He’s gone without sleep for 52 hours, set the world record for running the length of Ireland, come first in ‘The Spine’, Britain’s most brutal running race, covering 431km in 95 hours 23 minutes, but Eoin Keith only ran his first marathon at 30 years old…
In the world of ultrarunning the Columbia ambassador, who is currently the Irish record holder for 6-day running, 24-hour track and 48-hour road running, is a living legend.
His mantra is ‘just go and do it’, so what advice does he have for anyone thinking of graduating from ‘sensible’ running races to ultraruns?
RSNG What’s the key to a good long-distance trail run?
EOIN KEITH, ULTRARUNNER ‘I'm a big fan of simplifying it. A lot of people make the mistake of trying to overcomplicate it and looking for the magic beans, the secrets to doing things, whether it be nutrition, or watches, or equipment.’
‘I try to run on feel, in terms of pacing. A good run is when you've felt you've had a good run more than anything. No need to complicate it by looking at the watch and it tells you it's a ‘bad’ or ‘good’ run.
‘Gear doesn't matter. It's just go. That's the thing about running. It's as simple as putting your shoes on and going outdoors.’
RSNG Do you get a sense of accomplishment from just running the trail?
EK ‘Yes and a key to that is actually learning to navigate which isn't hard to do, but people seem to fear it. Not being afraid to get lost, because that's part of the adventure!’
‘As long as you know you can re-find yourself, that's fine. Most of the time it's easy to get lost – run downhill until you hit the river, follow the river until you hit the town. That works in about 95% of the cases to get you out of almost any situation!’
‘Yes, it's just so much more pleasurable and such a big sense of adventure, when you're going somewhere new under your own steam, and taking care of yourself. I love that.’
‘In my holidays, generally over Christmas with my wife, we head out to the Canaries, or whatever. Most people go to the beach. I turn around and go the other way!’
RSNG Up the hill?
EK ‘Up the hill! I'll explore, I'll follow the trails, and try and find somewhere interesting to go. You find all these new things that you didn't know existed. It's a great way to spend hours, and hours, and time flies by.’
RSNG What’s the psychological difference between the ultra-trail runs and the track-based 24 hour races you have run?
EK ‘Well, the trails are not on short loops. I've done 24 hours on a 400-metre track which was like being a demented hamster.’
RSNG How do you actually maintain the mental strength to do it?
EK ‘In my case, it's usually about competition, and just the desire to win, or to get a distance, being stronger than the desire to just crawl off and hide! Or, lie down, or get something to eat, or just stop, which is usually what's being screamed at you inside your head.’
‘The trails are completely different because they're self-motivating; you're usually going somewhere, you're making a journey, you're enjoying the landscape. That's all much easier in comparison. That's wonderful in itself.’
‘Don’t overcomplicate it – decide you're going to do it and just go do it’
RSNG What things do you need to do if you're a roadrunner and you're looking to convert to longer distance ultras?
EK ‘Don’t overcomplicate it. Just go and do it. That’s my answer to understanding what they need to do to move up beyond marathon, to do these huge distances. Decide you're going to do it and just go do it.’
‘People, generally don't worry about process. You don't have to do a 100-metre race to do a 200m. You don't have to do a 200m to do a 400m. That goes all the way to 24 hours, to being on the UTMB for 48 hours. Just go and do it!’
RSNG That's a good point, I've never thought about it like that!
EK ‘My first running race was a marathon, and I just launched at it. When I realised it was fast I launched at it with a bit of speed. Likewise, it wasn't long until my first ultra-race, my first hill race was 50k. So, just go for it. It was nothing much to be afraid of in the hills.’
‘Just remember, in the UK where it's quite a benign environment relative to a lot of countries, often nothing living in nature will kill you. There's no lions, and tigers, and crocodiles out here! Or, poisonous snakes, or whatever, which will get you in many other countries. It helps having good gear.’
RSNG What advice do you have around ultrarunning gear?
EK ‘The one thing that will kill you, or cause you problems, in the UK and Ireland, is not dealing with cold, and not dealing with moisture. Having good rain protection is important if you're going on the trails, and having some good gear, good base-layers and so on, so you're not going to break out into a sweat.’
‘Suddenly it turns very cold because you've got terrible base-layers and your outer layer is just holding all the moisture!’
