Q&A with city-based ultrarunner Pip Haylett
Pip, when you’re based in London, the opportunities for mountain running must be almost non-existent. How do you prepare for a trail ultramarathon?
Admittedly it’s hard to train for an alpine ultra when your local hill is less that 200m high. But I choose to live and work in London. You have to make the best of what you have. There are parks and hills to play with, you just have to look for them. There are things to jump over, rivers to run along, stairs to run up and down.
I’ve don't have huge ascents and descents to practice on, and I certainly don’t have the altitude. So I take on as many hilly races as possible. I’m working with a coach, Damian Hall, who is used to preparing runners that live in flat areas for hilly races. With his help, I’m making the most of the hills available. Running up them, leaping up, hopping up, double leg jumping up, crawling up, wearing a weight vest walking up them. I'm also working with another coach, Helen Hall, a movement and efficient running specialist, who is helping me run comfortably and efficiently for a better chance of making it 'round without sustaining any injuries. The main thing is that I am happy in the hills, I love technical terrain, and really enjoy the climbs as well as the downhills.
You've completed ultramarathons before. How was the experience?
I’ve been lucky enough to finish some great races so far. Local races to me, but also the CCC (Courmayeur Champex Chamonix) and the UTMB (Ultra-Trail du Mont Blanc) around Chamonix and raced the Lavaredo Ultra and the Cortina Trail in the Italian Dolomites. The longest I have run in one go was the ‘King Offas Dyke’ race last year, which follows the 186 mile (300km) path between England and Wales. It took me 75 hours and was quite a journey.
The toughest was the UTS 100 – the Ultra Trail Snowdonia in Wales. It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. 102 miles, with 11,000m ascent. 50 people started, only 13 finished. I was one of the last, finishing in 47 hours. The difficult terrain, rocks, ice and lack of proper path meant this lived up to its strapline ‘Brutal beyond belief. Savage beyond reason’.
The main thing is to be mentally prepared to be out there a long time. Starting a race on Friday, being asked ‘what time do you want to finish?’ and answering ‘Monday’ is a scary answer if you’re not prepared for it.
So why the UTMR?
Ever since I heard of the UTMR, I’ve wanted to run it. It’s Lizzy Hawker’s race and if anyone knows a good run, it’s her. It has everything – from exposed, high-altitude passes and snow-covered big mountains to a glacier crossing, past breathtaking lakes, through valleys, ravines and alpine meadows and villages.
You see three sides of the Matterhorn and some stunning mountains and trails. It’s an iconic route that’s not as well trodden as the Tour du Mont Blanc, it is more remote and more spectacular.
It’s a huge challenge; 170km with 11,300m of ascent and descent, this is a technical route that doesn’t make for easy running. But what an incredible journey and accomplishment it will be.
What’s your goal for the race?
Honestly, my goal is to finish - and to have fun. On such a long route, there are so many things that can go wrong, so my initial aim is to get to the end in one piece.
Ideally, if it all goes to plan, and I have a good race, I’d like to finish in the top half of the field. But I’ve looked at the entrants, and there are some incredibly good runners taking part this year, so it’s going to be tough! If I can finish smiling and have run as well as I can, I’ll be happy.
What have you learned from your trail running experiences?
Trail running teaches me new things every time. It gives me strength, confidence, time and space to think, or time and space not to think. It’s where I feel happiest, where I feel I can truly relax and breathe. You do have to be careful out there – I have been lucky so far and avoided major incidents, but as I don’t run trails every day I have to take care on the technical sections.
Shoe choice makes a really big difference here. You have to be able to trust your feet and the shoes on them across all the terrain you’ll cover over 170 kilometers.
You learn to trust yourself – or, after 48 hours of running with no sleep, not to trust yourself. The hallucinations are not always to be believed.
You learn to work out what is ‘injury’ and what just hurts after 24 hours of running hills. Everything hurts, but most things stop hurting when you stop running. The trick is to try and work out what is actual damage and what is just your brain trying to make you stop. I’ve been convinced I’ve broken bones before, only to have the pain to go away instantly when I stop running.
But the most important learning is that you have to enjoy it. It’s so much harder otherwise. So I focus on appreciating how lucky I am to be able to run, and try to take real pleasure from it. This is taken to a whole different level with a run like the UTMR, and I really appreciate how fortunate I am to be able to take part in such an incredible event – to see the mountains up close and to share their space and energy.
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.