The longest 55k I’ve ever run: 1st place at the Krkonose 55

“Bugger! Again?!” It dawns on me that this time the mistake might be costlier than the first. Having worked hard to regain the race lead after getting lost coming out of Spindleruv Mlyn 5 miles or so ago, I now find myself near the top of a mountain in Poland. The wrong mountain. Having motored on after taking the lead again, I had got into a nice rhythm ascending and must have completely overlooked the junction, where the green path forked away. I now found myself in no-mans land on the red trail and had to stop 3 separate groups of people to work out where I went wrong. My Czech is rubbish, but my Polish even worse so, from what I can make out, I had overshot the turn by about a kilometre. This wouldn’t have been awful if it hadn’t have been 1km of uphill on rocky terrain.

Rewind a couple of hours and all was so calm and relaxed. 200 or so runners had turned up in the small town of Vrchlabi in Krkonose National Park, Czech Republic to take part in an event that was supposed to be 55k long with just over 2km of vertical ascent, taking in CZ’s highest mountain in the process.

“I’m going to try and stay in second or third place so I make sure I don’t get lost.” Those were my famous last words to my student and friend, Ludek, before the race. Approaching the summit of the first 6km climb, however, I couldn’t resist the temptation to shoot off any longer. I had opened up a nice lead of 2 and a half minutes by the next checkpoint and was really enjoying the race, but from there on in it was a combination of running like a madman to regain the lead, running scared from those behind me and running on empty due to the near debilitating lack of food.

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Forests, forests all around. Beautiful scenery. Easy to keep your head down focused on the rocky path and miss a turning though!                                                                                                Photo courtesy of Lukas Svoboda

Staying in the lead for most of the race would be boring, right? Well, I definitely made sure that cruising home to victory was not going to happen as simply as that. And in a way I am glad.

Getting lost keeps it interesting

The process of having to re-gain the lead and overtake 10 people on two occasions sure kept the mind occupied, obsessed even, with the job in hand. It also meant I could exchange a few words with the other runners as I passed, breaking the solitude nicely. In an ultra, it’s amazing how comforting it can be to have a quick chat with someone after a few hours of running. Such simple pleasures are not afforded in shorter races.

With my mind busy and legs working overtime to overtake and re-take the lead, it was easy to miss the breathtaking scenery around us. When the path flattened and I was sure I was on the right track, however, I allowed some nice long stares into the wooded horizon. CZ does forests well and here they were at their finest.

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Snezka, Czech Republic’s highest mountain: 1,603m

Before long we find ourselves at the foot of Snezka, CZ’s highest mountain. By this point I find myself running with a chap named Lukas, who had not started out very fast but was now seemingly in his element, moving quickly up this beast of a climb. The tourists are out in their droves today and this provides a nice game of seeing how many we can overtake on the way up. “Pardon! Pardon!” I yell as I work my way up the narrowing path. It is also at this stage that I note we are not the only ones participating in a race today. Passing a lad with a colossal rucksack that looks like it’s been filled with bricks, I check his race number and see that he’s in a ‘Sherpa race’ to the summit. My self-pity for having to climb up this giant of a mountain fades away in an instant.

Coffee and a banana breakfast

The glory of reaching the summit fades quickly upon realising that there is no aid station at the top, just a stamp to check your race card with as proof you got to the summit. Lukas and I stamp each other’s cards and it’s back down where we just came up. It’s tricky passing through the crowds now as we are moving quickly, but my mind can only think about one thing: “I am so hungry.” Thirsty too, in fact. Rewind to last night and the pre-race carbo loading consisted of a modestly portioned gnocchi dish out and a couple of beers (I wouldn’t normally drink before such a race but I was with my student and he did the ordering!). Due to the 7am race start our hotel couldn’t serve us breakfast before the race either. So, a coffee and banana breakfast it was. That might have sufficed if I had taken a race pack full of bars and other fodder with me. I did not, though. Two gels and two S!caps was my feeling strategy as I planned on the aid stations being stocked. They were not. It was actually difficult to get water at some of them too. At the top of Snezka, I am told, “You can buy water from the shop.” when I ask. “With what money?!”

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Photo courtesy of Lukas Svoboda

On completing the steep descent we are treated to a thoroughly enjoyable stretch along flat meadows. It is at this stage that I have a good chat with Lukas. To reiterate, one cannot underestimate the morale and energy boost it gives having someone to run with and talk to on a long-distance race. What is more, Lukas is incredibly kind and gives me half a flapjack and a swig of his water. It is just what I need, as my stomach is beginning to cramp up.

