© Philipp Reiter
For American skyrunner Megan Kimmel, the mountains aren’t just home (she lives in Colorado) but a training ground and escape. Super-comfortable covering big climbs at altitude, Megan holds the course record for the Pikes Peak marathon (14,115ft of ascent!) and recently won the Broken Arrow Skyrace. A big name within skyrunning, the 39-year-old is currently ranked 3rd overall in the Migu Run Skyrunner World Series (the official circuit for skyrunning) with a win at China’s Yading skyrace, a second at Japan’s Mount Awa Skyrace and third at Transvulcania.
In between a seriously hectic schedule of transatlantic flights, travel and racing, Megan squeezed in time to answer my questions on her running background, mental strategies, training and season so far.
You grew up in Colorado. Did you have a pretty active childhood?
Growing up in Colorado, we definitely spent a lot of time outside. In the city where I grew-up, that mostly meant backyard versions of many different sports, and on summer weekends we would go to my grandmother’s cabin in the mountains where we took that active energy to the mountainside. After high school, my desires to do normal sports morphed into outdoor recreation.
You nearly pursued Nordic skiing before switching to running, is that right?
Pursuing Nordic skiing was a pipe dream when I was 20. I knew I wanted to travel the world. I knew I needed to make money travelling to do so. At the same time, I was introduced to the Nordic ski racing which I thought was the most impressive and fun cardiovascular sport. And so I envisioned how to make that happen, already knowing that Nordic skiing is a school-age sport (high school and college) and that I had no background in it at the age of 20. Hence why Nordic skiing was always a pipe dream I was never at all close to being anything at all in. But it turns out that it was important to have that dream as it led me into the training mindset and competitive trail running within that.
This season you’ve won the 32k Yading skyrace in China and the 52km Broken Arrow Skyrace and taken a 3rd at Transvulcania 70km. Do you have a preferred race distance and terrain or do you enjoy it all?
My goal in racing has always been to excel in all distances, which shows that you really have the speed which is the true essence of running. Naturally, I used my early days to do shorter faster running, and I still have not left the sub-ultra distance. Without a doubt, I am a mountain runner as it’s where I live and why I train. By choice, I have lived at 3,000m for most of my adult life in order to be in the mountains. With mountains comes technical terrain and so that is my style of running. My personality, though, loves single-track with a lot of change in the course; I love turnover and running fast – my least favourite is slow and repetitive [running].
You’re currently top 3 in the Migu Run Skyrunner World Series ranking, and you took the overall win in 2016. What do you enjoy about racing on the European skyrunning circuit?
The European skyrunning circuit is the best of the best when it comes to single-track mountain courses and the highest level of competition – that is why I do it and what I enjoy about it. In addition, of course, is going to some of the most beautiful places in the world in order to have amazing adventures with like-minded people from all over the world.
Do you subscribe to a particular training ethos or do you train according to how you feel?
In training what seems to work best for me is structure in an unstructured way, and listening to my body. I base things off mileage while taking time into consideration, which is important when training is focused on vertical gain and training at altitude, where running takes a lot more time and energy. I have never been very into HR training because I don’t like tight-fitting things, so HR monitors have always felt extremely uncomfortable. Also, I still adhere to taking pleasure in running rather than getting too scientific with it. I think this works out fine, if not better, in the long run because you have to learn to listen to your body, which is what I love most about running. Plus HR monitors just always go off when I am running uphill, which is often in training, haha.
What kind of running do you do during training?
My training involves everything with a huge emphasis on trails and very little on roads. I do intervals/tempo runs for speed work and since my style of running is heavily based in uphill performance, these speed sessions are taken to the uphill regularly but not exclusively. Even though I rarely run on roads, I do seek out flat paths for faster running. I do my best to strength train and I think for skyrunning in particular, plyometrics is a huge tool. Lastly, for me at my age, stretching/yoga is a must.
