Tom Evans spent two months in Ethiopia training with marathon runners to prepare for the Western States 100 mile (WSER100, 161KM) ultra marathon and the workouts paid dividends as he finished third with the fastest ever time by a non-American runner of 14 hours, 59 minutes and 44 seconds.
“The slowest runner [in the Ethiopian running group], except for me, was a 2:08 marathoner,” the Briton said. “That made it very interesting. Their tempo runs were on dirt tracks with rolling hills, so were perfect for WSER100.”
“They would run until they dropped and we were being followed by a car so they’d be picked up,” Evans said. “At first, because of the altitude, I was the first to drop out but I began to get used to the elevation.”
WSER100 is one of the most prestigious 100 mile races in the world. It takes place in California, starting at altitude before descending into deep, hot canyons. Jim Walmsley won the race on Sunday in a record 14:09:28.
The brutal tempo sessions in Ethiopia were fuelled by fierce rivalries, with runners motivated by the hope of being picked up by foreign agents and given the opportunity to race and earn money abroad.
“It’s almost becomes survival of the fittest,” Evans said.
The “sag wagon” that accompanied the runners was always a tempting respite from the sessions.
“You can drop out when ever you want,” he said. “So, it’s about how much you want it. It was really good mental strength training as they were always going fast and furious.”
Being in a new environment forced the former soldier to be more flexible in his attitude to training.
“You had no idea what was going to happen. I had kids throw rocks at me one day,” he said. “It was such a culture shock. I just had to deal with what was ahead of me day by day.”
Evans said he had learned from them the importance of strong contrasts between hard and easy sessions.
He felt not all of the training was relevant to his competition goals. The other athletes in the group were all preparing for marathons or half marathons, so their longest run was just two hours. Evans would sometimes head out for eight hours at a time.
“They thought I was absolutely mental,” he said. “They couldn’t get over how much volume I was doing. But they were fascinated. They really respected what I was doing.”
There were no coaches on hand to force runners on to the track or trail, but the total immersion experience meant they were not necessary.
“I became so attuned to my body. I was making decisions to drop out of sessions all based on feel,” he said.
Jim Walmsley (@HokaOneOne) wins the 2019 Western States 100 in a course record 14:09:28, breaking his own course record of 14:30:04 set last year. Our pre-race chat: https://t.co/JbbWkPYwjL #WS100 pic.twitter.com/MmptursJpA— iRunFar (@iRunFar) June 30, 2019
Evans, who has won the CCC event at the Ultra Marathon du Mont Blanc (UTMB) week, could feel the effects of his training when he ran WSER100.
“I just felt so much more efficient,” he said. “So, at the end, I was still able to run hard.”
“For me, coming third in my first 100 miler was a best-case scenario,” Evans said. “I knew it was possible, I just didn’t know if it was probable.”
For now, Evans is going back to shorter races of about 50km to 100km, but he said the experience had “lit a fire” in him to achieve in the famous race.
“I definitely want to come back and see if I can improve my place, if not my time.”