Sam McCutcheon provides the lowdown on his ‘epic’ experience!
For those of you who are short on time this is not the race report for you. If you tossing up between reading this and heading out to catch a Pikachu then I have provided a short summary below and the amazing gear I wore is listed at the end (Altra, UtrAspire, Julbo). For those who are actually keen to hear about this Epic race (excuse the pun), please read on.
The ANZ Skyrunnng team recently competed in the World Champs in Spain. It was tough, it was beautiful, everyone had a good time and would like to thank all involved.
The real report:
This year the Skyrunning World Champs were held in the Spanish Pyrenees in the picturesque Vall de Boi (Valley of Boi and pronounced ‘bo-yae’). If you have never heard of Vall de Boi don’t worry neither had I; and once you see some of the photos from this race the Buff Epic will definitely be on your to-do list.
Instead of your typical ‘we ran here, then we ran there’ race report I will try to give a bit more of an overview of the experience; because racing in Europe is half about the race and half about the experience.
Vall de Boi
To set the scene a bit Vall de Boi is on the boarder of Spain and France deep in Catalan country. As such the locals speak Catalan, not Spanish, and the first mistake you could make is to (attempt to) speak Spanish at the local cafe – you’re better off speaking French. This made the three months that Tom Brazier spent leaning Spanish on Duolingo a bit of a waste, but his dedication to 50 straight days of learning Spanish needs to be noted somewhere.
The history and dynamics of Catalan v Spain v France is really interesting and dates back before any of us were born. I won’t pretend like I understand it (even though I went on a free walking tour for 2.5 hours) but it does involve kings and Christopher Columbus and is worth looking into if your into that kind of stuff.
Vall de Boi is scattered with a number of small towns, each with a supermercat (supermarket), a cafe/bar and a beautiful church from the Middle Ages. In terms of topography, if you imagine half a bowl then that is essentially the shape of the valley, with some gnarly hills forming the sides and a river running out down the middle.
The race was based out of a town called Barruera which is located at the base of the valley and this was the hub for the event – Buff banners on every shop and parking at a premium. The sides of the bowl were scattered with other small towns whose sole purpose appears to be to cater to the tourists/hikers/skiers that visit the region.
The ANZ team stayed in the township of Boi itself, which was about a 5 minute drive out of Barruera (10 minutes if David Byrne was behind the wheel) and located part-way up the bowl. If you had to describe the town in one word it would probably be ‘quaint’. The team accommodation was split, half of us were in an apartment above a cafe/bar and the other half in a duplex about 200m up the hill. The apartment was directly opposite the defending Skyrunning champion Luis Alberto Hernandez and this provided Majell Backhausen, with some prime Instagram opportunities. The duplex was further up the hill and up about six flights of stairs. While the views were epics the stairs provided some real challenges post-race.
The races and team
Scene set, now to remind you of those who made the ANZ team, and the events that were on offer. There were three championship events:
- the vertical kilometre (VK);
- the Skymarathon – 42K; and
- the ultra-marathon – 105K.
In the VK we were represented by the hiking machine Aaron Knight who was always keen to invite you to Mt Beauty or to tell you how magic that region is.
The VK race was held on the Friday. I never made it up the top of the VK course so I’m not able to describe it in great detail but the general consensus was that it was steep and short (around 2.8km). It started off on the flat with competitors running through the town for about 200m before turning hard right and begun climbing and continued to climb for the next 1000mD+.
We had four representatives in the Skymarathon. Originally these consisted of Lucy Bartholomew; Matty Abel; Blake Hose; and Matt Murphy. Unfortunately Matt Murphy was unable to make it but all was not lost as Aaron Knight was able to step up to complete the four person team and in the process doing the double (VK and Skymarathon) over two days. When you add in the other three contenders, Lucy, Matty and Blake, two things were obvious:
- the team was in good form; and
- the build-up was going to be comprehensively covered on Instagram.
The Skymarathon started at Espot and covered the last portion of the ultra course; a total of 42km and around 3000mD+. This part of the course is covered off under the Ultra write up below.
The big dog. A 105km course with around 8,000mD+ that has haunted my thoughts for the last few months (reports were that the total vert may have been rounded up and was actually somewhere around the 7,000mD+ mark – either way it was a lot of climbing). Taking on this challenge we had the formidable line-up of Beth Cardelli, Majell Backhausen, Tom Brazier and myself.
