Ever since Núria Picas broke the tape at Ultra Cavalls del Vent (now called Ultra Pirineu) in 2011, winning the first ultra that she entered in the process, she’s been a force to be reckoned with amongst the sport’s top women. After a couple of seasons battling it out on the Skyrunning circuit, more recently Núria’s trained her laser focus on the longer stuff, most notably, the Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc. I chatted with Núria about her upbringing in Catalonia, her love of the mountains, and her white-hot competitive furnace.
iRunFar: Núria, congratulations on a great season. You became the first ever winner of the Ultra-Trail World Tour, too. Can you tell me some of your high and low points from 2014?
Núria Picas: Thanks! 2014 has been a great year for me. I have competed in a lot of races at the highest level and I’ve tried to give my best each time. On the high points, I’ve been happy with my consistency, the workouts, the illusion, the resistance, and the mental strength; and the low point is the talus bone in my left heel, an injury that I’ve had for a lot of years and I’m still having certain pain with while running. Anyway, I have learned to live with this pain that accompanies me everywhere.
iRunFar: Great stuff. So, tell me a little of the area where you grew up?
Picas: Catalonia is a wonderful country for this sport, with a very important mountaineering culture and tradition. Great mountaineers have been Catalans, and we have the greatest example, Kilian Jornet, who is the number one. It’s great because we have the Pyrenees where we can ski in winter and in summer we can hike or run. We also have other ranges such as Montserrat, Montsant, and the area from the Ports that are well known for climbing and mountaineering. It is also a country full of contrasts, with the Mediterranean Sea as a backdrop and a climate that allows a wide range of possibilities.
iRunFar: Sweet. And your parents are both mountaineers, right? Tell me about your first memories of the mountains and what made them so special for the young Núria?
Picas: Yeah, I am lucky to come from a traditional mountaineer family. My father was a climber. When I was a child, I remember the climbing to Montserrat and the trips to the Pyrenees. Since I was little, my parents taught me love and respect for nature, and now this environment is where I feel most comfortable. The mountains of Montserrat saw me grow as a climber, and that is where I learned to do other sports such as caving, guidance, or mountain races.
iRunFar: Those other sports you mentioned, which do you feel has been the best education for you as a runner? What strengths and knowledge has each of those sports given you that you use in trail races?
Picas: Every sport that you practice besides running has benefits, and so does trail running to other sports. For example climbing allows me to have better strength, equilibrium, and self-esteem. Orienteering helps me to get to know the territory better and move around mountains with maps.
iRunFar: Cool. Did your dad take you to the Himalaya, too, or did I imagine reading that somewhere?
Picas: No, it didn’t really go that way. My father was part of an expedition to Makalu in the Himalaya in the 1970s, and a few years ago I visited the site and the base camp to relive all that he explained to me. Someday I would like to try an 8,000-meter peak, and why not Makalu?
iRunFar: Yeah, why not? So you plan on tackling some big mountains soon? Are we talking about speed ascents here? Would you be interested in some Kilian-style alpinism?
Picas: No, I’m not interested in records. I leave that to Kilian. :) What I’d like to do someday is to climb higher peaks with alpine style.
iRunFar: Okay. When did you progress from mountaineering to ultrarunning? It wasn’t even so long ago, right?
Picas: My career as an ultra-trail runner began in October 2011, when a work buddy convinced me to run Ultra Cavalls del Vent 83k. I not only managed to finish the race but I also won and broke the female record! It was at this moment that I became a long-distance runner. I feel very privileged to be part of this group of Catalans who are part of the world of mountain sport. From the 1980s with Kiku Soler to today with Kilian Jornet, Catalonia has been a brand through mountain races around the world thanks to our milestones in the sport. For me it is a privilege and I feel really lucky!
iRunFar: Tell me a little of your highlights and experiences before Cavalls. What kinds of adventures did you have in your pre-running career?
Picas: Before Cavalls, I had been in some mountain races but way shorter. I also had taken part in some adventure races and, especially, I used to climb a lot and practice alpinism.
iRunFar: That first race at Cavalls, how were you thinking going into that race? Was it surprising that you won or were you pretty confident that you’d do well?
Picas: I have to thank one of my friends from work who convinced me to run. He told me, “You go right behind me and you’ll see. If you follow my rhythm, I’m sure we’ll get to the finish line.” After two hours of racing, I overtook him and after running a smart race, I not only finished but also beat the record! It was such a surprise!
iRunFar: Ha ha, cool. You’re a firefighter. Tell me about firefighting—how did you get into that and make it a part of your working life?
