Interview: Conan Marshall
Ultra-distance running has grown exponentially during the past decade. A larger number of runners are taking on these races that can be up to 200 km in distance. These races take immense preparation and mental toughness. Every ultra-runner has a story to be told.
In this Q&A I talk with Allie Bailey, an English ultra-runner who has participated in numerous marathons and ultra-marathons around the world. Last year, she took part in a 100-mile multi-stage event in Mongolia, becoming the first woman to cross Khuvsgul Lake. In this interview Allie talks mental health, pre-race preparations and shares her advice for new runners.
You mentioned before that you started to run in order to improve your mental health. Could you elaborate on how running has aided you in coping with certain hardships that you’ve dealt with?
It’s been the one constant for the last 8 years and without it I doubt I would be here. I do it when I am happy and when I am sad. It calms me down and helps me think clearly. Last year I lost a very dear friend to suicide. I got the news the day before I was due to start a multi-day ultra in Dorset, and I was obviously devastated – angry, confused and just so, so sad. I thought about not doing the event, but then I realised it was the best thing for me to do.
I went along and immersed myself with the trail running community and used it as an opportunity to let my sadness and frustration out. Time on the trails is therapy. It allowed me time to think and start to grieve. I ended up winning the race which was as surprising to me as it was to everyone else. I put this down to channelling those feelings into something physical and meaningful. I did that for Scott.
You have undergone some impressive ultra-marathons and adventures across the world. How have these adventures affected your approach to life’s adversity and daily stresses?
Everyone has toughness and resilience in them, but most people don’t understand how resilient they actually are. They just don’t get the opportunity to test their resilience in the world we live in, which is sedentary and involves sitting behind a computer most of the time.
The key to understanding resilience is stepping out of your comfort zone and testing it. You have to think clearly, strategically and calmly to be able to complete some of these endurance runs. You need planning and coping mechanisms in place, just as you do in real life. You also need self-belief and that comes with experience and failure.
I celebrate failure and human error.
It’s through those things that we learn and adapt. Running across Panama was the single most difficult thing I have ever done, but there was no choice – nobody was going to come and save us – we just had to keep pushing forward. It taught me a lot about what I am capable of.
Preparing for an ultra-marathon must compel you to have a planned routine and a clear set of goals. What are your opinions on having a regimented routine?
I think having too much of a routine can become a stressor. People can put a lot of pressure on themselves to compete a training plan or get their times perfect. I believe in just doing you. I run between 3-6 times a week depending on the week, how I am feeling and what sort of events I have coming up.
Some weeks will be high mileage if I have time. Others not as much and that’s cool. Life gets in the way, you might be ravelling a lot, or you might just not feel like going out. I have multiple events throughout the year to use as training and then a couple of big “A” races every year – this year it’s the 117-mile Devon Coast to Coast in May. I know I need to be match fit for that, so everything points towards it.
Can you take us through your pre-race preparations?
I start mental preparation early. I have a plan, A, B and C so that if I feel like the race isn’t going to plan, I have a backup. I feel like mental preparation is more important than physical. I know that my body can get me round, it’s my mind that will stop me.
Much like living with depression, I put in coping strategies and identify triggers that may come up during a race that could be detrimental to my mental state. Once I have identified them, I work out how I will deal with them when they come up. It’s like first aid for your brain. Every long race has a mandatory kit list that will 100% include a first aid kit for your body. I think it’s vital that you make sure you virtually carry one for your brain as well.
Being part of a close-knit community is great for mental health. How much do you value the sense of community found in running?
I have met some of my closest friends through running, trail running specifically. Trail and endurance running is often a lot slower than road running, which means people are more social and talk to each other. It’s amazing how people open up when they are running. People talk about things they would never otherwise talk about with complete strangers – like therapy but without the scary trust circle or doctor staring at you. Running is a leveller and within trail running it’s very rare that I have ever felt judged. It doesn’t matter who you are or where you are from – everyone is there for the same thing – to get out and run.
Depression and anxiety can be very lonely illnesses but getting out and talking to people on the trails often revels that other people have the same problems as you. You can get great advice and make some awesome friends, plus who knows – by talking to a complete stranger about their mental health or what is going on in their life, you may well be helping them more that you can ever know.
Is there anyone in the running community that has inspired you in particular?
I’m lucky enough to be a co-presenter on the Bad Boy Running Podcast and we have had some massively inspirational people on there. My girl crush is Camille Herron who holds the world record for 100 Miles (12 hours 42 mins). She’s funny, smart and drinks beer on the way round. She doesn’t take stuff to seriously and is real and authentic. I think she’s amazing!
What advice would you give to someone who is struggling with poor mental health or adversity, who is potentially interested in taking up running as a coping mechanism?
Starting to run can be massively daunting for some people. My advice is start slow and go on time on your feet rather than mileage – just go out for 30-45 mins and see how far you get. You don’t need to be fast- you can walk some of it – but you will start to see the mileage getting higher within the timeframe as you do it more and more often. I would also recommend joining a running community (note – NOT a club!).
There are some great ones online like Lonely Goat, White Star Running and my favourite Bad Boy Running. Becoming part of an online community is a lot less daunting than rocking up at a running club, and you will find helpful advice and some lovely people who you can arrange runs in real life with. These communities are big and cater for all levels.
Lastly, it’s important to remember your running is all about you. You shouldn’t compare yourself to anyone else, because your life is your story, not theirs. My golden rule? If you’re not enjoying it, you’re going too fast!