By: Matt Setlack
About one week before the event, I was given the opportunity to race the 14th Long Course World Mountain Running Championships in Premana, Italy on 06 Aug 2017. I am very thankful that Adrian Lambert gave me the opportunity to race as a member of the Canadian Team. This article will describe my experience during the race and demonstrate that not every race I do is "sunshine and rainbows".
On Fri 04 Aug 2017, Adrian and I drove to the Milan Malpensa (MXP) airport, returned the rental car and met Mario and Nicola again at the airport welcome booth. We then met Marianne Hogan, Shelley Doucet and her sister Marcy at the airport. We all jumped on a Police bus, which drove us to Premana. That evening we had a team meeting where everyone introduced themselves, which was a very good idea.
Team Canada (Long Course)
The team was composed of Adrian Lambert (Team Manager/Head of Delegation), Lisa Heidt, Shelley Doucet, Marianne Hogan, Greg Smith, Natalee Peeters and Matt Setlack.
On Sat 05 Aug 2017, we ran in the morning and then went to the Opening Ceremony in the afternoon. There was a short parade of athletes up the main street and then we sat down in some chairs. It was a good ceremony; short and sweet. There were flag dancers.
The long course race was 32km long and had 2,900m (9,512 feet) of ascent and 2,900m (9,512 feet) of descent. There were three mountains we needed to run up and then down again. The start line and finish line were pretty much in the same spot in downtown Premana.
Long Course Race Day (Sun 06 Aug 2017)
I woke up at 5:30 am and had the provided breakfast (cereal, yogurt, banana, coffee). During the bus ride to the start line, I remember feeling extremely good mentally, physically and emotionally. Everything in life was going really well. A euphoric feeling as if I was on top of the world.
I did a short 20 minute warm-up down the narrow alleyways of Premana and then went through the call room and stood at the start for 10 minutes. They called each country up to the start line individually. I missed Canada so tried to blend in by running with the Suisse who were also wearing red singlets. I don't think anyone noticed (except maybe the live tv cameraman). The start went off fairly fast but it was slightly downhill so that was to be expected. I looked up and saw (and could hear) a helicopter with a film crew inside videotaping the race! How cool is that!? I have had motorcycles and Tesla electric cars as lead vehicles before but never a helicopter! I could hardly believe my eyes!
The first 2-3 km were all downhill with a fair amount of bottlenecking. I remember being super pumped and kept thinking, why is everyone running so slow? I wanted to pass a whole bunch of guys but the trail was so narrow that it was nearly impossible. On the way up mountain 1 of 3, there was some shuffling and I passed a few runners. Everyone sort of settled into a pace after that and went into the grind. There was thunder, lightning and rain.
A video of the race is shown below. Although it looks like the runners are going super slow, it is much more challenging than it looks especially with the elevation change.
For the first several aid stations, I only drank a bit of water. I passed a few people who stopped to walk at the aid stations. I was thinking, that's strange, why are they going so slow through aid stations? In a 10k or a half marathon, I never eat or drink anything during the race (and in the unlikely chance that I do, I keep running the same pace through the aid stations).
The descent from mountain 1 was pretty intense. The trail and all the rocks were wet and slippery. We were fairly stretched out by this point but I saw numerous runners fall town in front of me. I then fell flat on my back after slipping on a rock, which nearly knocked the wind out of me. I also managed to bang myself up in a few places (elbows, right shin, left hand, right buttock) and started bleeding in a few places. The blood from my right shin kept flowing but I was so pumped up with racing in this incredible race, that I didn't even notice. Although a few body parts like my left knee, bleeding right shin and left hand were a little sore, there was no significant damage that would prevent me from running.
About 1/2 km later, I slipped on the wet grass and fell to the ground again, then rolled a couple of times and got up (hopefully not losing too much time). During the entire episode, I'm pretty sure I was constantly moving forward (even if I wasn't necessarily "running" forward). A few hundred meters later, there was a large group of spectators who clapped as we went by, I gave them a wave and they went wild. Like a noticeable increase in their volume, clapping and cheering. It was awesome!
The first 14 of 32 km went really well. I felt amazing. According to my Strava account, I covered the first 14 km (1677m up, 601m down or about 75% of all the climbing on the course and about 25% of all the descent in the course) in about 1 hour 53 minutes.
On the climb up to the col (the highest point of the race at the top of mountain 2), I was starting to feel a little weak but still alright. When I almost got to the top of mountain 2, that's when I really started to feel knackered. It was quite a steep climb once you left the road/horse cart trail and I found myself "aggressively hiking/power walking" more and more. I got to the top of the col and that's when things really started to go south...There was A LOT of rain, the trail was completely soaked as well as all the rocks. After climbing, it took a while for my legs to get used to the relatively steep and technical downhill going down mountain 2. After a while on this descent, the first non-world mountain running runner passed me AND I even had a 5 minute head-start on him. I was unbelievable how fast some of the runners were descending.
