Dutch trail runner Ragna Debats was on flying form in 2017, taking podium spots on vertical running events and scooping the title of 2017 Skyrace Extreme Series Champion. This year looks to be similarly successful, with Ragna winning the 236km multi-day The Coastal Challenge in Costa Rica (setting a new course record in the process). Thankfully the race season isn’t in full swing yet and she’s managed to squeeze some time in this month to answer my questions!
Ahead of the Trail World Championship in May, I quizzed the Merrell ambassador (and mum to 3-year-old daughter, Ona) on how she prepares for ultra distance trail events. Spoiler: it’s not the long runs you might imagine.
You’re a champion skyrunner but also run marathons, multi-stage events and Vertical Kilometer™ races – what terrain and distance do you enjoy the most?
That’s a hard question! I love all sorts of races from a 5K on the road to off-road ultra races up to 85km distances. Last year I did a lot of skyraces from 42-55km and I thought that was a very suitable and enjoyable distance. Right now, I’m preparing for the Trail World Championship in May, which will be 85km and I’m very much looking forward to running this distance again.
Is the Trail World Championship your big focus right now?
Yes, it is my first big focus. In general, in January and February I included many longer runs in my training sessions and I went to a multi-stage race in Costa Rica (The Coastal Challenge, which Ragna won). This month onwards, I’ll focus more on high intensity training sessions. I’ll run a couple of races during this stage of my preparation to see how we are getting on.
Last year you were the Migu Run Skyrunner® World Series Ultra champion. Have you got many skyrunning events planned this year?
Yes, I’ll probably participate in four ultra skyraces and try to replicate my [series] win.
What type of running do you do in your training – is it long distance work, intervals etc.?
I don’t train very long distances. Even on my longer runs the distance remains limited. I do a lot of speed work, like fartlek training and intervals, on cross-type terrain and on hills.
Do you run by distance, elevation or feel?
I focus on my body and how it responds to the training sessions, so rather on my heart rate. Things like distance, height gain and training time are secondary.
Are all your runs on the trail and mountains or do you ever run on the road or treadmill?
I hardly train on treadmills. Only occasionally, if the weather doesn’t allow me to run outside. I also avoid running on the road.
What does a typical week of training look like for you at the moment?
Monday is often “stretching legs day”. Sometimes this means cycling, other days an easy run.
Tuesday, I often do strength training – I usually do strength and conditioning twice a week – and an interval training session.
Wednesday, I often have another interval training session on a different type of terrain.
Thursday is my rest day.
Friday is very varied. Usually strength training in combination with another interval training session, but sometimes it’s cycling.
Saturday and Sunday I do more specific training for the races I’m preparing for.
You suffered with stress fractures when you first started running. How do you stay injury-free now?
I think that during my pregnancy my body did a complete reset. Further, I don’t usually just run. I prefer to work hard during short intense training sessions and leave enough time to recuperate.
You won the multi-day Coastal Challenge in Costa Rica and set a new course record! What was your race experience like?
It was a lovely race! I thoroughly enjoyed it! The heat was hard to deal with and the most limiting factor.
Did you do any heat training prior to running the Coastal Challenge?
No, I didn’t. The weeks before the race I trained a lot on skis! It would have been hard to do outdoor heat training where I live, so I chose not to do any.
Do you have any mental strategies during a race for when it gets tough?
This year will be the first year I’m working with a sports psychologist to improve certain mental strategies. In general, I always try to enjoy [myself] whilst running, so it never gets really tough.
What has been your most challenging event so far and why?
The Transalpine Run which I ran together with my partner almost one year after giving birth to my daughter. She travelled with us and was just learning to walk… Also her teeth were coming through and she wanted to be breastfed nearly all night long. Also, my body wasn’t quite strong enough for such a long race I guess.
You also compete in snowshoe races. Is this good winter training for running?
I really enjoy running a snowshoe race in winter because the races tend to be very short and fast which is nice for a change after the summer. Also, I love the wintery scenery!
You’ve podiumed on several Vertical Kilometer™ races – what’s your advice for people training for a VK?
When you’re preparing for a vertical race, you don’t need to run on steep hills all the time. You should train on varied trails and may consider having a speed session on the track if you like. I personally prefer to do my interval sessions on cross-type trails and tracks. Also, once a week you could do a specific training session for your vertical km on a hill.
What do you eat on the morning of a race and how do you fuel your events?
I usually eat cereal with milk and some toasted bread with marmalade. During the races I take a lot of sugary foods for fast energy, plus gels and fruit.
What’s your favourite kit for racing and training?
A pair of Merrell running shoes – I wear the Crush 2 – and as little clothes as necessary.
Who are you sponsored by?
Merrell is my main sponsor and I’m also sponsored my Mud Sweat & Trails (Holland), La Cameta Coixa (club) and La Clinica del Corredor (The running clinic). Key people are my trainer, Rafa Flores, and my partner, Pere Aurell.
Credit: Albert Jorquera