Q&A with Salomon trail athlete Beth Pascall
Written By: Ben Mounsey
We caught up with GB international trail runner and Salomon athlete Beth Pascall, to discuss her incredible performance at WSER 100, her training and aim for this year’s UTMB® race and to find out about her top recommendations for trail running kit.
Hi Beth! Thank you for taking the time for this interview, it’s very much appreciated.
No problem! To be honest, it’s pouring down with rain outside so it’s a good excuse to put off my run for a little while.
Well, I’m glad I’ve chosen a good day for an interview then! And you’ve actually beaten me to my first question, which was going to be how is the weather in France? Because surprisingly it’s really nice at the moment here in England!
So, moving on… what a phenomenal year you’ve just had in terms of running achievements! Let’s start by talking about your outstanding performance last month at the Western States® 100-Mile Endurance Run, where you finished in seventh place overall in a time of 17:10:42, recording the second-fastest women’s time in race history.
How confident were you going into the race and did you expect to run such an incredible time?
No, it never occurred to me that I would run such a fast time. I didn’t think anyone would run such a fast time because it was a really hot year, in fact it was one of the hottest in Western States history. I was confident going into the race, confident in my preparation anyway, but with these long races so much is unpredictable and you can’t ever go into a race expecting to win because then you probably won’t. So yeah, I thought I was one of a handful of girls who had a shot at winning, but I certainly wasn’t thinking about the win, I was just thinking about running a solid race and then seeing what happened.
That must’ve been some feeling as you crossed the finish line to take the win! Can you tell us more about your training and preparation for the event and how long were you out in the US prior to Western States?
I was out there for nearly three months in total. So, I arrived in April to race the Canyons 100k, which is a golden ticket race for Western States in California. Mainly because it was a race that was happening and I think it was only my third or fourth race that I had actually entered and it was the one that went ahead.
Afterwards, I headed to Flagstaff in Arizona and hung out there for about 6 weeks. This is obviously a famous place for distance runners to visit because it’s at altitude, is notoriously dry and gets very warm - so it was great training for Western States. It’s also close to the Grand Canyon, so I did a fair amount of running in the Canyon, which was ideal for heat preparation and I did a few runs in there - at times the temperatures reached 43℃!
In the final three weeks before Western States, my husband came out to join me and we just hung out around the course in California, travelled a bit (mainly camping) and we had a great time.
Can you describe how the race went – I imagine there were plenty of highs and lows over such a long distance!
Yeah, there were a lot of highs and lows, in fact beyond the first twenty miles or so, which were pretty smooth, it was just a constant cycle of high and lows until the finish and that was all heat related. So, this year the race was all about keeping cool and looking after yourself. At every aid station you’d pour water all over yourself and put ice everywhere you can think of – in your arm warmers, around your neck and in your pack. And you feel OK for a few miles, but then your gradually start to feel worse and worse before you reach the next aid station and then you just repeat the same process – cool off, feel better and then overheat again. There were even a couple of occasions where I felt so hot that I had to sit down and rest for a couple of minutes because I just needed to take some time to get my core temperature down a bit and if I’d carried on then that probably would’ve been it. I sometimes had to take more time at aid stations than I probably would’ve usually done, but it paid off in the end.
You obviously know your body and limits really well and it sounds like your judgement and experience played a huge part in your success.
Yeah, I agree but I’m certainly not used to that kind of heat! You can’t replicate dealing with the heat in training, because you don’t have the aid stations and you’re not practising with the support you have out there on the course. So yeah, you’re right, it is about my experience, knowing my body and knowing how hard I can push myself – whether that means dealing with the heat or something else, the same feelings apply.
Despite your athletic success, the last 18 months have been very difficult and challenging for us all. As a doctor and an athlete, how have you managed to cope with the lockdown restrictions and the impact that COVID has had on our lives?
Work has been challenging because we’ve had to be really flexible and procedures have been constantly changing throughout the pandemic.
In terms of running, as athletes we like to have goals, and there have been times over the last year or so where I’ve had certain goals and other times where it’s just been impossible to train towards something. So, it’s been a real learning experience and I’ve found it difficult at times. But I think it’s helped me to learn how to get the enjoyment out of training rather than only focussing on goals. I do love that feeling of being in the middle of a hard training block when everything is kind of clicking together and that to me is almost more enjoyable than racing – and I do love racing!
Pictured: Beth crossing the finish line at Western States, 2021. Image courtesy of Beth Pascall.
How have you had to change and adapt your training?
My training has been different because I’ve had to train simultaneously for many completely different goals. There was a time earlier this year where I didn’t know if I was able to go to America or not and I was training for a runnable 100k and a track 100k at the same time, so I just had to stay really flexible.
Has anything positive come from these changes?
The most positive thing to come out of the last 18 months is the rise of the FKT’s – and I think they’re here to stay. It’s been really cool that we’ve seen so many people set really incredible records on the rounds and the national trails in the UK. And now people can race if they want to, many are still out there trying to set records and I think that’s so great to see.
Moving on to your next big race, how is the training and preparation going for this year’s UTMB®?
I would say my preparation for UTMB® is more about recovering from Western States rather than training specifically for the race. They’re both my kind of races but they’re only 9 weeks apart, which is not that long if you throw everything at Western States, which I did. Because I trained and raced so much harder there this year, it’s taken me much longer to recover. So, the build up to UTMB® is more about keeping things ticking over, maybe doing a little bit in the mountains and preparing my legs, but I wouldn’t say I’m ‘training’ for UTMB®, I’m just making sure that I’m as fresh as possible for the start line.
The UTMB® is 170km with over 10,000m of climbing. What kit and equipment will you wear and carry during the race?
