© Ian Corless
Swedish ultrarunner Elisabet Barnes is often referred to as desert running royalty. Both a coach and runner, the 42-year-old specialises in multi-stage races, particularly in desert conditions, with wins at the Marathon Des Sables (twice), the Oman Desert Marathon and Tunisia’s Ultra Mirage El Djerid to her name. As a result, she’s often the go-to coach for those wishing to take on their first MDS experience.
But her talents aren’t just limited to the desert. She has a fast road marathon running time, a love of fastpacking adventures (including a trip to Everest Base Camp) and last year came third at the 160km multi-stage Everest Trail Race, amongst other things. She also co-owns online running kit store MyRaceKit.com, so enjoys insider knowledge of the best gear for running, ultras and beyond. In fact, if you’re planning a multi-day desert ultra, check out Elisabet’s website for what to pack and how to prepare.
How did your first ultra-marathon come about?
Before I ventured into my first ultra – a 50km race in 2011 – I had run quite a few marathons. The choice was between running a marathon faster or venturing into unknown territory trying to go further. The trigger became the unexpected death of my father in 2010, which caused me to reflect on my life and the choices I had made thus far. I wasn’t happy with my priorities and I knew I needed to change things. This led me to discover the Marathon Des Sables in the Sahara (a 250km self-sufficient race) and my first few ultra-marathons happened as a result of training for this race which I first completed in 2012.
You’re well-known for your success in desert ultras. What is it you enjoy about this type of racing/terrain?
It’s quite odd that I appear to have some talent for these types of races being Scandinavian and having grown-up in the cold! I put it down to countless hours in saunas… I enjoy the arid landscapes, which are as beautiful as the terrain is unforgiving. I feel at home there. This environment strips you bare and I love how nothing else matters than worrying about moving forward and looking after your basic needs. It is always a worthwhile opportunity to reflect on what really matters in life.
How do you personally train for your desert ultras?
If the race is self-sufficient I train with a pack but in moderation. I also try to replicate the terrain and the climate; maybe I travel somewhere with specific conditions. Whether I do more or less hills or speed depends on the demands of the race. Marathon Des Sables is very runnable and requires speed, whereas a more mountainous race is more about being a good fast-hiker.
Multi-stage events are growing in popularity – do they require a different type of training to one-day ultras?
I think it comes down to the length of the ultra you compare with. Many people get blinded by the total distance of a multi-stage race and think they have to do really long training runs. They see 250km and forget that they won’t cover more than a marathon a day for example. It is very important to understand the structure of the race you are doing. I think it is different to train for 250km non-stop than training for 250km done over 6-7 days. For example, things like sleep deprivation, eating at night, keeping a slower pace without stopping, significant time of night running, are things you don’t need to worry about in a multi-stage race to the same extent.
What does a typical week of training look like for you currently?
Right now I have a focused block of training in Tenerife and I can do a bit more than usual. This involves being out for approximately 3-7 hours per day, running or hiking at altitude but also taking complete rest days. When I’m at home I do a bit less than this and I like to mix-up running with strength training in the gym. I also did skiing this winter but the season has ended now.
Do you follow a specific training plan?
I don’t follow a particular training plan. Sometimes I think about getting a coach but then I also think I am not very coachable, haha! My fiancé is a coach and we bounce ideas off each other and plan things together. I am a great fan of listening to my body. I’ve found that it’s somewhat difficult for me to plan in advance exactly what to do. I have an idea of the big picture and then I work with that depending on what works for my body and mind on a weekly to daily basis. When I get closer to a race I try to make my training specific, so if I’m doing a mountain race I know I need lots of climbing and descending for example.
Are you a fan of hiking as a way of preparing for an ultra?
Hiking is great ultra-training. Some races are mostly hiking, anyway. Hiking is less impact than running and allows you to be out doing low intensity sessions for a long period of time. Many people train too hard and fast for ultras. You need have the majority of your volume at lower intensity to develop the right metabolic pathways.
Last year you came third at the Everest Trail Marathon. What were the high and low points of your experience?
This was an epic race in the Everest region of Nepal. I don’t think there were any lows to be honest. Sure, it was hard. I took a few wrong turns which cost me time, there were some freezing cold nights, but that is not important in the grand scheme of things. Nepal is a wonderful country. The people are friendly, generous and compassionate. They work hard and many are poor. The scenery is just breathtaking. I have returned to the same region twice since that race to do my own adventures and I have been blown away over and over again. My fiancé and I did fast hiking and running to Everest Base Camp, and we also did a high altitude route over three high passes (5,300+ metres elevation).
Which has been your most challenging race to date?
