Despite being a very strong runner for a very long time, it’s fair to call Italy’s Francesca Canepa the surprise winner of this year’s UTMB. In the following interview, Francesca talks about how she prepared differently for this year’s race, what her strengths and weakness are on the UTMB course, and how an injury and lost training didn’t derail her plans.
Check out our 2018 UTMB results article for the full story of the race, as well as links for all of our post-race interviews.
Francesca Canepa, 2018 UTMB Champion, Interview Transcript
iRunFar: Bryon Powell of iRunFar here with Francesca Canepa after her win here at the 2018 UTMB. Congratulations, Francesca.
Francesca Canepa: Thank you very much.
iRunFar: What an amazing run.
Canepa: Yes, really amazing.
iRunFar: You’ve had so many successes for such a long time, but… is this the top?
Canepa: Yes, of course! [Laughs]
iRunFar: You just live over on the other side of Monte Bianco. How long have you thought about UTMB, and maybe winning?
Canepa: Winning – it was out of my thoughts. This year I tried for the first time to come here prepared, mostly under the mental aspect. Because normally I’m in shape because I run all the year and stuff, but in the other years I did a lot of mistakes during the races [she finished UTMB in 2012 and TDSin 2011 and started but did not finish UTMB in 2013, 2015 and 2016]. So I had to give up every time after the first podium in 2012, but that’s so far ago.
So, this time I checked really well the chrono [timing and pacing] that you have to do in order to be in the top three. I felt like I was okay with this chrono; it could be possible. So, that’s why I started really slowly. I analyzed all the time to stay consistent, and I figured out that if I arrive in Les Contamines Montjoie [31 km/19 miles] in 3:30 or something like this, for me it would be perfect. Normally, for me, I don’t struggle to keep a pace up for all of the race. For me, the main proposal was to avoid starting too fast. That is really difficult in a race like this because everybody starts too fast and normally you tend to follow.
iRunFar: At a 300k race [Francesca ran Tor des Géantsin 2012], you can tell yourself it’s impossible to go fast the whole time. But here…
iRunFar: So, you prepared intellectually with the splits, but did you also change your mental approach?
Canepa: Absolutely. I worked a lot on this aspect before, so every day I was trying to remind myself how to manage the race. Every single aspect.
iRunFar: Can you give me some examples?
Canepa: I tried imagine my start. I tried to remember to stay focused on my own pace, don’t care about anybody. For this, I’m grateful to Andrea Huser, who wrote me a message before the race. I asked her advice, and she told me exactly what I’m saying: Let everybody go, the race is so long. So, okay. It’s difficult, but if you’re prepared it’s okay. You see all the people, maybe some fat people, ahead of you and you don’t care. You stay in your own pace. Doing so, it was possible for me to run most of the first uphill, the first climb. Normally that is impossible, because if I start too fast, I just want to walk there. But if I walk, my rate is low. My walking [pace] doesn’t work, so I have to run all the time if I want to do something okay. It’s difficult because you’re running and maybe the other people around are walking and they’re faster or exactly the same as you, but you have to run. But I was prepared, and this is the key.
iRunFar: I’m surprised you’re not a fast walker because of where you live and all of the races you’ve done.
Canepa: Yes. I don’t know why, but it’s impossible for me to manage walking. I’m really loud and I have a stride that’s… no. It’s shit.
iRunFar: Did you have any big difficulties out there? It didn’t seem that way.
Canepa: No, no. I was all the time feeling good. My main idea was to just wait and, then, to catch other people from Courmayeur [80 km/50 miles]. I just had to manage before that point, getting on my pace and good. Then, I mostly managed the clothes, because I started with waterproof pants, a vest – we changed a lot of vests during the race – but I really wanted to be sure to be warm. I had a bad experience in Ecotrail Pariswhen I went there this spring. I didn’t expect to have snow there and for me it was impossible to run. I was freezing. So, I told myself, “Here, I have to deal with that problem.”
iRunFar: And you know how to deal with the weather here. You live here, you must train in some horrible weather.
Canepa: Yes, but normally if it’s so bad, I don’t run [laughs]. I don’t have to manage a lot.
iRunFar: How was the weather for you?
