© Zoe Salt
New Zealand born ultra-distance trail runner, Sophie Grant, has podiumed at the renowned Transgrancanaria ultra, won the Lakes Sky Ultra race and represented Great Britain at the World Trail Championships. But rewind 10 years and she was only just entering her first half-marathon.
Sophie, who swapped London life for living out of a campervan in the mountains of Europe, chats about how she went from self-titled ‘overweight shuffler’ to successful ultra-runner, and sheds light on what a typical week of training looks like.
When did your running journey begin?
I played a lot of different sports at school but I was never into running. George (Sophie’s husband) and I moved to London in 2004 and over the next couple of years I put on lots of weight. I wasn’t particularly happy, was partying pretty hard, and I realised I needed to do something about it so I started running. At the beginning, I was only able to run 15 minutes at a time, but I gradually built up from there and not only did it shrink my waistline but it also made me a much happier person.
I used to run with my father-in-law five days a week, and we ran my first half-marathon together in 2008, and then I ran my first few marathons the following year. My goal was to run London, Paris and New York in the same year and then it kind of spiralled after that.
In 2013 your husband bought you an entry to the multi-day desert ultra, the Marathon des Sables – how was your first desert ultra experience?
It was the best present ever! Honestly, I had the most incredible time out in the desert. Being surrounded by 1000 equally crazy people was just awesome. I made some of my closest friends at that race and just seeing the grit and determination of some of the competitors out there is something I will never forget. We took the training and packing pretty seriously though; my husband built me a heat chamber in the garage and did loads of research to make sure I had the lightest possible pack. He also spent many a weekend driving me to Wales so I could run up and down Europe’s second highest sand dune… bet you didn’t know that existed in Wales!
You came fourth at the MdS – did this make you realise you were pretty suited to ultra-distance events?
It was actually when I ran Transgrancanaria 80km as a training race for the MdS and placed third that I started to think I might actually be all right at it, then to come fourth at the MdS was amazing. It made me realise that I wanted to race against the best in the world, so I sought out big international races to compete in. It is such a different world to road running where everyone is trying to take seconds off their time; in ultras the logistics and personal management of your body and head have to be spot on and can make hours of difference.
What has been your most memorable race experience so far?
Running for Great Britain at the World Trail Championship was something that I never thought I could do. If you’d told that overweight shuffler back in my twenties that I would one day represent GB I would have laughed very hard in your face. Our women’s team achieved bronze and to stand on that stage with so many amazing and inspiring women was beyond my wildest dreams.
You’re now coached by Robbie Britton – have you always had a coach, and how has your running changed since enlisting one?
I haven’t always had a coach and I wasn’t until 2014 that I realised I wasn’t able to progress my running any more by myself. Before I enlisted the help of a coach, I would just run without any real structure or purpose – I’d run at the same speed all the time and do lots of really long training runs. Having a coach has given my training structure, keeps me accountable to someone else and stops me from overtraining. It takes some of the guess work out of it, and if you believe in your coach you can stand on the start line knowing that you’ve done the training that is right for you to achieve your goals.
I’m lucky enough to have worked with two very different coaches who have taught me a huge amount about the sport and have helped me achieve results that were just daydreams back at the start. Robbie has been really great for me and he approaches things quite differently from how I previously had. It helps that he is a really dedicated runner himself and is an inspiration. I’m a coach myself now, and it’s an eye-opening experience to be on the other side of the relationship – I love it! Helping other athletes learn, grow and achieve their goals is awesome.
You recently wrote about the lack of women in ultra-running races. In your mind, what are the biggest barriers putting women off?
I think the biggest barriers are time, support and the fact it is already so male dominated. The lack of women perpetuates the lack of women. It’s like going into a weight room at a gym and being surrounded by men; somehow it makes you feel like you don’t belong. Also, as women, whether we like it or not, we tend to fall into the roles of housekeeper and child carer. I talk to women all the time who would love to carve out some time for themselves in the day to do something they’re passionate about. No-one thinks twice if a man disappears for hours to do that long run, but if a woman goes it’s seen as selfish and is often accompanied by guilt.
We’re all trying to do everything well and unfortunately there just isn’t enough time in the day, so at some point something suffers. It can be hard to find the time to run when you’re working fulltime or caring for children, but I’m very selfish about it now because quite frankly I am a nicer, calmer person when I run and I do it as much for my mental sanity as I do for my fitness.
We’ve all heard jokes about men speeding up as a female runner approaches, but have you experienced men not letting you pass in a race?
