Alison Walker interview: "ultras are torturous and painful sometimes – but at the end of the day, running is meant to be fun" - Women's Running

Alison Walker interview: “ultras are torturous and painful sometimes – but at the end of the day, running is meant to be fun”

Author: Rachel Ifans

Read Time:   |  February 24, 2022

Alison Walker is our ultimate real-life runner inspiration. Down-to-earth, she takes a refreshingly relaxed attitude to running that makes ultra marathons seem so much more achievable. She's also passionate about finding the fun in running, rather than punishing ourselves with it. We find out more about her incredible achievements and her positive attitude...

Alison Walker is on her own path: she eats anything she likes; she has an old-school coach with an aversion to tech; and she’s in no hurry to bag endless races. Her naturalistic approach is working well for both mind and body, and she’s tucking Malaysian records under her belt with convincing regularity

When you move to the other side of the world and you want to immerse yourself in the local culture and life and meet new friends, what do you do? You join a running club, of course!

Alison Walker did not run at all when she was growing up in Singapore – she had no interest in being outside, she says – but when she came to the UK to go to university in 2006, she signed up to a run club at the fresher’s fair.

For Alison, it was key to much more than fitness: “For international students, it’s quite easy to just hang around your own bunch but I wanted to assimilate into the culture and learn about British stuff. I didn’t fly 13 hours away to continue in my normal habits; I wanted to try new things and learn new things and just break out a bit into something different.”

She’d run and socialise, and then when she moved to London it was a similar story. “I’m an accountant so my work mates are really boring,” she laughs, with a wink, “so it’s been really nice to meet people more widely through running. You know – artistic and creative types.”

Building the distance

For a long time, running was a social thing for Alison but then she did a few marathons and got a taste for longer distances through that, or at least a combination of endurance and socialising. She explains: “I did the Marathon du Médoc a few times with a big group of 10 or so friends.

“It’s a bit of fun; some chateaux that aren’t usually open to the public open up for the day and you get to run through the grounds, which is beautiful.”

The Marathon Du Médoc has its participants – all in fancy dress – drinking wine at regular intervals along the 26-mile course. “I don’t remember what I drunk but it was quite a lot. If you win, you win your body weight in wine, so some of the chateaux get really fast runners to run for them!”

Maybe it was running through vineyards that sparked her fancy for endurance races or maybe it was a book called Running Up That Hill by Vassos Alexander that described his qualification for the Spartathlon (the 153-mile race from Athens to Sparta in Greece) that sealed the deal. Alison really wanted to do the race as soon as she read the book but, needing a qualifying time first, she set about training properly.

“There was a guy who owned a running shop in London and ran free run sessions called Run Fast on the side,” says Alison, of her first coach Peter McHugh de Clare. “He’s such a nice man: he’s in his 70s and really generous with his time. He offered to coach me for free in late 2018. I started doing ultras in 2019 and that’s when it all started going crazy.”

She did her first 100-miler with no expectations at all and came second. And then took on the Tooting 24, her first 24-hour race, in which she ran 185.9K and broke six Malaysian national records. It all snowballed from there, but Alison is modest: “I wasn’t ever really confident about my running –I was always saying, oh yeah I just jog – but maybe 2019 was a turning point for me and I started to think I might actually be decent at long runs.”

Old school approach

Alison’s coach has had a huge impact on her and her running. “He’s really inspirational. I always think to myself that if he’s going out in his 70s, then what’s my excuse?! He’s such a role model to me: if I was 74, I wouldn’t be standing in a cold field shouting at people at 8pm at night in full arctic gear. I think I’d be sitting inside with a fire and chilling out rather than giving up my time for others.”

Peter had an old-school approach that worked for Alison: “He believed in looking at me to gauge my energy levels.” Because he knew her so well, just looking at her told him all he needed to know about cutting down the miles or making her do another session. “Newer-school cultures will look at the data on your watch to check performance and coach you forward, but for him it was more about what he sees.”

Of course, for this method to work, he needs to be able to see Alison; a simple thing that has become difficult in the past year due to Covid and Alison moving out of London, and so recently she’s employed the talents of Dave Troman, an experienced ultrarunner and coach based in Cumbria (lovetoruncoaching.co.uk).

Going for the ultra

So, the Samphire 100, a 100-mile endurance run of 27 x 3.71 mile loops near Dover, was to be Alison’s first ultra. She recalls: “I was still really unsure of whether I could do it so I chose a looped course so that I would have a quick exit if I had to drop out.” As it turned out, the qualifying time for the Spartathlon was under 22 hours and Alison got round the Samphire 100 in 21 hrs 36 mins.

Although she assumed she wouldn’t get the qualifying time on her first attempt, the experience was not plain sailing. Alison recalls: “The weather taught me a lot in that race – mostly, to get better kit.

“I just don’t know what I was thinking. It was in March and there were a lot windy storms. I found the first half okay and time went by quite quickly and I could cope with the wind. However, once the sun set, the rain made it hard. And, of course, like any amateur, I had just thought a cheap jacket would be okay.