Unfortunately for Lukas, the nugget of energy and dose of hydration gives me a much-needed boost and I bid my farewell to him on the next downhill. From here on in, the race profile is kind: it is all downhill to the finish! So, the game becomes not getting lost and holding on for the win. “Don’t get lost. DON’T GET LOST.”

This is easier said than done. Just 2km from the finish and I find myself being shouted at a by a resident, “Je spatny” .. “It’s wrong”. I backtrack and go the other way. “JE SPATNY!” she hollers again, this time pointing in the direction I need to go. Finally I manage to find the correct route and it’s freewheeling down to the finish, feverishly checking over my shoulder every minute or so to check. The finish line can’t come soon enough and when I see the town ahead I breathe a deep sigh of relief. Rounding the final corner to the finish line, I fail to raise my feet high enough to clear the kerb and stumble 10m from the finish. I was knackered! After 6 hours, 9 minutes and 45 seconds on my feet, I needed some fuel, fast.

I neck a good few cups of water and iso back whilst simultaneously wolfing down the delightfully simple buttered bread the race organisers have laid on. 5 minutes later Lukas comes in. Another 10 minutes or so later the next runner crosses the line. We share good chat and stories as is always the way at ultra races. That is what I love about such races: the community spirit, the friendship and the good-hearted competition.

Reflecting on the experience, I only have positive things to talk about. Running in the mountains will always be delightful. This race was in the most beautiful national park in CZ and summited the highest mountain… win win. It was also a small, low-key event and I believe this helped give it a character some larger races fail to attain. I am also happy I got lost; after all, had it not been for going the wrong way, I would have had a lonely race out front by myself and not had the chance to talk to fellow runners such as Lukas. So what if I could have shaved half an hour off my race time? Sure, the course record would have been nice, but I’ll take the company and chat any race.

The charm of the small race: On the trail at the Zlín Hodinovka

It’ll be called the International Zlín Hodinovka (http://www.behyzlin.cz/propozice//) next year. As the sole non-Czech; in fact, the sole non-Zlín participant in the race on Saturday, I was treated to a warm welcome. The 100 or so runners who had turned out to run in this 1-hour forest race in the outskirts of Zlín were clearly not expecting a British chap living in Brno to turn up and run for an hour around the 1km loop set in the forest overlooking their city.

A true gent named Radek took me under his wing and translated the race instructions for me. He also gave me some interesting insights into the Zlín running and triathlon scene. It turned out that he is a top triathlete and two of the other competitors today are too: one qualified for Ironman Hawaii last year; one is on his way there this year. Who would have thought it? In the small Czech city of Zlín, it turns out that there is a world- class endurance triathlon scene!

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You can tell the race organiser is a runner. Anyone who wears short shorts and a vest who has thighs as defined as a race horse has evidently been a runner for many years. Courtesy of some background info from Radek, it transpires that he was a highly acclaimed Czech marathon runner in his time and now holds numerous age-category records. As he gathers us runners together in the forest, he thanks everyone for coming and informs us that it is the only 1-hour forest race in the Czech Republic…Now, I guess the number of 1-hour forest races worldwide is quite small, but still, it definitely adds to the build-up and makes it feel really special.

The race involves running around a marked 1km forest trail for as many laps as you can in the allotted 1 hour. There is chip timing for each completed lap and on the final lap you have to notify the organisers how far you got (there are cards marking every 10m). I like this format already. It sure beats running around a track for an hour, like most 1-hour races and the fact that it is 1km gives nice potential to get locked in to some good battles with other runners, without having to overtake too many people OR be overtaken by too many people if you’re a bit slower.

As the start draws nearer, the race director puts his number on and attaches his chip before joining us on the start line. He hands the gun to his wife and wishes everyone good luck. The gun goes and we’re on our way, the race director leading us out on our first lap. What a delightful sight to see someone who has been involved in running their whole life still feeling invigorated by the sport and now giving something back by putting on this event. I haven’t seen many races where the 60-year old director runs with fellow competitors… what a role model!

I set off in 4th place and try to hold this position for a few laps. It becomes clear that the pace of 3:30 1km laps (with some elevation change) is too quick for my current condition though. I drop back to 3:50 laps and even have a couple at 4:00 and the race is far more enjoyable. Time ticks over quickly, with the forest providing enough interest to divert the mind away from the dry throat, beating heart and gasping lungs. Furthermore, because it is a 1km loop, you find yourself always overtaking someone. This provides good motivation and always gives you a target. Getting overtaken is also incredibly motivating. On surrendering 4th and then 5th place I see how long I can stick with them before dropping off the pace. The 1km lap marker provides a useful checkpoint to measure efforts against.

