Where to start with today’s interviewee? Rosanna Kuit is an ultra-running, bike-packing, obstacle-running adventure lover who last year set a fastest known time (FKT) record running Britain’s 129-mile Greensand Way. She’s also a pretty accomplished obstacle course racer and has represented the UK at the Obstacle Course Racing World Championship (OCRWC).
On the bike, Rosanna’s cycling adventures have taken her to Chile twice where she’s ridden the Carretera Austral, which I quiz her about in this interview. She also spills the beans on her FKT experience, ‘ultra rage’ and blistergeddon.
You’re an ultrarunner, you’ve cycled Chile’s Carretera Austral twice, you’ve competed at the OCRWC… is there a sports discipline or type of adventure you enjoy the most?
I love pretty much anything that involves making a human powered journey through somewhere beautiful. So far the bike trips in South America have been my absolute life highlights but lower key trips like hiking the West Highland Way have ticked many of the same boxes. There’s something so liberating about walking or cycling along carrying everything you need with an entirely flexible agenda. Activities that involve eating rank highly too, hence the ultrarunning!
The obstacle racing is just something I do for fun and it’s how I met most of my very best friends. I don’t dedicate enough time to the technical training to be competitive and I waste time on the course sat on the floor laughing when I fall off things, so I go to the world championships for the atmosphere and to catch up with people I don’t see often enough, certainly not to compete! Saying that, I do really enjoy the long, cold winter races that are more about slogging it out and avoiding hypothermia than being a fast runner or skilled at obstacles.
Last year you set an FKT running the 129 mile Greensand Way. What was your preparation like?
I ran the Greensand Way with Lee-stuart Evans (the same Lee mentioned in Allie Bailey’s interview; he’s got a lot of answer for!) and I think we only decided to do it with about 2 weeks’ notice. I was already training for Lakeland 50, so somehow it seemed like a good idea to do a 110 mile training run just three weeks before the hardest race of my life. I have a reconstructed knee that’s “not compatible with running” in the words of the knee surgeon, so my training tends to be alternate day, low intensity runs with my dog, supplemented with as much hiking as I can fit in.
I actually really enjoy going uphill anticipating the view at the top, but going down after can be horribly painful, so the gym step machine was useful to get some climbing in without having to descend. In actual numbers, the month before the FKT I ran 50 miles, did one 20-mile overnight hike, another run/hike of 40 miles with an overnight bivy, and I cycled 300 miles, nearly all commuting.
How would you describe your Greensand Way FKT experience?
I’ll begin by saying it was an ordeal! It was traumatic, intensely emotional and yet utterly brilliant. It feels like such a ludicrous position to voluntarily put yourself in when you’re halfway along a trail that no one’s heard of, doing something that no one cares about, with a mind boggling distance still to go and feet that hurt really rather a lot. The big distances you cover while concentrating intensely on navigation, combined with sleep deprivation, mean that you experience more heightened emotions than normal. One moment you’re euphoric at the top of a climb revelling in how incredibly lucky and privileged you are to be having this experience, and five minutes later you want to lie on the floor and never have to move again.
Can you remember any particularly low points?
Low points included a stop at Reigate hospital A&E, lying on the floor of Thursley church porch until Lee came back to find me, crying to the tune of Baa Baa Black Sheep all the way up Gibbet hill while fending off well-meaning dog walkers who thought I needed an ambulance, and then having a tantrum about a power pack. It’s incredibly funny to look back now, but it really illustrates how your mental state is affected during an endurance challenge. My feet had been utter agony since about 10 miles in, particularly if I stood still and then moved again, and I could only deal with it by letting my brain disconnect from my body so I felt like I was floating above the trees watching myself!
What happened with the battery pack tantrum?
