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Trail World Champs 2018 – Penyagalosa

Mel Aitken Sam McCutcheon Team Altra NZ Trail World Champs 2018 Ultra Running

Altra elite Sam McCutcheon shares his recent exploits tearing it up at the 2018 Trail World Champs -

I have a habit of writing rather lengthy race reports (I feel the amount of suffering we put ourselves through in races requires some level of justification); but to keep everyone happy I have prepared the following elevator summary of the event:

New Zealand was one of 49 different countries competing at this year’s Trail World Championships. Team NZ consisted of Mel Aitken and myself and we battled it out with the world’s best over 87km course with 4,900mD+ in the PenyagalosaNational Park in Castellon, Spain. The race was brutal, the early parts were fast and the latter parts had the more significant climbs and some pretty steep and technical descents. Amongst some pretty top competition I finished 29thin the men’s field and Mel was 56th in the women’s. It was amazing to represent my country and a big thanks to Altra NZ and all my other supports. Gear that I used: 

Shoes - Altra Lone Peak 3.5
Pack - Ultraspire Alpha 3.0
Glasses - Julbo Aero
Socks - Compressport Trial Socks
Nutrition - Tailwind Green Tea

Read on for a more detailed review:

Mel and Sam representing New Zealand at the opening ceremony

On 12 May 2018 I was fortunate enough to represent NZ at the 2018 Trail World Championships. Along with me in the team was fellow Altra teammate Mel Aitken, representing NZ in the women’s field.

As a start point I thought it might be useful to clarify what the Trail ‘World Champs’ are. There are a number of different running organisations/events, each with their own ‘championships’ and it can be difficult to distinguish one from the other (ITRA, Skyrunning, Ultra-Trail…). The Trail World Champs is the official event sanctioned by the IAU(International Association of Ultrarunners) and ITRA (International Trail Running Association) and as a result it is a quality event recognised by the key athletics bodies in each country and as a result draws some top level competition.

The World Champs this year were held in Castellon (Spain) over an 87km course with 4,900mD+ (a bonus one horizontal kilometre was added to the 86km course to avoid ‘some endangered species or something’). The race starts near the coast and climbs the near-by hills finishing at the Sant Joan de Penyagalosa after passing through a number of small villages. The course is based on a historical religious pilgrimage but also has  a number of brutal descents and climbs added in that I can almost guarantee were not part of the traditional path.

Course Profile: 87km with 4,900mD+ in the Penyagalosa National Park,  Castellon, Spain

 There were 49 different countries represented and over 350 athletes – It was epic being involved in that kind of environment.

We arrived in Castellon on the Tuesday before the race and had a few days to look around the area and the course. The hotel where the athletes were staying was nice and put on a pretty decent buffet the restraint was noticeable ahead of the big-dance (this changed on Saturday night after the race). On the Thursday the organisations put on, what I would call, an elaborate opening ceremony that involved a (well attended) street parade, giant fish and giant puppets, fireworks and synchronised dancing on the side of a building (the dancers had abseiling ropes on and slowly traversed the building whist flipping and leaping around). Anyway, it was a real welcomewith local music, speeches etc.

Anyway, on to the reason you probably clicked on this blog in the first place – the race itself.

I find it easiest to think of this course as a race of two halves; the first being the section up to Atzeneta (aid station 2 at 40km) which was more runnable without too much heat, and the second being from Atzeneta through to the finish which was hilly, hot and a bit of a grind. As you will see on the course profile there were 3 aid stations and a further 4 water points – so 7 points of assistance throughout. Unlike some other races, the water points in this race were literally that, they had electrolyte and water; no food or gels, and so runners were required to ensure they had picked up enough supplies at the three aid stations. The three aid stations were set at 30km, 40km and 60km (approximately) which meant that stations 1 and 2 were relatively close together but then there was a bit of a gap between aid stations 2 and 3 and then the finish.

The World Champs started at 6.00am on a running track just outside Castellon. 350 of the world’s best crammed onto eight lanes of a track. If the running track was not enough of a symbolic start it pretty quickly became clear that the pace was going to be hot. The first K went by in just under 3.30 pace and if were not for us reaching the first hill I know that the next few K’s would have been similar.

After a few kilometres on the road out of Castellon we headed onto some runnable trail with the occasional rocky patch. It is worth noting that sunrise in Castellon is 6.45am, and despite concerns being voiced by a number of nations, the organisers assured runners that head torches would not be needed as there would be enough light before we hit the trails. There was not enough light and in my opinion head torches werereally needed; so after 15minutes into the race everyone was doing their best to group around the closest person who was smart enough to bring a head torch. As we progressed along the trails narrowed and we found ourselves on single track which rolled into the first water point at Borriol. By this stage the sun was rising and there were a large number of spectators throughout the town creating a great atmosphere.

Most ran straight through Borriol (only 8km in) and then the course took runners up the adjacent hillside and onto the first significant ascent of the race. it was one of those nigglyascents where its early enough in the race that you could run it, but you know it would only be marginally quicker. If I came a hill of this gradient (or even less) later on in the race I would certainly have been hiking the whole thing. The competitors around me appeared to reach an unspoken middle-ground; we would hike the stepper parts and then jogging the more manageable gradients.

