After finishing second at last year’s UTMB, Romania’s Robert Hajnal is back at the 2019 edition. In the following interview, Robert talks about what he’s gotten right and wrong at his past UTMB races, how the balance between going too slow and too fast at UTMB is hard to get just right, and what the last year has been like for him since his breakout to the international trail running stage at UTMB last year.
Robert Hajnal Pre-2019 UTMB Interview Transcript
iRunFar: Meghan Hicks of iRunFar. I’m with Robert Hajnal, and it’s a couple days before the 2019 UTMB. We are back at UTMB. How are you doing?
Robert Hajnal: Hi Meghan, I’m really good, thanks. I’m really relaxed.
iRunFar: Well, you seem pretty chill.
Hajnal: Yes. I just arrived a couple days ago and I had time to stay in the swimming pool. It was amazing to see Mont Blanc and the swimming pool at the same time.
iRunFar: So, returning here as last year’s second-place finisher, how does it feel to arrive in Chamonix for UTMB week with that on your résumé?
Hajnal: It feels really good, but I try to not put pressure on myself. It’s hard to do it, but at the same time, it’s like any other race. I have this experience from last year and I take it like a good thing, not a bad thing to have.
iRunFar: You’ve had quite the adventure since your race here last year. You were at the Trail World Championships and also at Madeira Island Ultra-Trail. What else have you been up to this year?
Hajnal: So, after UTMB I’m going to the U.S. to race in the Grand to Grand Ultra.
iRunFar: This year?
Hajnal: Yeah. Actually, it’s only three weeks from now. I just hope that my travel visa will be accepted. That is my hope–to visit at the same time as it will be my 30th birthday, so it will be a perfect place to be, and to spend my holiday there.
iRunFar: Last year was a pretty incredible race for the men’s race. Two thirds of the top men dropped out. You were not one of them.
Hajnal: Yeah, I don’t know why. I think I have an answer for that.
iRunFar: What is your explanation for how all that went?
Hajnal: Two years ago I was on the other side of the bridge. I quit. I just took my lessons. They were the same conditions and the same competition [in 2018] and it was like another try for me. I learned my lessons and put them into practice. One of the lessons was just to dress properly for the weather. [Other lessons were] To eat more and be patient.
iRunFar: On that “dressed for the weather” note, you seemed better dressed for the weather than everybody else out there. It was pretty gnarly conditions at times, and you were dressed for cold and rain.
Hajnal: Yeah, that’s a smart thing to do when it’s raining and it’s very cold [laughs]. I think this year it won’t be the case. My advice for the other runners is to dress proper for the weather. Not so many layers, just proper clothes.
iRunFar: This is potentially t-shirt weather for the nighttime this year. The weather forecast is looking totally different.
Hajnal: Yeah, yeah, it will maybe be a different race, I hope. A lot of different runners will run very fast and I’m thinking there won’t be so many drops this year. I hope so. It will be a good competition and a good race for everybody.
iRunFar: The UTMB seems to be a race that requires a lot of patience. Would you agree with that?
Hajnal: Yeah, in my head it’s a turtle race. If you want to win it, just be a turtle for at least half of the race. Actually, if you want to win it, just be something in between for the first half. I was thinking last year, Xavier Thévenard was 31 minutes before me at Courmayeur [47 miles/75k] and only 40 minutes before me at Chamonix. So maybe it will be a smart thing, just to shorten the gap between me and the first ones betweet Chamonix and Courmayeur–to push the pedal in the first half.
iRunFar: But push the pedal just a little bit, is what I’m hearing.
Hajnal: Yes, and keep the reserves for the next part, which is mainly hiking, I think.
iRunFar: It’s a difficult balance to get right, isn’t it? To keep your contact with the lead runners but not to push the pace or use too much energy. I think that’s something that gets a lot of people every year: Not getting the equation quite right.
Hajnal: Yeah, exactly. That’s my struggle, too, for this year. I have another good strong point: I know the trail really well. I’ve done it, I guess eight times in training and in competition. I know where to run when it’s okay to run and when to just pace myself when it’s the first part of the race.
iRunFar: When somebody finishes second place at a race and returns to the same race the next year, I can only think that they are only thinking of one thing: Are you thinking about winning this race?
Hajnal: Actually, not really. I’m not thinking about being the one to win the race. My objective is just to improve my time. I know that a better time will maybe give me a better position, but a top-five finish again would be a dream of mine. Anywhere in the top 10 would be perfect.
iRunFar: Going from somebody was… I don’t know the right way to describe it… someone well-known in your part of the world for trail running before UTMB last year, and now you’re somebody that the world recognizes for your podium finish at UTMB last year. How has your life as a runner changed in the last year?
Hajnal: I think, besides from more people recognizing me on the street and at races they know my name, it’s the same. I have the same training schedule and the same loneliness periods. Actually, I didn’t change so much. I have this thought to change it, and go really for this one way–to focus only on running and to have it as my main reason to wake up in the morning.
iRunFar: Just so I understand that right, you’re thinking about doing that in the future: To make running your career?
Hajnal: Yeah, it’s a thought out there, in me. But I don’t know. It’s a balance between cost-efficient.
iRunFar: Well, perhaps another podium finish at UTMB will push that along.
Hajnal: Does podium mean top three? Top five? Top 10? [Laughs]
iRunFar: Well, technically it means top three, but at this race… it’s hard to get top three, as you know.
Hajnal: It won’t make any difference, except to me. Even if I come seventh, or 25th, or do not finish, the decision is mine and doesn’t need to be on me for this race.
iRunFar: Last question for you, and it’s not a question about you: Are there any other runners from Eastern Europe who are maybe under the radar right now, that the world should be looking out for, either in UTMB or any of the other festival races this weekend?
Hajnal: Yeah, sure. I’m thinking of Marcin Świerc, who won TDS last year.
iRunFar: Now I know how to pronounce his last name.
Hajnal: Maybe I’m pronouncing it wrong. I’ll think further about other guys to watch. On the women’s side, there’s a Turkish girl in CCC [Aysen Solak]… Ildikó Wermescher [seventh at UTMB in 2018 and back this year] and I’m thinking a lot of other good runners will be here at next year’s UTMB, coming from Romania and they will finish on the podium. You’ll be surprised.
iRunFar: See, I need the early intel from you.
Hajnal: I think Damian Bogdan will be one who will make really good, and the other guys who were on the Trail World Championships [Ionut Zinca, Gyorgy Szablocs, Leonard Mitrica, Cristian Moşoiu, Andrei Preda, Yanko Slovak, Viorel Pălici]. If they come and do races like this, they will do really well.
iRunFar: Watch out for them?
Hajnal: Yeah, sure, watch out for them.
iRunFar: Well, we’ll watch out for you, too, this weekend. Best of luck as you make your way around the Mont Blanc massif and try to defend your second place and improve your time.
Hajnal: Yeah, why not? It’s a good thought. Thank you.