The Fells Favourite Son: An Interview With Ricky Lightfoot
Ricky Lightfoot’s journey into fell running began when the local school caretaker asked if anyone was interested in giving a fell race a try. It was the start of a wild adventure that has seen Ricky become a legend of the sport, a world champion, and a member of the prestigious Salomon team. I chatted with Ricky and got the lowdown on his time in the sport and his favourite moments so far.
iRunFar: Ricky, tell me a little about where you grew up in the U.K.
Ricky Lightfoot: I grew up in Maryport, a small town on the west coast of Cumbria [England], next to the sea.
iRunFar: Were you into adventure and sports as a kid?
Lightfoot: I always was into some sort of sport—mainly football up until I was 12 or 13 years old. I always liked to explore as a kid and quite often went and explored in the local woods near my house.
iRunFar: What are your earliest memories from your childhood?
Lightfoot: …Sitting on the back garden with cousins in summer with my pet rabbit, Flopsy. Trips to Blackpool [a famous English seaside town] and the beach with my mum and dad… riding the donkeys along the beach.
iRunFar: What about the hills and mountains? Did that passion come from your parents or where did you first develop a passion for the mountains?
Lightfoot: My dad has always been a keen footballer but Mum and Dad didn’t have a car when I was younger so we didn’t venture into the Lakes [the Lake District] much. My dad finally took up driving at the age of 54 and passed his test two years ago! However, my passion for the outdoors has been from a young age—playing out with friends.
My love of the mountains didn’t develop until I was 14. It wasn’t until then that I tried my first fell race, our school site manager and caretaker Brian Taylor would come around at lunchtime and ask if anybody wanted to come try a fell race. Me and a few others took up the offer. That first race I did, I went off course but didn’t let this put me off. I was hooked! My dad and Granda would come to all my races. This was great for them, too, as it took them to places they’d never been before.
iRunFar: Sweet. Is that when you discovered your competitiveness? Or is that something that you always had?
Lightfoot: I have been competitive from an early age but it developed more as I got into fell running. I guess it was the buzz of winning—not that I ever won a lot as a teenager! As I began to train, when I was about 16, with Brian, we built up a rivalry which went on for years. I still train with Brian to this day, ever since he asked me to that first fell race.
iRunFar: That’s really cool that you and he still hit the hills together. What was your initial impression of fell running?
Lightfoot: My first thought once I had fell running explained to me was cross country over hills. It lived up to all expectations. Mud, hills, rivers, and the competitiveness.
iRunFar: For the U.S. audience, can you explain a little more about fell running and how it differs from trail running?
Lightfoot: In a nutshell, fell running is basically the quickest route to the summit and back regardless of terrain or paths. There are no flags and in most of the races there are checkpoints which you have to go through, whether that be a summit cairn, gate, or sheepfold. Runners have to carry a full-body cover, food, map, and compass—in the case of adverse weather you have to be able to navigate, too.
iRunFar: Okay, great. Did you have any guys that you looked up to back then, that inspired you to become the athlete you are today?
Lightfoot: In the beginning when I first started running at 14, I didn’t know much about the sport. As I raced more, just local races, my knowledge of the sport grew and I began to know who was who. I joined local club CFR [Cumberland Fell Runners] as a junior and competed in their junior league. Early on I didn’t really have idols as such, but I did always look up to Brian. Once I heard you could represent your country, that became my main focus, to get an England vest. I was always envious of those boys who had represented their country.
I remember when I was 16, the year of the foot-mouth disease outbreak, there was a trial race at Rivington Pike; it was the trial for the U16 England Team for the Home Countries International in Ireland. It was one of my first races out of Cumbria. My friend, Chris Hindmoor, who was a year my senior, had just passed his driving test and his grandma had bought him a H-registered 1990 model MK2 Ford Fiesta in black. This was to be his first real drive on the motorway. Just think of the most basic car you’ve ever seen! The faster it went the more it shook.
I was already nervous the week before the race so once we got down there and race day came it was unbearable. I registered and got to have a quick look at the course, it was short, 20 minutes if that. What didn’t help was all the runners looked really good, jumping around, stretching in club tracksuits! This made the nerves worse. I rocked up in my gym shorts, football socks, and Reebok fell shoes which I had been given. I thought, Why did I turn up? I said to Hiney, “C’mon, let’s go!” He persuaded me to stay and give it a go.
