Scottish ultrarunner Debbie Martin-Consani last joined me on Lessons in Badassery in 2018 to chat about her Tor des Geants experience. Since then, she packed a lot of bucket list races into her schedule, completing Transgrancanaria, the Bob Graham Round (66 miles, 27,000 ft elevation), Tor des Geants (205 miles), and the renowned Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc (UTMB, 100 miles) within a mere 12 months. Phew.
With the UTMB ticked off her bucket list, Debbie gives me the lowdown on her experience, as I also quiz her on the details of her crazy 12 months of running. Thanks, Debbie!
Photo: Stuart March
In our last chat you said you were ‘not good on mountainous terrain’ and ‘pretty shit at ascending and descending’ yet since then you’ve completed a Bob Graham Round and the UTMB …
I do have such an eloquent way with words. I don’t think I’ve got any better over the years, but it doesn’t take away from my love of being in the hills and mountains. I am very driven, so what I lack in natural talent I make up for with enthusiasm and stubbornness. I always have list of races and challenges I’d like to complete/experience and I’m quite committed when I have a plan or goal. Some might say obsessed, I prefer motivated. I like big goals too. Not things I know I can complete with ease.
In 2018 you’d planned your races so that they’d complement each other – did it work out like that?
It was certainly less arse-ache for my coach, Paul Giblin. In 2017 I went from Transgrancanaria, to a city marathon, 24-hour road race and then Tor des Geants. Massive extremes, really. Unsurprisingly, none of which went particularly well. So, 2018 I went back to Transgrancanaria, completed a Bob Graham Round and then on to UTMB. It was certainly easier to spend the year focusing on ascent and trail terrain, but I felt a bit burnt out at the end of it. Almost scunnered with hiking. Tor des Geants, Transgrancanaria, Bob Graham and UTMB in less than 12 months certainly is a big ask for sure. I’ve since gone back to basics and trying – in vain – to get some speed back in my legs. I’ve even done a few parkruns and 10ks. Both of which terrify me.
How did your Bob Graham round go?
Well, I did it. Within the required 24 hours, but it wasn’t without its challenges. I planned the first weekend in June, which turned out to be the only bad weather weekend for about three months. But I had organised a crew, so the show had to go on. We postponed for a few hours to allow the thunder and lightning to pass. After a few months of dry weather, the heavy rain from the storms meant the fells were quite waterlogged and visibility was low, thick clag all day. I really wanted to stop after leg 2, because I felt really nauseous, my dodgy hamstring was playing up and I was losing a lot of time. I even texted my husband at one point to tell him it just wasn’t happening
When I got to the support changeover at Dunsmail Raise, my friends James Elson and Giles Ruck were there to take over. They had made long journeys to come out on leg 3 with me, so I owed it to them to give it a go. They were amazing, navigated through the clag and I just trundled along behind, refusing to eat and drink. Standard really. The rocks on leg 3 were so slippy, it was like stepping on ice, so I was really disheartened and concerned about time the whole way. They said all the right things – even though I didn’t believe them! – and I started to feel better going out of leg 4. I had Bill Williamson, also known as Fell Yoda, for the next 15 miles. He knows the leg better than anyone and off he went, allowing me to claw back 30 minutes. So much quicker that my crew weren’t even at Honister when we arrived!
I got back to Keswick in 23:18. If someone had said to me I’d do it in 23:59 I wouldn’t have taken it in a heartbeat. Although now, in true runner style, I’m berating myself for all the things I did wrong that cost me time. But it is what it is. I have no plans to repeat for a quicker time. I’m no fell runner, so the whole concept terrified me. I didn’t take the challenge lightly though and really committed to completing the round. Even after 16 years of running, I’m still learning. The valuable lesson that day was: You don’t know until you try. I’ve used that quite a lot since. Recent stats indicate there was 198 registrations in 2018 and 86 successful rounds. I’m proud to be one of the 13 women to join the Bob Graham Round Club last year.
Back to UTMB, you did a recce in July. Did it throw up any useful insights?
I absolutely loved this experience. Sadly, way more than the race itself. It was great to be out (almost) self-sufficient, with only a backpack and plan to get back to Chamonix three days later. It was tough, with long days, but there was time to enjoy the views, talk to strangers and stop for coffees and snacks. Plus, I got to see the full route in daylight, which I’m so thankful for. The views are amazing and the nights are long in the Alps, so a lot would have missed. I expected the course to be more technical, so was pleasantly surprised. I may have mentioned that the “Bob Graham Round is much tougher” once or twice to my companions. There are a few climbs that are the gift that keeps on giving, so it was good to be mentally prepared for them on race day.
Aside from choosing your races carefully, did you change your training in any way to prepare for the UTMB?
The Bob Graham recces and round helped a lot. As did going around the UTMB route. I also did some long days out in the Scottish hills, ticking off a few Munros along the way. I did a lot of training with poles too.
How did you feel physically and mentally going into UTMB week?
