Interview with Paul Maskell, ultra runner
Based in Cornwall, Paul runs for the Mudcrew ultra team and he is one of the UK’s best ultra-distance athletes. He has won some significant UK races in recent years including the Arc of Attrition and this year’s SDW100. Later this year Paul is representing GB over 24hrs.
I’d been thinking of what to write about for my next article when I started to have a FB conversation with Paul, who I met t this year’s Arc of Attrition. I had too many questions for him for a FB post and figured I needed a proper conversation with him. Paul and I agreed to catch up before my ‘Bring Out Your Dead’ race which is part of the Roseland August Trail (RAT) Festival weekend organised by Mudcrew. Paul was working on one of the race checkpoints. Here’s what Paul had to say.
Steve: Thanks for taking the time to speak to me. I, like most people, have a vivid memory of how and when I got the running bug. What’s your story?
Paul: It is April 2012, I’m at mile 18 of the London Marathon: “I’m not a runner, do I even like running?” I have my brother shouting at me to speed up as we’re dropping below our sub-4 target pace. I’m in pieces, I can’t even talk, [the] energy gels [are doing] nothing, it’s my first ever race and I’m thinking it’s my last. I’ve decided… I hate running!
But…I get to the Mall, I get to the finish line (with spare minutes on the target time), I get my medal, my first ever run completed. I loved the feeling of accomplishment, the satisfaction, and I wanted more of this. I was wrong… I love running!
I was completely broken during the race but afterwards, that was it for me, I had the bug and that was that.
Steve: So like most people you started with smaller races but have covered distances of 145 miles and even further in 24hr races. What is your favourite distance to race and why?
Paul: I think if I’m honest 100 miles is my favourite distance. I like the fact that you have to pace yourself and if you go off too hard you pay for it later in the race. In every 100 miler I know that at some point it is going to hurt like hell, every part of you is going to want to stop. I will even admit to sometimes thinking of DNFing, and try to come up with excuses to stop in these dark times. However I know that if I keep going, keep fuelling at some point I will come out the other side. I suppose it is like the wall in a marathon just on a bigger scale, and can often happen more than once.
Steve: I mentioned 24hr races, and you’ve recently been selected to wear a GB vest later this year at this distance. What event qualified you for that accolade and how does it feel to know that you will soon be representing your country?
Paul: The main event that qualified me for the GB 24 hour team was a 24 hour track race. Tooting Bec Transcend 24 hour track race last September. It’s exactly what it sounds like, you run around a 400m track for 24 hours, although you do change direction every 4 hours to stop you finishing with 1 leg shorter than the other. I managed a distance of 247.2k and finished second, less than 2k behind the winner. The weather was biblical with heavy rain for around 20 of the 24hrs.
That, along with good consistency over two years at long distance ultras was enough to get me a place on the GB team. I feel so lucky and it will probably one of my proudest moments putting on that vest. I am so honoured to have been selected. I am trying not to think about it too much as it is just under 12 weeks’ time. I am just starting a big training block so I know that it is still a way off and I have to remain fit and healthy.
Steve: So you are clearly in great shape and running well, so much so you recently won the SDW100 with a 2 mile sprint finish. How does it feel to be competing against others for the win, compared to competing against yourself to finish?
Paul: I try not think too much about the other competitors although I do find myself reading the race previews to check out the competition. This can play on your mind during a race as you can’t help but think about the other race results the guys around you have achieved. I try not to let myself dwell on this as every race is different and I am fairly sure every runner has their highs and lows during an ultra.
I always try to think if I am hurting then the other competitors must be hurting too. Races at the sharp end can change quickly, too. In the SDW100 I had been right up in the mix from the gun. Then just after 32 miles I found myself leading and I found myself constantly checking over my shoulder and on the longer climbs I could see second place was not far behind. Just after 75 miles he caught up with me and pulled away after a checkpoint. He had picked up a pacer and this seem to spur him on. I felt myself slipping back and spending sometime in what I call the “contemplation zone”. This zone is where you start questioning your abilities and whether you should give up and call it a day (this normally indicates I am getting close to a bonk). So I did what I have done in so many races: “had a little word with myself”. I told myself to pull my finger out, took on some extra fuel, and stopped death-marching and starting running again. I did catch him but couldn’t seem to lose him completely. The race was now entering the last five miles. I had no idea he had dropped out and the next runner was getting close to me. I hit the road off the SDW with 2.5 miles to go and did a shoulder check. Oh no, he was right there. I really thought “damn it, I am going to lose now in the last 2 miles”.I put my head down and started to run; what I can only describe as running scared. Luckily, I managed to hang on and win.