We lined up and the gun went. The next 20 minutes is a blur, and all I remember is crossing the line in fourth! I was over the moon with that. Never would I have thought I’d have came fourth and got my first England vest! Hiney never ran that day. He would come and support me. It makes a big difference when you hear someone shout your name, gives you a boost! For years after, Hiney would always come to support. I remember on the way home on the motorway, with emotions high, his car did 110 miles per hour. It shook us so hard that we were still shaking when we got out. Looking back now I don’t know how the hell it went that fast and didn’t fall to bits!
iRunFar: So that’s when you first realised that you could mix it with the top guys?
Lightfoot: Yeah, in the beginning running was just a way to keep fit. I enjoyed pushing my body to see how fast and hard it could go. As time went by and I began to train properly, under the watchful eye of Brian Taylor, I wanted to win. I was never the best junior runner. There was always someone who turned up and was better than me but I feel as a junior I was consistent. I would always turn up for training sessions despite the weather. I just loved to be outdoors, whether it was running, biking, or walking.
There was always a good group of us who trained locally. First there were some of the lads from my year in school and then there were some local senior runners who would come train. I competed at school in cross country but never got to experience the English School Championships as I started running too late. I’ve never competed on the track. I just didn’t have the desire to do it; I’d rather be out on the fells. I did race once on the track at the County Champs 5,000 meters and ran 15 minutes a few years back but that’s the only time.
Early highlights were beating some of the senior runners in our group. We had some great battles. One by one I would pick them off in races until there was only Brian left to beat. This is where our battles started and it was always nip and tuck between who would win. I loved the long training days with the rest of the lads when I was younger. Now it’s difficult to get out with them as my work shifts are constantly changing. I do still meet up with them when I can and we go and race together.
iRunFar: So you’re a fireman working shifts, like you mentioned. Do you find the job suits you, training-wise?
Lightfoot: My shifts are two days on, two nights on, and four days off, so this gives me plenty time to train. I also get the opportunity to train at work as we do have a treadmill.
iRunFar: Sounds good. So apart from running and firefighting, what other passions do you have?
Lightfoot: I love to hang out with the family, especially after our new arrival Isobelle who’s just turned eight months old. I use the gym, CrossFit, and I have a road bike and mountain bike. I do like to restore old furniture, too.
iRunFar: It sounds like all that will keep your hands full! Last year you won the IAU Trail World Championships which was held in Wales. Can you tell me about the experience?
Lightfoot: The World Trail Champs was a great experience. I set out at the beginning of the year wanting just to qualify for the Great Britain team. I had two ultras under my belt which were pretty low key with regards to the competition. The trial race [to try for a place on the team] was held at the Highland Fling in Scotland, a 53-mile race from Glasgow to Tyndrum following the West Highland Way Route. I had trained well for it, probably not enough long stuff, if I’m honest. The ultra races were still all about learning what works for me then and they still are now. I find with every ultra I do, I learn something new.
Anyways, I rocked up the night before and stayed at my mate’s flat, Tom Owens. With him being injured, he along with Casey Morgans had kindly offered to support me during the race. It started just as the sun rose about 6 a.m. I set off steady for the first few miles. The pace felt easy so I pushed a little and opened up a small lead. This continued until I built up a 10-minute lead. Unfortunately at 40 miles in, my legs began to fall to bits. I felt relatively fine in myself but my legs began to struggle. I was caught by 46 miles and walked and jogged to the finish. I finished runner up four minutes behind the winner and we were both under the course record which was one of my goals before the start. This qualified me for a place on the team.
Again, that was my main aim, to get a Great Britain vest. I was going to Wales and the Trail World Championships to just enjoy the experience.
iRunFar: Cool. You had no idea that you could pull off a victory?
Lightfoot: No, I never thought I’d win! Although I qualified for the world championships, I never actually got the day off work until the Thursday before the race. So I traveled down Thursday, had Friday off, raced Saturday, and went back home for work on Sunday! I was ill on the Friday before the race—I had a migraine and had to leave the press conference and miss the chance to have a look at the course. I spent the afternoon being sick in bed. By that Friday night, I had sort of come ’round but still wasn’t feeling great. Race day came and I felt fine. I wasn’t nervous as I had no expectations. We lined up and got underway, adrenaline kicked in, and I went straight to the front. I didn’t run hard but pushed the pace from the start to see who was ‘racing.’ A group of about six or seven developed and it stayed this way for a couple of the 15k laps.
It was a hot day in the forest but luckily there were plenty of water stations and we had good Team Great Britain support out on the course. I never did look forward to running laps in the forest but looking back, I did quite enjoy it as each lap went by. You got to know the course and the best lines. One by one the group at the front began to get smaller, until at one point with about 40k to go, there was only me and three other French guys.
iRunFar: That must have been intimidating?
