Jonathan Albon, 2021 Les Templiers Champion, Interview

The U.K.’s Jonathan Albon won the 2021 Les Templiers in his debut at this iconic race. In the following interview, Jonathan shares how the race played out from his perspective, how his skills matched up to the race course, and what resources he’s pulled into his training, including the book Training for the Uphill Athlete.

For more on how the race played out, read our in-depth results article.

Jonathan Albon, 2021 Les Templiers Champion, Interview

iRunFar: Bryon Powell of iRunFar, here with Jonathan Albon after his win at the 2021 Grand Trail des Templiers. How are you?

Jonathan Albon: I’m pretty good, actually quite stiff. Sore.

iRunFar: You got worked today a little bit.

Albon: No it was tough, it was tough. I’ve done 6 ½ hour races but normally they are steep, you know technicality, you only run may be 50, 55k. Whereas this, you’re running the entire time almost. There’s some hiking sections, but using the same muscles in a very different way a lot more.

iRunFar: The race went out hot, at least from looking at it. There were 10 or 12 guys that just were trained.

Albon: When it’s runnable like this it’s hard just to make gaps as well. so the peloton, if you will, kind of sticks together a bit better as well. So it did feel like there was a big group of us all going at a pretty good speed. But I at least felt like I was running my own race, I even took off on the downhill and put in a bit of a gap and then they caught me back up and I just felt like I was cruising fast and it was really manageable for me energy wise. But whether my muscles in my legs could actually take that pounding was the big question mark as I was running along.

iRunFar: Yeah, those first 10, 20 kilometers, they’re just ticking on by. You’re in the lead some but there is also this huge group, literally like 10 or 12 guys together at 20k, within a minute. There really wasn’t a gap opening up I guess.

Albon: Not really, but then randomly I managed to get a minute gap somewhere after the first aid station, so after 35k. And then that gap, I kind of decided by then maybe I should just try and keep this gap. And then I kind of, in hindsight, I think maybe that was a bit early, so to then go on and run however much it was, like 40, 45k or whatever it is.

iRunFar: I mean that’s gotta be the hardest position, to be in first by just a little bit.

Albon: Yeah, and then knowing that you’re not actually growing your gap as well and you’re looking over your shoulder, you’re wondering how fast they’re going and trying to pace yourself, try not to push too hard but still try and keep the gap there, at least stay out of sight. So as soon as they see you it’s kind of like they can reel you in a lot easier. And then just the terrain got so much slower in that second half so it becomes frustrating. At some point you thought the race was really ticking by, you’re not going to take that long or you’ve got good energy, because now you’re fighting the terrain, there’s a lot of bends.

iRunFar: The sub 4 k’s are over?

Albon: It’s a different battle.

iRunFar: And not just ups and downs, it’s convoluted.

Albon: It was an actual trail, like a proper trail race, it was rough. It wasn’t so much technical as in if you fall you’ll die in many places, but it was definitely, it was very rough. Which I did enjoy as well because I think if it would just been 80k of what we were doing in the first 20k it might have got a little bit boring so I was glad it did get a bit technical, but it definitely did make energy management and pacing and staying out front a bit more challenging.

iRunFar: And then you come to the last hill, and you’re not alone yet.

Albon: I kind of figured that the last bit would suit me loads because you have to hike pretty much. And then the down hills I thought were going to be technical and they were for the most part technical, so I thought if I can get to those last two climbs I think I’m like, pretty good. And then the first of the two I felt pretty bad. So it was hot, the sun had come out, it seemed to be really facing the sun, I did not feel very spiky, good at all. And then it wasn’t like you did the steep climb, I hiked out fine and then it went gradual for like a k, into the aid stations. Then you just feel like you’re moving so slow and it’s kind of around 5%, you should be striding out but you’re not anymore. So that was like a struggle but then still I managed to keep this two minute gap the whole way through, the last climb is a bit more manageable, it’s a bit more less big and I kind of knew if I got to the top there than that was it. So I was kind of thinking back to Tromso [Skyrace], thinking at least I’m not doing 1100 meters of it, so it can’t be that bad. Then I got down, finished and was very happy.

iRunFar: Do you think if you had that last downhill, do you see that as an advantage for yourself, if you were just a minute ahead of Seb [Spehler]?

