Great Train Race 2015

Back for my seventh run against Puffing Billy since 2000. There's been relatively few changes in this race over those 15 years. The amount of runners have doubled in that time. A seeded start system has been added to cater for more people on the course. The last section has changed a little due to heavy rains washing away some of the track, moving the distance up from 13.2 to 13.5km. The fundamentals have stayed the same. Hit the hills with a mix of sealed and unsealed roads and trail amongst some spectacular scenery while pitting yourself against a steam train. It's an iconic race and I love it.

Typically wet and cold features in the weather, but this year we had a break. Sunshine and pleasantly cool made for perfect running conditions. Dry train tracks apparently also means the train can travel faster. Knowing this race well I didn't really think about it until I turned up. Being aware of where my fitness is based on recent races I knew I was not at my best, but would hopefully pull off a good result. The combination of hills and the ever present sound of the train can lead you into some very hard early efforts that take their toll later. My current gaps in fitness meant I wouldn't handle an overly fast start. Of course I didn't want to hold back, just not push beyond my limits in the first half. Most of the time I've struggled on the long climb through the 9km mark. I wanted to be able to push this section and see what happens.

The obligatory booing of the train driver, the National Anthem, then the flag drops and whistle blows. With a seeded start, the first downhill is smoother. While the numbers stretch the limits of space, at least you are moving at similar speeds to those around you. I feel pretty good and metre out my effort on the first climb. Through the first of the four crossings and I'm ahead of the train. My time compared to previous years was around middle ground. Puffing Billy sounded close, but I didn't stress knowing the first crossing can be misleading.

Through 5km, sees me a little bit behind my faster splits, but far from my slowest. Then onto the main climb of the course. I feel smooth, solid and controlled on the ascent, but it isn't easy. My work rate is up, and my legs remind me that my conditioning for uphill isn't what it used to be. Sucking air across the top and crossing number two appears. I'm ahead of the train, but the officials have the barriers at the ready, a sign it isn't far behind.

A short downhill keeps the speed up with a little relative recovery. The train sounds very close, too close. As the descent gets steeper I push the limit of my leg turnover to make it through the crossing at the bottom. It isn't enough. The boom gates are down, the bells are sounding, red lights flashing and a big ol' steam train is in the way.

That wasn't meant to happen. It's a big blow, but with being stuck at the crossing for over 40 seconds I have time to get my mind back into gear. After what feels like forever the gates open and with a mass of other runners we get our feet moving again. It's now all up hill to the final crossing just past 10km. This is the long climb I wanted to get right. I just expected to still be ahead of the train here. Going up felt pretty good. My intensity was way up, but this is the first year it came naturally in this section. Here I gained a few positions on other runners, so that was somewhat refreshing.

The fourth and final rail crossing is at a false peak on the climb. Again, the train is ahead. This time no hold up waiting for it to pass as it had already been through before I arrived. However, it is sitting at the station just past the crossing. I've been in this position before and beaten the train. It's going to hurt.

Turning away from the railway the course goes back up to the true peak. Puffing Billy leaves the station. Despite being a short climb, it almost 11km in and I attack it. Once at the top it is just about all downhill to the finish. That's still 2.5km with legs that were now soaking in an acid bath. Managing to find the right level of relaxation I was able to increase my speed through these final stages. It was definitely my fastest section of the course. The trail comes up alongside the railway line and I found myself running beside the train. It was going to close, but I still thought I could cross the finish in front.

It was at that exact point in my thinking the train accelerated, and it really wound up the speed. Disappearing off around the bend it was clear this was going to be my first year being beaten. Switching focus to the runners ahead I used to them to keep my speed up  through to the finish. Puffing Billy finished in 51:57 and out of 3417 runners, only 48 managed to stay in front of the train. I wasn't one of those, but still came in with a reasonable time of 53:26, which was on par with my racing over the last few weeks.


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