And so, like any race, the final few minutes come around all too quickly and we find ourselves in a last minute dash for an extra few metres. A guy overtakes me just before finishing the 15th lap, but I dig deep and find a little extra to open up a 30m lead in the last couple of minutes. Always finish strong.

Handshakes with fellow runners all round and it’s back to the small clearing where it began. The great thing about such a small event is that everyone talks to each other; no-one is anonymous like can so often be the case in big races. Just consider what it was like at your last big city marathon: how many people were there? Did anyone talk to each other? Did it feel like a community? Here the community spirit is strong and it is just getting started.

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Not long after the race’s conclusion, we migrate down do a larger clearing, where there is a podium set up, music and food. All of this for 50 crowns (that’s about £1.50)! It is unbelievably good value and everyone involved clearly loves doing it. The watermelon is cut by a previous Hawaii ironman competitor and the delicious pasta dish provided by a local restaurant. If I contrast this to the food I have got in bigger races, this wins hands down.

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Top-notch pasta dish post-race, veggie-friendly!

Yet this race is nothing special. There are hundreds of such small races in the Czech Republic and thousands more around the World. The UK is very well-enamoured with such races in fact. The key is being able to find them (http://www.behej.com/terminovka/0/filter/rest-year if in CZ, https://www.goodrunguide.co.uk/RaceDiary.asp for the UK). They may not have sophisticated websites and won’t give you a medal or a t-shirt, but the community spirit, the people you meet and the feeling of being part of a niche, local event is unbeatable. I’ll take the small race over the big-city event any day of the week.

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The top three, receiving their prize money. Yes, prize money!

AZ Tower Race – Running to the top of the Czech Republic’s tallest tower

Lie-ins are boring, right? Running up a tower on a Sunday morning, however; now there’s something I can shout from the *skyscraper-tops about. So it was set, last Sunday, my girlfriend, I and several hundred others found ourselves at the base of the AZ Tower, Czech Republic’s tallest building, ready for a race like no other I had done before. 111m spread over 30 floors was the morning’s challenge. Were we ready for it? Who knows? It is one thing to run up and down a hill, quite a different proposition altogether to run up endless flights of stairs.

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The night before I had pointed to the AZ Tower and made fun of its miniature formation, “Can you believe it? THAT’s the tallest building in the Czech Republic?” Laughs and more beers followed. It would be a walk in the park for fit people like us to run to the top of such a tame beast. Now, as we stood at its base, baking in the 25 degree close heat, throats parched from the night before’s drinking, it wasn’t quite so worthy of ridicule.

“It’s actually quite high.”

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Standing at the base of the AZ Tower looking up

Unlike most races, tower runs start at intervals. I’m sure there’s a market for an event where you all start at the same time though. This means that you have quite a lot of time hanging out at the base of the tower, neck craned, looking up at the impending torture to ensue. We go for a jog to warm up, but somehow it seems to be wholly ineffective in readying for the task ahead. I wonder how much of a link there is to running fast on flat roads and running up stairs. Based on the number of Spartan Race, Tough Mudder, Cross Fit and other hold body fitness type event/ training shirts I can see at the start, it seems like a completely different clientele to the wily chaps lined up at a normal flat road race.

Normally I would fancy myself to thrash these guys in a running race. Here I am not so sure though. It’s a whole new ball game. A complete unknown. Yet tower races are nothing new. The sport even has its own Association. https://towerrunning.com/races.html lists 112 such races around the world, including one such race up the Gherkin in London and another up the Empire State Building in the USA. Tower running is booming, apparently. And it is no surprise. In the post- simple running era we live in, where conventional flat races are no longer enticing enough, people are looking for new and ‘tougher’ challenges. Just look at the obstacle race and ultra running booms for evidence of this. Tower running is no exception.

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Interval starts at the base of AZ

The general format is a simple affair when compared to the dizzying number of obstacles in many races these days. Run up the given number of stories to reach the top of the tower in the quickest possible time. So, at 20 second intervals, we were released to make our summit attempts, racking up no less than 30 stories in the process. The Empire State race has a whopping 86. Thank God they haven’t started a race up the Burj Khalifa yet.

It is only at the half-way point that I look up and realise that I still have 15 more stories to go. For the first 15 it was head down, eyeballs out, still running every story; now it becomes more of a grind as my throat becomes parched and struggles for air. The legs feel fine, but oxygen is the problem. It feels like my lungs are gasping for air and trying desperately hard to find some, but with each couple of stairs comes a thrust of the thigh, quashing all hopes for the respiratory system to get any respite.

