Meet the runner - Svenja Keller
Svenja has competed in some of the most iconic ultra-marathons in the world. She told me about her favourite races, her love of cheese and motivation. This interview made me believe my running dreams might come true.
I live in Worcestershire, close to the Warwickshire border, in a village called Inkberrow. My weekend training ground is the Malvern Hills, which I absolutely love. I work in London and I normally spend all week in London which is more difficult from a training perspective – I get a lot of mileage in on the weekends and train mostly in the morning before work in London. Of course, lockdown has changed things a bit – it’s been good for getting more miles in and trying out more local routes. I found a lovely local 30-mile loop and I think I will continue with that even after lockdown.
My husband is not a runner, but he makes a brilliant support crew. Our two black labs (Frankie and Kipp) would claim that they are support crew too, but they are a bit useless to be honest! They normally sleep in the car on races and there is a lot of moaning coming from them as it is boring to follow me around for hours and days.
I don’t have a running coach. I never lack motivation to run and I always find that with ultra-running, it is a lot of trial and error and finding out what works for you. I experimented a bit with my training plan but have largely stuck to two long runs – back to back – on the weekends and a pattern of shorter runs during the week. I normally do three full mileage weeks and then a lower mileage week to give my body a rest. During lockdown, I have tried different things – pushing more mileage into the week but I didn’t like it. I have also increased my mileage which I am trying to stick to, but it is difficult, and I need to find a balance to avoid exhaustion and injury.
I used to have a personal trainer for strength training in London. This is mainly for motivation! It’s funny really – I would rather go out for another run, but I know how important strength training is. I have been trying to do some on my own and I always feel good after a session, but motivation is difficult.
I was never good at sports. PE was always my worst subject in school! I spent one semester of my university studies in Australia at a small university with a good sports programme. They offered personal training at very reduced prices and I tried it to lose some weight. She really got me into regular exercise and logging a certain number of minutes every week on cardio. This is how it all started – give me a goal or target and I will do it. Back then, I tried lots of different cardio, but I noticed how running outside was really enjoyable and made me feel good. When I returned to Germany and started my working life I continued with the running. I only did 30 minutes every morning to balance the long days in work at my desk, but it all started there…
Ultra-running has quickly spiralled out of control! I moved to London with my job and my boyfriend (now husband) was British (Welsh). He said to me at some point that he reckoned I could run further than my 5km every morning. So, I gave it a go and I started doing 10kms. We then moved to Worcestershire and I started doing longer runs. I enjoyed them and I liked to see the look on people’s faces when I said where I had been. All of the sudden I was running a half marathon. Then a marathon. I did quite a few city marathons, but I never really managed to improve on my time (just under 4 hours seemed to be my natural pace). I looked into what else I could do and going a longer distance rather than improving my time was the logical option. I realised that a lot of the longer races were trail races, so I tried a trail half marathon and a trail marathon. I really enjoyed them although the first trail half marathon was in atrocious weather on the Devon coast!
My first ultra was the Malvern Hills Ultra and I only did the 34-mile distance to see how I felt about it. I enjoyed it but decided that I wouldn’t get into it too much as training took up way too much time and I didn’t want to do this to my husband… but then we went on holiday in Chamonix, hiking in August. When we got there my husband surprised me and said it was the week of the UTMB! That was it – we watched the runners all week and he looked at me one day and said ‘you want to do this race, don’t you?’ Yes, I did and that’s when I started to get serious. I needed to get the points and therefore run bigger races… I did that and ran the UTMB in 2018 – it was fantastic!
