I have intended to interview the amazing Karen Nash for some time and her stunning victory at the 190 mile Northern Traverse finally prompted me to get in touch! Karen is an incredibly strong runner who only seems to get better with age (she is now 57), but I was most inspired by her desire to explore her own physical and mental limits, as well as by the way she uses her running to explore some stunning and challenging environments.
When and why did you start running?
I cannot remember a time when I didn’t run but XC at school was probably the real start. I loved the chance to go out and get muddy, and hot showers after a cold wet muddy run. I suppose I also liked being reasonably good at it.
What was it about running that got you hooked?
Really I love the outdoors and hills so even long mountain walks would have big ridges where I can never ignore the temptation to just run for fun. When the boys were small we started orienteering and I joined a local running club. I met fell runners through the club and my Mountain Marathon partner through the orienteering. It was also time for me and a way to escape, to survive the working week and to be out in the fresh air. Being able to squeeze running into whatever time was available was helpful and so was not needing much special kit.
How did you get into ultra-running?
One of the local fell runners took me to the Haworth Hobble in 2009, saying it was a long fell race really. I was hooked straight away, signed up for the Runfurther series, and kept looking for more and more races and areas to explore. I think I had realised that I was never going to be great at short races – I don’t have much speed and am not very sure-footed over steep wet rock.
Tell us about your first 100 mile race?
It was the Hardmoors 110 in 2013. I had already done the Hardmoors 55 and Hardmoors 60, so I thought it was a good place to start by joining them together along the whole Cleveland Way. I knew Jon (the Race Organiser) and he had been so supportive of my crazy idea of doing 52@52in52 in 2013 (52 ultras in 52 weeks at age 52).
The race started on a Friday and my boss had agreed to let me go early. I was ill all week with a dreadful sore throat. I couldn’t take time off and then race on the Friday so it was not an ideal preparation; on the other-hand I knew I had to finish to repay his generosity. It didn’t all go to plan and getting lost in woods in the dark put my orienteering skills to the test. By 90 miles I must have looked dreadful as my husband asked if I was going to continue! What a daft question. Possibly the only ultra fuelled by Strepsils!
What made you want to take on 52 ultras in 52 weeks? Tell us a bit more about completing such an epic challenge?
It came about because Jon Steele (Race Organiser of the Hardmoors events) did 50 ultras to celebrate being 40. I ran one with him and it took off from there. I do like a challenge and I think very few of us push ourselves in today’s world.
I decided it was my challenge and so my rules. The runs would not all be events so that I could minimise entry fees and travel costs, plus I was still working full time as a teacher then. I did try to make the non race runs based around an LDWA event so I had company and a race for 20 odd miles. All the runs were over 28 miles.
It got off to a slow start as we were away skiing until about the 6th January when the new term started and then I had to wait for the weekend. I panicked a little and to make up for lost time tried to do too much at February half term, where I ran Saturday, Sunday, Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday. The only run I honestly hated all year was that final Sunday – I was too tired and to cut the driving ran the coast at Blackpool with loads of concrete. Most were races and many were in the Runfurther series.
Run 52 was the Round Ripon Ultra and I just didn’t have a good day, not the fault of the event at all. A wasp sting caused me aggravation all day, I was tired and my foot was sore. I decided I couldn’t finish on a low and it was only September. Being born in 1961 gave me the idea of upping the challenge to 61 and I was actually getting PBs at some races so why not continue. Number 61 was a secret run on my own to make sure I did complete 61 ( we were off skiing as soon as the term finished) but the following weekend was the Tour de Helvellyn. I love the Nav4 races and knew that was where I wanted to celebrate – in the hall at the end (champagne in plastic beakers) and then in the pub for a meal with friends. The weather was dreadful, but it was a great day out and a wonderful end to the challenge.
My Mountain Marathon partner is a GP and was convinced I would end up ill or broken, but in fact my body just seemed to get used to it. I did also do 3 Mountain Marathons that year. My sons remember it as a year when Mum ran, ate and slept (all 3 in large amounts)!
