Justin Maxwell: A view from the Sky!


Justin Maxwell – Skyrunning World Series 2013:

In 2013, Northern Ireland man, Justin Maxwell (East Coast AC) embarked on a running challenge that he had been looking forward to for quite some time, the Skyrunning World Series; a Series of top class races in various spectacular parts of the world.

Having watched Justin’s progress throughout the Series, and his continual improvement on a race by race basis, I considered putting together an article regarding his achievements, on the basis that his performances were doing Northern Ireland proud; however, given the fact, that as many of you know, he is my brother, I had originally decided to steer clear of this to avoid accusations of favouritism etc.

This was until I was approached by quite a few people who were very interested in the Skyrunning World Series and wanted to know more about it, and also Justin’s views on the races and what he thought about the places and the travelling.   So, I took the opportunity to sit down with Justin last weekend in Dublin (Dublin Marathon weekend) and put a few questions to him about the Series, his travels, and what advice he could offer any other runners who had an interest in entering any of the 2014 races.  Here goes…


What is the Skyrunning World Series? How did you get involved?  The Skyrunning World Series is a circuit of five races held in Europe and America. In 2013 there were four events in Europe (Spain, France, Switzerland and Italy) and one in America (in the state of Colorado).  The races in the Sky World Series are usually more than 22km and less than 50km in distance, with at least 1,300 metres of positive vertical climb.  To complete the series athletes must finish at least three races.  Other Skyrunning circuits include the longer Ultra and extremely tough Vertical Kilometre Series’.  Back in 2012 I made an enquiry with the International Skyrunning Federation (ISF), just to see where the 2013 events would be held and if I would be welcome to participate.  At that time I was contacted by a member of the federation (Lauri Van Houten – Vice President/Executive Director) who advised me of the 2013 calendar and helped me plan out my participation in the series.  Lauri helped me with travel plans and kept me updated on all the relevant race information.  That was me sorted.


Personally, I know a bit about the Series.  To me, it’s quite extreme and at times dangerous, why would you want to take this on?  It’s challenging, I enjoy working hard and the feeling of satisfaction when it’s over.  The dangerous or extreme aspects of the courses, that I have encountered, add to the fun and enjoyment – when it’s over.  I’m not a top quality descender and found the technical aspect of the Zegama race quite tough.  Steep, rocky and wet ground all make descending hard, in Zegama a few of the descents had all three factors.  As well as the steep descents there was about 1.5k of uneven rocks from the Aizkorri summit across to the peak of Aitxuri.  There was no real path, just directional markers to show you what way to climb – on either side there was a massive drop, but spectacular views.


What races did you do?  Before the Sky World Series started, I wanted to try Transvulcania La Palma on 11th May 2013.  Transvulcania takes place on the volcanic island of La Palma and is an 83km event; it was the opener in the Sky Ultra Series.  I had no intention of completing the Ultra Series but wanted to get a feel for Skyrunning and that kind of distance, previously I could only imagine what the competition was like, as well as the demands of altitude.  In the Sky World Series I completed the Zegama-Aizkorri Marathon on 26th May 2013.  Zegama is a small town in the Basque region of North Spain. The Marathon event and Skyrunning brings a lot to Zegama and this was evident once the race competitors appeared and then left.  The locals were fantastic, very friendly and welcoming.  A month later (30th June 2013), I ran the Mont Blanc Marathon in Chamonix, France.  I had previously entered the 80km event, but changed to the marathon distance in order to be considered for the Sky World Series.  Chamonix is perfect location for anyone who loves being outdoors and in particular, in the mountains.  The festival which incorporates the marathon and other events for all standards goes on all weekend and really makes the place buzz.  On 24th August 2013 I went to Zermatt in Switzerland for the Matterhorn Ultraks 46k event.  Like Chamonix, Zermatt is a runners paradise, nestled up high in the valley overlooked by the Matterhorn.


How do you feel the races went?  Transvulcania was a good experience and a great way to try out the 50 mile plus distance.  I learnt that fuelling is important and that long downhill’s are tiring.  In Transvulcania there was a section of downhill lasting approximately 21km, it was quite technical in places and really hurt my legs.  If I go back, I would be looking to improve my time.  I was disappointed with my run in Zegama. I tried hard, but the course just didn’t suit me.  As I explained previously, the steep technical descents and rocky sections really hampered my progress.  I felt Mont Blanc and the Matterhorn races went well, I felt great, especially at Mont Blanc.  At the Matterhorn I was running well and feeling good until I missed a turn close to half way.  I lost 8-10 minutes and what seemed like quite a few places.  This mistake dis-heartened me slightly, but I kept going and pulled some places back.  I feel that I finished strongly and most importantly I enjoyed it.


I know from watching your progression through the Series that your performance in Mont Blanc (France) really ‘raised the bar’ with regard to your own standard.  It was a really disciplined run; you worked your way progressively through the field to finish in 36th place in what was a top quality line-up.  Had you learnt from previous experiences?  Yes, particularly the realisation that some of the climbs will take longer than what we’re used to at home.  I was learning that if I want to run most of the way I needed to slow things down on the ups and then push harder on the flats and downhill.  Fuel was another aspect I felt I was beginning to learn.  As most of the races take longer than what the normal mileage would suggest I was trying to take on enough food and drink to enable me to continually push on, rather than feeling empty and weak.  This worked well at Mont Blanc.


Speaking in terms of experiences, what have you learnt from the overall Series?  Again, considering the time I was running for I feel that learning to fuel myself correctly was good.  By doing that, I seemed to keep cramps away and feel energic.  I was loading up on salts and electrolytes in the days before the race.  I wasn’t over eating, or carb-loading as such, I ate normally and kept topping up through the event.  I learnt about Climbing and descending too.  Climbing, slow and steady and downhill can be as tiring as uphill!! I have learnt that to compete well in Skyrunning I need to continually practice these aspects of the sport. Fast hiking as something else I had never considered before, everyone and I do mean everyone, will hike at some point in most Sky racing.  I felt that at stages were I needed to hike I was losing lots of places, to those who are used to this type of terrain and technique.  That is something I will practice in future.


