Ultra runner, Kim Cavill has completed some of the most gritty and well-loved ultra events on the UK and European circuit, from the Hardmoors Ultra Series to the Transvulcania (2017 highlights include taking first lady at the Hardmoors 55.) But she wasn’t always sporty. Here, the 36-year-old chia charge ambassador talks about her journey from sport-hating schoolgirl to accomplished ultra runner and coach.
Tell us about your background before ultra running – didn’t you hate sports at school?
I did! I was a real book worm and still am. I was probably similar to a lot of teenage girls in that I felt really self-conscious doing physical activity: I didn’t want to get sweaty; I was worried about my hair and make-up and would rather have been doing anything else. Some of the ‘sporty’ girls were friends, but I just didn’t see myself like that. You put yourself in a box when you’re at school, whether you know it or not, and it can be hard to get out of.
I really only started getting active in my 20s and that was a bit half-arsedly in a gym. I can’t quite remember why I took up running but my first organised event was a Race For Life. They have a great, supportive vibe and I wasn’t too slow so I felt pretty good about it. I moved onto a local 10k and then joined a running club on a recommendation which really helped me to become aware of all the different running events I could do. The social side of it also made it enjoyable, which you don’t really get at school unless you’re ‘naturally sporty’!
How did your journey to ultra runner come about?
It was just a very intriguing idea. I was never one to push myself hard, I didn’t take risks or like running fast, so I wasn’t very good at competing in quicker races. The idea of pushing in a different way made sense to me. Seeing how far you can go with nothing else to really rely on except yourself is a proper challenge.
Someone from my running club starting running the Hardmoors ultras and going and watching her, and marshalling them, gave me an idea of what was involved, but also showed me what a great community it was. We were all bonded in mutual madness!
You’ve said that reading the book ‘Born to run’ changed your perspective on ultras – how so?
It was just a very engrossing story. The characters weren’t your typical athletes and it was a bit of a fairytale really. The science behind people running long distances was so convincing that I often took myself off into the forest and ran for hours, even taking my shoes off, putting them on my hands and running in my socks a few times! Hearing about people like Scott Jurek and the Tarahumara tribe was quite motivating too. Even though I went to see Caballo Blanco talk and he said that Chris McDougall had gone a bit overboard with the drama, I still think it’s a great book to make you understand how much we’re capable of with a bit of belief.
Did you find your running changed after you joined a running club?
I raced more! Doing flat 10k road races on a weeknight and fell running races on a weekend became very normal and I did improve for a while. I realised I was okay at it when I came away with a few prizes and grew in confidence. I entered things I’d never heard of like the Yorkshire Three Peaks, becoming one of the few women in the Club to complete it.
I probably did too much and ended up with an ITB injury that came back for a couple of years so I learned that you have to take care of yourself by seeing professionals, eating well, resting and being sensible with how much you do.
What was your first ultra running event like?
Brilliant! It was the 33-mile Osmotherley Phoenix which was part of a summer show in a village on the Cleveland Way. I had recced the route as it was self-navigation, but on the day I managed to climb up a big hill that I didn’t need to because I was chatting! I lost some places and it took a bit out of me, but I finished it. I remember giggling when I hit 30 miles as it was the furthest I had run and downing a pint of icy lemonade at the end because it was so hot, but other than feeling utterly knackered, I really enjoyed it. I went back the next year, took about half an hour off my time, and won.
What goes through your mind when you’re running an ultra that takes 9+ hours?
Loads and nothing at the same time. I tend to think about the race more than anything else. If I have a goal time, I do a lot of maths as I go, often convincing myself that I won’t make it! If I’m on my own, I sing in my head – or out loud if it’s a really long race and I’ve been out for hours! I think about what to do at the next checkpoint, what I will eat and drink. I find it very peaceful to just focus totally on the moment or the next chunk instead of thinking that the distance is insurmountable. An ultra is always a challenge, but once you’ve done a few you know you can get through it.
Do you do any mental training for your ultra running?
Not consciously. I’m always trying to include meditation in my day but find it very difficult to switch off completely. It is something I will persevere with though, as I think it has a lot of benefits.
I use positive self-talk when I train and race: I’ll tell myself that I can do it and rationalise how I’m feeling so I don’t get despondent. So if I’m tired or something hurts, I tell myself that it’s going to be hard and it’s going to hurt but it will all be done tomorrow and I will feel awesome when I’ve achieved it. I think you just have to build up your self-belief because if you start to doubt your ability or your strength, you will struggle. I have 100% belief that if I decide I want to do something, I will do it, but that definitely comes with time and experience.
