Last updated: 04-Apr-19
By Luke Jarmey
In the third of our series of interviews with some of the best multi-day ultra runners on the circuit, we talk to Robbie Britton (See also Damian Hall and Sarah Lavender Smith). He represents Great Britain and is the bronze medal winner for 24hr ultra marathon running with a distance of 261km. He’s also ran across Iceland with a mate, as you do, and is preparing to take on the Baikal Traverse.
Q. Let’s start on your background. When did you first start running ridiculous distances? And at what point did this morph into multi-day racing?
A. Actually, my second ultra, back in 2009, was a multi-stage event with XNRG. Those guys are great for introducing runners to ultra running, as breaking up a great route like the Ridgeway into multiple days just makes it feel more manageable. I don’t think what we do is ridiculous, it’s just good fun. Spending every weekend getting drunk or blowing all your money on an outfit that Kim Kardashian wears, that’s ridiculous.
My first overseas multi-day was the Beyond the Ultimate Ice Ultra last February, although I’d organised some multi-day adventures myself, like running across Iceland with James Elson in October 2015. The adventures came about by wanting to use my running to see more of the world, experience some great geography and have the odd adventure that wasn’t organised by others.
Q. Going into that first multi-day event, did you have any particular preconceptions about that style of racing vs single day affairs?
A. I see multi-day running as more of an adventure and a lot easier on the body. You’re racing shorter distances each day, get to sleep after each run, chill out, eat and chat with other runners. That whole week is just about running and recovery, nothing else matters.
My biggest preconception was that it was a waste of money, too expensive for the likes of me. I still can’t really afford to do it – it is a little exclusive because of the costs involved – but you do get your money’s worth. Organisations like Beyond the Ultimate really look after you, take you to environments that most just dream of and make it possible to just focus on the fun part of the trip. I’ve not done the MDS but the more I hear about it, the more it sounds like a great experience. It’s still a lot of money, but it’s better than an all-inclusive week in the Seychelles and there’s just as much sand.
I saved up for four years to go to the World Cup in South Africa in 2010. If a father and son from a working class background can save up for that long to watch a bunch of overpaid idiots kick a ball around, then putting that kind of effort into getting to a big multi-day adventure would be much more fulfilling. I don’t think my Dad is ready for an ultra marathon though.
Training in Chamonix. Photo credit: Natalie White.
Q. Diving deeper into this for a second, why do you think some of these misconceptions exist around multi-day racing?
A. Well, it does cost a fair chunk of money to do these races, but when you look at the logistics involved and the support you receive, the value for money is there, especially if it’s not something you’d be willing or able to organise yourself. I have a background in expedition logistics with my internship at the British Exploring Society, so I know what goes into making these events happen. I feel comfortable organising my own expeditions on a budget, which I know isn’t for everybody.
Q. Looking at it from a different angle, have there been any unforeseen aspects of multi-day racing that have surprised you?
A. I’m a meticulous planner when it comes to events, so I didn’t really have any surprises in Sweden last year. I tested all my food in the freezer, practised on snow in my snow shoes, and went out in the cold to test all my kit. There might be some surprises in Namibia in November next year with the BTU Desert Ultra, but I’m trying to make sure there aren’t. Chatting to friends like Danny Kendall and Tom Evans, who have experience beyond a couple of beach holidays, should help with that.
Q. Interesting. So, moving on to race prep, obviously every event is different, but in general how does your training approach differ to a single-day ultra?
A. I train in a similar way for multi-days, just making sure I’m as fit as possible and well rested by the time I start. I’d focus on the long day to structure the training in any different way, but a lot of it is down to how you manage yourself during the actual race.
If there are any environmental factors to take into account, like humidity, heat or extreme cold then I’ll plan that into training too, but only in the 2-3 weeks beforehand.
Q. Does your nutrition tend to stay the same? I could imagine certain ‘quick energy hit’ products may prove unpalatable day after day.
A. I work closely with Sports Dietician, Renee McGregor, so for the Ice Ultra we had a plan set out for each day, based on what we thought my body would need. We planned for a bit more food than we would in a warmer climate because your body works hard just to keep warm.
One of the reasons I do alright in ultras is because I love to eat and when I’m hungry, such as during the entirety of the Ice Ultra, I’ll eat anything. I’ll even scavenge and hunt wild animals if given the chance.
I tested all my usual sugary foods in the freezer to make sure that they worked in sub-zero conditions. I didn’t want to find out that certain sweets just destroyed my teeth when I had 5-days-worth of them on my back. I have quite a sweet tooth so I went through sweets, dried fruit, some bars and shot blocks during each day and used freeze dried meals and oats in the camps.
Racing the Ice Ultra in Sweden. Photo credit: Mikkel Beisner.
Q. Right 3 quick questions to finish… hardest multi day race you’ve run?
A. I suppose it’ll be the Ice Ultra, given that it’s the only 5-day race I’ve done. Running across Iceland was probably tougher because of the conditions being wet, windy and horrible the whole way, but it wasn’t as wild or as beautiful as Sweden. The surface water on the frozen lakes, freezing to your legs like concrete, was a little arduous.
Q. … dream event you’ve yet to run?
A. Next year I’m planning to run across Lake Baikal when it freezes in February with a couple of friends. The record is 13.5 days and we’d like to have a go at that.
As for actual races, I’m really looking forward to racing the BTU Desert Ultra in Namibia in November 2018. It’ll be my first desert race and there’s some spectacular cave paintings on the Brandberg Massif in Namibia that I’d like to get a peek at.
Q. And finally, any parting words of advice for the first-time multi-day racer?
A. Take the time to test your kit in as close to race conditions as you can, be it cold, hot or sweaty. Somewhere like the University of Kingston has a great set up. Treat the distance with respect, by preparing beforehand and getting good advice, but then enjoy the adventure when it comes to it.