Donnie Campbell is one of Britains best trail runners and coaches. He recently won the Salomon Ben Nevis Ultra and has previously represented Great Britain at the world trail running championships.
Reading about Donnie’s run across the Namib Desert in Outdoor Fitness was one of the core inspirations I had to get myself outside, exploring the trails and where my journey to running ultra-marathons began. I attended Keswick Mountain festival 2017 where I heard Donnie give a talk and we both raced in my first official Ultra the Keswick 50k, (which he won in a course record time). So it seemed perfectly natural that he would be the man I contacted for the inaugural interview on this site.
Donnie kindly allowed me to interview him over the phone after he had finished working at a Salomon trail workshop.
MO (Moor Outdoors)
What have you been up to?
I have just finished working doing some Salomon trail workshops
MO: Firstly congratulations on winning the Salomon Ben Nevis Ultra. So what were your personal highlights this year?
DC: Highlights have got to be obviously Ben Nevis ultra. Winning a Skyrunner world series race on your home turf was special. It was the race I was building to all year and everything was focused around that race, so it was good everything came together on the day. It was a tough course, there were a lot of bogs and I found it really tough because there were a lot of flats, which I am not used to, I’m used to more hills. So you know from that point of view the middle section of the race I really struggled with. Just the monotony of running on the flat knowing there were some nice hills I could have been going up on either side, and having to run the race by myself for the majority. You are in the lead but not sure how much further back people are, so you have to keep switched on and just keep pushing. But it was a good day.
The other thing that sticks out this year that was a personal ambition was to run up Mont Blanc. I did that this summer with my wife. We ran, powerhiked and climbed to the summit and back down in a day. It wasn’t anything quick, just something I have always wanted to do, so it was great to get the weather window to complete it in 11 hours.
MO: Brilliant. Was that when you were over there for a little while?
DC: Yeah I was in Chamonix for August basically, I spent 5 weeks out there just training and having a good time, I was like a kid in a sweet shop with so many mountains and trails.
MO: Living the dream
DC: Yeah I like to do a bit of mountaineering as well as running, so it was good to get some mountaineering in on Mont Blanc and we also went up to Aiguille du Tour, which is another nice peak in Chamonix. So I had a mixture of that and running some trails, so it was a good summer.
MO: What about any low points? I saw you had an issue with your foot.
DC: Yeah so I have been managing an issue with my foot for the last two years. Ive got Morton’s neuroma on both feet. It’s caused me to DNF in 3 races this year. Which has been a bit annoying but I am having an operation in the next couple of weeks which should get it sorted for next year. So winning Ben Nevis and summiting Mont Blanc were definitely the highlights but having to pull out of races due to pain is probably the low point. Mont Blanc 80k in June I had put a lot of effort into my training for it and had to pull out with 20k to go, because the foot had just got too sore
MO: You were in a good position then as well?
DC: I was doing alright I was 10th and pacing it well because I planned on pushing hard in the second half, but by the time I got to half way I was struggling to run and put any weight on my foot, so I kept on losing pace and places to the point that I couldn’t really walk on it anymore, which was very frustrating to get that far round and be in a decent position so that was the lowest point.
MO: People often ask how you know when you can run through an injury and how would you personally describe an injury. Because with ultra-running you are often sore and have niggles so when do you know it’s too bad and rest or physio is needed.
DC: Its different for every individual, the injury and the pain I’ve got is from a nerve so I know I am not doing any long term damage, it’s just a nerve pain so when I stop the pain goes away, so I am not putting any stress on the bones or ligaments. I am not doing anything long term it’s just a question of how much pain I can take. Generally training with a niggle or tight muscle, if it is caused just from overuse, it’s normally alright to do a light session. If you are carrying something more severe, my best advice is to be proactive rather than reactive. So it is better do go and see a physio right away rather than training through it and needing a longer break.
MO: That reminds me of something you said in your Keswick Mountain Festival talk. You said that you can rest for up to 5 days before you start losing fitness
DC: Yeah and generally a lot of people are overtraining for ultras or doing too many. You hear of people racing every other weekend, and when you compare that to the elite Kenyan marathoners they will race twice a year. By doing a few Ultras a year, you are pushing your body to its limits. I also think people look at the elites and try to get there too quickly. It takes years for them to condition their bodies to do that kind of mileage. People think they need to run 100 miles a week to do a 100 mile race and that is not necessarily true. You can do a lot less mileage and still complete the race
MO: I think overtraining is a real issue. I’ve only been running about 18 months and for me I find that if I can sustain at least 40 miles a week injury free I am happy, in the beginning I gave myself shin splints because I was looking at other people and trying to emulate them before my body had adapted.
DC: It’s about finding the right balance and generally you don’t want to increase your training by more than 10% on a weekly basis and every 4-6 weeks have an easier week. You can play about with it a bit the more experienced you are.
MO: On the subject of recovery do you stretch pre run, post run or have a dedicated session? I noticed recently you said you were going to hot Bikram yoga.
DC: Haha. I could tell you I stretch a lot but that would be a complete lie. I never stretch before, I just start off nice and easy, afterwards if I’m lucky I might spend 5 minutes stretching. What I do instead is get a sports massage every 2-3 weeks which helps to reduce my risk of injury. I have a foam roller in the house but its gathering dust. I know I should do more, my theory is if I pay someone to give me a massage that is better than me not doing anything at all. I am trying to do more flexibility and yoga, especially in the off season and it is something I am working on.