What does a typical training week look like?
I don’t run to any plan and I never have really. I would probably have been a better runner if I had used a coach and a proper training plan, but I think it would have lost the fun and spontaneity that I enjoy. When I was still working I used to run one evening a week, usually on the fells, and cycle to work when I could. At the weekend I would either race, go for a long run in the hills, or often do both. Now I no longer work we are often away travelling, so although in theory there is more time to run and train, there is also more time for all the other things we love. This year we spent from mid-March to mid-April skiing and then climbing abroad. This wasn’t ideal preparation for the Calderdale Hike or Fellsman and those races became my main training for the Northern Traverse in mid-May. Being retired means less running in the dark, but also more solo runs as friends are at work.
You seem to be getting better with age! Do you feel any differences as you get older and do you do anything differently in training?
I think with ultra running age and experience do count for quite a bit. More than 50% of an ultra is mental and self-belief. I have found my forte is long slow races with lots of long slogs up hills and just enduring. I love looking for new challenges and longer races just to see ‘if I can’. The main difference now is a foot that won’t mend properly and being more efficient and organised at CPs where time can really mount up if you are not careful. My times for some races have stayed fairly constant over the last nine years but other races like the Long Tour of Bradwell show I am getting slower. The training has not really changed. If anything we are spending more time climbing and hill walking, but I guess it is all time on your feet.
Congratulations on your amazing win at the Northern Traverse. Tell us a bit about how you found the race?
I knew in theory that I should be able to do it as I had completed the Hardmoors 200 in 2017 so that gave me a big boost. It was tougher in a couple of ways though. In the Northern Traverse all outside support is banned so I could not have Bob and our campervan popping up with socks, snacks and a bed whenever I felt like it. The terrain was also tougher and the Lakeland trails were less runnable than the Wolds. This meant my gold target was hopelessly optimistic!
I really enjoyed the race and the idea of a journey from one coast to the other across such different landscapes really appealed. I had good company off and on for much of the race and being with Matt Neale persuaded me to have some decent food stops (ice creams and a poached egg breakfast) which was probably a key factor in the success. There were lows obviously and I was pleased when the rain of the first night stopped and even more pleased when the sun came up after a cold second night. My feet felt mashed but I only had one small blister. The checkpoint crews were brilliant and as the number of runners was fairly small they could be super attentive to our every need and whim.
I was lucky to have had the time to recce most of the route and this helped lots both in knowing what to expect and also navigating when it was dark and I was tired. I made a couple of very small nav errors, but then a major one on the very last moor when the lights of the towns on the Yorkshire coast were in sight. In the end I was so proud to have sorted it out that even that gave me a turbo-charged boost to the finish. Now as a reward I have a free entry into the 2020 event so I think I should go back and have another go.
What would be your top tip for others aiming to complete similar very long single stage races?
Prepare – know what to expect and what works for you. I like to recce at least some of the route, even if it is a marked course in France. Be organised with drop bags and food – again it’s about knowing what clothes and shoes work for you, what food you can probably still get down after 24 hours. I set myself bronze, silver and gold targets for each race, but base these on times for me rather than positions as I cannot control other runners.
Women are obviously still in the minority when it comes to ultra-running; what would you say to other women thinking of taking on an ultra or other long distance running challenge?
Just do it. The ultra community is very supportive and there are so many forums, blogs and Facebook sites where you can get help, advice and information now. I do believe women are closing the gap on men faster in ultras than at other distances. Increasingly races are won outright by a woman. But it isn’t just about winning and ultras seem to make everybody welcome. There are many long races of 24 miles or so organised by the LDWA. These are a great place to start as they are cheap, have good food at checkpoints, can be local to you and have very long cut-offs as they were originally aimed at walkers.
What do you think could be done to encourage more women to participate in trail and ultra-running?
I am not sure. I think now information is so much easier with the Internet. I just didn’t know what was possible in the 1980s but the Internet must have changed this for the better. I am not sure about women only races but if it gives some the confidence to start then OK.
