Q&A with Mountain Runner Andy Douglas
Written By: Ben Mounsey
‘The Fast King of Scotland’, Andy Douglas has been at the forefront of world mountain running for almost a decade. During this time, he has led the GB mountain running squad to an abundance of team medals in all major competitions, with an individual best of 6th place in the 2015 edition of the World Championships, in Betsw-Y-Coed, Wales. But undoubtedly his greatest achievement came four years later, winning the Mountain Running World Cup in 2019 and cementing his place as one of Britain’s all-time athletic greats.
We caught up with the HOKA sponsored athlete to discuss his incredible achievements, find out who inspires him the most and ask him what the future holds.
Hey Andy! First of all, congratulations for all your remarkable achievements so far! I know that there is plenty more still to come. But let’s start at the beginning. When did you first start running and how did you get into the sport of mountain running?
I joined my local athletics club in Caithness when I was around 11 years old, but I’m sure my parents will say that I was runner long before that! I enjoyed doing all kinds of sports but I guess I got more serious about running whilst I was at university. The mountain running aspect of it came a fair few years later in 2014 - I made the decision that I wanted to follow a different path after having experimented with the marathon for a few years and it not really working out.
When and how did you make the improvement from beginner to elite athlete?
I began to see some potential during university where I was competing both with the athletics club and the running club. I really enjoyed the social aspect of being part of those clubs, the nights out and the training weekends away, but I was beginning to see some significant improvement from the training sessions. After I finished university and having returned to Scotland from taking a gap year out in New Zealand, I began working with Sophie Dunnett and that’s where I’d say the journey from being a good-standard club runner to elite athlete really took off.
You’ve had an incredible journey so far and enjoyed a huge amount of success, most notably winning the Mountain Running World Cup, in 2019. Tell us about that particular season; the training, the races, the sacrifices you made and of course, how it feels to be a World Champion - surely the highlight of your career (so far!)?
Yeah, I really enjoyed 2019 and so glad I made that decision to do it, the timing really couldn’t have been better given what 2020 turned out like! It wasn’t a spur of the moment thing, it was something I had thought seriously about for a couple of years, and it had to coincide with a point in my career where it felt right. Not just that, but I also needed the support of my employers to whom I’m incredibly grateful for giving me that opportunity and allowing me to return to my job at the end of it. And, of course, I had to make sure the lifestyle was sustainable from a financial point of view as I would no longer have any regular income. I had some very generous support during the course of the year from my shoe and kit sponsor HOKA, the bank of “Mum and Dad” (interest-free loans are the best!), and Scottish Athletics. I am also incredibly grateful to Robert Macdonald, who’s invested numerous times in grants to the club I represent Inverclyde AC, for his very kind contribution to my travel expenses for the World Cup Series and to the club president Gerry Gaffney for introducing me to him. I used a fair amount of savings to get by, but without that kind of support then a 14-month career break wouldn’t have been feasible. And for me it had to be for at least 12-months to make it worthwhile. I didn’t hit the ground running, excuse the pun, and I didn’t see a notable improvement in my races at the start of the sabbatical. I then suffered an injury to my sacroiliac joint during a hill race at the start of January which wasn’t diagnosed properly until late February, so although I was able to cross train, I missed out on that big block of winter training mileage. I only really began to feel I was getting the benefit of being a full-time athlete in the spring, so that was a good 6 months after leaving my day-job. I did put a fair amount of pressure on myself to perform and get those podium results that I had come close to in previous years. Winning Trofeo Nasego and then the first two World Cup races after that was a huge relief and I could then see the benefit of being a full-time athlete paying off.
The WMRA World Cup was certainly something I had made a target at the start of the season. There were some really exciting new races included in spectacular locations around the World and I just wanted to give it my best shot. In terms of training, I wanted to make the most of the time off and try and get more conditioned to running up mountains and getting those long, sustained climbs in that you can’t get here in Edinburgh. In the build up to first World Cup race, I headed out to Malonno with Sarah McCormack, Jacob Adkin and Louise Mercer, and we got a great spell of training out there; probably even more-so because we didn’t have a car and had to carry all our food shopping from the village up to our Airbnb which was a couple hundred vertical metres each time!
I had some amazing experiences with the World Cup races, all very memorable in their own way. Going out to California and spending two weeks altitude training at Lake Tahoe was special, and not getting mauled by a bear, despite two close encounters, was a proud achievement! Racing up and down Snowdon for the first time was special too, wearing the Scottish vest for that and having incredible support on the course is something I’ll never forget. Improving from last year at Sierre-Zinal in one of the best quality trail racing fields ever assembled was amazing. And that finishing line at Drei-Zinnen... unbeatable! All of those things, plus the people you get to experience it with as well. I was delighted for Sarah McCormack in winning the World Cup as well; seeing Jacob Adkin become European Champion and being top of the team podium along with Robbie Simpson too; watching two outstanding World Cup race wins for Sarah Tunstall at Grossglockner and Drei Zinnen (esp the latter having been made to cross the line twice for that perfect celebratory pic!); seeing Joe Dugdale achieve the incredible European and World Junior double! All the post-race beers/wine/Aperol Spritz, there are too many memories. I should have probably made a scrapbook but hey ho, it’s great reminiscing about them now!
Crossing the finish line at Drei-Zinnen 2019 – Photo credit: Marco Gulberti (WMRA)
Did you have a favourite race in the series?
