Coast Ultra Xtreme winner, Julia Davis, is a former road marathon runner (2:39 PB) who switched to ultra trail distances two years ago. Since then she has set a new women’s course record for the South Downs Way 50 (6:54) – her first 50-mile race! – finished 4th woman at Cape Town’s Ultra Trail World Tour, and claimed a Fastest Known Time on the 39-mile Mid-Sussex Link.
Last month Julia won the 3-day Coast Ultra Xtreme race, her first multi-day event, which included a combined 80-mile distance and 5000m+ of elevation. You can watch the documentary about it, The Ultra Mindset, which features Julia, via Endurance Sports TV if you’re a subscriber.
In the meantime, read our Q&A where I quiz Julia on her love of hills, her fuelling strategy, and typical training schedule.
You’ve been running for 6 years and have some fast road marathons to your name, yet you only started trail running more recently. What inspired the switch from road running?
So my running journey only really began because I wanted to run the London Marathon to raise money for the Christie Hospice where my granddad had been treated. The incentive to start running was solely to finish the marathon but I enjoyed the process so much and was so surprised by my time (3.03) that I carried on.
I quickly realised how much more I preferred trails and hills and migrated over to have the sort of adventures I really wanted. Although I can generate speed over a short distance, I just love pushing further and on difficult terrain. The prospect of an adventure is really what stokes my fire but also the fact you can’t compare times over distances when the terrain and weather can be such a huge factor. I’ve certainly been humbled by some 20-minute miles over the past few years!
Last month you won the Coast Ultra Xtreme which is hilly and technical. How did you prepare?
I’ve been living in the flattest, most concrete place for the last few years so getting hills and trails in has had to be a concerted effort to get out on the South Downs – the maximum I managed was 3 times a week, so far from “ideal” for technical, tough and hilly races. I was lucky enough to be in Cornwall over lockdown as I was selling my house so stayed with my parents and got some good hills in for a few months. I grew up there, so spent time walking on the coast path and more recently running it, so I am no stranger to that particular terrain!
CUX was your first multi-day event. What was your fuelling strategy and did it work?
I had a lot of help from my coach, Robbie Britton, who is super-keen on the value of fuelling and put together an in-race strategy of 60-75g of carbs per hour, 60g absolute minimum. I used a mixture of gels, drinks and Shot Blox – I don’t have a hard and fast nutrition strategy and feel like I am always learning something new. I ended up managing 70-75g carbs per hour which I think put me in good stead going into the next days and I’m fairly sure helped recovery. Other factors were immediate recovery after each day in the form of chocolate milk and sandwiches and then a carbohydrate-heavy meal in the evening.
Breakfast was the biggest chore each day and I was having to shove food in (I don’t deal well post-race with the sugar and caffeine highs) but managed to get a good amount in each morning in the end! I can honestly say I learned a lot from my first multi-day experience but I’m pretty pleased with how it played out as a first effort.
We hear that your favourite thing is to run uphill. Is elevation is a big part of your training?
I do love to run uphill! In my head when a big hill is coming I get the fear, but the challenge then kicks in and I love the grind to the top. It’s hard to explain, but I suppose it’s that feeling of being strong enough to control the burn in your lungs and that satisfaction when you reach the top.
Like I said before though, I’ve been living in the flatlands so hills have been a real effort and highlight in my training. I try to do my long runs on hilly routes and plenty of hill sessions planned into each cycle. I live about 25 minutes from the South Downs, so Butser Hill has been my local haunt when in Hampshire and then when I’m at home the cliffs around St Agnes and Perranporth have been my playgrounds. I honestly can’t wait to move back to Cornwall and have hills every day – I really think it can be a big win for strength and technical experience.
Do you have a go-to hill session?
My favourite hill session recently has been 6 x 60 seconds, 6 x 45 seconds, 6 x 30-second hills which is a definite lung and leg burner but short enough to get some speed going too.
You hold the course record for the South Downs Way 50. How did you prepare mentally?
For a while, I felt zero pressure which helped and it wasn’t until a few weeks out when people’s speculations on race favourites started to be discussed and not going to lie, seeing my name in there gave me a few pangs of panic!
I worked on focusing in on myself and not worrying about anyone else – far from easy. My mantra in the SDW50 was to run my own race; even at 45 miles another 5 was unknown territory so just focus on the mile I was in, the ground below me and keep chipping away. I was lucky to have a few guys around me during the race to ‘cat and mouse’ with which really helped.
I also tried to smile throughout the race. Most of the time it’s genuinely because I’m having fun but even in those tough times I tried to greet the negative thoughts or tired body with a familiar “hello” and a big smile. I chose to run the race so I may as well enjoy every moment I can! I try to be encouraging to myself and try to keep the positive thoughts flowing in, even when the negative gremlin desperately wants to win. It’s definitely not easy though.
How has your training changed since you switched from road marathons to ultra trail races?
