A decade and a half into his varied running career, Tom Owens ticked off running a 100-plus miler in taking fourth at the 2019 UTMB. In the following interview, Tom talks about how he tried to respect the 100-mile distance, why he ran UTMB this year, and how he’s changed as a runner over the past decade.
Be sure to read our in-depth results article to find out how the race played out.
Tom Owens Post-2019 UTMB Interview Transcript
iRunFar: Bryon Powell of iRunFar here with Tom Owens after his fourth-place finish at the 2019 UTMB. Congratulations, Tom.
Tom Owens: Thank you very much.
iRunFar: That was a tremendous performance, and a smart one. How do you feel about your race?
Owens: Absolutely delighted. It was my first really long, 100-mile race, so I had zero expectations. One thing I wanted to do was finish. I did that and I finished well, so… yeah, I’m delighted.
iRunFar: You come, from your very long career, from a shorter-distance racing background on fells and trails and whatnot. But you managed to temper yourself from the outset.
Owens: Yeah. It was pretty hard because at the start line, this music is pumping and you get pretty hyped up and then it’s a pretty flat run out for the first 10k or so. It started really fast but, yeah, I just told myself that I need to hold back and take it easy because even though it might feel reasonably slow anyway, I want to be running at the end of a 100-miler. So, yeah, I was reasonably sensible for a change. I did another long race, 100k, in July and, you know, went off a bit fast there.
iRunFar: Let’s jump onto that topic: You’ve run a couple races in that 100 to 125-kilometer range.
Owens: Yes, 125k, I did TDS.
iRunFar: So, you’ve gone in that direction and you’ve had some okay results. TDS, your longest race to date before this weekend, wasn’t a good result. Did you learn any lessons from those?
Owens: Definitely. I think TDS was a really tough day, but I made it tougher by kind of being in the top ten early on. I did CCC the year before and again I started reasonably fast in the top few and then detonated, but managed to keep it going for an okay fifth-place finish. But it was a lot of redlining for that. I really wanted to enjoy the experience of the UTMB and get around it in one piece, and so I treated it with an awful lot of respect.
iRunFar: Is that a piece of advice you’d give others, whether they’re elites or not, heading into UTMB?
Owens: Definitely. I think you’ve got to–at least for me–be very, very patient. It’s amazing to see the kind of carnage along the way and people just dropping out here, there, and everywhere. Not where you exactly expected to see people, they sat on the side of the trail. It all mainly from going a bit fast early on.
iRunFar: And they were doing that at 60k probably.
Owens: Oh yeah. Certainly, before Courmayeur.
iRunFar: Were you actually able to enjoy yourself and focus on that a little bit in the early miles?
Owens: Yeah, it was all quite a new experience running in the dark with a headlamp. I was a little nervous for that, but once I settled into it and I kind of backed off a bit more and got even more comfortable, I really did enjoy it. The temperatures were quite nice at night, and sunrise was really special. The support is absolutely incredible when you go through towns, but also being kind of solitary for large parts of the race was really incredible.
iRunFar: Were you somewhere on Grand Col Ferret when the sun came up?
Owens: Yeah, somewhere on that climb and it just gave a massive, massive boost. So, yeah, there was a lot that I really enjoyed. You know, running with other runners and having little chats on the way. Yeah, I mean, it was a lot of pain in there, too, but…
iRunFar: That’s to be expected. When did you start giving a little more effort?
Owens: So, I think it was actually when it started to get light. I told myself I needed to get to Courmayeur, which is about 70 or 80k, feeling pretty fresh. I got there and I got a massive boost from the crowd and felt pretty good. So, actually maybe from there I pushed that climb a little bit, but then, yeah, from really from Col de Ferret is when I started to move up a little bit.
iRunFar: And there were plenty of people out there to catch.
Owens: Yeah, yeah. There was normally someone on the horizon to see, so that worked out pretty well.
iRunFar: Did that give you a mental boost?
Owens: Definitely, definitely.
iRunFar: When did you start knowing this was going to be a really good day?
Owens: Well, I didn’t actually know my position until I got to Courmayeur and I was told I was in 11th. That was a big surprise, and I think it was mainly due to people dropping out. I probably would’ve thought I was in about 20th there. Then when I caught my friend, Andy Symonds, just off the top of Col de Ferret, he said, “You’re moving really well. You can probably get through to a podium spot if you keep that going.” I didn’t quite believe it, but then I guess it worked away in my head and I thought, “You know, actually, I feel good energy-wise and muscular-wise, so might as well keep it steady and see what happens.”
iRunFar: You’ve been around the sport long enough and probably follow some races and talk to friends who have done these–at the end of a long race like this, there’s still attrition. There’s still going to be people dropping out or coming back.
Owens: Yeah, definitely. That was the piece of advice that in that last 40 or 50k, things can change so much. It was really in my head that people can come fast at the end or explode. It’s never over.
iRunFar: How do you keep yourself from becoming one of them?
Owens: Yeah, it’s tough. I did very much try and focus on my own thing. I fell over early on and my knees were in agony for 100k or so on the descents, so I had to concentrate on taking lots of deep breaths and taking it one step at a time, quite literally. Just to get through that. I was fine on going uphill. So, I guess I didn’t think too much about anything else apart from that.
iRunFar: That’s kind of crazy, because you’re a really good descender, so to have that compromised…
Owens: Yeah, it was unusual. Normally I would have liked to have pulled through on the descents, but it was more the other way around.
iRunFar: Nice. You were out there with Andy Symonds a bit. Did you actually spend time on the trail with him out there much?
