The Extra Mile: International ultra marathon runners Marco Consani and Debbie Martin-Consani

MARCO CONSANI and Debbie Martin-Consani are not your average married couple. They are most certainly not your average athletes, either.

To many, the challenges they set themselves (and, more often than not, conquer) equate to nothing short of jaw-dropping feats of human endurance. For both husband and wife, however, pushing the boundaries ever further is simply what comes naturally.

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Marco insists he has only really been a runner since around 2003, while Debbie was ‘only ever going to do one 10k’. One simply wasn’t enough, though, and every race entered brought with it a widening of the running horizons.

By the time pretty much every conventional road racing box had been ticked (both are members of Garscube athletics club in Glasgow), it only made sense to see what else was out there. Now both have numerous ultra marathon distance titles to their name – as well as Scotland and Great Britain international vests sitting amongst the piles of running gear which fill up a large part of their house.

To give yourself a rough idea of what it might take to do what they do, picture yourself at the start line of a race. Now imagine the finish is 100 miles away – and that some of the fiercest, most challenging mountain trails Britain can offer lie in between.

Or imagine you are on an athletics track and the race you are competing in lasts for a day. That’s right, 24 whole hours. Running around a track. And the only change of scenery comes every few hours… when you get to change direction.

Courage and incredible levels of staying power are a given. But, over such lengthy distances which involve so much time on your feet, it’s the mental reserves which play arguably the most vital role. For Debbie and Marco, there’s also the small matter of combining all of this with successful full-time careers and bringing up their six-year-old son Cairn.

Speaking to them both, though, it’s clear they are in their element.

‘I was only ever going to do one 10k – the women’s 10k in Glasgow – and that was a big thing for me,’ says Debbie, who recently finished fifth lady at Spartathlon, an endurance race of properly epic proportions over 153 miles in Greece. ‘Once I’d done the 10k, I had to do the Glasgow half marathon, because that’s obviously a progression.

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‘Then came the London marathon – I did my first marathon in 2004 and I think I did London four years in a row. Then I stumbled across the website for the Devil o’ the Highlands (a 43-mile ultra marathon which follows the West Highland way in Scotland from Tyndrum to Fort William), and I just thought it would be a natural kind of jump up from the marathon.

‘I wildly underestimated it but I think I got the ultra bug. It suits me better  –  I’m better at endurance than I am at speed .’

‘Normally most of the things I ever do is Debbie saying: “What about this?” in an email,’ grins Marco, whose ‘Devil’s’ debut came in 2007. ‘And I’ll think: “Oh, I’m scared to open this email, what the hell is this?”.

‘I had only done half marathons and then Debbie talked me into doing a marathon. She bought me a 3-hour marathon book and I ran 2:48 so I did quite well. But, afterwards, I thought: “Is that it? Is there something else?”.

‘This time I opened the email and it was the Devil o’ the Highlands and I thought: “Oh, Jesus Christ”.

‘I think I did one training run on the West Highland Way. At that time, we’d worked out Debbie was around three quarters of an hour slower than me for a marathon and we came up with a plan where I would drop her off at Glencoe, drive to Fort William, get a bus back and then try and catch her after 1 hour and a half/2 hours. So I absolutely gunned it and, halfway through, completely blew up! It was around 18 miles, maybe a bit more, and I remember thinking: “How the hell am I going to run 43 miles?”.

‘Come race day, however you feel very different, though. After 18 miles of the race, I was in the lead, then I blew up again! I fell back to about 10th place and began to think “well, just finish it”. But I started catching everyone up so then I started to think “oh, actually maybe I do have endurance as long as you’re not stupid”. I took me an additional five years to know that…’

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Picture courtesy of Thomas Loehndorf

 

Marco’s Greatest hits

  • Part of the Great Britain team which won 24-hour World and European championships Gold in Turin 2015
  • Part of the Scotland team which won the Anglo Celtic Plate in 2013 
  • Has won Lakeland 100, Tooting 24-hour, Winner Winter 100, Crawley 12-hour (145km), and Ultima Frontera 83km races
  • Record holder for Glasgow to Edinburgh 55-mile race (6 hrs 19 mins 35 secs)

Both Debbie and Marco have since excelled at the Devil’s sister race, The Highland Fling, as well as the full West Highland Way foot race. Both, however, came at ultra racing with very different approaches.

Speed was always of the essence for Marco in road races, so it made sense to him to try and replicate that strategy on the trails. Debbie, on the other hand, would never waver from consistent pacing. It is that approach which has paid such big dividends for her – and one that set a useful, not to mention inspirational, example for her husband.

‘I always thought the way I went from road racing to ultras was far harder than the way Debbie did it,’ says Marco. ‘She was used to being very head screwed on and “this is the pace I need to do the entire time. Some guy’s overtaken me? Doesn’t matter, I’ll catch him later”. She knew her strength was this endurance whereas I had endurance but I also had the speed where I would try and catch people. I wasn’t bad at road running so I was always racing it from day one.

‘It took me a long time to get it right and Debbie was getting it right before me. I kept getting injured and, by that point, Debbie had a GB vest and I remember thinking to myself that I was maybe better off just supporting her at these events, because it was tough – I would get it right, then get injured, get it right, then get injured.

‘When we had first started ultras I had been the one who was getting the better times and winning things but now Debbie had international vests. I said to myself: “You need to do better”. It wasn’t a case of all of a sudden becoming competitive with my wife. I wasn’t being resentful – I started looking at what other runners that were doing better than me were doing.

