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UTMB 2016: how do the top runners train?

by editor
Friday 12th August 2016
We’re getting really excited about the UTMB at Run247. Not long to go now. The TDS kicks off on Wednesday 24th August, the OCC the following day and the CCC and UTMB on the Friday. We’ll be there, reporting back on all the action. 
In preparation for the UTMB we spoke to some of the top Brits and one top Aussie to find out how their training’s gone, what their top kit tips are and what their hopes are for the race. Check out this stellar line-up:

Damian Jo Robbie
L-R: Damian Hall, Jo Meek and Robbie Britton

  • Damian Hall, who recently set the FKT on the South West Coast Path and finished second in the Highland Fling, securing a place on team GB for the forthcoming World Trail Championships. Damian was 31st in last year’s UTMB.
  • Jo Meek’s race highlights include a 2nd place in the MDS in 2013, a 5th place in Comrades, 4th place in the World Trail Championships in 2014 and podium finishes in many other races. Jo is also in the team for the World Trail Championships in October.
  • Robbie Britton, shy and retiring winner of the 2016 Arctic Ice Ultra, 3rd at the IAU World 24 hour Championships in 2015, always at the sharp end of mountain races.
  • Nicky Spinks, record holder for the Ramsay Round, Paddy Buckley Round and until recently the Bob Graham Round, completed a mind-boggling double Bob Graham Round earlier this year.
  • Holly Rush, winner of the UltraVasan 90 and Montagn’Hard races in 2013 and North Downs Way 50 in 2016, 7th place in Comrades 2013, reformed (world class) road runner. Also on team GB for the World Trail Running Championships.
  • Majell Backhausen, member of the international Salomon / Suunto team, has represented Australia at the World Trail Running Championships, winner of the Tarawera 50k and 21st place in UTMB 2015.
  • Jez Bragg, winner of the 2010 UTMB, 4th place in Western States the following year, has represented England and GB at 100k championships, and has run the length of New Zealand (1898 miles).

Nicky Holly Majell
L-R: Nicky Spinks, Holly Rush, Majell Backhausen, Jez Bragg

In parts two and three we ask them about kit and their hopes for race day, but we’ll start by asking them about their training...
1. What’s been your best training run/race?
Damian: I ran an FKT on the 630-mile South West Coast Path in May, a (slow) Bob Graham Round, with huge help from Charlie Sproson from Mountain Run and copied Jez Bragg's signature UTMB training run and ran up Snowdon four times. Hopefully I've judged it right and not overdone it. I guess we'll see soon enough.
Jo: A recce of the route in slow time.
Robbie: Trail du Velan 45km race in Switzerland. It had 3600m of ascent and descent, was a rough trail, mainly at altitude and I managed to break the course record. It felt good to target one’s weaknesses and come out stronger.
Nicky: The Double Bob Graham in May has allowed me to rest and recover all summer!
Holly: North Downs Way 50. Everything came together on the day and I felt great. 
Majell: I have enjoyed a lot of them and can not single one out. Coming back over to Europe and running with friends I have not seen for a while, has been so good.

Jez: Lavaredo Ultra Trail was an amazing experience at the end of June. Since then I haven’t gone mad, it’s all too easy to over cook it for UTMB. 

Damian SWCP
Damian Hall on his South West Coast Path FKT

2. What’s your favourite training session to prepare for UTMB/CCC/TDS?
Damian: I like sleeping. As a father of two cheeky, sleep-averse whippersnappers, it's a key session that's not always easy to get done.
Jo: Again getting out on the course to prepare mind and body for what is to come.
Robbie: This year I’ve enjoyed the 6 x 3 min uphill session with uphill hike recoveries. They’ve hurt but worked on one of my weaknesses, climbing.
Nicky: A 12 mile hilly run I do from Langsett with my dogs. The heather is just coming into flower now and is lovely.
Holly: As this is my first time I can't say to be sure but I have just come back from a recce weekend. I ran the CCC over two days and I can't get better than that as a training run.
Majell: Running on the trail that will be part of the race, with people who are full of good chat.

Jez: Well I usually go round the course over three days at the end of July, but with ‘life’ commitments I haven’t managed it this year. I’ve done a complete mixture ranging from 5 mile jogs to 50 miles in the Brecon Beacons.
3. Is it ever possible to stand on the start line and think ‘I’ve done enough training’ for a race like this? 
Damian: Hopefully. That's what I'll try and tell myself on Friday 26th. Some runners will doubtless be overtrained and hopefully I'm not one of them.
Jo: Yes. You can only do your best and as long as you know you’ve done that then you’ve done enough.
Robbie: Yes, totally. There is only so much each individual can get done in the build-up to the race so if you’ve done that, then you’ve done enough. Have confidence in your training and rest heartily beforehand.
Nicky: I think everyone will think they haven't - but I always think "Well I'll just have to set off and make the best of what I've done"
Holly: Again not sure but I do think you can stand on the line and say I've done too much training for this and be over-cooked before you start.
Majell: Yes, for sure, that should be the aim for every A race. But if it isn't the case, employ some tactics to ignore that voice and get ready for a ride.

