A week’s notice to run a marathon? Sounds crazy right. What if I then told you that it was a marathon in the Spanish mountains with 2800m of elevation, descending, climbing and scrambling involved too? How would that make you feel?
It’s a little nerve-wracking when I overhear people talk about the steep descents and the technical sections. Sky running is a new world for me, a type of running I’ve never experienced or taken part in. Like the beauty of the Spanish mountains, naivety is also a beautiful thing. In true Lynott fashion, I’m going to throw myself in the deep-end, head first. I don’t know how to do it any other way, I rarely do things the ‘easy’ or conventional way. Before leaving Australia, I bought myself a pair of trail running shoes, however, they still may not be suitable for the terrain that awaits me.
On Sunday the 8th of July, I was asked if I’d like to race the Buff Epic Trail 42km held in Vall De Boi, Barreura, Spain. It’s one of the races on the Migu Run Skyrunner world series calendar.
If you’re like l was in the beginning, the last sentence is a whole lot of running jargon. I’ll break it down for you.
What is ‘Sky Running’?
By defintion: It is defined by the Federation that was formed to govern the sport, the International Skyrunning Federation, as “running in the mountains above 2,000m altitude where the climbing difficulty does not exceed II° grade and the incline is over 30%”.
I think it’s best to imagine trail running but then on steroids. Sky running isn’t rolling trails with a few sticks, stones and lush trees to avoid. Imagine a single trail along mountain ridge-lines, dangerous drop-offs, steep descents that make turn your legs to jelly, technical terrain that makes your ankles wish they could cry and ascents that demand every bit of oxygen from your body. This is where
That’s the scary stuff. Now picture some of the most beautiful mountains that you could spend days hiking up, down and around. On these very mountains people race, except they do it with no helmets, safety ropes or harnesses.
The legs of these Men and Women look like they’ve all been hand-carved on the stone tablets of the Greek Gods. If you wanted to study the anatomy of the lower limbs, come and watch a Sky Running event. At the end of one of these running festivals, you’ll be able to identify every muscle of the human leg. You have to be strong to complete these events, the ascending and descending in these races is extremely demanding.
This is my friend Emily Hawgood, mid-race. After taking a bad fall downhill.
What is the Migu Sky Runner world series calendar?
The Skyrunner® World Series was launched in 2004 and has grown to represent the peak of outdoor running defined by altitude and technical difficulty.
In 2019 the Migu Run Skyrunner® World Series features 16 races in 11 countries, including the SkyMasters.
The Buff Epic Trail 42km from my mind and legs.
Now you should have a slightly better idea of what Sky Running entails. The Buff Epic Trail 42km is the biggest race on the calendar so far, hosting the strongest field of 2019. With 70 elite runners from 40 different countries, the mountain is going to tremble as these athletes throw it down. The elite athletes have been racing all season and have prioritized this race because it offers double points.
For me, it’s a different story. I’m a complete newbie to this corner of the running world. Coming from Australia and living near the beach for most of my life, the idea of being amongst the mountains was something I was only introduced to in 2016 when I went to Norway. My local ‘hill’ (Mt.Lofty, South Australia) provides approximately 470m of climbing and is certainly not at any altitude. Over the last few years, I’ve fallen in love with the mountains and the way they challenge, scare and humble me.
Signing up to the BET42km was a no brainer. It perfectly combines my loves of running, mountains and demanding personal challenges all in one. As I write the part of the article in anticipation for the race, I’ll tell you now that I am mainly buzzing with excitement but am holding onto a few nervous butterflies too. Listening to the experienced athletes talk about the descents is an unknown I don’t know how I’m going to handle. My legs are conditioned but I’m ready for the hurt of the climbs. Above all, I’m ready to give my best as I always do and enjoy the views along the way. As my new sky running said to me – “The positives always outweigh the negatives in Sky Running, because it’s an adventure out there. The views are some of the best and not many are able to get up there and see them!”
I met Hillary, pictured above, in the days before the race. She gave me a terrific insight into the world of skyrunning. She’s a superstar on the hills.
How to get to Barreura?
Barreura was a tricky place to get into. Deep in the valley of the Spanish mountains, it is home to the main street with limited accommodation. Google maps didn’t present me with any public transport options, so I made a quick decision at the airport to hire a car. Hiring a car always burns a hole in my pocket, but the freedom it provides is liberating.
I flew into Barcelona and drove from Barcelona airport to Barreura in about 4 hours, making a stop off along the way for a pizza. Driving into Barreura was amazing at sunset, pink and purple hues covered the mountains whilst I drove my manual Skoda along the winding roads.
My Race Vlog
Thunderstorms loomed, helicopters buzzed and thousands of feet lined the previously quiet streets of Barreura, it was time to see what sky running had to offer. Toast, peanut butter and honey with a side of black coffee was my pre-race breakfast. At 6am it always hits the spot and doesn’t upset my stomach at all. I know it works so that’s what I opt for these days.
