Last updated: 06-Nov-18
By Luke Jarmey
A master of multiple disciplines, British runner Jonathan Albon, is one of the biggest names in endurance racing. If a string of OCR Worlds weren’t enough, he’s now the recently crowned 2017 Skyrunning Overall World Series Winner. Read on to find out how the heck he does it all.
Q. Thanks for diving into this interview with us, Jonathan. Let’s kick this off with a bit about your background. In a nutshell, who is Jonathan Albon?
A. I think the best way to describe me is as an ‘Extreme Runner’. I like to push the boundaries of different forms of running races, which has led me into competing at both Skyrunning and obstacle racing for a living. Races as short as 30 seconds, and up to 24 hours, form my season, and range from scaling airy ridges, to jumping over fire, and swimming through bogs.
Q. It appears you’ve come into competitive running through a rather unconventional path. We heard you were a keen roller hockey player in your younger days, how did that morph into multi World Championship winning obstacle course racing (OCR)?
A. When I stopped playing hockey I needed to keep fit, so took up jogging once a week. My sister entered me into a half marathon, so I did a few extra training runs and ran my heart out having a great time doing it.
One day I saw a tiny newspaper article about an event called Tough Guy. It sounded fun and I wanted to see if I could complete it. I entered, turned up without a clue about what I was doing and ran around. I got really cold but crossed the finish line a happier man knowing that I managed the challenge and experienced a new level of suffering doing it (because of the cold).
I didn’t plan to do any more but my wife entered us into an event called The Wolf Run. I won by a large margin, pushing myself hard, enjoying the feeling of burning lungs. I knew that no one was really any good, though, so never let wining go to my head. I don’t think it was even really a race.
By this point, I was doing one or two runs a week and was starting up with British Military Fitness. I was really enjoying the training and loved the healthiness of working on an all round fitness where you have to run and be relatively strong.
I entered into more and more races, usually winning, but still telling myself that it was just because no one else was any good. It was really fun trying all these different challenges and seeing how I coped with the diversity. Other things took my fancy like triathlons, duathlons, marathons, mountain races and even a race against horses but nothing was as fun as the continually different obstacle races.
A time came when my girlfriend (now wife) wanted to move back to Norway to finish her studies. I decided to move with her and landed in Norway without a job, or a clue how I was going to make some money. In the first couple of weeks, I decided to just enjoy a bit of time off to learn Norwegian and bed myself in without a job. This gave me loads of time to train – and I unleashed.
This coincided with traveling to the USA for the Spartan World Championships and the OCR World championships. When I won both, I finally figured maybe I am ok at this running malarkey. The prize money was enough to support me for a while and my wife suggested I try and race full time.
So that what I did and I have won the OCR World Championships every year since.
Q. What was the furthest you’d typically run in an OCR? And how was the transition to straight up ultra running?
A. Typically, obstacle races are between 5km and 20km, but I have run 24hour races where we completed 105miles to relay races where I am running for 30 seconds. When I started running further, it never felt that hard, because all had to do was run. No wading in cold water, jumping over stuff, or dragging myself through concrete tubes. All I had to do, was put one foot in front of the other.
Q. Let’s talk skyrunning. What attracted you to it, and when did you first give it a crack?
A. inov-8 sponsored the obstacle racing team I was on, and invited me out to Limone for something I had never heard of, called a Skyrace. The timing was interesting, as I had just moved to Norway and was in the process of winning the Spartan World Championships and the OCR World Championships (Limone was actually between the two in a 4-week period).
I came 14th, which I thought was pretty bad, but everyone was so happy for me. Turns out that this is probably one of the most competitive skyraces in the world and so I should have been very happy.
Q. You’ve been crowned the 2017 Skyrunning overall World Series winner and Extreme World Series winner, huge congratulations! Now tell us about the Series, what races particularly stood out for you? And which, if any, did you find especially tough?
A. Every skyrace I have done has always been tough. To start with, they aren’t easy places to run but, also, if you push yourself as hard as you can, it is always going to be a little gruesome. I took part in 5 skyraces last year; Zegama, Madeira, Tromso, Matterhorn and Glen Coe. They were all special in their own right, but I remember Zegama being pretty stand out. I wasn’t quite on form and was trying to push myself too hard. The race atmosphere is something I am going to remember for a long time though.
Q. There’s quite a number of different races you can enter to compete for the overall Series crown. Was there a particular strategy in crafting your schedule?
A. My main strategy was to pick races that aren’t that high above sea level. I race poorly at elevation and living at sea level gives me zero acclimatisation benefit. So, its best if I race lower down. The next selection criteria was races that I wanted to do for the experience. Taking part in a race like Zegama can be a once in a lifetime opportunity, and who wouldn’t want to race from the sea to over the clouds, on Madeira.
Q. Does your OCR background put you in better stead for these more technical ‘extreme’ category skyrunning races then?
A. My main training for obstacle racing is in the form of bouldering. This must help in the more technical races and I can probably find handholds quicker, and am more confident climbing, than some of the other runners.
Q. Diving more into the technical side of the racing, do you ever dabble in general climbing or mountaineering to further your scrambling abilities?
A. I like to rock climb in the summer, but have never been out as much as I would like. This must help in racing, but it’s the same as bouldering, I do it because it’s so enjoyable, and the fact that it is helping in my career is almost a bonus.
Q. Ok, so let’s touch on Norway for a second. What do you find compelling about living there? And do you have ridiculously insane trails on your doorstep.…it always seems to be a trail runners bucket list destination!
A. The lifestyle really suits me: more nature, fewer people and more time outside than working. People here seem to have a nice work-life balance which I could never see when I lived in London.
The training opportunities I have in Bergen are truly world class. I get to ski in the winter, run straight out of my door up 600m over 3km, with streams and lakes on the way, that you can drink from or swim in. I am also just outside of the city centre where there are great gyms, great bouldering and everything else you need…including an international airport.
Something else to mention is the quality of mountain runners in Bergen. To win a local race here means you can almost call yourself a world class mountain runner, because you would have to beat at least three in order to win. To compete against, and train with, these guys has really opened my eyes as to what is possible.
Q. Moving on into training, what does your general day look like? Do you combine weight/resistance work with your cardio routine?
A. My training varies massively from summer to winter, but my main training goals are to have 2-3 harder running sessions in a week, two bouldering sessions and one circuit session. On top of this I run, bike, swim, ski and snowshoe plenty of easy training hours, normally between 15 – 25.
Q. I presume a fair bit of the OCR and skyrunning training is relatively similar, but how much specific training is there for each?
A. I don’t think I train specifically for either. I do the activities I enjoy and try to be the athlete I want to be. It’s hard to train specifically for events that are always so different, so its best just to work as hard as possible and be strong overall.
Q. We all love a bit of nutrition chat; are you a raging keen foodie? If so, what are you gobbling down during training versus just before a race?
A. I try to stick mainly to real food, and the goal is to eat less processed food but this can be difficult. Apart from that, I don’t have any special diet or supplements, no pills or powders. That’s why I love Clif bar as a sponsor. I see the bars as just being food that’s easier to transport and eat but keeps me going.
Q. Finally, what’s 2018 looking like for you race wise?
A. Big news is that I’m running the Ultra Trail World Championships in May.
Many thanks Jonathan and good luck in May!