Canepa: As you said, we are used to similar conditions, so it’s not so bad.
iRunFar: It wasn’t unusually bad…
Canepa: No, it was normal.
iRunFar: Normal for UTMB or the Alps?
iRunFar: What was your favorite part – or memory or moment – of the race?
Canepa: I think the section in which I began to do a different was in Switzerland, because we had a very runnable way to go. I don’t know why, because where I live I don’t have flat terrain [to train on], but I’m good on the flats. So, I was always following Andrea’s advice: I didn’t push on the downhills in order to have fresh legs and run powerfully. It worked and I enjoyed a lot. It was really good. I was so relaxed and efficient. I didn’t love the climbing. I don’t know why, but I’m not so used to having a steeper climb.
iRunFar: So you’re good on the flat, but the climbs… [laughs]
Canepa: Yes, but I changed a lot my way of running. At the beginning I was having real difficulty with the downhills. Really horrible. Now, I’ve worked a lot on my muscles and I’ve tried to get strength, downhills are okay, and flats, as well. On the contrary, I don’t like to climb.
iRunFar: There was only 10,000m of climbing. That’s okay. So, you went out. You were on your strategy, running according to plan. When did you know that this is a special day?
Canepa: If I’m to be honest, since the beginning. When I went to the starting point, I was doing the show to say “Ciao” to people and I was eating a buondi, that is a rubbish meal in Italy. I was so calm. It was the first time in my life that I felt so good. I was telling myself, “Maybe this time is the good one.”
iRunFar: Before, could you have dreamt you would win UTMB this year?
Canepa: A little, but because it’s the dream of everybody. But I’m more humble in how I think, so I tried to stay calm and concrete. I don’t want to go… force it. I’d prefer to go see what happens. But this time, I was calm because I knew that I had a plan. When you have a plan and stick to it, maybe things are okay.
iRunFar: And it did. What is your plan next?
Canepa: I don’t know. I normally don’t like to plan a lot. I prefer to live day by day and see what happens. Anyway, as I’m still without sponsor –
iRunFar: I have a feeling that might change, Francesca.
Canepa: Maybe, but I don’t know.
iRunFar: Will you consider coming back here next year?
Canepa: Why not? [Smiles and shrugs] But maybe just to enjoy the race, because maybe you can’t go all the time for winning. And why not come just to enjoy the atmosphere? This time, I didn’t enjoy it much. I could have planned to reach Chamonix and take my time. I lost a lot of time from Vallorcine to La Flégère [153-163 km/95-101 miles] because it was a technical section, which I didn’t like. By the time I was here, Uxue Fraile was so close that I didn’t have time to just relax and walk a little and say “Ciao” to people.
iRunFar: That’s what this week is for now. Watching the video feeds, it didn’t look as though you were necessarily comfortable or having a fun time in those last few miles.
Canepa: Looking at the video, I was satisfied because it shows I had lots of power left, which was nice to see. Of course, if you have more time you can absorb a lot from people.
iRunFar: Maybe next time you can have a twenty-minute lead and you can kiss babies [laughs]. Well, congratulations, Francesca. It’s great to see you win here.
Canepa: Thank you.
iRunFar: A few times in the interview you mentioned Andrea Huser. Is she a friend? Tell me about your relationship.
Canepa: Of course we are not friends in a strict way, because we never see each other except for the races, but since the beginning I sense that we share a lot of reciprocal esteem. I hope that she will be well, healthy. It’s not so easy to have this feeling with other runners, but I think we share a lot of this way of thinking and so that’s why.
iRunFar: Do you have any advice for her?
Canepa: I just want her to get in shape soon and to come race as she did.
iRunFar: That reminds me that you mentioned earlier that you had an injury coming into this and you said you didn’t train for one month.
Canepa: I trained, but not running. I was just on the bike and working on strength. Everything was okay and the heart [cardio] was okay. I don’t know why, but my muscles forget what is the downhill feeling.
iRunFar: It was your quadriceps?
Canepa: Yes. So, since the first downhill I was done and I had a lot of pain.
iRunFar: Your tendons were okay?
Canepa: Tendons were perfect.
iRunFar: Was it your Achilles or your knee?
iRunFar: Well, congratulations again. Thank you.