Picas: I always say that the most important race of my life I have already won, which is being part of the Fire Department of the Generalitat of Catalonia. From there, knowing I have a secure future, I can run and race in the mountains as a hobby—more like a way of life. It is a grateful job, because it requires a special physical preparation and we are always serving the public or the environment, lending a hand. It is a job that I really love, even though I’ve taken a few months off in order to focus on my sports career. But I’m sure I’ll be back someday.
iRunFar: Right now, are you more of a full-time athlete? Tell me how it feels to be running full time as opposed to having to divide your time between firefighting and your sports?
Picas: Well, now I have more time for training, but especially for traveling and completing the world circuit where I couldn’t compete before because of my job. Now I’m more comfortable and I know I don’t have to rush to get back to work.
iRunFar: You’re the mother of young twins, too. You can be seen sharing the finish line with them at most of your races. What is it like being an athlete, firefighter, and mother? Pretty busy, I’d imagine?
Picas: I love to cross the finish line with my two sons, Arç and Roc. I think it is the best gift after many hours of effort. Those three things—work, running, and family—take a lot of time and dedication. It’s only possible when I’m able to manage time well, be a good organizer. But it’s something I have a lot of enthusiasm and passion for. The secret is to have the family around so that they can help you out. The kids are already at school so I have each morning to run. The weekend I usually go climbing and they come with me. They stay down at the bottom and they play around. At the end, you need to handle your time well and then everyone is happy!
iRunFar: Let’s talk racing. You have a real game face where you look super focused during a race. To be as successful as you, Núria, you must have a pretty deep competitive streak. Have you always been competitive?
Picas: When I am running, I am really competitive, and I focus a lot with every movement and on my body to make sure it gets what it needs at all times. In life in general, I am a competitive person. I think it’s in my blood. I am a person that likes to improve, and competition is a place to progress and give the best of yourself.
iRunFar: You’ve never rebelled and thought, Screw this, I’m going to go wild and party?
Picas: Ha ha, not really! Doing this is my dream so, at the end of the road, this is what matters.
iRunFar: Cool. You ran your first 100 miler last year and seem to have taken to the distance really well. Are there many things that surprised you about the distance or is it as difficult as you expected it to be?
Picas: The first 100-mile ultra-trail was especially hard; it was the UTMB in 2013, and I had a lot of bad race sensations. Despite that, I still finished in second place. But I am lucky that I can adapt myself well to the environment and distances, and from that first experience I have run two more 100 milers: at Ultra-Trail Mount Fuji in Japan and then again at UTMB in Chamonix this year. I think that the body is intelligent and every time I adapt a little better.
iRunFar: Now that you’ve raced all the classic distances, Núria, what is your favourite length race and why?
Picas: Now that I’ve tasted a bit of everything, I believe my favorite races are between 80k and 100k. I think at those distances, you can still go fast and feel this speed because you don’t have to run all day and all night long! Longer distances you need to measure your effort much more so that you don’t finish too tired.
iRunFar: So, UTMB—two second-place finishes behind Rory Bosio. How bad do you want a win there?
Picas: Winning the UTMB, for me, is my sporting dream that is still alive; I like that it is still there, ready to be fulfilled. In this latest UTMB, I enjoyed fighting so close with Rory, despite getting second place again. For me it was a wonderful experience. I hope to be there again next year, and that the competitive level is as high as always!
iRunFar: Okay, so talking about next year, what are your race plans for 2015? Any exciting new challenges that you plan on tackling?
Picas: The calendar isn’t defined yet, and I guess it will depend on the races that the Ultra-Trail World Tour suggests. I’d like to try again the big one—the UTMB—and trying to win this time! I’d also like to do some alpinist projects, to became a better athlete and set up new dreams. I think that it is good to innovate and progress in other fields to enrich us as people and as athletes.
iRunFar: Cool. You mentioned the Ultra-Trail World Tour there. You’re focusing on that and not the Skyrunning races these days. Why is that?
Picas: In 2012 I already won the Skyrunning Series, and this is the Ultra-Trail World Tour. There are awesome races everywhere, but it’s true that I need to focus on one of them because it’s impossible to do both circuits at the same time. The UTWT covers longer, ‘mythical’ races while the Skyrunning events are shorter but more alpine. I wish I could run them all!
iRunFar: Two Catalan questions to finish, tell me about your partnership with Buff, how it happened, and what makes the team so special?
Picas: Buff is a Catalan company which has always supported the adventure sports and, especially, the ultra-trail. I really like their philosophy and the range of products offered by them. We are a great team with different people around the world, and together we are a big family. I really feel very lucky to be part of this great team.
iRunFar: Cool. So, as you’ve told us, you are born and bred in Catalonia and are, like most people from the area, a proud Catalan. What’s your opinion of the recent plans for the referendum and the pressure from Madrid to not let the people vote for independence?
Picas: The Catalans, we have an identity, a culture, and a different language from Spain. We want to be an independent state, a new state where civility and democracy will be present. We want to decide this with our votes in the polls and with pacifism. What we are asking for is the right to decide, and to vote for a decent future for our people.