Tor 330 Winner Emma Stuart – Interview

Tor 330 Winner Emma Stuart – Interview

TOR 30 by Jessica Wilson Reading Tor 330 Winner Emma Stuart – Interview 10 minutes Next TOR 30 by Jessica Wilson

A couple of weeks after the event we caught up with Tor 330 winner Emma Stuart to hear all about the race, how it felt to win and much more!

The Tor des Géants is one of the key races on the European Trail Running calendar. The Tor des Géants® is the first race of this kind to cover an entire region, running along its spectacular paths at the foot of the highest Four-Thousanders in the Alps and through the Gran Paradiso Natural Park and the Mont Avic Regional Park. All of these particular features help make this such a unique, inimitable race. 

Géants (Giants) doesn’t just refer to the size of the mountains, but also the pedigree of the packed field of runners – with some big names in European trail running taking part.

Emma, congratulations on winning the Tor 330! Firstly, tell us a little about the race, the location and format of this event. 

Tor des Geants (or Tor330) is a 330km (ish) race (205 miles) around the Aosta Valley in the Italian Alps, going over around 25 mountain passes with a total elevation of around 25,000m. In total, I ran 350km (217 miles).

It’s a single stage race so once the gun goes at the start, the clock doesn’t stop until you cross the finish line, so you have to strategically plan your sleep and rest.

There are six main “Lifebases” where you can get hot food, a shower, a bed and access to your drop bag, but the route passes loads (probably more than twenty) of mountain refuges where you can also eat, drink and rest.

This is the longest distance race you’ve done so far – how did you prepare for such a long race? 

This was a tough race to prepare for even though I live in the Lake District. First of all, our Lake District fells are tiny in comparison to the mountains of the Alps. Some of the climbs (and descents) went on for four or five hours!

Plus, you go up to 3,000m (and above) a couple of times so the altitude can be an issue. Some of my training involved spending long days (9+ hours) out in the fells getting in as much elevation as possible and learning to look after myself while I was out there.

Mentally, I feel this prepared me really well for the length of time I was out at Tor des Geants. This race was over twice the distance I had run previously so regardless of what I did, I knew I had to get through the first hundred miles feeling really good, and hoped the rest would fall into place from there, which it did.

Tor 330 Winner Emma Stuart – Photo Credit JOSE MIGUEL MUÑOZ

You’re no stranger to UK races, with some great results over the last few years domestically. How does a European race compare to similar races over here? 

I think the races are slightly different, but the essence is the same – having a superb adventure in the great outdoors.

The most notable difference is that most European trail races are really well waymarked, unlike in the UK, where it’s very uncommon. I have ran waymarked courses in the UK where members of the public have removed markers which is very frustrating, but in Europe, it’s so widely accepted that nobody touches them.

The food at the aid stations is also slightly different – ham, cheese, bread, dried fruits and dark chocolate seem to be the flavours of the day. No crisps, peanuts, sweets and the rubbish I’m normally used to!

You won the women’s race and were over two hours ahead of the next racer – how far into the race did you think you had a chance to win it? Was this always your race plan? Or did you adapt as the race went on? 

I don’t think when you’re racing you can ever really be convinced you’re going to win until you cross the finish line. The women’s lineup was really strong so I thought a Top 5 might be possible but not a win. However, in a race as long as TOR, a lot can happen and a lot can go wrong. Sabrina and Katarina were blasting away from the rest of the women’s field early on in the race, but sadly both had some issues and had to pull out. 

In long races such as this, nothing ever goes according to plan, so you are constantly problem-solving and adapting. I had some mild stomach issues during the first night, which was worrying as it was quite early in the race, but luckily I managed to work out what was wrong and get on top of it before it got any worse (essentially, I was trying to move too fast at altitude and it was making me nauseous).

Stomach issues can quickly end a race so solving that problem was a pivotal moment! Similarly, I had some problems with blisters early on because it was so hot (I’m prone to blisters when it’s hot and dry), so much of my race involved managing and taking care of my feet. 

From the second day, I felt like I was a little bit stronger on the climbs than the other women around me, which was quite reassuring as it allowed me to rest more at the aid stations and catch up later. I knew there was still a long way to go, so I had to pace myself well and not get too carried away. However, I got lost and very disorientated about 30km from the finish and ended up losing almost 90 mins which was very stressful. I was convinced that second lady was going to catch me so I ran hard for the last few hours – even on the final descent – despite my legs wanting to give up the ghost!

Tor 330 Winner Emma Stuart – Photo Credit JOSE MIGUEL MUÑOZ

In such a long race there are always highs and lows – tell us about some of the highlights for you and how you overcame the lows?  

This race is just incredible from start to finish. The scenery is spectacular but what makes it really special are the people – the volunteers, the medics and the spectators. The support is just unbelievable.

Everybody goes out of their way to help you in whatever way they can. I was just so appreciative of that and it really can lift you when you’re feeling tired or low. I also had incredible support at the aid stations from Marco de Gasperi and I really don’t think I could have finished the race without him.

Compared to some races I’ve done, I didn’t actually have that many low points as the whole experience was so positive and physically, I felt super strong. I ate and drank well which makes a huge difference to anyone’s race, because most of the time when you’re feeling low, it’s because of a lack of food and calories.

However, I struggled to sleep during the race, so the biggest issues I had were with sleep deprivation – I only had about 90 mins of good kip over the 82.5 hours I was out. Fortunately, my mind was so tangled up from lack of sleep that it meant I was running in a dream-like euphoria for much of the second half! 

Tell us how it felt running into Courmayeur knowing that you were about to win such a big race. 

It was absolutely awesome coming into Courmayeur at the finish and seeing the crowds. I was pretty exhausted by that point and so the little ramp up to the tape seemed like a massive mountain to climb!

I mostly felt disbelief – I just couldn’t believe that everything had come together and that the race had played out like it had.

Tor 330 Winner Emma Stuart – Photo Credit JOSE MIGUEL MUÑOZ

This race is tough both mentally and physically – how has recovery been? 

Recovery has been a lot longer than a 100 mile race, for sure. My feet got pretty trashed with blisters because of the hot running conditions, followed by torrential rain, so it took a while for them to sort themselves out. I had severe fatigue for a couple of weeks but that improved quickly once I got back to work – sometimes sitting around vegetating on the sofa is the worst thing for you, even though it’s all you want to do!

I’m back out running now and although I wouldn’t say I’m back to full fitness, I’m probably not far off, ready for the next adventure!

You’ve got a very demanding day job – how do you balance training and competing in a big race like this with work? 

I’m a farm animal vet by day and it can be difficult to balance the two, but I have a great job that gives me the flexibility and support to fit them both around my life.

Last year, I chose to go down to four days a week which has made an enormous difference. Some days are really tough both physically and mentally but I’ve been doing my job for so long now that you just learn to adapt. My job can be quite physical with long hours, which I believe helps with building resilience and can make a difference as an ultrarunner.

With winning the TOR 330 and a third place at Lavaredo in June you’ve done really well in some big Euro races. Do you have plans for any more?

Yes, next year I’m heading back to Europe to tackle Transgrancanaria and a couple of other races, but they’re not set in stone just yet.

I would love to represent Ireland at the European Off-Road Running Championships in Annecy in France so fingers crossed for that! It’s also a toss-up between going back to Lavaredo to try and improve on this year’s performance or to tackle the 90km Marathon du Mont Blanc.

Either way, they are all races I’m doing in preparation for UTMB at the end of August.

Emma’s win at the Tor des Géants is the latest in a long list of amazing results for the SCARPA UK Team – head to our round up blog to read all about the team’s successes.