Ultra-runner Debbie Martin-Consani has completed some of Europe’s most notorious ultra-distance events, including the unrelenting 330km Tor des Geants, and has numerous ultra-running podiums to her name. She’s also represented Great Britain several times at the World 24-hour Championship (yes, such a thing exists!)
Based in Scotland where she lives with her husband and son, Debbie fits running around a full-time job and is currently in training for the Bob Graham round next month (66 miles and 26,000ft of elevation). Despite a packed schedule, the Montane athlete kindly let me quiz her to find out about her training, bucket list running events and her sleep-deprived Tor des Geants experience.
How did you get into running – and have you always been fit or sporty?
I wouldn’t say I’ve always been ‘sporty’. I think I dabbled in a lot of sports growing up and then got sucked into fad fitness regimes in a vain attempt to have the perfect figure. This ultimately led to cycles of disappointment, weight gain and having an unhealthy relationship with food. I started running in 2004 because someone I worked with was signing up for the Glasgow Women’s 10K.
She wasn’t your typical svelte runner type, but she inspired me to give it a go.
I couldn’t run for a minute when I started and would wait until it was dark to go out, because I was worried someone I knew would see me. But I was amazed at how quickly I built endurance. My colleague hung up her trainers after the race, but I went on to run a half-marathon, marathon and then joined my running club, Garscube Harriers. I signed up for my first ultra in 2007 and the rest is history. I wouldn’t say that I am fast, tough or talented, I’m just committed and I work really hard at it.
You’ve run everything from flat 24-hour races to the crazily brutal and hilly Tor des Geants – do you have a preferred race, terrain and distance?
My ideal race, as in the one that I’m more suited to, is a trail 100 miler. I’m not that good on mountainous terrain. I’m pretty shit at ascending and descending, but it’s where my heart is and I just love it. I perform better in races that are more about consistent jogging, as I’m better at pacing for this. I’m too lazy to go flying off at the start, so I like to start at a pace that I know I can maintain for the duration of the way. I’ve got lucky with this strategy quite a few times.
Last year you completed the Tor des Geants unsupported. What were the highs and lows?
I can safely say there will be very few things in my life that I will do that could compare to TdG.
The first low point was on the third night when I left it too long to put on additional layers and take on some fuel. The checkpoint was much further than I thought and I kept pushing on to get there instead of dealing with the issues there and then. I was a shaking, incoherent mess when I got there and had to take an hour out to pull myself together. It was very nearly a race-ending moment. I think the volunteers were extra helpful because the only exit would be via a heli-taxi.
My fifth and final night was by far the most challenging. The sleep deprivation had really kicked in and I wasn’t consuming enough calories for being on the go for over 100 hours (minus six hours sleeping). It was below freezing when I left the last life base to climb up to 3000m. I don’t know how cold it was at the top, but I couldn’t shake the all-over chill. I was pretty wasted, tripping a lot on the descent, and mixing up stars with race markers. My chest hurt really bad from the accumulation of time, the freezing temperature and altitude, and I couldn’t stop coughing. I wasn’t a pretty sight when I got to the next checkpoints. I couldn’t stop my hands from shaking and was throwing soup all over the place.
I’m sure all Mothers can relate to this, but being away from my son for such a long time is a big deal, so that drive to finish pushed me on. I had to make it count. I knew he’d be in Courmayeur, poised, ready to take me on in the sprint finish. I knew, despite my best efforts, he would probably win. And I was right.
How did you cope with the fatigue and sleep deprivation – did you have any hallucinations or problems making decisions?
In hindsight, I didn’t cope very well. I’d never really experienced the effects of sleep-deprivation before as missing one night doesn’t count, and it’s not something you can learn to manage until you’ve experienced it for yourself. I’d struggled with basics skills and it was like being a little bit drunk, all of the time. I didn’t have any mad hallucinations, which I have had in the past, but I think that’s because the general exertion was quite low. On the last day, however, I was convinced I was in Scotland.
What kind of training did you do to prepare for the 31,000m of ascent?
After representing the GB team at the World 24-hour Championships, which involved running around some flat tarmac, I had nine weeks to prepare for running for the best part of a week in the Italian Alps. My endurance base was there from my 24-hr training, but I had to get my legs in shape for dealing with hours of ascending and descending. I spent long days hiking up fells in the Lake District and Munros in Scotland. I saw the summit of my local Munro, Ben Lomond, many times last summer. Often multiple times in one day. Reps of the Ben are a humorous way to freak-out and annoy the tourists.
