Answers by Michael Jones x Images John Shedwick Photography
A couple of weeks ago I headed north west to Snowdonia, the setting place for a race which is gaining much intrigue within the UK ultra community. Meeting up with Race Director Michael Jones, who I last saw at the Salomon Ring of Steall, we spent the day running some of the course, dodging greasy rock and catching up on all things Ultra-Trail Snowdonia.
Mike, you’ve been racking up some high profile finishes in Europe and Blighty over the past few years, but beyond the results who are you? Have you always been a runner?
Hi James! I’m all good! Busy busy with bits and bobs and training when I can… I started out racing mountain bikes as a youngster. That took a back seat while I went to university and I then got into fell running a few years ago when I moved to the Lake District. The plan was to live with my Gran for a year, saving up to do a masters in car design. The purity of running in the mountains struck a chord with me and I’ve never looked back. A few months after moving my Gran died and in her will she left some money to my brother and I, in place of our late Mother. I got cold feet about using it as a deposit on a house and ‘growing up’ so took off, choosing to travel and race around the world. Now spent up, I’m freelancing in product design, working on my race and living with my Dad but I’d do it all again if I could. The crazy experiences I’ve been through over the past few years have all helped to shape the person and athlete I am now.
What is your favourite race and your favourite result to date?
The most stunning race route I’ve ever done is definitely the Mont Blanc 80km (now 90km!), the views are just breath-taking everywhere you look! In the UK I’ve loved racing the V3K three times too, such a classic route. Most would say 8th at the CCC would be my favourite/best result, but looking back, my best performance to date was at the Lakeland 100 in 2016, when I won. I’ve never felt as strong in a race as I did then and I still get goose bumps when I remember looking over my shoulder at the top of Garburn Pass, knowing I would win.
How was the Salomon Ultra Academy?
That was a brilliant experience, to see what goes into such a world-class setup, learning about the more professional aspects of the sport. Being surrounded by some big names for a week and seeing how they trained and worked was awesome and eye-opening. I made some great friends during the week and got to run the 120km Maxi Ultra race too, to round it all off!
So, Ultra-Trail Snowdonia? What is it and what made you dream it up?
It’s something I’ve had in my mind for years now. When I used to live in the Lakes in 2015, training for UTMB, I’d often wonder why there was nothing in the UK that was similar: 100 miles with 10,000m+ elevation gain, something with enough scale and grandeur to tear the Europeans away from the Alps and to our shores. The market for events in the Lakes is pretty saturated, and it wasn’t until I moved back to Chester that spring and started running more in Snowdonia that I spotted my opportunity. In late 2016 I started making a shortlist of things that in my mind help to create a great event, as well as plotting out my dream race route. Making the best use of my favourite trails in the area, after several iterations the UTS 50/100 routes were born. I hate to break it to people, but the UK ultra running scene isn’t really on peoples radar’s abroad. With UTS I hope to change that in due course, I’ve already had entries from America and Japan, so word is getting around…
6000 & 12000 meters of climbing, many would think you are in the Alps! How have you achieved this in North Wales? Do you think people are up for the challenge?
I’ll admit, even I was surprised at the elevation gains when I plotted out the routes in my GPS software. Most of the trails are well established and technical underfoot but not overwhelming, fun to run and with stunning views all around. The routes have received nothing but praise so far though. Trail quality and as little tarmac as possible were high on my ‘Dream Race’ criteria and apart from a couple of short, unavoidable sections, the routes should in my opinion stand the test of time to go on to become UK classics in their own right. I’ve ran most of the Paddy Buckley round in various sections and I like to think I’m standing on his shoulders with modern 50/100-mile twists on a classic.
I kept the event to myself for quite a while in fear of people’s reactions. When I did talk about it, it would either be met with one of two responses: People would be well into it, buying instantly into my vision, or their jaw would drop, exclaiming they could ‘never’ do that. Those responses almost made me doubt myself, thinking I should dumb down the event to 50/100km instead, but I’m now glad I didn’t as the event has been very well received and it seems there are others who like me, feel the future of UK ultra-running needs a push.
Having spent a day on the course with you in full winter conditions (I should add UTS is set for 11th May 2018), which areas will be the most challenging, yet rewarding?
100 runners will be blessed with having to traverse the infamous Glyderau Range. This section is particularly tricky underfoot, especially when wet. These runners will then go on to cover the 50 route, the trickiest section of which is probably between Rhyd-Ddu and Beddgelert, due to the steep descents. The ridgeline views here are a stunning reward for your physical effort though. I’ll be offering prizes for the fastest final descents from Snowdon, down the Llanberis path back to the finish too…
I spotted you polling Ultra running community about swag. What are you doing to reflect the race and its location?
I’ve asked for feedback on quite a few things on the Ultra Running Community Facebook page. It’s been great to let the community have their say and I definitely want this to be the ‘People’s Ultra Race’ for the UK, but you can’t please everyone. I’ll be contacting several local businesses to chip in towards competitor goody bags, podium finishers prize pools and checkpoint supplies. Where possible I’m trying to pay attention to detail and try new things. For example the race HQ is located in a nice bunkhouse with a bar and projector so runners families can follow them and stay up in a nice environment, one friend will be illustrating the finishers certificates, which will be pieces of art in themselves, another friend designed and developed the website to make for a unique entry experience and another will be designing custom 3D-printed trophies, based on the current graphic theme of the Welsh mountain goat. I’ve no interest in branching out to direct other races: this is it, there is no Plan B. UTS is not a one-size-fits-all affair and it never will be. I very nearly called in the Black Sheep Ultra…
How are you finding the switch from Elite athlete to Race Director
Haha hopefully I’m still an ‘Elite’ Athlete! I just have less time to waste looking at Instagram and daydreaming. UTS is definitely taking up a lot of my time to get off the ground and quickly turning into a full-time job, but that’s a good thing for me. I’m happy to have found something that I can pour my creative energy and passion into, which will hopefully bring a lot of joy and/or despair to the lives of others next year and in years to come. I have quite ambitious plans for the future of UTS, but also quite a proven track record of achieving my goals in life, so the future for UK ultra-running looks bright, as bold as that may sound.
If you could give 3 training tips in the build up what would they be?
Forget three tips. I can only think of one. Never has the over-used term ‘Specificity’ been more appropriate to describe the preparation for a race. If you think this will be anything like other ultra-races in the UK you will be sorely mistaken (literally) and humbled to the core. The terrain, underfoot conditions and amount of descent per mile will all conspire to break down all but the hardest of ultrarunners. The entry criteria is quite strict, but even those accepted must ensure they spend a sizeable amount of time on the course. Bagging long days with as much vert as possible in the area will be necessary, to get a feel for what awaits them come race day, if they are to stand any chance of completing the event within the cut-offs…
If you had to summarise the 100 and 50 mile races in a single line each, what would it be?
100: Savage beyond reason, the race that chews up and spits out it’s young.
50: Mad, bad and dangerous to know about.
Where can people follow you and the build up to the race?
If people want to know what a 28 year old failed car designer turned ultrarunning ‘Elite’ gets up to while living on the breadline with his widowed Dad, you can follow me by searching @APEXRUNNING.CO
You can follow the race by searching UTSRACE.CO.UK. I’d highly recommend you don’t though, in the interests of your personal welfare and the lives of those who love you, if anyone.
So if you fancy a true Euro style race in the UK – you’ve been warned