Tom Owens is a British runner who I guess in ultra terms, as Tom keeps telling me, is not an ultra runner. But when you are on the podium repeatedly in Skyrunning races in 2012 and push Kilian Jornet, the term ‘ultra’ can be loosely used. I caught up with Tom just as he had finished a run in a gale force wind on the fells near his home in Scotland.
IC: Welcome Tom.
TO: Thanks Ian, great to be here.
IC: Thanks for finding the time to chat. So, you say you are not an ultra runner but it is fair to say that when we look at some of your 2012 races like Zegama and Trofeo Kima they are tough races aren’t they and when we look at how long it takes to cover these races they do drift into ultra category.
TO: Yes I agree with you. You are on your feet for a long time. A race like Zegama can take 4 hours and that is considered a ‘runnable’ Skyrunning race.
IC: Lets go back to what got you into running. You told me that at the age of 22 you ran London Marathon.
TO: Yes I was at University and I entered the ballot for the marathon not thinking I would get in. Ironically I got in first time. I did a little training and joined a cross country club. I had a year of running but it was very much a sideline. I was much more interested in Football and having a good time. I ran the marathon and then got addicted.
IC: In 2004 you ran 2:42 at London.
TO: Yes, correct. I learnt so much in the first two years. I met some great folk at Bristol Uni and I learnt how to train and recover. I was very pleased at the time.
IC: What do you mean pleased? Any of us would be ecstatic with 2:42 marathon.
TO: Funny, I didn’t know what time to go for so I wrote splits for 2:42 on my hand and it went well. My first time was hopeless and I bonked. I made changes for the second year but that was pretty much the end of my road running.
IC: Yes, you met Andy Symonds and I guess your friendship with Andy has dictated both your careers. You have almost run in parallel.
TO: I met Andy and he introduced me to hills. He is a great guy, super talented and enthusiastic. So he encouraged me to try hill races and I loved the vibe. Really different. Very challenging but no pressure. So varied. Andy encouraged me throughout and I kept with it.
IC: What would you say was the point when the focus started to shift? You lived in New Zealand and you met the Scottish team who were out for the world trophy. Was that a pivotal point?
TO: Yes it was I guess. I travelled and then I settled in New Zealand and it had a great running community. I lived in a brilliant city surrounded by hills. It’s an outdoor way of life and I ran more. With the World Mountain Running Champs taking place I saw Jonathan Wyatt and that inspired me. To have the English, Scottish and Welsh team over was brilliant. I hung out with them, did the ‘open’ race and yes, I guess I just continued that momentum in the UK.
IC: In 2007 you won your first British Championships beating Rob Jebb.
TO: Yes that was a surprise. A race up in Scotland. Wasn’t a big field but it was a tough race and it has two or three big hills. I can’t remember the distance but it took about 3 hours. I just pipped Rob by about 7 seconds on the line. It was a huge confidence boost. Luckily most races I do finish downhill so it gives me a chance to catch back up after loosing time on the climb.
IC: I guess this is a perfect opportunity to discuss and explain what fell running is. As an exponent of fell racing would you like to give us an overview.
TO: They are very low-key events. The race will visit checkpoints, typically hill summits or passes. You often start at a village hall or pub. You run to to the hills carrying basic equipment such as waterproof, whistle, compass and map and then you make your way to checkpoints as fast as you can. It’s often horrendous conditions; after all it is the UK. You can need map and compass work but you can ‘follow’ as I do. More often than not it is usually wet and very slippery. In a nutshell you basically go straight up and straight down as fast as you can
IC: It’s a key point isn’t it that fell running is not about sticking to the worn path, it’s about the quickest route from A to B.
TO: Yes. That is the beauty. You have a hill, you get up as quick as you can. That is often ‘hands on knees’ power walking and then the fun bit is hurtling down as quickly as you can in a direct line. I guess in the UK we are lucky. The hills are open and we can pretty much go where we want. Especially in Scotland with the right to roam act.
IC: You mentioned going up ‘hands on knees’ I think for most of us we can get our head around that, what I find with fell running is the coming ‘down’ is just crazy. It’s such a skill. Is that God given or do you have to practice.
TO: Like anything you need to practice. You have to get confidence on all terrain and build up ankle strength. If you relax it is so much easier. Particularly if you fall over, most of the time you get up and carry on. Racing is in the head, relax and enjoy it and the rest will follow!
IC: In 2007/ 2008 you got involved with Salomon and eventually you ended up adventure racing and multi stage racing. What was the process involved in that?
TO: I started as a reserve for the Saab/Salomon Adventure Racing Team. In 2008 adventure racing was a big sport. It was certainly one of Salomon’s big focuses. I would say it was probably the last year of racing too as the economy crashed. I was called up as a reserve and I raced a six-day race. Probably one of the best races ever… two mountain days on foot, mountain biking, climbing, paddling and canyoning. In addition, every evening we had a trail race that was really competitive. It favored runners.
IC: Your team was 2nd overall, yes?
TO: Yes that is right. I was with Andy Symonds again and a guy called Ben Bardsley. We are mountain people. We lead for most of the race but lost time on the water.
