In late June Team Blacks travelled to Austria to take part in the adidas Infinite Trails mountain marathon. They braved hellish heat, ridiculous distances and hills from a runner's nightmares. Here is the race report.
What a difference a year makes.
In 2018 the first ever adidas Infinite Trails World Championship was cancelled due to apocalyptically cold weather in the mountain passes. Now, a year later a heatwave is pounding down on Europe and Austria's Gastein Valley is the stage for a very hot race.
Rewind that same 12 months and the members of Team Blacks hadn't even met. Esmee Gummer, Mark Peart and Milo Mackin were strangers with a shared love of the outdoors and a focus on fitness. It took the Channel 4 show, SAS: Who Dares Wins to bring them together.
In the show they were competitors; Infinite Trails would forge them into a team.
The Infinite Trails isn't a normal race. It's a team event, a relay made up of three legs, each with different challenges, distances and vertical climb. Those distances and elevations are seriously cruel.
Loop One is 25km and 1900m ascent. That sounds mean until you consider Loop Two – a huge 60km with over 3000 metres of climb. As night falls on the mountains, the final runner must complete 40km and 2100m of ascent, before rejoining the team for a communal 1km sprint to the finish line.
This is a tough race. That's why we sent people who have proven they can do 'tough'.
Milo was only 15 when his older brother was killed in Afghanistan. He combatted his grief by throwing himself into sport and physical challenge. At 22 he conquered Iron Man Wales.
When a simple surgery went wrong, Esmee was left paralysed from the waist down. She was told she would never walk again. Determined to prove everyone wrong she fought her way back to full mobility. Now she is considered one of London's best physical trainers.
Mark suffered a terrible tragedy with the death of his wife. He took on physical challenges to "project negative energy into something positive". The ex-RAF firefighter now uses his fitness to help tackle the stigma surrounding mental health issues.
Each of them found purpose and a common bond in the gruelling course of SAS: Who Dares Wins, where they were interrogated, beaten and beasted. We sent them to Austria, where their bond would be essential in getting them through the race.
After smashing the qualifying 'prologue' – a 15-kilometre route that would determine their starting places – Esmee was the first to take on the main event. She began just before 5am, when the day was already heating up. She completed her loop in just 4 hours 53 minutes – well inside the time set by a lot of competitors.
Next, Mark began his mammoth attempt at a 60km traversal of the mountains. By now it was mid-morning and the temperature was scalding. Mark completed his loop in 10 hours 20, a phenomenal time for such a tough course. Remember, this huge distance included over 3000 metres of elevation! Mark was typically undaunted.
"It makes you free to live in the moment, to feel your feet on the ground, the air in your lungs, and the rhythm of your stride. I want to go back and do it all over again." - Mark
The transition to Milo's final loop took place at 7pm. This left him little time to hit each checkpoint before the rolling cut-off came into effect. Milo battled through 30km of his route but, sadly, fell just short of hitting the final checkpoint. With only 10km left he was forced to retire from the race.
It seems a bitter end after such a long, arduous battle against the mountain, but Team Blacks remain buoyant about their attempt.
Esmee described the philosophy of the event most clearly. Her mantra for the race was: "don't aspire to be the best on the team, be the best for the team." Each of them gave their best for the teammates and we couldn't be prouder of their accomplishments.