I used to build up the mileage, normally about 40 miles to start with up to 75 miles at the peak of my training.It would be Monday rest day, Tuesday 4 miles (if I could it would be a fast 4 miles), Wednesday 15 miles (split into two runs on a working day), Thursday 6 miles, Friday rest day, 30 on a Saturday and 20 on a Sunday. During lockdown, I have been doing 80-mile weeks – 10 on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, and then 30 and 20 on the weekend. I tried to do more, but this seems to be my limit as I have to fit work around this too. I then do 3 weeks full mileage and the fourth week on half the mileage to give my body a rest and have some time for other things on the weekend. That seems to work well. I also try to do at least one strength session a week. I find that quite difficult but equally, I know how important it is and how it helps on the longer races and prevents injury. I should really try to fit two sessions in a week…
When I got into the ultra-running, I gained quite a bit of weight. I was always hungry and struggled with my blood sugar levels a lot. I then worked with a sports nutritionist for two years – she taught me a lot and completely changed my diet. I have a very balanced diet now, always eating a combination of protein, carbs and healthy fats. I have cut out a lot of sugar and stopped using sweeteners. My taste changed completely too – over time I just didn’t crave as much sugar anymore and I even find things too sweet now. At some point, the added value of the nutritionist became less as I had settled into a routine, so I stopped working with her. I also found it difficult to follow such a strict routine with a busy job. I wanted a bit more flexibility, in particular given that I am not a professional athlete. I still very much stick to a healthy and balanced diet, but I don’t follow it as strictly anymore.
At one point about two years ago, I started craving salt a lot. I also started feeling absolutely knackered every time I went out for a run. I should have known that something was wrong then, but it took me a long time to realise. I was very anaemic, i.e. had very low iron levels. It is amazing what an impact an imbalance like this can have. The doctor gave me strong iron tablets and it didn’t take long to get back to healthy levels. Since then, I have been taking vitamin tablets (including iron) and that was also the time when I started taking magnesium at night. The latter has really helped me with cramps – I used to have cramps in my toes, feet and calves at night but since I have been taking the magnesium, that’s no longer the case.
Before a race, I try to stick to what I know and not make any changes to my diet. I normally have toast, some eggs and a coffee. Not more than usual. During the race, I try to limit my sugar intake for as long as possible. I eat simple foods (mainly soft bread and cheese) as well as some Clifbar Shot Bloks (with caffeine) and sometimes Nakd bars (although I use them more on training runs than on actual race days). The longer the race, the less careful I am with food – in the end, I just eat what I can get down. It changes – sometimes I want sweet and sometimes I want savoury. Soft bread and cheese or Nutella work. I do eat hot food on the long races and if they offer it at checkpoints. Beans and cheese work well but I eat whatever the race organisers offer normally. I don’t have anything in particular that makes me sick. I just know that sometimes, when my blood sugar levels come down, I feel sick and it is counter-intuitive then to eat but I have to force myself. Chocolate covered ginger helps here as ginger settles the stomach. I normally don’t like ginger but, in these instances, it has always helped.
After long races, I normally need some time to get back to normal and all I can cope with is cheesy pasta or cheese on toast. You can see how cheese seems to be the common denominator here . I normally also reward myself with some ice cream as that’s a treat for me. I have lost my sense of taste and smell a few times after a race – it is always a shame, when I can eat what I want I can’t taste it. It can take a few days for the taste to come back.
I do eat on my weekend training runs. I eat Shotbloks, Caffeine Bullets and Nakd Bars. I have tried other things (pretzels for the salt, salty nuts) but tend to stick to the former three. It is difficult to simulate race conditions but equally, it is good to test what works and what doesn’t. Over time, I have also learnt through experience on the races.
My normal training ground for weekend runs are the Malvern Hills. I love it up there – the views are fantastic. Unfortunately, it can get quite busy and I prefer running in solitude. I have been up there early in the morning and I absolutely love the tranquillity. The other two destinations I loved were the Alps – I did two training weekends on the UTMB course. I got hopelessly lost on the first day which is a story in itself (see my running blog – ultrarunultramind.com) but it is so beautiful. The other route I really like is the Southern Upland Way which is the route of the Race Across Scotland. It is vast and quiet and lovely there. I ran for hours without seeing anyone and the scenery is stunning.
Both the UTMB and the Race Across Scotland are my two favourite races that I have run. The UTMB because it is so iconic and the last mile running back into Chamonix is amazing. There is so much support from spectators, which is not something you get very often in ultra-marathons. However, the UTMB is also quite commercialised and it doesn’t have the same family feel as some of the UK races I have participated in. That’s a bit of a shame. The Race Across Scotland is organised by GB Ultras and they are a great community (similar for Hardmoors and Centurion – I really like their races as well). The Race Across Scotland was the longest I have ever run, and the support was fantastic. I loved it and I have been thinking of doing it again.
