Emma Roca: A Force Of Nature
Emma Roca rules. It’s as simple as that. The term ‘super mom’ is bandied about a lot these days but in Emma you’ll find the real deal; in fact, the term doesn’t do her justice. Duathlons, triathlons, adventure races—in which she’s won world championships—and ultras are just a few of her sporting achievements. She’s a firefighter, has a Master’s degree in biochemistry, is an author, is currently studying the effects of running ultras on elites, and is a mother of three. She’s also one of the coolest, most inspiring people you could ever have the pleasure of speaking with. I talked with the bonafide Catalan legend to find out what makes her tick.
iRunFar: Emma, you’re incredibly passionate about the mountains. When did you first feel this connection to nature? Were you introduced to it by your parents or was it a self-discovery?
Emma Roca: My parents have a house in the Catalan Pyrenees in Tregurà, two hours from Barcelona. It was from there that I first had a little direct contact with nature almost every weekend and I loved it, especially because I was living in the city the rest of the time. I remember when I was small I would go walk, play, investigate, and look for frogs, insects, and other creatures. I would make up stories about hidden treasures and I just loved to breathe, feel, and experience every corner of the mountain. My father was always into sport, especially trekking, skiing, and mountain biking. He even tried paragliding later on. Without them really trying to, or forcing me, I just copied them. It was completely natural for me. At 16 I bought my first paraglider, then came the bicycles, running shoes, soccer ball, basketball, tennis… everything!
iRunFar: You were born in Barcelona, right? What kind of child were you? Have you always been energetic?
Roca: Yes, I was born in Barcelona, and I loved to do everything. I constantly wanted to sign up for new activities, learn new sports, and was very active. Since I studied well and did well in school, it didn’t cause any problems at home if I wanted to do a thousand different activities after school. I even played as a goalkeeper for a soccer team for a while!
iRunFar: Cool. So what’s your earliest memory? What stands out?
Roca: My earliest memories are with my brother, Adrià, who is two years younger than me. We are playing together in the house in the mountains, or playing with the pet animals that my parents always had at home–one or two dogs, two or three cats–or jumping over the sofas in our house in Barcelona, like an obstacle course. I’ve always loved animals since I was small and have been passionate about them ever since. When I was seven years old I was would milk the cow that the farmer had in Tregurà every morning. It was a half-hour walk to get there and another half to return with one-and-half litres of fresh milk from the cow, still warm. We would then boil it… that smell of pure milk cream still evokes memories of my childhood for me.
iRunFar: That sounds great. To be a successful athlete like yourself, you have to be downright competitive, too. When did your competitive side first show itself? Have you always been a competitive person?
Roca: Yeah, since I was a kid, I have always been very competitive, especially with myself. I demanded that I did things as well as possible. At home, I would never want any congratulations if I did something good. I would always think that I could have done it better. My father was very demanding with his work and I definitely inherited that ability for work and self-improvement. My mother, too, she was very decisive and learned to find solutions for everything. I remember at school each year they had a mini-Olympics and by the time I was seven or eight years old, I was taking part in a wide variety of different sports. I always played with my classmates out in the school yard and through that I learned to master a lot of different sports. I always found it pretty easy to adapt to a new sport and improve quite quickly. Once college started, I was competing seriously in triathlons, duathlons, and mountain marathons. By the time I was 19 or 20, I was competing seriously and, since then, every year of my life has been full of all kinds of races.
iRunFar: Awesome. You have a biochemistry degree, Emma. Education has been an important part of your life. Tell me about your school days from early years to university? Have you always been able to successfully separate study time and daydreaming about the wilderness?
Roca: I always liked to study. I could learn things easily and got good grades through hard work. At times, though, it was more challenging and I struggled a lot. I really think studying combined well with all the sports I was doing. From an early age I found a great balance between body and mind. When I started college I wanted to study the thing that fascinated me the most—the human body—but from a more mobile, more cellular, more atomic angle… It fascinated me to know more about the chemistry inside the body, how the body reacted in different situations. Then, at 40 years of age, I could begin the thesis that I have always dreamed of—to study the effect of sport, specifically ultrarunning, on health at the biochemical, metabolic, physiological, cardiac, immune-system, and hormonal level. Finding out what’s good, what’s bad, and what we need to do to be as healthy as possible. We are discovering spectacular things!
iRunFar: Brilliant, let’s talk more about that later. Your bother, Adrià, has he helped you or influenced you as a mountain athlete or in other ways?
