Tom was kind enough to take time out of his busy training schedule to talk to Kate about all things running, including the London Marathon and the possibility of qualifying for the Tokyo Olympics. Given his relatively recent success as an ultra runner, he is surprisingly experienced across a wide variety of terrains and distances and this openness to try new things really shows his passion for running in all its forms, not just ultra trail running.
My first question about Tom’s approach to training will be of interest to many of our members and even under the current conditions he still works to two 12 week training blocks; only racing 2 or 3 “A” races a year. However, he does love racing and he will race smaller events during the training blocks to help build his speed or climbing base, laying the groundwork for the more specific training blocks. It helps him stay motivated in what is a rather dauntingly long 24 week period and it helps to break that down into small, more manageable sections.
“I like having something to focus on, having goals set. For me typically that has involved races on the trails but I just can’t see an International Trail race happening this year… I think there will be some trail races in Europe but I think coming from the UK that’s pretty unlikely. Then you have the repercussions for coming back into the UK. For me and my partner, who’s also a professional athlete, for us both to have to be in self isolation for two weeks afterwards…. for me the risk is not worth the reward, which is a real shame. If there are small trail races happening in the UK, then I’ll cross that bridge when I get to it.”
“The focus is on running the marathon for now and yes the goal would be to go to Tokyo in 2021. But, the overall goal and my long term focus will always be on the trails. I think the step forward, for me, is being able to run a fast road marathon. We’ll see how fast it is and if it’s good enough, brilliant and if it’s not I’ll be able to get back on the trail in better shape as a better athlete.”
Tom believes in controlling the controllables. Living in Loughborough gives Tom the ability to train on roads as well as having the Peak District only an hour’s drive away. He used to go out there twice a week for training but the current lockdown makes any such travel hard. Another risk that isn’t worth taking is for a professional athlete like him to turn an ankle out on the trails. On top of not wanting to be a burden on the NHS, it would be impossible to get any physio or other treatment. This is a problem for anyone, but for a professional athlete this obviously has greater repercussions going forward.
So, controlling the controllable, Tom has adapted by switching his focus to running a road marathon. His view is unarguable;
“For me the marathon is something completely different and nowadays the quality of ultra and trail running is going through the roof and while running a fast marathon isn’t the be-all or end-all, if you can convert that to 50k/100k/100 mile racing it’s only going to help.”
“When you run a marathon, you run just under that red line of maximum effort for the whole race. In trail racing, it’s very easy to go above it but it’s very easy to stay under it and actually staying where we need to be, just under that red line, is really difficult and no one really knows where it is.”
“I was really happy with my race at Western States last year, finishing in just under 15 hours, but there were probably bits I went a little bit too hard and other bits I went a little bit too easy and it kind of equalled out but could I have gone 15 minutes quicker? Could I have gone 30 minutes quicker? Who knows. But I have already learned so much about myself in a six week marathon block, so far, that I’m really really excited about translating that from road running back onto the trails, into the mountains and into the ultra distances because I think it will make me into a way more rounded athlete and highlight the strengths I’ve got.”
It is clear that Tom’s approach to his training is meticulously thought out. He plans on being around for many years and he looks after himself and places a lot of emphasis on recovery and maintenance. Where others may have burned out after a few short years of big miles, week in and week out, Tom’s approach is patience and he knows what works for him. His recovery day really is recovering, he will run but without looking at his watch and completely to feel. He rests properly because he knows his body needs it to recover and build.
And if you have ever dreamed of being coached by Tom, perhaps now is your chance. He is joining Team Project Run.
“I’ve been coaching a couple of clients for 18 months just because I really enjoy it. I understand programming and it’s great to see people improving, whether they want to compete in a race, complete a race, or they want to lower their half marathon time. Being able to help someone achieve that goal, for me, is really rewarding. Certainly one thing I have learned, and it’s been magnified by lockdown, you need to have something outside, whether it’s outside the sport or outside your own performance in the sport, to distract you.”
“I’m really excited to start coaching with Team Project Run. The coaching won’t be the same sessions that I do, but it’s going to be a very different way of approaching racing, training very specifically and it will look different to 80% or 90% of how other ultra runners train. The volume will be less, the speed will be more.”
