In 2017, Evans entered the 251km Marathon des Sables on the back of a pub bet. He finished third
Pictured: Tom Evans || Featured Image Credit: Owen Tozer
I thought it would be the hill that killed me, but I was wrong. I say hill but it’s more accurate to say series of hills, of varying length and incline, which have led to me to a ridge with stunning views of rolling green fields and seemingly endless sky.
My thoughts alternate between feeling deep love for the nature (what nature!) and wondering if I’m going to be sick. For while a double espresso before the race powered me up the steeps with surprising ease, I’m certainly paying for it now. One thing I’m not thinking about is my time or how fast I’m running.
“It’s such an incredible thing, you don’t see a car or have a phone for a week. You pull out of the complexities and stresses of day to day life”
Come and interview Tom Evans, one of the country’s most exciting trail runners, at the Kendal Mountain Festival, they said. Then later, why don’t you enter the Adidas TERREX 10k at the event? It’ll be fun. And the thing is, ambient threat of vomit and passing out aside, it really is.
After the flat middle section, it’s all downhill, and I end up feeling as free as a kid whose body isn’t sure it can keep up with its legs but who ploughs on regardless. This is followed by me racing through the town’s streets down cobbles, steps and sharp turns like I’m being chased in a heist movie. Plodding along an A-road besides a city’s financial district, this is not.
“I love the Lake District and I love training in nature,” Tom Evans agrees later that day. “It’s just a lot more enjoyable than running on pavements, having to dodge cars and puddles. I’m always much colder if I’m running on the roads, whereas if you’re in the woods getting wet and muddy, you don’t feel it for some reason.”
“People often say on social media or wherever I’m dreading this run session, but I never do as I know each run is going to be different; it’s going to be inspiring.”
“I know each run is going to be different; it’s going to be inspiring”
I ask Tom if he also admires the scenery while he’s running? “During a race I’m probably too competitive to look up and think: ‘Wow that view is incredible,’ but if I’m racing somewhere new I try and go out there a little bit early and run the course nice and slowly, to enjoy the view and make some really nice memories along the way. I try and make the most of going to a new and beautiful place.”
It all started in 2017 after a “fair few drinks” in the pub with some friends who were doing the Marathon de Sables, another gruelling trail running event, which takes place over several days in the Sahara Desert. Tom boldly announced he would enter too and beat them all. I picture him downing the rest of his drink, slamming it on the table, wiping a line of frothy beer from his moustache and making a dramatic exit at this point.
The next morning? “I was slightly hungover,” he says sheepishly, “but they made me sign up for it anyway even though it was just four months away. There wasn’t much time for prep.” He finished third in the race.
And his friends? “Top 300,” he says with a smile.
At what point did he realise he was doing well? “20 minutes into the first day I was thinking: ‘Why am I leading this race? Do I need to slow down? Am I going too hard?’ But I felt good, so I just thought let’s see what happens.”
“20 minutes into the first day I was thinking: ‘Why am I leading this race? Do I need to slow down? Am I going too hard?’”
Tom clearly had a good base level of fitness and when he was younger he’d spent some time in the military, which he is sure helped. He says: “A lot of army types are drawn to the Marathon de Sables as it’s very challenging physically and mentally tough. You’re sleeping outdoors on the floor, carrying your own food and kit, maybe getting blisters… it’s almost like being on an army exercise in the Brecon Beacons but in the heat instead.”
Does being in the army make you like a race like that? Tom says: “I don’t think many people like doing it. It’s just that I’d slept in much worse places and been much colder. It’s the same if you’ve been in Duke of Edinburgh or the Scouts, you’re carrying everything, so you put so much thought and preparation into it all. You research heat acclimatisation, the best shoes for the desert, the best sunglasses…no one is there to help you, you’re just on your own seeing what you can do. You learn a lot about yourself very quickly.”
I ask Tom whether he has that voice in his head telling him to give up, the one most of us recreational runners know only too well. “Oh, that voice is very much there but now I enjoy the voice coming in and saying: ‘No you can’t do this.’”
