Three medals for GB to open 2018 World Champs (long read!)

The 2018 Marathon World Championships are being held in Prado, Portugal, third in the series of major events to be held in the country this summer after the Sprint Worlds and Ocean Racing World Cup.

After two days of competition in Junior and U23 races, GB had claimed three medals…

The venue on the Cavado river has been used recently for the 2014 European Champs and 2016 World Cup events, with considerable British success – three European titles first time round, two of which had been won by current members of the team Lizzie Broughton and Sam Rees-Clark. It’s a relatively natural, interesting course with flow, shallows and occasional rocks, but given a little more water depth than usual by dams on the river.

The team arrived late on Tuesday evening, and spent Wednesday checking out the course and portage. The organisers had decided to switch the usual course around to run the lap clockwise, with the start, a sand and grass portage and the top turn directly in front of the main spectator area. As in recent years, the spectator experience would be enhanced with video streaming of the key points of the course, broadcast on internet and Portuguese TV, and commented by our own Ivan Lawler.

For the first time, GPS tracking was also put in place using the Tractrac system. Each boat had a small Tupperware container attached with Velcro, and containing a GPS transmitter which would be triangulated with detectors placed along the course, to give a very good calculation of each athlete’s position. Users of the app could then see the race unfold in real time on a map, which was particularly useful to team staff manning the portage as they could follow the approach of their athletes more clearly than on the live stream.

Day one opened with the Junior Women’s K1, where Chelmsford CC’s Emma Russell was reigning European Champion and our only GB race entry. The Worlds always sees a step up in competition, particularly from the Hungarians who seem to have such strength in depth that they can overlook European champions and medallists in some classes to select even stronger crews for the Worlds.

Emma is also a junior european 500m silver, and world bronze medallist from this year, so was able to easily establish herself in the front group from the start. However the group was six strong, with two Hungarians, a South African, and two Australians also contesting top positions. One Australian was unlucky enough to capsize after a lap, and soon there were only four – Emma, the Hungarians and the South African.

Each race over the 3.6km lap covers two full laps before a portage. Emma exited the boat and ran her portages perfectly, followed by the South African, but the two Hungarians demonstrated rather less prowess, losing ground on most occasions. However their strength on the water meant they always caught up. Emma kept her cool and didn’t work too hard while the others had to race to catch her each time.

By the last portage, one of the Hungarians had started to get her act together and with 1000m to go, was able to get out of the final run along with Emma, and the second Hungarian in close pursuit. As the pace opened up, the South African dropped away, leaving the top 3 to contest a final 500m.

The Hungarian Csikos led out from the final turn, Emma on her left on the bank side and her compatriot Fekete to the right. As we expected, Emma went for it with around 300m to go, attacking for the lead, but the top Hungarian held firm. With a medal never in doubt, Emma opted to go for broke and try for the gold, but being held off meant that the second Hungarian was able to take the easier option and wash-ride Csikos to a silver medal, Emma claiming the bronze.

In the midday session of races, Basingtoke Canal CC’s Sam Rees-Clark, and Richmond CC’s Arthur Leech raced the U23 Women’s K1 and the Junior Men’s C1 respectively.

Sam, a multiple World Championship medallist, is regaining marathon form after a few years focussing only on Sprint, and had claimed a bronze medal at the European Championships previously this season. Her race also had prodigious Hungarian talent, and thanks to her tactical nous, Sam was able to break away on the first two laps in a front group of three with the two Hungarians, with Spain and Norway not far behind.

The Hungarians don’t like company too much, and as we see in so many races, decided it was better to dispense with other competitors as quickly as possible. They seized their chance at the first portage, and dropped Sam, with only two of six laps completed. Sam now had an un-enviable choice – time trial it alone or wait for the chase group and try to win that. In the back of her mind also was an entry in Sunday’s Women’s K2 to preserve energy for.

A lap or so on her own confirmed that Sam had the pace to not only hold off the chasers, but to put a little more distance in too, so she ticked round the remainder of the race to claim another World medal, behind the two Hungarians.

Arthur Leech was racing his second international marathon, after a sixth place at this year’s European Champs. Great Britain hadn’t selected a C1 to a World Championships for well over a decade, so Arthur was breaking new ground in the modern era of marathon. But his training at Richmond under Gabor Szeltner had prepared him well, and his assessment race results pointed to considerable talent for the discipline.

Arthur started well and was in the top six positions after 500m, when he was turned from behind. He swerved but hit another boat and fell in, losing a minute as he was rescued by a motor boat, and starting again from the back of the field. He pulled out a strong couple of laps, re-overtaking half of the field to enter the first portage in eighth position. Arthur then worked with a Czech competitor to achieve seventh place at the finish, beating athletes from several nations with multiple C1 champions to their name.

The final race of day one saw the junior men’s K1 tackle a 22.6km race over six big laps of the course. Will Scammell of Longridge and Luke Shaw of Norwich CC were our two GB entrants. They faced a top-quality field including European Champion Ronan Foley, coached by ex-GB athlete Jon Simmons.

At this level, very large groups form at the front of the field, with the best athletes stalking each other while others are able to stay with them for a lap or two. A group of 15 came into the first portage after two laps, including Luke, but with Will behind in 17th place. Luke unfortunately fell in on the get-in, losing touch with the leaders but was able to pick his way back to 8th at the end, with Will 16th. Up front, the Dane Rask had a small lead at the first portage, and the failure of the chasers to actually chase led to a solo win, with Foley second and Hungarian Petro third.

Day two started with the Junior Women’s K2, Emma Russell doubling up with Freya Peters of Richmond CC. This crew were contesting their third World Championships together, finishing 13th in 2017 and earning a bronze medal last year. Again, the field was to be dominated by Hungarian juniors, who started very fast and broke clear after only 500m.

Emma and Freya were left to race for third against a strong trio of Italian, Australian and Slovakian crews. Unlike in the K1 race, these crews could all portage and the race remained close. Coming into the finish, the Italians led out but Freya and Emma were string enough to sprint past their rivals to claim bronze again.

The lunchtime session saw Will Scammell double up with his Longridge club-mate James Bell in the junior boys K2. This crew had taken the European Championships by storm, crossing the line first only to be denied Gold and relegated to Bronze by a very harsh implementation of the rules on drinks bags falling into the water.

James and Will started well but were a few seconds behind after the first lap, and couldn’t come back into the front group. In the end they finished 12th, in a race again blighted by a very controversial judging decision – the South African crew who had nearly achieved a dead-heat win against the Danes were relegated to third after the Spanish appealed very late against a minor course infringement. Had the infringement been punished at the correct time, the South Africans would not have suffered as they had a 30 second clear lead!

The U23 Men’s K1 rounded off the second day of competition, with Longridge CC’s Magnus Gregory representing Great Britain. Mags tangled with a competitor after 500m and was held back, but fought through to 10th after the first lap. He raced well in a top-quality championship to finish 10th, ahead of the European silver medallist among others.

To follow – the Senior races!