Age-Old Runners: Emma Roca [RIP: August 12, 1973 – June 18, 2021]

An interview with 47-year-old Emma Roca.

By on December 2, 2020 | Comments

It’s with great sadness that we share the passing of Emma Roca on June 18, 2021 after a battle with cancer. A mother, wife, runner, adventure racer, firefighter, and scientist, Emma was a remarkable person. The Catalana was both… and sometimes simultaneously the toughest of competitors and most compassionate of compatriots. In relentlessly showing what she could do, she showed all of us what we are capable of. She was also capable of showing what joy we could share with others.

It was an honor to befriend her and observe her both on and off the trail. If you ever witnessed her tenacity or her vibrance, you will not soon forget it.

-Bryon Powell, June 18, 2021

[In addition to the article below, you can also read our 2014 article Emma Roca: A Force of Nature to learn more about her.]

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“Age-Old Runners” is an article series where we explore runners’ performance potential after the age of 45 by interviewing excellent middle-aged runners. Is there still potential to improve? What roles do motivation, mindset, and specific training and recovery techniques play in allowing runners in their mid-forties to mid-sixties to continue to excel? To learn more about this series’ goals, check out its introductory article.

Emma Roca is 47 years old. I met her during the 2014 Leadville Trail 100 Mile when she passed me at mile 97. I was lying on the ground vomiting, and she stopped to make sure I was okay. I have been a fan ever since. Emma is one of those wildly accomplished and genuinely friendly people who seem to have more time and talent than is possible.

Since turning 45, Emma has won the Costa Brava Stage Run 85k, the Trail Vall de Ribes 65k, and Trail Andorra La Sportiva 65k. She’s also placed second at the Run Rabbit Run 100 Mile and Ultra-Trail Penyagolosa, and third at Ultra-Trail Australia. Her team placed eighth at the televised 2019 Eco Challenge Fiji. She also managed to finish her PhD in Biomedical Engineering in 2019 examining the effects running of ultramarathons on non-elite athletes.

When she was young, in her early forties, she won the Run Rabbit Run 100 Mile and the Leadville Trail 100 Mile, was second at the Hardrock 100, placed third at UTMB, and took fifth at the Western States 100.

Emma also has a long history in adventure racing beginning in 1995. Her team won the 2010 Raid World Championship. She started running competitively when she was 22, so her running age is about 25 years old. She’s also raced duathlons, triathlons, downhill skiing, ski mountaineering, and mountain-bike races.

And she’s a firefighter in Catalonia, Spain.

The following is a transcript of a Zoom interview with Emma. It has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Emma Roca during the 2019 EcoChallenge Fiji as part of Team Summit from Spain. Photo: #WorldsToughestRace/Poby/Amazon

What do you think about your potential to improve as a runner at age 47?

I think after 40 years old, everything, especially the recovery, is slower and harder. So you need more time between ultramarathons whether you are a male or a female.

So one of the things [that impacts potential] is the recovery time, and the other is the risk of an injury and how you recover from an injury. In fact, now we are finishing a research article with a very good traumatologist…, and he says that the problem with being older [in] ultrarunning and having more risk of knee injury is not the quantity of miles that you are doing, but more [importantly] if you had any injury before.

And, of course, the speed [impacts potential.] You are not as fast as before, and it’s very uncomfortable for me to do some fast training. I just prefer to walk or run easily [in training.] Races will put me on a fast pace. Before, when I had a trainer–now I don’t have a trainer–and he said, “Today you have to do one minute at maximal level.” Oh, I hate it, Liza!  And becoming older, I hate [speedwork] more and more. So for me, the fast training is the little races I do before the big ones.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, how often did you race?

Because of the recovery time, you cannot do many races. It’s not safe, and it’s not healthy. One of the results of my PhD was that one of the risk factors for ultra-racing injuries is that people did one [ultra] race every month. This is not healthy.

And, for me, the age also made me relax about [racing often.] The year I ran Leadville and then I did UTMB, I got injured. I had a stress fracture of my femur. This is the answer of the body when you are doing more than your body can absorb. [Now I run] three ultra races per year. Maximum. And between each ultra race, you need, more or less, three months. Because you need some weeks to recover from the race, some weeks to start training a little, and a few weeks to do fast training. But you cannot do fast training if you’re tired. So you need the recovery time. Also, your mind needs the time to come back again and say, “Yes! I want to eat these miles!”

So are you doing 5k and 10k races for your speedwork?

Yes, and sometimes half marathons.

And how many of those short races do you do prior to your ultras?

As I get older, I just choose, perhaps, three marathons to train for ultramarathons. And also also half marathons and some 10ks and 5ks. I hate them though.

Emma Roca. All photos courtesy of Emma Roca unless otherwise noted.

How many days a week do you take off from running?

