Photo: DW Photographer
With last weekend’s Trail Running World Championship all wrapped up, it seemed like the perfect time to get to know fell and trail ultra-runner Sally Fawcett, who donned her GB vest for the fourth time in Spain to cover the 54-mile course and 5000m of mountainous elevation.
Fresh from the world champs, the 37-year-old Montane ultra-runner and physio chats about her Penyagolosa experience, clocking up Win Hill ascents in training, and ticking off the Bob Graham round last year.
You’ve just returned from the Trail Running World Championship in Spain – how was it?
I had a fantastic experience in Spain, it was a real privilege to be part of a very strong GB team. The weather was always going to make it tough for us Brits; the temperature was early 20’s but as it was such a dry heat and reflected off the limestone, it felt so much warmer. I struggled with the heat from the start, despite it being 6am! As the race was 54 miles with 5000m ascent, it was a long time to be out in it. I only really started to push on and overtake people in the last 15 or so miles when we hit shade and woodland sections. Despite feeling terrible early on, I was able to have a really strong last section and finished in 12 hours 21 mins for 53rd place out of the women and 171st overall out of over 300 athletes.
What was the course like?
The course started on an athletics track, but that was one of the few flat bits! It was dry, rocky trails with a couple of dicey descents, even some scree. It had some pretty technical sections but then lots of runnable sections through the villages. The support from the GB team management, family members and locals as we went through the villages was amazing. It was my fourth time at the TWC, and the competition gets stronger each year with the popularity of the sport increasing. For the GB women’s team to come fourth was an incredibly strong performance, and the men had awesome runs to get the silver medal. The team atmosphere throughout the weekend made for a special occasion; running is so often a solo sport, so to come to an event like this as a team is refreshing and you end up making some great friends.
What was your preparation like for the Trail World Championship?
I had a foot injury in the build-up. 9 weeks out, I ran in snow in spikes and that flared up my toe [injury], which had been an ongoing problem for a few years, last flaring up in the final 2 miles of the OCC in October last year. It meant I couldn’t run and had to walk for a few weeks, but I was able to get lots of hilly hikes into my training. Driving past Win Hill on the way to and from work in the Peaks gave me the opportunity to get plenty of good hill sessions in. These started as a walk but then I started running the descents, and bits of the ups too. Over the 9 weeks I got in 104 Win Hill ascents, although not always by the steepest route, Parkin Clough. I did four Parkin Cloughs as my most in one go, but managed 7 different ways as my most in one run!
Despite not running for 4 weeks and reducing my weekly mileage from the usual 60-70 miles to around 40 miles of walk/run, I still managed to get between 5-7000m of ascent into those weeks! I couldn’t do any speed work – which I usually do in a faster run commute to work – because the hard surface running was a no-go. At the TWC, I found I did lack speed for the runnable sections through the villages as a result, but throughout the race I was very strong on the ascents. At one stage, around 70-75km into the race, I was in a nice rhythm running a steady incline with a New Zealand athlete sticking right behind, and she’d already told me she was using me to pace her up the hill. An Indian chap caught us and commented how strong we were, and as it picked up to a steeper walking climb I dropped them both. I put that down to all those Win Hill reps!
What will your recovery be like now – will you adjust your running schedule and cut it back?
I’m having a few days off completely – as with any long ultra I don’t run until I feel like it, so it might be a couple of days or it could be a week or so. I’ll do some yoga and stretching after a couple of days, maybe some hiking or cycling but I’ll not rush the recovery. You feel invincible after completing an ultra but the days after are the vulnerable period; now’s the time to get onto the protein to repair the muscle damage and to sleep lots. It takes a good few days for me to catch-up on lost sleep, either from a ridiculously early race or restless legs keeping me up post-race. I don’t see any benefit in running during that recovery period.
This was your fourth time wearing the GB vest. How does it feel representing your country on the trails?
It’s amazing being part of a team, putting on the matching kit. Trail running has got more and more popular over the last few years, so it’s always an honour to be selected with the competition getting stronger each year. The occasion is brilliant, but the pride of representing your country doesn’t really set in until a few days later when you start to comprehend the enormity of the race and the people you compete against.
