The Big Interview: Andy Symonds
He is one of the nicest men in trail running, he is British, and has one of those enviable positions as a runner who has the respect of the world’s mountain, trail and fell running community having performed at the highest level on all three surfaces…
After moving to France with his family a couple of years back Andy Symonds had been amongst the UK’s best fell runners, won the Trans Alpine Run with Tom Owens a couple of times and shown signs of ultra-trail potential with a great second place at the Cavalls del Vent race behind Miguel Heras.
He now runs for the Salomon Trail Team France, and has a big impact on the French and world trail scene in the last 18 months, fulfilling much of that ‘potential’ on some of the world’s biggest trail and mountain events in 2011/12.
Here he talks la vie, racing and thoughts on the future – and how vin rouge has (almost) taken the place of the pint in his new-found continental family lifestyle!
MST: You and your family now seem to be pretty happy residing in the south of France, no doubt you have obviously seen a few lifestyle changes since your move over there?
AS: Oui! – Just a few lifestyle changes! Where we lived before had a lot going for it, but the move over here has had positive impacts on so many fronts. The big overriding deal though has got to be have been the change in climate. We no longer spend half an hour dressing a child to go outside, followed by another half an hour cleaning up mud when we get back. My running kit, shoes and bikes just don’t get dirty anymore, just sweaty!
It’s a simple thing really, the weather, but it doesn’t half have an impact on your life, if you like the outdoors. Personally, sunshine makes me smile more! Under a blue ski, daily life is very easy and generally very enjoyable. We live in a place that many choose as a destination for their vacations, and sitting outside on the patio, at ten o’clock at night, with a glass of local vin rouge to hand, well, it means that we often feel like long-term tourists really! That said, I do miss the British beer and a good pub pie and chips with mushy peas!
MST: In terms of your racing (and training) we have seen you move gradually over to the longer races – specifically ultra trail – in France, was this a considered choice over some of the shorter more technical mountain races or enforced in by the environment and racing culture?
AS: The answer is a bit of both. At the end of the day fell running as we know it simply isn’t a French sport. It’s not on the menu of options. The concept of running straight up and down a bunch of random hills with map, compass and whistle stuffed into a bumbag leaves most French runners mumbling “errr, ben, bof, oh la la, quelle crazy idea you British people!”. Instead, le menu du jour on the off-road running front is what I’d define as pure trail running.
And it’s not because the French inherently having anything against the concept of fell running, no, it’s largely due to the terrain to hand, the abundance of forestry and the lack any right to roam laws. In fact most land in France is privately owned and you can’t just run across it willy nilly, and even if you could, in most instances the underfoot terrain or vegetation would pretty quickly put an end to your ideas of unruly exploration. No, instead you have a vast network of paths and tracks, absolutely all over the place.
Thus, what the French are into is mid to long distance trail races. Often pretty undulating, but generally fairly quick and more often than not quite long. So, in part because I wanted to integrate into the French running world, and in part because there aren’t too many other alternatives, once I’d crossed that channel I fully embraced trail running, French-style.
MST: Give us a flavour of a typical week in terms of training out there.
AS: My training very much fits around the rest of our lifestyle. We now have two young kids (1 and 3), so I never run in the evening anymore. I’ve also stopped doing double-session training days, preferring to get one decent run in rather than two shorter ones.
Less junk perhaps. Generally I try and get my sport done in the morning, using my commute, or at lunch-time. The French take their lunches seriously, so a proper break is the norm! I also find that running 50 minutes at that time is the best way of breaking up a day in the office, it gets the blood flowing and ups your energy for the afternoon.
Another significant change happened last March when my company (www.eoleres.com) offered to sponsor me, allowing me to cut my working week down to 80%. Since March last year Wednesdays have been play-days, err, I mean training days. So Wednesdays typically alternate between a good session and a very long run. Very long now means around three or four hours, sometimes more even.
Despite putting in these long runs, my mileage never gets too high, I try and maintain some quality, at least one session per week, something like six 1-kilometre reps or a set of 3-minute hill reps. Another good one is 10 × 5mins, with 2-minute recoveries. Starting at the bottom of Ventoux that session will have you finish on the top, with a 1-hour jog-down recovery!
MST: When it comes to running and racing culture, how does the French scene compare to say the UK fell running scene?
AS: It’s a totally different world. Trail running is just mega over here. Every weekend there are several marathon-distance trail races taking place all over France. All of the big races, with fields of around a thousand, sell out months in advance. Covering the sport there are half a dozen well read glossy magazines and the business of trail running gear is totally thriving. To give you an idea, in addition to Salomon, also Adidas, Asics, Lafuma, Decathlon, and a bunch of sports companies you probably have never heard of each sponsor teams of 5 or 6 runners. Perhaps the top hundred or so trail runners in France belong to sponsored teams.
MST: You seem to have slotted very nicely into the Team Salomon France set-up too, you presumably get on very well with the guys there?
AS: Yeah, they’re a great bunch. Last month we were over in Hong Kong together for a week. We had five days to see the sites, a day for the 100km race and then a day to party afterwards. We had a good time over there and really got to know each other. The other guys tend to do longer races than me though, especially Julien (Chorier), who says he only warms up after the first 80km of a race!
MST: 2012 was a pretty successful year for you, will we see you undertaking a similar programme of races in 2013?
AS: I’ve decided to try and cut back the volume and distance of my races in 2013. This year I probably slightly overdid it, with 17 races, covering a distance of 824km in total. The plan is to go for slightly speedier races next year, limiting myself to the marathon distance at the longest. The targets will be the French National Cup (which I won this year) as well as the “normal” distance SkyRace series, SKY. I’ll aim not to do more than about 10 races in total so as to remain as fresh as poss right through the season. In 2014 however, I think I might go proper long…
MST: And how about your mid to long term future, do you see this in France, or will we see a move back to the UK at some point?
AS: As I type it’s hard to envisage a long-term future anywhere other than in the south of France. I really don’t see us back in the UK in the immediate future, if ever, but I wouldn’t rule out us wanting a change later on, and then possibly moving on to a totally different part of the world. Who knows… In any case, I will have to pop back to the UK for a fell race and a pint sometime soonish, and to show the kids their northern roots…