A Love Affair: An Interview with Jasmin Paris

An in-depth profile of fell runner Jasmin Paris.

By on January 16, 2020 | Comments

Even if Jim Walmsley and Courtney Dauwalter are super famous to us trail runners and ultrarunners, our next-door neighbors aren’t likely to have heard of them. There’s a very slight chance your neighbor has a vague recollection of some guy named Kilian Jornet running up Everest twice in a week a while back. But if your neighbor can recall an ultramarathon news story, it’s probably from January of 2019.

That’s when English, 35-year-old mother, small-animal veterinarian, and PhD student Jasmin Paris won England’s 268-mile Spine Race outright–by 15 hours. The race took her 83 hours, 12 minutes, and 23 seconds, and this broke the overall record by some 12 hours. And she did all this while pausing to express breastmilk at aid stations.

Jasmin Paris with her daughter Rowan after Jasmin set a new overall record at the 2019 Spine Race in England. Photo: Yann Besrest-Butler/Montane Spine Race

It was then, with Jasmin’s performance, that our niche sport exploded into the mainstream. After the race, she was interviewed relentlessly, for weeks. She was live on international and national television, in every British national newspaper, and in numerous international magazines. For a few examples, check out this article from The Guardian, this BBC TV segment, and this ESPN story. She presented the match ball at an international rugby match, and was offered book deals and film projects–that latter two she politely declined. Surreally, Chelsea Clinton and Barbara Streisand tweeted about her, rapidly growing her online following. “They’ll be disappointed!” quipped the social-media-shy fell runner.

“There was way more media stuff than I was prepared for,” says Jasmin a year later. “It was overwhelming, really.” During the race, she’d only had two-and-a-half hours of naps over three nights of racing, and she couldn’t even catch up on sleep due to all of the media attention. Her young family–including her 14-month-old daughter–and writing up her thesis all needed her too. “In the few weeks after the Spine, I didn’t really get time to sleep and recover. I was trying to please everyone–I was getting up at 5 a.m. to do interviews. It was a bit daft. Even now there’s still media stuff. I wasn’t prepared for how much of my life it would take up. It took a long time to recover, mentally and physically.”

She could have said ‘no’ more, but Jasmin felt she was in an important position. “To have so many people telling me they’ve been inspired, that’s a real privilege and I’m very grateful for that. I feel like this is an opportunity to show what I believe about gender equality–through action. I’ve been given this platform and I feel I should make the most of it and benefit other people who aren’t in such a lucky position as I am. So I’m aware of the value of doing interviews.”

She was brought up, with three brothers, believing she could achieve anything, regardless of gender. “But I’m really aware that other people don’t have those privileges. I feel very lucky to have had that upbringing and to have this platform now, to get a message out to other women. The story about taking part in sport, about breastfeeding, and those kinds of issues, I strongly believe in them. I just try to lead by example. People seem interested, which is nice.”

Jasmin in the Andes near Santiago, Chile in 1984. Her parents carried her for several days of hiking and wild camping on this trip. All photos courtesy of Jasmin Paris unless otherwise noted.

Indeed, the whole world was interested. Does she get recognized in the street? “It did happen a bit,” she chuckles. “At the doctor’s office, I remember a conversation, ‘You’re not that lady who…?’ More often it’s been people telling me about ‘this woman who did this thing…’ and they don’t realize it’s me. They seem surprised when it is!”

The Spine Race is a single-stage race run along the 268-mile Pennine Way National Trail, from the Peak District to Scotland, in mid-January where British winter is at its coldest, wettest, and boggiest, and when there are only about eight hours of daylight. It labels itself as “Britain’s most brutal race” and few would disagree. Though the wider running world may have been surprised by Jasmin’s record-breaking run, those who already knew her weren’t.

The daughter of mathematicians Jeff Paris and Alena Vencovská, the Paris clan grew up in Glossop, in Peak District National Park, and used to spend six to eight weeks in Alena’s Czech Republic every year, going to school and living in a remote cottage in the hills. Provisions would be pulled up on a sledge and there was no central heating or TV. “It was a wonderful place to be a child, so much freedom. We were in the woods all day building dens. We came back when we were hungry.”

Around 1986 on Dark Peak, above Tintwistle Knarr in England’s Peak District. Her family used to go for picnics around there.

As she grew older, Jasmin often hiked in mountains with her brother Vaclav. At secondary school she enjoyed swimming, teaching herself the front crawl and quickly getting onto the school team. She still loves swimming, especially in open water. “There’s this real adrenaline rush you get from cold water. I still do quite a bit of it.”

She also enjoyed football (American soccer) and might have done it more seriously, but for an accident. She started horse riding at age seven and had her own steed from 11. “My parents weren’t horse people at all, so I did everything, that was the deal. That taught me a lot of responsibility and I spent all my time at the stables.” At age 17, however, she fell and completely tore her anterior cruciate ligament and since then has had no ACL in her left knee. “Bizarrely it’s okay for fell running, but it’s not stable enough for football, so I gave it up.”