Jez: Where do you draw the line? It’s certainly not the best race to go into with too much running in your legs. That approach usually accounts for the pre-Courmayeur drop outs. I think the better question to ask is whether you feel healthy, strong and not too fatigued.
4. Does it worry you that the French/Spanish runners on the start line have much thicker and browner legs than you?
Damian: A lot. I'll be using fake tan lotion and tensing my puny quads every time I see a camera.
Jo: No. It’s all hair!
Robbie: Have you seen my legs? They may have thicker calves but not many have decent sized quads. We’re all built differently and have different strengths. I may take a little longer up the hill but my legs will stay strong throughout. I do worry that mine are the only non shaved legs…
Nicky: And more hairy - which reminds me I'd better go and wax mine now!
Holly: It doesn't worry me because I've been focusing on my tan training and so far the legs are coming along nicely....and there is always St Tropez fake tan if I feel I am lacking.
Majell: Have you seen my Instagram lately? My legs are looking so good. I am about as worried as a Marmot in a hole.

Jez: Mine are pretty brown, it’s not been a bad summer on the south coast.
5. How do you get your hill training in if you don’t live in a hilly place? 
Damian: I live in the Cotswolds, which has a few short sharp ones, but nothing like the Grand Col Ferret. So as well as Snowdon and the Lakes, I've been nipping to the Brecon Beacons and getting on a treadmill (yuk).
Jo: Travel to a hilly place.
Robbie: My glib answer would be to “move to a hilly place” as that’s what we did, but if not then work on your hill speed/strength with shorter, faster reps and get away at the weekends when you can. Even in Norfolk there are big enough hills if you look hard enough.
Nicky: Find a little hill and run up and down it. Find some likeminded friends and drive to some hills once a month.
Holly: Well I do live on the Kennet and Avon canal so I do have a lot of flat running but I also have some hills so I try to incorporate as many into my long runs as possible but I do lack the technical trails around here so that is my weakness.
Majell: I become really good friends with the treadmill and steps. We have an outrageously good time together.

Jez: With a bit of imagination. A few trips to the hills, reps on smaller hills closer to home, gym work, cross training, just getting your legs strong.
6. What are your top tips for descending with minimal falling?
Damian: Use poles. Slow down. Watch where you put your feet.
Jo: This is where I’m rubbish- any tips would be great! I just end up running slower which is not ideal.
Robbie: If you’re not falling then you’re not trying hard enough. Practice, practice, practice. It’s a technical skill.
Nicky: Don't talk - concentrate on where your feet are going to land next and try to relax.
Holly: I'm not really the best person to ask about that one as staying upright is always a priority. I try to lift my feet up properly and relax.....easier said than done though. I'm a reformed road runner so technical trails are my Achilles heel.
Majell: Run and don't fall.

Jez: Watch where you’re going.
7. If money was no object and you didn’t have to work, how would you have trained for UTMB/CCC?
Damian: I'd have gone out to Chamonix beforehand and run the route over two-three days and spent more time in the Alps running and hiking.
Jo: Probably live out there. But I love my job!
Robbie: Exactly the same as I have done. You don’t need a huge amount of money to live the life you want, you’ve just got to be willing to sacrifice the things you don’t actually need.
Nicky: I would have been out there during the summer to recce the course and do some altitude training.
Holly: I would have moved to Chamonix and ran the trails everyday as well as living high in the mountains. I would also have bathed in ice cream as a recovery.
Majell: I would move into a one bedroom apartment, for 4 months, in Chamonix, with 3 other adults and a dog. Be consistent and patient with training and realise the A goal is the A goal. It happened in 2015 and I loved it. I wouldn't have cleaned chalets though, I’d ditch that gig, for sure.

Jez: I would run lots of mountainous long distance paths around Europe. It would be amazing and I would love nothing more, but I would accept that my race performance would probably be compromised. That wouldn’t matter too much though, I tend to enjoy the training journey to a race as opposed to the race itself.
Photos of Damian Hall by Summit Fever Media/Contours Trail Running Holidays
Photo of  Robbie Britton by Natalie White
Photo of Nicky Spinks by inov-8
Photo of Holly Rush by ASICS

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