Elisabet Barnes, 2015 Marathon Des Sables Champion, Interview
World, meet Elisabet Barnes. Elisabet, meet the world. With her commanding win of the 2015 Marathon des Sables, Elisabet establishes herself as a major player in the world’s trail and ultrarunning scene. In this interview, learn about Elisabet’s history with running, her life outside of sport, how the MdS played out for her, and whether she intends to defend her title in 2016.
For more info on how the race played out, check out our 2015 Marathon des Sables results article.
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Elisabet Barnes, 2015 Marathon des Sables Champion, Interview Transcript
iRunFar: Meghan Hicks of iRunFar, and I’m here in Ouarzazate, Morocco, after the 2015 Marathon des Sables with ladies champion, Elisabet Barnes. Congratulations!
Elisabet Barnes: Thank you.
iRunFar: How are you doing today? How are you feeling?
Barnes: I feel remarkably good today actually. My legs are fine. My feet are fine. I feel a bit tired. I’m quite overwhelmed.
iRunFar: Yeah, there might be a couple MdS runners who watch this video and think, I’m a little bit jealous, “my body is fine, my feet are fine,” while they’re hobbling around on blistered feet. Feeling fairly lucky today?
Barnes: Yes, I guess that’s the advantage of spending less time out on the course. It’s altogether better.
iRunFar: Yes, your body stays in one piece the less hours you have to be on your feet.
iRunFar: I’m just going to call it how it is. After Stage 1, Stage 2, and Stage 3, a lot of people were looking at the women’s results of the race this year saying, “Who is this Elisabet Barnes girl?” Or woman, I should say. Tell us about yourself. Tell us about your background with running.
Barnes: I’ve been running for a long time. I ran my first marathon back in 2001 or 2002. Before then, I did shorter distances. I really got hooked on the marathon. It was something I really enjoyed. I ran a few more and was in and out of running for a few years. I worked quite a lot for a few years and really didn’t do too much running. I picked it up again because I got a bit tired of being unfit. I ran my first ultramarathon in 2011.
iRunFar: 2011—which one was that?
Barnes: That was a 50k in Sweden outside of Stockholm. It was called Lidingö Ultra.
iRunFar: How did your first ultra go for you? You’re in phenomenal shape and you had a phenomenal run, but my understanding is that your origins in ultrarunning weren’t quite this fast?
Barnes: Yeah, that race went well because I was in good marathon shape that year. I think I finished fourth woman in that race. It was a good experience. It was a good first experience, I suppose.
iRunFar: This Marathon des Sables was actually your second race. You were here in 2012. It sounds like you came, had a pretty great experience, and decided to come back and do it again. Talk about your first run of the MdS in 2012.
Barnes: Yes, in 2012, I came here and I wanted to complete the race. I wanted to have a good experience. My backpack was incredibly heavy. It was 12 kilograms at the start line without water. I had everything you could possibly need “just in case.”
iRunFar: You were the one who was trying to help out tent mates who had problems. “Just in case, I have this. Just in case, I have this.”
Barnes: Yes, I had plenty of spare clothing and a few rolls of tape and loads of food. It was an amazing experience. I really enjoyed it. I had a fantastic race. I finished 169th overall and 15th among the women which I was very happy with. It was more than I hoped for then. So it was a great experience.
iRunFar: It was good enough that you set your sights on doing it again in the future. Fast forward to 2015. In your preparations for this race, you had a couple pretty phenomenal runs at home in the U.K.—training races. Talk about those.
Barnes: I wanted to do better this year in the MdS. I wasn’t quite sure how well I could do. We have two ultramarathons in January that a lot of U.K. runners do. One is the Country to Capital, 35 miles trail nonstop. Then two weeks later there’s a two-day, 66-mile race also on trails.
iRunFar: What’s that one called?
Barnes: It’s called Pilgrim’s [Challenge]. It’s run by Extreme Energy, an excellent company who oversees races in the U.K. I set the women’s course record in both of those runs. I knew I was in good shape. This was in January, so there were still a couple of months to go. I had a good month of training in February. In March, I was really too busy to do very much, but I did do a total of 12 hours in a heat chamber which I think was absolutely key to being successful this year. I did train, but I did quite a lot of taper, I’d say.
iRunFar: You said you co-own a business in the U.K. called myRaceKit, which provides a lot of kit for MdS runners. So March before the race was quite insane for you helping other people get ready for their races.
