THE BIG INTERVIEW
BRIT TOM EVANS HAS EMERGED AS ONE OF THE WORLD’S TOP ULTRA RUNNERS – SO WE MET UP TO LEARN HIS SECRETS
Ultrarunning star Tom Evans reveals his secrets for tackling the Marathon des Sables
To understand just how tough Tom Evans is, consider this: we chatted with the barely-out-ofbreath army captain after he’d just finished what he described as an easy, stress-reducing four-hour run around Lanzarote. The casual observer would think he’d spent 15 minutes ambling up and down the aisles of his local supermarket rather than tackling thousands of metres of ascent on this volcanic island. But then he is tougher than your average
It isn’t inaccurate to describe a four-hour run as a brief jaunt for this relative ultra novice, whose name became prominent in trail running circles for an epic eight-hour-plus stint in the Marathon des Sables (MdS) last year.
That incredible effort came on the longest stage – an 86km run across the Moroccan sand dunes – of a race the Sussex man entered as an unknown. He ended up making history by becoming the first British male to make the podium of arguably the world’s toughest foot race, becoming one of the world’s most exciting ultra trail prospects in the process.
In Lanzarote Tom was acting as an instructor at an MdS training camp, and unsurprisngly had some great advice to pass on. Lesson one would be to do your research. And his words of wisdom are useful not only to those embarking on the gruelling 251km desert run, but anyone with a major running goal.
“Control the controllables,” is how he puts it. The six-day Saharan epic has plenty of uncontrollables, but Tom’s research gave him a massive headstart over other rookies in the race.
It was just five months earlier
‘TO ACHIEVE THE GOALS I WANT TO ACHIEVE, I’VE GOT TO BE SO DEDICATED’
that Tom competed in his first ultra, which he won convincingly after a lastminute entry when he saw the course mapped out while training in the Brecon Beacons. Tom discovered a 46-mile race was being staged the next day and, even though he’d only completed one marathon before, lined up and beat the field of 200 with a winning margin of 43 minutes.
“It was such a huge surprise to me,” he said. “I had absolutely no idea that I was going to be able to do it, let alone be able to do it to a reasonable standard.”
Although clearly naturally talented – he won a national schools medal on the track as a youngster – until 2015 he’d concentrated on rugby rather than running and weighed 16 stone aged 19. However, in the meantime, eight-mile walks wearing 26kg backpacks had honed his fitness, while other aspects of army life built up the mental resilience that serves him well in races.
Army commitments meant his buildup to the 2017 MdS race wasn’t ideal. “I knew it would be uncomfortable, but I didn’t think much of it,” admitted Tom. “I was in good shape but I did nothing particularly specific to ultra-marathon. I went out with hopes of finishing in the top 20, but hadn’t even considered that doing better than that was an option.”
He surprised everyone by finishing fourth on the first stage of five, not far behind the Moroccan favourites. “It was a real shock that my body was able to deal with it,” he said. “The reason was my mental strength and I owe a lot of that to serving in the British Army. A lot of the time if you think you can or you think you can’t, you’re probably right. There were a couple of hours during that long stage where I had a dodgy tummy and ended up very close to pulling out. I couldn’t stomach any food or liquid. I kept convincing myself that I was going to be fine and fortunately my body listened and realised it wasn’t the end of the world. I was able to keep pushing to get my best performance.”
Lesson two for Tom’s students: let the mind win over the body. Representing the Welsh Guards Charity also helped him motivationally push through, and he would go on to raise nearly £20,000.
Lesson three: go light. The MdS is a self-supported event in which you carry almost everything you’ll need. Tom said: “Your pack has to be a minimum of 6.5kg and I got mine down to that limit. I’d done lots of research that gave me good insight into roughly what to expect. I was happy to run it and not have lots of comfort, so I got rid of a lot of things that other people may not have wanted to.
“My body is accustomed to carrying heavier bags. I’ve got a strong core so I can keep my body in a good posture when running, and that really helps with efficiency, economy and stride strength.”
One more tip Tom passes on to wouldbe MdS runners regards nutrition and hydration: “I did a bit of research about the food I should be carrying and what my nutritional requirement was.
“Do you carry slightly more so you can eat more but it’s harder, or carry less so you don’t have to work as hard? I went to the middle ground, knowing I would be in a calorie deficit pretty much from the beginning and hungry for a week. On a normal day I was running three and a half to four hours, and on each run I’d have about 2300 calories, which isn’t usually enough. But for me it was enough, because my body adapted quickly to that reduced calorie consumption and became slightly better at using fat for energy.”
When it comes to hydration, Tom went to extreme levels too: “I spent time examining my sweat content and how salty it was, so I knew how much sodium I needed to put back into my body every hour. I used a company called Precision Hydration, who do sweat tests and then provide the correct level of electrolytes.
“I set my watch to beep after every kilometre, so I knew when to sip my electrolyte drink. There’s a lot of times you get really tired and it becomes quite easy not to drink or not to eat. Eating and drinking can make or break a multistage race and it’s one of the few things you can control. The longer the race, the more external factors there are. If you take on a race like the MdS, you’ve got the heat, wind, sands, hills, dunes. All of that you can’t do anything about, but there are a few things you can – like your kit, making sure you’re well hydrated, what pace you’re going, and how hard you’re going.”
Tom built on his MdS result with fourth in both the Eiger 101km in Switzerland and the Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc CCC race to end up as third on the Ultra Trail World Tour rankings, and began 2018 with a win at the Coastal Challenge in Costa Rica. In May he represented Britain at the World Trail Championships in Spain, finishing third. The success means he’s decided, after seven years in the Army, to leave the Armed Forces and focus on running.
“If I do something I have to do it properly,” he said. “To achieve my goals, I’ve got to be so dedicated. In a job like the Army, an individual sport can be selfish. I care so much for my soldiers that I feel I’m doing them an injustice by being away for so long. It was a difficult decision, but I’m really looking forward to focusing on my running career.”
As for those goals, as well as being keen to improve on his marathon PB of 2:26:04 with a view to competing at the Commonwealth Games, he would love to tackle the Western States 100. He also hopes to become the first British winner of the Marathon des Sables in 2019.
“I’m moving to Morocco in December for around four months to train in a very specific environment, to allow my body to adapt as much as possible,” he said.
Such meticulous preparation could see him challenge the very best in the world. Whatever your challenge, even if it’s not as big as the MdS, you would do well to apply the same detail to your planning.
Tom flying the British flag in Spain in May, after claiming a bronze medal and helping GB men to a team silver at the Trail World Championships