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The ups and downs of ultrarunning: Kirra Balmanno

Kirra Balmanno lives an amazing double life. In winter, the Australian works as a vet in the UK. Come summer, she takes to the Swiss alps in a camper van to run some of the world’s toughest trails. In 2017 she won the 116km Ultra Tour Monte Rosa. But for Kirra, ultrarunning is about much more than winning.

Q&A with Kirra Balmanno:


Kirra, Switzerland is a home from home for you now. What first drew you to the Swiss Alps?

Kirra Balmanno: I moved from Australia to the UK two years ago to work as a vet. In my first week there, my friend from Australia invited me for a week of mountain running in Switzerland. I went and immediately fell completely in love with the country, the trails, the landscape and the culture. When I returned to the UK, I had already planned my next trip to Switzerland. I've been back and forth ever since.


Where does your love for mountain running come from?

I'm not actually sure. My mum and dad aren't as crazy about the mountains and in Australia we don't even have high mountains, but when I moved over here [to Europe], I just fell in love with them. Mountain running brings so much freedom. The mountains give me energy and clarity. They are so big they make our lives and our worries seem insignificant in comparison. 

How did you become someone that runs beyond 100km?  

I started running in high school and did a lot of cross-country. I just kept going from there, from half marathons to marathons and now ultras. I've always liked endurance sports. I found I was much better at longer events than shorter, faster events. I love the physical and mental challenges that ultra running brings and how learning to overcome these in a race or a really long run can help me to build resilience in all aspects of my life. This sport has taken me to some of the most incredible places in the mountains all over the world. 


I think marathons take more effort for me personally than an ultramarathon. I'd rather go a little bit slower, but have really technical terrain and a lot of variation in the trail. Lots of ups and lots of downs. In the longer race you go through lows and highs and that’s the place where you start to find yourself. 


You were a joint winner of the UTMR in 2017. Tell us about the race and how, even after 116km, you crossed the line at exactly the same time as another runner. 

Yeah, fellow Swiss runner Corine Kagerer and I crossed the finish line together, winning the women’s race after around 27 hours [the pair finished ninth overall].  


Corine and I got lost on course last year. We got through some pretty crazy weather together on the top of Monte Moro so we decided to come in and finish together. 


For me ultra running is definitely not about winning though. I've won a lot of races, and it’s a nice feeling, but I really enjoy challenging myself.


I think the biggest growth actually comes from not winning a race. I  learn more about myself, my body, my training and my mental attitude when I don’t win. I learn more about where I can improve to make myself a better runner. 


If you give the best that you've got and push yourself further than you think you can, that's a win.


Is it possible to push yourself further in the 2018 UTMR?

I come into this year’s race with more experience because I've now run events over 100 kilometers and I know the course. I've also been training more specifically for the race this year – lots of verticals and lots of mountain running and hiking.


My training program is pretty freestyle. I like to listen to my body. So, if I'm getting injury niggles I can take a rest, but I generally like to have at least two really big days in the mountains every week. So getting out there from five to ten hours. That can be running and a lot of hiking as well and then the rest of my running during the week is shorter, more intense training sessions and a lot of uphills. I also complement my training with yoga and strength training as well, and lots of stretching.

What makes reaching a summit so appealing?

It feels good to reach a peak, I don’t know why exactly, I guess it’s achieving a goal. Maybe the mental challenges that you have to overcome or being immersed in nature, it’s just a great feeling. But in trail running it’s not always about reaching the highest peaks, it’s just about that feeling you get when you’re running in nature. 


When I get to the top of the mountain, it’s humbling. The mountains are so big and nature is such a powerful force. Overall, I think trail running makes me a calmer, happier person. There's this special spot when you're running on trails that are kind of technical and flowy where you get into an almost meditative state. You're just completely in the present moment. You finish your run and you just feel like you've got so much clarity, it’s like a form of meditation.

How do you handle the emotional challenge that comes with going to the edge of your limits during an ultra race?

There are going to be highs and lows. When you're in a low, you've just got to believe that you're going to come out of it. You're never in one place for too long, physically or mentally. I just try to stay positive and put positive talk into my head. 


I focus on gratitude and just being grateful for having a strong and healthy body that allows me to be out there in the mountains and to push myself. 

You spent last summer living in a van and documenting trail runs. What did you learn from that experience?

That's right, I usually work in the winter so I can play in the warmer months. I kind of lived wild in the Alps last summer, traveling around in my van and running in the mountains. I teamed up with the guys from ALPS Insights and joined them for some of the most incredible mountain running while they took photos for their book, Run the Alps SwitzerlandThat was an incredible experience and it definitely taught me a lot about mountain running.  I learned how to run over glaciers and climb up via ferratas. Yeah, I learned how to go run all day and rely on myself and a little pack.


You ran over glaciers? 

Yeah, there are some glaciers that are okay if you know what they're like and where the crevasses are – and if you're with people that know what they're doing. You need to be pretty careful. You definitely need poles with you and you don't go alone. It was scary but there’s a thrill in it as well, just in being so close to these incredible parts of nature. 


When your goals include such risks are you ever afraid you won’t reach them? 

I think all the goals that I make are ones that I'm not a hundred percent sure that I can reach. I think that's what makes goals special – we have to grow to achieve them.


On is title sponsor of the 2018 Ultra Tour Monte Rosa (UTMR), taking place 5–8 September. Said to be one of the most beautiful ultramarathons in the world, the trail winds through the Swiss and Italian Alps, encircling one of the biggest mountain massifs in Europe. With three race options: The four-day stage race, the 100km Ultra 3Passes or the full 170km Ultra Tour - the UTMR has something to offer every experienced trail runner.

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