Ragna Debats had what was certainly her best ultramarathon of 2016 and probably the best of her life in taking third at the IAU Trail World Championships for the Netherlands. In the following interview, Ragna talks about where she lives and trains, what her expectations were going into the race, how she took pressure off herself late in the race, and what she thought of the course.
For more on how the world championships went down, read our 2016 IAU Trail World Championships results article.
[Click here if you can’t see the video above.]
Ragna Debats Post-2016 IAU Trail World Championships Interview Transcript
iRunFar: Meghan Hicks of iRunFar, and I’m in Bom Jesus, Portugal. We’re above Braga. It’s the day after the 2016 IAU Trail World Championships. I’m with women’s third-place finisher who is of the Netherlands, Ragna Debats.
Ragna Debats: Thank you very much.
iRunFar: This is my first time watching you race and also our first interview with you on iRunFar. You’re from the Netherlands but you live in Catalunya now? Can you tell me a little bit about yourself?
Debats: Yes, that’s right. I grew up in Holland. When I was 19 years old, I went to live in Germany for a couple of years. I was into horse riding, and I studied to be a personal horse trainer—no running at all. I just sat on my horse all day doing dressage. That sport took me to England. I lived in England for a couple of years as well and studied languages. Then I came to Spain where I found my husband, and I stayed in Spain. When I started living in Spain, I started with horse riding and I needed another sport. First I started cycling, but I found it a bit difficult on a bicycle to go on the trails. I thought it was much easier to go running on them than the bike. So that’s how I started running.
iRunFar: How many years ago did you start running on the trails?
Debats: I think it must be about seven years ago.
iRunFar: Outside of running, I saw your daughter, you’re a mom. What else do you do in addition to running and being a mom?
Debats: I work in ‘commercial.’ It’s a work I can do from home.
iRunFar: What kind of work?
Debats: Commercial–buying and selling scrap. It’s an English company. I deal with international contacts, mainly with Spain, Holland, and Germany.
iRunFar: It’s a work-at-home job. And that’s why you know so many different languages also?
Debats: Yes. I guess so, and also because I’ve lived in three countries.
iRunFar: What part of Catalunya are you from?
Debats: I’m from a place near Barcelona.
iRunFar: In the flats or in the mountains?
Debats: It’s a bit in the middle. We don’t really live in the mountains, but we have some mountainous terrain close to us. It’s not very high, but it’s good enough to train during the week. Normally on the weekends we go to the Pyrenees or to other mountains. So we have good training options on the weekends.
iRunFar: About seven years ago you started trail running, and yesterday was your first 80k race?
Debats: Yeah, that’s right.
iRunFar: Have you been focusing mostly on shorter-distance trail races? What has been your trail running career so far?
Debats: I think I took a couple of years to really get my body used to running because I’d never run before. When I started running, I had a lot of physical problems. I think it’s because it’s a sport with a lot of impact, and before, sitting on a horse, there is no impact. Especially my bones were not used to it, so I had a lot of stress fractures. The first couple of years, I did really well at the local and national competitions, but I had to stop all the time, so I couldn’t train continuously. I didn’t get to a good state. When I got pregnant, I stopped for a whole year. I think it was good to do a reset for my body. When started running again, I didn’t have so much time anymore, so I had to really train well. I couldn’t just go running a couple of hours because I didn’t have time anymore. So I started doing shorter sessions but a lot of interval training. That was last year. It worked out really well. This year we really started working my training formally, so it’s really the first year I think I’ve discovered how I have to train. I expect next year to be better than this year. This year, because I didn’t know how it would go, I focused on the Spanish Cup which I won. Apart from that, I went to the Spain Skyrunning races for the ISF [International Skyrunning Federation]. I came fourth, but I didn’t really focus on doing the best I could. I didn’t go to all the competitions. I just went to random races. Next year I hope I can do better. I want to focus more on it and try to get better results.
iRunFar: Let’s talk about yesterday’s race. You said a few moments ago before our interview that you took a very conservative mindset because it was your first time racing 80k.