Do you have any strategies for your ultras such as breaking down the distance into smaller segments?
I do break them all down, usually into checkpoints; [mentally,] if you’re only running 8 miles, that’s easy! I might also learn the names of the different places I go through and recite them as a list so that I can picture them in my head. For example, I can spend quite a lot of time working out the order of the coastal villages on the Hardmoors 60 as a lot of them start with an S or an R! On something like the Lakeland 50, you can learn the themes of each checkpoint and picture who or what will be there. It becomes something to look forward to.
Do you use music for training or racing?
I haven’t used music since last year because I find I don’t need the distraction anymore, but I might on my next 100+ miler! I listen to all sorts: Steps, Disney songs, 90s dance music, The Killers, Bloc Party, Arcade Fire, Fall Out Boy, Bruce Springsteen, Taylor Swift. Jayson (Kim’s ultra runner husband) really likes Swedish House Mafia for racing and it does work! As long as it’s bouncy and happy, it’s on the list, but my favourites for getting amped up are Flux by Bloc Party and No Cars Go by Arcade Fire.
What do you do when you’re in the ‘pain cave’ on a run?
Listening to music can sometimes work well, although [as I said] I haven’t done that for a while as I find faffing with headphones without something annoying me is too distracting. Music definitely helped when I did the Hardmoors Grand Slam as they were my first big ultras and singing along when you’re alone passes the time and is uplifting.
Sometimes I don’t cope well and can’t pull myself out. On the West Highland Way (a 95-mile ultra), I suffered a lot and just had to keep shuffling along. Finishing was all that mattered, but I was in a bad way at the end. On the CCC (the 101km Courmayeur Champex Chamonix event with 6,100 metres of vertical ascent), I really struggled too and even had the thought that if I lay down at the side of the trail and turned off my torch, no-one would know I was there. Luckily, another runner told me to get on with it as I was still top 200. Sometimes someone saying the right thing can really help.
Mostly, I just talk myself through it using logic and facts. Like: ‘It’ll be done in an hour and you can sit down’, or ‘get to the next checkpoint and have some coke.’
Your husband, Jayson Cavill, is also an ultra-runner and coach. Do you run together?
We do run together, although it’s hard to do quality training together at times because he is much faster than me. We enjoy being outside together so we mostly do easy or long runs together. I actually got him into running longer races and remember when he thought 10 miles on forest trails was hardcore! My running has improved with him though, as he’s taught me that it’s okay to want to compete and that I can push myself much harder than I sometimes think. We ran a marathon together a few years ago and he kept me at a tough pace the whole way. I came in with a time I was really proud of, feeling totally spent, which I had never experienced before. It showed me that my body was capable of much more than I thought if I bossed it bit more!
What kind of run training do you do for your ultras? Do you run on roads, trails, hills? Do sprints, intervals or just long runs?
That’s really hard to answer as it differs for every race. It completely depends on what you want from an event, what your strengths and weaknesses are, how long you’ve got before the event and what you’ve done previously. I’ve found that just doing big miles to train for ultras will only get you so far and it will ultimately fatigue you, so I can’t say I’ve done lots of really long training runs, even before 100 milers.
The Lakeland 50 was my last big race so, as an example, I built up to it for the first half of the year, using the Hardmoors 55 in March and the Hardmoors Wainstones Marathon in June as practise runs. In the months leading up to it, I was doing threshold running and hills to get ready to run more comfortably for an uncomfortable amount of time!
I run on everything, really. Road is sometimes convenient and easy, but I try to keep it to a minimum as it batters me. I prefer trails rather than mountainous terrain and we have more traily stuff in our area, so that works outs well. As far as speed goes, it depends on how far out from an event I am and how long it is, but speedo work is a key element to my training as it helps build up power in your lungs and heart.
My mileage again varies a lot, but I rarely do less than 30 miles a week and have rarely gone over about 60. It’s more about quality than quantity!
Are you big on technology and tracking your runs?
I do have a Garmin Fenix 3 and I’m on Strava but I don’t analyse it much. I look at splits and pace on some runs and definitely for speed sessions, but not for everything. I am a bit obsessive so do log everything but more for my own sense of satisfaction than anything else. I definitely run by feel, or perceived exertion, in training because there are so many factors that can affect heart rate and pace in trail running that it can sometimes be misleading and not very useful.
Do you do any cross training or strength training?
Absolutely! After suffering with an ITB injury, I’m a huge believer in doing more than just running. I love strength training and do it at home with a few bits of kit, and I go to a kettlebell class once a week. I enjoy riding my road bike too, although that’s quite sporadic to be honest. I need to do more of it! I think everyone should include strength and mobility work in their life, whether they’re a runner or not!