The Ultra course
Now for the reason you are probably reading this race report – to hear about the course.
I’ll start by saying this was the hardest race I have ever done. In fact, this was physically the hardest thing I have ever done. I was expecting it to be difficult, as it was longer (in time and distance) and had more vert than anything I had completed before, but I didn’t really know how difficult until I was actually out there.
Leading up to the race I was excited; my training had been going alright and I had been putting some solid runs around the Wellington hills. Unfortunately on one of those runs I pulled my ITB four weeks out from the race. This put the brakes on my preparation and I was absolutely gutted. My training went into rehab and my race plan (which was relatively loose anyway) went from strategy to survival.
Not the lead up I was after but a sold reminder to look after your body and ensure that the stabilisers are not neglected in training. Anyway, after four weeks of rehab and running as much as my leg could put up with, I was as ready as I could be to take on the Buff Epic Trail.
To describe the course I will use Tom Brazier’s intellectual analysis. Tom divided the course into main climbs and smaller climbs. Each main climb (800m or more) was given a number and any smaller climbs were allocated a decimal; so for instance the second climb on the third hill would have the number 3.2. Using this formula the race was broken down into four main climbs (1 – 4) and 7 smaller climbs as follows (1.1, 1.2 (not shown accurately below but it definitely existed), 2.1, 3.1, 3.2, 3.3, 4.1, 4.2, 4.3 and 4.4):
This was an overly academic way to analyse the course but it did align your thinking during the race so that you knew which portion you were on and more importantly, how many climbs there were to go. The marathon course started from the base of the fourth climb and (based on the Tom Brazier code) followed peaks 4.1 – 4.4.
Topography sorted, now to the race itself. The ultra started at 6.00am in the town of Barruera. After doing a short loop of the town we headed up the valley on a river track. According to Apple weather, sunrise in Vall de Boi was not until 6.30am and so aside from the quick jog through the town the first half an hour was spent running in the dark.
Because no one wanted to waste time putting away their head torch so early into the race most people (myself included) spent this period trying to scab a light off other runners. An analogy would be moths around a flame with, and any runner who had a head torch was being flanked by at least 10 other runners trying to borrow some light and not roll their ankles on the river trail. This meant that the pace in the early stages was largely set by those with head torches and if you wanted to move through the pack you had to strategically find someone else with a light up ahead and then jump on them as quickly as possible.
After leap frogging lights up the river track the sun came up and we took a left to begin our first climb through the town of Erill la Vall and up towards the saddle. The first climb (1.1) was around 900mD+ and started off with some relatively steep stairs which turned into a nice single track with some runnable sections. As we left the tree line the course climbed up through a paddock to the saddle.
As an aside I should mention that the course was extremely well marked with ribbon or small pole markers about every 50m – this was no small feat for a course that is over 100km long. In the past I have often found myself enjoying a bit of time off course due to my average sense of direction, so it was quite reassuring to see so many markers in the Buff Epic.
After crossing the saddle we reached our first aid station at around 9.5km (water and electrolyte) before descending around the side of the mountain and climbing up to a saddle on the far side (1.2). This portion of the course was all on a goat track which was mostly runnable and sporadically covered with a variety of puddles and cow turd. Running this part reminded me of one of those early Playstation games where you have to keep running to avoid whatever is behind you (in this case other runners) and as you go you need to jump over the boulders or other objects that approach.
Once we reached the far side we took our now wet and smelly shoes down the first significant decent and towards the first full aid station at 22km. This decent had steep portions and covered a variety of terrain including grass paddock, 4WD track and semi-technical single track. Once at the bottom we wound along the road through to the check point and started climb 2.1.
The second major climb was nuggety, heading up a valley and then pretty much up the side of a hill. When I had first arrived in Vall de Boi I was concerned about the potential heat (it was 35degrees when I arrived), however, this was not an issue during these early stages. As we approached the top of the climb the weather was overcast and even began to drizzle. Not the temperature that makes you put a jacket on, just the temperature that means you need to keep moving in order to keep a good body temperature.