Lightfoot: Yeah, I knew the French would be strong, Julien [Rancon] and the previous World Trail Champion from Connemara Erik Clavery, and the bronze medalist Patrick Bringer. I not sure if it was the way they run but the three French guys were taking turns at running hard and easing off. This would continue for the next 10 miles or so. I stuck with it and tried to keep my pace steady. We came ’round to the third lap and two of the French guys dropped off the pace so I was left with Julien.
It was at this point that he put a huge effort in on the first climb on the third lap. I stuck with him until the top and put another effort in on the rough undulating track. To my surprise I dropped him. I didn’t know if this was race tactics or if he was tired so I pushed on.
It came ’round to the last lap pretty quick. Matt Ward was there to give me an update; the gap was five minutes. It wasn’t much but at least I was pulling away. It was only then that I realised that with five miles to go that I could win this, barring any falls or my legs falling to pieces. But if my legs were going to fall apart, they would have by now, going on previous ultras. I ran past the Saw Bench check for the last time and onto the road for the final 1.5k, finishing in 5 hours, 36 minutes, 3 seconds.
It was a good race for me where everything went to plan on the day. I got some great support and was backed up well by the rest of the team which allowed us to take the men’s team race. The Great Britain women also secured a team bronze.
iRunFar: Amazing. When I interviewed your team boss, Greg Vollet, he was quite outspoken about trail running races not being held on a lapped course. The IAU route was five laps. Did he give you a hard time about that at all?
Lightfoot: No, not at all! Greg, although not agreeing with a lapped course, is fully supportive of all the Salomon athletes.
iRunFar: You sure he didn’t have a little word? Just kidding… Speaking of Salomon, you have what is almost a ‘signature shoe’ in their range, the Fellcross. How much influence have you had with the development of that?
Lightfoot: I was sort of tasked with the development along with Andy Symonds back in 2009, basically because we ran on the fells and we were both a size 9.5UK. A lot of the development in the early stages was testing heel drops, rubber density, and grip. I think it was 18 months or two years before we came up with the desired shoe. Right now I’ve got about 30 pairs of different sample Fellcross. I feel like it’s a little piece of history and can’t part with them.
iRunFar: You mentioned that you had two ultras under your belt at the time of the world championships. Your ultra debut was a 50 miler in Denmark, right? How did that come about and how were the trails in Denmark? It’s not a country known for its mountains!
Lightfoot: As it was my ultra debut, I didn’t know what to expect. I saw the course was 50 miles and 2,000 meters ascent. Two thousand meters of ascent isn’t a lot over 50 miles! The race was held on a small island called Bornholm, it seemed to be well supported across all the distances. The race, the Hammer Trail, was in only its second or third year. I think there was a 10k, marathon, 50 miles, and 100 miles. It was a Salomon-sponsored event so I was given the opportunity to go and race; initially it was the 100 miler but I settled for the 50! Surprisingly the course was quite hilly. Most of it was run on an undulating costal path with cliffs next to the sea. It was a three-lap course which started at 11 p.m. As my first ultra it was a great experience. Again there was no pressure I just went out there to try something different.
One thing that will stick with me from that trip is the travel home. My flights got cancelled so the only other way off the island was by ferry to Sweden. Two hours after finishing the race I headed for the ferry terminal. This was to be the worst journey of my life; I spent the next hour or so in the toilets!
iRunFar: How do you think skyrunning compares to the culture surrounding fell running? Is there a similarity?
Lightfoot: Skyrunning and fell running both have similarities. To me it’s likeminded people getting together to run in beautiful places. There is a lot of tradition in fell running but the recent ‘rules’ are spoiling it.
iRunFar: What rules?
Lightfoot: With the rules, it’s just the happenings of recent years. It probably comes from the recent fatalities during fell races where people are unaccounted for at the end of a race–which I totally understand. Like this week I turned up to a fell race and now it’s a rule that you have to wear a vest with your number displayed on it. No vest means disqualification. In summer I usually race with no vest and display my number on my shorts.
iRunFar: Okay, so finally, what’s planned for the rest of your season and beyond?
Lightfoot: I don’t really think too far ahead and I tend to see what opportunities life throws at me. But a couple I’ll definitely be doing are later in the season, a new Skyrunning race in the U.K. in October called the 3×3 Ultra which starts in the heart of the Lake District and runs over the three highest mountains in England. I’ll be heading over to France in late October for Les Templiers and, all going well, I’ll run TNF EC 50 Mile in San Fran in December.