Owens: Yeah, a little bit. We probably ran a few miles together, which, I mean, it was great. I thought he had actually dropped out a little earlier. I saw someone else in a Scott outfit who dropped out, but it was Alex Nichols actually. I was really delighted to see Andy – I was sad for Alex, but delighted to see Andy still going. I’ve been running with him for years.
iRunFar: I know you go back to 2008, when you ran TransRockies together, but I’m assuming you knew each other before that.
Owens: Yeah, we were into hill running in 2004, I think. So, yeah, it was great to share some miles with him. We’ve done a lot of paired races and stuff. It was great to see he was still moving well. Yeah, it was a big confidence boost, I think.
iRunFar: So, in those final kilometers when there’s 30 or 40k left to go, he’s behind you, right?
iRunFar: You know how strong he is. Are you thinking about not letting Andy catch you?
Owens: It was a strange one, because I kept getting mixed reports that the Japanese runner was ahead of Andy and, you know, people would say there was someone 20 minutes behind or half an hour behind. So, I actually knew I had quite a gap with no one behind, but I was concentrating on the guy ahead, Scott Hawker, who was having a great run. Again, it didn’t start so well for him but he was charging through. I pretty much caught him at Champex-Lac, or we were at the checkpoint together, but I just couldn’t catch him. After a while, yeah, I just had to kind of concentrate on survival. It was a kind of funny position to be in.
iRunFar: Were you ever tempted – when you were at Champex-Lac together, that’s a good ways through the race – were you ever tempted to reach in too much and push it?
Owens: I think I worked pretty hard to catch up to him on the climb there, and then when he left the aid station again I couldn’t see him. I worked pretty hard on the next climb and I actually got some pretty good feedback that he was a minute ahead or two minutes ahead. Then he was pulling away as I was losing time on the descents. He was so strong, and I just couldn’t catch him.
iRunFar: If I understand correctly, you were almost not going to start the race? Was there a foot injury?
Owens: Oh! I’ve been injured.
iRunFar: When haven’t you been injured?
Owens: Yeah. I’ve had a bad ankle for the last couple of years, which is a really bad tendon. It’s been quite good recently, but it’s really unstable. So, actually, one of the motivations for doing this race was it’s a bit hopefully not hammering the descents so much and a bit more in control. But the ankle held up great from that point of view.
iRunFar: Did that stem from a traumatic injury? Or just overuse?
Owens: It’s overuse, yeah, so it’s kind of a ruptured peroneal tendon and a ligament there.
iRunFar: You’ve been beating that up for a while.
Owens: Yeah, yeah, yeah. It’s odd. It’s kind of held together with tape. It was the least of my worries during the race, to be honest.
iRunFar: Perfect! That worked out. So, you have been doing this for a long time, coming from hill running back in 2004. How have you evolved as a runner over those years?
Owens: I don’t know. I’m still enjoying it as much today as I was when I started. I guess the sport is changing, it’s getting bigger, but it’s still running and trail running. I love to do new events like this, and you can’t get much bigger than UTMB.
iRunFar: How does that compare? I’ve not been to a Scottish hill race, but it’s a very organic, very small event.
Owens: Yeah, enter on the day and run up and down a hill and go home. I love to do both. Fell running, hill running, is something that I’ll always go back to. It’s just so simple. But then I love the adventure of traveling and doing new things like this. I think it’s wonderful that there are, you know, these opportunities out there. In this community, you can kind of travel around the world and do some pretty cool things.
iRunFar: Is it cool that we’re in a sport where there are so many flavors? If you’re playing golf, you’re golfing. If you’re playing basketball, you’re playing the same game of basketball. But you can be a runner and do so many different events.
Owens: For sure. So many distances and terrains. Yeah, it’s really motivating to do different things and we’re very lucky to do that.
iRunFar: So, babying your tendon was one reason to do UTMB. What were the other reasons for running UTMB or just to step up in distance and do your first 100-miler?
Owens: Well, I think I’ve been running for a while now and it’s always been a big iconic event. It happened that this year I had enough points and I had enough ranking to get an entry without doing a ballot [entering the lottery], so it just seemed like a good opportunity to do it. I entered without giving it too much thought, so that was me in. It’s kind of always been on the horizon, but, yeah, I’m just delighted to have actually done it.
iRunFar: Was it everything you expected and hoped for?
Owens: Yeah, it was a massive adventure and really emotional. It was incredible, yeah.
iRunFar: You looked pretty excited when you were running down that home stretch.
Owens: Yeah. It was an amazing feeling to get into Chamonix, especially with the knees and trying to, you know, concentrate so hard on not tripping up. Yeah, it was really, really emotional when the support was there.
iRunFar: Did you ever lose it a little bit?
Owens: Almost, yeah. Because you’re just so depleted anyway and you’ve been awake for so long. Yeah, I’m really, really emotional and thankful… and relieved.
iRunFar: Relieved to be done?
Owens: Yeah, yeah, absolutely.
iRunFar: Anything else on your race schedule for this year?
Owens: No, not really. It’s been a pretty kind of short season, and I think this is going to kind of take a few weeks to recover from. I’m actually going to get a scan of my ankle in a month or so, so that will kind of determine if I need a surgery on it.
iRunFar: On the upside, you’ve just completed a tremendous event and you’re heading into winter. If there’s a time for surgery…
Owens: Absolutely, that’s the idea. So, no, I’m really happy and I don’t think there’ll be anything too much more this year.
iRunFar: Well, congratulations on a tremendous run, Tom, and good to see you again.
Owens: Likewise, yeah. Cheers.