Spain’s Emma Roca will race Diagonale des Fous for the first time this weekend. In this interview, Emma talks about why she intentionally took three months away from racing long ultras since the Hardrock 100, what she thinks could be the race’s biggest challenges for her, and how she looks at DdF as more of an adventure race than a running race.
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Emma Roca Pre-2016 Diagonale Des Fous Interview Transcript
iRunFar: Meghan Hicks of iRunFar, and I’m on Réunion Island in the middle of the Indian Ocean. I’m with Spain’s Emma Roca who is racing the Grand Raid Réunion in a couple of days. Hey.
Emma Roca: Hi. I’m here. I just arrived.
iRunFar: You just got here. You took a red-eye flight from Europe. How are you feeling?
Roca: I’m very excited, a little tired today. It was a long flight—11 hours. It was two hours from Barcelona to Paris and then Paris here. Also overcoming the heat—now in the village where I live, it’s 7 degrees Celsius.
iRunFar: It’s getting cold. Winter is coming.
Roca: Yes, winter is coming. We are sweating again [here].
iRunFar: You’re back to a lower latitude where summer is coming and heat and incredible humidity. You got here this morning. You’ve been for a run on the course. How did the heat and humidity feel for you?
Roca: I feel comfortable, but at the same time, I have to be really aware of it because I studied and we know that when heat comes over 25 degrees [Celsius], then everything changes. You have to be really aware of taking care of yourself with food and drinking and electrolytes and good food and be careful about stomach and intestinal problems. It’s very common.
iRunFar: It’s waiting for you in the heat, isn’t it?
Roca: Exactly. Like Western States.
iRunFar: The last time we saw you was at Hardrock a couple months ago where you had an excellent race. Since then, things have been kind of quiet on the Emma Roca front. It sounds like, in talking to you just a moment ago, this has been intentional.
Roca: Yes, completely. After some research with the Summit Project, we saw that the body is tired. After an ultra race, you need more time than expected to recover. So the ‘ideal time’ is three months before ultra races. I did some tiny races and some vertical ks just to take some speed, but just train, train, train, relax, rest. Well, I work at home. Three kids… you know… everything.
iRunFar: It’s a full-time job.
Roca: But from racing, I’ve been out because I wanted to run in La Réunion. I wanted to arrive fresh but not only physically but also mentally. I want to ‘eat’ the race. This is a sensation you have when you rest properly.
iRunFar: We have talked with you before about the Summit Project, but for readers who haven’t seen those interviews, can you just refresh us on what the Summit Project is and that research?
Roca: Yes, we are investigating what happens to your body when you are running long races but in many ways—physiological, psychological, genetical. And how the nutrition and the resting and the training affects all these parameters.
iRunFar: You’re studying ultrarunners and people doing these long races.
iRunFar: This kind of research is not done in a lot of places around the world.
Roca: Western States has been doing many research on hyponatremia and all this stuff. In World Tour at Mont Blanc, they are starting a line of research that is very interesting. Now we are some groups all over. We are taking information and we are giving the people some items that I think they have to read and they have to apply. We have to do homework before doing an ultra race. The people don’t do it at all.
iRunFar: Let me ask you, with this approximately three-month break, are you arriving fresh physically and mentally? Was that enough time for you since Hardrock?
Roca: I think so. I hope so. Also there’s another ingredient, that is, the new shoes I’m testing. Now I’m running with Altra, so for me, it is an adaptation longer than expected. I started to run with them after Hardrock. Right now, I’m adapted from perhaps zero to eight to 10 hours, but I don’t know what happens after 10 hours because you change completely the style of running. I’m 43 years old, and it’s longer compared perhaps to if I were a bit younger.
iRunFar: Just to kind of clarify, since Hardrock, you became an Altra athlete, and you’ve been converting to the zero-drop foot atmosphere.
Roca: Exactly. But I have a lot of cushion with Olympus, so I feel the same as Hoka when you touch the rocks. Also, I feel comfortable and stable with the feet wide in front, but I change my type of running and just don’t go with the heel. I go from the half of the foot to the front, and it’s a testing time.
iRunFar: You are known internationally for your technical prowess and for your ability to sustain yourself the longer the race is and the more difficult the race is. The Grand Raid Réunion Diagonale des Fous has a reputation for being just about the hardest out there. Why did you decide to pile Hardrock and Grand Raid Réunion in the same year?
Roca: The two biggest and hardest, yes, well it comes. I was in the lottery, so it’s a chance to go in Hardrock. I knew I had the spot for Réunion being in the top three at Mont Blanc, so it was like, Mmmm, take it because the train only passes once! That’s why. I’m scared, but at the same time, I know I can do it good if I conserve and if I take care of myself. It’s like an adventure race, this ultra run. It’s technical. It’s two nights. It’s really steep and not easy. We can have many problems, so who knows?
iRunFar: This is a unique race in that you are forbidden to use poles. You come sort of from the study of, “We pound on our poles anytime it’s really steep.” Have you been practicing without poles? How do you approach a race as big as this without poles?
Roca: I didn’t practice at all. Well, while I train around my home I don’t use poles, only when I go to Mont Blanc do I use them. I think the stairs will be hard uphill without poles because downhill, you don’t need them. The technical part from Cilaos to Maïdo, who cares if you have poles or not?
iRunFar: Just make it. Survive.
Roca: Exactly. What else I think this race can be… one problem at night for me while the terrain is technical is that when you are looking for something you need to take care like to drink or two eat, you can easily flip. So you will slow down and perhaps you have to stop, but these will make you sometimes not take care of yourself as expected or sometimes to stop, look, take, eat, drink… so it will be really complicated to combine speed, to combine a good pace, and to combine taking care of yourself at night with the technical terrain.
iRunFar: My last question for you. Réunion Island kind of has a reputation for its mystique. People say, “Oh, it’s crazy,” or “You just have to see it to understand it.” How are you bringing… where are you at mentally? What are you bringing to deal with that mystery?
Roca: I think it will surprise us because from the coast, you see the villages and beaches and big boats, but not as much we will see during the race. We will go up, down, and near the volcano and all the technical path. It will be mystical. It will be exciting. Why Reunion? For the people here, it’s like the Tour of France for the French people there.
iRunFar: This is their thing.
Roca: It’s the big one. Being here also I am proud of being part of this little but huge community here. You can have more than 30,000 people looking at the race and taking you and putting some wings on you to run.
iRunFar: I have heard somebody say that up to 10% of the island’s population will go out on the race course at the start or finish or somewhere along the way. Even more are following from their radio or their televisions. The idea of 10% of a population following trail running…
Roca: How exciting and different and unique. It will be unique. Once in our life, we have to do Réunion.
iRunFar: Best of luck to you on the Diagonal of Fools.
Roca: Diagonale des Fous. We are crazy, but you know. We ultrarunners are crazy.
iRunFar: We already are. Thanks, Emma. Good luck.
Roca: Thank you. Bye bye.