Barnes: Yes, it’s a very busy time. It’s run by my husband day-to-day, but I help out where I can because I have another job as well. It was incredibly busy. The amount of people who leave their kit to the last minute, you won’t believe it. I actually delivered backpacks to Gatwick on the day we flew out.
iRunFar: People, sort your kits!
Barnes: I also think it’s normal to have last-minute panics about kit. I changed my shoes two days before I was flying out. I had to go and get new Velcro stitched on. It’s sort of normal, but it was quite stressful.
iRunFar: Another thing you did have sorted though was your kit. It was not a 12 kilo pack. It was a quite-pared-down, ready-to-race pack.
Barnes: Yes, so I obviously put the training in and then I looked at my pack and sort of decided to go for a minimum. I had about 7 kilos. I had a lot of food for me. I think recovery is incredibly important in this race. I think you need to eat well and sleep well. I eat a lot anyway. Yeah, I had a lot of food. I had a sleeping mat. I had a pillow. I had a very light sleeping bag. I got away with it because we had a warm year. I was quite lucky in that respect.
iRunFar: I want to talk about now how the race played out for you. You went into the race probably expecting to do decently, but perhaps not expecting to come out at the front. Let’s talk about the first couple days where you were running at the front or you were running in proximity to other women, but at the end of the stages you ended up in the lead kind of looking around thinking, Where are the other girls? How did the first couple stages go for you?
Barnes: Day 1, I really enjoyed. It was a really nice run. I set off at a pace that I felt for me was comfortable. I could relate back to the heat chamber where I’d been running with a backpack and I knew it was a pace I could sustain. I had a good run all the way through. I crossed the line and got a camera and a microphone set up in my face and had to say a few things about the race, but no one told me that I was actually first woman. I didn’t realize until a few minutes later. I was like, Oh, okay. Then I had my bag checked and Liza Howard and Laurence [Klein] finished not too long after me. So they were all there having a chat after they finished. I just thought I must have been out too quickly. These experienced ladies know what they’re doing.
iRunFar: But then Day 2 came around and the finish line arrived and, again, you looked around and you had won.
Barnes: Yes, so Day 2 was quite hot. We had some climbs. I’m okay with climbs, but I’m better on the flats. So Liza actually caught me on the last climb. Then I think she was ahead of me for awhile, but I was a bit stronger in the dunes, so we finished fairly close. I sprinted to the finish.
iRunFar: Another stage win.
Barnes: Another stage win. So, I knew that Day 2 would be hot. I didn’t expect windy, too. Again, it was a nice surprise. I sort of… when I ran Day 1, I didn’t really think of Day 2. When I ran Day 2, I didn’t really think about Day 3. I tried to focus on the task at hand for that particular day. Yeah, two good days, but I think Day 2 was harder than Day 1.
iRunFar: Then Day 3, the first part of it was quite runnable, then the second part of it got real hot and real sandy with a nice little climb at the end. It was a stage that was easy to start and hard to finish, but it was also just ahead of a really long stage. Talk about how Stage 3 went for you.
Barnes: Again, for Stage 3, maybe I should have, but I didn’t really think about the fact that there was a Stage 4. I relied on all the food I had and my ability to recover. I set out comfortably. I enjoyed the first half. It was really good running. The last third was very hard. It got really hot. I was running with someone in the dunes. I say running—we weren’t really running.
Barnes: He had his watch and he said it was 51 degrees (Celsius).
iRunFar: “That’s why it’s so hard right now.”
Barnes: Yeah, that explains it. I was worried about running out of water. I drink quite a lot, but I think I had just enough to make it through. Day 3, I would say, was definitely the hardest of the first three days. Again, I was quite surprised just to still be in the lead. I sort of thought that everyone else is sort of saving it for the long day and I’m going to pay for it tomorrow.
iRunFar: The long stage, no matter where you are in the competition—whether you’re at the front, the middle, or the back of the pack—the long stage is the crux day. When you’re in a competitive mindset, it becomes even more so the crux day. Little mistakes made in the first couple days become exponentially problematic on the long stage, or a problem that you encounter midway through the long stage becomes a big problem by the end. Looking at your splits from that day, they were incredibly smooth checkpoint to checkpoint to checkpoint. You didn’t really taper off your pace by as much as many of the other women did. Did you feel as smooth as your splits looked during the long stage?