Having completed it, would you do anything differently in hindsight?
If I was to do it again – which I’m not ruling out – I think I’d have crew. Just having someone to think for you, give you food that’s not watery soup and tomato pasta, and make sure you got the kit for the next section must make a huge difference. At one life base I spent 90-minutes packing the same thing in the same pack. Ludicrous waste of time.
I would also sleep when I’m tired and not force myself to tick-off sections between life bases. They’re awful places to sleep, anyway. One was in a freezing cold squash court and the sounds bounced off the walls. The refuges, however, are wonderful places to sleep. I was amazed at how massively different you can feel after a 45-minute nap.
Little things like bringing sunscreen for my lips, which got so burned and painful. Cough sweets for after cold nights to soothe my pathetic sea level lungs. And I’d take a down jacket for the cold nights. I had layers of waterproofs, which were OK, but I just couldn’t shake the chill. I did have a down jacket, but I’d nowhere to put it when it heated up the next day. Again, that’s when crew would come in handy.
And I probably wouldn’t text my mother in the middle of the night telling her I want to speak to her but I was too emotional and not in a great way. Apparently she FREAKED out.
This year you’re doing the UTMB and Bob Graham round – how are you preparing?
Well, I did the London Marathon a few weeks ago, for reasons which escape me. I loved it though. That was my fifth time in London, after a 10-year hiatus. I might not seem the most natural progression for a Bob Graham Round in June, but it was good to get some real running in my legs. Pacey, flat runs are often neglected and generally a shock to the system.
I’m now making as many trips to the Lakes as possible to get out on the Bob Graham route. I’ve recced the full course, some sections a few times now, and have been quite overwhelmed by the challenge. It’s proper giving me the fear! It’s way more than 66 miles and 42 peaks. I don’t race very often, because I like to commit whole-heartedly to races and challenges. I totally respect what’s involved to complete a BGR and have dedicated my time and training accordingly. There’s a reason only one in three runners make it back to Keswick within the 24-hours. You can’t just get round it on bravado alone.
Then it’s all about UTMB (Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc). Maybe it’s just one of those blockbusters races you’ve got to do, but it’s very high up on my list of must-do experiences. I’m going out in July to try and cover the full course over three days.
What does a typical week of training look like now?
I run most days, with usually one rest day a week. I do two speed/hill sessions during the week and a long run at the weekend, and the rest are easy/steady paced runs. My New Year’s resolution was to spend more time on strength and flexibility and I’ve actually been sticking to it. So, I’ve been going to the gym a few times a week. And I’ve been going to a weekly yoga class for a few years now.
What kind of running sessions do you do?
I mostly run on the road or canal during the week, because it’s easier to fit round work time. I’m only 5-6 miles from my office, so I can commute for recovery runs and do sessions at lunchtime on the canal. At the weekend I’ll do my long runs on the trails or hills. My husband is also an ultra-runner and we have to fit both our training schedules around our son – and his ever-demanding social calendar.
Do you use races as part of your training for a bigger event such as the TdG?
Very rarely. To me, racing is racing. Training is training. I’m committed to my goals, so I don’t feel I need to sign up to races to get the miles or intensity in. I actually enjoy training more than racing. But I need the racing to do the training, it that makes sense. This year, I’m trying to do races that complement each other. In 2017 I did Transgrancanaria, Stirling Marathon, 24-hour road race and TdG and they were all a disaster because I was going from one extreme to the other. This year my focus is Transgrancanaria, Bob Graham Round and then UTMB.
You work full-time and you have a son – where and how do you fit your training in?
My mantra is “I don’t find the time, I make the time”. And as my dear friend Adrian Stott would say: “If you want something, you will find a way.” I don’t really have time or patience for excuses, so I’m my own worst enemy. It does boil down to being organised though. I know exactly when I’m going to run each day. Whether it’s commuting to work, sessions at lunchtime or early as the weekend. It doesn’t make me the most exciting person though, as my social time revolves around running and Netflix. I didn’t even bother staying up for the bells on New Year’s Eve, but running is an important part of my life and what I enjoy the most.
Does your son ever join you on parts of your runs?
He often comes out on his bike. And talks the whole way. I take him out for short runs midweek and out on the hills at the weekend. But it’s more about instilling an appreciation of the outdoors, and not about training.
What trail shoes do you swear by and what other items of kit do you love?