Roca: Adrià has never really done sports—but he’s very smart and graduated in mechanical engineering. I’ve always been amazed by his ability to disassemble and assemble machines, equipment, or any other home appliance. When he was only four or five years old he removed, repaired, and replaced a shower hose that didn’t work! I know that if he had became involved with sports, he would have been a great athlete because he has never put on weight and is in good shape. We’ve always gotten on, and although we are very different characters, we’ve shared a childhood together that I remember fondly. He’s always encouraged me to know and learn more about everything, to challenge myself everyday, and to be kind and affectionate. I believe having siblings is so fortunate.
iRunFar: What about your parents? What’s the most important thing you have learned from them?
Roca: Having to work to achieve your goals, that you don’t get things for nothing, and that everyone has to build a future for themselves. They have given me great values like working, battling, respect, and perseverance. They have not been outwardly loving but, inside, have loved me more than anyone in the world. They’ve also never, never clipped my wings if I ever really wanted to do something. For example, when, in the middle of my biochemistry degree, I told them I wanted to become a professional firefighter—I finished college, I finished my Master’s of biochemistry, and joined the group of professional firefighters. Although they disliked it, they supported me and they saw that I was happy. I went in 2000, I was the fourth firefighter in, and for five years now I’ve been a part of the rescue team for special activities, a mountain specialist within the fire department. We do rescues by foot, car, or helicopter—missing people in rugged mountains, avalanches, rivers, lakes ,canyons, cliffs… With this job I’ve reinforced the love for nature that I’ve had since I was a small child.
iRunFar: Tell me about your journey to ultrarunning. Like many from Spain, you started ultras from a successful career in raid adventure races but how did you start mountain sports and what are the lessons you learned along the way?
Roca: The adventure raids came into my life in 1995, with Raiverd in Catalunya, and then as part of the women’s team that participated in the Raid Gauloises Buff, and later with the Buff guys in EcoChallenge, Ecomotion, Explore Sweden, Mild Seven, and Primal Quest. The races have been a great education for me—learning to deal with all types of terrain, extreme situations, nighttime, completely unknown countries, doing all kinds of sports and activities without stopping, without resting, or sleeping much. The raids helped me to become stronger physically and mentally. They helped me to get to know myself and they especially helped me to adapt to any situation and to give everything to achieve the objective. I’ve pushed boundaries, managed fear, endured the pain, and discovered real teamwork. Then, when I began competing in ultramarathons, they’ve felt like one stage of a raid and have not been at all difficult for me to adapt them. Away from competing, I feel that the adventure raids have helped me be a better professional in the world of mountain rescues as well.
iRunFar: Sounds great. You’ve traveled the world competing, Emma, yet you still live in Spain. Has there been anywhere that has tempted you to live in another country?
Roca: The United States! It’s one of the countries where we wouldn’t mind spending a long season, especially in Colorado. Every time we’ve been there, we’ve loved the respectful people—they love sports, the mountains, and are very active! We went to Crested Butte last year for a month with the kids and we were in love!
Apart from that, New Zealand is another country that we would love to live in for a while. It’s just a shame that it’s so far! And now we both have steady jobs and young children so, for now, it’s difficult, but who knows in the future!
iRunFar: You have tried lots of different sports throughout your life. Can you see a time when you stop ultrarunning and move onto something new or have you ‘unfinished business’ in the ultra world?
Roca: At the end of my ultrarunning career, I would like to have run some of the legendary races—you can’t retire without running them! This year, for example, I’m going to do the Transalpine, which is one on my list. I’d also like to run Hardrock, Western States, and at least one race in South Africa. For now I’ll be enjoying ultras as long as my body allows me to. I’m talking about the biochemical level and heavy wear on the heart, so maybe the competitive ultra life is shorter than expected.
When I can no longer do ultras because of health, work, or time constraints, then I’d move to shorter distances where higher heart rates are over a shorter period and are less harmful. I’d also love to try some bike stage races and trail-oriented circuits. There are so many things that I want to try that sport and adventure will be in my blood forever!
iRunFar: Ha ha, great. You’ve been called a super mom as you somehow manage to juggle being a mother of three, wife, runner, lecturer, and firefighter. What did you do with all your time when you were single? Tell me about the pre-family Emma.
Roca: Yes, yes! As it says in the title of my last book, I am a non-stop woman! I squeeze the absolute maximum into my 24 hours each day and I always have many activities on the go. I define myself as an active-sports person and I’ve found an environment where most of my energy is channeled in the best possible way—being in touch with nature and making my body healthier.
Okay, let me see, when I was 18, I went on a trip with my father and his friends paragliding in Nepal. We flew several of the peaks there, paragliding, and walked between huge mountains for more than three weeks. Then I went to college in 1992… I’ve always combined study with summer work and sports activities of all kinds. I even became involved with the college softball league for two years and created a club to compete and teach!
