Eszter Csillag, who is from Hungary but who lives in Hong Kong, placed fifth at last year’s UTMB. Since then, she’s gone on to take fourth at the 2022 Trail World Championships 80k, and third at this year’s Western States 100.
In this interview, she talks about how she might start pushing the pace a little earlier in this race, how she sees having fun as an essential component to racing, and her excitement about sharing some miles with the other women.
Eszter Csillag Pre-2023 UTMB Interview Transcript
iRunFar: Meghan Hicks of iRunFar. I’m with Eszter Csillag. It’s a couple of days before the 2023 UTMB. Good morning, Eszter. How are you?
Eszter Csillag: Good morning. I’m fine, thank you.
iRunFar: So here we are in front of your second UTMB. When I look at your last year in ultrarunning, I think many athletes would be quite satisfied with the year that you’ve had. You were fifth at UTMB last year. You were fourth at the Trail World Championships last fall, and you were just third at the Western States Endurance Run in June. That’s quite a statue to stand on coming to UTMB this year. How does that feel?
Csillag: Well, I thank you so much. Yeah, I was very satisfied with my 2022. I look at Western States as it’s already 2022. And I see UTMB like, I’m just really happy to be here. And you know, ready to go and do this very big loop around Mont Blanc. And I’m so happy that I had a great, great training block after Western States, which is always a question like, your body can hold on. So yeah, I think I’m just very happy to be here and that my body’s strong, fit, and ready for this new challenge. And yeah, for sure, having done it last year, it gives me an extra like, playfulness, or an extra challenge, in a positive way. Like, what I want to do differently without taking away that last year, for me, that was a dream race. Like it was, I was absolutely stunned with the race. So yeah, it’s nice to be here for sure.
iRunFar: Taking fifth at UTMB last year, I mean, there’s only a couple of ways to get better from taking that. There’s four positions and then there’s a little bit faster running. I mean, but everybody thinks about like, you know what, we all think about like, what you did during the race and how you can improve upon that. So let’s talk about that for a moment. When you look back at last year, what do you think are the things you executed the best? And what are some things you’re thinking about for this year?
Csillag: Yeah, I think I understand there are only four positions.
Csillag: But at the end, it’s always your own race. And as you said, like what I did, and what I want to change in that, and it doesn’t matter in what position it takes me, or what will be my time, it’s more about the journey. Because it’s always the journey that has to be the most important thing. And then the result comes with it. But there are so many things we can’t control. So last year was my first 100 mile, and I was not taking any risk. Like, zero risk.
Csillag: So, my approach was no race till Courmayeur. I put on every warm clothes. It was a very warm night, but I just didn’t know how my body reacts in high altitudes in the Alps because I’m not used to that. I don’t know how I behave and I didn’t want to have hypothermia. So, it was just playing safe 100%. And then the race started for me from Courmayeur. Until then, I just really enjoyed. I was looking at the sky like, Oh, this is how people enjoy the race.
Csillag: And then from Courmayeur, I started to run and said, Oh, this is so nice. Now finally like, I can start running how I feel. And you know, it was really a dream race because I had no difficult moments. And I was able to eat throughout the race, and I was just happy. Like, it was a really nice day. And I was able to arrive, I think, with too much energy. So for sure, for me it’s a learning experience. Like, like life is a learning experience. But also trail running. Like every race, it gives you a new opportunity to improve, or to work or to play with something new. So in that sense, Western States was already a next step for me, where I was holding on, but also I was play, like, more relying from Robinson Flat on how I am feeling.
Csillag: So, let’s say the first 50 kilometer was really holding on, and maybe this year is with UTMB, my question is like, being here feeling good, it’s like, just to play more. But certainly, because I feel that I always use my brain during the race, is how can I do that in a smart way? Without doing too stupid, too obviously stupid things.
Csillag: But for sure, playing is something which is now important for me during UTMB and really enjoy the most, the race. And I think that that is what I’ve tried to do.
iRunFar: Yeah. So, to sort of synthesize that, last year you felt like you played cautious and safe until Courmayeur, halfway through the race, and then started to push. And then you said at Western States, you played cautious for the first 30 miles (50 kilometers) and then you started to sort of see how things were. Are you saying that with UTMB this year, maybe you’ll start with that a little bit sooner than Courmayeur, or? Yesh.
Csillag: Yeah, I mean, maybe if I look at the balance, like there is the plan, and then the feelings. And yeah, I am now maybe going towards more on the feeling rather than what I plan to do. What I want to do is that, to rely on my feelings.
iRunFar: Got it.
