Mountain runner Sarah Tunstall's season did not go as planned. That is to say, she did not plan on winning the world cup. We talk to the Brit to find out about the sacrifice that went into a season she will never forget.

You might not think that you can win the World Mountain Running Associate World Cup by accident, but Sarah Tunstall did. Kind of.

“I wasn’t really aiming for it this year,” she admits.“I just chose the races that fit in with me, and a few of them were world cup races, so to get the overall win was a bit of a surprise.”

Sarah Tunstall, 29, has been racing on the mountain running grand prix circuit since 2007. Yet until this year she had never won had never won a race.

“I think I’d finished third before,” the Brit says, “so to win two this season was amazing. I was over the moon.”

Wins at the Montee du Grand Ballon (“Big Balloon Mountain” – shout out to the Frenchman who came up with that name) and Smarna Gora (“Mount Saint Mary” – good, but no balloon) in Slovenia, along with second place at the Asitzgipfelberglauf (good luck pronouncing that) in Austria and fourth in Betws-y-Coed (and that) in Wales – which doubled as the world championships – were enough to wrap up this season’s world cup title.

But it wasn’t the one she wanted. After a “good summer” she had her “eye on an individual medal” at the world champs; she had won on the same course just weeks earlier at the British trials. “But I was fourth, just outside the medals. I’ve had a lot bigger disappointments.”

The world champs Betws-y-Coed 8.9km course included two 4.2km laps, each with 239m elevation, all on off-road trails. Tunstall completed it in 39:06. And although that left her just short of an individual medal, she did, at least, win women’s team gold, as did the men’s team.

It was a fantastic weekend for the hosts, and also a fine season: Andrew Douglas, another Brit, wrapped up the men's world cup crown on the same weekend as Tunstall. She agrees that there is a culture in British running that lends to the national team’s success on the hills.

“In other countries they run on the mountains a lot, but we have really specific fell races, and there’s a really good junior circuit,” she says. “Fell running can be pretty brutal.”

Sarah Tunstall ()

 TWO FINGER SALUTE: Tunstall crosses the line as winner at the Smarno Goro season-ender, sealing the 2015 world cup title

Tunstall took up mountain running seriously after finishing her university studies in York, where she had ditched hockey, her sport at school, finding the bat’n’ball culture not for her.

“It was my main sport up until I was 16, 17. When I went to university hockey became about drinking, and I’m not very good at drinking!”

She had maintained her fitness competing in all-comers road and cross country races. After graduating in 2007, she moved back to her parents’ in Kirbky Steven in Cumbria, which is as far north as parts of Alaska are south, which is, to confirm, pretty far north.

Sideways rain, biting winds and scraggy fells might not sound enticing, but they were her back yard when she was young. The peaks winked. Tunstall succumbed.

“I always loved being out on the fells. I was always quite strong, going up and down hills,” she says.

“The nearest track growing up was always at least an hour away, so getting there was a hassle. And I never particularly enjoyed it, running round in circles.

“I train on it and I do the speed training that’s essential for the mountains. [But for me] it’s just always been off road.”

Sarah Tunstall ()

 “Even though I’ve done some quite brutal races, none of it has been a chore”

In 2008, her first post-collegiate season, she finished second in the U23 European XC champs and third at the European mountain running champs. After struggling with injuries for the last few years – “you get the odd niggle here or there, that’s the nature of hill running” – this summer, based out of Chamonix, she finally found form.

“I’ve been lucky having [the hills] on my doorstep. Being able to venture out has made a massive difference,” she says of her Alpine base. To make that happen, the unfunded athlete and boyfriend Ben Riddell “lived on a shoestring” last year and had a “frugal” winter. “Me and my boyfriend just work to live, to train and get the best out of everything. We wouldn’t do it for the money.”

Training at altitude and on the terrain she races on worked.

“You’ve just got to get yourself so strong; strong and comfortable climbing quite steep hills. The type of mountain running I do is quite explosive, relatively short: 10k through to half marathon distance. You’re not plodding away [in training], you are actually searching out hills, because you’ve got to be comfortable on the uphill climbs and then have speed through the climbs as well.”

While the climbs are “brutal”, the descents can be treacherous.

“You’re always on a bit of a knife edge, I think. One step and you could have a broken ankle. But you can’t think about that. You just have to watch the terrain and pick every spot, and do that at speed. It isn’t something that you can really practice.”

Now back home in Manchester, Tunstall, who works as a physiotherapist, is having a well earned rest. She is already thinking about her return to cross country, though she is reluctant to sign up for the British team trial at Sefton Park, Liverpool, because “it’s flat”. Typical.

Those decisions will be made when the time comes. Now is for basking in her unexpected glory.

“It’s been a long season but I can’t complain. It’s probably been one of the best seasons of my life. It’s one I’ll definitely never forget. Even though I’ve done some quite brutal races, none of it has been a chore.”

Want to know more? Fill your mountain running boots over at the WMRA website.

Photography: Gwynfor James (main) and Tomo Sarf