Written By SAM HEWARD
Sam is one of the Ultra X Co-Founders. If he’s not actually out running, chances are he’s busy writing about it (or plotting Ultra X strategy!)
An inaugural event is always a special occasion. This one was even more so.
We set up Ultra X first and foremost because we wanted to get more people into the sport of multi-stage ultra-running and having a World Champs was always a big part of that plan. The World Championships would be an event that would showcase the best of the best and give a platform to share their stories.
It would be an event that offered prize money. £25,000 in fact, a first for Ultra X and an unusual concept in the stage racing scene. Few topics divide opinion amongst ultra-runners more than prize money and you can read about our reasoning for introducing it here.
The host nation was Slovenia, and the race would commence in the luscious region of Vipava valley before heading North towards the adventure capital of the country, Tolmin and the epic Soča Valley.
A lot of work went into creating a challenging course that would test any runner and would require a wide range of skills. As well as some very runnable sections, the course has over 10,000 metres of up (which means 10,000 metres of down!), some of which is on rocky, technical terrain whilst other sections are flatter that would allow our road runners to stretch their legs.
This was the second attempt at holding this event, having deferred it back 201 due to you know what. As a result, as is the case with so many covid-canceled events, even the start list was not finalised until the week of the race as we simply did not know who that had registered was planning to turn up!
We ended up with 41 athletes on the start line, 21 male and 20 female with ages ranging from mid-20s to early 60s, and despite the slightly reduced numbers, there was one thing that was certain. This was an incredibly capable and competitive field. The final completion rate of 87% shows this.
This report focuses on the front end of the field, this is after all the World Championships, but that is not to play testament to the entire class of 2022. There are not enough words available for me to do justice to every individual who made this event what it was. As I mentioned in the race brief in Ajdovščina, everyone who makes it to the start line of one of these events is an absolute champion.
As well as offering a prize to the fastest men and women, at the end of each stage we celebrated a competitor that has displayed an Ultra X value during the day. These competitors have also been championed in this report.
Competitors convened in Adjovscina for the official race brief prior to transfer to their campsite (a short walk). Unlike our other 250s, the campsite locations are close to civilisation (shops, restaurants and bars), which comes with its pros and cons.
For us, it makes logistics easier and for competitors, it means the chance to access real food during the week. It also allows spectating and following the event in person much easier, something that was incredibly important to us for this event. Our biggest concern was the impact it would have on the “race bubble” – something Ultra X events are famed for, and so we ensured that there were daily meetings in camp for all runners and it was not an option for participants to seek their own accommodation. We needn’t have worried – the class of the ‘22 World Champs came together to create something special.
The mood in camp on night one was of evident excitement. We knew there were several athletes that had been focusing on this event for a while and we were expecting some fireworks and a surprise or two. Whilst these races are never won in a single stage, the opening day would give a very good insight into what we could expect over the rest of the week.
Stage 1 – 42.5km, 1,218m
One competitor described stage 1 as a road marathon having finished it. Whilst I am not sure we agree (the course has about 5km of tarmac, the remainder being about 60% dirt road and 30% single track with almost 4,000 ft of climbing) it is absolutely a day that offers our road runners a chance to attack in the early stages if they are brave.
And brave they were! Tom Joly and Salameh Al Aqra battled hard over the first 20km each surging to try and break the other’s spirit. Having raced each other back in Sri Lanka 2019, each knew the other well. On this occasion, it was Joly that pulled away and Al Aqra could only watch as the early flats turned into the kind of trails more associated with a mountain race and he dropped away from the leading pack.
In the women’s field it was Katelyn Steen from the US who took the early initiative, narrowly beating Alice McGushin to the finish. Charlotte Kirk rounded up the podium but was subsequently penalised for a missing mandatory item which meant Jacqui Bell finished on the podium.
The first stage of a five-day race is a good indicator for what is to come but it was obvious from the looks on the faces of the front runners that a few had pushed 10% harder than they were planning. This race was never going to be won today but could it be lost?
Unseasonably high temperatures meant that after the stage our medical team was kept busy monitoring participants for signs of heat stress and given the fast pace of stage one and the impact of the climate, we were prepared for the leaderboard to change quite a bit over the next few days.
Responsibility Award: Caroline Constable
Stage 2 – 50.6km, 2,413m
Day 2 was the first real challenge of the week. It offered the first big climb and the first technical descent of the ultramarathon. There was also a £250 carrot dangled between Checkpoints 3 and 4 for the fastest descender.
The terrain clearly favoured some of our field better than others and whilst the top three men and women were the same as at the end of Stage 1, there was a lot of movement in rankings in the middle of the pack.
