Despite working a jam-packed 80-hour week, ultra-runner Jen Scotney managed to squeeze in enough training to comfortably scoop 3rd lady at the 108-mile Spine Challenger race earlier this year. Now, the 36-year-old Peak District resident and Montane athlete is gearing up for an even bigger ultra-running challenge: to complete the Northern Traverse, a 190 mile coast-to-coast race from St Bees to Robin Hood’s Bay, next month.
Ahead of her race, Jen chats about how she’s training and preparing for this epic challenge, and reveals how double-run days are the secret to fitting in ultra-running training with the demands of a full-on job.
Photo: Ben Lumley
Tell me about your background – were you outside a lot growing up?
I had always been sporty as a child and grew up in the Peak District scampering about on muddy hills, chasing after my older siblings. I’m really grateful for the freedom my parents gave us to be out by ourselves as it’s definitely gone towards shaping who I am today. By the time I was a teenager, football and mountain biking were my main sports, although my Dad was a keen fell runner and not so keen road marathon runner, and my Mum ran too. As I left university and moved to work in London I lost the routine of exercising or team sports and like most people I spent a decade working and drinking too much. I started running again in 2013.
How did the ultra-running come about?
I’d started walking again before I moved back to the Peak District in 2010, and when I started working from home I got a dog (Sherlock the beagle) to force me away from my desk. I’d start running the flat bits of the dog walks, even though I was in walking shoes, and gradually built up how much I was running. I bought some old running shoes from eBay, joined Dark Peak Fell Runners, and did some local fell races. The ultras came the next year with my first 50k off-road, and a 40-mile race a few months later.
How did getting active again change your life?
Looking back, those few steps I ran on the dog walks were more than just getting fitter; they really changed my life. It was at a period just after my Dad and Brother had died, and a lot of other negative things happening in my life, and those steps helped me feel like I could take back some control, some confidence, and that my life was more about my choices than just what was happening to me. It started a process of really building up a positive relationship with my body, changing my lifestyle, and turning outwards to meet some amazing people, including my husband, Marcus. The ultras were an extension of that personal growth, of putting yourself in a challenging place that you once thought was impossible, but succeeding, and breaking down what you thought your limitations were. I’ve lost count of the ultramarathons I’ve done now.
You came 3rd in this year’s Spine Challenger event – can you tell me a bit about your experience?
The Spine Challenger is a 108-mile race (although we made it 113 with the diversions in place) along the Pennine Way in January. There is a long kit list as there’s only one checkpoint at 46 miles, so competitors need to be self-sufficient in winter conditions. I was actually due to run it in 2017, but didn’t start due to a meniscus tear a few months before.
I had a place on Challenger confirmed again in August 2017 and made a commitment that I would train for the race, not really knowing what that would actually look like as I’d never ‘trained’ in that sense before. Montane had asked me to do some vlogs too, about my preparations, which also meant I really should do some training! I’m lucky that my husband, Marcus, is a coach and sports therapist and while he doesn’t give me a schedule he was able to give help on what my weekly training should look like. The main difference for me was consistency, as before I would take a few days off running if work felt too much, or I was busy, so my mileage was erratic from one week to the next.
This time I really prioritised running over everything else. I went into the race with a lot of stress from work, but confident I had trained well and knew the route. The weather was really kind for the first 24 hours, though it got colder and wetter as the race went on. I set off quite slow, so was surprised to spend most of the race in 3rd place. My pack felt heavy as I hadn’t got round to training with a pack that size, but my legs felt really fresh. I was expecting that by 40-50 miles I would be aching and stiff, but I really didn’t feel anything at all, even 100 miles in!
That felt amazing as I really had no idea my body could do that. I did suffer with really bad blisters though, caused by my neoprene socks. I’d used the socks in training, and in the slushy freezing bogs they had kept my feet really warm. The ground had dried up so much in the time before the race that they weren’t needed though – it looked as dry as summer on Bleaklow and Black Hill!
Were there any low points in the race?