During the years I competed in the raids, I traveled extensively throughout the world and could be away from home for up to three months. I combined my career with working as an organiser of raids just for women and training camps and adventures to teach women do well in mountain biking, guiding, rowing, running… I’ve always had a predilection to promote women’s sport, encourage women to stand up and fight so that society recognises us with the same respect as men. I’m still struggling…
iRunFar: Do you feel it has improved a lot, though, Emma, with regards to women in sport? From all the sports you have been involved in, do you think ultrarunning is amongst the fairest for women? Or how does it stand up?
Roca: The good thing about ultrarunning is that it respects men and woman as equal. Same distances, same prizes, same treatment—it’s the same with adventure raids. You don’t feel that the women are put on a lower level…The problem is that it’s often only the men’s podium that’s mentioned afterwards. It’s like we don’t exist. So there is still a way to go, especially here in Spain.
iRunFar: There has been a lot of talk about women doing so well at the long ultra races, that the genders are more equal at that distance. What’s your view of that from your study and biochemistry background?
Roca: One of the things we’re seeing is that over long distances women can approach the performance levels of men, as we are very resistant while running at a medium-level heart rate. With running, it’s important to have good leg strength; the upper-body strength is not as important. This enables women to reach a physical form that’s quite similar to men—with strong, thin legs. If the upper body was an important factor then men would have a much bigger advantage because a man’s arms, back, and abs are much stronger.
So what we are seeing is that the percentage difference between the fastest women and the fastest men are becoming smaller. Take a look at the current world records for the road marathon, [Wilson Kipsang] ran 2:03:23 and Paula Radcliffe ran 2:15:25. That’s a difference of only 9.75%—it’s very close! The same is happening in ultramarathons, as we saw in the UTMB 2013. There Xavier Thevenard ran 20:34:57 and Rory Bosio ran 22:37:26, that’s only a 9.97% difference. Having said that, it’s pretty normal to see a difference of between 15 and 20% on trail and ultramarathons. Perhaps we are closing the gap day by day, especially over long distances. It doesn’t have to be impossible on a physical, genetical, or biochemical level. After that, its all about the psychology—that’s almost the most relevant of all. We’ll see!
iRunFar: How did you meet your husband, David? I’m guessing there is a mountain involved somewhere in the story?
Roca: Ha, ha! How do you know? We met through a mutual friend, Ferran, who had worked with me as a firefighter. The following summer he worked with David, and it became clear to him that we had to meet—so he introduced us! From the first moment we saw each other there was an attraction and, since then, we have always been together. I met him at 21, this year it’ll be 20 years since we met and we are still going strong. Before starting our relationship we had a little expedition on our road bikes and mountain bikes. We had another expedition where we trekked to a peak and eventually we took a trip for several days in the Pyrenees. After all that evidence we saw that we suited each other 100%! In our daily routine we run together, we have raced together, we have been rivals. Sometimes we have trained together and we both share our passion—sport.
iRunFar: You’ve had many successes and adventures. Are there any that really stand out for whatever reason, exhilaration, fear, happiness?
Roca: I won the 2010 Raid World Championship and it was like a dream come true. It felt like I fulfilled a goal that I had for 15 years—like an end of one stage and a good time to start another. It was a very special moment. For me, though, my greatest adventure was to have three beautiful children. They fill our home with joy, they teach us so much, and are our great motivation to keep going with big and small goals. Mostly just to enjoy and share great moments with them. The moments at the births where, first, I could take the baby in my arms and then, second, to look at them face to face have been the two most intense and important moments of our lives. The happiest days I have ever lived and a completely unique experience.
Since then I always say that there are two types of women—those who have had children and those without. Neither are better or worse; they are simply different.
iRunFar: So your kids must have had some fantastic adventures with parents like yourself and David. Have they inherited the passion and drive that you have?
Roca: I hope so! We do some sports everyday and they see us leave the house everyday with running shoes, bikes, or other ‘toys’—it’s as natural as breathing for them! They are still pretty small so it can be difficult to get them to go hiking or biking but they’ll be asking sooner or later and we’ll be there by their sides. I hope they find other kids their age that they can do all kinds of sports with and go and enjoy the nature with. We’ll see… but one thing that is certain is that we watch a very small amount of TV at home and there is no way there will be any video games coming through the door!
iRunFar: Cool. As far as the world of ultras is concerned, Emma, what have been the hardest, most fulfilling experiences?