In fact, I do several disciplines. I swim, I do a lot of biking, and [also] running. I try to do, more or less, 40 or 50 kilometers of running per week. That is nothing compared with marathon runners. They do 200k. But then I do more kilometers biking. And if I can go to the gym, I do some training there. And last year, I started [adventure] racing again with EcoChallenge. I did a race in Fiji, so I started to paddle too…. It’s very important to combine the other sports… when you are getting older. It’s very important to not only run. With only running, it’s easy to get injured…. I do a lot of gravel biking because road cycling is dangerous with the cars and people looking at the cell phones. I sold my road bike, and I combine gravel with mountain biking two or three times a week. Then three or four times [a week], I do running.

Are your long training runs as long as they were when you started running?

No…. I never train the same distance for one day as the race I will join. For me, it’s not the way of training. You waste a lot. You take a lot of calcium from your bones. You can have many problems with osteoporosis, especially as a woman. So I’m very concerned with not doing too much. I’ve been running many years, and these years give me the endurance, so I just need to do more quality than quantity. But I hate the quality. And I prefer quantity.

Can you run faster times at the races you’ve run previously? Could you run faster at Leadville, Hardrock, or Run Rabbit Run?

I could run faster, perhaps, after the first half of the race. Because [during] the first half, phew! The younger women are really fast. I have more mental endurance. I can do faster running after the first half of the race because of my experience, especially with nutrition, pacing, resting, and the skills in the different technical parts…. With all these strategies, all these experiences, I can put them together for the second half. Because you learn you can conserve. You can maintain a pace that can give you more fast running [later]…. So if you do the things properly… why not [improve]? Why not?

What is the appropriate weekly running volume for an older runner to aim for? Is it necessary to decrease your weekly volume to stay healthy?

I think that, getting older, it’s not good to do such quantity of miles. You have the endurance from all your years of training. You don’t need to train that much. It’s better to do fewer [miles] and more quality. This is my feeling. Because, getting older…, your veins and arteries are not as elastic as when you were younger. So if they don’t have this elasticity, then your blood doesn’t arrive so quickly to your extremities, to your bones, to your muscles, and the contraction is not as efficient as it was before. So what does it mean? You can have more problems with the muscles and with your metabolism, and you are at risk to have overtraining stress, and stress fractures, and all this stuff. Perhaps if you are Kilian Jornet, then it’s not a problem…. But we are not Kilian. Our body does not have the same plasticity as it did when it was young. For me, to run such quantity of miles above 45 or 50k, it’s not healthy.

How should older athletes figure out what a healthy volume and intensity should be?

They know if their performance is maintained at races. I really think it’s the time to combine sports–to do not just running, but to try to develop other disciplines.

And another question: What is your objective after turning 45 and 50 years old? Is it being top three at the global classification? Is it being top three in your age group? What is your target? Because if you want to do sport for pleasure, you don’t need to do such quantity. And if you want to be the best overall, [then you should] forget it. Forget it. The people who are coming behind you who are 25 and 30 years old right now, they are winning UTMB. They are winning everything. So forget it. They have the explosivity. Even if they don’t have your endurance, they can be really tired, and they can still go very fast. And being older, you know, when you are tired, you are not going fast.

Do you think about your age when you’re racing against younger runners?

No. When they pass me, I think: Keep calm. Let’s see who is the last one at the end. Keep calm.

Have your racing goals changed?

Well, when you are very competitive, it’s very difficult when you have the bib on to just say: “In this race, just finish.” Bullshit. You don’t want just finish. You are going like hell. But then, you realize that being the best of your group age could also be great. And if, at the end, I am top three or top five overall, perfect.

But it’s not my goal to be first overall or second or third now. Perhaps three years ago, or four… It also depends on who is racing though. Two years ago, I went to Australia with Ultra-Trail World Tour, and it was curious because it was [a lot of] very young people. And, in Australia, there are many racers, especially women, who don’t come to Europe or America, so you don’t know their level. But they are there, and they are fast, and they are good. And I thought, I have experience. I won this and this and this; I can win this race. So I started [ Ultra-Trail Australia 100k] so excited and too fast for my age. I was first in the beginning, but after five or six hours, second came in front of me, then third came in front of me, and then my brain was like: Oh Emma! You are old! What were you thinking you could do? Why did you think you could be first? Because the girls that were passing me were 15 or 20 years younger than me. Then you repeat in your mind: And you have three kids… What do you want? You know? All the time you are thinking about this. And then I said: Emma, keep calm. Okay. Take your pace. They just passed you. Perhaps the winning is very expensive right now, but try to be top five. And then with the mind of: Okay, top five, I took third place. And the fourth [place] was also a veteran like me. And she came 10 seconds behind me. So third and fourth were veterans. First and second were 20 years younger.

Has your desire to race changed?

Yes, I think when you start you have a lot of expectations and [try] many different races. You don’t know what you love…. You are doing duathlons, triathlons. I did Ironman. I did a lot of mountain-bike stage races. I did many things, you know. And then, when you are getting older, you are more selective. You are doing more things that you love, more for the place that [the race] is done, or perhaps, for the money that you can win. Because, at the end, you have a family, and you have work. And you don’t think like a teenager who thinks everything [will be] paid by [their] parents.

