51-year-old ultra-runner and multi-day stage race specialist, Carolin Botterill, wasn’t always into running. It wasn’t until she was 36, and a mum of three, that she began the journey which would ultimately lead to her becoming an ultra-runner – accidentally – via a bid to get fit and lose weight. At first she walked, then she ran, and just kept running. Now, 17 years later, Carolin has completed some of the toughest multi-day ultras on the planet, taking her from the Arctic Circle to the Peruvian jungle.
In one of the most insightful interviews I’ve posted, Carolin shares her experiences with me, including the lengths she goes to in order to acclimatise to extreme heat and cold ahead of her ultra-events.
It wasn’t until your late thirties that you began running. How did your journey to ultra-runner come about?
Really what started the journey was a desire to lose weight. I had 3 kids under the age of 5, I was obese, and I was ready for change. I had been a chubby kid and teenager, and as an adult had rollercoaster dieted. With each baby I had gained more and more weight, and I came to the realisation that this wasn’t the person I wanted to be. I also wanted something different for my three daughters, for them not to have the same struggles I had with weight and food, and I knew I needed to make changes within myself for that to happen.
I began just by walking. I had always liked walking and it seemed a good place to start. Then the idea of running got into my head and wouldn’t go away. So, one day I set out for a run. I managed to run an entire 2 minutes before I had to stop. I persevered however, and my running journey began.
Was running and getting fit a struggle when you first started?
Yes, it was. As I mentioned, I had 3 kids under the age of 5 when I first started, so just physically getting out the door was a struggle on many days. Luckily I had (and still have!) a supportive husband, which made that struggle a bit easier. The fitness part was really less of a struggle, it just came progressively. As I began running, I was gradually able to go further and further without needing to stop and walk. There is a big hill about 2km from my house, and I still remember my moment of triumph when I was able to run all the way from my house to the top of that hill without stopping. It was a real milestone for me and was when my fitness really started to take off. The real struggle was, and always has been, the eating part of it. We are surrounded by all kinds of food and messages about food, and eating the right things consistently is hard! It is something I still struggle with today.
Did you ever envisage you’d be capable of such incredible feats of endurance?
Never! My blog is called Accidental Ultra Runner because I never in my life thought I would or planned on being an ultra runner. In fact, when I first started running I wasn’t even aware that such things even existed. The longest race I had ever heard of then was a marathon, and I even thought that was very far outside my abilities.
What was the first ultra you entered and how did you find it?
The first ultra I entered was a 50k in amongst the giant redwoods in California called Big Trees. It was so hard! I came in dead last, they kept the course open an extra ½ hour for me, and the sweeper ran me in. I also loved every minute of it, well, except for the part where I got poison oak.
Earlier this year you did the notoriously hard 230km-long Ice Ultra – how was this experience?
The Ice Ultra is a 5-day multi-stage race covering 230km above the Arctic Circle in Swedish Lapland. The event takes place in February of each year and is put on by Beyond the Ultimate race series. This race was very different from any I’ve ever done before because of both the temperature and the terrain, and the fact that the majority of it was done wearing snow-shoes. Not to mention sleeping outside in teepees with only a reindeer skin between me and the snow.
The below zero temperatures definitely made for a different kind of race, really with no room for error. For example, in a warm weather race, if you get tired or need to stop, it’s no problem, you just stop and rest or whatever you need to do. In the cold, however, you really cannot do this. Even if you feel warm while you’re moving, the second you stop you begin to cool down and it can become dangerous very quickly. There were a number of competitors who found this out on the very first day, getting frostbite on faces and fingers, who were unable to start on the second day. So this is a challenge, you have to keep moving basically at all times, and the proper gear is essential.
Photo Credit: Mikkel Beisner
I’m lucky because I did my training in the Rocky Mountains in winter, so I had ample opportunity to test out all of my gear in cold, snowy conditions. Most competitors did not have this luxury. My longest training run was 8 hours on a day when the high was -28C! On a day like that you quickly find out what is working for you and what is not. Just keeping your water from freezing up becomes a challenge. Because of this training I felt quite confident going in, at least that my gear was not going to let me down.
What were the highs and lows of the Ice Ultra?
The high for me at this race was seeing the stunning beauty of this part of the world, and meeting so many amazing, like-minded people from across the globe – the things I always love best at these kinds of events.