For anything long, I guess shoes are the most important thing to consider. I’ll be using the Salomon S-Lab Ultra 3 Trail Running Shoes for UTMB®, which have been my go-to shoe for many, many years. And although I won’t wear them for the race, it’s worth mentioning the Salomon Ultra Glide which is a trail running shoe that I’ve done a lot of training in and great for anyone who wants some extra comfort.
Also, it’s probably going to rain, like it is doing now, so in these conditions I’ll be wearing the Salomon S-Lab Motionfit 360 GORE-TEX Waterproof Jacket, a really important piece of kit.
After almost a year of not using poles, I’ll be using the next few weeks to sharpen my technique before race day and I use the Leki Micro-Trail Pro Running Poles. Using poles in ultra-distance races makes a big difference, but only if you know how to use them. When I’m in the UK I do use a SkiErg to build up that specific body strength, which helps when I come out here and then want to use poles effectively.
Can you tell us more about nutrition and hydration for running an ultra like UTMB® - What food and drink will you carry with you and what are you likely to eat and drink during the race?
I aim to take on 80g of carbohydrates per hour for the whole race and that’s something I’ve got well dialled in races for quite a few years and that really works for me. Quite a lot of that will come from Spring energy gels which is mainly a rice-based gel, so more complex carbohydrates and no maltodextrin. For a long race like UTMB®, I’ll supplement that with some solid food at aid stations, like noodle soup and I’ll have some energy drinks too – I use a combination of Spring energy drinks and Mountain Fuel, which contain electrolytes. I’ll carry enough pre-mixed fluid to get me between aid stations, but I also carry powdered sachets which I can then mix up with water whenever I need to and this saves me carrying unnecessary weight in my pack.
The process of fuelling is something I’ve worked on a lot over the years and 9 times out of 10 this strategy works.
Following your incredible achievements during the last 12 months, which include setting a new FKT for the Bob Graham Round in 2020 and more recently your win at WSER 100, you must be feeling full of confidence as you prepare for your 4th UTMB®. Your previous best finish was a magnificent 4th in 2018, but based on current form, do you think you can follow in the footsteps of Lizzie Hawker and become only the second British female to win this prestigious event?
I feel confident in my fitness but honestly, I just don’t know because my build up is so different this year. I usually get a lot of confidence from doing a big training block, particularly in the mountains, beforehand. However, because of Western States, this year I won’t be doing that at all, but I know it’s the right thing to do, despite knowing I’ll be missing out on that confidence I usually get from specific training.
Realistically, I think I have a chance of winning, but there are other girls who have a shot at it too. Also, even more things can go wrong at UTMB® than Western States because it’s such a long race. You can’t be thinking about placing or the finish line, you’ve just got to go out there and look after yourself and see what happens.
Pictured: Beth training in Olympic Valley in the days before Western States, 2021 Image credit: Salomon / Pete O’Brien
You have been an elite athlete for many years, but arguably you’re in the form of your life. What do you consider to be the key ingredient/s to your success? What has changed over the last couple of years to allow you to take your fitness and performances to an even greater level.
Yeah, I’ve definitely taken a big jump in the last couple of years, but I think it’s mainly just down to years of consistent training. I think the pandemic may have helped last year and by doing fewer races there was obviously more time for consistent training. I also broke my ankle whilst helping a friend complete a Bob Graham last year and I spent a long time on the bike after that. When I started running again, I expected it to take a while to get my running fitness back, but after just a few weeks it was really clear that I was fitter than ever before and the times I was running in training were really unexpected. I was really fit coming into this year so it could’ve been something to do with that.
My coach, Martin Cox, says that sometimes you make a big jump in fitness at times when you least expect it, often for inexplicable reasons. So, there’s nothing that has changed dramatically in my training that has led to my racing success this year.
Who inspires you the most?
Martin Cox inspires me more than anyone else. He was a phenomenal athlete himself and has enjoyed a very successful running career - I can’t imagine where I’d be today without his influence as a coach. I have so much respect for him as a person and he gets so excited (almost as excited as me!) when sessions go well and his passion for the sport has just really rubbed off on me - that’s why he’s such an inspiration.
It’s really inspiring to watch your progression and journey as an athlete. How much more do you want to achieve and what are your goals for the future?
More than anything I want to be in the sport, so ideally running competitively for as long as I can. For me, it’s less about ticking off specific goals, but at the moment the races that excite me the most are Western States and UTMB®. Once you’ve been a part of either race, everything else just doesn’t quite feel the same. I mean it might get a bit boring because I just go back to the same races each year, but they are the races that will get me out of bed at 4:30 in the morning in January when it’s pouring down with rain. I’d like to run Hardrock 100 at some point too because it’s the big 100 milers that most excite me the most and I just want to run competitively for as long as my body will allow.
Do you have any key pieces of advice for any aspiring trail runners and particularly those who are new to the sport?
I think you learn the most when you put yourself in slightly uncomfortable situations, so if you want to get into trail running then enter a race. It could be something very short and benign, but that’s often a good way to first get onto the scene and work your way into the community in order to learn the most. And it’s a really welcoming community, because when you go to a race, everyone is super-friendly and really approachable – there are no egos in trail running. There are many off-road, trail, hill and fell specific clubs all over the UK too and that’s a great way to learn more about the sport and find like-minded people to train with. Also, if you’re on your own, embrace hiking and spend as much time on the trails as possible because it takes a while to get comfortable and used to different kinds of terrain. Take things slowly and gradually build up volume to prevent injury.
Thanks Beth, it’s been a real pleasure chatting to you and we wish you the very best of luck for UTMB® and all your future races!
You can follow Beth and all of her running adventures here.