Marathons, ultras, multi-stage races, FKTs – ultrarunner Kristina Madsen has a diverse race CV and the records to prove it. In 2018, the Danish runner set a fastest known time record (FKT) for her ascent of Mount Kilimanjaro, completing it in 6 hours 52 minutes despite living in the relative flatlands of Denmark. And despite being a trail runner first and foremost, a few weeks ago she won the World Marathon Challenge outright, setting a new world record for running 7 marathons on 7 continents in 7 days.
How does she do it? From training for her Kilimanjaro FKT and last year’s 66-mile Bob Graham Round to her meticulous approach to race prep, we cover it all below.
When did you realise you had a talent for running longer distances?
Back in 2013, I was in-between jobs, so I decided to take some time out to go travelling. I’d always wanted to see the Himalayas so I booked a one-way ticket to Nepal! I had a look into some local races before I left and saw an article about the Everest Marathon – the highest marathon in the world. As soon as I read about it I just knew I had to sign up.
It was an incredible race, really tough terrain at high altitude, but I managed to come away with a 2nd place finish. It’s a wild and incredibly beautiful place and it was the race that got me hooked on longer distances, especially trail running, in adventurous and beautiful locations.
I signed up for my first ultramarathon, the Zugspitz Ultra Trail, as soon as I returned home.
You went on to do the 230km Beyond the Ultimate Jungle Ultra in 2016. How did you find it?
The Beyond The Ultimate Jungle Ultra was my first ever multi-stage race. It was a truly incredible and memorable experience. The race was really tough and challenging for so many reasons. The long distances across rough terrain combined with the suffocating heat and humidity of the jungle meant every step was hard work. But to be fortunate enough to run through the Amazon rainforest and get to experience parts of the world that so few people will ever see was definitely a life-changing experience that I’ll never forget.
To top it all off, I won the race! It was then that I knew for certain I wanted to spend my life competing and racing long-distance and multi-stages races like this one.
You did lots of research to prepare for the jungle and spoke to former race finishers, is that right?
That’s right. I spoke to as many previous participants as I could before the race in order to learn as much as I could. I wanted to know as much as possible about the terrain, the environment, and the different stages and, of course, learn about all the different equipment I would need to survive for a week in such an extreme environment.
The race is self-sufficient so you have to be very well prepared, thinking about all the things you might need during the race but without taking too much and risking carrying excess weight in your backpack.
You also have to take your own hammock which you pitch at the end of each stage. I remember spending countless evenings at home in my garden putting up my hammock hundreds of times!
Is this how you approach all your races – researching and training very specifically?
Yes, it is. I try to be as well prepared as I possibly can for all my races. Of course, the physical training and mental preparation are extremely important, but it’s also vital to understand about the environment you’ll be competing in, the terrain, the altitude, the elevation, the temperature – all these factors have a huge influence on the nature of your training and preparation.
You set a Kilimanjaro FKT and have completed the Bob Graham Round, yet Denmark, where you live, is pretty flat! How do you train for extreme elevation?
I get that question a lot! The highest peak in Denmark is less than 180m high, which can make it difficult to train for the mountainous races that I love to compete in. I get around this as much as I can by doing lots and lots of hill reps. Sometimes running 30 or 40 times back up and down the same hill!
I also have a treadmill at home so I can set the gradient as close as possible to the nature of the race. Strength and conditioning training is also really important with a focus on my core and lower body.
Finally, I’m very fortunate that I have the opportunity to travel a lot, so I can do long training periods in the mountains where I love to run the most.
Of all your endurance challenges and races which has been the hardest?
It’s hard to compare because the challenges that the different races present are all so varied. Of every race I’ve taken part in, I would say that the Beyond The Ultimate Desert Ultra, which I won back in in 2018, is the toughest race out there.
The temperatures are extreme, often exceeding 50˚C, and you have to be incredibly focused on your hydration and on listening to your body. Knowing when you can push hard and knowing when to slow down and preserve your resources is a vital skill when competing in a hostile environment like the Namib Desert.
