The 2018 Skyrunning World Champs were held over 13-15 September 2018 in Kinlochleven, Scotland. New Zealand and Australia again sent a combined Australasian team of nine to take on the world’s best across the three distances.
Altra NZ Elite Sam McCutcheon takes us through his incredible race to claiming 9th place in the World Champs -
For those not familiar with the format, the Skyrunning World Champs are held every second year and contains three formats of racing: the VK (Vertical Kilometre), the Skyrace and the Ultra. My first ever European race was the Ultra race at the 2016 Skyrunning World Champs which was held in Spain and so I was pretty stoked to line up to compete in the Ultra again this year. This was extra special because I had recently moved to Edinburgh with my wife and the World Champs provided an awesome opportunity to compete against the best Skyrunners in the world in our new backyard.
The build-up / course change
In preparation I headed up to Kinlochleven a couple of days before the race which gave me a chance to get out and explore part of the course and also watch the VK which was held the day before the Ultra. Kinlochleven is a small town in the Scottish Highlands located at the head on Loch Leven (no surprises there). It is at the base of a number of hills and on the route of the West Highland Way (a popular multi-day tramping track).
The Ultra race was supposed to be the Ben Nevis Ultra, a new course specifically designed for the Skyrunning World Champs. It was 52km in length with approximately 4,000mD+ and only one aid station at around the half-way point. The route was technical and ascended and descended Ben Nevis as well as a four other Munros (peaks over 3000 feet in height). Because this was the first year the course had been run it was difficult to get any sort of gauge on how long it would take to complete.
Now I say this was ‘supposed’ to be the course because the night before the event there was a Facebook post from the race director informing competitors that the bad weather course was being enacted and the race was now starting at 10am as opposed to 7am. Not wanting to take the post at ‘face’ value I waited for the official email before changing the alarm and repacking my gear.
The bad weather course was 49km with 1,600mD+ - By comparison a completely different race to the one we had all signed up for.
ANZ Skyrunning World Champs Team 2018
Race morning rolled around and it was time to get amongst. The sun was out but there was still a decent amount of wind on the tops and rain forecast.
The first kilometre or so was on the road before getting into some single track climbing and as seems to be the case with most races these days the pace was relatively hot from the start. After a couple of kilometres everyone found their respective place in the climb.
My revised plan following the course change was go out strong and then try to stay in the mix over the first hill before beginning to work the flatter sections once we got back down to the river. This first part of the course followed the original route and it was beautiful, really great fun to run. The climb was a runnable single track which became more technical along the saddle (still jogable) and finally into a steep grassy/muddy bank for the descent. On the descent I found myself horizontal more often than those around me but I am pretty sure that everyone will have enjoyed some Scottish mud during this section.
There were no placing updates along the course but upon reaching the river around 12km I felt I was slightly behind where I wanted to be in the race but not too far out of touch. After crossing the river the course followed the river down towards the Ben Nevis Visitor Centre and the aid station. The track started off going through some pretty heavy bog; this was tough going and at times we ended up in mud up to our knees. Further down the river the track got firmer and as we approached the Visitor Centre there was a decent section that was on tarseal and forestry roads. On this firmer ground I began to make up some places and as I approached the aid station I gradually managed to catch and pass around 10 competitors.
The aid station was relatively a brief affair. Ben Duffus and his family had kindly offered to carry a replacement drink bottle and some spare food for me (thanks guys) and after grabbing a couple of gels and a bottle I headed back out for the long grind home.
After the aid station the course climbed back out of the valley and followed the West Highland Way back to Kinlochleven. This comprised a 300mD+ climb on a 4WD track followed by almost 20km of undulating single track and 4WD track. This section of the race was as much of a mental challenge as a physical one. The whole thing was runnable but the challenge was pacing it so you were going as fast as possible without overcooking it. The route to the finish was into a head wind and by this stage it had started raining intermittently.
I had some of the toughest battles over this section of the course. At the top of the climb I was joined by Beñat Marmissolle from France and we ended up running together for 14km or so before Beñat managed to lift the pace slightly and drop me. A few kilometres after losing Beñat I was caught by Miura Yuichi from Japan.
Sam making his way up into the Highlands
The course is pretty exposed over the final section and I could hear Miura slowly reeling me in; he finally caught me just as we joined up with the forestry road. I had run this final section of the course the day before and knew that there was only around 3km to go until the finish; and that almost 1.5km of that was downhill on single track. I managed to find enough effort to push back in front of Miura just before the single track and then controlled the pace down the single track to the road at the bottom.
From the bottom of the track there is around 700m of sealed road until the finish line and as we came down the single track I think we both knew that we were going to have a race to the finish. Having just raced for 48+km the last thing I felt like was having a throw down for the last few hundred meters. In the end I managed to get ahead of Miura and finish the race in 9th place.
Sam and Ryan Lowe
Since the race I have been thinking a bit about the course change. Overall I am disappointed that the bad weather course was enacted because we had all trained for the Ben Nevis Ultra and we ended up doing a race that was a fraction of the vert (although a similar length). On the day the weather seemed not too bad especially for Scotland which made me question what weather the organisers were expecting there to be in the Highlands in mid-September.
But, against these thoughts safety does need to come first. The suitability of the course needs to be determined based on the last person who is going to cross the finish line, not the first person; and so overall I think that the course change was justified in the circumstances. The day before the VK competitors had to endure some pretty sever West Coast weather including sub-zero wind chill and horizontal rain; and there were also reports that the volunteers were not able to mark the course because the markers on some of the saddles and ridges kept getting blown over/away.
Overall the addition of more runnable sections was probably in my favour and may have led to a better result that I might have over a more technical course. Either way I was looking forward to testing myself over the technical course and this will just have to wait until next time.
Finally a big thank you to Skyrunning ANZ for making the trip possible and to Altra NZ and everyone else who has supported me along the way.
Shoes: Altra King MT – Mountain running shoes were required (trail shoes were not permitted) and the King MT were ideal for the wet and technical course.
Pack: UltrAspire Alpha 3.0
Accessories: Compressport gloves, arm warmers, beanie and socks
Nutrition: Tailwind (green tea flavour)