© Filip Zuan
As a 5,000m and 10,000m track athlete, British-born Julia Bleasdale used to follow the sun, travelling to Ethiopia and Arizona to train hard for her races (it worked, she came 8th in both distances in the London 2012 Olympic Games). Now, after calling time on her track career, she’s embracing proper seasons and enjoying ultra-distance trail running from her new home in the beautiful Swiss mountain village of Pontresina.
I caught up with the On ambassador during a recent trip to Switzerland, where she showed us around some of her favourite trails.
You were a successful track runner – have the trails always been of interest to you?
The track career was an expression of my running, and a phase, but my natural running environment is on the trail and open expanse. I learned to run in nature, in the outdoors. I was always very inspired to take part in the Olympics and compete on the track at that level but my natural environment is that dynamic running on the trail. I feel a greater sense of purpose on the trail.
Did you spend a lot of time in the mountains as a child?
Yeah, there were holidays in the summer and the excitement of coming to the Alps. But I grew-up in West London, and obviously Great Britain has a great tradition of cross country running, track and field, and endurance running so it was natural for me to channel my energies in that direction. Obviously, the experience of the Olympic Games was a big draw. But 90 percent of my training, even when I was preparing for the track, was run on trails. It’s compatible – you’re using your natural landscape to build strength and get fit and strong.
A lot of non-runners might be surprised to learn that track athletes train on trails?
I think most athletes do run on trails – Bushey Park in West London or what have you. Nice, smooth trails. I guess I took it almost to another dimension of running on almost technical trails.
You’re an ultra-distance trail runner now – what kind of distances do you run?
Anything from 30km to 100km is what I’m focusing on at the moment. After stopping my track career, I’m giving my body some rest so I haven’t been focusing on performance-focused training, just exploring around here and enjoying the outdoors. But, next year or the year after, I’d like to really focus on some of the big trail and ultra races in the world. That’s my ambition.
So you’re not racing at the moment, just exploring the Engadin trails?
Yeah, although I did do a race [laughs] – the Swiss Alpine. I’d always heard about the Swiss Alpine, it’s one of the biggest trail races in Switzerland with quite a lot of competitors. Spontaneously, I thought, ‘OK, I’ll give it a go’. I’d never run more than 42km before – it’s 84km – and I ended up beating the lady who had won it six or seven times in a row by almost 30 minutes… I think it’s my natural progression; my body is naturally fit for that kind of thing.
Are you planning to compete at distances around 84km?
At the moment I think I’ll concentrate on running beneath 100km, but in the future maybe the Ultra Tour de Mont Blanc 160km… [could be a goal].
How has your training changed from your track days where I imagine you had a strict schedule?
This phase is just about enjoying being here and exploring the landscape, adjusting my training according to the weather conditions or how my body’s feeling. I do sort of look on a map and see what inspires me, but [going forwards] there will be a certain amount of elevation and distance involved for sure, especially if I’m doing a race. In a year or two, when I really target particular races, then my training really will have to be more structured; a bit more interval training specific for the mountains because when you’re toeing the line against some of the best trail runners in the world, you want to give it your all!
How do your goals for each session differ now that you run on the trail?
In trail you can’t be so fixated on time and pace because it’s always undulating, so you do have to tune into your body a lot more and feel where your strengths and weaknesses are; are you flowing when you run the downhills? Are you struggling when you’re running on the uphills? Then you adjust the route according to that. You really have to listen to yourself rather than saying, ‘I’ve got to do a 10K run today and I’ve got to do it in 4-minute pace’. That’s a nice thing. It feels really natural and intuitive.
With all your mountain running do you pay attention to your vertical gain?
At the moment I can’t say I really look at it. It’s a relaxed training phase, so I might have some weeks a bit higher and some a bit lower, but in a typical running tour when you’re out for 3-4 hours, you might expect to do 2000m of climbing. That would be nice and feel pretty good.
You mentioned a FKT (fastest known time attempt) on your social media…
Yeah! [Laughs] It might have to wait a year, it’s a little bit cold now. Here in Pontresina there’s the Piz Languard and it’s an amazingly runnable mountain that you can do from here straight up to 3200m. We’re at 1800m in Pontresina, so that’s 1400m of ascent. Pretty much the whole thing is runnable, so it’s an aim to set a solid time in that. It’s a really great peak because you can run down from 3200m to here in 35-40 minutes when you’re going well. It’s a fun challenge. It will be nice to do that under two hours, up and down.
What’s a typical day like for you – do you run every day?