You’re clearly very mentally strong. Do you actively use any mental strategies when it gets tough in races?
Very much so. I think in long-distance and multi-day events, mental toughness is possibly the most important factor for success. I spend lots of time before every race visualising the event and all the possible outcomes and scenarios. What happens if I make a wrong turn and have to run extra distance? What if I get injured or sick? Or what if I’m not performing as I would expect to and I lose my motivation?
Thinking about each scenario beforehand, whilst you are calm, and having a strategy prepared in your mind means you can avoid panicking and wasting mental energy if something doesn’t go as expected during a race.
What does a typical week of training look like when you’re not recovering or tapering?
I run between 100 and 140km most weeks. Around 80% of this distance will be long runs at a fairly slow pace where I focus on improving endurance. On top of this, I use heavily focused sessions such as intervals, speed work and hill reps. I also complete sessions when I concentrate on weak areas of my running technique.
I complement all of the running with regular spinning sessions and a lot of strength and conditioning work. I probably spend about 18-25 hours training during a typical week.
Are there any running sessions or training sessions you don’t enjoy so much?
I love to run so usually training is enjoyable. However, I’m not so great in the mornings, so those cold and dark early morning sessions during the winter can be hard to get motivated for.
Tell us about your Kilimanjaro Fastest Known Time record. How long did you spend training for it?
I trained almost a year ahead of the record attempt on Kilimanjaro. I spent lots of time on the treadmill in order to run at the necessary gradient. Two weeks before the attempt I went out to Kili in order to do some hiking and acclimatise as much as possible to the altitude.
What’s the reality of a Kilimanjaro FKT – is it fast hiking or do you get to run much?
It’s definitely a mixture of running and fast hiking. In fact, this is one of the few events where I’ve used poles to help me. Above 4,000 metres the altitude really starts to affect you, so listening to your body is really important. Paying attention like this helps you understand when a fast walk can be more efficient than running.
You recently won the World Marathon Challenge outright and set a new world record. How did your usual training change whilst you were preparing?
I wouldn’t really class myself as a road runner so in the build-up to the 2020 World Marathon Challenge (WMC), I swapped most of my training from running off-road to running on-road. I also did more interval work than usual in order to increase my pace.
Finally, I didn’t do any hill reps whatsoever! The courses on the WMC are mostly flat so this wasn’t an important aspect of my training for a change.
How do you feel about your outright win and world record?
I’m so happy to have beaten the world record for the World Marathon Challenge and to have unexpectedly taken the overall win. If I’m honest, I still can’t really believe it! It all feels unreal but of course, I’m thrilled and proud to have exceeded my original goal to beat the record.
What else is on your race calendar this year?
Next up for me is the National Trail Championships, which take part over an 85km course here in Denmark during May.
Then in September, I’m taking part in another Beyond The Ultimate race – the For Rangers Ultra. I’m just so excited about this race! It’s a self-sufficient, multi-day event where competitors race 250km through five different wildlife conservancies across Kenya. All proceeds from the race go to support the incredible rangers who protect the rhino and other endangered species in the area.
What kit did you rely on for your record-breaking runs?
The equipment for each race is so specific so it depends hugely on the environment where the event will take part. During my races I’ve relied on different types of shoes, socks, backpacks, food, nutrition, medical equipment, sleeping bags, tents and even hammocks.
Are you sponsored by anyone right now?
Easyfood (Danish Bakery) is my main sponsor – they’re a fantastic bakery here in Denmark. I’m also supported by CEP Compression and SportMaster.
They’ve all offered me incredible support over the years and I’m incredibly grateful for the role they’ve played in helping me achieve my goals.
You can follow Kristina via her social media handles: www.instagram.com/kristinaextremerunning and www.facebook.com/kristinaextremerunning. If you can read Danish, head over to Kristina’s website, www.krixrun.dk.