When I saw Adrian Lambert at around 20km (somewhere around 2 hours 30 minutes I think), I was feeling pretty wrecked. "What's going on?", I thought to myself. I still had not eaten anything and drinking water, pink juice (Gatorade?) and Coca-Cola only gets you so far. After the race, many fellow runners mentioned that the aid stations had food to eat like chocolate but to be honest, I didn't even notice one aid station with food to eat. During this stage of the race, I felt like the life had been sucked out of my body like there was no energy left (low blood sugar?). At this point, I was in 43rd.
The climb and descent of mountain 3 was by far the worst. It started raining cats and dogs (literally, the most intense downpour I have ever seen in my life). I was completely soaked as if I had jumped into a swimming pool. This was by far the most mentally challenging part of the race. When I race, I am always competing against someone else or at the very least competing against myself or the clock. However, at this point in the race, I was not even sure if I was going to finish the race but I knew that if I dropped out, it would probably be a farther run back to the start than just running the proper race course. haha so I pushed on. I felt like a turtle (and probably looked like one too). The ascent and descent of mountain 3 seemed to go on forever. I was wishing that the race organizers had put up race distance signs (apparently they did, but I didn't even notice). At one point, I thought, I must be getting close to the finish now thinking I was only 2 km or so away but then I checked my GPS watch and saw that I had about 8 km to go!
Eventually, the race turned into a race of survival and I told myself just to keep moving forward (don't stop and don't move backwards). Don't even worry about pace, just keep putting one foot in front of the other. I must have stubbed my toes on ever single rock and tree root on the course. The way I felt was very similar to the way I felt when Josh Kutryk and I skied from the Athabasca Glacier parking lot to Mount Columbia and then back to our high camp on the Columbia Icefield. It was a 20 hour epic day and by the time we got back to our tent at 1 am, I was so knackered after that ski that I could have fallen asleep with my ski boots still on.
After what seemed like forever, I did make it to the finish line in a time of approximately 4:09:36, placing 53rd overall (1st Canadian). I am relieved that I even made it to the finish line in one piece but am not at all happy with my time or placing. However, I did learn many valuable lessons.
The post-race dinner was pretty decent and the post-race gathering/awards ceremony was a lot of fun.
- Attitude is Everything - Going into World Mountain Running Championships and Long Course WMRC, I was very careful about what I thought about. I knew that I was coming from Cold Lake, Alberta - literally one of the flattest areas on Planet Earth (the nearest mountains are 800km away). Thoughts lead to words and words lead to actions. I did not want to go into the race with a defeatist attitude (making excuses before the race even started) and having already made up my mind of how the race was going to go. The majority of the Canadian Team (and other world mountain runners) are from the mountains. Instead of focusing on what I did not have, I focused on what I did have, namely that my training and racing over the year leading up to the race was very consistent and my results proved that my aerobic fitness was fairly high. Also, living and training in Cold Lake in northern Alberta all year around, I believe provides a perfect environment to build mental strength and stamina.
- Running 6,000m (almost 20,000 feet) of vertical in the week immediately before a race is probably not a good idea. That amount of ascent is the same amount as I would typically do in 3 months in Cold Lake. However, I really needed to take advantage of my surroundings being in the Dolomites and would not trade the mountain runs I did in Italy for anything. I had the time of my life!
- Not eating anything for 4 hours while running a 32km race with 2,900m of elevation ascent/descent is a bad idea. I went into the long course race thinking that it would be a half marathon (21.1km) with a 10km race tacked onto the end. However, it felt more like a marathon with a 10km tacked onto the end (and my time was even slower than these two races put together) or ultramarathon. When I'm racing 10km and half marathon, I never eat or drink anything. When I am doing my Sunday long run (33km at 4:20/km average pace), I do not eat or drink anything even when the temperature is +30C. This race was much different than any other race I have done before and I should have followed more of a "slow and steady" pace than a "balls to the walls" pace. I should have gone out of my way to try and find energy gels somewhere in Italy or borrowed energy gels from teammates (if they might have been available) or at the very least, borrowed a couple of Shelley's protein bars.
- The Power of Positive Thinking - Without sounding too philosophical, I really believe that if you smile at the world, the world will smile back at you. If possible, I always try to see the good/positive things in people and my environment. I really do believe that you can always find something positive out of every situation. I have found that positivity/optimism (while still being realistic) has a snowball effect, the more positive things that happen to you seem to bring more positive things (but the opposite is also true). On every run I go on, I try to love and appreciate every step, and to always see at least one positive thing. For example, the temperature is perfect for running, the sun is shining, I have a beautiful Millennium Path to run on, people are super courteous to me while driving by, I am surrounded by amazing people, I am healthy/not injured, etc. There is always at least one thing to be thankful for so try to focus on that, if you can. It will make you feel better about your current situation and about the environment around you.
I would like to thank Adrian Lambert for allowing me to race the Long Course World Mountain Running Championships, Tony Lambert for providing us with team uniforms and all of the people who have supported me along the way including my wife, Emily, parents, Wayne and Patti Setlack, family, friends and supporters (Canadian Armed Forces, PSP, Aerospace Engineering Test Establishment, City of Cold Lake, Running Room, Ronhill, and Zizu Optics).