Roca: I’ve had many experiences in adventure raids. Some have been really hard—extreme cold, almost fainting from the heat, hallucinating, and imagining seeing dangerous animals or other people. I’ve fallen off my bike and felt like I’m almost dying because I haven’t slept in days. I’ve suffered from a foot infection and been unable to walk for days. I’ve broken my wrist and continued cycling while a teammate had to change gears for me! The raids have made me very tough and very resolute in extreme situations. They’ve really been a great education for me.
Mentally I found it very hard to go home shortly after giving birth to my kids and I remember crying for many nights. I breastfed my kids too, so to keep the production of milk going while I was on the adventure raids, I used to use a breast pump during the races. Then I drank the milk and always told the team it was my magic potion!
I remember one of the raids was really difficult after I had become a mother. It was the world championship in Scotland. I was fighting for the lead, hardly any sleep, extremely cold—really difficult conditions—with a tough kayak section with a lot of waves. We received a very unfair penalty that put us back to fourth place. All that when Irina was only nine months old—it affected me a lot.
iRunFar: Wow. You have seen the sport of ultrarunning grow to what it is today. How do you feel the sport has coped with becoming so popular? Is there anything that you’d like to see different?
Roca: Even today I’m amazed at the amount of people running and ultrarunning. The trend is brutal and every weekend there are thousands of races everywhere. I love that there are many people passionate about the sport and that organisers are working so hard to make their races bigger and bigger, but I worry that people do things without common sense, preparation and, sometimes, to just look good or say what they’ve done on social media. Sometimes it seems like we lose a little of the essence of why we do sport, why we run trails. Then it stops making sense. We have to remember that we move, run, and cycle because we feel alive, because it gives it so much, and because it makes us feel good, healthy, brave, and vital! Now with my thesis project, SUMMIT, I hope to open peoples’ eyes to see the dangers out there associated with ultra distances. I’m talking about if you’ve not previously had a medical checkup, a stress test, a biomechanics study. I’m talking nutritionally and making sure you’ve tried smaller distances before going and running half marathons or ultras. With the results I’d like to make sure that we’re getting people to do their homework in order to fulfill their dreams in the most healthy way possible.
iRunFar: It’s interesting that you mentioned it. I listened to you talking about ultra-athletes’ physiology last year. Can you tell me a little about it and what conclusions you came to?
Roca: With the SUMMIT (health in ultramarathons and its limits) project, we are still studying many parameters associated with long distance, but at a highly summarised level we are seeing:
- That we’re still easily dehydrated when drinking much more than 2% of our body weight during ultras—so our performance is compromised along with other biochemical parameters.
- Our right ventricle suffers during long, continuous, and intensive efforts—and that there are hearts that are poorly suited to long distance or many hours of training.
- That the role of our genes can be greatly influenced by the simple facts of having or having not trained, having eaten well, or having slept well. Not everything is written in the genes, but they have the ability to express it.
- Our immune systems struggle after ultras and we’re very vulnerable to viruses, getting colds, and generally becoming ill.
iRunFar: From your findings do you think that, as some believe, elites are running too many races at the moment and that it could have a negative effect later on with regards to injuries or other illnesses?
Roca: Yes. The heart is suffering because of the effort they are putting in over many hours. Then there is also bone decalcification—bones lose calcium and can cause osteoporosis much sooner than someone who hasn’t run as much. The studies also show that there is an increased risk of ventricular fibrillation in men, too; not women, though.
So I would tell young people to wait a while before starting to run ultras—your metabolism will thank you in the future. We’re also seeing that exercise can be more beneficial than prescriptions to prevent premature death from almost all causes like heart disease, cerebrovascular disease, hypertension, colon cancer, breast cancer, type 2 diabetes, metabolic syndrome, obesity, osteoporosis, sarcopenia, functional dependency and falls in the elderly, cognitive impairment, anxiety, and depression. This benefit is seen in both sexes and increases with the volume and intensity of exercise. You start seeing all these positive effects with only 30 minutes of exercise a day or 2.5 hours per week.
iRunFar: Wow. It seems like you are unearthing some great information there, Emma. Tell me, there seems to a crew of Catalan firefighting ultrarunners, how did that happen?
Roca: The secret of ultrarunning firefighters and police is due to the time that this work provides us—it allows us training hours, time to travel all over the world on any day of the week, and to stay in shape simply by the daily demands of work and competition. I think being a firefighter and ultrarunner complement each other perfectly. The problem comes in wanting to spend more time with the family, studies, books, business… There comes a time when you have to know how to stop. Right now I cannot find the time to hit the brakes. Gassss!