Friday, September 13, 2013

Axel does Poland: World Championships Race Review by Axel Nichols

After a little over a day of travel I arrived in the Krakow International airport and stepped into a sleek black Mercedes with two Japanese athletes. Before long we were flying down the highway at speeds in excess of 130 MPH in a leather and walnut rocket ship on our way to the host town of Krynica Zdr√≥j. This was my introduction to the 2013 World Mountain Running Championships. I’m not sure if Poland lacks the standard laws of the road that we so strictly follow in the states, or if our driver was just a mad man, but that drive was a perfect introduction to the theme of my trip – speed. 

Making the US Mountain running team has long been a goal of mine. In the running world, donning the USA kit and representing your country is like a stamp of approval. At the 2013 national championships years of hard work paid off and I had finally qualified for my first US team. But then came that little other thing: actually racing against the best in the world. I was excited to be there, but the nerves of running for my country were beyond anything I’ve felt before.

Axel looks surprised at the number of countries that exist in the world                          photo: Maddy Schmid
The day after arriving I ran the course and felt great. Unfortunately the race was still three days away. That left me with a lot of time to get more and more nervous. I don’t know if it was jet lag or just the fear of racing on such a high level, but whatever it was it left me with some very sleepless nights. I found myself staying awake until 3 or 4 in the morning stressing out about every little thing. 

Axel and the "King" rush to get back in time for Polish sausage and beer happy hour           photo: Maddy Schmid

Race day came around and I was finally able to get some sleep, thanks in part to the 12:30 PM start time. I was still nervous but found myself thinking back to Max King’s advice during our team meeting the night before: just go out there and do what you did at Cranmore (the national championships). For me that meant running my own race. I did a great job of moving through the field at Cranmore and I had decided to attempt the same thing at the worlds.

What is this, a 5K!?                                                              photo: Maddy Schmid

The field went out fast, with 100+ guys all thinking they would be in the top 10. By the end of the first downhill I found myself far enough back that Paul Kirsch, our team manager, wasn’t able to count my position. I was definitely running fast, but just not as suicidal as many of my competitors.

"I thought this was a mountain race" Axel says       photo: Maddy Schmid

On the following lap I continued to run my own pace and found that a lot of people had gone out way faster than they could hold. Just as I started to feel good I saw Max King standing on the side of the trail. He yelled out to me that I was now the 5th man. At the time I had no idea if he had just cramped up or if he was out for good but I immediately thought about our team score. He was one of the strongest runners on the team and without him we needed some people to step up in a big way to get a medal. With that in mind I attacked the downhill even harder in the hopes of helping out the team. Just 200 meters later I passed a clearly suffering Glen Randall. All of a sudden I was a scoring member of Team USA and I was on a mission to help out as much as I could.

Power hiking is perfectly legal!                                                           photo: Paul Kirsch

In the next lap and a half I kept moving up. I was in the 70’s, 50’s, then 30’s. All of a sudden I saw the familiar bouncing fro of Ryan Hafer. Just like Cranmore I found myself chasing him down in the final climb of the race. 

Ryan Hafer's 'fro flails in the wind                                        photo: Maddy Schmid

I kicked hard in the final 800 uphill meters and passed both Ryan and one other runner. I crossed the finish as the third US team member and the 27th finisher feeling happy and worried at the same time. I had run the best possible race I could run and finished higher than I thought was possible, but it was tough day for the rest of the team. After seeing that Zach Ornelas was just two spots in front of me I realized that our team medal chances were over. 

How did I get so tanned in 12K of racing!?                      photo: Maddy Schmid

In the end we lost the bronze by just 6 points, despite Max and Glen’s rough day. It is a small consolation but a 4th place team finish on a less than ideal day clearly shows the current depth of US trail running. I just can’t wait to come back and see what we can do on a great day.

Who's this muscly guy?                                                   photo: Maddy Schmid

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