Elisabet Barnes, 2017 Marathon des Sables champion decided to get steep and get high at the 2017 edition of the Transrockies – an iconic multi-day race that takes place in the USA.
The race is a multi-day point-to-point race that is based upon the European TransAlpine run. Starting in Buena Vista, the race concludes in Beaver Creek. It’s a race that traverses wild and fantastic scenery through the heart of the White River and San Isabel National Forests. Single-track, forest road and 20,000ft of elevation gain make this a tough race especially when the race reaches high-points of over 12,000ft.
It is not a self-sufficient race – racers are fed and housed in tents, hot showers are available and they are supported throughout the journey.
I caught up with Elisabet after placing 4th – a race that certainly had some real high and low points, and I don’t mean altitude!
Ian: I last spoke to Elisabet Barnes a few months back, she was telling me about training in Tenerife at altitude. She then went off to the USA to race TransRockies and she’s here to tell us all about it. I think it’s fair to say Elisabet, going racing at altitude, a multi-stage race was something new and a learning curve and I’m sure that you can pass on some knowledge.
Let’s, first of all, go back to your training. You had a block of time in Tenerife and then, you moved over to the US for three weeks before the race to finish off the acclimatisation process. How do you think that whole preparation thing went and now, with a bit of hindsight, do you think it was the right preparation or would you have changed anything?
Elisabet: As far as the acclimatizing to the altitude, I did okay with the time I had. I spent five weeks in Tenerife and the last four of those was living at 2100 meters and training a bit higher. You can get up to 3,500 in Tenerife but that requires you to run up the volcano. Mostly, I trained around 2,500. That’s the closest to the race level to come to from sea level. Just the first few days there, they were hard and I definitely noticed it. If I would have gone straight to 3,000 meters, then, I think that would have been a bit of a shock to the system.
It was like three acclimatization’s if you wish. I definitely noticed a difference when I left Tenerife – I had gotten used to that altitude. I would have maybe wanted more time in Tenerife, but the altitude out there just makes it a little bit more difficult to recover. If you train hard and do more climbing than normal, which I did, and then you have the altitude to deal with. After three weeks, I actually got really tired and I thought that I had overdone it.
I didn’t really take into account the added effects of doing all the climbing at altitude, and it’s something that I don’t normally do. My body just needed a bit more time to absorb. You always must listen to your body. If you get really tired, you just can’t push on and I really had to back off a bit. That was a frustrating but I did that because I knew I had to.
Ian: From a coaching perspective, that’s classic mesocycle and microcycle, isn’t it? Where you have your block of training but then that block of training, needs to be broken down into smaller segments and that classic three-week build and one-week recovery is effectively what you’re talking about there.
You can’t just keep adding volume and time without your body saying, ‘hold on a minute!’ What you’re doing is taking on a much more feel basis because, obviously, it’s a new environment and you have to work out how far to push and when to pull back off. I think that’s maybe what I’m touching at in terms of, for you, this was a new experience, a new learning curve. And so, the next time, you can either start at a higher level or go into your training with a greater knowledge of what you need to do.
Elisabet: Yes, absolutely. I certainly agree with you, it’s pushing your body and maybe working it and seeing what happens to learn. In Tenerife, it was hot too and the altitude in addition makes it fairly hard. I absolutely loved it out there and the trails were great.
Ian: We’ll come on to the fact that the trails are easier in the US and you purposely did all your training on more technical trails. Let’s talk about the transition from going from Europe to the USA and that period of time before the race because this is always a really difficult thing. It is easy to run yourself into the ground before a race, but we both know, you are not going to get any fitter in those final 2-3 weeks, just more tired.
I understand this, as runners, we love to be in the environment and I think what happens is it’s very easy to drop yourself into an amazing place and just want to run, but in a way, forget that you’ve got this really big race in 7 or 10 days. How did you manage dropping into Colorado and that amazing landscape with those amazing mountains and not overdoing it?
Elisabet: I came home from Tenerife, I had about five days at home and then I travelled out to Colorado. It was two and a half weeks before the race and I went to Leadville. I have decided to go to Leadville because I just wanted to go as high as I could, basically, knowing that the race would hover around 2,600 to 3,100 meters most of the time. The high point is Hope Pass which is just over 3,800 meters. My thought process was to go out there and then as soon as possible just try to adapt and learn a little of the course.
Stage one, or most of it, which was probably around 20 or 21 miles was actually my longest run that I did out there and I did it as soon I came out. Then, I wanted to spend time at altitude and obviously, I wanted to experience Colorado since I was there.
I decided to climb a few peaks but that was hiking. I took it relatively easy and tried not to really exhaust myself. It was quite enjoyable actually. I did some shorter runs as well but it was fairly low in terms of what I did in Tenerife. I felt good. I was focused on trying to get used to the altitude but then, there was a Leadville 10k.