And also, because your recovery is slow, you just choose the races that you would like to do. In the beginning, when the sponsors say, “I want you to do this, this, this.” You say, “Yes, yes, yes.” And you did it. And now… no. After turning 40 years old, with my experience and my sponsors, I said, “No, I [will] decide which races I want to go to.” And this is a big change.

When will you stop racing?

Well, in fact, this year, I had a problem. I had vulvar cancer…. [I am] good right now. Perfect. I am running. I am biking. Five months ago, I had surgery. But [before that], I’d had more than four months with pain. So I suffered a lot, and this made me change mentally. When they diagnosed me, they said, “You have a carcinoma.” And I said, “What?”…[I]t’s not possible. I do sport. I eat properly. I have a happy family. I have a happy work [life.]” So this made me change a lot about what I wanted next.

I want to race again, but perhaps not ultra racing as I did before. I prefer, perhaps, adventure racing…. Because with running, I might have a problem with the lymphatic [drainage.] But the doctors don’t know. This is a very strange cancer for young people [to have] and especially athletes…. My recovery five months after the surgery is spectacular. So why not running again? But not with obsession, you know? I will try to do some adventure racing. I don’t know if I will come back to ultrarunning…. Right now, you just value your environment and the people who love you. You know that life gave you another opportunity. I will take it.

I hope next year I can do some adventure racing because my team wants me, and I want [to race] with them. I am still fit to be in front [in adventure races.] This is the thing that changes in your mind as you get old. You are trying to find the competitions that favor you. Adventure racing [requires] a lot of mental [strength], and it’s team building and teamwork. So, for me, it’s perfect.

But if not, if there are not competitions, I want to do some activity every day. That could be swimming, or paddling, or biking, or just staying with my kids and walking around, or finding mushrooms. I love to hunt for mushrooms.

Emma in the hospital for cancer treatment earlier this year.

Why do you think older runners stop racing?

I think because of injuries. Many of the people that I met when I was racing 10 years ago, they lasted four or five years at the top. After that, they disappeared. And one of the reasons was injuries. They did a lot of ultra races in a short time. A lot. And that’s a lot of impact for your body. And it’s not only the muscles. It’s the heart, the bones, the kidneys. They didn’t recover properly between races, and then the injuries didn’t let them [race] again in front, and that will mentally take you down.

Perhaps the second [reason] some of them [stop racing is that] we have to work. And you need a lot of time during the week to train for an ultra race. It’s not easy to work and to train for these distances. Perhaps for a half marathon, or for a marathon, but not for an ultramarathon. When you have to work, when you have to raise kids, and you have to do the other things, it’s not easy. It’s not easy to train, especially to train well to be in front. After some age, you have to take care of what will be the future of your life, especially financially.

What distresses you about getting older as an athlete?

What distresses me is that the youngsters are very fast. I’m getting slower and slower. You cannot maintain the quantity at a good pace. Also, everything pains you more. It’s more painful after a long training [run.] Your pelvis, and your bones, and your back [hurt.] Five years ago, I did a Spartan race with obstacles…. And I was dead at the end. And I said, “Oh my goodness, my body is dead. These races are only for young people.”

Do you do any specific strength training outside of cross training?

In the morning, I do a half an hour of abdominals and some flexions, and some different stretching exercises. I use the fit ball and the Bosu ball, but nothing specific with weightlifting. When I work with the fire service, because I work as a firefighter, I have one or two days a week there, then I do some weightlifting. But I’m not constant with that.

Did you do more strength training when you were younger?

When I was younger, yes. And when I got older, my trainer used to tell me, “Emma you have to do more gym work.” And I said, “Oh, I hate it!”

Do you take an off season?

No. I just take some weeks more relaxed. When I was in the hospital, I had five hours surgery… and the day after, I put some elastic bands on the bed, and I did some arm [work]. And the nurse said, “Emma, please, what are you doing? And I said, “Oh I feel good.” “Yes, but you had this surgery, and you need to stay in the bed for seven days.” And I said, “Why if I don’t have pain?” So I will move everyday. And I’ve walked all these five months since the surgery. I did more than 70k per week walking, and it was not a problem.

Training specifics:

  • Weekly running volume: Forty to 50 kilometers
  • Strength training: Cross training, 30-minute core routine daily, weightlifting sporadically
  • Off-season: No
  • Sleep: Seven hours minimum
  • Race nutrition: 226ERS sports nutrition, Skratch, homemade rice cakes, nuts, fruit, soup, potatoes, sparkling water
  • Recovery: Three months between ultra races minimum

Three factors Emma attributes her running performance to:

  1. Consistency
  2. Motivation/love for the sport
  3. Self belief

A moment of mountaintop joy for Emma.

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Liza Howard
Liza Howard is a longtime ultrarunner who lives in San Antonio, Texas. She teaches for NOLS Wilderness Medicine, coaches, directs the non-profit Band of Runners, and drives her kids around in a minivan.