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Photo credit: Natalie White.

Q&A with Robbie Britton - winner of the 2016 Arctic Ice Ultra

16-Mar-16

By Luke Jarmey

The UK Ultra Running scene has been going from strength to strength in recent years and as one of its top runners consistently performing at the highest level, it’s a real pleasure to have you participate in this Q&A, Robbie. Anyway ‘buttering up’ out the way, let’s crack on to the questions!

Q. So for those of us that are unfamiliar, who is Robbie Britton?

A. A cheeky little man who loves nothing more than running around in circles for 24hrs just to see how far he can go. Not often known to talk about himself in the third person, Robbie is an insouciant ragamuffin who enjoys a nomadic lifestyle with his missus and their dog.

Q. Some of your recent running exploits have been tremendously tantalizing! But before we delve into them, let’s first explore a slice of your running background. When and what made you initially start ultra running? When was your first ultra? And at what point did your first sponsorships start coming in?

A. I ran my first marathon in May 2009 and my first ultra in September that year, from London to Brighton. It spiralled out of control from there onwards. As for sponsors, a stranger gave me a biscuit when I was out on a run in 2012, does that count? I’m chuffed to work with Profeet Sports Lab and make a living through my coaching so I get to choose the kit I want to wear.

Q. We’ve really enjoyed reading your various articles on the Guardian etc., how did that all come about? Have you always been a keen writer?

A. I really enjoy the writing I do and working with publications like The Guardian, the Indy,
Men’s Running, Like the Wind and the fantastic new Ultra mag is a really satisfying part of my life.

I’m not sure my GCSE English teacher would have foreseen any of it, but I love it. I’m actually sending a proposal to some publishers about a book, which is actually not about running but cross country skiing. Watch this space.

Photo credit: Natalie White.

Q. Now for another dose of ego rubbing… one of my favourite running articles of 2015 was your 'A race to the end: my first DNF'. Such a brutally honest periscope into your thoughts and feelings during and especially after the event. And a refreshing break from the often overtly technical or achievement laden nature of many race accounts! So I’m not going to ask you to further dissect what happened in that race, as readers should just go and read the article. But looking forward, are you indeed entering this year's UTMB? And if so, how is your mental and physical preparation going to differ, if at all?

A. Thanks Luke, it is probably the most popular thing I’ve done, DNFing UTMB. Ha.

I’m entered into the CCC this year as I couldn’t resist the draw of these trails, the whole UTMB week is a real buzz. A step back from the big dance seemed like a good idea and will allow me to go to the European 24hr Champs in October with less racing in the legs. We’ve got a Team Gold to defend!

Q. After spending last summer there and your decision to carry that on this winter, Chamonix’s clearly made an impression on you! As an ex long term resident I can completely relate, but for you personally, what draws you into that mountain sports melting pot?

A. When I first came to Chamonix in 2012 for the UTMB it felt like I truly belonged in the mountains. Having lost count of the amount of times I’ve moved house in the last 10 years, aiming to live somewhere like Chamonix, the massive playground that it is, seemed like a good idea. Natalie will tell you that I’m already getting itchy feet though and Scandinavia fascinates me…

Q. What was your weekly running routine like there in the summer? Were you consistently running technical mountain trail routes or mixing it up with other terrain choices?

A. As someone born and bred on the gnarly tarmac trails of London, I am no mountain goat. The aim of moving here was to improve on the technical side but not to the detriment of my other strengths, so training was varied and the weekly pilgrimage of Track Tuesday was always there. We had a good mix.

Q. I’ve noticed you dabble in a spot of mountaineering. Is this something you’ve been pursuing further in Chamonix? And can we expect to see you jostling away at the start line of any Skyrunning events soon?

A. Strangely I like to keep my mountaineering and my racing separate. Ha. As mentioned
above, technical stuff is not my forte, so I’m just not competitive enough in Skyraces. I’ve run Limone and Zegama and had a brilliant time doing so, but race like Tarawera, the Highland Fling and Road 24hr loops suit my style a bit more.

Nats and I did go up Mont Blanc de Tacul last summer and intend to run up and down Mont Blanc if we get a good day for it this year, just not racing.

Photo credit: Mikkel Beisner.

Q. On that note and with high profile runners like Kilian stimulating a recent growth in mountain running, what are your thoughts on the genre? Is it something that most trail runners can easily look at getting into or is it a genre best reserved for those with a high technical level of ability and experience in the mountains?

A. Go out and enjoy the mountains any way you can and if a race is how you want to do it then I can’t see why not. Just don’t expect to be able to compete at the front with the Europeans unless you run down hill like a fell runner possessed. It depends on what your aims are from a race and there are plenty of less technical races in the mountains as well.

It’s up to the race directors and the runners to deem whether they have enough experience to enter some of the more technical races, but sometimes I worry we will keep making events more and more technical until people get really hurt.

