Elisabet Barnes Interview: Ultra Running Champion and Irun4Ultra Ambassador

By Alice Hunter Morrison

Moroccan-based journalist, winner of Best Africa Blog, writer for RunUltra, author of “Dodging Elephants: 8000 Miles Across Africa by Bike,” and Special Correspondent for IRUN4ULTRA, a subsidiary of Hope So Bright.

Elisabet Barnes is one of the world’s best women multi-day runners on the circuit. She is the 2015 Women’s Champion of the Marathon des Sables and earlier this year won the Big Red Run in Australia outright.

She attacks all her races with a great spirit and good humor and always takes the time to encourage and support others. She is one of Irun4Ultra’s newest Ambassadors and the team is delighted to have her on board.

Hi Elisabet. Can you tell us a little bit about yourself

I am from Sweden but have lived in the UK since 2007. I met my now husband Colin at work and moved over… At the time I was working as a management consultant in London but now I have left the corporate life for running. I am a running coach, own a running shop with Colin, and I am part of Raidlight’s Dream Team. I am 39 years old and I did my first multi-stage ultra in 2012.


You are a star in the desert races with MDS and the Big Red Run wins under your belt. What were those two races like for you?

Every race brings something different and that’s what I love. Of course winning is great but it’s not my primary drive. I love the adventure and the experience as well as the people you meet. The MDS is a tough race because the environment is very harsh and camp life is very sparse and simple. Therefore, even when you are “resting” in camp it can be tough, for example, if it’s really windy or hot – which most of the time it is! The Big Red Run takes place in a desert of different character and it has more support such as bag transport, hot water, and massage therapists. It makes a difference. The MDS is always the race that seems to take the most out of me although other courses can be harder to run.

Did it feel good to come first overall in the Big Red Run? Do you think women are moving up to equal the men in ultra-running?

It was great to win the race outright of course but I had to work for it. We had a good group in the top and we kept pushing each other. It was great competition but also good camaraderie at the same time. There are several examples of women winning ultra-races outright. Women have good endurance and mental strength and we can be patient, pacing ourselves well over long distances. Theoretically, men should still have the advantage but it’s encouraging to see women in the top of races and hopefully it can help inspire other women to believe in themselves and make their dreams possible.

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Credit: Alexis Berg

How was your recent Grand to Grand Experience?

I loved Grand to Grand. The running was tough and involved a fair amount of hiking plus a bit of crawling on all fours to get up the steepest dunes I have ever seen! I thought the course was mostly scenic, the campsites were beautiful and the atmosphere was great throughout, with everyone supporting each other.

You say that stage races are your races of choice? What do you like about them?

Stage races are adventures over several days, mostly a week. I think that makes it interesting because a lot of things can happen. You need to think through your strategy and consider not only your running, but things like the changing terrain, the weather, your recovery etc., plus balance the weight of your required and recommended equipment as you often need to carry it all. You also get to meet a lot of interesting people.

What are the important factors for success in a stage race? What do you need to avoid?

You need to avoid getting carried away on Day 1 (pacing), and you need to avoid getting ill – (clean hands at all times). Avoiding blisters is also preferable but not always within your control.

What are you training for at the moment? And, what does your training consist of in an average week/month?

At the moment I am just recovering from Grand to Grand but I feel OK and will start running again shortly. The next race on the calendar is the Costa Rica Coastal Challenge in February so I will start building up to that. My training through the year is quite different in periods due to my uneven workload. (I work particularly long hours leading up to MDS which is not very practical for training). Unless a race is close, I do strength training three times a week and ideally I run most days with one rest day, but it varies. Where I live is very flat and I do a lot of road running normally although I have access to the beach which is good training for desert runs.

What does a typical race year look like for you?