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Summit photo with our new friend

Exercise-induced laryngitis

Thankfully there are officials at the top of the tower. I, like everyone else I subsequently see finish, completely fail to acknowledge that I have reached the summit. The kind chap at the top pulls me to one side, gives me a nice medal and more importantly a bottle of cold water. Words cannot put it into words how needed it is. Sure, our bodies feel knackered when we race on the flat or even the trail, but this is a feeling like no other. The legs feel fine, but the throat feels torn apart. A lick of the lips shows no blood, but it feels disconcertingly like there is for a good 20 minutes after the finish. My girlfriend almost loses her voice because of her endeavours. It was the first time I ever researched and found out that ‘exercise- induced laryngitis’ is a thing. The price we pay to run up a tower. We runners can be a silly bunch sometimes.

Perun Sky Maraton – Race Report

Me: “How do I get back to my car?”

Race official: “You see that big slope you ran up. Well, you’ve got to walk down.”

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Of course you’ve got to walk back down, you just ran up it you moron! How else did you think you were going to get back to the safety of your car? The race ends on the top of Javorový, at a lofty elevation of 960m; the cars are back at the race start. On legs that have just ran a mountain marathon, with 3195m of vertical ascent in 26 miles (and 2707m of descent), this prospect is quite difficult to get the head round. Symbolic of the race as a whole though; the Perun Sky Maraton is a brutal race, there can be no doubt about that.

 

I underestimated the scale of the race

I drove up to the race start from Brno, leaving my place at 630 and arrived in the nick of time to get my race number and shovel down a final banana. This race was a bit whimsical for me, having only signed up the week before. I had also assumed that it was quite a low-key race, on a par with hilly marathons in southern England, where you get a couple of hundred runners, most of whom are there for a nice day out more than anything else. That assumption was quickly dispelled as I realised that this was a serious race, expertly organised and with lots of very good runners. There were …. Runners in this year’s event and many of them clearly well-versed in the art of mountain running. I counted at least a dozen team jerseys, such as Salomon, Pearl Izumi and national sky running team vests. There was to be a hard race fought on the slopes of the Beskydy mountains today. A look back at the results afterwards uncovers that pretty much the entire Czech national sky running team was here, as well as numerous other sponsored teams.

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Up, up, up

The first mile is straight up to the summit of Javorový. I find myself in the minority of runners without poles. It seems at least three-quarters of the field have them and before long I start questioning whether they would be beneficial. The terrain is steep and, whilst footing is firm due to the previous week’s dry, sunny weather, I am beginning to feel the strain in my lower back already by the end of the first climb.

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What goes up, must come down. For my flimsy road running legs, this means serious strain on the quads, as well as the pummeling the knees take. Having just plodded up for 20-
odd minutes, it feels like you should have earned a nice gradual descent where you can rack up some speedy miles and give the legs a chance to breathe. Not here though. Straight back down and the legs are at full tilt again, different muscles this time but nonetheless demanding. For a few fast minutes the mind turns to one thought; “Don’t fall. Don’t fall. Just DON’T FALL.” 

Aid

The race offers 3 main aid stations. The first of these comes at 6km in, after the first big ascent and descent and just before the second. It offered water, coke, bananas, museli bars, chocolate and meat. A splash of water and I’m on my way. Having overtaken five or six runners on the descent from the previous climb, I quickly give back these places on this next uphill. Living and training in a city doesn’t really lend itself to long, steep climbs like this. There are clearly plenty of hardy guys (and gals) that train on slopes like this day in, day out. The bulbous size of their calves as they pass me is testament to this. I comfort myself with this thought, “I’m a city kid, OF COURSE I’m not going to be as good as climbing mountains like this.” Then again, I’m in the race now so I better get my head down.

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Jelly legs

More aid comes at the 15km mark. Half a banana to go with the water this time. My carbo loading seems to be holding up nicely, but got to keep the juice topped up. This time the summit is clear from the beginning of the ascent as the route goes straight up a straight, wide slope that is no doubt used as a beautiful blue ski piste in winter (it’s too steep to be green). Upon reaching the top, it’s a sharp turnaround and then straight back down. I can’t work out what’s harder: the up or the down. It just doesn’t feel good for the legs. That said, I seem to faring better on the downs, again overtaking those who shot past me on the up. On reaching the bottom, it’s back past the aid station again and a brief respite from the undulation. The short-lived flat is tough though. My legs feel like jelly after the downhill onslaught. No time for contemplation though. A few minutes later we’re straight back in with the next climb.

Cruise control

There comes a time in a race of this length and difficulty where you have to flick the switch and detach yourself from the race; simply put the body into cruise control and take yourself to a happy place. That’s what I do anyway. Turn off the pain in the calves, tell the cramp in the hamstrings to “Get lost!” It’s sometimes easier said than done, but it usually works for me. This point comes at around the 20 mile mark for me. The race summits its 6th peak and then levels off for a stretch. Runners are treated to a nice gradual descent and I rack up some <8min/miles. I begin to see a sub 5-hour finish in sight and will myself on, catching runners in the process. Between miles 20 and 24 I don’t get overtaken once, but claim at least 3 or 4 tiring runners. It’s too good to be true, surely – can it really be downhill all the way to the finish?

