The Accidental Ultra Runner – Interview with Jenn Gaskell

Meet Jenn Gaskell: although this 24 year old’s day job is working on a mathematical physics PhD at the University of Nottingham, she has quietly been nurturing a career as a budding ultra-runner after entering her first running competition on a whim whilst mountaineering.  This ‘whim’ turned out to be a turning point for Jenn however, and she was soon entering more and more races and at gradually longer distances, proving that you don’t have to start running from the get-go to succeed.

We sat down with the Team Montane member to find out more about what makes her tick.

Montane: How did you get into running initially?

Jenn Gaskell [JG]: I actually started as a mountaineer and was out in Chamonix in 2008 doing some alpine routes when I saw a poster for the Mont Blanc Marathon (just a marathon, but with over 2500m of ascent in it!) that was happening the next day. Although we’d never done a race before, I begged my friends to enter as it sounded awesome! They compromised by entering the half marathon and as we lined up on the start line, we were pretty nervous looking at all the other runners in their high-tech compression clothing with their running poles and hydration systems! One of my mates was wearing tracksuit bottoms even though it was about 30 degrees Celsius!

We decided to set our aims quite low and just wanted not to come last…everybody on the start line looked as though they would beat us! Thankfully, it went really well; the food stations contained the best food of our trip and the support was amazing! We even managed to go climbing after feasting on the delicious finish buffet and having a massage! I told my friends we should have done the full marathon as we were not broken, so the next year we were back and I even won my age category!

Montane: How did your running evolve from this first foray in the Alps? 

[JG]: After our first race, my friends and I would plan really long days out in the mountains on our university mountaineering club trips. We’d run/walk as much as possible and eventually collapse into one of our favourite caffs for some cheesy chips and pints of tea! The distance we could cover in a day began to increase and my friend Nath and I began to enter some ultra-distance races. At first, I did terribly, not taking on any water or food and totally crashing, but still really enjoying the experience of such great routes and meeting so many amazing people! Then we discovered energy gels and hydration and the races started to go better! There’s still lots to learn but we’re young!

Montane: So despite a rather dramatic ‘catapult’ into the ultra-running sphere, you seem to be doing exceptionally well!  What ultra-races have you competed in to date?

[JG]: I’ve been really enjoying the Runfurther series and have completed the High Peak 40, Long Tour of Bradwell, Wuthering Hike and Calderdale Hike so far. This year, I’d love to finish four races and get a hat! I’d also really like to try a Grandslam of all 12 races one year. I did the inaugural Tour de Helvellyn which was a magical day out – the shortest day of winter and the entire Lake District was caked in snow! We drove to the race thinking it must be cancelled, but when we saw a guy in shorts knee-deep in snow, it was clear the competitors would not be deterred! I’ve also been down to Dorset to do the LDWA Doddle, which is a fantastic route along the coastline and nowhere near as flat as expected!! My friend and I have competed at the Original Mountain Marathon (OMM) in Perthshire and Dartmoor. I love the mix of misery and discomfort with the celebratory soup and relief on the Sunday!

Montane: Which are your favourite ultra-races?  What made them memorable for you?

[JG]: My favourite race so far has been the Courmayeur-Champex-Chamonix (the 61 mile version of the UTMB) in 2011. It starts in the caking hot sunshine in Italy, passes through gorgeous areas of Switzerland and by the time you get back into France, its night-time and a massive thunderstorm has begun! It feels like such a journey! I made a terrible mistake of filling my platypus with fizzy water (who drinks that in a race?!) in the first 10 miles or so and felt awful, but by the time I reached 50 miles, I was feeling strong and began passing lots of people. I had an Ironman triathlon planned two weeks after the race, so was meant to be taking it steady but I was having such a good time, I ended up doing a really fast finish! …The Ironman didn’t go so well though!

I also really enjoyed the Montane Lakeland 100 in 2011, especially running to Buttermere with Gaynor Prior who was en route to smashing the course record to pieces! I was really inspired by how well prepared she was for the race…unlike me! And I definitely learnt my lesson that year! Whilst Gaynor had recced the route many times and decided sensible split times, I hadn’t got round to looking at the map and had bought new shoes the morning of the race!

Montane: What is it about ultra-running that appeals to you?  Is it the adrenaline rush that some experience?  The ultra-running community?  Or even a simple love of being outdoors? (Or other things besides?)

[JG]: All of the above! I guess the main reason is the pure joy of covering such massive distances over sometimes entire mountain ranges under your own steam. I love the feeling of settling down for the night into a comfortable running pace and knowing everybody else is tucked up in bed! The feeling of adventure whilst running, especially at night, is amazing! The ultra-runners are also the greatest, friendliest people! I love getting advice off the more experienced runners and seeing familiar faces at races all over the country and in other countries too! The range of challenges available is immense; I regularly get over-excited about race calendars and new maps!

Montane: You’ve mentioned impromptu race entries and the feeling that you were unprepared for events in the past.  How do you prepare physically for races now, as a more seasoned ultra-runner?  Do you have a training routine / plan or something similar?

[JG]: Regular training has just begun and it’s feeling great already! My local running club (Beeston AC) have been a great help, with their wise ones giving me lots of advice and pushing me further and faster! It’s great to run with such friendly people and share our favourite local routes. I’ve also been doing some extra fell and orienteering races for some speed practice and I really enjoy long hikes, especially in the Alps, but the Lake District is closer!

Montane: Do you have any motivational tips?

[JG]: One of my favourite things ever is the excitement of a new map! I love to devour them (not literally!); running every path, trying every turn, bagging every peak! If I’m ever just a bit too comfortable on the sofa, a few minutes looking at a map and I’m out the door! I also like to venture past my local map, getting a bus/train to a completely new place or running to watch friends in a race then bagging a lift back. It’s amazing how many footpaths and little hills there are even in urban places!

Montane: Many of the athletes we’ve encountered seem to agree that mental preparation ahead of races is also key.  What’s your approach here?

[JG]: Yes, ultra-running is definitely a mental game. With my lack of training in the early years, it was my determination and stubbornness that got me through the races! It’s important to realise that even if you feel terrible at one moment, that moment will pass, so just keep running!

Montane: You’ve told us you started out in the outdoors world as a mountaineer.  Do you still do this in between runs?  What other hobbies do you have?

[JG]: Yes, I will always love being in the mountains! When I arrived at university, the first thing I did was sign up to the mountaineering club and planned a trip to the Alps. The scale of the mountains had me speechless; I was itching to get up above the snowline! One of my favourite days out was with my friend Nath, we bivvied in the snow and waited for dawn before going up Mont Blanc via Maudit. The views into Italy were amazing and I knew I had to try and do all the mountains in the Mont Blanc Massif and find more mountain ranges to explore! One day, I’d love to climb all 7 Summits (the highest summit on each continent). I love the idea of how different each peak will be, requiring such a range of techniques and gear. The travel will be amazing too!

My other hobbies include rock-climbing, mountain biking (totally addicted to downhill but will go cross country if there’s a lack of ski lifts!), triathlon, windsurfing, baking cakes and occasionally a bit of physics!

Montane: And finally, who or what inspires you?

[JG]: My father has always been an inspiration, dragging me to the mountains when I was a kid, and nowadays he’s pushing me on the road biking up alpine passes as he thinks he has a chance against me on the bike!

My other hero is Ueli Steck; he has the perfect mix of being an amazing runner and alpinist. I first saw him in a short movie about his ascent of the North Face of the Eiger in under three hours and was totally astounded!! But my main reason for heading out to races and mountains is just the pure feeling out being out there -“ it’s the best!


To find out more about Jenn check out her profile here.

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