Jonathan Albon, of the U.K. but living in Norway, might be better known by the endurance-sports community for his obstacle-racing prowess, but he’s certainly a podium favorite for the 2017 Zegama-Aizkorri Marathon. In his first interview with iRunFar, hear Jon talk about his background in sports, how he’s been successfully mixing obstacle course-racing and mountain running for several years, his strengths and weaknesses in mountain running, and what his 2017 racing plans are.
Jonathan Albon Pre-2017 Zegama-Aizkorri Marathon Interview Transcript
iRunFar: Meghan Hicks of iRunFar, and I’m here in Zegama, Spain. It’s the day before the 2017 Zegama Marathon. I’m with the UK’s Jon Albon. Nice to meet you, Jon.
Jonathon Albon: Nice to meet you, too.
iRunFar: I’ve heard a lot about you, but this is going to be my first time watching you race. You come from a pretty diverse sport history. Since this is our first interview on iRunFar, can you tell us a little bit about your sports background?
Albon: I didn’t really start running until I was about 20, and I’m 28 now. Before that I played skate hockey which is the same as ice hockey but it’s on wheels in a sports hall. That was a lot of fun, but then once I quit, I needed to stay fit, so I took up running. Then I found obstacle course racing which I’m not sure how many people have heard too much about. It’s growing pretty fast, and it’s a really fun sport. I did my first of it when I was 20 or 21 and really enjoyed it. I managed to complete it which was the idea at the time. Then I just entered into more and more and more. Then it seemed I really enjoyed this whole running malarkey and found the mountain running as well. Here we are today taking part in one of the most classic mountain races in the world.
iRunFar: Obstacle course racing is a new but really fascinating phenomenon in endurance sports, and there seem to be some people doing the crossover thing like you, experimenting with obstacle course racing and doing some mountain running and doing some ultrarunning. As a person who started with obstacle courses, how do you find the crossover? Does it work for you?
Albon: I think it works fine. If anything, it’s really fun because obstacle course racing is such a new sport, there are always a lot of athletes from other sports that think, Ah, I can do that, and I’d win easily because my sport is so much more competitive and da-da-da-da-da. I’m trying to do it the other way. I’m coming from obstacle racing which I think gives you a lot of skills which do transfer into other sports and try and beat them at their own game which is a lot of fun.
iRunFar: If you look at your obstacle course results, you’ve got kind of a lot of long distance stuff in there. You must like being out repeating courses, repeating obstacles over and over for a long amount of time. You find that fun?
Albon: Yeah, obstacle races can go from 30 seconds up to 24 hours. It’s fun to be an athlete who can do any type of event like that. That’s one of the beauties of obstacle races. You need to be such a well-rounded athlete. So to be able to run a very short distance or long distance is part of that. I like to think you have to be a round athlete to do that, and that’s the sort of fitness I aim for. That makes me a good obstacle racer. It’s sometimes not the most fun doing continuous laps of the same course, but then it’s really fun to find out that, yeah, you can run for 24 hours. Yeah, it’s better prize money sometimes for the longer races, too.
iRunFar: There is some serious prize money in obstacle course racing right now, isn’t there?
Albon: Yes, I think it is a real mass participation sport, and that can feed then into the top guys running. Also the events are trying to entice better competition in the races, and one way of doing that is to have good prize money. It’s not so much about the prestige of winning, it’s about the prize pot, and then the prestige will come once the race gets more embedded and they’ve been running it for quite a few years.
iRunFar: Last year you participated in the Skyrunning Extreme Series. Did you do any Skyrunning the year before that?
Albon: Yes, last year was the first year I really aimed towards one of the Series. Before that, it was more mismatched. I started with Limone as my first Sky Race. I think that was in 2012. The next year I just did Dolomites and Tromso, and on the back of my Tromso win, I got invited to Matterhorn Ultraks Sky Race, so I did those three. Then the year after that was last year, and I thought it would be really fun to try and go for a Series. The Extreme Series looked like it would really suit me. It was sort of like ultra distances but not too far, and they looked like a lot of fun. The races like Tromso and Glencoe came along, and they had a lot of scrambling. I just thought they looked like a lot of fun. I thought I’d go for that series and see what happened.
iRunFar: It might seem natural that this year you’re here in Zegama which is a true mountain running race, but it does have some unique features—not true scrambling, but there are some rocks you’ll have to navigate around, super steep grass slopes, really rocky river beds and things like that?
Albon: Yeah, I’m really looking forward to finding out tomorrow. I haven’t really seen too much of the course. In fact, I haven’t run here whatsoever yet. I’m really excited. The marathon is a good distance for me, I guess. I think it’s going to be a lot of fun. I’ve heard so much about the crowd especially, so I just can’t wait to get into the race and see what all the hype is about because I think it’s going to be amazing.
iRunFar: Intoxicated Basque Country fans at 10 am cheering you on the mountain.
Albon: Yeah, I think it’s going to be great. I can’t wait.
iRunFar: Oftentimes up on top of the mountain it’s really foggy, so there are people having parties on the side of the trail, but you can’t see them until the last second. This year you’re going to see trains of people extending out to the distance.
Albon: I think if it was the poor weather, that would have suited me more, but having the views is going to make up for it.
iRunFar: I think I hear that from the people who are from the UK all the time—the worse the weather, the better you’re going to do.
