Image credit: Sam Clark
At the end of November 2019, 32-year-old UK doctor, Beth Pascall, conquered the 100km UTCT with a finishing time of 10 hours 55 minutes. She is the first woman to run a sub 11hr for the 100km. For her, it seemed like just another day on the trails - but for most aspiring trail runners, one hundred kilometers is a true test of mental and athletic performance. We had a quick chat with her to hear more about her UTCT experience and how she became such an incredible endurance athlete.
When did you start running competitively?
Probably around 5-6 years ago. It wasn’t like I had a background in road running or shorter distances. I just sort of launched straight into running trail ultras. I think it was because I just read a lot of books about it and liked the idea behind it, if I’m honest. I wasn’t inspired by any particular person. I’ve also always enjoyed behind outdoors and in the mountains. I launched straight into running a hundred mile race - which was my first ever trail race. I just threw myself in at the deep end. But it’s not like I’d never done any exercise before that - I've always been sporty. I was a lightweight rower, actually - when I was at University. So I think I had a strong endurance base from that, but I hadn’t had much experience in running before the last six years really.
How do you go about training for such incredible distances?
I seriously prepare all year round, but I could probably take 6 months off and do a Mont Blanc - but that’s probably not the best thing to do. I never stop training for one thing and start training for another thing. It’s more tweaking my training slightly for a specific race.
I have a coach, but I haven’t always had a coach. I’ve done my own thing, but I guess most of my running life I’ve done my own thing.
When I do my long runs, I do them on a similar terrain as the race with a similar amount of climb and ascent. If I work out, for example, that the race will have about 300m of climbing per hour, I will make my training runs the same. Essentially, I’ll try to mimic the course of the race as much as possible; run on technical terrain and so on. In the UK, I can manage to do this to be honest - we’ve got good mountains. Where I live we don’t have a lot of mountains - I mean there are hills and things, but I generally do a lot of driving on the weekends to bigger hills to practice climbing and things like that.
I don’t do super long sessions, really. I probably do relatively low mileage compared to my competitors - just because I don’t have the time to do any more. I also do a big mix of things - a lot of speedwork, even throughout the year when I’m training for a big race. I do a lot of interval training, when I’m running faster than race pace. A lot of ultra runners completely ignore the speed, and they just do long, slow runs but I try and do my long runs and some speed work. I also spend some time in the gym, doing strength and conditioning a few times a week. And that’s basically it. The rest of the time, just easy running.
Image credit: Jared Paisley
How long did it take you to prepare for that first 100-miler?
I think I entered it about 4 months before, but it was very much a case of not necessarily wanting to win, but just wanting to know if it was possible. I had no idea if it was. I wasn’t really a runner before that.
The mental game must be a very big part of training for ultra distances?
Growing up, I was always very sporty - but I wouldn’t say I was a runner. I always want to push myself with whatever I do, so I’ve always wanted to do things that challenge me. I remember when I was about 13, my dad and my brother were cycling to my grandparent’s house which was a hundred miles away and I decided I wanted to go with them - having not done any cycling before that. I basically had a tantrum before they let me come, and then cycled a hundred miles on this old farm bike. Very slowly, but I got there. So I think I’ve always enjoyed pushing myself and setting myself challenges.
What was your longest training run before the UTCT?
I probably did like 50km - my longest session in training. I do longer than that, but normally my races are longer, like a hundred miles. Then I would do much longer sessions. For this race I only did about 50-60km maximum in training for one individual run. And then probably 120-130 kilometers a week on average probably.
How long before the race did you come down to Cape Town, and did you train here?
I came down a week before - just because that’s how long I could get off work. I think it’s important, especially after a long flight - when you’re tired or get ill. I got ill as soon as I arrived, which is predictable because I always get ill after a long flight. And because I work with sick children all the time, I’m always full of viruses. So, for me it’s important to get there as soon as possible just to recover from all the travelling and in case I get ill.
I was able to run on the course a bit, but not much. Ideally, I would have come down longer before the time to run sections of the course so I’d know what to expect, but that wasn’t really practical.
What did your training look like in the week leading up to UTCT?
I mean I ran every day. I wouldn't have a day off. [The day before] I would just keep it easy. I think I did a slightly faster session on the Monday before. Faster than easy. The rest of the week was an hour at the most.
How was the race? Did you struggle at any point?