Check the profile, stupid

Part of this being done on a whim meant that my race prep was wholly inadequate. A quick glance at the profile in the morning  and I was on my way. Such was my ignorance that little did I know the final sting in the race’s tail was the most painful of them all. With 24.5 miles down, the race delivers its final blow: a brutal uphill slope which is barely hikeable, let along runnable. I find myself crawling in parts, falling back and losing my balance at others. Progress is slow and demoralising. I lose the places I gained on the down and a couple more. Bugger. Out goes the 5-hour finish. Suddenly the brain switches to survival mode – head down, get to the finish any which way you can.

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The winner (pictured above) crosses the line in a disturbingly fast 3:53. Many people would be happy with that on a nice flat road marathon. This guy had just done it with 3.2km of vertical ascent thrown in. I eventually cross the line in 5:21, placing me 32nd. Pre-race, I fancied that I might sneak top 10. Little did I know how tough this race would be and how competitive the field would be – these Czech mountain runners sure know how to race. The whole experience made me reflect how tame southern England trail races are in comparison. Mountain running is alive and well here. If you fancy putting your sky running skills to the test, a trip to Czechia might well be exactly what you need.

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2:30

Watching the London Marathon yesterday morning was both inspiring and frustrating at the same time. I was inspired by watching Kipchoge and others tear up the course in record speed. That said, I was more inspired by the achievements of running buddies I used to train with who set incredible PBs and have come on huge strides since we were training together 13 months ago. That was the time that I suffered a bad climbing fall and broke my pelvis, which put me out of action for 3 solid months and a further 3 taking baby steps. The toughest part of the injury was not running and the toughest thing now is trying to recover fitness and form that I had back then. Watching the VLM yesterday was difficult in that I know where I might well have been at this stage had the trajectory continued unhindered.

This was hammered home last weekend when I ran the Brno Half Marathon. 14 months prior to this I had run a half mara in 1:19. I foolishly thought I could match the time this time around. Unfortunately this was not to be. In the 22 degree heat I burned up and managed a mere 2 miles at my target pace before spending most of the race feeling sorry for myself, making excuses and limping home in 1:26.

I tried to cool myself at each aid station, but failed.

I tried to cool myself at each aid station by throwing water over me. It did little to help pick up speed though.

It is against this backdrop that I resolved (almost immediately after the Brno Half) to chase the elusive 2:30 marathon, with London 2018 being the fast-approaching target. Where things currently stand, this might well be seen as ludicrously unrealistic. But it can and will be done. I have written about what it takes to run a 2:30 marathon at some length:

https://marathonandmore.com/category/running-a-230-marathon/

The more I run and train, the more I am beginning to believe that the key to success is staying injury-free. As I sit here writing this I have two annoying niggles which I don’t know how to get rid of. They are infuriating and noticeable on every run. I don’t think they are enough to make me stop running and I think I am at the stage in training now where I can pinpoint when I need to stop and when it is ok to push on. That said, I worry every run that they might develop and put me out for weeks, even months. I am counting down the days until I get back on the sports massage table…

So, let it be on the record. I will run a 2:30 marathon at London in 2018. Train hard, race hard and stay injury-free and I think I’ll have a shot.

Race Mindset

Last weekend I ran my first proper race since injury. That means I had been out of any sort of competitive running for almost a year. For the first few months getting back into the swing of running and beginning to start ‘training’ (as supposed to just going out for a run) I cherished the freedom of not having to worry about mileage and speed. I could just go out for a run and that was that. Simple. After a few months of this, however, that was not enough, as I knew it wouldn’t be. If you are the competitive type like me then it’s hard to ‘just go for a run’ unless you’re recovering from a race/hard training session/injury or putting in some miles in the morning as part of a double run day. And so I signed up for the Beh Luzankami 8k (http://www.behluzankami.cz) in Luzanky Park, Brno, Czech Republic – where I live at the moment. I saw that last year there were Kenyans in the race and that the CR was 22 minutes so I thought it must have some good competition. I wanted to push myself again and there is no better way to do this than to put yourself up for a race where you know there will be quite a few people better than you.

