Mairi Wallace was racing on the hills for Scotland for the third time on Saturday in the Junior Home International against England, Wales, Northern Ireland and Ireland on Skiddaw near Keswick in the Lake District. But after two excellent outings for Scotland - in the same event last year when she was 5th, and at the World Mountain Running Youth Cup in June - unfortunately it wasn't third time lucky for Mairi, despite bringing home a Team Gold medal for the second consecutive year.
Having succumbed to a bad cold twelve days out (passed on to her by good pal Heather), she missed a week's training, but all the signs, including a decent outing on the preceding Wednesday, were that she had fully recovered and could therefore not only take her place on the start line in the Under-17 Women's race, but also be positive about challenging for a high placing. The steep course, averaging a 20% climb over the relatively short 2.1km distance, was more to her liking than the Scotland trial course (a mere 10%) and she had prepared for the steep gradient with an excellent block of tough training through July and August.
But despite all her admirable efforts preparing for this target race, and her apparent recovery back to full health, illness took its toll and she finished down in 17th place, nearly three minutes off the winner, reportedly feeling "hellish" once the race was underway. Mairi was subsequently up all that night being ill and off school on the Monday - lucky white heather!
There was no misplaced confidence that she could be very competitive in this race, much more so than in the trial where she finished fourth (see 29 August post). The third placed girl in the Scottish trial, Grace Whelan, who was behind Mairi in the WMRA Youth Cup and who had finished a mere six seconds in front of Mairi in the trial, went on to win the U17 International on Saturday and in so doing became British and Irish Under 17 Champion. Scottish Trial winner Lynn McKenna also took silver with twin sister Charlotte 4th and non-counting Scot Zoe Nicholson 5th. It's a very strong age-group for Scotland!
Herein lies a lesson for all about the nature of athletics and the impact of illness on your performance for target races, much more so than in a team sport where you can get by feeling 2-3% off your best and still contribute to the team. In athletics, you are much more exposed and no athlete can expect to be in 100% tip-top condition for every target race, even the elites with all their sport science support. And that 2-3% can escalate if you put yourself over the edge; it can soon lead to much more of an under-performance. Whilst the elites can scientifically monitor their recovery and their return to full health before racing, it is all about feel at non-elite level and Mairi felt fine and fully recovered. But feeling fine is one thing; racing at international level up a steep mountain is another. Such is life in our sport.
Whilst disappointed, and cursing the timing of her double-dose illness, the saving "Grace" for Mairi is seeing how well her team-mates did and knowing that she could have been right up there challenging at the front of the race. She already has two excellent outings for Scotland under her belt. Two outta three ain't bad and hopefully there will be more to come.
Nice to see her smiling here with her three team-mates.