The only low point for me came at the end of the long stage… I was out for over 15 hours, and the last km or so of the stage involved slogging over a lake that had a layer of surface water, essentially knee-deep slush. Needless to say I got quite wet during that time. When I came across the finish line for the stage, I felt just fine, not cold, just glad to be done. I made my way into the semi-heated building they had available for us, started making myself some food, etc when very quickly I got very cold and became hypothermic. I’m still not sure why this happened, something about the warm blood leaving my core to help warm up my extremities, which had become very cold as a result of being in the wet slush or something. Anyway, the medics were on it right away, helping me to get into warm, dry clothes, ensconcing me in a giant down coat and pants, then inside a big plastic bag while bringing me warm things to drink. Even with all of that it took several hours before I was able to stop shivering. I’m used to becoming cold after a long day of running – it happens even when it’s not cold outside – but this was a pretty extreme and a little frightening. Once I finally got warmed up however, I was fine and was quite able to finish up the last day with no problem.
On the opposite spectrum you’ve done the super-hot Jungle Ultra in Peru 3 times…
Well, I absolutely love this race. There is just something about it that makes me want to come back again and again. Yes, it can be very hot, very humid, very wet, very muddy, but all of these things add to the experience. This year I had both a high and low point on the same stage – stage 5, the Long One. This stage has both a long and a short course and after a 5:00 am start you must reach a certain point in the stage by 3:00 pm. The first two times I ran this race I didn’t make the time cut-off and had to run the short course. This year I made that time cut-off with just 2 minutes to spare, but I made it! That was definitely a high for me!
The low came a little bit later… while the short course of stage 5 takes you around a mountain to the finish line, the long course takes you over that same mountain. Going up the mountain, while difficult, was fine for me. I, along with my friend Jeff Lau, reached the top of the mountain just before darkness fell, therefore we were forced to make the treacherous journey down the other side of the mountain in the dark.
The trail is like nothing you’ve probably ever seen before – near vertical downhill sections of slick, greasy mud that went on seemingly forever. I honestly almost reached my breaking point on this section of the trail. It was pretty scary and dangerous and I can tell you that I fell more than once! At the time when I felt almost broken, instead of giving in to tears and despair though, I got really angry! I’m not sure what exactly I was angry at, but I was filled with it and the thought that this was not going to be my breaking point. The anger really helped fuel me and I picked up so much speed that Jeff had to ask me to slow down so as not to leave him behind in the dark. At that point I stopped and took a breath and let the anger drain away, but I not longer felt on the edge of breaking anymore either. I was able to take control of myself and my emotions and continue getting myself down the mountain. I can’t say I didn’t shed a few tears of relief once we got to the bottom though, because I most certainly did!
What kind of heat training did you do to prepare for the jungle?
I start heat training about 4-6 weeks before the race. My research tells me that it takes about 90 minutes a day for at least 4 weeks for the body to make the actual physiological changes to perform better in the heat. Because the jungle also has extremely high humidity, I try and prepare for that as well. So, I do 2 things: I set up a makeshift steam sauna, basically a tent with a kettle, where the temperature and humidity gets very high. I also have a home-made treadmill sauna….a treadmill enclosed by tarps with heaters and humidifiers, where the temperature gets up to the high 30’s Celsius. My routine becomes doing my workout, then sitting in the steam tent for 30-40 minutes, then spending an hour doing brisk walking on my treadmill with the heat on. It may be a bit excessive, but I like to be as prepared as possible and I do think it makes a difference as I am really never bothered by the heat or humidity in the jungle.
What is it about these incredibly tough multi-day ultras that keeps you coming back for more?
I think it’s really a combination of things. I really do enjoy the mental and physical challenge, not just of the events themselves, but also of the training and planning that goes into it. I love travelling to far-flung places for an adventure. I love meeting like-minded people and hearing their stories. There is really so much about it that I love that it’s easy to overlook the hardship part of it.
You live in Calgary, Canada with the Canadian Rocky Mountains on your doorstep. It must make for a great training ground!
Calgary is a really great outdoor city. Not only do we have the Rocky Mountains as a backyard playground, but we also have the longest urban pathway system in North America. I try to get out to the mountain trails at least once or twice a week. No matter which trail I choose, I can always be guaranteed of a good hill workout!
Which do you find more difficult with ultra-distance running – is it the physical endurance or the mental test?
I think most of the time it is the mental test. The body just kind of gets on auto-pilot a lot of the time, one foot in front of the other. Don’t get me wrong, it is physically hard as well, but sometimes it takes a lot of work to keep the brain in the game. If you give up mentally, it doesn’t even matter how your body is feeling.
Have you got any strategies for when things get tough? I read that you count your steps?