I guess people think you have to run more miles to run ultras but actually, my weekly mileage from road marathons to ultra-distance has been about the same – maybe a little more as I am generally a more experienced runner overall. I now have the freedom to run trails as much as I want and can run up (and down) all the hills I like!
I have spent the past 3-4 years struggling with chronic anaemia, so that’s been a big mental and physical challenge. After a lot of testing and questions, it seems it’s going to end up as “unexplained anaemia” but the wonderful people in the NHS are making sure my haemoglobin doesn’t drop to 70 again which I feel incredibly grateful for. Through the journey for answers, the most valuable changes have been in fuelling during and around running, and easy running. With help from Robbie, my focus is on consistency which has been hard with ever-changing bloods.
I do think bouncing up and down in health so rapidly has made me much stronger mentally; before I knew what was wrong I was hard on myself and struggled through so many training sessions and races. I felt so fed-up about it, I wouldn’t even admit to my coach or closest friends how I was feeling and would try to push through which wasn’t good for anyone. Being able to understand now that I wasn’t doing anything to cause the anaemia, or make it worse, and re-learning what it feels like to run strong, has given me so much freedom back.
Can you share a typical week of your training?
The weekend often includes a longer run or two so Mondays are my recoup days. I work fulltime during the week so tend to have a few double run days where I run super-easy for 30 minutes max before breakfast and then run again after work.
I usually have a speed workout mid-week; intervals ranging from short and fast 1-2 minute efforts to longer blocks when I’m building towards a race. Hill work is also a big factor with, again, a mix of longer and shorter reps on hills depending on where I am in my race build-ups. Even though I race on trails, I do like to get the speed in on the flat too – that feeling of raw speed is amazing and I do think the strength you get from that is certainly beneficial in any race setting.
My favourite days of all are weekend running days where I have more time to get out and stay out. Saturdays are often a little shorter with some steadier efforts on hills and Sundays are true ‘church of the long run’ days where I like to get out for a few hours, super-easy trotting around and exploring. I’m so excited about that freedom again to go further afield both in the UK and abroad.
How much strength training do you do?
I do believe that strength work is super important – pre-COVID, I would typically do gym work 2-3 times a week, 30-40 minutes at a time with heavy squats, single-leg weighted work and upper body strength too. Since March, it’s been a little more improvisational with only one kettlebell to my name, so plenty of bodyweight exercises instead.
Do you aim to hit particular mileage, elevation or speed targets in your weekly training?
One of the big differences between my road marathon running and my trail/ultra training is that there’s now no pressure to hit paces because they don’t really “exist” on trail. I’ve now learned to work to effort much more, which allows me to enjoy a session no matter how fast the numbers come out. For some, it’s a nightmare not having those indicators, but for me, it’s the best way as I’ve always been a run-to-feel person!
In terms of mileage, I don’t get given targets but I suppose I have an idea in my head where I like to be around 65-90 miles a week. I know that’s a wide variance but it’s all about that balance and not over-reaching so you lose consistency, but a push enough to progress. Elevation is going to become my new target though – actually having hills to work with will open up a whole new world to build on!
What kind of mental strategies do you use during low moments in races?
Building back from chronic anaemia issues, the mental side of things and the confidence in my abilities has been the biggest struggle, so having strategies to combat it has been super-important to try and build. Knowing now that I am strong physically, I almost have to keep a mantra to tell myself I am strong and capable. When you get to points in races where you think you’re not doing as well as you anticipated, that positive self-talk and giving yourself credit for even small things can make such a huge difference. Like I said before, nothing can help like a big smile and reminding yourself that this is what you came to do and what you enjoy doing!
In all honesty, in most low moments I try to have something to eat… often that was the why the gremlin showed up in the first place!
What are your running goals for 2021?
If all goes to plan, 2021 could be quite exciting with races having shifted from this year into next. I have the Arc of Attrition 50 mile at the end of January which I’m super-excited for. I then have a fairly big gap to fill until summer racing gets underway where I’m entered in the Lavaredo Ultra Trail and then the CCC in August. I’ve been tossing ideas in the air to fill the gaps but nothing confirmed yet… very open to suggestion!
What are your favourite items of kit for racing and training?
At the moment I’ve been running in Hoka One One quite a lot – I’ve been racing in the Torrents which are lightweight so great for faster trails. I’ve recently discovered the Speedgoats too which are a bit like having suspension on trails – it’s taken a few runs to get used to but mega comfy now.
Stance socks are my absolute must. I’ve never had a blister with them and they last for ages! There’s nothing worse than blisters because you’re wearing rubbish socks!
My hydration pack is a key piece of kit and I tend to use Ultimate Direction as they make some female-specific packs which fit so well. Having a pack that fits snug is so crucial; there’s nothing worse than a horrible chafe.
Are you sponsored by anyone right now?
I have no sponsors at the moment – probably why I spend so much time testing out so much different kit!