I do like to run most days, but if the body is saying no then I won’t. Because it was such a beautiful golden autumn, I would go out from 8am for a nice 4-hour tour. You can go up over the top of the valley, you can go into St Moritz, or Diavolezza is a beautiful run. Summer passes so quickly and you haven’t done half of the routes you’ve wanted to do because there’s so much to go for! In autumn, it’s about getting out for some long tours because you know soon it will snow and the tops will be covered so you can’t get to the peaks so easily – if at all. So it’s maximising that and then when the snow starts to fall, it’s about getting excited and thinking about cross-country skiing, which is the perfect accompaniment to running.
So do you switch to snow sports or fatbiking or other mountain sports in winter?
The great thing here is that you can still run very well in the winter because all of the winter hiking trails get swept by machines in the morning – it’s a perfect carpet of snow, so you can run incredibly well. For me, it’s a new and exciting phase of life here where there’s a proper winter and so many sports to have a go at which can be very compatible with running. Cross-country skiing is the perfect accompaniment to running and a great endurance workout. Fat biking is a bit more of fun on the side, but cross country skiing is excellent and I’d highly recommend it, and also to any injured runners as well.
Have you ever considered doing ski-mountaineering like a lot of ultrarunners now do?
I would love to be able to do that, but I only learnt to ski last winter so it would be a bit ambitious at the moment! I’ve talked to a lot of trail runners and skyrunners who love that mixture [of skimo and running], but some have said to me, ‘I’ll never run like a really good runner’, because their running was always up and down and in and out, and although that can strengthen [your running], if you do it from the beginning it’s hard to have the quick, dynamic turnover you need for speed. I think that’s also interesting because I have the trail running technical skills but also the speed to transfer into the mountain running.
What is the Engadin Valley like for running?
Engadin is a running haven. You have everything from smooth trails to rocky peaks. It’s a full spectrum of trails. Smooth, technical. Mountains one day, a recovery swim in a lake. Whatever runner you are, there’s something for you.
You’re hoping to open a running centre in Pontresina – can you tell me more?
I’m hoping to develop a running centre to encourage people to visit the Engadin and inspire people to tap into their outdoor spirit. Initially, it won’t be a physical space, but that is the aim in time. I’m getting more and more requests from people wanting to know where to go running here, or they want to be guided. Or they’re coming from the city and want to explore the trails but don’t have the confidence. Then there’s all the technical aspects such as uphill running, how to strengthen the body; there’s how to prepare for the UTMB (Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc). I’ve built up a breadth and depth of knowledge that it seems people are asking for it right now, so it feels like the logical step to set-up a running centre. First, it might be a bit more virtual, and then turn into something physically based, to guide runners and outdoor enthusiasts and help them to progress.
When will you be launching the business?
I’m establishing it now but it will be for summer 2019. I don’t think I’ll get many running requests in the winter! [If you’re interested in being guided by Julia or want to know more, you can email her on:email@example.com]
Going back to your running, have you considered skyrunning?
Yeah. At the moment it seems there are various areas [of mountain running disciplines available] – I’m wondering how it will all gel together. But, certainly, some of the ones in the Dolomites look pretty appealing.
Are you big on strength training? And if so, what kind of strength training do you do?
Generally, because I’m out and about in the hills, I do a lot of bodyweight stuff; general core stability work. When I was training for the track, I was doing squats and calf raises and all those kind of strengthening elements. Currently, I’m not doing that because I’m getting quite a bit of strength work via trail running. My strength training now is a lot more about maintaining stability, proprioceptive work, core work. You develop it when you’re out and about running, but you also need a bit more specific in the gym work.
What kind of core strength exercises do you do?
I do a lot of medicine ball and plank work, but it’s good to combine it with balancing work as well; up on tiptoes; single leg work; bosu ball work. For example, doing a hop and then landing on tiptoes; hopping onto tiptoes and concentrating on maintaining your core during that process. Things which are like the process of running, challenging your balance and your core in a gym environment.
Do you feel being in the mountains is mentally refreshing?
Being in the mountains I feel I’m more in tune with the seasons – I really notice them. It’s nice to have seasons, because as a pro runner I was always following the sun around. Now I have the winter and the brace of the winter. Mountains are also a place to reflect and be away from busyness. I think my natural state of being craves that environment and I can feel refreshed and creative here. Every now and again it’s still nice to pop back to the city.
What are your favourite items of kit?
I’m very excited about the new On trail running shoe, that’s a cool step forward (next year On is launching several new products dedicated to the outdoors). I’m quite specific about my shoes because it’s the one thing that’s connecting you to the ground – my most important piece of kit. What I do like about On shoes is that when you slip them on, you want to run; the lightweight, responsive feel. I have a very dynamic running style, very flexible feet, so for me that’s perfect because I feel like I can jump, skip and dance.
Apart from that, I find it’s very good to have a lightweight racing backpack for water, food items and what have you, when you’re out training. I‘m trying to encourage On to consider designing one in the future, but that’s quite a complicated piece of kit, so that’s probably a long-term project!