You were originally a road runner – how did the switch to trail and fell running come about?
I started as a road runner and found I was always better at the longer distances. The marathon was my best distance but once I ticked the sub-3 hours goal I couldn’t see myself getting much quicker to tick off the next significant time, the sub 2.45. Plus, I’d become fed up of being a slave to the watch; each run became about splits, paces etc., and not being about enjoying where you were running. This led nicely to exploring further afield, initially on the trails but then moving more to fells with Dark Peak Fell Runners. Here the watch is meaningless; each mile is so different, you might as well switch off to it and look at the scenery instead.
I never imagined I’d be quick enough to run for GB. Each time I was selected I was surprised, as I was sure there’d be faster women ahead of me, but I was able to get automatic selection in 2016 and 2017 by coming 2nd in the selection races. This year, selection was based on race CVs, so I think my Bob Graham Round stood me in good stead, along with some good results at the OCC and Sud de France
Last year, by October you’d already run a total of 443,454ft of elevation. Is this typical training – are your runs largely hilly and mountainous?
Hilly runs are my favourite ones. I often run with my partner, Simon, and if we’re not racing, which will inevitably be hilly, we’ll recce routes, or do occasional Peaks long runs like the Kinder Dozen, Kinder Killer or the Loxley 5 Trigs – all good Dark Peak challenges. We do spend quite a few weekends in the Lakes too, which is easy to build up the ascent!
What would you say is your ideal race distance and terrain?
I like races with a mixture of all sorts, some runnable sections, some technical, lots of good climbing, less so the gnarly descents! My favourite races are all around the 20-25 miles distances such as Edale Skyline, Marsden to Edale Trigger, Three Peaks.
Have you had many low moments in races where you’ve had to draw on mental strength to get you to keep going?
There’s low points in every ultra, I think every ultra runner would agree on that. You need to think through what it is though: is it nutrition/ fluid/ clothing? Can you do anything about it? You have to act early on those bad points and not ignore it and just carry on, as it always come back to bite you if you ignore it! I think those that identify, acknowledge and act quickest are the ones that are most successful in races.
Has your ultra race nutrition been a trial and error process or were you able to quickly find race nutrition that suited you?
It’s definitely trial and error. I go through phases too; if you use one thing too much it tends to put you off for a while! Marzipan has been a staple in races for a long time, that and Mountain Fuel Xtreme get me through most races. On long training runs I do like pork pies, although I find these difficult to stomach at higher intensity when racing.
What does a typical week of training look like when you’re not recovering post-race?
That’s what needs to change, because of my foot injury. I used to do a couple of days of 5 mile commutes to and from work each week, but the hard tarmac is flaring up my toe joint so I’m giving that up. I’m lucky that work takes me into the Peaks from Sheffield so I will often stop off in my lunchbreak or after work to do a Peaks-based 40-60 minute run and will do this most days. On a Wednesday, I’ll usually do a longer run, often with Dark Peak, of around 90 minutes. Most weekday runs are only 45-60 minutes, and 1-2 days a week I will run twice at the peak of my training.
Do you use races as part of your training?
I like to race. I don’t enjoy pushing myself in training so will use local races as my faster session for the week. There’s so many evening fell races to choose from at this time of year that you can get a lovely social run, but if I want a fast session I can take it harder. It takes some discipline to not treat every race as you’re racing though – it’s fine to back off a little in a race if you have something big coming up! I’m not great at descending compared to ascending, and the local races are great to practice descending. If you’re anything like me and get competitive if someone passes you, it’s a good way to push yourself outside your comfort zone to improve – I would never push myself in a solo training run! I limit the ultras I do each year, and I’ve found 4-5 focus races a year is my maximum.
As a physio you must be quite good at keeping mobile and well-stretched. What kind of strength and conditioning exercises do you do?
I keep my foam roller in front of the TV. I don’t watch a lot of telly, but generally winding down for an hour or so in the evening in front of the TV is when I stretch and roller most nights. I try to do this most days. It doesn’t often happen that way, but if I’m particularly tight in any muscles I will focus on good stretches rather than the same routine of stretching everything.
