Beyond the Ultimate Mountain Ultra – Kyrgyzstan

I’d been waiting for this race for some time. A first time event in a relatively unknown part of the world. High altitude, extreme weather and massive mountains all had the makings of a savage event, just the way I like it! 

The lead up hadn’t been perfect with an injury to my shin whilst at a Scarpa Team meet in Sardinia a few months prior to the summer Spine Challenger South. It meant I’d done more cycling than running for several weeks and predominantly treadmill post Spine. 

I took this time to work on what I could though. Preparing for altitude, working the legs and some decent strength and conditioning work. 

Beyond the Ultimate Mountain Ultra - Kyrgyzstan. Two men running across a grassy landscape with a large grassy sloped mountain rising behind them.

Photo: Jamie Rutherford Photography

Fortunately, the last few weeks I got some good mileage in and felt relatively fit again – ready to rock. 

The plan was to get to Kyrgyzstan a couple of days prior to the acclimatisation trek being laid on for a couple of exploratory runs and see how I felt at the various altitudes. Arriving in Kyrgyzstan the intense heat was instantly noticeable in Bishkek before a 6 hour drive across to Karakol where fortunately it was a little cooler but still sweltering. 

I did a couple of decent runs, one 18 mile run up to 2500m and the next day a 16 mile run up to around 3500mprior to the other competitors arriving for the trek. Usually I wouldn’t run these distances with the vertical as well but I felt it was necessary for the adaption and to see how I felt and how hard I’d be able to push if needed during the race. 

Beyond the Ultimate Mountain Ultra - Kyrgyzstan. Black and White image focused on one man in a crowd who is looking away at something in concentration.

Photo: Jamie Rutherford Photography

I arrived back from my last run and the runners had arrived in the hotel. It was instantly noticeable to see the excitement with everyone chatting away about the upcoming adventure. I saw some friends I’d made in past races as well as new people I’d not met before. 

The acclimatisation trek was three days of hiking, taking ourselves steadily up to altitude, spending some time sleeping at higher altitudes and hiking slightly higher each day. This would then hopefully allow everyone to avoid contracting altitude sickness and let them perform at a level they’d expect.

Camping out was great as this is how we would be during the race, sleeping in tents with sleeping bags. Fortunately, the tents were provided but everything else would be carried on our backs apart from the odd water stop but even the majority of water stops in this race required using a water filter. 

Beyond the Ultimate Mountain Ultra - Kyrgyzstan. A yellow tent set in a mountain meadow with trees around it, some camp chairs and some people sitting on them.

Photo: Jamie Rutherford Photography

For the acclimatisation we were lucky enough to have locals who were helping, guiding and cooking for us each night, which was great; sampling local food in stunning locations. 

I’m always nervous regarding food when travelling as it’s usually far removed from my fairly simple healthy diet., eating airport/convenience food then arriving in a foreign country and not knowing local foods or hygiene standards etc. I do however love travelling and being able to try local food as I feel it’s part of the whole experience. The food was pretty good considering how remotely they were cooking it, also having carried it up on horses and donkeys. This was welcome due to the race being self sufficient and having to carry and eat freeze dried food for the five days.

Beyond the Ultimate Mountain Ultra - Kyrgyzstan. A man running towards the camera over a sandy and rocky landscape with a tree lined slope of a large mountain behind him

Photo: Jamie Rutherford Photography

After three days everyone was pretty tired and glad to get back to the hotel for one night before heading off to where we would start from on day one of the Mountain Ultra. A few more racers joined us just for the race and I thought this would be tough, having not had any adaptation to altitude, and basically stepping off a couple of flights and a seven hour coach journey to then have another couple of hours in an old Russian military vehicle taking us deeper into the mountains. It was great seeing plenty of old military vehicles having been previously occupied by Russia and you could see the influence still present from years gone by. 

Prior to arriving at camp one we were treated to a Kyrgese display of their hunting skills with their bows and arrows, golden eagles (used to hunt foxes, wolves and other prey) along with a breed of dog which was local to the area. It was quite impressive seeing a young lad hitting moving targets in the air and another guy firing his bow and arrow from horseback at pace. 