With her dad and brother Vaclav, in approximately 1992, near Merrick, Scotland. They wild camped, and there were clearly a lot of midges!

Aged 11, Jasmin said she wanted to be a vet and hasn’t changed her mind since. “I loved being around animals, I found disease interesting, and I liked the idea of being able to help both the animals and, indirectly, their people–I still love all these things! I imagined myself initially as a sort of James Herriot[, a famous English vet and author]. Sadly, I discovered farm vets spend a lot of time in the car, which put me off. “

She studied veterinary science at the University of Liverpool, where she was a member of the Open Air Club. “It was a hiking club, really. I just wanted to get to mountains–often Snowdonia and the Lake District–and get out of the city. I found a family of people I fit in with.” At university she ran sometimes, “Maybe 15 to 20 minutes once a week, but I wouldn’t have called myself a runner. All through my life, if I’ve missed a bus or something I’d just run, which might be several miles. When I was a teenager and if I didn’t have a lift home from the stables, I would just run the three or four miles home, in my riding boots and heavy wax jacket.”

In her days of horse riding.

In 2008, she took up a post as a small-animal vet back in the Peak District. “I’d heard of this thing called hashing[, a quirky mixture of running and orienteering,] and I was amazed at the idea of people running through wild places. A colleague suggested I run a fell race. I just had normal running shoes on and I spent most of the time on my bum [because of the normal slippery conditions of fell running]. I really loved it.”

She joined a local club and within six months had run her first ultramarathon, the 33-mile Howarth Hobble. Her longest previous run had been 17 miles, with her dog. “I was a little nervous, but not that much. I ran with two friends who were more experienced and I stayed with them till near the end. I think they thought they weren’t going to get in under six hours, so they dropped me, but I managed to finish under six hours too. I really loved it, the people, the atmosphere. I can still remember the checkpoints: there were donuts at one, hot dogs at another, and broken biscuits from a biscuit factory and double shots of whisky at still another.”

Two weeks later she ran the 20-mile Edale Skyline fell race, and two weeks after that the 31-mile Isle of Man Mountain-Ultra. “I remember being broken by the end of that spell. But I loved it.”

A love affair had begun. But a 12-month work experience in Minnesota, USA interrupted things. “I was working super hard. I ran when I could, usually on concrete. It was the main reason I wanted to come back to the U.K., to run on the fells again.”

In the summer of 2007, Jasmin takes a blood sample for a health screening from a wild white rhino in Kruger National Park, South Africa.

She successfully applied for a veterinary residency at Edinburgh University Small Animal Hospital in the Pentland Hills of Scotland, “because it was close to big hills.” Back living and running in hilly terrain and once some anemia was detected and treated, she started winning races. “That was the turning point. I won a race called Slioch Horseshoe, which was quite a big deal because I beat people I’d looked up to as god-like.”

Paris excelled at longer fell races. She won the Scottish Hill Running Championships in 2014 and both that and the British Fell Running Championships in 2015. She was breaking course records, such as the 17-mile Isle of Jura Fell Race. At longer races she’d frequently place in the top-10 overall.

In 2015 she set a new women’s record at the 60-mile Fellsman, finishing fourth overall. She was also first female and second overall in the five-day, 200-mile stage race called the Dragon’s Back Race. (Her then-husband-to-be Konrad Rawlik was third.) Toward the end of the second day’s stage, she been running in front of overall race leader and record-breaking fell runner Jim Mann when he overtook her.

“It was clear he didn’t want anyone attaching themselves to him. But I went with him. I don’t think he expected me to stick with him. When I was still there at the bottom of the mountain, he kind of realized he wasn’t going to drop me. We ran the rest of the leg together.” When Jim ran out of water and food and had “a bit of a wobble,” instead of racing for the stage win, Jasmin shared her supplies. Did she consider dropping him? “It didn’t feel like the right thing to do. He’d shown me the way earlier and we’d been chatting together. It would spoil the day.”

Hiking with her brother Vaclav in Slovenia in 2010.

2016 was “a really amazing year.” First Paris ran the famous 66-mile Bob Graham Round, a circuit of 42 fells (mountains) with 26,900 feet of ascent in England, in a time of 15:24, taking more than two-and-a-half hours off the previous women’s record.

Next she ran Scotland’s 58-mile Charlie Ramsay Round (24 summits, 28,500 feet of ascent, and considered harder than the Bob Graham) in 16:13. That wasn’t just a new women’s record, but an overall record. (It remained that way until 2019, when Es Tresidder ran it just one minute quicker–with Jasmin helping him.)

In August that year, she finished sixth at UTMB, her first 100-mile race. In winning both the Tromsø Skyrace and the Glen Coe Skyline, she became champion of the 2016 Skyrunner World Extreme Series. In October, a knowingly tired Jasmin set a new women’s record for the 61-mile Paddy Buckley Round in Wales (47 summits and 28,000 feet of ascent) with a time of 18:33.