I wore the one pair of Scott Supertrac RC for the full TdG, even though I had spare shoes in my drop bag. My feet are usually a car crash, but they were fine. Not even a blister or bruised nail, which was a first for me. I love Inov8 X-Talons for hills. I don’t think there’s a shoe that compares to them for grip and confidence.
I always carry minimum essential kit, because I been caught out so many times. Weight is important though, so at the least I carry the Montane Minimus jacket and trousers. Or in the winter, the Spine Jacket and trousers and Prism gloves.
I always carry my phone – and usually a tripod – because I love taking photos. My friends moan about the time I spend faffing with staged run shots, but I know they love it.
Have you ever done any work to assist with the mental challenge of ultra-running?
I haven’t done anything specific. Well, apart from reading a few books and downloading a few apps. I’m always full of great intentions, but life gets in the way. I bought an annual subscription to Head Space last week, but I’m yet to open the app. What I have learned, I’ve learned the hard way. From experience or on the hoof. I’m forever harping on: “You have to really want it. If you don’t, you’ll find an excuse”. The main goal for a race should always be to give it your very best on the day, then you’re less likely to quit when the going gets tough. You can’t blame the weather, problems in build-up or underfoot conditions for not having the race you wanted, because you’re giving it everything you’ve got.
Experience has taught me that in ultras you can work through most problems. I’ve come out of some dark places in ultra-races and be skipping along five miles later. When I won the Lakeland 100, I wanted to pull out at the first checkpoint. It was so hot and my head was all over the place. I didn’t drop because I didn’t want to be the first person to DNF. That was a good life lesson. You never know the outcome until you give it your best shot.
A tip to overcome some of the nasty thoughts it to focus on getting yourself in a neutral state of mind. You’re knackered and hurting, so it’s a bit much to ask to be happy about it. I quite often count to 30 over and over again. Or simply focus on breathing in and out. I find it quite soothing and a distraction from negative thoughts.
Do you get nervous in the run-up to an event and do you have any pre-race rituals?
Gosh, yes. I get nervous before a Parkrun! Usually because I know I’m going to get a proper showing up by some show-off 8-year-old. Nerves are good though. It means I care. If I go into a race lackadaisical about the outcome, I can’t shift gear. I don’t think I have rituals, as such. I like two clear rest days before a race. I read many years ago in Paula Radcliffe’s book that’s what she does, and If it’s good enough for Paula…
What do you tend to eat on the morning of an ultra and do you have a preferred type of food or sports nutrition?
Eating and fuelling during races will always be my weakest link. I really struggle to chew and suffer from nausea quite often. It’s getting better though. I’ve found a few things that work. Simple things like white bread and butter and some banana bread. But after a few hours I reply heavily on liquid energy, Tailwind and Coke being firm favourites. I worked with dietician Renee McGregor and she has helped, not just with racing, but overhauling my diet on a day-to-day basis. Pre-race I like something simple like toast and banana.
Which has been your favourite event so far and why?
Ooh that’s a big question. My first ultra was the Devil o’ the Highland, so that will always be special to me. It also takes in my favourite sections on the West Highland Way, through Glencoe and over Lairig Mor. It took me five attempts to win it though, so thought I’d best leave that one on a high. I also love the festival feel of the Lakeland 50/100 weekend, the historical aspect and culture support of Spartathlon, the stunning scenery of Tor des Geants. I may be biased, but I’m a big fan of Centurion Running events too.
And which has been the most challenging?
I think they are challenging for different reasons. You just approach each race differently. You still cross the finish line completely fecked. For example, I’ve done Lakeland 100 and Lakeland 50, and can say they are both tough races. The latter isn’t a fun run, it’s proper racing. You leave it all out there regardless of terrain and distance. In terms of enormity, I don’t think anything can compare to Tor des Geants. Not just because it physically challenging, but it pushed me mentally and emotionally.
Which race do you see as the ultimate bucket list running event – and have you done it yet?
I always have goals for the year(s) and once I’ve achieved something I look for the next must-do challenge. I know I will never complete my life list, because I keep adding to it. I’ve been fortunate to participate in some fabulous events and know that I will have many more to come. I think Western States 100 and Badwater are right up there. Which is surprising consider I unravel in temperatures above 14 degrees!
To keep up with Debbie’s ultra-running and her Bob Graham and UTMB challenges you can follower her via www.instagram.com/ultrarundmc and www.Twitter.com/ultrarundmc or visit her blog, www.ultrarundmc.com.