What’s a typical week of training look like when you’re in race season?
Again, it depends on the event. I don’t really have a season either as it’s just what I want to do when it falls! At the moment, I’m doing about 4-5 runs a week, mostly easy with some very short bursts of gentle speed in them. I do my kettlebell class and one or two sessions of strength work too. My run sessions are constantly changing though and, because of my next event, I will be starting to do more in the next few weeks.
As an example, about a month before the Lakeland 50, which was the last big event I did, my week involved running 5 days in the week with a couple of longer runs over hilly terrain, a tempo run and a couple of easy, shorter runs. I also did two strength sessions as, at that point, the runs took precedence. This was quite a heavy week!
Can you tell us about your coaching business, Cavill Coaching?
My husband, Jayson, started coaching a couple of years ago and his athlete base has grown really successfully because of how well the athletes have progressed and how well-respected Jayson is as a runner. I help with the training camps we run about three times a year, as we have very similar race experience but can approach things from very different perspectives. I started taking on a few athletes because Jayson was so busy, and I’m really enjoying it!
We use an online system and talk on the phone frequently with our athletes. We’re very adaptable as we know all too well how busy people’s lives are, so we work with the time they have available and tweak things constantly depending on how it’s all going. Tailoring plans, exercises and sessions is vital and we want to work with people long-term so that they can be rewarded for their efforts.
We both feel very strongly about training hard but training smart: we see a lot of people who want to do everything and have lots of conflicting goals – something we have been guilty of ourselves! It’s always important to make sure you know what’s most important to that individual and to help them see that, usually, the more specific and focused the goal is, the easier it will be to achieve.
You can go to our website, www.cavillcoaching.com, for more information on our coaching packages and training camps. We have a training camp coming up on the 25th and 26th of November, which you can find out more about.
You took part in the iconic Transvulcania ultra earlier this year – how was it?
I did the ultra-marathon, a 45-mile beast starting at sea level and climbing up to about 2500m to the top of a volcano! It was amazing, one of the best supported races I’ve ever done. The island is small, so this event is one of the highlights of the year and all the locals get really into it, setting up impromptu food tables and trying to give you wine! The scenery is spectacular too – I almost cried when I got up above the clouds and could see the other Canary Islands seemingly floating below me. You go through every type of terrain you can think of as well, except maybe mud. The forest trails are beautiful and going up through the mist is an experience. You start on black sand in the early morning and finish in a bustling town in the heat of the day.
The Transvulcania was very tough. I was never expecting to compete at this one as it has an elite international field and if you’re not in the elite box at the start, you’re not going to see the top 20! I did pass some elite ladies though and to finish 25th lady was pretty incredible as it was much more technical than I was expecting. I’m not the most confident descender and the hills down to sea level were brutally steep and rocky. I fell over a couple of times, not badly, but did end up zigzagging down one tarmac hill to try and save my quads a bit!
If you want a fantastic holiday and to do a pretty epic race, I would definitely recommend this one.
Which has been your hardest ultra running event to date?
I think it’s a tie between the West Highland Way Race and the CCC, both in 2016. It was the year I got married and the WHW was only a couple of weeks after the wedding, so I don’t think I fully realised what I was doing until I was standing outside Milngavie train station at 1am! I’d not been as focused on it as I should have been and made some assumptions about how well it would suit me.
The start time was what made it so difficult, I think, as I hadn’t really prepared for it and was so fuzzy headed I didn’t make myself eat properly which resulted in a dodgy tummy. This had the knock on effect of dehydration which then meant the food I did eventually eat sat around and made me feel heavy and queasy. The midges were horrendous too which put me in a bad mood! They really are the most irritating things because you just cannot avoid them. I ran with net on my head, covered in Deet, and complained a lot! The end couldn’t come soon enough for me; I lost all form and was sick afterwards. It’s a shame because I do really like the route; the race team and support were great and I would do it again, but maybe not in midge season! It also gets top marks for the prize-giving where everyone gets to go up and collect their crystal goblet.
The CCC was a second-half sufferfest. The first 30 miles went so well that I almost couldn’t believe it. I love that course and the event itself is phenomenal but I completely lost it when I started up the last few climbs. The final climb to La Flegere was when I felt the worst I have ever felt in any race. I thought I had bonked before but this was totally different. I had to stop and sit down about every 5 minutes just to muster the energy to keep moving forward. I knew I would finish but it was such a contrast to how I had felt during the day and I still don’t really know why. I ate and drank really well and managed the heat, so I think it was a combination of doing too much in the build-up and the altitude. My feet were trashed too, something that had never happened before. It was knife-like pain with every step back down to Chamonix because I had drenched them and was wearing the wrong shoes. That awful bin bag gilet was definitely earned!