Debats: Yeah, I knew I was well prepared. I prepared really well in nutrition, training, and everything really. I knew I was ready for it, but of course I didn’t know how my body would react after so many kilometers. I started slowly and let the first ones go. I started with a girl who was experienced to see what pace she would go, Gemma Arenas. Then I felt I was a lot stronger on the uphills, so I thought, I can’t stay with her because it’s a waste of time. So I carried on by myself. I felt really good, so I thought that I just had to go with my feelings and just see what happens. I thought, It could either be a disaster or maybe it goes well. I expected to be in between the fifth and the 10th place. I didn’t expect to be there and to fight for a place on the podium. That was something I didn’t expect. I wasn’t really ready for it, I think, because in my mind I was thinking about how to have a good race not doing a race and also fighting for a podium place. It was too many things really because I didn’t know if I got to the end in a good state. During about 30k nearly, I was very close to Azara [García] in second. It was a great pressure for me because of course I wanted to be second or even win. At some point I think we had the first girl at one-and-a-half minutes and Azara at 30 seconds. I was going faster than they were, so I thought maybe I can win. Then you go through the last, longest climb…
iRunFar: Was that the climb between 65 and 75k?
Debats: Yeah, I think so. It was a very steep climb. When I’m tired, it’s not my… I think it’s a big point for me. I couldn’t really get the best of that climb. I had an opportunity… I would have had an opportunity to pass and move up, but it wasn’t in me. So we stayed the same. After so many kilometers behind her, at the end, it was enough for me. I said, Okay, I’ll just finish. I’m happy with the third place. It’s above my expectations.
iRunFar: The women’s podium was very close late in the race. At 65k, as you said, the three of you were just a few minutes apart. For me as an observer to the race, that’s the kind of thing you might see in a 40k race or a race where you’ve been racing for four hours or something. What was it like—and this was nine hours and a half, nine hours and 45 minutes—what was it like to stay mentally in it for such a long period of time, and to be willing and able to battle in those final kilometers?
Debats: I don’t know what makes you do it really. It was really hard. It was for me the hardest bit of the race. That’s why in the end I said, She gets second; I get third. It’s okay with me, because in the end, I had enough of it. It’s a big pressure. It’s a lot easier to go by yourself. Maybe there’s someone at six minutes and the one behind is at six minutes, so I have my place. I can go a little bit slower or a little bit faster and I’ll more or less stay here. Personally I went from post to post. When I got to one post, I planned my food to take and drinks and everything and focused on the next point at 10k away for the last post to post. That was my focus.
iRunFar: Your mindset, “Make it this section, then this section, then this section.”
iRunFar: My last question for you—Portugal is kind of an unknown place for trail runners. Yesterday’s course was really quite technical, but it shared some similarities to running in the Pyrenees. Can you describe what the course was like?
Debats: It was pretty technical. The beginning, it was dark for the first three hours. We went through the forest. I would have liked to see that more because I think there were a lot of nice eucalyptus trees.
iRunFar: You could smell them, couldn’t you?
Debats: I really liked that area. It’s a lot of green and very filled with vegetation. It’s nice. The surface, there are a lot of stones which is also very difficult in this place. When you get higher up there are big rocks. There are blocks together in scenery, but they are also on the track. There are smaller stones and roads made of blocks. It makes it quite hard because it’s not like asphalt. It’s difficult to run on it. You have to jump from stone to stone sometimes. Sometimes they are a bit slippery.
iRunFar: And look where each foot goes.
Debats: Yeah, it was quite tough terrain.
iRunFar: Going home from your first IAU Trail World Championships with a bronze medal, does that make you eager to try a race like this again and see what potential you have?
Debats: Definitely, yeah. Just being on stage, when I was there, I just thought, I think I can do better, and I want to do better. I’m craving to get a higher place.
iRunFar: You’re hungry for more.
iRunFar: Congratulations to you on your third-place finish. We’ll look forward to seeing you next year in Italy.
Debats: Thanks. Yes, looking forward to it.