15 minutes with… ultra runner Ross Jenkin

ultra runner Ross Jenkin on a rocky section in the high hills

Amy Marwick caught up with UK mountain runner Ross Jenkin last summer, talking ultra highs and lows

For Ross Jenkin, running is therapy. After becoming the first and only person to complete the UK’s Big 4 National Rounds in just one week (that’s the Bob Graham, Charlie Ramsey, Paddy Buckley and Denis Rankin Rounds, amounting to 110 hours of running, 152 summits, 400km and 32,000m of ascent), the 42-year-old ultra-runner needed a new challenge that would continue to support his mental health. We find out more…

What inspired you to take on this ultra distance challenge across Britain’s National Parks?

After the Big 4 in 2019, I was plagued with a few injuries and struggled with my mental health, but I knew I needed a new challenge: something different, interesting and that wouldn’t completely break me. I found several National Trails that seemed to fit the bill, so I collated all the information and eventually came up with 15 incredible routes, mostly National Trails, one in each of the UK’s 15 National Parks.

What does your training regimen look like?

I have a coach, Warren Renkel from Run Llangollen, and he has designed a program to try to get me in the right place for so many ultras over the year. I haven’t been doing massive distances every week – maybe 70-100km – but it’s the structure that is important. Also, with the last three or four years being dedicated to ultra training, my body is now conditioned pretty well to running a long way.

How many of the Parks have you ticked off?

I had great plans to have done six in the first three months of the year. However, due to weather and health scares, I’ve actually only done three to date: Derwent Watershed, Tabular Hills and The McWilliams Long. Next week I’m going for a pretty big one – the Norfolk Coastal Path. This will be tough for me as it’s 135km and almost completely flat. I like hills!

ultra runner Ross Jenkin profile shot, him stood on a rocky section in the high hills

Which National Park are you most excited to run through, and why?

This is very difficult to answer as the National Parks are all incredibly special places. I would say, however, that every time I think about the Pembroke Coast it sends a shiver down my spine. I’m definitely scared for this one as it is 300km with 11,000m height gain, and to get the record I need to do it in around 2.5 days.

How do you handle setbacks, like poor weather or injury?

You just have to take it as it comes. I think I have pretty good resilience to just rearrange and get on with it. As the year goes on, any postponements will get more and more difficult to reschedule, particularly as I’m trying to plan most of the routes for my days off from work (I’m a police officer). Injury will be a bugger if it happens, but I’m being really careful with that – I am not racing at all this year.

What is your fuelling strategy like during runs?

I use Voom nutrition as my fuel of choice. I can go for up to about 10 hours on little else than a few Voom bars, although I do sometimes add in a pork pie, or a slice of pizza. I try to eat about every 30 minutes and drink at least every 10-15 minutes.

I usually carry one bottle of water and one of Voom’s electrolytes drinks. Later in the day the water will be swapped out for the Voom carbohydrate drink, as I do usually struggle to get anything down after several hours of running hard. On the last one, I managed to eat a full bowl of rice pudding and at that moment nothing else would have been better! But if you eat healthily generally, your body stores a lot of extra fuel that can be used when needed. It is liquids that are important.

Any tips for aspiring ultra marathon runners looking to tackle a similar challenge?

I know it sounds cheesy but believe in yourself. As long as you have put the work in and know your craft, you can and will achieve it.

On a more practical note, practise fuelling: in your pack, keep the same things in the same pockets so you can get them instinctively.

Make sure your support team know exactly what is expected of them: do you want them to tell you to eat, drink, pee? Do you need them to keep talking or to shut up, take pictures when you look like crap or just be sympathetic? What do you respond well to? Your team is there for you, so use them. If you are going solo, think what will help you – such as listening to music, podcasts, or talking to yourself (I do this a lot) – and mix it up.

How important is mental toughness?

Mental resilience and toughness are very important. There are always setbacks, but it is important to remember your ‘why’. Why did you set out to do this in the first place? Is a record your only goal? Or is it more important to get out there and enjoy a few hours or days pushing your body and mind through something difficult?