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Luzanky Park, Brno

Preparation starts the day before

Having pushed the mileage into the 50s the previous two weeks and >80 the week before I had picked up a slight niggle on my calf and so I made the executive decision to rest up Friday and restrain from going for a run. WAY easier said than done, as every runner knows. This was the start of switching into race mindset. Think you’re fast, act like you’re going to be fast, and you’ll probably end up being fast (having done the training too of course), so goes my thinking. So on Friday I rested my weary legs and retreated home before 10 in the evening’s proceedings. What would an athlete do if in the same position? Would they go for a run and possibly risk injury? Would they stay out drinking?

Afternoon racing requires restraint

The race was at 1430. That’s quite a long time between waking up at 7 and the gun going off. This made food and race day prep even more important. I vowed to have one coffee in the morning and then hold back until half an hour before the race for a second and nice little boost (caffeine most definitely helps performance in my case). Food was trickier. Porridge, toast and lots of fruit was what I opted for, knocking back the final heavy food 2.5 hours before kick-off and a banana half an hour before. Thinking about all of this stuff matters, not least from the psychological impact of preparing for the race like an athlete. Think like an athlete, be an athlete.

Look fast

I was amazed and delighted when I arrived at Luzanky Park to find that I had won the competition for the shortest shorts, with only the Kenyan and two club runners tying for the prize. We were also the only ones wearing vests. The amount of body armour people had on was crazy compared to my outfit. Look fast, feel fast, be fast.

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Warm up

Before the race I did a couple of miles of the course as a recce and to warm the muscles up. Again, this benefits psychologically as much as it does physically in my book. Feeling prepared, knowledgable and suitably warmed up is essential to racing well, for me. It meant that by the time I was actually on the start line, my clarity of mind was spot on and I knew I had done absolutely everything I could in order to race well.

Give yourself no excuses

The harsh reality that I think most people might find difficult to admit is that when it comes to racing, we often look for excuses as to why things didn’t go as planned or we didn’t do as well as we could have. Sometimes, these excuses start being formed before the race has even begun! This is the easy way out. I made sure I had none of these and raced knowing that I had done everything I could beforehand. Now I just had to finish the job.

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I settled into the second pack.

Crossing the line in 14th, in a time of 28:21, I keeled over and could barely move for a minute or so, still reeling with that sick feeling that somehow feels so good only runners will be able to associate with. Job done.

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Post-race nourishment, Czech style. Beer and no veggie option for the pasta.

Running The Way of St James: Brno – Austria

I wonder how much of the route the original pilgrims ran. Given that there was over 3000km left to their ultimate goal – Santiago de Compostela – when I left the route and headed back to Brno – I think it’s quite likely that the answer is somewhere between none and ‘only when necessary’ (i’m thinking of running away from animals in the Alps/ Pyrenees here more than anything). The day pilgrim, however, does not have to make these considerations and so a nice run down to Austria from the centre of Brno was the plan. There is a special kind of lure to long-distance trails which makes them far more enchanting and alluring than shorter routes or parks/ nature reserves. There is a sense of freedom, of knowing that if you continued on the same route, you would get to location hundreds or thousands of miles from where you started, often in a different country, with a different culture, a different language, people that look different.

After a conversation over a beer the weekend before, I had been fixated by the challenge ever since. A friend told me about the route and showed me one of the yellow arrows that characterises the Way. Ever since then, I knew that it had to be done. Finding information out about the route from Brno – Austria was difficult (one reason for this blog post), but one Czech site helpfully provided a German translation with information about the route: http://jakubskacesta.cz/de/cesty/jih This provided a nice overview of where the towns and villages would be on the way and reassured me that I was on the right path.

As the above pictures show, the route is well-marked from the city centre of Brno heading south to Austria. I picked up the route behind St James Cathedral (Kostel sv. Jakuba in CZ) and quickly found myself running along the banks of the Svitava river. I took a slight wrong turn here, heading left at the river instead of right, but this only cost me about an extra km or so. Back to the road and I quickly saw the yellow arrow pointing the correct way. I had initially thought it would be tricky following the Way out of the city centre, but in actual fact it was simple. The route follows the river Svitava for quite a while out of the city, taking you to Olympia shopping centre and then the Svratka river. It then continues along the banks of the Svratka.

The first major town you hit is at Židlochovice, which is about 20km or so in. It is a quaint town, with most shops apparently closed for business past midday on a Saturday! There was, however, thankfully a small shop open selling cut price bananas as they were on the turn .ie. perfect for a runner in need of an instant sugar hit. I stocked up here with a couple and a cereal bar and continued on my merry way.

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Leaving the town you begin to notice vineyards around and small Vinotekas selling wine. This region of the Czech Republic is a proud wine-growing area, but is little known outside of the country. This is because they produce small quantities, most of which is consumed within Czech. It always wins awards though and is renowned for its flavour. They’ve definitely gone for quality over quantity on this front. You also see lots of religious monuments, from grand churches to memorials to crosses by the roadside. I can imagine for someone more religiously inclined each of these tells a fascinating, rich story, but for me the impact is more surface level. They look nice anyway and are a nice reminder that you are on a pilgrimage route.