I did the Leadville 10k and that was so hard. I have never walked in a 10k my whole life, but this course goes downhill for 5k and then you have to run back up for 5k. I tell you, running a 10k at 3,100 meters altitude, that’s no joke. That was really tough. And that got me actually a little bit worried about the race. I actually spoke to a guy in Buena Vista the day before the race and he had moved there from sea level, he said it had taken him a year to get fully acclimatized.
Ian: I get that. I spend quite a lot of my year at altitude but it’s a little bit here and a little bit there. As soon as you start getting above 2500 the impact of altitude is phenomenal, particularly if you’re trying to push the pace.
The difference comes when you have to push the pace. And of course, you can only realize where you’re lacking when you’re in a race because up until that point the only gauge you have to go off is yourself. It’s only when you’ve got another woman or two women in front of you and you’re then trying to keep up that you realize, “I’m missing X.” Like on day one of the race, you have Magdalena Boulet who has won Western States who is running ahead of you. She’s a world-class ultra-runner, who took the stage one victory.
And we know that Magda is adapted to this environment. Do you consider, if you want to excel at something like TransRockies, you need to be there at altitude for much longer.
Elisabet: Yes. I would need to be out there longer. But I have lived at sea level my whole life and I have rarely been at significant altitude. For my next race at this kind of altitude, I would definitely go a few months beforehand or at least a few months of altitude training. There’s also the climbing too to consider. I come from a road running background and I’m more used to running flat sections, and I’m quite good at running downhill, but climbing is my weakness – it is something that I need to work on.
I think I can definitely get stronger in the climbing with more training. But I do think it helps if one is petite. I am not, I am tall! Going downhill I am (my head) just farther away from the ground. And I think it might make it a little bit more difficult. Maybe my stride length is going to be a little bit longer?
Ian: Did you did you use poles for the climbs?
Elisabeth: I didn’t use poles on day one. I didn’t use poles on day two either which is actually when we went over Hope Pass. I hadn’t used poles at all in my training. Maybe a little bit in Tenerife. But then I did take them out for stage three. And then I immediately regretted not having used them on day two. And I did use them for the remaining stages on the climbing. Actually, in hindsight, it was stupid of me to not use my poles, particularly for stage two being on the Hope Pass. I’m actually a good user of poles. I did a lot of cross-country Skiing, growing up so I learnt something there!
Ian: I didn’t know the answers to the pole question and I am surprised with the answer. I had the expectation that you were going to say yes. With the level of climbing involved poles would seem logical.
Elisabet: I think stage one was a mistake to not have poles. We had 12 kilometers climb going up to the first checkpoint – I would have done it faster with poles, I now know this now. On day two, I dropped one placing, so I finished fourth. And that prompted me to take the poles for stage three and I finished second.
I had a really strong climb on day three, that was my best climbing. In most of the stages I was behind on the climb and I gained some time and placings on the descent. Whereas on day three when I had the poles, I felt good. And for some reason, I was really good with altitude that day as well even though it was a high day.
But then I injured my knees so that’s when I deteriorated a bit.
Ian: I was going to come on to this… We do have a little bit of a joke with you as you do have a habit of falling over when running. It’s very rare that I don’t get a bloody knee photograph of you… Ironically in Tenerife the trails were more technical and you had no issues, you felt as though you were adapting well.
You fell twice during Transrockies, the second time was a little more serious.
Elisabet: The second fall wasn’t great and the doctor decided to mummify me, it took about 45 minutes to an hour. Ironically, both falls where not in the technical sections in the race. I’m becoming pretty good at focusing when it’s technical, all it takes is a lack of focus, which is easy when it goes from technical to non-technical and then suddenly you are on the floor! I’m not really sure, but on the second day when I tripped over, I realized afterwards that I was a little dizzy – maybe the altitude was impacting on me. Maybe it was the fact that we went over Hope Pass, the highest point of the course.
The second time, which was on day three, we had this amazing lovely rolling downhill section through a pine forest and I absolutely loved it. I love stretching my legs, I’m pretty fast on the downhill. I ran some smooth road, took a sharp right down a single track and then it got quite steep. I just didn’t pay attention and I tripped over some rocks, that was pretty bad.
I slid on my forearms, and I didn’t realize at the time but I must have twisted my knee a little bit. When I finished, my knee started to swell up and it did get quite bad in the afternoon. I was really worried about the rest of the race, I thought if it gets any worse I won’t be able to continue because I could hardly walk. I elevated it, iced it, applied some creams and took some pain killers, anything to make it possible to just be able to start the next day.
I wanted to finish the race but you have to balance these things, I didn’t want to do myself any long-term damage. I concluded that it was mostly swollen, maybe a little sprain or bruised from the inside of the knee? The following day I could put weight on it, I could run, I did take some painkillers which I don’t normally do when I run and it seemed to work out ok.
Ian: You were never out of the top four ladies, you were always in or around the action but the knee slowed you of course. There was probably an element of adaptation going on during the race too.
Was there an element of you saying to yourself, “Well, I can only do what I can do, it’s pointless trying to push too hard,” because as you say at altitude like that and with an injury, you can be fine one minute but then 30 seconds later you can just blow up.