“With the Marathon de Sables you’re suffering during the day but you’re camping at night, so you look up at the stars and it’s beautiful. And then when you finish reality sets in. You’re in the middle of the desert miles away from any real civilisation. It’s such an incredible thing, you don’t see a car or have a phone for a week. You pull out of the complexities and stresses of day to day life. It is quite literally you versus nature. What is nature going to throw at me today? Be that the terrain you’re running on, from rocky jebels and hills to endless sand dunes. Or there’s the high temperatures [which average 48 degrees] and lack of water, your eyes getting sore with sand or glare of the sun, which is so bright.”
Later that year Tom came fourth in the Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc CCC (100k) race and when he won the UTMB CCC (100k) in 2018 he decided to give up work and try to forge a full-time career trail running ultra-races (an ultra being any distance longer than a marathon).
“Running is one of the few sports that’s growing,” Nick Harris of the Fell Runner’s Association, tells me when I pass by their stand at Kendal. “Football and the other team sports, cycling… even after 2012 they’re all down in participation but running is growing. We’re noticing it in fell running contests where 10 years ago we’d get maybe 100 kids there but now it’s closer to 500.”
There are plenty of parallels between fell running also known as hill running, which started in the Lake District in the 1970s with guides racing between refuge huts, and trail running. Both take place off road and involve climbing within the run. Trail running takes place on pre-existing hiking trails though, whereas fell running is often on unmarked routes so participants need strong navigational and survival skills as well as running ability.
Last year the Guardian reported that the number of ultrarunning races globally had grown 1000 per cent in a decade. They suggested that social media and the extreme sense of euphoria runners get on very long races as possible reasons behind the growth.
“There could be snow, it could be really hot, it changes so much. There’s no constantly looking at your watch thinking am I running on pace”
I ask Tom why he thinks ultrarunning and also shorter distance trail running events are growing in popularity. He says: “Running on road is running on road wherever you are but trail running is so varied. If you compare the Lake District to Yosemite National Park to Mont Blanc to Lake Tahoe, they’re all trails but they’re so different. Running around Berlin is great if that’s what you want to do but being able to circumnavigate Mont Blanc, how amazing is that? You see and experience so much more.”
“So many people run marathons in London or Berlin and have an amazing time and a goal for how fast they want to run but in trail running you don’t need to look at a watch, as actually it doesn’t matter. If you feel good run a bit harder if not run easier. There is so much stress in today’s world. Being able to do a race that is not really quantifiable with a time, just by running how your body feels, is amazing.”
Why do times not matter? “In the Ultra-Trail du Mont Blanc [CCC 100k], one year the winning time might be 10 hours, another year it could be 14 hours. There could be snow, it could be really hot, it changes so much. There’s no constantly looking at your watch thinking am I running on pace.”
“Another really nice thing about trail running is if you’re ranked number one in the world or you’re doing your first ever one, you start on same start line, you’re sharing the same route and the same adventures.”
“You might not see a car or any people for a two-hour run. It was an amazing experience, and I learnt so much from some incredible runners, who put everything into their sport”
Tom has seen a lot of magical places through running on trails. Alongside the Lake District he loves to run along the South and North Downs Way, and even city parks and trails including Richmond Park in London. Further flung highlights include Costa Rica and Ethiopia where he did a training stint earlier this year.
How was that? “Most of my easy runs were through a huge eucalyptus forest, that smell, and generally feeling so in tune with your surroundings was so great. You might not see a car or any people for a two-hour run. It was an amazing experience, and I learnt so much from some incredible runners, who put everything into their sport.”
I can’t imagine an ultramarathon ever being on my agenda but when I think back on my trail running experience at Kendal only happy memories of being in wild, spirit-lifting nature flash behind my eyes. The tough parts, the pain and however long it took me have long since faded from my mind.
Tom Evans is an Adidas TERREX ambassador.
2020 is the 40th anniversary of Kendal Mountain Festival and the event is embarking on a nationwide film tour. Find out more here.
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