the effects of the climb.  Dennis was picking up ground and he pulled alongside of me egging me on for duel.  I picked up the pace to match his.  We pushed each other for the next few kilometres until we reached the steepest part of the course.  From the 6 to 8km mark, the climbing was so brutally steep that I had to walk and even crawl up them.  My legs were screaming for air. “Picnic anyone?” they said.  NO WAY!  The rain was still pouring down hard and the fog was starting to appear as we moved further up the climb.  Guys were slipping all around me, struggling, swearing and grunting up the pitch.  Looking up, there was a long line of bodies all pushing their limits to get up to the top.  It was incredible.  Dennis pulled away from me as I chose to ski walk up the slope instead of running.  My leg strength was weakening.  The leaders were already 4 minutes up on me and gaining.  Argghh!  I kept plugging away, up, up, up, push, push, come on, come on, go, go, go!  I tried to keep Dennis in sight but eventually he disappeared.  For a guy who had just taken 2 months off because of a broken rib he wasn’t doing too bad.  I rounded the corner to tackle the last steep pitch and joined in the circus, crawling on hands and knees in the tall grass, only backs and butts bobbing up at my sides.  I would grab a handful of weeds and pull myself up the slope and repeat until I finally reached the gravel road.  Ahhhh!  Finally, some gradual climbing!  My legs were shot.  I could barely keep a pace worthy of being called running.  Even my speed-walking grandma would’ve kicked my butt!  Eventually, life returned to my stick limbs and I increased the pace.

2km to go… The fog was crazy thick!   You could only see about 20m ahead.  Nothing but the cheering of the spectators and the sound of my lungs pumping air could be heard.  My plan to increase the pace was well forgotten. My legs were cooked, well done, thank you very much.  From somewhere up above, a lone Scot hidden within the fog was playing one of his magical tunes.  It was the best sound I had ever heard.  It kept driving me forward and rejuvenated my legs…not by much mind you, but I still managed to dig deep for one last effort.  The switchbacks seemed endless but the finish line was getting closer with every turn.  I was plucking away runners one by one as they appeared out of the fog in front of me.

700m to go… This was it. I was in the final km for sure now.  Couldn’t be too much further…could it?  I couldn’t see anything.  The crowds were all around, cheering, yelling and banging their cow bells just like a mountain stage in the Tour de France.  My pace was slowing down but I kept going forward.  With what must have been 400m to go…I got another bit of motivation…there in front of me was Ryan!  His fast start was catching up to him and he was paying the price, fighting his legs to finish the race.  I surged to pass him but didn’t last 10m without filling my legs with pain once again.  I rounded the last corner and caught a glimpse of the ski resort through the fog.  Yes!

100m to go… A string of runners were laid out in front, all feeling the exact same thing…PAIN, and lots of it!  I gave everything I had left, passing a few more runners and stumbled across the line, exhausted!

Results…I got spanked!  I finished 94th, 12minutes behind the winner from New Zealand, who actually won the race by over 3 1/2 minutes!  Quite an incredible feat.  The top Canadian was Dennis Colburn who finished 20 seconds in front of me in 86th position.  Ryan Ervin crossed just another 20 seconds behind me in 100th and Jack Cook in 141st.   Canada finished in 21st out of 27 team entered in the team competition.

Reflections…It is difficult to be disappointed with my result since I really didn’t know what to expect in terms of a position.  The experience was amazing.  I come away from this with a wealth of knowledge and new respect for this developing sport.  These guys are as tough as they get.  Mountain running is not for tourists, you have to train hard and you have to train well if you want to win.  Coming from a xc skiing background, I believed I had the aerobic capacity to perform well, but I never realized how much of this sport relies on leg speed and strength.

Both skiing and mountain running complement each other very well so it wouldn’t be such a stretch to compete in both, but there comes a point when you have to decide.  Skiing is still my number one priority for another 3 years, but after that…who knows!

Thanks for reading.

Phil

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