Just 3 miles from the end, Lee’s watch was running low on battery so he asked me to get his power pack from his bag, saying it was just on the top. I opened the bag and it wasn’t there so I started rummaging, and as the seconds went by I could feel a hot wave of emotions building inside me as the object failed to appear, and then I started yanking stuff out of his bag and wailing and screaming in frustration which is so embarrassingly out of character. It’s a phenomenon we’ve termed ‘ultra rage’ and it’s just a minor inconvenience sparking a release of everything that’s built up over the journey! Friends have had the same experience when they’ve repeatedly pulled the wrong snack out of a pocket or someone’s asked one too many times if they want a cheese sandwich.
What were the high points of your FKT?
The high point is much more succinct because finishing was by far the best thing. I fantasised for hours about getting to the end where I could just sit down and cease to move or bear weight on my feet. I’d have sat under the finish sign for hours had I been there on my own! I also recall an ice lolly from a corner shop being wonderful, and watching the sunrise from Leith hill tower was pretty special.
You ran your FKT during the heatwave – how did the heat affect your attempt?
It was a completely ridiculous time to be up on a greensand ridge and I really wouldn’t recommend it. We started in the morning which should have been cooler, but the route began across giant open fields of baked earth before climbing onto the ridge so we realised then that the heat was going to be our limiting factor. Lee began overheating pretty early on and in hindsight we needed a greater water carrying capacity to get us from one source to the next. We were unsupported so didn’t have a crew helping us, and were reliant on pubs and outside taps at churches and farmyards. One thing that helped massively was asking for ice cubes from pubs and putting them inside buffs on our heads where they’d slowly melt. We also curtailed our speed massively from our original plans and took longer than intended breaks out of the sun.
How long did it take you?
We started on a Friday morning and finished 54 hours later on the Sunday afternoon. I’m not sure about the daily mileage because we just kept plodding along overnight with a 1 hour lie down just before sunrise. The exact length of the route is a grey area because the official guide book (now out of print) says 108 miles while the online gps file is 110. I managed to log 129.5 miles but some of that was navigational errors where we had to backtrack. It’s certainly a mental test to have an extra half marathon you weren’t expecting at the end.
Tell me about ‘blistergeddon’…
It was horrific! I’ve never suffered from blisters before but about 10 miles in I started getting hot spots so we stopped and checked the tape on my feet. Within a few miles I had blisters on the underneath and outsides of both heels, the sides of my big toes, blisters enveloping my two smallest toes and, most painful of all, under the ball of both feet right where you roll your foot over when running or walking. We did all the usual tricks for damage limitation, but faffing with them just made them angrier.
We detoured to visit a doctor friend in the hospital where she tried her best to patch them up better. From then on, which was about halfway, the notion of being able to stop at the finish and my feet no longer hurting became my motivator to keep moving. The faster I got there, the sooner the pain would stop so I’d get into a rhythm with my poles and imagine every step taking me closer to Haselmere. I guess the heat was to blame for the blisters because I’m pleased to say it hasn’t happened again since!
At the start of your first Carretera Austral cycle, the friend you’d planned to cycle with had to leave unexpectedly. How did you adjust to being a solo traveller?
I do most of my running and hiking on my own, and I work as a truck driver so I’m very used to my own company. That first trip, however, was my first time in South America and my first time cycle touring so it was a step into the unknown. I’d done a bit of research into the route and I knew that part of southern Chile was a very safe country for travellers, plus I’m always of the opinion that if other people can do something there’s no reason why I can’t! The Carretera Austral is ideal as a first trip because whilst it’s relatively remote you do pass through plenty of villages, and nearly all the locals drive pickup trucks so hitch-hiking with a bike is easy. Right down south it might be a few hours before a vehicle comes past but you can guarantee that the first one you wave at will stop.
It’s also a popular route for cyclists and within minutes of my friend Lucy leaving, I met two German cyclists on a ferry, Tim and Timo, and I camped with them for the first few days until I found my feet. Further down the road I met many other incredible people, but whilst I enjoyed camping together and sharing stories in the evenings, I chose not to join anyone else’s trip fulltime. I found I really enjoyed being alone in my own head and there was so much stunning scenery I’d happily cycle for 10 hours without music or podcasts. Yes, there were plenty of moments I wished I had someone there to share it with, but overall it just became a different trip rather than better or worse.