The Ramsay and Bob Graham are her best memories. “The Bob Graham was first and I didn’t know what I was capable of at that point. On the day, I felt amazing and it caused such a stir. It was an incredible day of running with friends. But the Ramsay Round is our Scottish round and it felt like more of an achievement. Afterward we went to the pub and drank bubbly and beer and ate burgers. It was just a fantastic day out in the hills with friends.”

Jasmin packed several years’ worth of achievements into those 12 months because the following year she hoped to become a mum. That was after marrying Konrad, also in 2016, on the island of Jura. The pair had met, unsurprisingly, at a fell race back in 2011. “We were both doing all the long fell races that year so we saw each other a few times and it went from there.” They did the Original Mountain Marathon (OMM) together and won the mixed class. “It was the start of a lot of fun adventures running together in the hills.”

With her husband Konrad on Hadrian’s Wall along the Pennine Way in England in 2014.

They’ve also had success, twice, at the 140-mile multi-stage TransAlpine Run. “I know a lot of couples who can’t run together because they argue too much. With us it doesn’t happen at all–it still might when we’re not running! Konrad is definitely a stronger navigator than me, so generally he does it. But if he’s having a weaker patch I’ll take over. We seem to get on really well together when we run.”

Their daughter Rowan was born in November of 2017, 10 days after Jasmin’s last fell race and the same day she ran eight kilometers. “I was quite lucky with pregnancy. I didn’t feel too bad. Everyone’s pregnancy is different and I don’t want people to think they’re not doing well if they’re not able to run.”

At the Tinto Hill Race, 10 days before Rowan was born.

She started running again six weeks postpartum and feels being a parent has changed her relationship with running. “It’s the only thing you’re doing just for you. I don’t know where time goes any more, you’re just being a mum, potty training and reading stories, and it’s wonderful. But running is very precious time just for me, which adds a new dimension to it.”

In 2018 Jasmin won the British Fell Running Championships again, though she didn’t feel she was yet back to her best. So she signed up for the Spine Race as motivation to get fitter. For three months she got up at 5 a.m. almost every day, after an interrupted night’s sleep, to train. Her experiences at the race have been told countless times in various media, but you can read her own report on her personal blog.

Her win was a mixed blessing. So is she tracking the race this year, as it takes place this week? “I’ll definitely follow it on online and there’ll be some nostalgia. Part of me will be sad I’m not there. I’ll miss the atmosphere. It’s all encompassing, it overwhelms you, you’re so immersed in it. And it’ll be fun to watch what the leaders do.”

“At the same time, [the race and its aftermath] took a lot out of me. The hunger to do things where I might get noticed has gone a little bit this year. I imagine that edge, that racing hunger, will come back. I’m not in any way bitter about it. It’s just one of those things. It was nice to run [La Petite Trotte à Léon (PTL) in 2019 with Konrad and Jim, they placed first mixed team], because it’s not really a race, so people aren’t that interested.”

Jasmin’s Spine Race win and overall record was one of the all-time great ultrarunning performances, yet the vet has rebuffed sponsorship offers from big brands to stay with small British company inov-8. She says she is still excited by skyraces, such as Trofeo Kima and Glen Coe Skyline. “I love technical races, the challenge of moving across that terrain. We feel a duty not to fly too much. I don’t want to sound preachy, but we are more aware of our carbon footprint. But I could see us maybe spending summer in the Alps sometime, training and racing out there and perhaps ending that spell with UTMB.” Ultra Tour Monte Rosa, Hardrock 100, and Tor des Géants are also on the list.

Jasmin and Rowan.

How does Jasmin reconcile her competitive side with the fact she genuinely seems to just love being in the hills? “I’m definitely competitive,” she says, “but I feel it’s more about a drive to do the very best I can. I’ve always been like this–when I’m passionate about something, I throw myself at it with everything. That applies to my work, hence the specialization and the PhD. I don’t think I was ever the child who sulked for being placed down the line in a class at a horse show. I was more embarrassed or disappointed and looking at what I could do to make the situation better.”

“I suppose I tend to set my sights high and I have the self-confidence to believe my goals are achievable. After that I just need to prove it. Given that I’m doing it more for myself, I don’t feel a big need for the acknowledgement of the media and so on. The response of my family and friends is the most fulfilling reward after doing something well. They are the ones whose opinion I value.”

She insists she doesn’t feel like an exceptional athlete. “I just gave it a go and believed in myself and was excited about the challenge. Regardless of gender, anyone who takes on a challenge and believes in themselves could be surprised by how far they can go.”

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

What stories do you have of adventuring, running, or racing with Jasmin? Leave a comment to share! Thanks.

Running in the Pentland Hills of Scotland.

Damian Hall
Damian Hall is a British ultrarunner, coach, and outdoor journalist who has several Ultra-Trail World Tour top-10 finishes to his name, including fifth place at the 2018 UTMB. More memorably, the tea addict also ran a marathon dressed as a toilet. He is supported by inov-8. More info at @ultra_damo (Instagram) and his website.