Once you get wet in those conditions, you get cold, and there’s no shelter and no opportunity to warm up.” She’ll not forget the wind and freezing rain in a hurry: “I finished in about five layers of jackets (borrowed from other runners) because I was so cold.”

With the longer races, she struggles especially if the weather is too hot or too cold and, she says, her fuelling is always the first thing to go. “When the weather was okay [on the Samphire 100], I could manage my fuelling quite well but when it got cold and wet I just didn’t really want to eat anything. I think I might have stopped eating for the last 20 miles because I was so cold. I just couldn’t face putting something else in my mouth because I wanted to keep it warm but actually I should have eaten.”

Setting records

You live and learn, and Alison continued to perfect her technique over the next few races. In September 2020, she decided to take on what seems like a massive folly. The Smog Graham Round is a bonkers 300K circumnavigation of all the peaks in each London borough (there are 32 of them!), and it takes its name from the Bob Graham Round, a well-known endurance challenge in the Lake District where runners attempt to run over 42 mountain peaks in a 24-hour time limit.

The Smog isn’t an organised race; it’s a route that has been mapped out by an enthusiast, and you plan for it and take it on alone. Let’s just say now, she did it – and to date she’s the only person to have completed the route. Ever. But it’s not something she’ll be doing again. Ever. She explains: “The problem was that it’s not a set path; it’s a mish-mash of different routes. It was impossible to recce 300K around such a large parameter; it goes as far west as Epsom, up near Watford, down to Biggin Hill and then out as far as Epping so it’s quite a big radius.”

It was really hard to navigate. “It’s not a trail so you’re constantly coming to junctions and deciding whether to turn right or left which I found draining. We came across things like golf courses that were shut overnight with no easy route around, so we’d have to spend 30 minutes in the dark trying to work out where to go.”

It took Alison 54 hours and 33 minutes to complete the route – that’s two nights and three days of running – while trying to grab the odd hour’s rest here and there. “The crew tried to force me to sleep at some points but I couldn’t drop off so it seemed like wasted hours sitting in a car.”

The crew she mentions was a loyal band of Alison’s old friends and run buddies; it may not have been slick organisation but it was how it was supposed to be, she says: “I wouldn’t do it any other way to be honest. These are my friends that I’ve known forever.”

Listening to your body

Amazingly, Alison seems to escape injuries even with the rigours of hundreds of miles pounding. “My body seems to be weirdly robust,” she says. In fact, her only weakness so far has been overtraining. It showed up when she tried to do a race too soon after the Smog.

She explains: “I was happily running again by the next week but I shouldn’t have done a long race. I tried to do a 24-hour one but I could feel something wasn’t right so I dropped out. It wasn’t a warm day but I was sweating like crazy; like pouring with sweat. It was very unusual and I knew it wasn’t right.”

She’s philosophical: “You don’t know what damage you’ll do to your body over these long distances if something’s wrong, so it’s best to pull out. The conclusion I came to from that experience was that you need to leave your body three months after doing something like a 300K until you attempt your next race.”

Alison is refreshingly relaxed about her future race plans.“I’ve moved up north and I’m in an in-between stage where I don’t know if I want to do hardcore trail races or keep some road running in. I don’t know.

“I’m getting used to the terrain here first, and I’d like to do the Spine at some point because it runs through the town I now live in but it’s early days. I don’t like to rush things too much. There’s no point turning up for a race you’re not ready for. If you’re ready physically you’re more likely to be ready mentally too. Ultra is often a mental game and you need to make sure your mental game is there.

“Other people will go from race to race but I’m not other people. I choose to do things my way.”

Go your own way

For Alison, running is all about creating your own path. She advises fellow runners to ignore what social media tells you to do – “half of it is nonsense anyway!” – and to be selective about what you see. If it’s not helpful, don’t look at it!

She’s also unequivocal when it comes to nutrition and looking after your body. Alison is not, she says, built like a ‘typical’ runner. “Everybody is different, and every body is different, so you should just find your own way,” she says. “I eat anything. Anything my body wants, I just give it. I don’t follow diets or restrict my food and I think that helps me avoid injuries. After all, you need fat for ultrarunning; if you don’t have fat you’re in danger of going into hyperthermia!”

“Sometimes I speak to girls who haven’t had a period for ages, and they act like that’s normal for runners. There may not be consequences now but in 20 years time when you’re ageing, it’s not good. I want to say to coaches who let this happen, how come you’re still making these girls run such high mileages when they’re clearly not having periods? It makes me angry and I feel like people should be doing more to stop this culture.”

Alison might just be our ultimate ultra-runner inspo. Her race successes portray her as something of an extremist but for her, running is not about that. “Yes, ultras are torturous and painful sometimes” she says. “But at the end of the day, running is meant to be fun.” Hear, hear.

Looking for more inspiration? Read our other interviews with our favourite runners!

Written by

Rachel Ifans

Rachel Ifans

Completed her first virtual half marathon this year and enjoyed it almost as much as the real thing

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