Another 10km further and you hit the small village of Uherčice. If you’re as fortunate as me, the small shop selling energy-rich delights and sugar-packed goodies right as you enter the village will be open. I managed to pick up these treats:

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On a long journey like this one, delights such as these really are euphoric moments. Furthermore, right next to the store there is a small farm with these cool dudes hanging out:

They kept me amused for a good few minutes whilst I wolfed down my slabs of energy. From here the next point of note for me was when I reached Palava. This is a protected area of outstanding natural beauty that deserves the accreditation. It’s worth noting that you do also pass through Popice before reaching this, but I didn’t stop here.. The landscape changes notably on the approach to Palava, with the terrain more lush and hills in the distance appearing.

The hill in the distance looming, I know from experience of having been to this region that it will have to be overcome before reaching my ultimate destination. Time for a new podcast and push on. The approach is stunning here, the landscape unspoilt except for vineyards. On running across the lake I marvel at the beauty of the area. The late afternoon sun is gorgeous. After crossing the lake the route takes you sharply up the hill you can see in the above pictures. On another day I might have run it but today this wan’t on the cards. This was by far my longest run back since injury, so there was no need to get into some serious hill climbing 50k in. The views on the climb up and at the top were worth the effort:

After the climb comes the reward. It comes in the form of 5km of ridge running, winding its way through the forests, with intermittent views out to vineyards and across the border to Austria. At this point you begin to notice the marked increase in other people. All along the way before now I barely saw anyone. Now, however, in the vicinity of Mikulov and in Palava reserve, there are plenty of groups of people out on day hikes wandering. Not that many runners though.

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It doesn’t take long to have Mikulov, the border town separating Czech Republic from Austria, in sight. After the wooded ridge, the route follows a small road for a km or so, before heading back into the woods and then descending into Mikulov. And what a beautiful reward arriving in Mikulov is. Having visited once before, it came as no surprise to me, but it is nonetheless a remarkably beautiful town.

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My journey requires a final push, though, and so I push on through, knowing that it is now just 3.5km to the Austrian border. Out of Mikulov the Way follows a muddy trail alongside some fields and is remarkably dull compared to the scenery preceding it. If it were not for the fact that the goal was within reach, this stretch would have been miserable. But it was blissful. And then, the sign appears. No notice on the Czech side telling you you’re leaving their country; just an old sign from the Austrian side saying “Achtung Staatsgrenze” (Attention, Border). No fanfare, no song and dance, just an old sign in the middle of a muddy field. I took a photo, turned around and ran the 3km back to the station.

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Running in Brno -Hadecka Planinka, Zadni Hady & Udoli Ricky

I got lost. But then again, that’s not all that bad when you’re out on a nice long Sunday run, exploring new ground, armed with a double espresso gel and a podcast full of new talk shows, is it?

The closest point from Brno to leave a vehicle is by the Velka Klajdovka hotel (there is also a bus stop here), so I ditched the van and set off for a nice long run in the woods. Although the Hadecka Planinka (oftn just called Hady after the highest point) is not very large on its own, it connects seamlessly to the forests of Zadni Hady and Udoli Ricky. In fact, it continues pretty much unbrokenly all the way up to the Punkva caves and Macocha Abyss near Blankso. Note to self: must try this some time! So, the area has the feeling of unbroken forest, with the exception of a few small roads and tracks that are used by a minimal number of cars and the odd house dotted around in the woods.

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The elevation is nothing spectacular – Hady lies at 424m above sea level and as far as I’m aware, this is the highest point in the local area – but there are nice stretches of quick downhill and some serious climbs too. The terrain is nice too, allowing for some unbroken speed work reps if you fancy it.

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The paths are marked pretty well , with lots of colour-coded markers on the trees to follow. That said, you need to have a good memory of all the nearby places and landmarks in order to be able to decipher the majority of these, hence me getting badly lost. Still, a bit more advance planning or studying of the map beforehand and it would be easy to run for miles here and not get lost.

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There are a few little villages that you might stumble upon if you go a bit wrong, like me, or you could aim for one of these and get a bus back. The village I accidentally chose to rock up in, weary-eyed after 20km and dying for a banana, was Ochoz. The below picture illustrates the rural feel to it. One thing I love about running in Brno is that it takes no time at all to be running in the wilderness, feeling like you are miles away from a big city. The drive from the city centre to the start of this route was 10 minutes. Run a further 10-15 minutes and the city’s nowhere to be seen.