I don’t see the ‘woman’ part as an issue but then I have three brothers and two sons and as a bit of a tom-boy perhaps I am not typical. We did change the leaderboard calculations in Runfurther and give points to women based on a % of the fastest woman not the fastest runner overall. This has boosted woman up the table; although some men who are faster than those women then end up further down the table. I also think sponsorship is an issue. I have two younger friends who are ultra runners, one faster than me and one slower. Both are sponsored by major brands – they are young and ‘pretty’. Perhaps those women over 35 need some role models too.
Where is your favourite place to run?
I love anywhere outdoors and off road. Amazing views attract me and so does the love of exploring new areas and new paths. In the Lakes I really enjoy big long grassy ridges. When we have been away I am always surprised how much I have missed the paths and bogs of our local West Pennine Moors and the Bowland Fells.
What would be your ideal race?
A new challenge and a journey, with minimal tarmac and few knobbly stone tracks. Ideally good scenery and pleasant weather (I hate running with a hood up and I mind the heat less than most people). I keep going back to the Grand Raid des Pyrenees which is the same distance and climb as the UTMB (Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc) but smaller trails, fewer runners and has a really friendly family feel.
Who or what inspires you?
So many women I could name. Sarah Rowell for breaking some of the barriers and winning races outright over two decades ago. Helene Whittaker and Nicky Spinks for all they have achieved. More recently Carol Morgan and Jasmin Paris. I just hope I can keep as active and determined as Wendy Dodds over the next ten years (she is ten years older than me). Finally my husband who has joined me in ultra running later in life but managed a Grand Slam of all 12 Runfurther events last year at 73.
What do you wish you’d known when you started running?
That Mountain Marathons existed, that there were ultras.
What are your next big running goals?
Grand Raid des Pyrenees again this summer. Not sure for 2019 yet but I want another 200 or similar. Whether the next long challenge will be a race or just travel/fun I am not sure yet. Perhaps a solo/ limited support Bob Graham Round, where I get up and go one day. I would like to find time to have another go at a Joss Naylor Challenge having failed in dreadful weather on my 50th birthday. I also want a new long race on the continent next summer. Bizarrely I also have a strange desire to try a 24 hour track race just to see how hard it is. If a local one pops up I might give it a go. I think it will be very boring and mentally tough but a different challenge.
What has ultra-running taught you about yourself?
To believe in me and not worry about how good other runners look. That I can dig deep, grind it out and put up with quite a bit. That I should smile and enjoy, or go home. That I can perhaps be rather selfish given all the hours I have spent doing this.
You are one of the organisers of the Runfurther Race Series; tell us a bit more about it?
Runfurther got me into ultras in 2009. The old team wanted to stand down and it looked like Runfurther might cease to be so a group of us took it on as we couldn’t bear the thought of it not being there. Basically we select 12 ultra races in the UK each year and build a championship based on runners completing at least one short, one medium and one long plus one extra. Most years some runners do a Grand Slam of all 12 races and are awarded a much cherished hoody. The website has a leaderboard, race info and race reports. One of the original Runfurther guys is Si Berry at Beta Outdoor Sports and he has been very supportive with sponsorship from Injinji and Ultimate Direction. We also have some other sponsors providing prizes for us to take to the races and for the end of year prize giving.
What do you get up to when you are not running?
Lots of travel. Our sons are now young adults and we have both retired. We have a growing rather than shortening bucket list despite treks in Nepal and Albania; rock climbs in the UK, France and Spain; sea kayaking and skiing. We have family in New Zealand and plan to visit there for a few months again this winter. I am sure there will be hiking and running while we are there.
You can follow more of Karen’s adventures on her blog.
If you would like to read more interviews with inspiring female trail and ultra runners then check out the blog archive for more of the Girls Running Wild series, including interviews with top ultra runner, Kim Cavill and Spine Race finisher, Sarah Fuller.