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Reach for the Sky

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Typically British

Bloodied, bruised and splattered with mud, but smiling as they crossed the finish line, both male and female winners had apparently enjoyed hurling themselves to victory down the slippery, rocky Scottish mountainside.

It was Saturday September 15, 2018 and the weather was typically British—cool and breezy, with smoky clouds whisping around the higher summits. Days of recent rain made the rocky ridges perilously slippery and turned the once-grassy paths into a mud bath. This was the Ring of Steall Skyrace, deep in the UK’s Scottish Highlands, the event that would decide the winners of the 2018 Skyrunning World Championships and the Golden Trail Series.

At home on the most testing, technical terrain, Kilian Jornet (arguably the world’s best mountain runner)—not surprisingly—came first, smashing the record by 20 minutes and winning the Skyrunning World Championship. The 30-year-old, Catalonian, multiple ski and trail-race champion ran the 18-mile course with 8,200 feet of ascent in 3 hours 4 minutes, annihilating teammate Stian Angermund-Vik’s 3:24 record from last year. Jornet’s chin was covered with blood as if he had been literally fighting hand to hand for the victory with 24-year-old Italian ski-racer Nadir Maguet, who finished just over a minute later.

“It was amazing and beautiful,” said Jornet on the finish line. “The course is not even 30K [19 miles] but it’s very hard. There’s a lot of elevation, it’s very technical, it’s rocky, there are some very muddy parts.”

He then started laughing at himself, covered head to toe in mud, and with blood dripping down his chin. It was clear he had needed to go all out for the win.

“It was a great battle with Nadir,” he said. “All the way we were pushing each other.”

Jornet then took the microphone to translate the commentator’s interview with Maguet, saying, “He says he is very happy with his run today, going as hard as he could to keep with me, but he says he could not keep up on the final descent.”

Gesturing to both their mud-splattered legs and clothing, Jornet continued, “He did very well. You can see how close it was.”

Then suddenly third-place runner Angermund-Vik came in, a mere three minutes later, still knocking 15 minutes off his course record time from last year and cartwheeling over the line again, getting applause from the crowd.

“It was awesome, it’s my favorite race, I love Scotland!” proclaimed the Norwegian with a huge dirt-spattered grin. “It was tough, Remi [Bonnet, 7th] was also at the front in the first part and they were too quick for me!” he said. “They just went off and I was running a bit with Alexis [Sevennec, 4th] and Pascal [Egli, 5th] and then I ran away from them, trying to catch them [pointing to Jornet and Maguet] but it was impossible.”

Women’s Win

In sharp contrast to Jornet’s fame, a complete newcomer to the Skyrunning scene stole the women’s victory. Tove Alexandersson from Sweden crossed the line almost 19 minutes ahead of Laura Orgue’s record in 3 hours 46 mins and 39th place overall. The 26-year-old is well used to battling her way over harsh ground, having dominated the World Orienteering Championships for the last two years. Like Jornet, she also skis and is one of the few orienteers who competes both on skis and on foot, winning the World Ski Orienteering Championships sprint distance in 2015. She ran her first ever Skyrace at Limone in 2017, surprising everyone by collapsing, totally spent over the finish line 12 minutes ahead of much-more experienced Skyrunners Michelle Maier, Ragna Debats and Laura Orgue.

Here at the Ring of Steall, Alexandersson beat two top British runners, the multiple record-breaking British Fell Running Champion Victoria Wilkinson and the winner of Montana’s The Rut 28K two weeks prior, Holly Page.

“Yes, it feels amazing,” she said at the finish line. “I love to run in the mountains, and here it is quite similar to Sweden, one minute it’s sunny and the next it is raining. It was a nice course, it was quite muddy and I think that suits me well because we do a lot of running in the forests with orienteering. I didn’t have too much of a plan.”

Alexandersson calmly displayed a bloody graze on her hip and a slice of skin dangling off the raw palm of her hand.
“I fell very many times,” she said, “I ran a bit slower right at the end because I wanted to come to the finish not totally destroyed.”

Second lady, Victoria Wilkinson, 40, of Bingley Harriers, was less prepared. “It was a bit of a last-minute call after the Ben Nevis, which isn’t the best preparation,” she said, having broken a 34-year-old course record on Britain’s highest mountain two weeks prior. “But I know I’ve got plenty of miles in my legs, so it was just a case of get out there, run it and see what I can do. I just ran my own race, paced it as I knew there was a mega climb at the end and I actually ran faster than I thought. I tried to descend sensibly but quickly, not like the lass who won who must have fallen six times, that’s not me, I’ve done enough falling in my time!”