This would be the first National Marathon Championships I’ve done since 2013 or 2014 where I’ve not seen myself as the favourite to win. After winning in 2015, 2016, and 2019 a lot has changed. I’m married, dad to an amazing toddler, and the coaching business has gone from a small startup to a full time job. Time is now pretty limited and I could quite easily fill the day if I opted to no longer spend the hours training. Having limited time brings pressure but that also brings efficiency and drive. I have good weeks of training and bad weeks where I get overwhelmed by everything that needs doing. This is a stark difference to years past where I had time to train and recover like the younger full time pros I’d line up against at Nationals.
I did the thing I told my coaching clients not to do, I looked at the start list. I didn’t mean to but I was finding the link to share on social media. I clicked the link and saw the first few riders on the list. Look at the start list and you immediately start figuring out who’s going to beat you. This was by far the most competitive start list to date. Knowing my abilities and the level of competition my thoughts were that a good result would be a medal, even that would be very hard to achieve. It’s great to see the sport strengthening and more people finding an interest in marathon races. The cross country national champion Cameron Orr, cyclo-cross superstars Cameron Mason and Thomas Mein, last year’s winner and rapid road racer Jacob Scott were just a few of the big names on the start. I was one of the marathon specialists on the line but there were many talents who had the ability to win. Both Cameron Orr and Mason raced the Cape Epic earlier this year with podium success so they actually have as many if not more marathons in their legs this year than I do. What was for sure was that there was going to be fireworks.
This year’s National Champs would for a second year in a row take place at Kielder Forest. The course was very different to last year and after a practice lap on Friday I knew this was going to be one difficult race. 1000 metres of climbing around a 34 km lap, with 3 laps in total. The course was made up of two halves, first you climbed from 200 metres to 550 metres on steep exposed gravel road with a red trail descent mid way through. The final part of the climb was 7 minutes 30 at over 12% gradient. After reaching the top of the golf ball climb you plunged back down the technical red trail before reaching the first feed zone and then starting the second part of the lap. The course was then made up of faster kilometres with several 2 to 6 minute climbs, and a mix of descents ranging from gravel road to red trail.
Racing puts you at your most vulnerable, it’s the time when others can see how mentally and physically strong you are, how well you’ve trained. Its ok to feel these doubts and challenges. The hardest part is turning up and putting yourself on the start line. If you can train your hardest, prepare in the best possible way and then give 100% on race day then you can be happy with whatever the result may be. This is what I tell my clients and tried to tell myself as we lined up for the start.
On the start line the tension was high, everyone knew what was at stake. Who would finish the day with the red white and blue jersey? We launch at the noise of the start whistle and fly around the start loop before taking a sharp left and heading towards the first part of the climb. We filter into the singletrack with elbows out and sharpened. Exiting the first piece of singletrack and I’m sprinting at nearly 1000 watts just to stay on the train. Cameron Mason is setting an unrelenting pace which surely cannot be sustainable. Through the next twisting sections of red trail we are punching our way through the kilometres. Down the freshly cut singletrack I see for the first time how much the cross country and cyclocross riders are going to attack the descents. Out onto the gravel climb again and I average nearly 400 watts for the next 15 minutes all the way to the top of the big climb. Climbing I’m one of the strongest but as we are about to see again I’m losing a lot of time on the descents.
Down the red trail to the feed zone at 12.5 kms, I lose 30 seconds on lap one, 45 seconds on lap two. That leaves a lot of work to do on the remainder of the lap. Lap one Jason Bouttell and I manage to catch the lead trio of Cameron Mason, Cameron Orr and Thomas Mein. Lap two Cameron Mason drops off after his early efforts. Speaking to him at the finish he admitted to wanting to split the pack early and then try to hang on for the rest of the race. Jason Bouttell and I are unable to make up the time lost down to 12.5 km feed zone on lap two. We can see Orr and Mein ahead but the gap looks to be stable or increasing. We finish the lap 45 seconds back. The race was now on to secure the final medal and podium place.
Onto lap three Jason and I are working together setting a good pace well aware there are some strong riders behind us. Jason seems to be slowing though as we head towards the big golf ball climb. Suddenly and unexpectedly, we see Orr and Mein just ahead. I make the catch and take to the front as we head towards the top of the climb. Both riders look to be on their limit but they manage to stay in contact. At the base of the descent I’m still with them. Jason is a few seconds off the back but rolling quickly towards us. I set the pace eager not to let Jason catch back up. He does eventually as we enter the antepenultimate climb and descent.
Onto the last climb and no one else wants to put in a turn on the front, I can tell they’re on their limit and not just bluffing. I put in a big five-minute effort up this climb and this breaks the quartet apart. Mein remains just about glued to my wheel. Orr and Bouttell chasing. We work really well together sharing big turns on the front, knowing this our chance to win the race. Along Forest Drive, through the singletrack and onto the last climb. It’s now or never! I cannot let Mein be with me going into the last downhill because he’s too fast. I drive up the final climb, over 3 minutes at 420 watts, a gap opens, first a wheel’s length, then a bikes length, then several bike lengths. We race to the top like that’s the finish line. By all accounts Mein is basically falling off his bike at the top, I’m not much different but have a clear gap by the top. Determination is what gave me the energy on that climb and following descent.
I try to nail every line and punch as hard as possible on each open section where I can lay down some power. On both gravel road linking sections I still managed 700 to 800 watts on my Wahoo. Into the very last bit of downhill. I cannot see Mein behind me, there’s daylight between us but one mistake would take away the win. Down into the arena, right turn, over the line. Euphoria and disbelief that I’ve just won my fourth national title! Thomas Mein finishes second and Cameron Orr third. In the ladies race Amy Henchoz won in 5 hours 41, ahead of Sophie Johnson and Christina Wiejak.
Back in the red white and blue stripes! It’s hard to explain how wearing the stripes feels, it gives you an extra gear and a feeling of invincibility. When I lost the title last year I had brand new national champs kit from KALAS Sportswear I’d not yet worn, I chucked it into a bag and hid it at the back of the wardrobe but refused to put it in the garage with all the old kit which won’t ever get used again. Now I can proudly wear that jersey day after day for another year.
A massive thanks to my wife and son for all the support, grandparents for providing childcare so I can go training and get some extra hours of work done each week, Luke and Jo who travelled all the way up to the Scottish boarders after work on Friday to support in the feed zones, to all my sponsors for the best bikes and kit and to everyone else who supports me. It was amazing to see the support before, during and after the race. It was very special to share the race track with so many coaching clients and an even greater feeling to see one of those clients win a title.