Thu 28th Jul, 2011
There’s Silver In The Sperrins
On Saturday 18 June 2011, 405 runners of 18 Nations started at the 8th WMRA World Long Distance Mountain Running Challenge in Podbrdo, Slovenia, a race of 37.5-kilometer mountain track with 5000 meters difference in altitude. One of those 405 runners was Sperrin Harriers very own Karen Alexander, who finished in second place to take the silver medal and become the second fastest female in the world over the mountain marathon distance. We caught up with her, of course giving her a few weeks to recover from her exploits, for a chat on her fantastic achievement.
Hi Karen many thanks for kindly agreeing to take time out of your busy training schedule to answer a few questions for us.
Karen, second in the World Mountain Marathon Championships. How does it feel when you hear that? Has it sunk in yet?
Never in my wildest dreams did I think I'd ever achieve this. Sure I only started running properly/seriously in my late twenties - I tend to be a slow starter in more ways than one!! All the effort and training has been worth the effort.
When we first reported your success you said you felt your preparations hadn't gone well. How so & what preparations/training did you do? (As it obviously worked)
I began increasing mileage over Christmas and had a fantastic month training in Davagh Forest Park just outside Cookstown in deep snow - this really strengthened the legs and improved my stamina. February was a struggle with lack of energy and poor motivation. When I qualified in March at the Wicklow Way 16 mile trail race my determination returned. The fantastic weather over the Easter holidays really helped. It is well known that I am a fair weather runner! I clocked up many miles and hills during this time. From then it has been frustrating with rain, wind, thunder etc. I only managed two 20 milers over hills and I did not seem to be progressing at all. But sometimes less is more and as the team manager said it probably worked to my advantage as I didn’tt over train close to the event.
Your trip to Slovenia was interesting, a story on its own. It can't have been good for the nerves?
Lets just say that on the Thursday night before the race when I arrived in Slovenia I was ready to run home!!!! Courtesy buses broke down, Computers crashed at check in, luggage got lost and I forgot my orthotics!! It was an emotional roller-coaster and just to get to the starting line was an achievement. Poor mum had to put up with my mood and anxiety - before I started I said to her "It's a 60% chance I'll even finish"
A lot of the other teams had a backroom team of doctors, coaches, physio's, dieticians. Did you have the same?
Yes! I'd my mum! She combined as an all-in-one!!!!!!!! She managed my lost medication, monitored my carbohydrate intake the day before, and she was my photographer as well!!
Did you have Irish team mates that you could hang out with to help you take your mind of the race before hand and settle any nerves?
I was the only athlete from Ireland! But this did not matter. The day before the race I joined up with our neighbours - the Scottish Team - Thanks to them for their support, advice and fun before, during and after the race.
Can you describe the race, what do you remember?
I remember every single step of the 23mile, 8,300ft ascent! I felt comfortable, positive and strong from the start. The race set off at 8am in overcast conditions, with the temperature rising all of the time as the day unfolded (made a change from rain, wind, thunder….). The course itself suited me perfectly - some fantastic trails and great views (not that I stopped to admire them!) The best thing was that there was time to settle into my own pace and relax. I was able to chat to friends from England and Scotland along the way and even shared my jelly babies!! Prayer was a big factor - God was by my side the whole way and gave me strength and stamina I didn’t know I had.
Were you aware of your race position at any stage during the race?
I started off at the back (me being a slow starter!) Then fairly quickly I realised I was stuck behind slower runners on the narrow mountain paths which meant I was running slower than training pace but felt good, and as I said I even chatted to the other competitors. That’s what I like about long distance events – you have time to chat to other runners along the way! Looking back, the slow start was to be to my advantage as I had enough left in the tank to tackle the steepest ascent after 13 miles. At the top of the first ascent I was maybe in the top 20 and was able to pass other runners and settle into my own pace. By half way I was 11th female and felt fresh ready to tackle the next accent and it was on this second/steepest ascent that I was able to gradually pick them off one by one.
At what stage did you realise that you were in silver medal position?
Nearing the top of the second ascent I was told I was 3rd which was a big surprise. The 2nd female was struggling just ahead of me and I really got a second wind at that stage. I moved into 2nd but refused to get excited because I really expected the fast descenders to catch me as the last 4 miles were all downhill.
Could you enjoy the last few miles knowing you were second or did you push hard right to the finish line?
Yes and no! I didn’t want to enjoy it in case it was taken from me!!!!!!!! My feet were blistered and I was tired. As I said, the last 4 miles were downhill and expected the fast decenders to catch me so I just went as fast as I could. Although with 1km to go I tried to relish the experience. I'm told that I was faster than anyone else in the field going down the final 10km! It was just great to stand on the podium at the end with two English friends, Pippa Maddams who took Gold & Helen Fines who took Bronze.
You have been showing steady improvement over the past couple of years & have become known as a force to be reckoned with on the mountain running scene. Could you have ever predicted this result?
No! A silver medal at the World Mountain Marathon Championships is beyond my wildest dreams. To finish the course would’ve been good,top 20 would’ve been great! This is obviously the highlight of my running career!! Each mountain race is different. There are long ones, short ones, up-hill only ones, up-and-down ones, trail ones, fell ones etc...... Each athlete has their strength. As I said earlier I just hoped to finish, then at half way I sort of hoped for top 10, but never imagined a podium result. I would like to thank God for the strength, determination and stamina to finish, the Scottish team for their company and support during, before and after the race, my mum & dad, Sperrin Harriers for their support, Slieve Gallion and Jelly Babies – for energy!!
So what’s next on the cards for you?
A few weeks recovery. Temporarily, it will be good just to relax and enjoy running, without pressure and join my team mates in Sperrin Harriers! Then Snowdon international 23rd July, representing N. Ireland (which she finished 4th – another fantastic result). Following that I have the Commonwealth Mountain Running Champs in Wales in late September. I Finished 10th 2 years ago in the classic distance but after my result in Slovenia I have been selected for the Ultra Event for N. Ireland.
Karen, once again many thanks for taking out from training to answer our questions and good luck with your further events & races.