Albon: Yeah, I think I could have smashed that downhill faster. I could’ve done it really well. But it’s tough, these down hills on tired legs with 80k on your legs, it’s different if you’re going out and have them fresh so I’m pretty sure that could’ve played in to my advantage but I don’t know Seb that well. I know he can run, he is a bit of a beast. Who knows, that was also part of the thing with knowing that there’s someone behind me and knowing who it probably is and having a lot of question marks as to what his skills are or I mean, even looking at previous races that he’s done here and how fast he’s gone, the average speed he’s had, it’s impressive. So to know that he’s in good shape, he’s injury free and he’s just two minutes behind me for four or five hours is pretty intimidating.

iRunFar: I mean you had Seb but you also had Benoît Cori, who made a move on you, those two have won four combined, I think the last four Les Templiers put together.

Albon: Generally I don’t really follow that many athletes and I’m not sort of following that many people but I think tactically it might be a good idea to do a little bit of research. Then again it’s ultimately… I’ll try and do the course as quickly as I can do it and maybe that’s the best way to go about it.

iRunFar: Maybe you match up and put in a surge with 10k to go if you’re fighting with somebody.

Albon: I definitely think it might have been a nicer race for me to wait a little bit with the gap and then try and make it in the end but I mean it was an experience and it’s always nice to battle through and know that you have that push in you. I obviously, in OCC [UTMB] I pushed harder than I ever thought I could do. And it’s great to find out that I can do it multiple times in a year or at least I haven’t lost it completely.

iRunFar: So you had that and I believe you ran Ultra Pirineu, as well, the marathon, and won that.

Albon: Yeah, that was about two or three weeks ago.

iRunFar: There’s one thing of having races on your calendar and planning for them. This was kind of a last minute addition in a rather long race.

Albon: Yeah, in the first race of the year I picked up a bit of a weird niggle in my ankle so I’m still not really sure what it was and it’s been getting steadily worse and it’s not been great after Ultra Pirineu, so I just thought I’m not going to do this. I did a couple of road runs last week and thought, I think my legs were pretty good. Could go and give it a shot. So I booked some flights on Sunday and then figured like, just had down, I’ve never been here before, it would be a cool trip anyway and I’m sure all enjoy myself. And I’ll just pull out if it gets that painful. I do think that biomechanically a lot of my other muscles were getting really stressed out. And I had a lot of problems for other muscles because I was probably running quite differently but I managed through and it’s kind of like that just gritted out kind of thing. And everyone gets aches and pains and different pains here and there and something like this anyway so just mine started maybe a little bit earlier.

iRunFar: So now you’ve made it through this one with your ankle sort of functioning, are you going to call it a season?

Albon: I think I would love to and I think I will, I’m definitely going to take a week off now. I’m going to go and see a physio, I’m going to get a scan done, trying take it seriously because I should do because then I need to train obviously through to next year. There is a Spartan World [Championships] in Abu Dhabi in December, which I should go to really. And then if trail world champs go ahead and February it’s like there is no break is it? It’s just sort of 6 to 7 weeks between every race. And I do want to get some skiing done too and I actually need to train at some point.

iRunFar: Yeah, about that.

Albon: So we’ll see; it’s fun. Since I had my toe operation I can actually run now, which is the most important thing and I’m enjoying running and it’s obviously paying off fitness wise, so the fact that I could actually run through the winter if I sort out the ankle obviously is like gold, and anyway, so I just need to be thankful for that.

iRunFar: So you said you do some skiing as well?

Albon: Not so much racing because obviously there hasn’t been much in the past two years and with touring races, bad weather and dodgy conditions and stuff, can obviously often get in the way. So I’ve only done a handful of races.

iRunFar: Straight ski mountaineering or?

Albon: Yeah, I would like to race a bit more that it’s mainly training so in the winter between 10,000 and 15,000 meters a week on the skis and a little bit of running on the side to. I was hoping this winter I do a bit more running anyway just to keep the running legs there. But that is amazing training, it’s really fun, you get so many hours done, it’s just a really fun sport in itself. I’m a big, big fan of mountaineering or ski touring. Just so lucky that I live somewhere I can do it.

iRunFar: Totally. So now you’re sort of building up, you have had a couple longer races now, are you eyeing anything even longer in the future?

