The 13th edition of the World Masters Mountain Running Champs was held in a small spa town, Janske Lazne, in the north of the Czech Republic, some half dozen miles south of the Polish border on Saturday 31st August. There was a fair sized British contingent and we looked especially [from my point of view, worryingly] strong in the V65 category into which I had slipped only last month. With just 3 for the team, I knew I would have my work cut out to haul my ancient carcass clear of at least 4 of my fellow 7 Brits in the field. Not only was a previous individual winner of these Champs [in the V55 cat] and in fantastic form on the fells his year, Ben Grant of Harrogate, entered, but there was also Dic Evans of Cardiff, a sub 2.20 marathoner in his day, Ken Taylor of Rossendale, a recent winner of his category in the British Fell Champs Series and Alan Appleby [Preston Harriers], a speedy road runner.
The course should have been very much to my liking, about 5.25 miles, nearly all uphill on the Cesna Hora mountain, with, in total, over 2,100 feet of climb. Underfoot, it was a mixture of rough forest paths, grass, soft, spongy top soil and the sort of shale tracks we get at Presteigne and other wooded venues. There were some lovely long drags which tend to suit a one-trick pony like me. Race day was pretty warm but there was a good bit of shade from the trees as we made our way up the mountain with the cable-car zinging along overhead. Unfortunately, I wasn’t feeling too good pre-race, having picked up a cold the previous week and, knowing the calibre of runner I was up against, my confidence wasn’t that high. But, entering the holding pen at the start, I felt fairly light on my feet even if my airways were blocked. My aim was to make the scoring GB team and see where that would take us. I determined on a bold start to show intent and make my rivals work to beat me if they were going to.
I was around 8th as we skirted the woods around the town before going on to the mountain, not feeling great but maintaining a pace. Ben was right upfront at this point. I got into a fair rhythm on the long drags and no one came passed till about halfway when the inevitable Dic scuttled by, keeping up a good tempo and drawing clear despite my efforts to hold on to him. Not for the first time in my career [shouldn’t I know better at my age?!] I was wondering if I had gone off a bit fast. I was feeling distinctly uncomfortable and acutely conscious that I was in the final scoring slot with another couple of gruelling miles to go in which to ward off marauding teammates. I then heard steps behind and of course jumped to the conclusion that it was Ken overhauling me. I’d fight but would I be able to hold off this opponent who had the distinct advantage of having already eaten up the ground between us and was going faster? He edged past. It was Ken, wasn’t it? No, thank heavens it was an Italian. [Surely this isn’t the right attitude in international competition, Herington]. He gained 20 metres on me and then, strangely, on a slight downhill, I felt myself closing the gap and made a strong effort to get past and led him up the final twisty stoney section before the course levelled out for the final 500 metres near the summit. Once here, he burst ahead again, but at least this little battle had kept me going and prevented fear of Brits sapping my energy and will. It proved a long run-in however and I was annoyed to lose another place, albeit to a Belgian international track man who sped by so fast I didn’t even have time to wonder if it was Ken or one of the others. On he went, past the Italian like an 800 metre man. I felt lousy on this stretch as I suppose most people did, but what relief to come to the corner 20 metres from the finish and to know there was no one breathing down my neck, Brit or otherwise! I flung myself into the arms of the finish, thrilled to be 3rd and scoring Brit! I later discovered I was 11th, Dic 8th and Ben a fantastic 2nd after having had a huge lead over the eventual winner from Switzerland. Ken was 14th with Alan close in 15th both a minute + back from me.
As I tried unsuccessfully to recover in the finish area, I heard that in the V70s one of my travelling companions from Cheltenham, Martin Ford, had scored a dramatic victory, overtaking a German in the last 100 metres to win by 4 seconds. Ken Buckle, the other runner I had travelled with, was 11th. Sue Davies from Croft was in the V45s and was well up in 15th though not too pleased with her run.
One of the joys of running up a course hard by a ski slope is that, with a bit of luck, there will be a cable car to take you back down, saving your poor old feet and burning calves and quads. And so it was with us. Only when we were back down in the town did Ben pass on the news that the V70’s had got second team while the 65’s were the only GB team to win gold! But it could not have been closer! We finished on 21 points with the Germans second on 22 and the Italians third also on 22! So, if that Belgian had not beaten the Italian as well as me, Italy would have been 1st. I have a Belgian to thank for that nice glistening gold medal!