What does a typical week of training look like at the moment?
At the moment, I am in between races and transatlantic trips which is how I have raced for the past 4 years. This is a big factor when it comes to training, as travel limits the time even more between races. I have 3 races in 4 weeks coming up and all 3 races are around 42k. This week I am past the travel and recovery from my last race just 10 days ago and I’m focused on getting a normal week of training in with about 70 miles of running, two specific interval sessions, a long run of about 18 miles, some strides and as much vertical as I can. With any luck I will have a free time to go for a social ski, hike or bike ride as well.
Have you noticed the effects of all the back-to-back racing you’ve done this season?
I certainly feel the effects of racing back-to-back, mostly in the way that it takes away from the specific training needed to do well in each individual race. I believe racing back-to-back can sometimes be a good thing but the more you do it, the more likely you are to hit the wall at some unknown time. It’s like Russian Roulette. To ensure good recovery I tone down the mileage in between races, listen to my body and I hope for the best!
You’ve said that staying in a good head space is super-important. What strategies do you use in a race to stay mentally strong?
First and foremost, so much of staying mentally strong in a race is how you go into the race. I would be tempted to just leave it at that. But it’s very often that even if we’re well prepared, we need things to anchor our mind to the task. I do like to know the course as best I can, and if not, then to at least know the profile to break it down into segments. This helps get through the hard parts and prepares the mind for what is ahead. Other than that, I am definitely a mantra gal. In good races and in bad races, mantras are my anchor.
You’ve run some of the hardest races on the calendar. Do any stick out as being a particularly tough day out?
Gosh, they are all tough days. That is what racing is all about. Out of all of my wins, there have been maybe three that felt fairly effortless. As for this year so far, Transvulcania’s big decent was super-tough as is the Zegama Marathon, always.
Do you get nervous ahead of a race or are you accustomed to it after over a decade of racing?
I get nervous on occasion but in general, I’m a super laid-back person and in racing it’s not much different.
What are your goals for the rest of 2019 – are you looking towards any races in particular?
Gosh, in all honesty, my goals for the rest of 2019 are just to see what happens. I am 39-years-old; I have been transitioning in life and in running for many years. In 2016, after two strong years on the Skyrunning circuit, I had accomplished a large goal [winning the Migu Run Skyrunner World Series]. I was looking to take the next step and then life got complicated in the way that life sometimes does. Now I feel like I am regrouping, I’m enjoying being one of the older athletes on the circuit, perhaps I’m soul searching again.
As for concrete goals, I have given myself a big schedule with both the Migu Run Skyrunner World Series and the Golden Trail Series. With this schedule I’m dealing with a lot of back-to-back racing, that is to say I’m gambling a bit. My plan is to see where this next group of three races puts me but regardless I will be looking to have a strong race at the Limone Migu Run Skyrunner World Series Final and I would love to have the focus to really give the Pikes Peak Marathon a full effort this year.
What are your must-have items of kit for skyrunning training and racing?
My training bag is like a city gal’s purse; it has everything in it. As for must-haves though, the first thing that comes to mind is a long-sleeve top layer. The only time I leave it behind on any run is if I know it’s going to be hot all day, I know my route and it’s a relatively short run. I do live at a high altitude though where the temperature and weather are colder.
Second to this is water – in America I still prefer a handheld water bottle for many reasons, but in Europe soft-flask vests or belts work best. Of course shoes, don’t forget your shoes. Within this, tread really does make a difference; there is no one shoe for skyrunning it mostly depends on if it is a wet or dry course, and how long the distance is. One thing that is pretty crucial to keep in mind for skyrunning is a map. The nature of skyrunning is exploratory and it’s always a good idea to have some sort of map with you. In addition, GPS watches are really nice to have but by no means do you need to have one to skyrun.
Who are you sponsored by right now?
I keep my sponsorship very simple because I’m very specific about what I like. At this time, Salomon is my only sponsor.