After reaching the top of the climb 2.1 we were taken along beside some magnificent lakes. The terrain was single track with a lot of inconveniently placed boulders. If it wasn’t overcast I can imagine that the extended views would have been spectacular.
Despite the altitude map looking like it forms a point, the section across the top felt like it went on for some time. After wrapping around a couple of lakes we began the descent and this was a laugh. I would call this technical. We were running down a track largely formed from rocks and in addition to the rocks being of varying heights and angles there were a large number of random switch backs thrown in for good measure. To cap it off the path also offered the most direct route down the mountain and so it was covered with water from the lakes above. Those at home in rocky downhill rivers would have flown down this section; most of us navigated it as best we could.
Near the bottom of the descent the track turned into a 4WD road and allowed us to stretch the legs to the next aid station where I thought I would try something new and had my first ever banana in a race. I found that bananas are great and despite these bananas being completely unripe I found myself searching for them at every subsequent aid station.
After filling the bottles we began climb 3.1. The 4WD track continued up the next mountain and was that awkward gradient where you are not sure whether to run it or hike it. I followed someone up this section who was running/shuffling and found that I could let him run ahead while I walked and then when he was about 50m-80m in front I could run for a bit and catch up with him. We repeated this dance for the next 4km or so until the track got a bit steeper and he eventually shuffled away. Near the summit of the third main climb (3.1) the track left the 4WD road and took us around another small lake and up a steep section to the top of the climb.
The descent from 3.1 was steep and across slippery tussock. At the bottom was our next aid station and my next feed of potassium. The next two climbs (3.2 and 3.3) were pretty similar, steep, rocky and technical. There was another aid station between 3.2 and 3.3 and just before this aid station there is about 400m where you are solely jumping between large rock boulders – this section reminded me of running around rock pools at the beach and I appreciated the irony of the situation being that the top of the Pyrenees was about as far from the beach as possible. I should also mention that there were areas of un-melted snow (pretty much ice) on the sides of the trail around this final climb further taking away from any beach atmosphere that may have existed.
Once we reached the final climb on this hill (3.3) we entered the Aigüestortes i Estany de Sant Maurici National Park and an interesting section of the race. This was interesting because you are not technically allowed to race though the National Park and so competitors were required to cover their race bibs for this section. To try and reflect this there were no course markings over this section and the organisers were to deduct 10% of everyone’s time as a nominal allowance to show that this part was ‘neutralised’. However, in practice everyone continued to race through this section and half-arse efforts were made to cover up bibs if you passed any race officials.
The section through the National Park began by winding around the rocky slopes before a technical descent onto a 4WD track. Once on the 4WD track we descended all the way into Espot and the main aid station (around 15K, 1,000mD-). Once we reached the 4WD track the descent was fast. The track was slightly uneven but still runnable with loose ankles. The biggest obstacle was dodging all the public walkers and school groups that were in the Park. My Catalan/Spanish is not that flash but I found that “Scuzzi”, “Pardon”, and “Oi” worked sufficiently well.
The views through the National Park were amazing. I am not sure any description I could give would do justice to the lakes and hills so I strongly suggest you Google image search this area to get an idea.
As we approached Espot the cloud cleared and the sun was out in full force; this was a pleasant change although it also brought the heat which hung around for the remainder of the day.
Espot was the start of the Skymarathon course and also where the ultra runners could send a drop bag. There was also a full Euro aid station (pasta, bread etc. – probably dance music) and a further gear check. Mentally it was a significant milestone. It marked the base of the final big climb and what I considered the road home. Unfortunately it was a relatively long road.
The climb out of Espot was long and gradual (around 1,300mD+). Starting out on a 4WD track it took us past snow machines and a small aid station before heading across a paddock and towards a saddle. There were four peaks over this last section and each time a peak approached I remember wondering where the path was going to be. Each time I remember looking up a cliff and thinking ‘surely it won’t go up that face’. Without fail there was a marshal at the top of the face and a scraggly track that would miraculously wind its way up through the loose rocks.
Having already covered 67km the final major climb out of Espot (4.1) was brutal. It appeared that everyone was set to auto-pilot and was making their way up the hill as fast as they could/were going to. I wouldn’t call this part a race, it was more a survival. Reaching the top of 4.1 was a great feeling, although this only lasted a short period before we discovered that the descent was particularly steep and super technical; over loose rocks and consisting of what felt like a million switchbacks. At the base of this descent the course took us around more mountain lakes before beginning the next ascent.