IC: That combination of multi stage racing and time with Andy, was that instrumental in what brought you guys together to take on Transalpine.
TO: Yes, it was a race I had heard about. It looked amazing. Andy was in Scotland at the time and we trained together so it seemed logical that we should undertake this as a team and give it a go. Again, another brilliant race!
IC: The race is typically about 160 miles over 8 days and alternates direction?
TO: Yes, 8 days. It has two routes and they alternate. An easterly route and a route that is more western which is more alpine. Actually we did both. We did the west route in 2009 I think and the other the following year.
IC: And you won both!
TO: Yes, Andy and I run together so well and the format suits us. You run hard and then you get to recover and do it all again the next day.
IC: Just like that!
TO: Yes, it is a battering race. Definitely good that it is late in the year as you really need to recover afterwards.
IC: You see, you say that you are not an ultra runner but 8 days in the mountains on those tough courses running a marathon a day is ultra running. That is severe, head to the ground hard work.
TO: Yes, challenging days. Brilliant days. Some of the passes and tracks are breath taking. It’s a delight to be involved but you get it done as quickly as you can. It does take its toll. It definitely has an ultra element to it.
IC: In 2010 you raced ‘Giir di Mont’. You came 6th. Was that the point that Skyrunning really started to appeal or was it before that?
TO: To be honest the first Skyrunning race was 2006, it was La Plagna, A huge race. It was 55km with 3000m up and 3000m down. Certainly the hardest thing I had ever done at the time, I hadn’t been running long. In 2007 I did a couple more and similar in 2008. I started to build up and as more opportunities came I snapped them up.
IC: Well, we are at present day and 2012 was a stunning year. We seemed to bump into each other all year. Sometimes we saw each other consecutive weekends. What impressed me was right from Zegama to the very end you were always there or there abouts with Kilian Jornet. You pushed him. Great to see a Brit pushing at the front… from a world perspective also, Tom Owens became a name to reckon with. It must be great for you to have Kilian on your Salomon Team but also to be able to race him.
TO: I don’t actually think I pushed Kilian. I may have been second but he was usually 10 minutes clear.
IC: It’s all relative Tom!
TO: Certainly seeing Kilian at the start and finish is great. He is on another level. He is so dominant at all distances, VK to ultra. We can’t get close to him. He is so chilled and he recovers so quickly. I certainly can’t do it week after week. After a hard race I can’t walk for 4 to 5 days.
IC: If we look back at 2012 what was your highlights?
TO: To be honest I was really pleased with the year actually and the consistency. I did so much and it was never straightforward. I had some wonderful opportunities. The highlight though was Trofeo Kima in August. It’s a really technical Italian Skyrunning race that has passes, via ferrata and scrambling. It’s a small race but absolutely brilliant experience.
IC: I have to say that it was a highlight for me too. I had never experienced a course like it. To be able to witness the action unfold and capture it on camera was really fantastic. You say it was a small race, you are right, the race is capped at around 125 people but it had a stacked field; Philipp Reiter, Kilian Jornet, Andy Symonds and more. What was obvious at the end was the level of fatigue you all had. That course required 110% concentration.
TO: Absolutely, it had so much rock hopping and you followed painted markers so you had to be focused not to go off course and also not to fall. The last descent was bonkers. A 2000m descent on slippery gnarly terrain. To be running that long on such technical terrain that included ladders, chains and ropes is a big concentration exercise. I was happy to get to the road at the end to be able to relax. It was full on.
IC: What are the plans for 2013? Is the Skyrunning series going to figure again?
TO: I really want to do the Skyrunning series again. Races like Zegama, Chamonix and the Matterhorn excite me. Also the race at Limone. All being well I will try some of those and also mix in some new races. It will be an adaptable schedule and I will see how I go and feel.
IC: What about UK races?
TO: I fancy the British Fell Running Championships, so that will be three, maybe four races in addition to everything else. I will try to mix it up like I did in 2012.
IC: Any temptation to move up to any longer distances or will you establish yourself around the Sky marathon distance.
SKY Marathon races for 2013
1. SPAIN: Maratòn Alpina Zegama-Aizkorri – 42k, Zegama – May 26
2. FRANCE: Mont-Blanc Marathon – 42k, Chamonix – June 30
3. USA: Pikes Peak Marathon – 42k, Manitou Springs, Colorado – August 18
4. SWITZERLAND: Matterhorn Ultraks – 46k, Zermatt – August 24
5. ITALY: Skyrunning Xtreme – 23k, Limone sul Garda – October 13
TO: I think it would have to be a course I really wanted to do. I would like to try the Ice Trail Tarentaise. That looks brilliant. I am not sure of the distance but I will have to see. I am not avoiding them but I wouldn’t do an ultra for the sake of it!
IC: You know your skills and ability and as such you choose the races were you know you can perform.
TO: As long as I am enjoying it I run well. We shall see.
IC: Thank you so much for freeing up time to chat, Tom. I am really looking forward to seeing you at many races in the coming year.
TO: Thanks so much. It’s a pleasure. Keep up all the good work!
This article was first published on Mud, Sweat and Tears in March 2013.