“I’m just really looking forward to imparting some of the knowledge I’ve built up from 10k distance in cross country to 100 mile distance at Western States and get people one step closer to achieving their goals. People say it’s not really been done before and yes, in trail running it hasn’t been.”
“But, there was an athlete in the Cold War called Emil Zatopek who, in the 1952 Olympics, won the 5,000 metres, 10,000 metres and the marathon. The first time and only time it’s ever been done. Yes, sport has changed since then, but it’s still the same principle and if you were able to do it then, the 5k to the marathon, it adds so much. I know if you can get to the last 5/10k of a trail race and it’s going to be a fast finish, you want to know you’ve got the speed.”
If you look at the top 100 ultra runners today, most would run sub 30/31 minute 10k. If you take a running race, like WSER, having the speed really matters when you are running on a trail that is clear and open. You don’t need to look down when you run on that trail, unlike a race like UTMB which over the same distance can take many hours longer and is far more technical.
This throws open the term “trail”. How can you compare two very different races like WSER and UTMB? They are both 100 mile trail races but so completely different at the same time. If you take the winners of both those races, who is the better runner? It throws open the very interesting question of whether trail running should have a governing body.
There is the Ultra Trail World Tour, but they specify certain races to be run in order to be ranked; currently Tom isn’t ranked at all because he’s only done three races and by their standards he is now a mid to back of the pack runner! Clearly that doesn’t reflect his true rank internationally.
“I actually think in the next couple of years we’re going to see a big change with the athletes having a bit more of a voice because the athletes want to know, who is the best? You go to a race, and you may win a race but actually not everyone’s going to be there. If you take the Western States weekend, for example, you have Adidas Infinite Trails, that I and all the other Adidas athletes will be at, you have Lavaredo and you have Marathon de Mont Blanc, all on the same weekend.”
The sport has almost become a victim of its own success because now you can race every weekend on the trails, anywhere in the world. It’s incredible that someone can meet their favourite professional runner or brand, run with them and even compete with them in the same race – no other sport offers these opportunities. It’s what makes trail running very special and it allows people to see that the elite athletes are “normal” people who often have jobs and a normal life in the background, running is their passion. The sport is in an incredibly exciting place and will look very different in the next 5-10 years.
This brought me on to my next question for Tom. What does he think of the environmental effect the growth of our sport has on the trails?
It’s certainly a big issue and Tom saw that Xavier Thevenard won’t be doing any races in the US because it’s too far to travel and he wants to limit what he’s doing. Bigger gestures like this will happen more often and perhaps one way may be for elite athletes to be hosted by, for example, the US and you stay there for several months at a time instead of coming and going.
“At the grass roots level yes, more pounding on the trails, more people are in the same place, and it is going to break down the trails, potentially with more litter, and a bit more disturbing of the wildlife but I think the great thing about the trail running community is that community. In the US, in order to get a place in Western States, you have to have done a certain amount of community service on the trails, restoring trails; trail work they call it, which is amazing. So you have a place in this race, you have to pay $450 to enter, including elite athletes who have been invited to race, which is as it should be.”
“It’s the same for everyone and it has to be a level playing field. You carry the same kit, your race entrance is the same and for me that’s really important. You do 8 hours of trail work and make sure the trails are in as good condition as possible, whether that’s repairing some erosion or clearing some weeds or stinging nettles. That doesn’t happen so much in the UK at the moment, but I think there’s a certain amount that is being done and there’s definitely more that can, should and will be done in the future.”
One of the questions asked by our members was whether there is any particular wish list race Tom has in mind. What does an elite athlete like him want when he could do any race he wants? Well, of course it isn’t as simple as one race.
“It’s so difficult because races are so different and so individual. I guess for me the best year would be being able to race a road marathon at the beginning of the year, then win UTMB, then go and medal at the European Cross Country Championships. To have such strength and diversity in running styles and differences… that’s kind of my goal for next year. To see what I can do in the marathon, go as quick as I can and see if I can qualify for the Olympics. But then two months later, to be able to do a race like Trans Vulcania or Trans Gran Canaria, and to be able to do really well in that race which would set me up nicely for Lavaredo and UTMB and then on to something in the winter.”