I am quite competitive, but I am not sure if I really look at performance when I run the races. For me it is all about finishing and I always make sure I don’t finish last. In particular with the longer races, it is difficult to know what is going to happen and how I am going to feel. I am quite slow, but I can keep going for a long time. I was happy with my time for the UTMB and for the Race Across Scotland.
I only ever DNF’ed once (so far) and that was a race called The Oner. The race organiser seemed to pride themselves in how many people don’t finish their races and I realise now that this is not my kind of race. I like a bit of competition and racing against cut off times but if they are quite unrealistic and it becomes stressful, it loses the fun in my view. I got timed out unfortunately. This was however also the time when I was struggling with my iron levels so maybe it had something to do with that.
My philosophy is to enjoy it. It is a hobby for me, and I am not a professional athlete – I just enjoy pushing myself to the limit and attempting challenges that make me wonder whether I can actually do them. I like the solitude of running in the middle of nowhere and the adventure that comes with it. It makes me feel free, independent and it gives me time to think and relax. I like who I am when I run, and it helps with other challenges in life too.
Running makes me feel positive and I always remember that before I get ready to go out for a run. Motivation is rarely a problem for me when it comes to running. I just love going out. Sticking to good nutrition and doing my strength training are different stories however – that’s more difficult to motivate myself for but I always remind myself that both of them help with the running which seems to work.
I am not really a big techy person or into my kit. If I could, I would just go out with a pair of shorts, a t-shirt and my running shoes. However, on the long runs, of course I have to rely on good kit – my rucksacks, my trail running shoes and I quite like running with poles as well.
Touch wood – I haven’t really suffered with many injuries. On the longer runs, I have struggled sometimes with a blown-up knee and a blown-up ankle and some shin splits but a bit of rest normally sorts this out after the race. I had a terribly swollen foot during the Race Across Scotland and was in quite a lot of pain at the end. I just ran through it – with ‘only’ 20 miles to go, nothing was going to stop me from finishing that race. Weirdly, on the last 6 miles, I found energy again and sped up, running for the whole last six miles! Not sure how I managed to switch off from the pain, but I was so sleep deprived by then, I didn’t really think straight anymore. I did struggle for quite some time afterwards with my ankle. We spent a week on the Isle of Skye, and I was getting worried about a stress fracture. So, we went to the hospital and there was this embarrassing moment when I had to explain to the doctor why my foot was hurting, and I had to say that I ran 215 miles across Scotland – he just looked at me and laughed… I am not sure he believed me!
I do follow Kilian Jornet and Emilie Forsberg, as well as Nicky Spinks, Jasmin Paris and John Kelly. They are all inspiring individuals. It’s my fellow ultra-runners I meet at the races that really inspire me – they are always friendly and welcoming, and it is such a small community. It is amazing to hear what challenges people do and how many miles they fit in on top of busy jobs and family life. Your blog is helping with this – thank you so much – I love reading about the other runners.
Having said this, I also think it is important to do your own thing and not compare yourself too much. We all have different goals, motivations and abilities and it is just lovely to enjoy the countryside and some physical activity. That’s what I love about the races. Of course, at the front people are competitive, but in the middle and back it is more about finishing the race within cut off times and having some fun.
I am currently in the middle of the GB Ultras Virtual JOGLE – 825 miles in 13 weeks. It is a good challenge and will keep me motivated through lockdown. I am documenting this on my blog – ultrarunultramind.com.
All my races were cancelled this year – I did the Green Man Ultra and that was it. I was due to do the GB Ultras 100 miler Grandslam (four 100 milers throughout the year) plus the Butcombe Ultra 56 and the Chiltern Wonderland 50. This was all supposed to be preparation for the Spine Race 2021. I am really looking forward to the Spine – I can’t believe I have a space for this, and I am currently preparing all the kit and checkpoints. I cannot wait – despite the gruelling conditions and the epic challenge, I cannot wait to go on this adventure.
In the future, I would love to also run the Tour de Geants – that looks like an amazing race. Beyond that, I haven’t really thought about it. I normally give myself some time and then I find a race that makes my heart race and I just know that I need to sign up for it…