Yes, I have been known on many occasions to count steps. I find that doing something as simple as this allows my mind to focus on something other than how tired I am or how I am feeling physically. I make deals with myself that I will run for a certain number of steps, and then I will allow myself to walk or rest for a minute. It’s really just a re-focusing technique. I also like to listen to music, though I don’t like to wear headphones on the trail, so I play it on a speaker. I usually reserve the music for the night-time hours when it can get a little lonely out there. I think anything you can do that just focuses your mind elsewhere is helpful for getting through the tough times.
Have you had any hairy moments during your ultra-running?
Not too many… there was one time when I came face-to-face with a fully grown moose on the trail. Those things are huge and you really don’t want to mess with them. I just backed away and waited for it to leave!
Photo Credit: Raven Eye Photography
Also, my first time out at the Jungle Ultra I had an issue with my headlamp. On the last stage I was running down a rough mountain road in the dark when my headlamp just completely died. It was very dark, and the road had a sheer drop-off on one side. I was exhausted, and it was actually quite scary because I simply could not see where I was going. I kept moving myself forward even though I was crying and afraid. After what felt like a really long time, a truck drove up the road towards me with a bunch of local people in the back. When they saw me crying in the darkness, one of the men very kindly gave me a little flashlight. I don’t think I have ever been so relieved and thankful! Funnily enough, the same thing happened with my headlamp at this year’s Jungle Ultra. Thankfully though I was with other runners at the time, so I was able to navigate by the light of their headlamps.
What do you eat for breakfast before an ultra? And how do you fuel your events?
It depends. If it’s a multi-stage race where I’m carrying everything I need for a week on my back, I will bring oatmeal and peanut butter. And coffee, I can’t do without my coffee. I carry Starbucks Via singles and Nescafe 3-in1 singles. For a single day event, I will usually have a bagel or toast with peanut butter and jam. And coffee, of course.
During the events themselves, I mainly do ‘real’ food, though I do always carry a few gels for when I need some quick energy. The ‘real’ food can be anything from nuts to bars, to cookies and candy. When I’m in the middle of a 100km or longer single-day event where I have a crew, I like for them to bring me a cheeseburger in the middle of the night!
Do you take anything or do anything to help your body recover after a multi-stage event?
Not really, other than a period of rest. When I travel to events I usually hang around for a time afterwards, sight-seeing or whatever, and this serves as a good active recovery period for me. After the Ice Ultra I took a full 2 weeks off from running, after which time I was ready to start ramping up for the Jungle again.
What kit do you swear by for your ultra runs and multi-day events?
Well, I do have a few favourites for sure. For shoes, I am an Asics girl through and through. I love the nice wide toe box that they have, while still hugging the heel enough. My favourites are the Asics Gel Fujitrabuco trail shoes. They are a good all-round trail shoe.
My watch is a good old fashioned Timex digital watch. It doesn’t do anything fancy and that’s how I like it.
As for clothes, I’m still looking for the perfect pair of shorts, but in the meantime my current faves are Brooks Greenlight 7” short. They are long enough for good coverage, and are soft and chafe-free. I’ve put these shorts through the wringer and they have held up very well.
For outerwear, I’m a big fan of Mountain Hardwear. I always carry a Mountain Hardwear Ghost Light Rain Jacket. It folds up extremely small, and only weighs 85 grams, so I can easily stash it in my backpack to have if the weather changes. I also love my Mountain Hardwear Ghost Whisperer Down Jacket. Very warm and cosy with little weight and size.
The one thing I can never run without are Injinji Toe Socks. They are super comfortable and durable and are the best for preventing blisters.
You must be blister pro! Have you any tips on preventing blisters and chafing?
Actually, I rarely get blisters. When I do a multi-stage event, my big luxury is bringing a fresh pair of socks for each day, and I think this really helps with blister prevention. The accumulated grit in dirty socks can cause a lot of friction. That, and properly fitting shoes makes a big difference in blister prevention. A lot of people like to size up with their shoes for multi-stage events in case their feet swell, but I think at times that can cause more problems than it prevents. When your feet are not swollen and you have sized up your shoes, you can get a lot of movement inside your shoes, and that almost always leads to blisters.
Now chafing, however, I have a lot of experience with! The backpacks that are designed for multi-day running events are not made for women, especially women with a small stature. I have to have the straps of my pack as short as they will go, and I still get quite a lot of movement in my pack, which inevitably leads to chafing on my back. I do tape my back in areas I know are prone to chafing, but in very hot, wet events like the Jungle Ultra, even this is usually not enough and I end up with some degree of lost skin. I wish one of the companies would come up with a women’s specific pack that addresses this problem.
