Italian ultrarunner Francesca Canepa was a podium-bagging professional snowboarder before switching to running at the age of 38. Despite not having run before, she came tenth overall in her first race. Incredibly, just two years later, in 2012, Francesca came second at the Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc (UTMB). And if that wasn’t crazy enough, one week after UTMB she won the notoriously gruelling Tor des Geants, an unimaginably tough race covering 330km with 24,000m of vertical elevation.
Since then the mum of two has gone on to win more of trail running’s most revered and challenging races, including Laveredo Ultra Trail and, in 2018 at the age of 46, UTMB – six years after she ran it for the first time.
Incredibly, for an ultrarunner, Francesca avoids running as much as possible in training – yes, you read that right. In this Q&A, Francesca, who is a trained psychologist, shares what her training actually involves, how she fuels her ultras and what’s got her through the toughest moments she’s faced in her racing career so far.
You were a professional snowboarder before you were a runner. Have you always been sporty?
As a child, I was a ballet dancer. After that, an ice skater and finally I started with snowboarding at 22. But of course, as I’m very competitive, everything I did was somehow “goal-oriented”. In my snowboarding career I achieved a lot, I won many times [the] Italian cup, have been national champion and had many international podiums and victories.
What made you move into running and ultrarunning?
My endless search for new challenges. After stopping snowboarding, I felt I had something more to do with sport, so I looked for something without “age limitations”. I tried a 26km trail race without having run before and I came 3rd in my age group and 10th overall so I decided to give this sport a try.
The following week I tried a marathon and finished in 3.29 without struggling so I thought it could be the solution I was looking for. It was May 2010. The following season I began ultrarunning and I felt at ease with the effort, so I kept going.
You won UTMB in 2018. Which do you find tougher, the mental or the physical aspect of it?
Well, during UTMB 2018 everything was sort of “easy” because I did my perfect race. I was focused mentally and strong physically. But in general, I find it way more difficult to manage the mental. If I’m not comfortable mentally, I often drop out because I don’t like to do something I don’t like. If I’m mentally okay, I can overcome almost everything else.
Are you able to enjoy races like UTMB whilst you’re out racing or is it only afterwards that you appreciate them?
When the race goes well I completely appreciate it during the race. If I struggle too much of course, I appreciate everything after, and especially the resilience that allowed me to finish despite the difficulties. I like ultrarunning because it often forces you to be the best you can be, so it allows us to grow every time.
What’s your usual nutrition and hydration strategy for ultra races?
I definitely eat real food. I try to stay tuned in and to listen to what my body requires: for example, during an ultra race, after a while I need protein, so when I have my support, I have eggs or tuna fish or turkey. If I’m alone I try to manage myself with what is provided, but for sure it doesn’t work as well. For drinking, I always have a flask with water and one flask with fruit juice. I don’t like energy drinks or similar. For eating, I like to eat homemade biscuits or cakes or rice balls. Something very simple and natural.
What does a typical week of training look like for you?
As I don’t like running so much – in my heart and soul I still am a snowboarder – I prefer to run as little as possible and I prefer to just do HIIT training at home with some simple circuits or on my spin bike. I like to race because it motivates me more and allows me to discover new places. Running at home doesn’t work too much for me.
Do you aim to achieve mileage, time or vertical accumulation goals in training?
Neither one nor the other! I just aim to race, feel a little tired after that, recover and race again.
You won the 137km Oman by UTMB but said it nearly killed you. Can you elaborate?
Oman was incredibly technical and I hate technical [terrain]. I’m not skilled enough to enjoy it, maybe because when I was a child I was more of a dancer. I struggled all the 130km and I felt as if I didn’t progress at all. On the top of that, I sat down on a rock for almost an hour because I was convinced I had made a mistake following the wrong marks, so I lost so much time and all my focus.
The last 20km was a nightmare, but for sure I’m the only one to blame because the marking was perfect. I enjoyed reaching the finish line and I was grateful for the opportunity to reach my mental limits once again and winning over myself.
Which has been your toughest race so far and what got you through it?
I think Oman, as I said before. I guess that the gratitude for being there, my overall experience in the country and, of course, my will to achieve got me through everything. The worst feeling in the world for me is the “unachieved”. I always feel miserable when I don’t finish because it means that I’ve been too weak to overcome the difficulties and I don’t like to feel weak. I don’t have to always win or finish on the podium, but I want to be sure to have done all my best. So during my struggle at Oman, I thought that the first goal was to keep going. The second was to try to manage myself not to get injured in the technical [areas], the last one was to still be ahead if possible.
You’re a psychologist. What kind of mental strategies do you use before and during races?
Just to stay in the moment and take the stuff step-by-step. I try to isolate myself from the outside world, staying far from any sort of comparison and keep in mind that every race finishes under the finish line arch. Not before. So until that moment everything may be possible.
Many mountain athletes in Europe switch to snow-based endurance sports such as skimo in winter as part of their training. Is this something you do?
I like cross country skiing because of the feeling I have when I do it technically well. I like to enjoy the snow but I don’t like skimo because you always have to climb. I prefer to feel some speed and, of course, if I find some race, I do it, luckily with good results.
Of course, if I can, I still like to do some giant slalom snowboarding races. It may seem crazy, but I still earned a bronze medal at the Italian Championships last year, where I went to coach my son Matteo, who earned silver. It was such a wonderful weekend!
What are your favourite items of kit and who are you sponsored by right now?
At the moment I’m sponsored by Montane clothes and I like it a lot because they have a summer collection that dries very quickly and also winter down jackets that allow me to stay really warm. For shoes, I have Scarpa that I really appreciate because of the minimalism of my Spin model. I prefer to actually feel the terrain and I want to be confident about the grip. And I have a Polar watch that I actually consider as my coach because it monitors almost every aspect of my life, in particular, I’m interested in the sleep quality and the recovery, so it’s interesting to have gear that does that for you.