Barnes: Let’s see. I took absolutely nothing for granted. I know that the long stage can change everything, and I have huge respect for the race as a whole but for that stage. At home, I really enjoy distances around 100k. I’m quite strong at them, but I knew it could be completely different out here. I had decided that I had to run my own race no matter what and not get carried away if anyone went quicker. I’d just let them go. So that’s what I did. I started out and saw that Liza and Laurence went out a little bit quicker. I thought, That’s not the pace I’m comfortable starting out with now. So, I let them go and fell into a group of four or five runners. We ran together and they were aiming for about 12 hours. I thought, Maybe that’s realistic. Maybe that’s a bit too quick, but I feel comfortable at this pace. Then from that group, another U.K. runner (Ed Kerry), we ended up running together the whole way. We sort of helped each other along. Where we could run, we tried to keep a steady pace. Where we had to walk, we tried to walk it as quickly as we could. I just kept eating and I kept drinking a little and often, a little and often. I kept taking the salt tablets and monitoring my salt to see if I was okay. I think I was lucky not to get into any problems.
iRunFar: No problems?
Barnes: But I was totally spent at the finish line. I was sick twice but not in front of the camera.
iRunFar: You waited until you were in the dark by yourself.
Barnes: We did manage to keep a fairly good pace throughout. I was quite surprised how well we did actually. I was quite pleased.
iRunFar: Then Stage 5, the marathon day, had to have been at that point a joyride for you. You were hours ahead of anybody in the women’s field. You would have had to basically not finish or to walk the stage to not end up the women’s winner.
Barnes: Yeah, it was really nice to have that in the bag, but still, it’s still a marathon to go and it’s a distance you have to respect. I just wanted to have a safe run and not do anything stupid—not blow up and not break a leg or anything. I thought I felt good, but then in the morning I had a sore throat and a bit of a rough stomach. So when I actually started running I felt like I was suffering, so I just thought, I’m just going to take it easy. I struggled eating and drinking, so I just did what I could. Maybe it helped because it meant that I started slower than maybe I would otherwise. I felt better the second half than the first half except that the finish never actually came.
iRunFar: It was a hidden finish line. We couldn’t actually see the finish line until we were about 300 or 400 meters from it.
Barnes: Yeah. It must be beyond that hill. There’s another hill.
iRunFar: There’s another hill and there’s no finish line.
Barnes: And there’s another hill. Finally it was there. It was the most amazing feeling. I really didn’t expect it at all. It was just fantastic. I’m still having to pinch myself.
iRunFar: Yeah, a couple days later has it set in? You had this journey across the Sahara, but it was also a phenomenally fast journey. Is that starting to sink in?
Barnes: Maybe a little bit. Maybe a little bit. I just think it’s absolutely amazing. Other people believed in me. I guess I didn’t really.
iRunFar: Are you ready to believe in yourself now?
Barnes: Yeah, I hope so.
iRunFar: Congratulations to you. I’m sure the question that you’re getting all day today: are you going to do this again? Will you be back?
Barnes: Yeah, I think I will be back next year. I guess I have to set myself a new target.
iRunFar: Do you have other races on your horizon for 2015?
Barnes: In two weeks I’m doing the London Marathon. I want to do a sub-three-hour marathon. I’m hoping I can do that. We’ll see what this race has done to my body.
iRunFar: See if your legs bounce back.
Barnes: Then at the end of May, I’m doing a race in the U.K. called the Grand Union Canal race. It’s 145 miles nonstop from Birmingham to London. It’s completely flat and along the Grand Union Canal. I did it last year, so I know what I’m getting myself in for, but yeah, I’m hoping to do it a little bit faster and suffer a bit less.
iRunFar: Congratulations again. We’ll look forward to seeing you down the trail.
Barnes: Thank you. Thanks a lot.