British mountain runner Sarah Tunstall (© WMRA)
For more than a decade, Briton Sarah Tunstall has been among the most successful and visible runners on the World Mountain Running Association (WMRA) mountain running circuit. A bronze medal at the 2008 European Championships at 22 and World Championships the following year thrust her into the scene's spotlight. In 2015, she won the WMRA World Cup and in 2017 raced to European silver and took a second world bronze. A fourth place finish in the World Cup standings last year at 33 showed that she's not disappearing from the circuit any time soon, even as the New coronavirus pandemic wreaks havoc with the mountain running season calendar as well.
"2020 looks like it is going to be a strange and stilted season," Tunstall says. "Many races I would run have already been cancelled throughout France, Italy and Switzerland, and rightly so. I’d love to think we could be racing towards the end of the summer but after having the winter off I was in no rush to race anyway and I was already playing the early season by ear."
That also means that she isn't currently based in her usual early season training base in the French Alps, a regular part of her routine since 2015, when she was drawn to the region by a stubbornness to finally get back into the shape of her early career successes after a string of injury setbacks derailed her ambitions.
“I was citing the World Championships in Wales as my main excuse to be there - which it was - but having spent so much time there it became very difficult to return to the UK. We've been spending time in the Alps regularly ever since and will try to make it last as long as we can.”
Cross country forms the early bond
She probably didn’t foresee that alpine lifestyle when she competed in regional and national cross country competitions and fell races as a junior athlete.
“I would make County cross country and England Fell teams but my best result - which I was delighted with - was finishing 10th at the English National Cross Country in my final year. It sounds like a cliché but I think that enjoying the sport is the main factor that will ensure a good transition (from junior to senior competition). Luckily this should be more likely in the fell/mountain scene as it can be less regimented or monotonous compared to track or road training.”
“If you’re still enjoying running,” she says, “that can be a big part of making the jump up to senior as running becomes more of a personal choice and if you enjoy it you will choose to keep running.”
She made two national teams as a senior in cross country, finishing second in the U23 race at the 2008 European Cross Country Championships and 55th at the World Cross Country Championships the following year. Yet her career and strongest interest still gravitated towards the mountains.
Speed is key
“There was never a conscious transition (to mountain running) but looking back the link for me was cross country,” she says. “I would race cross country in the winter and fells in the summer so I always had relative speed. Hills and speed are essential on the European style courses, which are often on harder packed tracks, and it seemingly makes a mountain runner.”
Speed, she says, is critical to success in mountain running.
“I have always maintained that speed is vital in mountain running. I would gladly run uphill every day but you get found out if you’re not fast and if you look at the profile of the best mountain runners, their PBs are usually quite surprising. I’ve never been naturally quick or had any interest in the track but speed is always something I try to work on.”
But so has working her way back from injury.
“Between 2010 and 2012 I couldn’t really string any running together without injury problems. Unfortunately it is common amongst athletes that when everything is going well and you’re fit and flying you can suddenly get injured. It’s a fine line and when you’re young you just try and plough on but I think as you experience adversity through injuries you become a bit more sensible.”
Tunstall says she’s never gone back to the type of training she did prior to 2010, focusing instead on low mileage and once-a-day runs that she supplements with biking or hiking.
“I find that the key is knowing your own body and its limitations. I would far rather run consistently at any level than be inactive - especially in the Alps! I’ve had some ongoing heel problems over the past two years and took this winter largely off running to get on top of them. I’ve enjoyed other activities and feel happier that I’m not limping around so much in daily life. It’s really important to know and trust what works for you.”
Aiming to preserve mountain running’s simplistic beauty
As someone who's been a strong part of the scene for awhile, Tunstall has chiseled together a vision of how she wants to see her sport evolve and the direction she wants it to go - without it losing what she sees as its ageless charm.
"I’ve been lucky to have so many great experiences through the sport, I’ve travelled to amazing places and met some of my best friends through mountain running so in an era where trail and ultra races are becoming ever more commercialised, I’d love to help preserve and promote what makes mountain running special,” says Tunstall, who is a member of the WMRA Athletes’ Commission.
"The classic races have often been going for 30 to 50 years, are relatively low key and no frills, but in beautiful settings. Unfortunately that means we’re often on the back foot in terms of social media, so they get hidden amongst the big flashy races.
“On a selfish front I’d love them to stay that way so I can enjoy the simplicity of the beautiful races but I don’t want them to die out or get lost amongst the big brands or long, gnarly and overhyped races. I may be a traditionalist, but I find it quite conflicting to the understated sport of mountain running and think that the mountains should be able to sell themselves without excessive marketing."
Kirsty Reade for World Athletics