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Richard Dunley, Alex Cawthorne, Mark Aldred and Marco Espin. Photo credit: Mark Ruscoe.

Team GB rowers turn to ultra running

01-Mar-16

By Alice Morrison

Richard Dunley and Alex Cawthorne were both elite rowers, member of Team GB with their sights firmly set on the London Olympics. They didn’t quite make the final selection and  decided it was time to “start real life and keep the bosses and girlfriends happy“. Looking for a new challenge, they have taken up running and say the one thing they need is for the runs to keep getting harder. Alice Morrison met up with them at UTAT and talked to them about what it is like to start over in a new sport, when you have been at the top of your game in a different discipline.

Q: What attracted you to trail running and to ultras?

A: The beauty of the trails is that we spent so long being judged and competing that we wanted to do something where finishing itself is an achievement. Everything you do in a sport like rowing is about gaining a tenth of a second. Here it is about getting to the end. It is a completely different way of looking at sport. It is the idea of competing against the challenge, not each other. The main enemy is those hills!

Q: What did rowing give you that you have brought to trail running?

A: Aside from a degree of fitness, it is mental. The ability to keep putting one foot in front of another – that stopping isn’t in the plan. The difference is that with rowing it is one session after another whereas with this it is a continuous event.

Q: You two have been rowing partners for a number of years and you are actually doing this race together as a team. How does that work?

A: Well we have been racing together for the past seven years. You win or lose together, your place is your place together. Obviously ultras and trail are not team sports but this is all very, very new to us so completing is our primary goal. It is so much easier to finish if you are not going through it alone. There will clearly still be lows but hopefully not at the same time so we can pull each other through it. We also really want to enjoy it, and spending eight hours out there, we don’t want to do it alone.

Q: How are you finding the ultra community?

A: What I really like about this kind of racing is that it is very inclusive. So, you have the champion of the Marathon des Sables willing to sit down and chat to you because you are all doing the same thing. Don’t feel that is necessarily the same in other sports.

Q: You guys were absolutely at the top of your sport – the elite. So, how does it feel to be starting at the bottom?

A: Well you are never really at the top because there are always people better than you or waiting to be better than you. You just change your standards. It doesn’t matter where you are, you are just trying to catch the guy just ahead of you. We both really wanted to get away from that because nothing you do is ever good enough. No matter how much you win. Before you’ve even achieved your goal, you are already thinking ahead to the next step, by being good enough to reach that goal, you have to start thinking of the next one. It’s very rare you get a sense of real gratification.

Q: You are both pretty tall and strong for ultra racing… ( Alex is 6.1 and Richard is 5.11)

A: Yes, it is great to be one of the big guys! We were both lightweights in rowing. Our race weight was 70kgs.

Q: Tell me about your training regime.

A: We followed a rigid plan for so long that now we would hate to do that. Obviously, we would if we started looking at reaching certain time goals but we’re not at that level right now. So, we’ve been getting a lot of runs in – 10kms, with longer at the weekends. Also tried to get in some conditioning so that feet, ankles, knees and hips can cope. Because we don’t know what we are doing, we are keeping it flexible. We don’t want to have the brutality of a training programme on the fridge.

Q: What are your aims for UTAT? It is marathon distance but there are a lot of big passes – 2600m of ascent and it is pretty wild out there.

A: Well we just want to finish and really enjoy it. But, of course, we are already thinking of the 105km for next year.

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