Above everything I just had to finish it. It had been on my bucket list for so long, nothing short of a limb falling off would have stopped me. Unlike the Bob Graham Round, it didn’t scare me. I wasn’t overly ambitious and thought around 31-32 hours would be a reasonable target. I finished in 33:15. But I didn’t just want to tick box, I wanted to enjoy the experience.
During your Tor des Geants experience you didn’t take on enough calories – did you have a nutrition plan for UTMB?
I always have a plan and it always goes out the window early on. The problem with Tor des Geants is that I was too incoherent most of the time to realise I needed to take in more food. I did try to take in more liquid calories [during UTMB] with Tailwind. I committed the cardinal sin of trying something new on race day with Maurten (nutrition). I know you should try everything in training first, but everything sits OK in training. And what works in training doesn’t necessary work in a race. Often the only testing ground is a race. Thankfully, the gamble paid off and Maurten worked well. Just a well, as the lethargy I was feeling meant I struggled with real food and gels made me gag.
How did running the UTMB compare to your expectations?
It’s amazing. And it truly deserves its place as the world’s biggest and best trail race. There’s a big carnival atmosphere for the whole week and it’s exciting seeing all the best names in ultra-running just strutting about town. The build-up is quite overwhelming. I’m the kind of person who likes to avoid the hype and hide in the car or portaloo before kick-off. The course gets quite busy and congested and unlike other ultra races is doesn’t really break up. There’s rarely a time when there aren’t runners around you. Unless of course you’re at the sharp end of the field. I knew it was going to be busy and had to constantly remind myself that’s what I signed up for. And I’ve had my fill of cow bells for quite some time
What were the highs points of the race?
The buzz at the start of the race and going through Chamonix is electrifying. Although in true Euro style, there’s a lot of pushing and shoving. The route is stunning. Some of the finest trails around, but it was such a shame to miss so much in darkness. The organisation is amazing and no stone is left unturned.
And did you have any lows points?
So many. I really struggled to keep energy levels up, from quite early on. But I just had to suck it up and get on with it. Every uphill felt like a real chore. I’ve never really been affected by altitude (and I know it’s not that high) but I really think it played a part in how lethargic I felt. There was nothing actually wrong, I just felt like the life had been sucked out of me. The worst was going into the second night when the course was rerouted to take out the last climb over Tete Aux Vents. I loved that climb on the recce, so was really looking forward to it. Let’s just say the diversion was less than ideal. Lots of boulders and tree roots to negotiate. At one point I had a strop and just sat down and watched 15 people go passed me. I had to have a stern would with myself.
What kit did you use? And would you change anything in hindsight?
The weather was fairly mixed in the lead up to the race, so it could have gone either way on race day. With UTMB you can’t plan for conditions. A few years ago it was 35 degrees and last year there were snow storms, with athletes dropping with hyperthermia. It rained a lot the day of the race. Like proper flash-flood rain. The organisers were texting out weather alerts and forecasting minus 10 on the summits. It was pretty grim standing in the rain (thankful for my Poundland poncho!) but when we started it was fine. I was down to my vest by Les Houches. It was a bit chilly at the tops but nowhere close to the temperatures predicted. I had carried kit for all eventualities, so was prepared for everything.
I wore Montane trail capris and the Montane Minimus Stretch jacket. The Ultimate Direction Adventure Vesta carried everything I needed. The kit list requirement is fairly extensive anyway. The Scott Supertrac RC shoes were perfect. I’ve worn these shoes for two Transgrancanaria races, Tor de Geants (no shoe change), Bob Graham Round, UTMB and love them. Not that same shoes; I’ve had four pairs. Yes, they were bought and paid for, so no false endorsements.
Do you consider the UTMB done now, or will you be back?
It’s done. I understand why people go back because Chamonix is quite simply the place to be the last week in August. But I never want to chase times and that’s what I would be doing. I’m so glad I got the chance to experience it and I would highly recommend it to anyone though.
What races have you got planned for this year?
This year I want to do more ‘running’ races. I’ve signed up for Glentress Trail Marathon later this month and I’m doing the Manchester Marathon. One day I will nail a marathon time I’m happy with. The main focus for now is the Thames Path 100 in May. I’ve finished all the Centurion Running 100 milers, but I’ve got some unfinished business with the TP100. I did it back in 2013 when the race was held in March. There was a major storm and the Thames had burst its banks and the course was rerouted to out and backs. It was 104 miles of cross country, so I’m hoping for a better experience.
I’m hoping marathon training will help with my overall cruising pace for TP100. I’ve got a 100 mile road PB of 15:48 and trail (SDW100) PB of 17:11, so somewhere in the middle is the target. The race also doubles up as a qualifying race for Western States 2020. It will be my fourth attempt, so I’ll be praying to the ballot gods again.
Who are you sponsored by at the moment?
Montane, Ultimate Direction, Squirrel Nut Butter, XMiles and Petzl. I also run as part on the Centurion Running Ultra Team.