Elisabet: Yes, you can and it was interesting because there was one day, it might have been stage four or stage five. We spent quite a bit of time just running on this undulating trail at quite a high altitude and I did feel a little bit dizzy. I heard other people after who said the same – you just have to constantly monitor how you feel.
You can feel absolutely brilliant one day, then the next day it’s different. When the medics looked after me up after day three, they said, “Are you actually continuing? What? Are you running tomorrow?” I said, “Ye!” It just never occurred to me that I wouldn’t keep trying.
I had to reassess the situation, and say to myself, “Okay, maybe I can’t push that hard,” but we still had three stages to go, in a multi-stage race it’s never over until it’s over.
You don’t stop. You have to be sensible of course and I consider I was sensible – you can’t just give up because there’s always the chance, right?
I said before the race that if I was in the top five, given my experience of this type of environment, I thought that that would be okay because I knew there would definitely be people who train in the mountains or are more used to altitude.
A great deal of people said to me beforehand, “You’re going win this, you’re going to smash this,” but people don’t necessarily understand that there are lots of different types of running and because you win one type of race, MDS for example, that doesn’t mean that you’re going to win another type of race just like that!
Ian: Absolutely it’s all about the learning curve, the balance, a completely rounded runner is somebody that can do all these things but these are few and far between. You do extremely well at multi-day races, and that’s confirmed by you placing fourth overall and achieving a pre-race objective of top five.
I certainly think if you went back to TransRockies next year with what you’ve learned this year then it may very well be a different story. With that assessment, now that you’ve had an opportunity to asses with the race behind you, what’s your overall opinion now, in particular, you will go to Nepal next and the Everest Trail Race – Transrockies will be great prep for this race?
Elisabet: I think Nepal is going to be a little bit more challenging in several ways, I think it could be a more uncomfortable week, probably in terms of the camping and the shifting temperatures. The amount of climbing, it’s quite a lot. I’m not necessarily worried about it. In fact, I think it might be a good thing because I think I’m maybe better at steeper hiking than just running up more shallow inclines. So, I’m hoping that there will be more of that, and that’s mostly good. I will be taking poles!
Ian: Poles are absolutely essential for Nepal.
Elisabet: I did work a little bit with a sports scientists at Bryson’s university this year. They said that if you have routine exposure to altitude it can help accelerate future acclimatization and adaptation so I’m hoping that I won’t lose everything I gained out in the USA in terms of adaptation.
In an ideal world, I would have probably just gone to Nepal now and trained but that’s not possible, so, I will try to spend a couple of weeks at some altitude before the race. The plan is to go back to Tenerife if I can make that happen.
Ian: That sounds like a good plan.
Elisabeth: With the experience I’ve had, I do feel a lot more confident about my ability at altitude. Although I know it’s going to be challenging, I’m not that worried about it. Whereas before, I was really worried about the altitude because in the past I have had a couple of really bad experiences where I’ve basically got altitude sickness. When I ran the Grand to Grand stage race I had altitude issues and we started at only 1600 meters elevation.
Ian: Yes, I am sure the adaptation is better and you will adapt much quicker in Nepal – it’s also important to note that ETR is more like MDS, you are semi self-sufficient and you need to carry a pack.
Ian: You’re not carrying your food, but you’ve got to carry what you need for the race, and of course because it gets so cold in the evening, that is a warmer sleeping bag, you need a down jacket, you’re going to need a change of clothing for the evening in comparison to day clothing. You’re going to need layers, you’re going to need a long thermal top, you’re going to need some sort of thermal leggings or tights or whatever they may be. And I do think that is an advantage for you because you do run well with a pack.
Food is provided, you’re sleeping in tents which are provided, it will all fit into your skill set. I think all those things are going to go into your favor in terms of the Nepal experience, and I think, like you say, that the climbs are so long and the altitude so high, that they’re not running climbs.
Elisabeth: Yes. [laughs]
Elisabeth: I think having done a few peaks out in Colorado, I have learnt that you just have to be patient, you have to fall into a rhythm and just keep going. In regard to the backpack as well, I’m a bit taller and bigger than maybe most female mountain runners and that works in my favor when carrying 4-6kg’s!
Ian: What three pearls of wisdom from your last six months could you pass on? If you have to give them three tips, what would it be?
Elisabeth: Well, if I look at people who are not living at altitude or not necessarily having mountains next to them, you have to always look at the specifics of the race and replicate it as much as possible.
If you’re doing huge mountains in your race, you have to train climbing and descending, there’s no way around it. You have to be creative and find ways of doing that with what you’ve got available, even if that means a treadmill, it could mean specific strength training.?
Altitude, I’m always surprised talking to people doing multi-day races for example that will take place at altitude and then don’t think about adapting to the demands that this brings. You need to adapt!
My third one is the tapering. You need to do the training building peaks and troughs but importantly you need to ease off in that final 2-3 weeks so that you arrive at the start line fresh and ready to dig deep.