A Tale of Two Races
The last couple of weekends have seen me finally kick off my racing season. One weekend was a Skyrunning World Series race I've competed in twice before and one was a new race in a totally new sport. Neither went as expected, and together they're making me reevaluate my relationship with running and racing.
Skyrace des Matheysins
I hadn't intended my first race of the season to be a World Series event. Nobody does. Not racing for months and then throwing yourself in at the deep end isn't necessarily a good idea, but after 18 months of niggles and wavering confidence in my ability to perform I wasn't ready to toe start lines any earlier than this. By the time Matheysins came round I was niggle free but apprehensive about my fitness and drive. However, tickets had been booked, friends were joining me and it was a course I knew well. If not now, when?
Plus I knew the course well already, having run it in 2019 and 2021. 2019 was the first year I tackled the Skyrunning World Series with intent. I gathered points across multiple races and aimed for the overall ranking. My life back then was also entirely different. I was working long hours to pass my probation teaching year, I'd shaken up my routine life in Edinburgh and moved away by myself, my Mum had died in the Spring. It shouldn't have been a good base to perform from but I was full of emotion, chasing my dreams, and felt I had nothing to lose. I raced scrappily and full of heart. Skyrace des Matheysins was my first race of the series that year (you can read about it here) and I finished in 9th in 3:16:13. At the time I was disappointed in my race, but looking back I'm proud of how I raced hard and fought for every position.
In 2021 I returned to Matheysins off the back of some great results. I was running well and feeling confident. I battled with Johanna Astrom up the first climb and for periods of the race I genuinely believed I could win it. In the end I lost time on the descent and finished second. I was over the moon. I finished in 2:59:52. I gave it my all and I felt strong.
Going into the race last weekend I knew I could perform well on the course in a variety of conditions, but I also knew that I lacked fitness and my focus was off. The climbs are normally my strength but on race day I really struggled with them; I was hurting and I wasn't having fun. On top of this I was frustrated by my inability to perform. By the time the descent came round I was feeling fresher and able to push hard. It's impossible not to enjoy those flowing switchbacks and loamy skids. I crossed the finish line in 12th in 3:25:13. I struggled not to make comparisons to previous years.
I knew I'd done what I could and I don't think a better result was possible for me that day, but I was also aware that I should be capable of more. I was frustrated and wanted to work out what was going wrong. I knew I was unfit, but I felt something else was missing. Why was I able to perform well in terrible circumstances in 2019, but not now? How do I get back to racing like I was in 2021? You're supposed to get faster as you get more experience, why am I getting slower? These were the main questions I asked myself after the race. There was also a bigger, scarier question that I skirted around. Why aren't I having fun like I used to?
I realised I'd been grittier, tougher, and raced harder in the past because I'd loved the challenge of racing. This time round I simply wasn't enjoying it. I was already dreading the next race on the circuit before I'd even started this one. This had affected my determination on race day, but also my half-hearted training in the run up to it. At first I thought the race was a wake up call about a lack of fitness; slowly I realised that it was a wake up call about my priorities.
Why aren't I enjoying Skyraces anymore?
Some of it is specific to the Skyrunning World Series. This is the race circuit that helped me fall in love with competitive running and is full of great races. I've targeted the series for the last few years though and run some of the races multiple times. It is getting too familiar and a little boring. I need new challenges!
The locations: SWS races have always depended on choosing mountains with infrastructure and accessibility. They need to be near airports, be able to host many runners and have short journey times. This is being exacerbated by the current drive to livestream races: the courses need to be camera friendly and have 5G connection. I'm all for livestreams of racing and I'm excited to see the sport growing - I hope to return to SWS in the future. In the meantime, however, I want to explore other adventures, in remote wilderness, in mountains that scare me. This motivates me far more than a top ten ranking these days.
Perhaps the most significant change is my desires and lifestyle. I'm happier and more settled, I want to spend more time at home. I'm not running from anything. I have friends and community and am less inclined to travel by myself. If I do travel by myself I don't want to spend small windows of time in the mountains, unable to explore because I'm resting for a race. I want to get out there!
Ultimately I want to choose my own adventures. I don't want to do races because a series organiser has chosen them (or because that race has paid a lot of money to be part of the series). I want to choose races with courses that excite me, in mountains I dream of visiting, organised by people who love the sport. And when I'm not racing I want to run in remote, rugged mountains - both at home and abroad. I want to use this lifestyle and the freedom I have created for myself to explore beyond the confines of a race calendar. I want to seek new experiences, big and small. Which leads me to...
I've been exploring the highlands on my gravel bike for nearly three years. I love using it as a way to cover large amounts of ground, explore glens, access remote areas and keep me moving when I'm injured. One of my non-running goals for the year was to do a 'gravel event'. I hadn't decided if this would be a race, an informal event or simply completing a well-known route.
After completing my longest gravel ride a few weeks ago I was feeling particularly fired up and started looking for something I could enter soon. There was an obvious option: The Gralloch. A new gravel race in Dumfries that was part of the UCI World Series. If I shuffled some commitments around I'd be able to make it.. and two days before flying to France I was entered!
I thought I was tired of competitive racing, but the thought of racing my bike excited me. It was a totally new experience with lots of questions about kit and tactics. I did very little preparation and arrived at the race with no expectations. With no pressure to perform and the freedom of anonymity I was able to fully enjoy the experience. When the start gun went I was excited! I'd missed this feeling.
Did I race as hard as I possibly could? No. Did I make lots of beginner mistakes? Yes. Could I have finished higher? Yes. Did I enjoy every second of it? Yes.
I think I need a break from the Skyrunning World Series. I still think they are some of the most exciting and challenging races in the world and I want to return to the competition in the future, but I need to fall back in love with them before I do. Maybe I'll do a late season one this year, maybe I won't return for a few years. In the meantime I'm going to compete in more technical races closer to home (hello Snowdon and Glen Coe), plan some trips for later in the year, and enjoy life.