That’s a hard one, but I’d probably have to go with the Snowdon International. It was brilliant to have one of the series races in the UK and to have mountain running legends like Bernard and Martin Dematteis competing there. For me, it was just one of those days when the legs felt strong and the atmosphere around the race was so good, it really just made me want to demonstrate a performance I could be proud of. It is tricky dodging the walkers/hikers on the path as you hurtle down, but at the same time it made for some great support! It was particularly poignant that day because we had recently lost a much-loved family member who had shown me a lot of support over the years in my running, so he was very much in my thoughts throughout the race.
And did you always believe you were capable of winning?
I tried to believe it, tried to visualise being strong in the race and crossing the line first; but as always with mountain running it’s so unpredictable; the courses are so varied and you never know who is going to excel on a course on any given day. So, I try to trust in my preparation, be confident, but never complacent. If someone had said to me I’d have won 3 of the 7 World Cup races, then I wouldn’t have believed it, so it was a really special thing for me to have achieved that.
I know that you’ve worked closely with your coach (Sophie Dunnett) for many years. How important is this relationship to you and how much has her influence contributed to your success in 2019?
Sophie started coaching me in 2009 and has been a huge influence on my running career; I can’t really imagine where I’d be today without the impact she’s had. She’s never forced me down a particular path, and I’m incredibly grateful that she stuck by me when I made the switch to mountain running and how she made that effort to learn how to coach me in that discipline. When I decided to take a sabbatical, she was one of the first people I told and I think she was probably as excited for it as I was! Sophie’s a hard task-master and will give me sessions that really push my limits, but at the same time is hugely supportive and empathetic, so that really helps if I’m going through a rough spell. Especially during my sabbatical year there were times when I leant on her for support and reassurance when things weren't going to plan. I hope that any perceived success I have had is reflected on her abilities as a coach. I’ve never considered myself a particularly talented athlete (my early years sporting accomplishments are testament to that!) and it’s taken a lot of work for us to get to this point.
It’s fair to say that 2020 was a year to forget for us all. How have you coped since the first lockdown? How have you managed to stay motivated and how has your training changed with the restrictions on travel and daily life?
Absolutely! It is difficult when you put the effort into training and have no opportunities to demonstrate your ability, but I just remind myself that everyone is in the same boat. I think the motivation really just comes from wanting to be in decent shape and being able to do the tough interval-type sessions. I still get the same buzz after finishing a tough training session, so that’s what I hold on to. That’s not to say that there’s the odd day, or couple of days, where I fall off the wagon, but training is a good boost for physical wellbeing as well as mental health. I am fortunate to live in Edinburgh and there is an abundance of different places to train, without having to drive anywhere. It is a very runner-friendly city, not only in where you can run, but also the community of runners here and friends that I have been able to train with during these difficult times.
We’re currently featuring a series on Inspirational Trails. Where is/are your favourite place/s in the world to run?
Ah that’s a tough one to answer because mountain running takes me to so many amazing places. We are very fortunate to have some great places to run here in Scotland, I particularly enjoy the Northwest Highlands, but one place that really stood out for me was the Faroe Islands. I managed to squeeze in a short trip over there in October 2019 and when folk like Angela Mudge and Tom Owens rave about it then you know it’s going to be worth your while going there! It’s really unspoilt, desolate and a pretty harsh environment and it has this edge-of-world aura about it, which I could kind of relate to growing up in the ‘far north of Scotland. I have to mention Patagonia as well; myself, Jacob, Sarah T and Ben spent a couple weeks there after the 2019 World Championships and some of the trail running out there was spectacular.
Crossing the finish line at the Maxi Race, in Annecy 2019 – Photo credit: Marco Gulberti (WMRA)
Do you have any top tips for someone wanting to get into mountain running?
I think mountain running is best approached with an open mind. It certainly helps if you're already a seasoned runner, whether that be road/xc/track etc, as a base level of endurance helps with the effort it takes to run up and down mountains. Most of us in the UK won't live in close proximity to a mountain, so it’s a good idea to start off in the hills and trails and take it from there. All over the country there are trail and fell/hill-specific running clubs which welcome new members. And there's a lot of online content to help with being as safe as you can when out in the hills, I think for beginners it’s best if you can run with someone who's experienced in this discipline.
Do you have any top kit recommendations?
There are plenty of options out there now for top quality hill running gear. Lightweight, weather-appropriate gear is highly recommended, but also a comfortable trail shoe can make all the difference. At the moment for most of my off-road running I wear the HOKA Torrent 2 as they have really good grip underneath and are quite light for a trail shoe; quite versatile as I use them for hill reps sessions and long runs so they’re my go-to this winter.
It’s almost impossible to make any serious short-term plans with COVID continuing to dominate our lives. So, what are your long-term plans and goals for the future?
At the moment it’s just really about getting back to basics, putting in the training and trying to enjoy it for what it is. The racing picture looks so unpredictable so it’s difficult to pinpoint a race to prepare for. In the long-term though, I am looking at attempting some longer trail/mountain races, around the marathon distance. I had hoped to do that last year but here's hoping I'll be able to at some point this summer. I still really enjoy the shorter up & down mountain races so I want to continue doing that as long as I've still got that relative bit of speed in the legs! I'd love to represent GB a few more times over the classic mountain distances.
You can follow Andy and all his mountain running adventures here.