Q. So post UTMB saw you and James Elson indulge in a beautifully crackpot idea to run the length of Iceland in seven days. Please elaborate?

A. We’d both always wanted to see Iceland and both like running a long way. I pitched the idea to James and he jumped at it. We made a few plans, got a school friend of mine to come film us, hired a support vehicle, got some great kit off of Lyon Equipment like expedition tents, sleeping bags etc., Petzl head torches, Trek n Eat food, Julbo Sunglasses (unfortunately not necessary), Big Light My Fire knives and then we flew over there and ran across the island. We've got a short film coming out this year and early edits look and sound great. Plenty of rain, snow, rain, wind, black volcanic landscapes and laughs.

Q. Tell us a bit about the route; what was the terrain like, how far was it and did you manage to stick to it?

A. The initial aim was 330km, mainly across the vast volcanic moonscape in the Highlands and then over the beautiful Laugavegur trail to finish, but after making across miles and miles of black sand in rough weather, it really got shitty when we hit the first mountain pass of the Laugavegur and we had to turn back. It was a wise move actually because all the rivers had flooded along that trail so it would have been really dangerous after that pass.

We hatched a new plan to finish within our seven days with a 100km run at the end, mostly along “busier” roads that we knew would be open. It made the run nearer to 370km but those last 100km only took us nine hours I think.

Q. Were there any points in which you guys nearly chucked in the towel or thought you wouldn’t make the original 7-day plan?

A. Haha, I’m an eternal optimist so I always thought we would make it, James similarly just rolls with the punches so we always thought we’d find a way. At the start our support vehicle was drinking petrol and predicting we wouldn’t make 100 miles on a full tank so that was probably the biggest scare. The first day was rocky and uphill so the Suzuki Vitara we christened Helga panicked. It was fine though.

Photo credit: Natalie White.

Q. Well massive congratulations for completing that, what an adventure and accomplishment! Did the pain and suffering help condition you in your recent Arctic Ice Ultra? We heard you finished 1st. How was the overall experience?

A. Running in Iceland was a good experience that helped out when it came to the Ice Ultra. Simple things helped like testing out different kit in wild environments, being used to getting cold and working hard to get warm again and the day after day pain that I hadn’t really experienced before. James had much more experience with multi day running before Iceland, whereas I had just done a few XNRG events in the UK.

Q. … So is the race as tough as what the rumours say? What’s the support like?

A. Most races are as tough as you want to make them. I reckon a hard run marathon should be one of the toughest events you ever run, but the conditions in Sweden did pose a significant challenge if you weren’t prepared for them. We had temperatures of -6C to -10C which was slightly too warm. It meant the snow was quite soft and a lot of the lakes had surface water on top of the frozen ice. This water soaked through, stuck to your snowshoes and legs and then froze, adding a lot of weight to each foot. It was like walking through wet cement and then carrying on as it dried.

So it was tough, but the great support of Beyond the Ultimate, the Exile Medics and the local Sami herdsmen, meant that it was an achievable challenge, should anyone want to put the hard work in beforehand.

Just make sure you get the right kit. I had Patagonia windproof trousers that were actually quite thin, as well as a thin merino and thin windproof jacket. If I was standing round I would have got very cold, but because I was moving throughout it was great. I had extra layers with me, but barely used them until I stopped each night.

Q. How did you train for running in such extreme low temperatures?

A. Search for the coldest temperatures to get out in practice in, most likely in the wee small
hours of the night. Try out different layering systems because it isn’t a “tough enough” situation but a “smart enough” one for choosing the right clothes. You generate heat when you run so it’s finding something that will keep the wind out, keep you warm but not too warm.

Chuck all your favourite food in the freezer and see how easy it will be to eat in the cold. Eating and drinking is essential in colder environments to keep you moving and warm.

Q. Great stuff, so finally what does the rest of 2016 hold for you, Robbie? Which big races have you got planned and any potential adventures on the cards?

A. Right now the focus is on the British Ultra Championships at the Hoka Highland Fling at
the end of April. It’s a fast course so I will be working on speed and consistent running for the next two months, which is quite difficult in Chamonix with all the steep hills, but I’ll make do.

At the end of the Summer I’m doing the CCC, the UTMB’s sister race which is 100km long. We’re actually organising a couple of reccies over the UTMB route for July too, which is an adventure in itself. It’s great to be able to show people trails that you love.

As for big adventures, there are a few in the pipeline for the next few years, but the 2017 World 24hr Championships are going to be in July in Belfast so a lot of work will aim towards that, but not without some fun on skis next winter too, possibly a 220km ski race in the Arctic.

The video for Iceland is coming out this year and we’ve got a website to keep people updated going live this week.

Many thanks Robbie! Good luck for the rest of the year and run well!

Photo credit: Robbie Britton.

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