Every long run I have ever done has had a few moments where I am in pain, miserable, and sometimes want to give up. It is important to push through and know that this will only last a short time, but the memories of your adventure last forever.

There are times when stopping is the sensible choice though, and you sometimes need someone else to help you make that decision. On my first attempt of the Big 4, I was doing the Charlie Ramsey Round and the wind was getting stronger and stronger as we approached knife-edge ridges with 500m vertical drops either side. I knew we had to stop but I really didn’t want to until one of my support runners, Pavel Cymbalista, said: “I was worrying when I would see my daughter again up there.” That was a hit of reality – it was not worth it, time to go down.

The next 15km descent back to Kinlochleven was spent mostly in tears.

ultra runner Ross Jenkin on the move on a trail through UK hills

Has running played an important role in helping to manage your mental health?

Yes, running for me is incredibly important. I was diagnosed with depression a few years ago and since then I have found solace and peace in running, particularly in the mountains. I have gone through stages where I have been way too goal-driven and the joy of running has sometimes escaped me, although the focus on the goal has kept me mentally calm.

Now, I feel that I’m in a good place with it, my time in the mountains is my therapy. Running gets me to remote places in short periods of time, which fits in with my very busy lifestyle, full-time job and family. It gives you the natural chemical highs from serotonin, adrenaline and endorphins – all enhanced by the joy of wild places, mountains and fresh air.

How important is it to have support runners join you on your latest challenge?

Support runners are important, and I welcome anyone to come along. If anyone wants to join me in any of the National Parks, they should contact me through Instagram @roscorun, whether that’s for a mile or 50 miles.

There are a few roles support runners can take: pacers – keeping me on the right pace when I have specific time goals; navigation – they will know the route and make sure I don’t go off track; mules – they will carry my stuff and feed me and give me drinks; finally just plain and simple support – they will come along for the craic and just chat, tell me stories, or ask me questions.

These can all be separate people, or it can just be one person doing all of those roles. I must make it clear though that any runners who come are wholly responsible for themselves and must have the kit and skills to keep themselves safe. Just remember one thing– I want to meet people and get to know you all!

Have you ever experienced any injuries during ultra distance runs, and how can you prevent them?

Yes, plenty. Once, in early 2022, I went to try for a sub-24-hour Charlie Ramsey Round and fell about 30km in and really screwed my knee. It was impossible to carry on and was excruciating to even walk. My support runner and I got ourselves down and managed to find a friendly van driver who got us back to base, but it could have been prevented had I done the necessary strength and conditioning work prior to setting out.

Strength and conditioning are possibly more important than actual run training. If you can only do five hours’ training a week, make one hour of it strength work. It is crucial.

What are the most important things to consider when it comes to choosing the right gear for this kind of running?

The most important thing is that they need to work for you. My Dynafit kit has got me through some horrendous situations and kept me safe. The Alpine Gore-Tex waterproof is incredible– lightweight and it works. I use the Ultra 15 pack, which I love, it’s very comfortable, and I can get all I need for up to about 50 miles in there. And the new Ultra 100 shoes are something else, so comfortable and that’s what I will be wearing on the Norfolk Coastal Path next week.

What are your three key bits of kit that you’ll never run without?

Firstly, my phone: great for photos and as a safety item with OS locate app installed to tell emergency services where I am in the event of an emergency.

Secondly, my Dynafit cap for the sun and Dynafit Beanie for the cold, and the Dynafit neck gaiter is superb for any weather. Thirdly, my Injinji Toe Socks – I have Morton’s Neuroma and it really helps to have the toes separated.

What are your future goals as a runner, and how does this challenge fit into your overall journey?

This year is all about the NPUP, but I hope to apply for the Barkley Marathons for next year – I don’t think I will get in the first time, but I will try. I would like to do the Spine, and I’m keen to do the Dragon’s Back too. This year is basically perfect training for next year!