Without dragging on more than I already have the next three climbs followed a similar pattern:
- A steady climb through a field up to a ridiculously steep scree slope with a marshal at the top.
- An absolute grind to get up the slope to the summit.
- Crossing the summit to find that the descent was overly steep or technical (or both) and then somehow picking your way down the other side.
There was a basic aid station between or on all of these peaks although despite being marked out on our race bibs we found out that the markings were more guidelines and these aid stations were not always in the same location as they had been marked.
Out of the final aid stations I need to make particular mention of the gondola check point. This was between peaks 4.2 and 4.3 and was another Euro aid station (no dance music). We had passed some pretty amazing scenery on the course already but the views either side of this gondola were right up there. The gondola took tourists up to a dam and some old buildings. These were stunning. After passing the aid station the course wound around the side of the mountain as it dropped away to open up a steep valley with more dams in the distance below. At this stage the sun had begun setting and the water was a crazy dark blue/green colour; either that or my eyesight was becoming a bit distorted. Either way it looked fantastic.
Over the first half of the race (through to Espot) I had felt relatively comfortable. My ITB was holding together and my energy levels seemed to be alright. However this was definitely a game of two halves and after Espot my knee began to play up and my stomach decided it had had enough of sugar and caffeine (should have grabbed more bananas when I had the chance).
I was in some ‘places’ over this last section (4.1 – 4.4) and climbing up to the final point (4.4) I could not be happier to see the summit approaching. Unfortunately as I neared the top my light-headedness may have got on top of me for a second and I kind of fell over (a bit, not really). This would not usually have been an issue except there was a medic standing on this final peak and he was quite keen to check that I was alright. After a couple of minutes convincing the medic that I had just lost my balance and that I was actually ecstatic to be at this point he let me continue down.
The final descent was 15km long and went over paddocks before a section of single track. It was around 8.00pm at this stage and the sun was almost parallel with your eyes; needless to say I was extremely glad I had packed a good pair of sunglasses. Once through the single track we emerged onto the road and then wound our way through Taull (the village with the oldest church in the valley) and then Boi (our village) before finding your way back to the river and the home stretch.
The final few K’s along the river track were nice but after 100 or so kilometres I found them a little unnecessary. To say I was relieved to see the finishing line would be an understatement. As I was descending I was looking at my watch thinking that I might be able to finish before 9.00pm (under 15 hours) and as I rounded the final bend I was pleased to see that I had just snuck in there.
I finished 10th male in a time of 14.59.48. I say 10th male because it was 11th overall and top 10 sounds better (Carolyn Chaverot was 10th overall and first female).
All things considered I was pretty stoked to just make it to the end and even more than pleased with result. There are definitely a lot of learnings that have come from this race and will try to take as many of them into account in my training and future races.
While this has been an overly detailed account there are a couple of points I would like to emphasise that are not specifically covered above:
- The support throughout the race (where possible) was great; each little town had people out cheering or with cow bells and other members of the ANZ team were out in force where possible.
- The ANZ team was a great, dedicated group of talented athletes and it was a mint week getting to know everyone.
- The ANZ team was supported by the good people at Pace Athletic and the North Face Australia and New Zealand.
- The race had stunning views and a large variety of terrain, definitely worth putting this one on your wish list.
One major factor in being able to complete this race was having high quality gear:
- On my feet I ran in the Altra Lone Peak 2.5 and found them ideal for the length and terrain. I also think my feet looked better than everyone else’s the next day.
- My pack was the UltrAspire Velocity which was incredibly comfortable (I even ran in a singlet) and easily stored the comprehensive gear list as well as about 10 hours’ worth of food.
- The Julbo Venturi sunglasses proved invaluable in the latter part of the race. If you haven’t tried them out the Zebra lens adjusts when you enter the shade meaning I was able to wear them from Espot onwards without having to take them off and on when entering the shade.
Finally, I would like to give a specific thanks to all the people who supported me in getting to Spain and competing in the race. I won’t name everyone as there is too many but a lot of friends attended fundraisers and provided support in a variety of ways; can’t thank you all enough.