I laid out my race-pack the night before to eliminate any sleepy-head errors in the morning. As I laced up my shoes, I could hear the people on the streets arrive for the Buff Epic Trail 42km. Everyone looked incredibly fit. I genuinely think it’s a whole new caliber of athletes that partake in skyrunning events. There were three compulsory requirements for the Buff Epic Trail 42km; a cap, a windbreaker and a cup (so there were no plastic cups being used on course).
At 7:55 am I took my place in the crowd as we all eagerly awaited the 8 am starting gun.
8 am ignited the legs of the runners and off we went, the elite athletes leading the way. The pace of the frontrunners was hot, honestly, it was quicker than I expected. In the race briefing the afternoon before the race, it was advised that we find our initial position in the first three kilometres before it turned into single-trail running tracks. I found a place at a pace I felt comfortable, and ‘settled in’. I didn’t really settle in, my heart rate was high from the first kilometre and I was about to start the first ascent.
The race started just over 1000m of altitude, which is considerably higher than the sea-level I typically base myself out. It’s hard to measure this effect, however, this is just one of many factors which would proceed to add up and make the next 41.6 kilometres very challenging.
Hiking poles rustled the stones which lined the trail and fresh lungs heaved as the group around me started to ascend. Swiftly I found myself in a ‘power-hiking’ rhythm. The hills were steep, far steeper than any I had encountered in training or race I’d done previously. By kilometre seven, the hills had moved from 12%, to 19% to over 20% incline. No matter how you choose to climb these hills, it’s taxing. I don’t mind climbing and found myself around the middle of the pack. I wasn’t losing any ground whilst moving up the hills, so I was happy with how things were going.
Looking over the edge.
You know that feeling when you’re about to drive over a hill, and as the nose of your car approaches the apex point, you’re not quite sure if you may just roll over and drop off into the oblivion? If you know this feeling, this is what I felt as I approached the first downhill of the Buff Epic Trail 42km in Vall De Boi. The descent was steep, extremely steep! Obscure rocks and potholes lay hidden underneath the long grass like a game of minesweeper. Not only was the descent intimidating, but there was also no ideal place to plant my feet which only added to the difficulty of it all. Coming from a background of road-running, being a ‘weekend warrior’ hiker and not being able to ski (a skill I deem highly valuable in this sport) would soon lead to my downfall, figuratively and literally. All the work I had done on the first incline soon came undone, people started to fly past me. It was both fascinating and frustrating. The slow-burn in my quadriceps developed as I meandered down the first hill. I have never seen people run down hills like what was going on around me. Before the race, I watched skyrunning highlight videos and was very impressed at the way the top runners appeared to dance down the hills. Seeing it in person was like poetry in motion. Even the amateur runners of the race flew down the hills with immaculate footwork and no sense of fear. Myself, on the other hand, battled and deliberated on every step. I was moving faster than a walk but felt like a snail in comparison to those around me.
A new friend of mine said to me at breakfast the day of the race, that “skyrunning races are won on the downhills”. Even though I was not competing for a podium, I quickly understood why they said this. As I was running down the hills, or at least doing my best to run down the hills, other athletes would fly past me. It was both fascinating to see these people and their downhill running in action but also disheartening because I couldn’t move any faster. It will be a skill I will work on in the lead up to my next skyrunning race.
From the valley to the ridge.
My legs started to shake and my balance dwindled as the race went on. It was a question I had before the race: “How would my legs cope once they fatigued?” I’ve run many times on flat ground with fatigued legs and that’s fine to deal with. Running down steep mountains on fatigued legs is extremely challenging. I struggled to place my feet where I wanted to and would occasionally fall over from time to time, even when it wasn’t technical.
From the 20km mark of the race, it was a uphill battle, both physically and geographically. The way the race made my legs feel was tougher than the ultra marathon. I believe this is because there was rarely a place where you could ‘relax’. In road running, you can ‘switch off’ a little bit on the flat before surging again and lifting the pace, I wasn’t able to do this in the race. I believe the best athletes would be able to rest their legs a little more on the downhill sections but that comes with training.
By now you would have clearly ascertained that my legs weren’t quite ready for what the mountains of Spain threw at me, so I’ll change the subject.
The race course
One thing I’ve gathered from skyrunning is that no matter whether you have a good day or a bad day, the positives will always outweigh the negatives. Why? The peaks and valleys you run to and through whilst skyrunning aren’t easy to get to. Not many people get to see these places and some people physically can’t. The course allows you to see things that you couldn’t find online which is something I really appreciated. Nowadays, you can see photos of most places in the world online or on instagram somewhere. I hadn’t seen mountains or valleys like that before. Even though I was running and hurting, it was incredible to look around and soak up the views.
The race was also very well prepared for aid stations and food. If I wanted to, I could have run the race with very limited supplies on me. As I improve, I will run lighter (with less in my pack) as I now know that the supplies are frequent enough along with many options.
Overall, I had a terrific race experience in my first skyrunning event. The events are all over the world, so if you want to challenge yourself a bit more, definitely consider entering a skyrunning event. The distances vary as does the difficulty. My next race is around the Mattahorn in Zermatt Switzerland, it’s going to challenge me immensely. I look forward to it.
Watch this space, I’ve accepted a new challenge.