Do you have a favourite out of all the races?  When you mention the word race, I immediately think Mont Blanc, because of the course, the scenery, the way I felt and the result.  But when I think about the likes of Transvulcania, Zegama and the Matterhorn I have good memories, for different reasons. Transvulcania in La Palma was a beautiful course and it was amazing to run from sea level, around the rim of a volcano and back down to the finish in the atmospheric town of Los Llanos.  Zegama, although I don’t feel the course played to my strengths I really enjoyed the place.  During the race the support was amazing, it was so loud and I felt like I was a competitor in one of those iconic Tour de France climbs! The locals were friendly, genuine and respectful.  They tried their best to help us none Spanish speaking guests. Like in Transvulcania,  I had the opportunity to meet and run with some people whom I will always consider to be friends. The Matterhorn Ultraks race in Zermatt was fun.  Jane and I spent some time there before and after the race and our accommodation had a fantastic view of the Matterhorn itself.  The place was still buzzing after Kilian’s successful summit record, from the other side of the legendary mountain.


This year, the interest in the Skyrunning World Series has been evident within the Northern Ireland running community, is there any advice you would offer people who are thinking about entering a race?  Go for it! The 2014 Calendar will be available by the end of November 2013.  What I plan to do is practice long climbs, both hiking and running, as well as long technical descents.  Time on feet over undulating terrain, such as the trails along the Causeway Coast and the Mourne Mountains would be advantageous.  If you want to be competitive add in some speed work, particularly for the Sky World Series events and those races shorter in distance.


Immediately, (having been born in Ballymena), I’m thinking; is there not a great expense to travelling to these races, some of which are in quite remote places? With so many low cost airlines doing flights to lots of places in mainland Europe I found that with a bit of planning the expense didn’t work out too bad.  My wife Jane kindly agreed to forget about a two week beach excursion and a few weekends away to allow me to pursue this dream.  I have always wanted to test myself against the best runners in the world and that is what Skyrunning can offer, I feel that it was worth the sacrifices I, or we made.  We usually travelled from Dublin and the flight schedules normally meant leaving on a Thursday and returning on a Monday or Tuesday.  I worked with Lauri (from ISF) and some race organisers to find reasonable, well located accommodation.  All the accommodation can be sourced from a simple internet search too.

Geneva, like most big European airports had good transport to the places where I raced, such as Chamonix and Zermatt.  These links can be arranged online and if you share this with others the cost is reasonable, although Swiss rail can be expensive but for peace of mind it is an easy way to move around.  I had to hire a car to get to Zegama, as transport from Bilbao airport to the town wasn’t smooth.  Jane accompanied me to Zegama, Chamonix and Zermatt.  We had fun in places that we wouldn’t have thought about travelling to had it not been for running.  Now I think Jane (like me) feels more at home with trips like these, rather than the beach holidays she once adored.


Will you be competing in the Skyrunning Series again? What are your aims/plans for next year?  I hope to, I want to improve and establish myself in Skyrunning. It is highly unlikely that I’ll ever win anything but it is the type of running that I love and I really enjoyed myself this year.  I feel that the previous experiences have helped me and I can be more competitive.  I’m eager to try the Sky Ultra Series in 2014, but if the calendar is similar to that of 2013 the races that suit my qualities are in America, as well as Transvulcania.  Obviously a trip or two from Belfast or Dublin to America (for UROC 100k and Speedgoat 50k) will cost slightly more than a few weekends in Europe.  That is something I’m working on and we’ll see what happens, at the minute I really don’t know and I can’t plan anything properly until the 2014 schedule is released.   That said, I’ll definitely be travelling to the Skyrunning World Championships in 2014, to represent Ireland. The Championships are confirmed and will be in Chamonix at the end of June.  The course is in the same area as the Mont Blanc Marathon but over an 80km route.  In 2014 I aim to try the 100 mile distance, it is a challenge that I would like to attempt.  I’m not sure were that will be yet.  Other races such as the Irish 50km Championships in Donadea (Ireland), Wicklow Way 51k Ultra (Ireland) and the HOKA Highland Fling (53 mile event in Scotland) are races  that are on my radar for 2014.  That said, I’m conscious of taking on too much! I want to be competitive, not just tired, going from race to race.


As you know, NiRunning will be working with Skyrunning UK in the near future.  What do you think about Skyrunning coming to the UK? Will it work?  I think it is brilliant, very exciting.   As you said before, the interest in Skyrunning here in Northern Ireland has grown massively in 2013 and I feel that the UK as a whole is the same, based on all the forum and social media sites that I read.  UK based media outlets, such as Talk Ultra, Mud Sweat and Tears and your own NiRunning are definitely ‘stoking the fire’, as such, and are easy ways for our running communities to follow the series and to feel part of it.  If these races and competitors come to the UK then we all have a better opportunity to participate and challenge ourselves against the worlds finest.  Not only that, but we can show these elite runners what we have in the UK and see how they get on over our terrain, on our doorstep,  where it is we who have the local knowledge and chance to recce the race routes.  Look at how UK runners, with a good fell and trail background have progressed in Skyrunning events.

Athletes such as Andy Symmonds, Tom Owens, Ricky Lightfoot, Angela Mudge, Tessa Hill and Anna Lupton have all been successful in one way or another. We have so many other top mountain and fell runners who haven’t dabbled in Skyrunning yet and I believe that given this opportunity they may be attracted to the races.