What’s the most challenging endurance event you’ve done?
I have a feeling that my upcoming 100 mile race at Sinister7 is going to be my biggest challenge ever – 100 miles in the Canadian Rocky Mountains with 6400 m of elevation gain in 30 hours will be hugely challenging.
Other than that though, it is hard for me to say because each race has its own super-challenging parts, and then parts that are a bit less so.
Have there been any events that you started but didn’t finish?
Yes, there have been a few DNFs in my racing history. One time I was pulled from a race because I did not make a time cut-off. This felt devastating because I still have no doubt that I could have completed the distance. A couple of other times I pulled myself out… once because I was having severe stomach issues, once because I simply wasn’t feeling it that day, and one time when my brain gave up. That one is probably the worst because I look back on it with regret. I got myself into a bad place mentally and I just wasn’t able to pull myself out of it. I do really try and use all of them as a learning experience however. I look at what I did, and what led up to the DNF, and figure out ways to do things differently next time.
Do you think you’ve found your body’s limit yet when it comes to endurance?
No, I really don’t think so. The human body is capable of so much more than we give it credit for!!
Are all your runs outside or do you ever run on a treadmill?
I try to avoid running on the treadmill at all costs (with the exception of when I’m heat training, then it is a necessary evil). I am pretty hardy and train outside in most kinds of weather. The only thing that might keep me inside would be if everything is just too icy, as sometimes happens with the kind of freeze/thaw cycles we get around here. It would have to be very bad though.
Which has been your favourite event so far and why?
The Jungle Ultra is my favourite race by far. It has all the elements I love in a place that is near and dear to me. A beautiful setting, challenging course, an element of adventure, great people…what more could I ask for?
Where are your favourite places in the world to run?
Well, I am of course particularly fond of my Rocky Mountain backyard playground, but really I love going to any far-flung place for a running adventure. I am up for almost anything, almost anywhere!
What do your friends and family think about your endurance challenges?
I am super lucky to have a very supportive family who are whole-heartedly behind me, no matter what crazy thing I sign up for next. Ultra running can be a very selfish endeavour because the training and travelling do take up a lot of time, but my family never complains and always encourages me. I always say my husband David is my number 1 fan. He also runs and we sometimes do events together. Other family members come out and crew for me at more local races, and I always appreciates their unconditional support.
I think most of my friends think I have a few screws loose sometimes, but they are all encouraging and supportive too.
How many miles do you typically run each week, and do you do any other sport?
I don’t really have a “typical” number of training kilometres each week because it varies wildly depending on what I’m training for and where I am in my training cycle. It can vary from maybe 40km/week on the low side all the way up to 120 or more right before a big event.
I don’t really do too much other than running, but I have been known to go hiking or pull out the mountain bike at times.
What’s a typical week’s training look like for you at the moment, Monday-Sunday?
Right now I am in the final stages of tapering for my upcoming 100-miler so my training is not typical of what I normally do. In the weeks leading up to a multi-stage event, my training might look something like this:
Sunday – 10km run or walk with fully loaded backpack, 5km hot treadmill
Monday – Long mountain run with fully loaded backpack (Up to 45 km)
Tuesday – Hill repeats with backpack (1-3 hours of repeats on a 1km long hill)
OR Shorter mountain run, up to 20km with backpack, 5km hot treadmill
Wednesday – 10km mixed run/walk with backpack, 5km hot treadmill
Thursday – Sprint intervals, 5km hot treadmill
Friday – 10 easy run, 5km hot treadmill
Saturday – Rest
Do you ever get nervous before an event?
I do get nervous, but it is more in the couple of weeks leading up to a big event than right before. Once I get in the car or on the plane to go to an event, the nerves seem to vanish.
I deal with my nerves by becoming hyper-organised. I make lists, organise gear, make more lists, re-organise the gear, double-check everything, pack and repack my backpack, and just generally drive everyone crazy.
Are there ever times when you can’t face running or it feels like a chore?
Oh for sure. I am a master at procrastinating. I think it’s really important to be able to look at the reasons I’m feeling unmotivated. Often the lack of motivation comes just because I’ve been working super-hard and I’m simply tired. If this is the case, I will often change the run to a walk, shorten my planned distance, or even skip it altogether. I think it’s really important to listen to our bodies, and not be afraid to change the training plan accordingly.
Other times I may just be feeling lazy about getting out, but I find that if I can get my gear on and get out the door, that’s all it takes.
Do you record your runs with a watch or on Strava?
Nope, I am old-school. I pull out a map to plan my runs, and I use a plain old Timex digital watch.