THERE are those who love, simply, to be among mountains – to stand in their thrall and be enveloped by landscape. There are also those who prefer to tackle the various challenges these wild places can present head on. Then there are those who will stretch every fibre of their being to get to the top of their chosen peak as quickly as possible, right before throwing caution to the lofty wind and hurtling right back down again.
Tom Owens is all of the above.
Whether it be in Australia, Austria or Arrochar, the 34-year-old British international mountain and trail runner is never happier than when he is picking his way over uneven, challenging ground in the shadow of some the finest sights to be seen on the planet.
As an aspiring ‘football-obsessed’ goalkeeper in his youth, little did the Londoner who is now based in Glasgow suspect that he’d ultimately end up getting his sporting kicks from climbing, traversing and descending some of the most difficult routes imaginable across the globe. At high speed.
But that is precisely what has happened – the key turning point coming when he won a ballot place to take part in the London Marathon at the age of 23 and was then persuaded by his university friend (fellow international mountain runner Andy Symonds) to race up and down Snowdon in 2004. ‘It was the hardest thing I’d ever done but I was hooked on the sport.’
Even just reading his race itinerary for this year brings a certain shortness of breath. Owens has raced 23 times in total in 2015. ‘Two cross countries, 10 fell races, two vertical km races (for training!), two mountain ultras and seven Sky Races,’ he says. ‘From 30-minute blasts to 8 hour 30 min ultras. What a season!’
That season included the World Ultra Trail Championships, raced over 85km by Lake Annecy in France back in May – where he just missed out on a personal podium spot, finishing fourth, but helped a strong Great Britain line-up to a team bronze. There was also the small matter of a sixth-place finish in the World Skyrunning Series.
As he assesses the achievements of the past few months, there is clearly a great deal of pride but you get the impression Owens won’t be dwelling on what has gone on before for too long. As part of Salomon Running’s international line-up, already there is a new schedule to plan and new adventures to be had. Variety is very much the spice of his running life.
‘I love the adventure that hill/mountain running allows me and exploring different areas,’ says Owens. ‘Training in the hills and on trails can be extremely peaceful and calming and moving light and fast gives the opportunity to explore large areas very efficiently.
‘It would be good to experience another big world championships event (in 2016) but the main motivation for me will be to explore new areas and events. It’s also important that the races I do are against a high level of competition – I like to test and push myself!
‘I had a very ambitious race calender this year. My targets were the World Skyrunning series and the World Ultra Trail Championships. I managed to win the Scottish Hill Running Championships too (Owens is a member of Shettleston Harriers athletics club in Glasgow).
‘My year started with a Hong Kong Skyrace in February and finished with an Italian Skyrace at the end of October. In between, I was lucky enough to be able to take a summer work sabbatical and spent a big chunk of time in Europe – predominantly based in the Italian Dolomites and Alps.
‘Earlier this year it was also very special to visit the Victorian Alps, Australia and run the Buffalo Stampede 75km Skyultra in April in preparation for the World Ultra Trail Championships. It was a real adventure travelling to the other side of the world and testing myself on a fast, dry course and spending a week exploring the area after the race.’
Having the ceiling of the world as your playground is an experience which more and more competitors are showing a healthy appetite for. The current rise of Skyrunning – a sport which is more at home in the highest peaks but which is beginning to make its presence felt in the UK – is testament to that.
‘In the last few years there’s been a boom in these types of races,’ adds Owens, an Environmental Advisor/Ecologist who works as a Contractor for Scottish Water. ‘Social media has helped showcase and market events, therefore more people can see the different running adventures available and how easy it is to get involved.
‘Prestigious races fill up quickly and now there are bigger entry fees and the number of new events is continuing to grow. As these events are usually marked and do not involve navigation, unlike most UK fell/ hill races, they are probably less intimidating to beginners and therefore more people want to try.
‘There is more sponsorship and more opportunities available, including invitations to races and prize money. There are a growing number of young professional runners who purely focus on sky, ultra and trail races and we’ll see more of this in the future.’
He may be revelling in his worldwide adventures, but Owens is not about to forget his UK roots, however. Ask him his favourite training ground and there is no hesitation when he says: ‘The Arrochar Alps – four Munros very close to Glasgow. The climbs are brilliantly steep, the terrain is tough, there’s great variety (I never seem to take the same route twice) and a guaranteed excellent workout.’
It also gladdens his heart that, while so much else is changing, much of Britain’s more traditional and authentic offroad events are much the same as they ever were.
‘In the UK hill/ fell races still haven’t changed much,’ he says. ‘There has maybe been a small increase in competitor numbers but they are still brilliantly grassroots and uncommercial with low entry fees, no or small prizes and usually no route markings. However the level of competition in the UK fells is still extremely high.
‘There’s a great hill running scene in Scotland, too. There are heaps of classic races, many of which I still haven’t tried. I was really chuffed to manage to fit in quite a few Scottish hill races this year and win the championship.’
Regardless of which event, or part of the planet, he finds himself in, Owens knows his mental approach has to be just right. With so much to think about, particularly during races which can last as long as most people’s average working day, he likes to keep things simple.
‘The races are really tough and it is inevitable that there are low points and doubts during all the events,’ he admits. ‘For me it’s really important to stay positive and focus on the moment and myself rather than negatives and what other people are doing. Things can change very quickly and its likely that most other folk in the races are suffering as much, if not more, than myself. A “never give up” attitude comes in handy – especially as races often end with a big descent.’
And even if things haven’t quite gone to plan on race day, there is the consolation that there is always a friendly face at the finish line.
‘There is a really strong camaraderie in all the forms of hill/ mountain running,’ says Owens. ‘The sport attracts people who have a love of the outdoors and challenging themselves – it’s a brilliant community in the UK and globally. Socially it’s a fantastic sport to be involved in.’
- You can follow Tom’s adventures on:
- More of Jordi Saragossa’s photographic work can be seen on his Facebook page here: Jordi Saragossa photography