‘If you said to me now “I want to do ultras” I would say: “Come and support, come and watch one”. I never watched any ultras until I ran them – it’s not like you go and buy a book and then go “right, this is how I do it”.’

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Debbie’s Greatest hits

  • Has represented Great Britain at the World 24-hour Championships since 2012
  • Scottish record holder for 12 hours (80 miles) and 100 miles (15hours 48mins)
  • Has won Grand Union Canal 145 miles (outright winner), Devil o’ the Highlands, Lakeland 100, Thames Path 100 and White Rose 60 races

The challenge of getting a race just right is only part of what keeps both of them coming back for more. It’s difficult to fully appreciate just how much an ultra can take out of your body, so there has to be a fundamental love of the sport behind repeatedly testing yourself to such extremes. Also, as Debbie points out, a good incentive can come in pretty handy, too.

The UTMB – Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc (it does exactly what it says on the tin) – is a race which has long been in her sights but, to get into next year’s event, a certain number of qualifying points had to be reached in advance.

The fact she was still short of the required tally meant lacing up her shoes just days after crossing the Spartathlon finishing line, to take on the White Rose 60 (that’s exactly what you think it is too) in Yorkshire.

But desire can do remarkable things. Which is why, when she was hit by a car 37 miles into the race, Debbie quickly assessed the damage, got up and promptly ran the remaining 23 to finish fifth (first female).

‘You’ve got to have a reason to do it,’ she says. ‘Some people want to finsh a 24-hour race, for example and I was lucky that when I ran my first 24-hour, I ran for Scotland. I’ve never run a 24-hour event in an open race because I’ve run for Scotland once and for GB three times. So my incentive was that I was part of a team, I was representing my country, so there wasn’t an option.

‘For me, it’s about pushing boundaries and finding new ways to challenge myself. I think most ultra runners are guilty of that and, by default, have pretty addictive personalities.
‘For me, there’s always something out there and a whole range of bucket list races and I like to tick my way through them. But I like to do things that scare me, I like to choose one big ‘A race’ a year that scares me and is going to challenge me so I suppose going back for more is me pushing myself a little bit more.’

She adds: ‘I don’t think I’ve ever felt the same in any race. They say in an ultra that if you’re feeling good at any point not to worry about it because it won’t last. And it’s true because you have so many ups and downs.  Last year when I won the Lakeland I was adamant I was pulling out after 7 or 8 miles because the heat was just excruciating.

‘I was convinced I wanted to pull out at the first checkpoint but the only reason I didn’t was because I didn’t want to be that first person to drop out. For the first few hours I think it was hitting 30 degrees and there were some really big climbs.

‘But I absolutely loved the night section because it was really cool. Then the morning was really warm and the last 10, 20 miles I really enjoyed because it cooled down again – it really does come in waves. The worst point in that race for me was the first 10 miles.
‘There are so many bits where you are going to think “I don’t want to do this anymore” but, again, it depends of what you want to achieve from a race.’

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Debbie and Marco have certainly achieved plenty from the races they have selected and both point out how crucial the support crew can be in realising ultra ambitions. From letting the competitor know where they are in the field, to practically having to force feed  them at times, the tasks of a supporter are many and varied. A tactical kick up the behind sometimes works wonders, too, as it turns out.

Both have supported each other on many occasions and now know instinctively when to play the right mind games.

‘Debbie knows when to push me,’ says Marco. ‘I did the Glasgow to Edinburgh race (last year) and for the first half I was running together with another guy and going a little bit faster than I should have been. We got to Falkirk and I started to pull away but, at around 40 miles, I could feel that first half in my legs.

‘It was at that point Debbie said to me “I’ve tweeted to say you’ve broken the race record and I’ve tweeted your sponsors to tell them too”. I said: “You’ve done what?”. By this time I had relaxed – I was way ahead and had thought “oh I’ll be fine now”. But then Debbie told me she’d done that (she had, of course, done nothing of the sort).

‘Those last 10 miles were horrendous but I think I broke the record by about 2 minutes in the end.’

‘You know how some people tick and, as a long distance runner, you know what can work,’ says Debbie. ‘I think there’s only so much nicey nicey you can do. There is a lot of emotion in ultra running. It does completely strip you bare.

‘Mentally, physically and emotionally…it’s like trying to deal with someone who is crying and drunk sometimes. There’s no rationale, there’s no talking to people – you can be as nice as you want to be but sometimes you’ve got to be cruel to be kind. There are times when you need to put your foot down because it does completely strip you bare.’

 

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Picture courtesy of Thomas Loehndorf

Not surprisingly, there are big plans in the offing for 2016.

For Debbie, the aforementioned UTMB lies in wait, while the Spartathlon experience has whetted her appetite for a crack at the notorious Badwater Ultramarathon, described as ‘the world’s toughest foot race’ which takes place over 135 miles in Death Valley in California.

For Marco he has designs on his own Spartathlon attempt. ‘You’ll notice all the races I do, he wants to do the year after,’ jokes Debbie. But, first, comes the task of qualifying for a spot on the British 24-hour team again. With that in mind, his pre-Christmas treat is the Barcelona 24.

‘When you’ve done a good race and you’ve achieved your goal…that feeling is brilliant,’ says Marco.

‘I still think I’ve got a lot to give, says Debbie. ‘I don’t think my training is as structured as it could be. I don’t think I’ve got my balance right because sometimes I do burn out. You never quite know if you’ve got the balance right but that’s part of the fun too.’

Where these two are concerned, it really does seem that anything is possible.

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