Albon: Sometimes it’s not the best that we’re going to do, we’re all going to worse, it’s just that we’ll handle the conditions better than some of the people who are used to the sun and nice dry trails all the time. It probably would slow the course down a lot, and that would suit me because it gets a bit more nitty gritty, but apart from that, it’s still a lot of fun to run in the sun. I won’t be quite used to the heat that much, but we’ll see how that goes. I’ll have to think about hydration quite a lot, what I’m going to take on board, but this will be the first hot race of the year. We’ll see how that goes.
iRunFar: Fortunately, they have an insane number of refreshment stations. There’s water every few kilometers on this race, isn’t there?
Albon: Yeah, I heard it’s just over 3k. It’s actually just like the London Marathon or an actual marathon. This race goes up 2,800 meters into the mountains. It must be a crazy logistical process to try and organize a race like this, but they obviously do such a good job. That’s why it’s one of the most famous mountain races in the world.
iRunFar: You are from the UK, but you live in Norway—just a few more logistical background questions about you. How did you arrive to Norway? What do you do there? It sounds like you train with a few other runners you see around Sky Races, too?
Albon: I moved to Norway because my wife is Norwegian. She studied in the UK for four years, but we’d already met before that and had a long distance relationship with me flying to Norway. Then she wanted to do her Master’s in Bergen on the west coast of Norway, so I said, “Yeah, okay. I’ll come.” So I quit my job in London and moved up to Norway. Once I quit my job, I said, I’ll just take a few months and learn Norwegian and kind of bed myself in, and that coincided with training for two really big obstacle course races in the States. When I won those, we kind of had a discussion and thought, What do I do for the next few years? I’ll try running. So I became a professional full-time athlete. I’ve been doing that since. I just got a part time job just to give my week a little bit of structure, but apart from that, I’m a full-time runner. About 50% of my season is Skyrunning and 50% is obstacle racing. While I’m young, with less responsibilities, it’s an amazing experience.
iRunFar: Your schedule for 2017—are you going to participate in the Extreme Series again as well as some Sky Races? What’s your plan on the mountain running side of things?
Albon: When I looked into what Sky Races I wanted to do, I kind thought about a few different things. At first it was races I actually want to do, and Zegama was one of them. It’s one of the races I’ve heard so much about, I wanted to go and do that. I also saw that the Sky Racing Federation had made it possible to be an overall winner across all the different disciplines. I thought that would be something that kind of appeals to me because I like to try and challenge myself with a lot of different types of distances and types of races. Then I looked into which races aren’t at elevation because I race very poorly when there’s a lot of elevation involved—not actual climbing, but altitude. So I looked at which races don’t actually go up that high, one being Zegama, and one being Madeira Sky Race which is next Saturday and the third being Mount Olympus because that looked like a lot of fun. You do go up to 3,000 meters, but then you come straight back down again. You don’t spend too much time up there, something like Trofeo Kima last year, you kind of run up to 2,500 or 3,000 meters and you just stay there for the race. I always seem to race poorly when it’s something like that. I have to have two more races, and I can take two more Extreme races, so Tromso is a lot of fun, and Glencoe was an absolutely amazing race last year, so I’m going to go back and do that one. I’ll have five races which should give me an overall placing and a possibility to do well in the Extreme Series again because I’ve got the two Extreme races in there.
iRunFar: Then it sounds like you’re still going to fit some OCR racing in there?
Albon: Yes, I’ve already done a bit. I actually just did an 8-hour obstacle race two weeks ago doing as many laps as possible. That was fun, but yeah, I’ve got a lot of obstacle racing in there as well. I think between now and maybe October, I’ve got a race pretty much every weekend with two or three weekends off. It’s busy, but it’s a fun lifestyle.
iRunFar: Taking professional multi-sport racing seriously.
Albon: Yeah, it’s the first time this year that I’ve had a proper off season where I’ve really trained without racing. I had three months of just training. I thought, Oh, my gosh, this is absolutely amazing. I’m actually able to train towards racing. It’s phenomenal because you can actually tire yourself out for weeks on end, have a week’s rest, and then some more training and actually build yourself up rather than training hard for three days and then resting for two or three days for a race. That was a lot of fun, and I’m hoping it’s got me in better shape than last year.
iRunFar: It seems like the dilemma with a lot of mountain athletes these days is that there’s so many interesting things to do, places to go, and really interesting courses, but then there is that training, resting, tapering, recovering aspect of the sport.
Albon: I guess it’s that whole thing that you want to do well in racing, but also for a lot of us, there’s just racing for the experience. That’s why it’s so fun to come to places like this and then race Madeira next week with just one week in between. It’s a lot of fun, but it does take a toll on your body. Sometimes I think, What if I was an ironman athlete and I could just do two races per year? What would that be like just training continuously for maybe just two races? That would be absolutely crazy. Probably it’s not as fun overall.
iRunFar: Probably a lot less fun. Good luck to you tomorrow around the Zegama Marathon course. I think whether or not it’s a hot day and whether or not it’s a good day for you, it’s going to be fun.
Albon: I can’t wait. It’s going to be amazing.
iRunFar: Best of luck to you.
Albon: Thank you very much.