Every race has its own challenge, be it mental or physical. I have fallen over and hurt myself in various ways in several races. This has been tough. Weather has been really bad, I have suffered from altitude sickness, or I have had to withdraw. Still, probably the toughest race for me mentally was going into Marathon Des Sables 2016. I’d had a challenging time personally leading up to this race. I was running a business, doing a day job, going through a separation and trying to train. Meanwhile, I was the reigning champion of MDS so felt an immense pressure on my shoulders. I was nowhere near the shape I wanted to be and found the whole experience very stressful. After this, I learnt to handle pressure much better and to not spend energy worrying about things I can’t control, such as who is turning up to race and in what shape they are etc. It was a good learning experience and in 2017 I returned stronger than I had ever been.
Do you have any mental strategies for when it gets tough in a race?
Yes, I have a number of mental strategies. Which one I apply depends a bit on the situation. Mantras can really help with focus and mental clarity. I also like listening to music. This can help me move my legs at faster cadence than if I don’t and is also a way of focusing the mind. I always segment the distance into smaller chunks. How small depends. I usually start with halving the distance as the bigger picture. Then it is check point to check point. Later, when I am tired, I might count kilometres and after that it could be “just run to that tree”. In one race I did I ran the final 7 or so km with another competitor. We were both exhausted and every kilometre closer to the finish we shouted out loud “7”, “6”, “5” and so on until we finally finished.
How do you fuel your ultras and what’s your go-to food or gel?
I prefer natural food. What I can take depends on whether the race is self-sufficient (i.e carrying all supplies) or if it is supported or there are check points. I like baby-food pouches with fruit puree, dates, raisins, roasted cashews, natural energy bars which are usually based on dates and nuts. I also like 33-shake chia gels. For a self-sufficient race, I carry freeze-dried meals amongst other things to sustain me for up to a week.
You coach people for the Marathon Des Sables. What’s the biggest mistake you see people making, either in their training or during the race itself?
By far the biggest mistake people make training for the Marathon Des Sables is to train too much. This can mean doing too much too soon, training with a far too heavy backpack and doing it too soon, running too long distances in a single training run, or overall doing too much volume. My role as coach is mostly to reign people in and help them understand what a sensible training volume is for their unique circumstances.
What’s on the horizon for you for the rest of this year?
In June I head to the Atlas Mountains in Morocco to do a 6-day stage race of around 240km and 10,000m of ascent. After this, I’m spending time training in Greece and Norway and then in September I will do another stage race in the Alps – the Transalpine – together with my fiancé as a mixed team. September is a super-busy month because after this I will squeeze in my wedding in a beautiful remote place in northern Sweden, followed by a 100km desert race in the Tunisian Sahara (Ultra Mirage 100km). After this I might add something more but this is not yet decided.
What are your favourite items of kit for racing and training?
I am a bit of a gadget nerd and I really like the Apple watch for training. The main case for buying it was that I can leave my phone at home but still be able to call someone if necessary, plus listen to music. The map functionality is amazing so it’s great for discovering new trails or following a gpx route.
For remote training sessions, I always carry a Garmin inReach satellite tracker should something happen. This means I can always call for help via satellite and get rescued in an emergency situation. In Norway, where the weather is ever changing, I am grateful for my GORE jackets…
For racing, I guess it really varies depending on the race. For example, for my upcoming race in the Atlas Mountains, I won’t be without my carbon trekking poles.
No matter the weather, training or race I always wear Sziols sports glasses. I started using these in 2011 and they are hands down the best there are. People may think glasses are ‘just’ for sun protection, but the use is much greater than that. For example, with the right lens you can get great contrast enhancement on technical trail, or with a clear lens you can run in the dark but be protected from flies and mosquitos.
You run several training camps – have you got any of these on the horizon?
Yes, in addition to coaching people online, I coach in person at several trail running camps. The multi-stage camp in Lanzarote is now in its 5th year and has proven very popular with great feedback from participants. If you’re running a multi-stage race such as the Marathon Des Sables or are curious about these types of events, our camp caters for all levels from jogger to elite (find out more here: www.iancorless.org/training-camp). I’m also coaching at three trail running camps in Gran Canaria in January and February 2020. You can email me for more information (firstname.lastname@example.org).
Who are you sponsored by right now?
I have worked with Sziols Sportsglasses for several years and started using their products in 2011. I am supported by GORE® Wear (clothing) for the Transalpine race in September. I am also an ambassador for LYOFOOD. I am currently not with a shoe sponsor so I am trying out various different models and brands which I quite enjoy. I co-own a running shop called myRaceKit (www.myracekit.com) and so I also act as an ambassador for that.
You can keep up with Elisabet’s racing and training via her social media channels: www.instagram.com/elisabetbarnes, www.twitter.com/elisabet_barnes and www.facebook.com/elisabetbarnes. Visit Elisabet’s website via www.elisabetbarnes.com.