I teach two running rehab classes a week at Underground Fitness in Sheffield. As a physio I treat a lot of runners and have found that, once discharged, runners like to have some motivation to keep going with rehab exercises, as much as injury prevention or prehab as anything else. These are circuit classes where we work on balance, bodyweight strength exercises such as squats and lunges, core strength and stretches. Two sessions of S&C a week are plenty for me – I find if you do too much you end up impacting your running due to DOMS.
Do you include any plyometrics in your training?
Occasionally, I include it in my circuits but not every week. Endurance running is my sport and aside from climbing the occasional stile, there’s no need to jump onto a huge box. It can cause unnecessary injury risk to do too aggressive plyometrics for me, so I don’t tend to focus on this. If you needed flat-out speed for shorter races I can see some benefit but it’s not essential for me.
You did the epic Bob Graham round last year – how was that experience? And are you tempted to do any of the other rounds?
The Bob Graham is a fantastic, unique experience. As the contender you are the one doing the round, but your success relies so much on your support. You need a couple of good mates to carry food and water, and also help with navigation, so your completion really does depend as much on them as you.
I supported several rounds before mine, and in turn people I supported then helped out on mine. If I hadn’t gone sub-20 hours I would certainly go back, but there’s no need to now; I’m happy helping others with their rounds now. I know the Lakes pretty well, but don’t know the Paddy Buckley or Ramsey Round at all, so it would be a few years in the making getting to know the legs and supporting others if I were to attempt either of them. These challenges shouldn’t be taken lightly; it involves a lot of preparation and a time commitment so it’s not on my radar at the moment.
You live in Sheffield with the Peak District on your doorstep. Do you have any favourite trail/fell routes?
Win Hill! Dark Peak have a club run, done as a race, called Some You Win, Some You Lose. It’s just over 8 miles and involves climbing Hope Brink the direct line, Win Hill down Twitchill, round the back of Lose Hill then descending back down to Hope. That’s a great route for runnable sections but also getting a lot of good climbing in. I also like following the edge path from Cutthroat Bridge, along to Lost Lad and down to Ladybower, looping back via Grindle Clough to Derwent Moor and back to Cutthroat, about 10 miles.
What has been your toughest race so far?
The race just gone – the Trail World Championships, mainly because my training wasn’t how I would have liked it. I hadn’t done the speed work, but I did go into it with more strength in my quads from all the ascent in my training. It didn’t trust my foot or training, unknown variables. In the end the heat slowed me down and not my foot, and my legs are great two days later so all the training has obviously worked.
What’s on the horizon for you for the rest of this year?
Fell races and mountain marathons. I’m ready for a change in focus and the fell races offer a much more laidback approach to both training and racing. The mountain marathons will allow me to improve my navigation skills and as they are paired events, I’m doing the long score with Simon at the Saunders – it makes for more sociable running.
What are your must-have items of kit for racing and training?
I’m lucky to have some great sponsors. I’ve been with Montane for 3 years now and they provide lightweight but also great, functional kit for ultras and fells. It’s not all about lightweight gear; when exposed to the elements you need kit that works and Montane provide that for me. I especially like the Spine Gortex jacket if the weather is particularly bad. I do love the winter races so this gets a lot of use for me! The packs I use are either the Via Snap 4, Via Claw 14 or Via Dragon 20 depending on the race length and kit requirements. They are brilliant, fit me perfectly with minimal movement once on, and have plenty of reachable storage pockets without needing to take the pack off.
I use Injinji socks and have done for a few years, in fact I couldn’t run in anything else now. I have been taping up my toe and if it wasn’t for the Injinjis there would have been a lot of blisters and chaffing between the toes! Beta Running supply me with Injinji socks and also my Guidetti Poles, which I used at the Trail World Championship.
Recently I’ve also been lucky enough to have support from La Sportiva. I use their Mutants on the fells, but the Bushido were perfect for the TWC where the sole of the foot needed the protection from the stones and rocks. Lyon Equipment supply my La Sportiva shoes and also Petzl head torches.
Who are you sponsored by at the moment?
Montane, Injinji, La Sportiva and Petzl have all been fantastic and I’m very grateful to the gear I’ve been provided with for my running over the years. I’m also part of the Mountain Fuel ambassador team.