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I ended up doing 14 miles here today – that’s about 23km for those of you on metric terms. I think the potential for any sort of marathon training runs here is huge. I might even pop back in the week for some speed work or hill reps… the possibilities are endless.

Running in Brno – Hady

The thermometer showed -3 degrees when I drove past on my way to explore the forests around Hady. By the time I returned the minus sign had vanished. Such is the difference a clear blue sky and beating Winter sunshine makes. In Brno, days like this have to be seized, and I was heading to the right place to make the most of it.

The nature reserve is called Hadecka Planinka, but the highest point in it is called Hady and so people commonly refer to the area as just this (apparently!). I was surprised to see signposts saying ‘Moravsky Kras’ as well as I have been there and I was under the impression that it started a good 20km north of Brno. Apparently not though, the forest begins here and runs all the way up (read: serious long run potential). The trails are well marked, with occasional signs and I can imagine they would be dreamy underfoot had there not been so much ice! The below picture illustrates what they are ‘normally’ like:

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From parking at the closest spot to Brno, at Velka Klajdovka, it doesn’t take long to shake off your fellow nature lovers and find yourself running on empty trail heading deep into the forest. After the first km or so I probably saw about 3 groups of people on the entire run. Not bad going for an area so stunning and yet so close to Brno. I was looking for about 12km so I followed some signs to a place apparently 4.5km away at first and then made some sort of a loop back.

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This picture illustrates just how close it is to Brno city centre. As you can see from the route I took, there are clearly hundreds of other routes possible here. There were also a few car parks a couple of km further up, so accessing the reserve from one of these points would allow for a bit more time deep in the forest.

The point is, this place is great because of the feeling of being completely outside of the city, but in fact only being a short drive to get home. One thing is for sure: I’ll be coming back here for many a fine Sunday morning run.

Running in Brno – Holedna Park

It was a good job I packed my trail running shoes with me when I came over from the UK a week ago. On Friday I was kicking myself for heading out in road shoes and paid the price when crossing the icy road, stacking badly and landing straight on the side where I broke my pelvis. If there ever was a test of how well healed you are, this was it. Anyway, heading out this morning to explore the Holedna Park (Obero Holedna in Czech), I didn’t make the same mistake again. Brooks Cascadias where the weapon of choice and they soon proved their worth.

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I live in the Bohunice district of Brno, to the south of the city centre. From my place to the nearest access point to Holedna was a short 10 minute drive. Obviously this is a runnable distance too but for the purposes of this morning’s run was not what I was looking for. More time in the forest, less on the roads, I thought. So, accessibility-wise it is super easy to get to. I imagine that if you live in the city centre or to the West of the city it is even easier for you to reach.

Upon entering the park, it doesn’t take long to realise that it is a trail runner’s paradise. There is a small stretch of tarmac path around the perimeter route, but it quickly turns into a gravel track. And this is just the main path. There are hundreds of smaller trails shooting off in all directions into the heart of the park. It also doesn’t take long to realise that if you don’t like running up hills, you’re not going to like it here. I ran for an hour this time and I would say no more than 5 or 10 minutes of that time were spent running on flat paths. But then again, running on the flat is boring, right?

You quickly get into the rhythm of slow incline followed by rapid descent. Thankfully this park is so beautiful that it takes your mind off the effort needed to summit the next hill. The general feel of the park is one of thick forest, with plenty of deer roaming freely and no sign of the city or houses anywhere as it is all blocked by a barrier of trees. It feels like you are out in the wild somewhere, not 4 miles from the centre of the Czech Republic’s second biggest city. And then, if the deer were not enough of novelty, how about some boar? This was the first time I had ever seen a boar in a non- zoo environment and I can say unambiguously that they are super cool animals. They did a great job of taking my mind off the hills for a while, anyway🙂

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So, you’ve got thick forest, hills, deer and boar. Throw in some beautiful little lakes and this little paradise of nature is complete. The terrain changes frequently from larger to smaller path and the trees clear for sections too, so it really does keep you interested the whole time.

I ran around the perimeter route and if it’s your first time heading to the park, I would recommend doing the same. It works out as about 11km. Here’s the route on Strava:

https://www.strava.com/activities/449230521

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This screen shot illustrates how close the park is from the centre of Brno.

To summarize, Holedna Park is a runner’s paradise. This was my first time there today but I will be back many times in the future that much is for sure. The trails in the centre seem to have limitless potential and there are some juicy hills to do some reps on too. If you’re living in or visiting Brno and like trail running, you simply have to head out to Holedna Park.

Check out these other routes too, courtesy of Michal:

http://brnonow.com/2009/03/5-great-running-and-jogging-trails/