If this year is anything to go by for the future, it has involved five multi-stage races and a total of 29 days of racing…Of course, I try to spread the races out somewhat so I get a chance to recover. The good thing about multi-stage races is that you can recover during the race to an extent and it is not as physically draining as a long non-stop race. However, camp life can be taxing on the body: being cold, sleeping on hard ground, and eating freeze dried meals.

You have raced all over the world, what is it like racing in different countries? How would you
compare running in Costa Rica with Richtersveld, for example?  Presumably you have to change your style/strategy according to the environment?

Every first time is a new experience so you don’t really know what to expect until you are there. Usually the first day becomes a warm-up or “learning experience” before you properly can get into it. Costa Rica was incredibly hot and humid which I had anticipated, so I had done my best to acclimatize in a heat chamber before traveling. Because of where I live I do struggle a bit with technical terrain but I run well on flat surfaces, so on more technical trails I kind of learn as I go and get better as the race goes on. Richtersveld was dry, hot and incredibly arid. It was also a navigational race whereas Costa Rica had a marked course. I prefer marked courses although either is fine. In Richtersveld I had to do a lot of hiking due to the terrain, which in hindsight wasn’t a bad thing as the course was easy to run in Australia a week later.

Credit: Benoit Laval

Credit: Benoit Laval

You have signed up as an Ambassador for IRun4Ultra – how did that come about?

Linda approached me about running TransRockies for IRun4Ultra and, of course, I couldn’t say no to that. It is great if through my running I can contribute to raising awareness of important causes and inspire people to make changes leading to better health.

So, as you said, you will be running the TransRockies race IRun4Ultra – what are your goals for the race?

TransRockies will bring new challenges that I have to tackle, the biggest being the altitude (I live at sea level). However, this is not a bad thing as I will be doing the Everest Trail Race later in the year so I have to get the altitude training in… It also has a very good field so I expect that it will be tough to compete for the top places! Hopefully, I will be able to do the specific training I need so that I can perform to the best of my ability.

What are you looking forward to about the race?

I am, of course, looking forward to experiencing the Rocky Mountains. I’m sure the trails will be spectacular. I have also heard many good things about TransRockies as a race so I look forward to soaking up the atmosphere, meeting new people, enjoying the running and the camaraderie, and having a great time.

IRun4Ultra is campaigning to raise awareness about autism and ADHD in children, and to focus on diet and exercise to alleviate symptoms. Do you have any connection to the cause/comments/thoughts?

I do not have a personal connection as such to autism or ADHD but I am passionate about health and well-being. Modern society is increasingly encouraging a sedentary lifestyle, the consumption of poor quality food and drink, and unnecessary medication for many conditions. It’s mind blowing just walking into the supermarket and seeing what people put in their shopping baskets! Strong commercial interests from the food – and the pharmaceutical industries are not helping…I am a firm believer that if most people ate more healthily, exercised more and lived less stressful lives, we could prevent many lifestyle diseases, mental disorders, and other conditions. I can go on for hours about this as I am very passionate about the topic!

How will you prepare specifically for the TransRockies?

I will do some altitude training for sure. I just haven’t planned exactly how yet. There will be plenty of hill work too, no doubt.

You and your husband own myRaceKit (http://www.myracekit.com/) so what are your top kit tips for multi-stage racing and what are we likely to see you using for TransRockies?

Every multi-stage race has a different setup so my first advice is to check through the mandatory and recommended gear lists to understand the requirements. If the race is self-sufficient, it is incredibly important to keep your pack weight low. Anything that is only “nice-to-have” should ideally be left behind. Having said that you need to pack “right,” not just light. That means ensuring you recover well in terms of a good night’s sleep and eating enough food. As the TransRockies is well supported I will just be carrying a small race vest with the essentials. The rest will go in my kit bag.

And, finally and most  importantly, who is Stig…

Stig is the best Great Dane in the world and he must be Scooby-Doo’s twin brother. He is nearly 7.5 years now and is our shop mascot. He loves trying out the sleeping mats, playing with our customer’s kids or just sleeping on the sofa…

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