What do you do the day before, and morning of, an ultra?
The day before I will go for a really short, really easy run, maybe 30 minutes just to loosen off. I find doing nothing is not good for me – mentally or physically! If possible, I’ll always try to just relax though. No work or supermarket or dashing around if I can help it. I get all my kit ready too, as I find this helps me to focus and start to visualise how things are going to go.
On the morning, like every morning, I do my sun salutations and some other stretches, have a relaxed breakfast and try not to think too much about what will happen. I’ll picture the course in my head again and think about practical stuff, like where the checkpoints are and how long I want it to take for me to get to each one, but I don’t start going through any ‘what ifs’
I like to mill around and chat when I get there as if I start thinking about what lies ahead, I can get nervous. I genuinely feel more nervous at shorter races now though as I know there won’t be much peace!
How do you fuel your ultras? Do you go for ‘real’ food or gels etc?
I always use food. I do have gels very occasionally for shorter stuff or in an absolute emergency: I like Gu and Spring. I absolutely believe that you need to train your stomach to take as much real food as possible when racing ultras, otherwise you can end up with massive problems. My food of choice would always be a combination of cheese sandwiches, Chia Charge flapjacks, fruit, Kendal Mint Cake, and jelly sweets when things get tough! I like crisps sometimes too and will sometimes make cookies if I’m really on it.
Before a race, if it’s in the morning, I have oats for breakfast in some form. I usually have them with berries, nuts, seeds and honey and some jasmine tea. I’ll have a Chia Charge flapjack just before the start too. I then try to stick to normal meal times for sandwiches with snacks every 30-45 minutes.
Hydration is my favourite thing to talk about though, as without proper hydration the best fuelling strategy in the world will fall down. I really like Precision Hydration as their electrolytes are just that: there is no combining fuel with hydration which I think can be one of the worst things you can do for your stomach. They make different strengths too and what I have found works for me is having the highest strength drink the day before a race, again in the morning and then using a lower strength one during the race itself. I’ve not had a problem with my stomach since using this system and have had no trouble eating during a race, so I know it works for me.
On your website’s list of achievements it says: ‘18th lady 2016 Glencoe Ring of Steall (never again!)’– what happened?
It was just really not my kind of race! 18th lady sounds alright but I think there were less than 30 women doing it! I really wanted to be involved in the Glencoe weekend as the year before Jayson had done the Skyline and I had absolutely no desire to do it but I felt a bit detached from it as I was spectating. The Ring of Steall was billed as an introduction to Skyrunning and I thought I would at least have a nice day out and allow me to watch the Skyline race on Sunday with some satisfaction. It is a wonderful part of the world with an amazing landscape but I just can’t run on it! I learnt that I enjoy running, not scrambling, and I could only really run on one short section so it ended up being a long, hard walk. It was certainly a challenge, though!
What are your favourite items of kit for training and racing?
I’ve used a lot of shoes for lots of different terrain and distances, such as Hoka Challenger ATRs for hard-packed ultras and Inov8 mudclaws for boggy races like the Yorkshire 3 Peaks, but I think the best all-rounder I’ve used is the Scott Supertrac RC. They’re super-comfy, very lightweight, have a good grip and fit really well to your feet. Definitely the best racing shoe I’ve ever used.
I use a Garmin Fenix 3 which is ace as it makes a really nice watch for day-to-day too. It has all the functions I need and then some. I don’t use the GPS function as it confuses me a bit!
I love Scott and Montane packs for different distances and purposes. The Scott pack was great at L50 and over marathon distance. The Montane packs are all fab though: I use the Montane Snap 4 a lot as it has so much room, you can breathe in it and it’s super comfy.
I hear you come up with flavour ideas for Chia Charge and are a pretty handy baker. What’s your favourite Chia Charge flavour?
Tim at Chia Charge has supported Jayson and I for a long time and I’ve always been a fan of his products, especially now they have a peanut butter range! I do a bit of writing for him and enjoy making squishy little nut butter things as it means I can eat a lot of them too.
Who are you sponsored by at the moment?
Chia Charge help me out with fuelling and some classy little tops! I’m also a Scott ambassador along with Jayson which brings some great perks. Montane sponsor Jayson so I do get the occasional wife privilege from them too!
I would love to get full sponsorship but no-one has approached me yet! Anyone??