What is it about Chile that made you revisit cycling there for a second time?
I could say it was the stunning landscape of Patagonia, the hospitable people and the lure of the southern hemisphere in our winter, and yes they were factors, but the main reason was a boy! The Carretera Austral is a dead-end road for vehicles, but hikers and cyclists can take a boat across Lago O’Higgins and then negotiate a muddy hiking trail that pops you out by a lake in Argentina. I arrived at the lake, Lago del Desierto, with another British cyclist called Sarah, and we were totally drenched through and hungry after 26km of hike-a-bike. We asked if we could pitch our tents outside the boat captain’s house and soon found ourselves invited inside where we enjoyed a giant pot of hot stew as our shoes dried on the generator.
We left the next morning and I spent the following days based in the nearby town of El Chalten which has some of the best hiking in Argentina. On the Friday night the boat captain, Mateo, came into town for supplies and asked me if I wanted to go back to the lake with him to hike up to the glaciers – erm, yes! I ended up staying for a month and didn’t do any more cycling! So he is the reason I went back again.
How did the second time compare to that first trip – did you do anything differently?
The second time I flew to Buenos Aires and spent a month at Mateo’s house on the Peninsula Valdes which is on the east coast of Argentina. It’s a nature reserve but his family have fishing rights so I learnt to search for octopus and snails in the rock pools which I was utterly useless at! I was more suited to sitting with a bucket and scissors cutting samphire, and it was then that I saw the more reclusive wildlife like a Geofrey’s cat and pelugos which are part of the armadillo family. We took a bus to Esquel and then cycled across the Chilean border at Futaleufeu before picking up the Carretera Austral and heading south. Our destination was the lake where we met, and we spent another month there together before I had to leave him behind to work the rest of the tourist season while I continued on my own.
Over the next 6 weeks I cycled to Calafate, was mesmerised by the Perito Moreno glacier, then Torres del Paine where I hiked the O circuit, crossed the Strait of Magellan to Tierra del Fuego, saw penguins, slept in all sorts of weird places and finished my trip in Ushuaia, end of the world. Despite being in the same countries, the second trip was so different because I was with Mateo at first on a route I knew, and then later on my own where everything was entirely new to me. Patagonia is such a special place and I absolutely loved having someone to share it with, and my Spanish was considerably better the second time round so I was able to get a better insight into the lives of the local people.
What were the high points of your trip?
I loved the king penguins on Tierra del Fuego! I’ve never seen them in the wild before and it was just amazing to think I’d pedalled to where they live. I experienced some wonderful hiking in both Chile and Argentina, in particular the huemul circuit which I’ve now done twice because I enjoyed it so much. It’s a 4-day circuit from El Chalten with jaw-dropping views of the southern Patagonian ice field and one night you camp next to icebergs bobbing about in Lago Viedma! You have to carry a harness to cross a few zip wires but they’re easy to hire in town before you start.
Another highlight was riding a horse near Lago Toro in Torres del Paine National Park and spending the 3 hours chatting to the guacho about his life and business in Chile. I work with horses in the UK so it was really interesting and it was one of many occasions where I was so pleased I’d learnt Spanish in the interim between my 2 trips. Throughout the journey I kept arriving in villages mere days after a rodeo so I was thrilled when I happened to arrive in Villa Tehuelches just as the regional rodeo was starting. After a long day on the bike I enjoyed sitting down with an empanada and churros (sugar coated doughnut fingers filled with caramel) soaking up the festival atmosphere.
What ended up being the most challenging element of your trip?
The wind! Leaving Calafate with a very strong tail wind was great and I covered 18km in an hour (that’s fast for a loaded bike!) but then the road turned south and the gusting cross wind was terrifying. It kept either tipping the bike straight over or blowing me across the road, and I had no idea if a car or truck was overtaking, so when a pick-up truck stopped I gladly accepted a lift.