Not really, I had a pretty good day. It’s really rare I feel good from start to finish; I didn’t have any low points. I just really enjoyed it. Most of my races last like 24,30 hours. So this race was quite short - there wasn’t a lot of time for things to go wrong.
There was a period where I got a bit hot - like around 60-75km from Kalk Bay. It was very much in the sun - and it was the easy section so it’s not like you could climb to have a break to walk. Yeah, I think I got a bit cooked during that section - but then I was fine after that. I’m not used to the heat, living in the UK.
And at the end, well I felt kinda good. It was a good day.
During the race, are you running the entire time?
Definitely walking the steepest climbs. There are some climbs on the course that are pretty steep - like the section going up onto Table Mountain. But for the rest of the time, I wouldn’t ever walk unless it was a steep uphill.
What kind of gear did you use for the race?
I’m sponsored by Salomon. I ran the race in S/LAB Sense Ultra. It’s probably my 10th pair I’ve had. We have to carry mandatory kit, so everyone has to carry the same thing basically, for safety. You have to carry a minimum amount of water, and various other things - like a mobile phone. I would just take the minimum amount of things I can carry. I use a type of energy gel, which I couldn’t do without. They have more complex carbohydrates in them and are mainly rice based with some fruit in them as well. I don’t carry any solid food.
Did you do better than you think you would for the UTCT?
Yeah, I guess so. Going into it, there were a few girls I thought could give me a race, but there was no one who I thought, you know, there’s no way I can beat that. Sometimes you go into a race and you think, well, unless they fall over and break a leg, there’s just no way I can beat them. There was no one like that, so I thought winning was possible. But I didn’t go into it expecting to win, or by a big margin. That was unexpected.
Image credit: Sam Clark
What did your training look like after the race? Are you taking it easy?
I’m having a couple of easy weeks. If this was a race in May, then I’d probably have a few easy days and then carry on. But because it’s the end of the season, I have a bit more time off. Just because I know that when I launch back into things next year, that’s going to be a really hard life; 11 months of training. So, it’s not just about letting myself recover from this race, it’s getting ready for a whole year of training. I mean, I’m still running - I’m just running less.
Any other big races coming up?
Not in the very near future. I mean, I have a few big ones next year - but I’m taking a bit of time off. But yeah, a few more hundred-milers next year.
Coming back to SA anytime soon?
Well yeah, I’d love to. I’d love to come back for the race next year, but I haven’t thought that far yet.
Are you interested in any other races in SA?
I would be interested, yes. The problem is that there are so many races around the world, that you have to be picky about what you go to.
Image credit: Marzelle van der Merwe
I’m sure you have a bucket list of races?
I’ve ticked off a few, but I also want to go back and do the most competitive races in the world like UTMB (Mont Blanc) or Western States. They’re the most competitive races in the world, and the races I think I’ll be best at. I do end up going back to races as well. So yeah, I think you have to pick and choose. A - what you’re going to be best at, and B - races that are going to give you a good race.
What is the most enjoyable race you’ve ever done?
Probably Westers States. The atmosphere was amazing and the fact that it was a bucket list race. I’ve been reading about it for many many years. Getting a place was very difficult, and it seemed like a huge privilege to be there. Ultra Trail Cape Town came pretty close, I mean it was a really fun day.
What’s the next race on your Bucket List?
Probably the race called Hard Rock in Colorado. Again, it’s a small race and very very difficult to get into - it takes many years.
What else fills your time besides your work and running? Do you enjoy any other sports?
I mean, I do the odd bit of cycling, but at the moment I just want to focus on running. I think you have a small window of opportunity in your life to try and be the best at something. For me, I think maybe in two years I might not be able to run - I might have kids, or I don’t know. I think I have a small window to fulfill my ultra running dreams and get as good as I can be. At the moment I’m just throwing myself into that and seeing where that takes me, because you know, it’s not a long-term career. People don’t tend to run well for decades. I mean, there are some exceptions, but normally people are good for a few years and then something happens - like they become injured, or other things in their life become more important. So for the next couple of years I’m just going to focus on my running.
What advice would you give to any aspiring ultra trail runners?
Make the training fun - spend time on the trails with good friends, explore new places and challenge yourself on different terrains. Racing is fantastic but the bulk of hours you'll spend running will be in training, so you have to make it as varied and enjoyable as possible.
Follow Beth’s ultra trail running journey: