New Zealand’s Sam McCutcheon had a breakout race in finishing third at the 2017 Tarawera Ultramarathon. In the following interview, Sam talks about his brief history with road and trail running, his life outside of our sport, how he strategized his Tarawera effort, and where he might race in the future.
Be sure to check out our results article to see how the rest of the race played out.
[Click here if you can’t see the video above.]
Sam McCutcheon Post-2017 Tarawera Ultramarathon Interview Transcript
iRunFar: Meghan Hicks of iRunFar, and I’m here in Rotorua, New Zealand. It’s the morning after the 2017 Tarawera Ultramarathon. I’m with men’s third-place finisher, Sam McCutcheon. Did I say your name right?
Sam McCutcheon: Yeah, most people put an “l” in there, but you nailed it.
iRunFar: Awesome. I feel like, we speak the same language, but I feel like I pronounce every single thing wrong in New Zealand.
McCutcheon: Yeah, it’s pretty hard around Rotorua with the Maori names and everything. Even I butcher some of the words.
iRunFar: Yesterday was my first time watching you race, but you are not entirely new to this sport. You’ve been banging it up around New Zealand the last couple years. Can you talk about your background with trail running?
McCutcheon: Yeah. I suppose I was sort of a convert from a quasi-road runner. I was in a running club for about two years. Then I decided to enter the Kepler Challenge. From there, I went in pretty blind. I didn’t know what to expect. I had an alright result.
iRunFar: Was that in 2015?
McCutcheon: Yeah, 2015. I remember in the end, David Byrne and Martin Dent were just killing it. I think David hit a wall, and I ended up almost catching him but not quite. He’s just too quick. From there on, they’re like, “Hey, do you want to run a 100k?” “Maybe.” So, I ran a 100k. “Do you want to go to Spain?” So I went to Spain.
iRunFar: “Do you want to go to Spain?”
McCutcheon: Yeah, I mean, we paid for it, but we went to the Ultra Easy in Wanaka, which was an amazing course. Then we went to Buffalo [Stampede] in Australia, and then Buff Epic in Vall de Boí, and then Kepler again. Now I’m at Tarawera doing a completely different style of running where you have to run for the whole time.
iRunFar: Yeah, it’s technically a 100% runnable course, isn’t it?
McCutcheon: Yeah, I feel bad. I probably walked for 100 meters up the circle on the Loop of Despair. I felt like I was cheating. Everyone says, “Do you run the whole thing?”
iRunFar: 100 meters of walking in 102k—I think that’s fair.
McCutcheon: I’m underselling it. I walked most of that Despair Loop.
iRunFar: Are you an adult-onset runner, or did you compete collegiately? How did you get to road running?
McCutcheon: I was thinking about this awhile ago, and I think how it happened was that I used to swim—I was a swimmer in high school—and again, pretty mid-tier. I was an alright swimmer but nothing spectacular. Then I went to university and with the time commitments, and swimming is obviously an expensive sport, I just started keeping fit running.
iRunFar: It’s like the easy sport to stay fit with, right?
McCutcheon: Really easy—a pair of shoes and you’re good to go. I was in Dunedin then which is quite similar to Wellington. It’s a harbor with lots of hills around it, so you’ve got the flat and the hills. Then when I went to Wellington, I decided I’d actually join a running club, and that was really helpful. I joined Scottish [Athletics]. They’ve got good structure and really good people. Then I started trying to get into faster races, but couldn’t quite crack the fast stuff. I got faster, but…
iRunFar: Are we talking 10ks and half marathons?
McCutcheon: Yes, 10ks and half marathons—the focus was generally the 10ks for the club scene, and then you always did the half marathons just because. Then, yeah, I just stepped up to the trail scene. I’d do a couple of 10ks, but they’d be more participation-based.
iRunFar: It’s a slippery slope in distance once you move into the trail running scene, Suddenly here we are talking about a 102k race when a couple years ago 10k was what you did. How has that worked for you physically in terms of ramping up to that?
McCutcheon: That’s a good question. I had a few issues with injuries mid-last year. I think it probably was from doing more distance and more time on my feet. I had some IT band issues. I got a bit of a routine to go through that. But really, it’s just trial and error. I’d write down a program that I thought I could keep up with, and do it for a few weeks. If I wasn’t breaking down, then I’d do that and keep picking up. It’s really hard to find the time before and after work and the weekends, but I suppose that almost reins me in a bit with the full-time job.
iRunFar: We were just talking before the interview, and you told me you do corporate law which is probably a pretty time-consuming life.
McCutcheon: Yeah, at times it takes up a lot of time, and recently it’s taken up a lot of time, but it’s cool because trail running is one way to get out there and escape, but you’ve also got the career focus on the other side. It’s still quite mentally stimulating. I quite like the firm I work for, and we get good work. It’s a good balance. Sometimes it’s a bad balance, but I think I my mind, I want it to be a good balance.
iRunFar: You’ve been competing since late 2015 in local trail running. Then you took it abroad and went to Spain and did quite decently among the international field there. Do you feel like you have a grip on what your potential is within the sport?
McCutcheon: No, I think I’m fluking every race at the moment. Yeah, I think I know in myself when I’m running too hard, but all the terrains are different, and the gradients are different. In Spain, I had a different approach to how I’d normally run. I had a sore knee, so I was like, I’ll run as far as I can until that blows up.
iRunFar: And then make it to the finish.
McCutcheon: That was pretty much how the race went for me. Yeah, I’d never done that much vert. I think it was 7,500 meters?
iRunFar: It was a huge amount of vertical, wasn’t it?
McCutcheon: Yeah, it just killed me but in a cool way. When you’re lining up, especially like Tarawera yesterday, and you’ve got these Jim Walmsleys on the start line, it’s pretty cool just being amongst these people and being out there. It’s cool how you can do that in trail running. You don’t have to be invited to these things. You can just show up.
iRunFar: Enter in and show up on the same line as people who have had outstanding international performances.
McKutcheon: Yeah, and then watch them run away from you.
iRunFar: That didn’t entirely happen, let’s be honest. You went out pretty quick. You put yourself in the range of Jonas Buud and David Byrne and that pack.
McCutcheon: Yeah, I think I went out a bit faster than I planned to. I was talking to David about that at the Blue Lake—“Well, we’re here, now. We might as well keep going. I’m not going to slow down now.”
iRunFar: We’ve mucked it up this much.
McCutcheon: Then I ran with him and Jonas for a bit, and then they just put the hammer down after the aid station at the top of the lake.
iRunFar: At Okataina? I practiced that one.
McCutcheon: Yeah, I didn’t want to say it wrong. After that, they went off for a bit, and I sort of just went into my shell. Then I went through a few patches and came right. I think you don’t want to come to a race like this and die early, so it’s good to not collapse but also not have too much left in the tank.
iRunFar: The iRunFar team saw you at a number of points along the course. It did look like you were having…
McCutcheon: Better times and worse times.
iRunFar: Yeah, there were a few spots where you looked rough and a few spots where it looked like you were back looking good again. Is that kind of how it felt?
McCutcheon: Yeah, definitely. From Okataina all the way to the outlet I was in a bit of a bad patch. Then once we got on those forest trails and I got some sugar, I sort of came right again.
iRunFar: You think it was sugar that helped?
McCutcheon: Yeah, I think it was.
iRunFar: Isn’t that funny?
McCutcheon: Yeah, it is funny.
iRunFar: It’s like a miracle drug in ultrarunning.
McCutcheon: It’s like you don’t want to have anymore, but when you have it, it’s actually good.
iRunFar: Late in the race, you were then in third position, and you were inching your way closer to second place, Jonas Buud. Did you know that was happening?
McCutcheon: I think I’d say no. Someone told me Jonas was four-and-a-half minutes ahead of me. “Oh, I’ll never catch that.” Also, I knew David Byrne, who is a phenomenal 10k runner, was right behind me, so I sort of had to…
iRunFar: It has to be sort of terrifying to have a guy with his sort of leg speed behind you late in a race.
McCutcheon: Yeah, but you can’t do much about it. I just thought I’d do what I could. Yeah, on any other day, it would have been a different way around.
iRunFar: In the last 15k, it went something like you being four minutes back to under two minutes at the finish line. You didn’t know that you were cutting into Jonas at all?
McCutcheon: I didn’t know. I heard people say that I was looking good, but it’s quite hard to pull back four minutes. It’s almost a kilometer. If he happens to miraculously blow up, I’ll be stoked, but…
iRunFar: Pop out of the woods somewhere.
McCutcheon: Yeah, turn a corner and he’s walking… but apart from that, I was just running to my limit.
iRunFar: When you crossed the finish line in third place, Tarawera Ultramarathon, international field, did you feel pretty stoked?
McCutcheon: Yeah, I think so. I think I was more stoked to finish than to get third place. I think from about 60k, I just wanted not to eat because it’s a great experience. Yeah, I was feeling pretty average. Then I think once I laid down and got some water, I was like, Oh, that’s really good for me. I’m really stoked with how I ran and how everything came together. I wasn’t feeling great a couple weeks ago—boring story—but I wasn’t sure how I was going to scrape up the day. I also sort of did the whole travel up yesterday after working half the day. Don’t tell work that I worked half a day. I worked the whole day, and then I came up here.
iRunFar: “All eight hours. It was very serious.”
McCutcheon: All billable—don’t worry.
iRunFar: Last question for you. You’re pretty young. You’re 27. You had great break-out run yesterday. What do you want to do next? What do you want to do in this sport?
McCutcheon: That’s a really good question. I think I’m still trying to find what works better for me, the hills or the running. I think I do want go race overseas more because I’ve only done the one race in Spain and the one in Australia, I suppose, but the atmosphere is just amazing and the people. I’d like to see where it could go. I’d like to do another hilly one and another runnable one and sort of gauge it. But, I don’t know.
iRunFar: So a very analytical, lawyering perspective… test the waters…
McCutcheon: Yeah, before you commit one way and it doesn’t work… sit on the fence… it depends.
iRunFar: Are there any races that you’re actually specifically looking at?
McCutcheon: Yeah, we’re going to Transvulcania in May, so that will be a hilly one. We’ll see that one. It’s the whole combining a holiday with a race. So we’re going there and then going to go around Europe. That will be the focus forward for the next few runs. Yeah, I’m going to do Buffalo again along the way. Yeah, I’ve got a cool short-term plan. Longer term, you see these guys go do Western States—that would be maybe one day, but a long one day.
iRunFar: Congratulations to you on your third-place finish. It was a pleasure and really enjoyable to watch you hammer yesterday. Congrats again.
McCutcheon: Thanks, Meghan. Cheers.