I will say that in most races 99% of the men are hugely supportive but I have had a few situations where men haven’t wanted to let me pass. In one race, I had other male runners come to my rescue and make the men in front of me move to let me pass. In fact, in that same race my friend got pushed from the trail by a man who was pissed that she’d passed him – she sprained her ankle and had to drop [out] and he didn’t even stop to see if she was okay.
What does a typical week’s training look like, and do you always run on trails?
I usually run six days a week, often twice a day, and most of my runs are at an easy pace so that when I do have speed work or hills I can do them properly. I tend to run on trails when I can, but with my life being so transient I use what I’ve got. At the moment I’m doing lots of ski-touring as we’re currently in Chamonix so most of the trails are all covered in snow.
When you have to dig deep during your ultras do you use a particular mental strategy?
The first time I raced Transgrancanaria 125km, which was the first time I’d raced for that long, I had a really bad patch towards the end – I had been vomiting and I thought I was coming last. I wanted to pull out and I was convinced that I wouldn’t be able to finish, but my husband wouldn’t let me drop. He knew that I would be a complete nightmare and full of disappointment the next day if I didn’t see it through. There was nothing really wrong with me – it was just a really tough, long race so he flat-out refused to let me pull out.
It was the best thing someone could have done for me because I finished in 14th place. We made a pact after that that I wasn’t allowed to pull myself out of races – he can or a medic can, which means that whenever things are tough all I have to do is get to George. That’s my mental strategy – having someone that I trust to keep an eye on me gives me the motivation to keep moving forward.
Which has been your most challenging race to date?
The Grand Raid Reunion/Diagnale De Fous (the madmen’s diagonal), which is this nuts race on Reunion Island (in the Indian Ocean) which is 100 miles of super-technical terrain with 10,000m of altitude gain. The start is like starting the London marathon at 10pm and the whole island comes out to watch. You run through two nights and into places where they can only rescue you by helicopter. The scenery is some of the most epic I’ve ever seen with everything from comedy-sized bamboo and erupting volcanos to walls of waterfalls, but the most amazing part is all the supporters. There are so many locals on the island who want to run this race that they have to hold a ballot and everyone knows about it, so the support out on the course is some of the best! I ran it just seven weeks after the UTMB (another 100-mile 10,000m race) so it was a pretty big ask for my body, but I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to race there.
What are your favourite items of kit for racing and training?
I absolutely love my La Sportiva shoes. I spent a long time trying different types of shoes when I first started racing and was getting injuries and blood blisters. Then I found La Sportiva and they solved all my problems. They have amazing sticky grip which is what you want when your races involve some pretty sketchy scrambling.
I also don’t go anywhere without my pink Ultimate Direction Ultra Vesta (backpack). I use it for all of my races which can be anything from 30-100 miles, and for most of my training runs too. Being out in the mountains means you always need to take out a bit of ‘just in case’ gear and I’ve tried a lot of backpacks and found this the most comfortable.
You now live out of your campervan. How have you found van life?
It’s the best thing we have ever done! When we lived in London we were spending all our spare time trying to get to the mountains and it was becoming unsustainable and exhausting so we made the big decision to switch the balance around. Learning to live like this has been a huge lesson and it has made our relationship stronger. It’s not for everyone and comes with its own special set of challenges, but I’m in no rush to live in a house again.
Do you think having easy access to the mountains has helped improve your running?
Maybe? Our biggest problem is taking up new sports and trying to fit it all in. Since moving to the mountains I’ve taking up skiing, cross-country skiing, ice climbing, general mountaineering and parapenting… and this was already on top of running, cycling and climbing!
You’ve travelled around the Alps and you’re originally from New Zealand. Do you have a favourite spot in the world to run?
I would have to say the Dolomites. It can get a bit busy at times but the scenery is incredible and there’s trail for every mood. The other place I really want to spend some more time is Corsica, I was there for a week this year and only scratched the surface, so I would love to go back and do some more exploring.
What’s on the horizon for you in 2019 – have you any races planned already?
So far I’ve planned to race Madeira Ultra Trail, Laverado Ultra Trail, TDS (Ultramarathon by UTMB), and all of the UK skyrunning races.
Are you sponsored by anyone at the moment?
I am incredibly lucky to be sponsored by La Sportiva, Petzl, and Beta Running who distribute Ultimate Direction and Injinji socks. I’m also sponsored by Tailwind France and Longhaul Endurance food. It’s really important for me to only work with brands that I was already using and trusted as these races are far too long to not use the perfect equipment and fuel.