MO: I go to yoga most weeks now and have found that it has really helped with my running flexibility and keeping me supple from the strains of work. I didn’t go for a few weeks and found my back and hip flexors were really tight again.
Do you do a separate strength and conditioning session?
DC: No. I use mountaineering and going to the climbing wall as my strength session. I lack the motivation to go to the gym. When I run I mostly go up hill or downhill the more technical the better. So when I am scrambling I use my upper body and core more, which I think provides strength.
MO: When you are training for a specific race, do you focus on mileage, elevation gain, time on feet or just play it by ear?
DC: I log how much ascent I have done. I don’t pay much attention to distance. Coming into a race my focus is nailing the key speed sessions. Focusing on doing my easy runs easy so I have the energy to really push on my harder speed sessions. It helps to keep the pace in the legs and gives me the confidence to know I am performing well.
MO: How do you do your speed sessions?
DC: I do hills. I either do a tempo session with 1000m (3000ft) of climbing or a VK(vertical kilometre). Remember to run downhill hard as well because that conditions your legs for running long downhills. Intervals I will either do hill reps or my preferred session is a treadmill. I put the incline to 15% and do 2 minutes on a minute off. I train by myself and the treadmill won’t slow down, if I start day dreaming I am not going to subconsciously slow down and it’s a good way of monitoring your training. It’s the same conditions every week so I can monitor my performance and fitness.
MO: Do you think that has the greatest effect on your ability to improve?
DC: It depends where your weaknesses are. For me my strength is endurance, I know I can run the distance, it’s just about doing it quicker. That’s why I focus on speed work, improving my uphill running ability is my priority. If somebody has good top end speed but can only run for 3 or 4 hours then you might look at increasing their training volume, while trying to maintain some of the speed they’ve got.
MO: Someones running background comes into play as well. I started running trails with the dream to run ultras so I have built my endurance first but lack the speed, whereas lots of people ran track in school or have done fast road marathons.
MO: What are your plans next year?
DC: I did fancy a crack at the Tour Des Geants, but I got a bit of a curveball when they said the Ben Nevis ultra was going to be in the Skyrunning world championships next year, so it looks like I am heading back to Kinlochleven in September. To have such a big race in Scotland and not turn up would be crazy. That’s my priority now next year.
MO: I saw they have changed the distance to 66k
DC: I am hoping they make it a very hilly and hard 66k. 66k is a bit short for me, but it will be a great race.
MO: I have pre-registered for Laverado (didn’t get in). What advice would you give to people planning on going abroad to run a mountain race?
DC: Firstly these races have massive 1000m+ climbs so going out and practising long continuous uphills is important. Go to the Lake District, Scotland, Wales where you can get big continual climbs and descents. That’s where people are found out, if you haven’t trained the big ascents and descents you will struggle. Practice your power hiking, because realistically you will not be running up all the mountains and if you are going to use poles then learn how to use them. The main thing is to enjoy the experience. Explore the area, try to get your head up and take it in.
MO: How did your relationship with Salomon come about and do you have any advice for people who would like to secure some sponsorship of their own.
DC: I think it just came about with performances. I’ve had offers of sponsorship previously, but I have turned them down because I haven’t agreed with the products, because they have not worked for me. I couldn’t endorse something that I don’t believe in. I am not somebody that will chase sponsorship, just to be sponsored. I would only take a product from a company that I believe in. I am fortunate Salomon have backed me because I find their products work. I was running in their shoes before they sponsored me which shoes I like their stuff and I am not just saying it. There have been other companies that have approached me and I tried their kit and it hasn’t worked for me, and I have had to say I can’t race in it so I can’t endorse it. Sponsorship overall is tricky. More people are after it, trail running is growing in popularity and there is more money in it. I think though that it shouldn’t be your overall goal. If all you want is sponsorship then you are in it for the wrong reasons. It’s all about having a good time on the trail and being sponsored by Salomon helps me massively but my main focus is on having a good time and working hard. Sharing that content on social media helps Salomon but they don’t put any pressure on me.
MO: I suppose your beautiful pictures from your time in the Alps and the races you have competed in are all things you would be doing anyway.
MO: One of the most common questions about ultra running is nutrition. What have you found works for you?
DC: I’ll take some Mountain fuel gels. I have been working with Mountain fuel over the last 12 onths helping them develop a gel which is refreshing and easy to take. I have been taking different versions of that which will hopefully be out next year. I’ve also been using a carbohydrate sports drink called Maurten which has really worked. They used it in the Breaking 2 project from Nike.
Mo: You don’t eat whole foods when you run then?
DC: If it is a longer race I might start on solid food, but all the races I have done this year have been 12 hours or less and I find that when I am racing that hard, it is difficult to eat so anything that is easily digestible is good for me. Also I know with Maurten it contains 40g of carbs per 500ml. So if you are looking at taking 60g an hour and you have 40 in your fluid then you know you only need one more gel and you have reached your target.
It is important to practice your nutrition on hard training runs where you are simulating the stress of a race on your body to see what works for you.
MO: Thank you for your insight Donnie and for granting me the opportunity to speak with you.