Tom Evans’s rise to the top of ultrarunning has been quicker than the splits on one of his interval sessions. Since famously entering the gruelling, 251km Marathon des Sables desert race on a bet with a friend in 2017, then coming third, he’s raced in some of the world’s biggest and most competitive ultramarathons.
All was going well and his 2020 race calendar was packed with trail races and then Covid hit the world. Instead of deciding to take a year out, Evans decided to switch his focus to road running, targeting half-marathon and marathon distance.
We spoke to Evans before he travelled to Poland to race in this year’s IAAF World Half Marathon Championships to find out how his training has changed, and how he feels racing faster over shorter distances on flat asphalt rather than vertigo-inducing mountain trails.
How are you feeling ahead of this weekend’s race in Poland?
It’s been such a crazy year and there have been points where I’ve thought we’re not going to get the opportunity to race at all. My race calendar looks very different to what I had planned. It’s always great to be asked to represent your country at a sport. As running is so varied, you’re often pigeonholed – you’re either a cross-country runner or road runner or track runner, and for me, after the weekend, I’ll have run for Great Britain in trail running, mountain running, cross-country and road, so track is the only thing I’ve not competed in. It’s important to remember that running is running, regardless of the discipline. I’m just really excited and incredibly thankful to have the opportunity to race.
What prompted the shift to road racing?
On 1 January it wasn’t the plan whatsoever. I had a busy trail, mountain and sky-running season planned, but Covid happened and I had to adapt. I live in Loughborough, and it’s difficult to train for races where there’s lots of elevation. I usually drive to the Peak District or Lake District for a few days a week, where it’s easier to get the elevation I need, but during lockdown that wasn’t possible. I changed my focus – I couldn’t race on trails but I wanted to train as well as I could for the road. I thought I could gain extra speed and strength, which I could take back on to the trails when I start racing ultras again.
Was your plan always to transition to road racing at some point?
There are definitely some ultra road races that interest me: Comrades and Two Oceans in South Africa in particular. I want to race Comrades as soon as I can, which is looking like it might work out in 2021. Also the 100k road world record is achievable. I had thought about qualifying for the 100k World Championships this year, but obviously that was cancelled.
When did you target the World Half?
I’m not running as much but I am running much faster. I was doing 110-120 miles a week previously, and now I try to keep it under 100
I didn’t have the qualifying time until a month ago when I raced the Antrim Half in 63mins 15secs and qualified off that. The World Half had not been in the plan, but when I got a place to race at Antrim I thought, if all goes well, then it’s a possibility. I’ve tried to make the best out of a bad situation for athletes and found myself lucky enough to have a shot at racing in a big race.
How has your training changed?
The volume has dropped. I’m not running as much but I am running much faster. I was doing 110-120 miles a week previously, and now I try to keep it under 100. The other big thing that’s been added is intervals with a float ‘recovery’. I call it a recovery, it’s definitely not a recovery. So for example I’ll do 1km in 2mins 50secs, then the recovery is 3mins 10secs per km pace. I’d never trained like that before.
What will road racing bring to your trail running?
When I train for the trails, I train differently to most ultrarunners in that I’m reliant on data and science – I like looking at my heart rate data and stride length etc., and there are far more metrics for running on the road. I think I’ll be a better, more rounded athlete. For me, that’s valuable for ultras, as there’ll be points where you’ll be working hard up a climb, then at the top you might want to give yourself time to recover, but you still need to move fast. I’m truly excited to bring this format of training and racing from road to the trails.
Has your treadmill been important this year?
I used it quite a bit, especially during lockdown when we were only allowed outside once a day for exercise. I like double running, as it’s a great way to get your volume up but also spread the workload. I ended up using the treadmill three or four times a week, and still do. Mentally it’s been great training too as I got so bored on it I had to force myself to use it and prove to myself I can do it. It’s a great training tool.
How did the Antrim Half compare to races like the Western States?
With an ultramarathon, I run completely on feel. Even if training has gone well, what does that mean when you’re running 100 miles? I never ran 100 miles in training, whereas with a half I run more than 13 miles six days a week. At Antrim it was more dialled-in. I knew what pace I was going to head out at and, as it’s a short race of around an hour, there are less uncontrollable factors. Tactically, when you’re competing in such strong fields on the road against great runners like Mo Farah and Ben Connor, you have to try to forget about them and run for a time. For me, success was getting a certain time rather than a finishing position.
Have you received advice from other marathon runners?
I train with Irish marathoner Kevin Seaward. His best advice was to be patient, both in training and in races. Being consistently good is better than being amazing once or twice, and the real improvements in training come from building weeks on weeks, months on months, years on years. Another change was that before, if I didn’t feel horrendous at the end of a workout, like I needed to be sick, I thought I hadn’t worked hard enough. But there’s no need to train like that 95 percent of the time. It’s not healthy and it’s not good for you. Take it slow, steady and progressive.
It sounds a bit sad that I love running so much, but it has completely overtaken my life, and I don’t know what I’d be doing if I couldn’t run
What advice do you have for runners who are thinking of switching from the trails to road?
Don’t be afraid to mix your training up. Add a speed element into your training – to get faster you have to train faster. And you don’t have to pigeonhole yourself in one sort of race. Even when I’m trying to be the best trail runner in the world, I’ll still run on the road two or three times a week, as it adds so many benefits in terms of taking those lessons into trail races.
What are your plans after the World Half?
I’m waiting to hear what the Team GB selection policy is for the marathon at the Tokyo Olympics. The plan will be to try to qualify, which will mean running a marathon sometime this year or early next year. If I don’t get that opportunity I’ll go back to the trails as a better, faster and more well-rounded athlete. It sounds a bit sad that I love running so much, but it has completely overtaken my life, and I don’t know what I’d be doing if I couldn’t run.