Hanson and McGushin were the fastest on the King and Queen of the descent segment but their rapid times were not enough to close the gap on the first placed male and female who clearly, sensibly, had their eyes focused on the grand prize.
There were 3 competitors who would not continue with the race on Wednesday. A combination of heat stress from the previous day and not making cut-off times meant that unfortunately their races were over.
Customer-Centric Award: Rahil Sachak Patwa and Lewis Robling
Stage 3 – 61.4km, 2391m
The long stage is often the defining one in Ultra X races. In this event, it is a bit of a curve ball. Whilst it is the longest in distance, the terrain is generally good, and the distance is far less significant than in other events which are closer to 70km (Sri Lanka, Jordan, and Mexico).
After a technical second stage, the long day offers our participants a chance to see what is in the tank with most of the course being on single track and dirt road. Once they have scaled a sharp incline of 700m over 2km in the early stages the course is mainly runnable as competitors move to the second camp, heading North from Adjovscina towards Tolmin and the spectacular Soča Valley.
Around the halfway stage, runners passed through Čepovan for one of the absolute highlights of the week. The town, not used to staging events, had cancelled school for the day and created a huge party atmosphere to welcome our competitors through and create a “moment that I will never forget” (Mark Peart).
One further dropout came during the stage and overall rankings were generally consistent with the previous few days. However, Luke Hanson, who was previously our second-placed Male noticeably dropped off in the final stages. Despite being in second place with 10km to go, Al Aqra and Chen sprinted past him in the final km to cross the finish line together in a joint second.
Luke looked shattered when he crossed the finish line, and with an incredibly tight men’s top five the race for the podium was clearly on.
Accessibility Award: Nathan Montague
Stage 4 – 56.7km, 2,612m
Despite yesterday being the long day, there is no respite in this race. The runners were told to expect a similar time on feet to yesterday with some rocky sections and slightly more elevation along the course.
Due to a forecast of thunderstorms we decided to amend the route as a safety precaution. This meant that sadly our competitors would not summit Mt Kuk or skirt along the Slovenia-Italy border via the Kolovrat ridgeline. Fortunately, the weather did not turn out as bad as predicted and our participants were still given some epic panoramic views as they climbed.
As a result of the course change our Queen and King of the mountain stage was reduced from 10m with 1,200m of climbing to half that, opening the £250 cash prize up a little to the field. Despite an outstanding effort from Ash Mansfield it was two familiar names (Joly and Steen) that took home the extra winnings.
It was evident that the tough opening stages of this day combined with fatigue from yesterday’s long stage were impacting our runners who were not out in front and despite a 5-hour cut-off at the 15km mark it was obvious that this was going to be incredibly tight for some.
Whilst the final 25km is about as flat as it comes in this race, as runners cross over the azul blue Soča River and then follow it back to Tolmin, the cut-offs proved too much for some and the field was again reduced.
Persistence Award: Alex Roudayna
Stage 5 – 44.1km, 2,000m
Day 5 is the victory lap for our competitors usually, but with so much at stake and podium places up for grabs in both the men’s and women’s fields, the mood at the start was still very much of focus. One wrong turn or one twisted ankle could cost someone dearly.
The first 10km of the stage is flat and our runners went out hard, with McGushin and Al Aqra pushing the pace in the women’s and men’s fields respectively.
Despite the best efforts of the challengers, it was business as usual as soon as the climbs started. Having headed out West of Tolmin, competitors zigzaged up single track towards Kosec and turned East where they then dropped through the spectacular mountain farm of Planini Kuhinja, winding their way past the church of the Holy Spirit, a unique WW1 monument, and dropped into the finish where they bisected Tolmin Gorge.
The podiums finished as they started the stage and all competitors who had made it to Stage 5 completed the event.
Once all were in, the prize-giving commenced with the women’s podium choosing to douse the crowd in their celebratory bubbles! All competitors were given a full buffet meal and fun awards including Most Colourful Outfit and Biggest Bounceback Factor were handed out, before buses transported runner back to Gorizia.
This was a challenging event for the competitors but for those who came well prepared it was incredibly rewarding.
This event will certainly go down in history as the first multi-stage ultra World Championships and as always with a first edition event, there is a bit of learning to take forward. Overall though we were incredibly pleased with how it went and there is very little that will change as we prepare for 2024!
We simply couldn’t have delivered this event without the hard work, enthusiasm and dedication of the whole event team and the support of our main partners, Vipavska Dolina and Veloforte and I’d like to express our sincere thanks and gratitude for making my life a whole lot easier. It really is the people that make these events.
Finally, I want to thank all the runners that made this event what it was. In the event briefing I asked them to buy into the “race bubble” and they did that and more. It was an absolute pleasure to get to meet such an inspiring group of individuals and I hope to see them again.
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