Snapped on a steep part of the course

After this climb the next section was quite runnable with a mix of trail, farm roads and sealed roads. One of my weak-points is my descent and on the little sections of technical downhill I would find myself being passed with ease by the Euros and then having to try reel them back in on the farm/sealed roads. The terrain, and the yo-yo racing, kept going on like this until the first aid station at Useres.

It was good to get to the first aid station checkpoint which also presented runners with their first memory exercise of the day. The event comprised not only the Trail World Champs but also a 108km race and a 65km race (these races started at different times and shared the same course for the most parts, although veered off at other angles as well) and so at the aid stations competitors were spilt into two, those doing the World Champs down one chute and those doing the other races down another chute. This part was relatively simple, but after you had found the correct chute the aid tables were then set out in alphabetical order. Due to the number of countries they had also split the countries in half. This would have been less problematic for a country at the start or end of the alphabet (such as Australia or the United Kingdom), but for middle lying NZ it meant that at some aid stations we were down one side, and at others we were down the other side. In the end we ended up kind of standing near the entrance while our supporters (Sarah or Steve) came and directed up to the relevant table to grab the necessary supplies.

There was a not-insignificant climb between aid stations 2 and 3 (9.6km) but other that that this section was relatively uneventful and competitors spent very little time at these aid stations. It was after aid station 3 at Atzeneta (40km) that in my view the race really started to become tough. Up until this point the pace had been pushed the whole time and heartrates had been high but the terrain we had been running on meantathletes were able to recover a bit on the easier sections. I was definitely tired at Atzeneta but in terms of the overall race I was in alright shape (given the distance run). This would change drastically by the next aid station.

After Atzeneta we followed a road for a couple of milesbefore hitting a solid climb. If you are a race director and you really want to run competitors down in a race this is a great way to do it Put a long runnable section right in the middle of your course to ensure the legs are tired; and then follow that runnable section with a 1000mD+ climb (in a hot valley if possible). It would be fair to say that most competitors were pretty happy to see the water station at Benafigos and after filling up on water we also had a chance to run our headunder the fountain before heading off on the next section. 

Tough undulating sections in the heat of the day

The next section was 11km of climbing and descending and this is where the race really caught up with me (and a number of other competitors from what I have heard) and when I finally reached Vistabella I was poked. There was not a lot of tree cover on the course (as you might be able to see from the photos) and, although there was some wind around, a lot of the climbing was done up through valleys which at times felt a bit like mini-heat chambers. Also the pace of the race meant that we had been operating at a pretty high intensity for around 6 or so hours by now and this was catching up with me. I do not think I have been happier to see an aid station in a race before.

Vistabella is the first aid stations where I have ever sat down. NZ shared a table with the Norwegians and they were nice enough to give us some ice which I rubbed over my head and legs (this feels awesome by the way). After the better part of 5minutes recovering and getting some food in I was able to drag myself out and on to the final 25km of the race.

Slow going out of Vistabella

 After Vistabella there was a very steep and technical descent, followed by a solid 600mD+ climb, which then lead into some forestry area. After a further smaller climb I found a second wind and the course became slightly more runnable. The section after Vistabella was 15km long and climbed (and descended) 1000mD+. This was the longest section of the race and but after that initial descent I found the rest of the section more runnable over grassy forest track (more similar to what I am used to running on) and found I was able to move pretty well through this section of the race.

The heat I had mentioned before was less intense on the tops and although it was still sapping at times the weather also changed with some small periods of rain coming through over the last 20km and providing some welcome relief.

 After passing the final drink station the course climbed a couple of small passes before descending to the finish. By this stage of the race we had caught up with some of the 108km runners and it was difficult to tell if the people you were seeing were in the World Chamos or one of the others events. The finish was at Sant Joan and after 9 hours and 46 minutes I was pretty happy to reach the line.

 Finish Line

I finished 29th. While my goal had been top 20, and as close to top 10 as possible, on the day I feel as though this was a fair result for me given the competitors and course. There are a number of areas of my race which I still need to work on and which I feel could make me quicker overall. I am already looking forward to coming back in future years to compete on the world stage. Mel was 56th in the women’s race and a special mention should be made that this was a fantastic result in her first international ultra.

Finally, we had two great supports for the race, Steve and Sarah, who managed to provide us with great support at the respective aid stations, the finish line, and also in the week leading up to the race. Thanks again.

The Trail World Champs is a great event with fantastic competition. It is amazing to run a 87km race and be able to see competitors around you for the majority of the course. If anyone is keen to run for New Zealand at the World Champs in future please get in touch, I am happy to point you in the right direction for information/contacts. New Zealand has some great trail runners and I believe that if the right runners are keen New Zealand would put together some pretty solid teams to compete in future years (three males or three femalesare required to make up a team).

 Finally, thanks to Altra NZ. I ran in Lone Peak 3.5’s and (as always) they were great over the varying terrain.

Sam and Mel in their race kit

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