Beyond the Ultimate Mountain Ultra - Kyrgyzstan. Two men running across a rocky stream. The first man is halfway across and is running, with his arms in the air to help him balance, the one behind is approaching more slowly

Photo: Jamie Rutherford Photography

Arriving in camp the race started to feel real. I was ready to start now, I don’t like waiting around; I prefer to get into the race and then I relax enjoying the challenge. Unfortunately dealing with ‘tent life’ meant a night of no sleep on a slanted pitch, minus any sleeping mat as I traveled light – big mistake as I froze my ass off every night and couldn’t wait to get up and start running. For at least two of the nights I had no sleep whatsoever! I can confirm the sleeping bag I took with a comfort rating of +5 was likely an ambitious rating! 

Race day, I was up early making sure I ate my breakfast with plenty of time to digest it, packing away all my kit and taping my feet. I filled my water bottles with my liquid nutrition (Voom Fusion) and made sure I had my days fuel easily accessible and the right amounts I thought I’d need for that day. I used a mixture of Voom bars with electrolytes, caffeine and beta alanine. I’d also use their recovery bar post race to immediately start the refuelling and repair ready to go again the next day. I’d also do last minute checks on my pack for comfort etc to try and reduce any problems I might encounter. 

Beyond the Ultimate Mountain Ultra - Kyrgyzstan. A man in blue running gear climbing up steep and very rocky ground

Photo: Jamie Rutherford Photography

I shot off as soon as the race started, I wanted to test the field knowing that my likely competition during this race was a guy called Michael McLean. Michael has a UTMB victory under his belt and many multi-day race podiums and is an excellent athlete as well as a truly nice guy. 

Thankfully he didn’t come with me and I set about continuing a hard but managed effort knowing the first stage initially had just over 6 miles of runnable, slightly downhill track prior to the elevation starting. I went through 10km in 46 minutes which was made more tough due to the extreme heat, which ended up being quite the feature of this event. 

Beyond the Ultimate Mountain Ultra - Kyrgyzstan. A man in blue running gear running towards the camera having climbed up out of a rocky gully with a mountain range spreading behind him

Photo: Jamie Rutherford Photography

I saw Michael as I was heading up the initial climbs as he was heading along the road reckoning I probably had maybe 8 minutes on him at this point so decided to push on and try to capitalise as much as possible even if I was going to utilise a little more energy than I’d have liked to build a solid lead from day one. This is a common theme with my racing and one that works well for me, allowing me to then be reactive when racing the following days managing effort accordingly compared to my nearest rival. This worked well with roughly 33 minutes lead after stage one which would be the only time we finished apart running strongly together throughout the following stages. 

I’ll condense day 2, 3, 4 and 5 as they played out as mentioned above. Running with Michael was great fun and really helped with navigation but also spotting animal holes, best lines to take etc. We would work the uphills, run the flats and generally take care over the more rugged terrain where injuries were prominent with runners. 

Unfortunately one runner broke his ankle on the final day but had injured it earlier in the week and another runner fell injuring himself on rocks causing some open wounds. The terrain certainly warranted respect and it meant that concentration had to be 100% right until the very end. It was a relief to finish for this very reason. 

Beyond the Ultimate Mountain Ultra - Kyrgyzstan. Two men running across rocky ground with rocky mountains behind them and grassy slopes at the foot of the mountains.

Photo: Jamie Rutherford Photography

After five days of breathtaking views, gruelling climbs, gnarly descents, amazing wildlife and making some amazing friends it was great to watch everyone finish stage 5 with some people having some long days, finishing some 22 hours after starting their final stage. I have so much admiration for the racers who were out this long and throughout the week who would be on their feet for some huge amounts of time. It’s one thing to race and be finished usually between 5-10 hours each day but when you double these times each day it takes some incredible determination and will power to keep going when sleep deprived and in a calorie deficit. 

In summary if you want a self sufficient multi day race in a scenic, rugged and beautiful country that tests you in ways other races can’t both mentally and physically – then this is for you!

Our thanks to Jamie Rutherford for these stunning photos – check out his website here

Beyond the Ultimate Mountain Ultra - Kyrgyzstan. Two men crossing the finishing line of the race, the man in blue gear with his arm raised and the other man in a white top has his fist and arm clenched, both visibly pleased to finish

Photo: Jamie Rutherford Photography

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"After five days of breathtaking views, gruelling climbs, gnarly descents, amazing wildlife and making some amazing friends it was great to watch everyone finish stage 5"

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