‘The other thing to remember is you're not five minutes from rescue – you could be half-an-hour from rescue. Again, it’s simple things but bring your phone with you. Don't rely on it, but if you have it you might as well bring it.’
RSNG Some of the distances you've tackled are for a lot of people just a complete, mind-blowing concept – how do you break down the distances? Does finding your flow come into that?
EK ‘Yes, it depends on the distance. These days I can get as intimidated by a short distance, because of the speed required. Whereas, when you go along you realise that you have to take it nice and relaxed, otherwise you're not going to finish it.’
‘If you work that through, that's actually an opportunity to enjoy things more because you don't have to push so hard. That's the whole point. Pacing is really key when you're doing the long races. That's probably the thing that I'm best at, naturally.’
‘It's probably the key to actually enjoying things most and finishing them, and taking them on, is to know, take it easy, relax.’
RSNG You’re also into cycling – is there a crossover between mountain biking and trail running – does one help the other?
EK ‘I think there's a lot of cross-over in a lot of sports like that. Flow is the other big one. Mountain biking, especially, is all about flow to me. You know you've had a good mountain bike when everything flows.’
‘Running is quite similar. You get that sense of flow. From my case, you get it more in running, and possibly in something like snowboarding and skiing. You have the reading the line, definitely.’
‘You can't go out too fast – go slower than you think you need to go’
RSNG Are there any other crossover benefits?
EK ‘Interestingly enough, the cross-over of mountain biking, or cycling and hills in general, seems to be good hills. You become a good uphill runner. You'd think that you'd be better at downhill running for exactly the reason you say.’
‘I've watched the best mountain bikers in Ireland, come and try out hill-running races, and they're much better climbers – it's exactly the opposite of what I thought. Now, I actually do cycle training to train for uphill running, oddly enough.’
RSNG What would you say to a beginner ultrarunner about pacing?
EK ‘What I say to a lot of beginners is, “Listen, you can't go out too fast, go slower than you think you need to go. If you get it wrong, good luck with the sprint finish, but I guarantee you you're not going to do it! Almost nobody does the sprint finish in the ultra-run. Go slower than you think you need to go.”’
I can remember talking to someone, a top American racer, they were saying, “There's always one in every race who's belting around at their 10k pace,” or whatever. They were saying, “That's the only pace I know!”’
‘The old heads would say, “Don't worry, you'll find another one!” Haha! They do! Take it easy, enjoy it and don't be intimidated by distance.’
‘I only count down miles from beyond halfway – then, it is a countdown rather than being too big’
RSNG What about the mental challenge – do you have any psychological tips?
EK ‘I break it down, sometimes. The hardest races to do are actually the looped ones, because it's the same thing over and over. I never say on a 24-hour race, “You've only got 23-hours left.” I only count down from beyond halfway. So, it’s a countdown rather than being too big.’
‘On the way out, I might concentrate on pacing, and say, “I want to hit this pace, I want to hit this hour and not be any faster than that.”
RSNG So, you’re not trying to get faster you're actually trying to keep the pace down?
EK ‘You're trying to hold back, yes. Then, when you're no longer holding back, that's when it becomes an ultrarun. Suddenly you're no longer pacing, you’re: “Don't tell me what the target pace is, I'm doing the maximum already!”’
RSNG Just because it’s a long way doesn’t mean you have to be alone – do you chat with fellow racers?
EK ‘If there's someone around you can chat to them, or just lock in with them. That especially applies in the trail runs, or just being with someone. Even if you're both completely lost and out of your depth, it's far better to be doing that in someone's company than on your own.’
‘Two people are going to motivate each other too. You invest in each other to carry on – you see that a lot in the ultra-trail races.’
RSNG Does that make the ultras races a different vibe to normal running races?
EK ‘Yes, exactly. Ultra-running tends to be more you're against a course first. People tend to combine together to take on the real enemy, which is the course. And it's definitely a difference to the shorter races where you're out to beat everyone.’
‘In ultra-trails you'll help each other along for sure. You are always looking out for people as well. You never pass someone without checking they're okay.’
‘You also get that interesting dichotomy, where you're definitely racing along with people at the same time. Either you'll finish together, or you'll say, “We'll haul each other along to a point, and after that point we're going to power the hell out of each other and see who wins this thing!”
WHAT NEXT? Watch the account of Eoin Keith’s attempt to break the world record for running the entire length of Ireland…
Find out more about Eoin Keith and Columbia here
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