In 2022 the Commonwealth Games, the European Championships and the World Championships are being held. There are three major marathons there for a GB runner to choose from, over a 6 week period, 8 weeks before UTMB. That sounds a lot, and you couldn’t perform at your very best in the marathon, but make it a really good training session and you could take time off afterwards. For Tom it’s really important that he can run those fast marathons, fast cross country and take that onto the trails and he really wants to show people that it can be done.
Even if you call yourself a trail runner, you will always do some running on the road and Tom wants to get as many people into the sport of running, on whatever surface, as possible. He believes it makes you a stronger athlete if you can run on both trails and road.
Another question from one of our members was whether Tom wants to go back to any races he’s done, such as South Downs Way 50 or Western States, and improve on his performance.
“For me South Downs Way is probably the most grass roots race I’ll do. I want to do as well as I possibly can there. SDW is an “A” race for me and one of the 2 or 3 races a year I’ll do so it needs to count. As a professional athlete, it sounds terrible, but it needs to be worth your while and SDW is definitely worth going back to. The day that I ran, it was definitely quick but I think with the shape I’m in now I could take 10-15 minutes off it. SDW100 is definitely a race I’d want to do. I think Centurion do such a great job. Marathon des Sable; I think it’s such a winnable race if you approach it really professionally and with the knowledge and understanding I’ve built up over the last couple of years. It definitely won’t be easy, it will be incredibly challenging and I’d have a target on my back from Day 1 but I think it is doable. Western States, 100%; yes I was really happy with my performance but it’s definitely unfinished business.”
Will Tom do a Bob Graham Round? To us Brits this is an iconic race and yes, he would very much like to do it, once he has cemented his name and performance in the more quantifiable races over the next couple of years, much like Kilian did in fact. He also believes the record should be held by a Brit! If not Tom, then he’d love to help another Brit get there.
Certainly, in general, Tom believes that to be big in sport, you need to have done the races, competed against others that gives you a solid base and makes you a known quantity before you going out and doing these challenges.
My final question took us back to his training. At the start of the lockdown, when Tom couldn’t do the traditional 3 Peaks Challenge, in his true style he immediately adapted it to a treadmill challenge. You can view it here.
Afterwards he said he only consumed 60g of carbohydrates (in liquid form) and 80mg of caffeine throughout the entire 4 hours and 32 minutes. Was this some form of fasted training which would enable him to improve his nutrition intake during a race or perhaps a way of training himself to need less?
“Kind of neither of them. I think those are the answers that people would expect and does make sense. For me it was more of a “what happens to my body if I don’t eat”. There’ll be some races where your stomach is really bad and if that happens, how far and how hard can you push without consuming anything. If your stomach is bad for 2 hours, can you go without eating for 2 hours? What if you miss a checkpoint or don’t have a gel and you don’t get a chance to eat?”
“So it was a little bit of an experiment because everyone is so individual. I read a lot of research on sport science and papers about fuelling and nutrition and endurance sport and every sentence or paragraph starts “for this person” because it is such an individual thing. Yes, your weight and your height make a difference to it, but there are so many more chemical processes going on in your body and actually what your body needs to sustain itself is so different from one person to the next. Even two, elite-trained, athletes are so different.”
“For a 50kg athlete and for an 80kg athlete, it will be so different. So yeah, it was a bit of a self experiment to see what happens when I’m tired and don’t have fuel.”
“I’ve started doing a lot more of my fuelling via liquid, up to 6 hours would all be done on sports drink and after that would then move on to gels but having said that, at Western States it was probably 90% liquid. Because it was so hot you needed to get liquid in your body so you might as well get more bang for your buck and reduce the risk of having any gastro problems.”
It was fascinating talking to Tom and such a pleasure to see the passion and enthusiasm for running. His clear and exciting ambitions were infectious and all of us at RunUltra will be cheering him on and wishing him the very best in all his endeavours.
If you would like to watch the full interview, (including the all important question of Garmin v Suunto) you can view it here.