Csillag: Yeah, let’s see how it goes.
iRunFar: So, instead of watching the splits and the plan, perhaps as closely as you did, you have the plan, but you’re thinking more in your head, How do I feel? and How do I adapt to these feelings? more moment to moment.
Csillag: I’m very bad at looking at my watch.
iRunFar: Okay. Okay.
Csillag: So even at Western States, I really didn’t know how many hours I was running. I was just told when I arrived at, you know, your time is so, yeah, I have splits. I have splits also now. But when I’m doing the race, usually I never look at my watch.
iRunFar: I love that.
Csillag: And sometimes I just really do the splits that I’ve written in the sheet, so I find it kind of amazing how abstract numbers can become reality with a physical activity of running. You know, it means just that you put down the right pace, which you were ready to do.
iRunFar: That you know yourself and your fitness.
Csillag: Exactly. Yeah. And with the course that you have ahead.
iRunFar: Right. Let’s talk for a minute about that aspect of play. I mean, I think that’s what draws us all to the sport, that we get to go play in the mountains. But then I think in the heart of competition, in the heart of racing, sometimes we get really far into our heads, and it’s hard to play again, right? It’s hard to just let yourself be natural a little bit. How do you do that in a race? How do you make sure you’re out of your head and in the world around you?
Csillag: I was listening to a podcast and it was so nice. They talked at one point about playing and what’s the definition of playing, and they say, you know what the kids do when they play, they do the best and they are enjoying it at its fullest. And it’s like, oh, wow, okay, I like this world. Like I resonate with it, and to be very honest, I’m not a good competitor.
Csillag: Like, when it comes to competition, how can I pass, I feel so bad. So, if I play, I feel like okay, we’re playing. I can pass you. Then the play because the only way to compete. Yeah, that is, yeah.
iRunFar: It becomes a helpful mindset. For you as a person out there trying to compete rather than competing against, it’s more like playing with people out there.
Csillag: Exactly. And also I think, like at Western States, we were pushing each other. So it was a really positive play because what was the outcome, is that everyone run. It’s best. Then it’s so good to play together. And then yeah, sure we have the end result, but still, it feels like we were pushing each other limits. So, it’s also good. And on the other hand, it’s always to do your own race. But within your own world is also a good thing to do it with other people, and being that coordination, or constellation. Yeah.
iRunFar: Let’s talk about that. Being in that constellation with other people. This women’s race this year is incredible. It’s really, you know, there are a few very fast women who potentially, you know, will win the race, but then the depth of the women’s field is really something. Like, what are you thinking about in terms of spending time out there with the women on the entrant’s list?
Csillag: Yeah, it’s I think it’s a very strong field and it’s really good. It’s amazing. It’s good to be there together and see what we will do. Again, if we play well, I guess it’s we will push each other, so it’s good when there is a strong field. It’s not the time that you would have done by yourself, but with the others. So, in that sense, it’s good when you have a strong field.
Csillag: And yeah, let’s see how it goes. And, you know, everyone has its own strengths and weakness or how to say, but it’s always a long day with so many uncertainties. It’s also how you deal with that. But for sure, I’m very happy to run with all of them. It’s good.
iRunFar: Let’s talk about those uncertainties for a minute. Like, this is a course that has a lot of complexities to it. There’s starting in the evening and, you know, beginning with running through the night, and then seeing the next day. There’s the variable of weather. There’s the fact that you go long distances between seeing your crew so you have to be quite independent for a long time. What are those complexities that you’re really focusing on for this year?
Csillag: We were really prepared at Western States.
iRunFar: [laughs] Aid stations every couple of miles.
Csillag: It was my first American race. I’m not really used to that.
Csillag: But yeah.
iRunFar: Luxury 100-mile racing.
Csillag: Exactly. I think it’s really, for me, what worked so far is that I try to think on every detail and try to have a plan. So for sure, there’ll be things happen, but as long as you are prepared, it doesn’t come as hard. And we know that uncertainty is part of the sport. So, it’s also then the mental part comes into play. I think much more rather than weather or night or whatever, because that is put down on paper. Like when you sign up, you know, you start at 6:00 pm. You know you run through the night. You know the course is long. You know you have that elevation. So those things are there. It’s like, it’s up to you how much you prepare for that. Then it comes I think the mental part, but which is so important that at this distance, I feel.
iRunFar: Yeah. So, thinking about the physical stuff and then trying to wrap around that the psychology of being out there.
Csillag: Yeah, yeah. I think that that is like, what, for me, it’s very important. Like, the mental part. And yeah, I work on that just as hard as on my physical training.
iRunFar: I love that Eszter Csillag, I wish you the best of luck in finding the best version of yourself on your second lap around Mont Blanc.
Csillag: Thank you. Thank you so much.