That feeling of running scared is something I have experienced in many races since taking second place in the Plague in 2016. I was running and constantly checking my shoulder. I knew I would never catch Dan Lawson but I was convinced any minute Paddy Robbins would creep up behind me. Again, this running feeling of running scared also happened when I won the Autumn 100. I was again convinced I would get caught on the last 12.5 miles. On both occasions I had over an hour’s lead, but your mind doesn’t know that so it helps your body keep pushing.
I am sure most runners in the lead have experienced my “running scared” feeling and that need for regular shoulder checks to see who is coming. I think this really does help push you on, and often the runner behind is spurred on by the thought of catching you, which ultimately leads to exciting races.
Steve: I follow you on Strava and have noticed your training has ramped up for GB24. I also know you’re a paramedic and are often on night-shifts. How do you find time to juggle work, family life and training and what is your secret to making it all work in harmony?
Paul: I think the key for me is being flexible. I know many runners like to follow a strict plan with often their long run being on a day at the weekend. I work different shifts and change between days and nights on a weekly basis. I basically have to adapt my training plans on a daily/weekly basis fitting it in around my shifts and family commitments. Sometimes this is a real challenge as my wife is also a runner/triathlete and my daughter is a competing swimmer. Therefore I literally just have to fit in what training I can when I can and be prepared to constantly change the time of day I run.
There is always the risk of getting a 999 call in the last few minutes of that shift which can turn a 12hr shift into 14hrs, so where I may have had a long run planned, I have to change my plans. You also have to be prepared after the night shifts to run feeling like a zombie.
I think the key for me is to not to get disappointed if I miss a session I want to do and not allow that missed session to affect my head. I am very lucky though that my family are super supportive, which really helps!
Steve: Juggling work, life and training is a huge challenge for me too, but what is the biggest challenge you have faced in your running career so far and how did you overcome it?
Paul: I think my biggest challenge so far was the 24hr track race. I went into it with bi-lateral niggling Achilles and felt very under prepared. This was compounded by the worst weather on record for the event. The rain was biblical at times and the track became fairly waterlogged. I think it was about 4am and we had just changed direction, the rain and the wind were horrendous, my left quad felt gone and I was in a lot of pain. I started to walk and my mind went to the “contemplation zone”. I couldn’t cope with pain and I really did question myself – I seriously thought about stopping, as how could I possibly keep it up for another 8 hours? I thought I was done. I had to have a real word with myself. I told myself just jog a lap and then decide. I completed that lap and then thought, okay, jog another and then decide. I carried on like this for the next four hours, moving very slowly and dramatically reducing my pace. I kept fuelling and put extra layers on to try and combat the wet and increased coldness due to the slow pace and weather. Finally I turned for the last time – four hours to go. I knew at this point I could make the finish, I knew that no matter how much it hurt I had four hours left in me. There was no way at that point was I going to let down my crew, who had also endured the weather and 20+ hour period on the side of the track. I even managed to pick the pace back up in the last few hours and went on to finish 2nd and qualified for the GB team in the process.
Steve: You’ve done some big races so far in your running career, but we all have ‘bucket list’ race aspirations. What are yours?
Paul: To represent the GB team. I know this one is on the cards but until I make the start line with the vest on it will sit there. Just to name a few…UTMB – next year is my third year in the ballot so fingers crossed I can get the time off work. Western states. Lakeland 100.
Steve: Ultra running is quite a scary and intimidating sport to get into, but once you’ve finished a few races you realise how much you’ve learnt and have confidence. From what you have learnt, what would be your 3 top tips for runners making their first jump into the ultra-distance events?
Paul: First top tip – eat and drink while you feel good. If you “bonk” in marathon you can probably get away with it as hopefully you only have a few miles left. Bonk in an ultra and you could still have a very long way to go. It can take ages to feel human again after a big bonk and this will really knock you mentally particularly if it is your first ultra.
Second top tip – don’t try anything new on the day. It may sound obvious but I have known runners who tried a new fuel, or worn something different on race day and it has ended in disaster. You need to have tried your drink, fuel, clothing and trainers whatever you are planning on the day, in training so you know it works.
Third – on your first ultra I think pacing is so important. You are going to run further than you ever have before. Therefore, start the race slow: it is so easy to go off too quickly and get caught up in the excitement of it being your first ultra. This could so easily come back and bite you later on. My tip would start slower than you think you should. You can always put the hammer down later in the race if you feel great. It is much better to hit the halfway point feeling okay rather than completely “shot to pieces” and death-marching.
I’m going to give you a fourth though: if the race rules allow to have a crew – do it! Having people you know help and support out on the course can make a massive difference. Seeing your crew can give you a big boost and it is harder to DNF as you don’t want to let them down.
Interview by Steve West www.theparttimeultrarunner.com