About 55 miles in I felt blisters popping and from then on my feet just felt like I was walking over hot coals, which really slowed my pace. At one point I caught up to second place and I had a decision to make; do I push on past the Malham Tarn checkpoint where I could get a coffee, or do I just sit back and enjoy the last 20 miles? I chose the easy option and I guess that has stuck with me. While I was happy to finish in 37 hours 12 minutes, and joint 15th overall, I know I didn’t challenge myself as much as I could have and found the race a lot easier than I expected. It has made me feel more competitive for my next race; my goal is ultimately to finish knowing I’ve given it everything.
I think my most frustrating point in the race came at Cam End, less 10 miles from the finish. The weather was awful and I hadn’t eaten for a while, so I grabbed the first thing from the front of my pack, which was a Clif Bar. In the cold it had frozen and as I bit into it, my false front tooth (from a biking accident) snapped off! I stood there trying to wedge the tooth back in my mouth but there was nothing to keep it in with. So I finished with a gap in my front teeth, which is why I’m not smiling on the finish line photos!
Would you have done anything differently looking back?
I don’t think there’s much I would have done differently. Maybe changed my socks at the checkpoint, but they didn’t hurt at that point. We did have to carry ‘spare socks’ on the kit list and to save on weight I packed a light, silky non-running pair… I suppose a running pair may have been more use but I would probably still go for the lightest I could for my pack!
You credit daily strength + conditioning for feeling fresh and being injury-free during The Spine Challenger. What kind of exercises you do?
I’ve used paracetamol in previous ultras to help with the pain in my legs, such as abductors or hip flexors. I actually thought this was just inevitable in running ultras. But Marcus showed me a strength and conditioning routine I could do in less than 10 minutes before bed, and since then I’ve not had any stiffness or pain in my legs when running long distances, although this does coincide with all my running training too.
The routine consists of 10 repetitions of [pelvic] bridge, single leg and side leg raises, and a few other things. Seeing how many friends get injured I’m really happy to do my S+C daily if it helps towards injury prevention.
You work incredibly long hours – how and when do you fit your training in?
I often work about 80 hours a week for my job as a self-employed Human Rights lawyer for children and young people in prison. I became increasingly stressed and burnt out in my job and eventually I suffered from a debilitating period of fatigue in 2015. I couldn’t walk the dog or stand-up cooking; all these things I’d taken for granted, never mind running. It was quite a frightening time, and I’m so grateful for my acupuncturist for my recovery.
Since then I’ve been very conscious that the long hours at my desk or travelling aren’t healthy. Although I take time out for running, yoga and meditation, I still spend a huge part of my week and weekends working and it’s been hard to fit my training in. It helps to remind myself that it’s not going to last forever, it’s just a period of a few months of training and then I will ease back for a month or so.
I often run twice a day, and this actually seems more manageable as I know I’ll be back at my desk in 1-2 hours. I’ve consciously tried not to miss out on sleep to fit training in, as sleep is so important. On social media I see people posting pictures of their 4.30am alarms for their run but I’m quite happy not getting into that competition! I’ll look at my work diary and whichever looks the hardest day to fit in a run will be my rest day, then I work the rest of the runs around that. I really think if you’re committed enough to your goal you will make it work, whatever! It helps having a partner who runs even more than me; you know neither of us will complain if you want to eat meals late due to training for example.
In the run-up to the Spine Challenger, what kind of mileage/ascent were you typically covering?
I would train in cycles so generally building up the mileage for three weeks and then a recovery week. My recovery weeks were about 50 miles and 7000ft of ascent, and my bigger weeks were about 70 miles and over 10,000ft of ascent. I would typically run 6 days a week, do 7 runs a week, and my long run at the weekend would be 20-30 miles.
What does a typical week of training look like at the moment?
I took two weeks off running after The Spine Challenger, but didn’t have any injuries thankfully, just a bit of fatigue. I built my mileage up slowly after that, partly as I was due to run the 42-mile High Peak Marathon in March and didn’t want to be fatigued for that. It was called off due to the snow, so since then I have been back to my training. I still run 6 days a week, and have added in a few more runs, so I’m running twice on 3 days of the week.
Your husband, Marcus, is a successful ultra-runner and coach – do you ever run together?
Marcus is such an amazing runner that we never train together – he’s too fast for me! We did do the OMM (Original Mountain Marathon) together in October which was fun, though we weren’t being very competitive. I’m really grateful for the help and support he’s given me, particularly in the last 6 months with my training. I’d struggle to follow a strict weekly plan as I find it too inflexible to respond to my work demands that change at short notice, so I’m just happy working out my runs for myself as the week unfolds.
Has your running and training changed much in the last few years?
I feel that for a few years I went under the radar a lot as a runner. I didn’t make a huge deal of my ultras and for one of my 12-hour ones I didn’t even tell Marcus I was doing it until the day before. However, a combination of becoming more well-known on social media, including putting training vlogs on my YouTube channel, having the support of Montane, and committing to training, has really improved my running since August 2017. Part of me is still stuck back in the old me with a voice telling me I’m too slow or unfit for these races, but there’s also a part of me that wants to see where things lead if I keep training and pushing myself, and that’s the one I’m trying to listen to.
You’re running the 190-mile Northern Traverse in May. Can you explain what this involves?
The Northern Traverse race came on my radar two years ago, and although I immediately wanted to do it, I never thought I’d be in a position to be fit enough to enter. But fast-forward a few years and here I am, a few weeks before it starts. The route follows Wainwright’s Coast to Coast path and takes you 190 miles from St Bees through the Lake District, Yorkshire Dales and North Yorkshire Moors and finishes at Robin Hood’s Bay. It’s self-supported, so no outside support from family or friends is allowed, but there are 4 checkpoints along the way with food, access to our own drop bags, and tents for us to sleep in.
We will have to navigate ourselves and I know that signs are limited on the route. It’s around 24,000ft of ascent, with a lot in the first 60 miles in the Lake District. The terrain is varied, with rocky paths, moors, and field sections in valleys too. On the last race they started in glorious sunshine, but the weather deteriorated afterwards and it looked like there was plenty of rain. Some of my kit choices will be made in the few days before when I see the forecast.
What kind of running preparation are you doing for the Northern Traverse?
My training for Northern Traverse is well underway and looks similar to my training for the Spine Challenger; a lot of low intensity hilly runs. A couple of differences are that I’m trying to fit in 9 runs a week over 6 days, so more double run days and I’ve added a hill reps session on the day before my long run. My big mileage weeks will be 80+ miles, with perhaps 55 mile recovery weeks.
Will you have chance to recce parts of it or is that logistically difficult?
With the Spine Challenger, I live so close to the beginning of the Pennine Way and only a couple of hours from most sections that I was able to recce the route a lot, which made navigation so easy for the race, despite most it is being in the dark. When I started focusing on the Northern Traverse I realised I didn’t have time or inclination to drive so far and so often to recce in small 10-20 mile sections. So I’ve taken a different approach by blocking it into 3-day sections at a time for recces. I’ve just done the Lakes section with a couple of nights in YHAs, including Black Sail. I’ll be doing similar for the other sections, and I’m really looking forward to these mini-adventures.
My one concern doing it this way is the fatigue of having 3 long days on the hill at a time, with a heavier pack, but I plan to take them slowly to keep it low intensity. I’m happy navigating with a map and compass, but it really does save time to know the route, as well as being great training to be on the terrain you will be running on, so I like to recce races as much as possible. There is also the sleep deprivation and darkness in the race that can make the simplest of routes seem more complicated! I also find it a real boost to know what’s coming up while you’re on the race, ticking off the landmarks. And in the few months before the race I’m able to visualise being on the route, and in the race, which I think helps with my preparation.
You follow a vegan diet. Is this for health or ethical reasons?
I’ve been vegan for over two years now, and this was purely for ethical reasons. I wouldn’t say I’ve felt much difference in my energy or performances since, though I know a lot of vegans say it helps both the performance and recovery. It does mean that I can’t rely on checkpoints to provide food in races, so I am completely self-sufficient in all my races, which helps when it comes to these longer races as I know exactly what I need to carry.
What do you eat on the morning of a race and what do you typically eat during an ultra?
My breakfast before a race or long run is a vegan sausage sandwich and a coffee. I tried porridge and granola at one time, but I started feeling hungrier early. While I’m running I’ll mostly eat Clif bars and Clif bloks, and Trek bars. At the checkpoint on the Spine Challenger I had a drop bag with pasta, pastries and fruit in. I added in some treats to my pack too in case I got bored of bars, and it was amazing how much of a boost it was to pull some Skittles and Party Ring biscuits out of my pack at 4am! I’ll be taking some vegan sweets for the Northern Traverse too. I also drink Mountain Fuel on long runs and races as I find it helps keep the calories in and I can get away with eating less.
Do you have days when you just don’t fancy running or are you always highly motivated?
I really do feel motivated to run, though I guess living in such a beautiful part of the Peak District helps! There are times I might try to put off a run, or think that I should work instead, but having the goal of a race means I have rarely missed a run. I also think about the times I had my meniscus tear, or Chronic Fatigue, and what a privilege it is to have the choice of being able to run.
If it’s cold, dark, raining and I’m really struggling to get out then my last resort is to check on Strava what other runners in my next race are doing… that usually gives me the final kick to get out the door!
When it gets tough in a race do you have any mental hacks to help you keep going?
So much of running ultras is in your mind-set and so it can be easy to spiral into some really dark moments. The Spine Challenger went so well for me that, apart from the blisters, I didn’t really have to lift myself out of any tough moments. In the past I’ve just tried to focus on getting to the next checkpoint, the next landmark, just the next tree on the hill… whatever it is that makes it seem more manageable. I do a lot of meditation and think this and visualisation can be so powerful. I focus on what isn’t hurting, or visualise myself a bit later in the race feeling strong. Experience tells you that bad patches are just temporary, and that you can feel completely different a little way ahead. I also often tell myself it’s just running, just skipping along a path; we are not out there saving lives or curing diseases, so I smile and don’t take it too seriously!
Which has been your most challenging event so far?
I think the event I’d have been most out of my comfort zone would have been the High Peak Marathon in March. It’s a 42-mile overnight race in remote and boggy parts of the Peak District. I love that part, but it’s run in teams of four. I was running in a team with ladies’ record holders Nicky Spinks and Kirsty Hewitson, as well as another fast runner, Majka. The thought of having others depending on me was really challenging, as I knew they would push me to run faster than I usually go. I joked back in December that snow was the only way I could get out of the race without any pain… and my prayers were answered as it was snowed off. In the end, I was left disappointed as part of me had embraced the challenge of setting off for that race, not knowing how fast I could go when pushed.
I also have a 100 miler in the Alps in August with 36,000ft of ascent which is making me quite nervous thinking about!
Do you have any strategies for staying calm and focused before and during an ultra?
I don’t find it too difficult to stay calm in a race as I’m usually enjoying myself too much! I did have a spell in training when I was struggling not to think about my work while I was out running. I would get really stressed, catastrophizing about what was going wrong when I was out, and I cut a few runs short. I tried to start approaching my runs more like my yoga practice, reminding myself that these runs were for me, with the intention of being a stronger runner and person. I would stop myself worrying about the future and bring my attention either to visualising myself on the next race or noticing things in the present, whether that was the rocks glinting in my head torch, or the moon or whatever I could see. For me, this was just another way I could take my yoga practice off my mat and help me in other areas of my life.
What are your favourite items of kit for racing and training?
I’ve done thousands of miles training in all weathers, and having the right kit has been essential to my comfort and safety. This winter featured a lot of training in snow and very low temperatures and I couldn’t have been without my Montane Spine Jacket, which is a thick Gortex jacket. Another layer is my Montane Fireball Verso Pull On which I’ve carried much more than I worn, but the times I did need it at the OMM and on the Spine Challenger it saved my race. It’s Primaloft and just instantly warmed me up. I also love my Hoka One One Mafate Speed trail running shoes, as they grip to rocks, flag stones, snow, so I can confidently skip over the terrain.
Do you use poles on your ultra running events?
I used Mountain King poles for the second half of the Spine Challenger and they were invaluable when my blisters were stopping me from running. I found them hard to train with as I felt they were encouraging me to walk rather than run, but I guess you can’t replicate the feeling of being 60+ miles into a race when you’re on a 25-mile training run! I’ll be using poles on the Northern Traverse and future long races too.
Who are you sponsored by at the moment?
I am an ambassador for Montane. I am also grateful for support from Mountain Fuel, Injinji socks from Beta Running, Clif, and Hoka One One. I also get sports massages through Marcus at Accelerate and Holywell Health.