The Three Peaks 2013 - Joe's view from the front
Joe Symonds’ 2013 Three Peaks Race win on the face of it appeared to be a straight-forward exercise in dominant fell running. As the following paragraphs demonstrate, wins are never easy, and certain happenings in Joe’s life in the day before the race only underline the greatness of his achievements and the fragility of life…
Action replay of last year? Not quite.
Before the Three Peaks Race this year I was emotionally in a completely different place to where I was last year. Conversely, the feeling of elation on crossing the finishing line was almost identical to that of 12 months ago – and that is thanks to the powerful mystique of this awesome race, and to the incredible support of the crowds (and fellow runners) out on the course.
My training this past winter has been very different to that of 2011-2012, with my major focus of the spring being the Rotterdam marathon, which took place on April 14th. This was my first ever road marathon and my optimistic aim was to obtain the Scottish Commonwealth Games qualifying time of sub 2:19.
In the final weeks of build up things were looking very good – I’d managed to tot up 1300 miles of running in 13 weeks of training, put in some very strong endurance sessions (including a 38k run in 2 hours 7 minutes), and PB’d over half marathon, with 66:23 in March. However, in the Netherlands, it wasn’t to be on the day and I dropped off the pace with 5 miles to go, to finish with 2:20:52 – disappointed at the time, but on reflection a debut I am proud of.
Such was the intensity of my focus on Rotterdam that during the first three months of 2013 I was entirely unable to see beyond April 14th – even entering the 3 Peaks was something I omitted to do (until Tord Nilson of Salomon UK reminded me at the beginning of April).
Following the Dutch race, exhausted from the physical and emotional investment I’d put into it, I had to take a whole week off running. I went for a cycling trip round Northwest Sutherland and Assynt with my wife Esther – making sure we camped at the foot of Ben Hope on April 19th, 23 years to the day since my Dad set off from there on his continuous round of all the 3000 foot peaks in Britain and Ireland.
The following week, the week before the Three Peaks, I did a couple of runs, including one up Ben Wyvis, our local Munro. I felt sluggish on the climbs, and trepid on the descents, but fast and fluid on the flatter sections! Had I lost my mountain skills and become a road runner?
From Wednesday to Friday I was on night shifts at work. They were busy shifts, culminating with an utterly unexpected tragedy at 0630 in the morning on Friday, when we lost a nine month old boy who had been admitted with what appeared to be a simple case of chickenpox. After 30 minutes of resuscitation efforts we had to call off the battle for his life.
This wee lad was my first thought as I entered the finishing field on Saturday, and there is no doubt in my mind that I dedicate this victory to him and his devastated family.
Physically and spiritually exhausted, I made the long train journey from Inverness to Yorkshire on Friday, napping on and off as I went. Esther got off the train in Carlisle to stay with her parents, and I continued on the Clapham where the rest of the Salomon UK crew, and the two Spanish Salomon International runners (Tofol Castanyer and Oihana Kortazar Aranzeta). I arrived, wolfed down some tomato soup, some pasta with tomato and bacon, two delicious pints of Copper Dragon’s Golden Pippin, and slumped off to my bed for a very sound night’s sleep.
By Saturday morning I was well rested, but still feeling lethargic and not particularly up for it! I usually have a cold shower on the morning of a race to get me fired up, but this morning I wasn’t keen, so I turned on the hot tap. Then I realised that there was no hot water in my hotel room, so a cold shower it was. I had my usual pre-race breakfast of muesli, banana and wholemeal toast, but as an experiment I also included a bottle of “Beet It” organic beetroot juice, which turned out to be quite a challenge to my taste buds.
After arriving at the race venue, I plodded through my warm up routine and did some stretches, reflecting on how psyched I was it the same point 12 months ago, and how that same internal inspiration seemed conspicuously absent this year.
Fortunately the fells themselves are a powerful tonic, and as soon as the gun went off and we made our way towards Pen-y-Ghent all seemed to be right with the world once more, and I was back in the “racing zone.”
It felt so refreshing to be heading for the hills, with the formidable challenge ahead. Carl Bell set the early pace with me, with Tofol just behind. Soon the three of us had a decent gap on the rest of the field. As the path towards the first of the three summits steepened the other two off the pace and I found myself alone.
In 2012 I had a clear race strategy for the 3 Peaks. I knew I was climbing extremely well and wanted to make the most of the steep climb up Whernside, so I had sat behind the leaders until Ribblehead viaduct then pushed on from there. In retrospect I probably pushed too hard too soon as I was really struggling in the last couple of miles of the race.
This year I had no race strategy at all really. I had no idea how I would be feeling, what I would be climbing like, how I would handle the descents, or even what my body would do once it had been running for more than two and half hours (my longest training run all winter). I was just going to see how I felt.
I arrived at the summit of Pen-y-Ghent in just under 29 minutes, almost 2 minutes faster than the previous year. I decided I quite liked being on my own and wanted to push on. I also reasoned that with all the marathon training I’d done, the long flattish stretch to Ribblehead would suit me, so I may as well make the most of it. The continuous shouts of encouragement from spectators along the Pennine way further spurred me to keep the foot on the accelerator.
There were also plenty of walkers on the Pennine way who clearly had no idea that the race was taking place, so I was also doing some shouting! The look on their faces when I told them that there were another 700 runners behind me was good value.
I arrived at Ribblehead 3 mins. ahead of last years’ time and I had a lead 1 min and 20 seconds on Carl and Tofol. Judging by how I felt climbing Pen-y-Ghent I was no longer too concerned about the Whernside climb, but I definitely approached it less aggressively than I had in 2012, with my ascent time being 50 seconds slower. At the summit of Whernside my lead was just under four minutes.
Now with a comfortable lead, I took no risks on the descent to Hill Inn and arrived there still feeling like there was plenty left in the tank. At this point memories of last year’s dramatic energy failure in the last couple of miles came back to me and I decided to ascend Inglebrorough with that in mind. Halfway up someone told me I had a four minute lead on Rob Jebb so he had presumably overtaken Carl and Tofol.
At the summit of Ingleborough, Esther was there, along with her father (and her 24 week baby bump.) She was dutifully holding out a Kinetica® energy gel for me. I still had a few jelly babies left in my back pocket and didn’t feel the need for the gel, so I cheesily brushed it aside and gave her a kiss instead (to which someone said to her, “everyone will be expecting one of those now”). Then I headed off Ingleborough in the wrong direction! I’d followed some cairns too far to the south and ended up above some crags.
A quick contour to the right put me back on track. I tried to enjoy the remainder of the decent back to Horton-in-Ribblesdale, blissfully unaware of the battles going on behind me. Coming into the finishing field was every bit as magical as it was last year and the sensation on crossing the finishing line is something that I’d readily invest plenty of training time and effort into feeling again.
Last year my parents were in New Zealand following the race via the sportident website. This year they are on the way to China (by bike) and were on a boat in the Caspian Sea off Kasakhstan. They found out the result the following morning when they accessed mobile phone reception. Next year they promise to be in Yorkshire.
To me this second victory was a bit of a surprise. Perhaps it shows that road marathon training is fairly good preparation for this race, or that it takes more than a few months to lose your fell feet. It certainly shows that the last few days’ of preparation for a race are not the most important. Or maybe there’s something in the beetroot juice…
Once again I must thank Salomon for their continued support of both me and the Three Peaks Race itself. Thanks also to the Three Peaks Race committee for putting all the work they do into staging this superb event. They’ve challenged me to make it three successive victories, and I’m up for that challenge.