The following day I headed into Torres del Paine with a 90km/hr head wind and I barely sat on the bike in 10 hours. I got blown over multiple times just trying to stand in the road holding the bike upright which was crazy. Later on the wind on Tierra del Fuego made camping interesting so I slept in places with walls such as a bus shelter, a sheep shelter and an abandoned house. The Fuegans are so tough to live in that environment where the wind makes everyday life challenging. I even saw a truck windscreen blow out!
In your most recent cycle across Chile you spotted a puma – did you come up close to any wildlife during your travels?
Yes I saw two puma in a campsite in Torres del Paine! I was incredibly lucky because even the staff there had never seen them. I was just walking along a path and saw them casually strolling around up in front of me so I didn’t feel threatened. I backed away a bit and stood still until they’d moved on.
On the Peninsula Valdes I could see whales and flamingos from Mateo’s house, and a herd of ponies came to visit whenever they wanted water. It was there that I saw a Geofrey’s cat which is very rare, as well as pelugos which are part of the armadillo family. Problematic animals included a cat which ripped our tent open in Coyhaique and ate all our dried pasta and marshmallows, and the horseflies were really nasty. On steep uphill sections you can’t cycle a heavy bike fast enough to escape from them and whole swarms bite through your clothing.
What are your favourite items of kit for races, training or expeditions?
The FKT kit was very similar to what I’d carry for an ultra and my no 1 favourite item is my poles. With my bad knee I doubt I could finish a hilly race without them and they make the descents so much easier. I have Black Diamond Z poles which stow away quickly so you don’t spear people at aid stations.
When I have a fair bit of kit to carry I use an Ultimate Direction Fastpack 25 which is a good blend between a backpack and a running vest. It has more pockets than normal larger capacity bags but it would be even better with a few more. My favourite bag is my Ultimate Direction PB adventure vest which is 16L and has about 10 pockets I can reach without taking it off. The big must-have for me is snacks which is why I need so many pockets! It makes my friends happy when I’m still producing chocolate bars on the last day of a multi-day outing.
I’ve tried nearly every trail shoe suitable for ultras and at the moment I’m really liking the Salomon Sense Pro Max. I wore them straight out of the box at Lakeland 50 and they were perfect. I’ve been wearing the same pair of inov8 shorts for training and races for 4yrs but they’ve just started losing their elasticity which is sad. My most important training accessory is my dog Pedro. He’s run nearly every training mile I’ve ever done as well as some dog-friendly races, and I doubt I’ll continue running once he’s too old to join me.
Are you sponsored by anyone right now?
No. I stole a jacket and a head torch from Lee-stuart Evans so I guess he’s a benefactor.
What’s next – any plans for this year?
Right now I’m mainly working because my finances are dire, but I’m still trying to fit short trips in where possible. I’ve been doing my Mountain Leader training and I’m just starting to think about Assessment which is pretty exciting. I’m running the South Downs Way 100 in June which will be my first proper 100 miler, and then Lakeland 50 again in July which is such a brilliant race. I’ve just done the West Highland Way again and it’s something I highly recommend to anyone wanting a few days of easy navigation in Scotland.
Loose plans for the next few months include hiking the Welsh 3000s, running the Isle of Wight coastal path and there’s a 40 mile circular route near my house that I need to find time for. I’ve got a place in the Ride London 100 mile bike ride so I’ve started doing mountain bike orienteering events as training which are much more fun than playing with the traffic on a road bike. Longer term, I have a list with literally hundreds of places on it I want to go and I add to it whenever I come across somewhere interesting. Bikepacking in Kazakhstan is high on my agenda and the Peru divide really appeals to me but it’s going to be a while before I can bear to leave my dog behind long-term again!
Follow Rosanna’s adventures on foot and by bike via www.instagram.com/rosanna.kuit.