Albon: Yeah, I think it is a challenge and it is fun. I still want to, I think for now at least, concentrate on the long races where you feel like you know your foot on the gas and you’re kind of, you are racing, it’s intense. Rather than just I need to manage myself for the entire race instead. So I still think I’m in that racing place but I would love to do like UTMB or Western States [100] at some point. And may be CCC [UTMB] next year, which is what, a hundred [k] would be really fun. We’ll see, I’m generally still interested in doing all different types of racing, obstacle racing included. Only done one so far this year, which was the Spartan European Champs. The OCR World Championships is in the state so I couldn’t go. I couldn’t get an exception to the visa.

iRunFar: So you really do like mixing it up?

Albon: Yeah, definitely. It’s fun to try different disciplines and it’s fun to build your skill set and I actually think most people associate me with the technical skyrunner but to be honest, the big steep climbs are one of my biggest weaknesses. So I think maybe concentrating on the sky running through the last years actually improve my performances in a race like this but I think a race like this place to my skill set way more, which would surprise a lot of people.

iRunFar: And this, in a sense, the skill set is a mix of skills. You need to be able to run fast and efficiently, endure the wiggles throughout the course and be able to hike at times.

Albon: Yeah but I think the running stride is probably what people would think that I was lacking because I don’t come from a track background or a marathon background but I do have, that is one of my big strengths is the running stride.

iRunFar: I think it would be interesting for people to hear, maybe what you think the basis of that is since you haven’t come from a track pedigree or a road racing pedigree, how have you built that?

Albon: I think obviously the training I’ve done has helped but ultimately I think, maybe I was born with like a nice stride. And I think I run quite naturally in a certain way, which helps me in that side, I don’t think I can take all the credit for it I think. I did my first running race, which is like a half marathon and like even looking at photos it looks like I’m sort of up on my toes and leaning forward.

iRunFar: But it’s not all accidental, because you do interval training.

Albon: Yeah, yeah, there’s a lot of training that goes into it.

iRunFar: It’s not just going out and doing a two hour slog every day.

Albon: I think, I definitely, from having the toe problem I learned a lot about training and how to do certain types of training and do the least possible in order to have good shape, which has been great. But then also since the toes improved and I’ve been able to go out and do more just general running as well, that’s helped a load as well. So I’ve learned so much from the different periods of my life, from having injury, not having injury, living in Romsdalen now with people like Ida Nilsson or Kilian [Jornet] and training with them and seeing how they do it in there takes on how you should train as a mountain athlete are really important too. Because a lot of us fall into the trap of looking at what the college students studies do or looking at what the marathoners do and stuff, and then we, being mountain athlete’s just do it on steroids and just do it nth degree. But maybe that isn’t the best approach to take and people like Kilian don’t train like that and it’s actually really interesting to look at how they train and see how you can implement it in your own training. The problem with Kilian is he can do so much of it and not get injured, I don’t think anyone should copy exactly what he does, they really just need to take the principles and implement them themselves.

iRunFar: He helped put together a book on that. The Uphill Athlete. Have you read that I assume?

Albon: Yeah, it’s one of the best and only books that really include skiing and running obviously, which is like a great thing, especially for me but also just look at the strengths and the skills required for running in the mountains. There’s not that many books around which look at that. There’s a lot of books where people that run in the mountains write books but they’re not as, they’re not as well thought through on the training front end being informative.

iRunFar: And then some of that has to be based on anecdotal evidence because the study of the 20-year-old 5k athlete on the track isn’t necessarily going to translate.

Albon: Not so much, and there’s also a lot of skill stuff that you can get from the book and there’s a lot of skill, drill type workouts even for running uphill, which you would never actually think of. But they’re in there and they’re absolutely golden.

iRunFar: And you do them?

Albon: Kilian actually was the one that recommended me one in the spring and it’s helped a bunch.

iRunFar: What was that? Share.

Albon: Where you run for a certain amount of time, maybe like three minutes, with really fast feet, really high cadence, continually uphill and then changed to really big bounding strides, really sort of like building a high stiffness in your legs kind of and then switch back to the fast feet again. So you’re taking both ends of the spectrum and practicing them so your actual uphill running stride is way more efficient and way, way better. It’s a really good one.

iRunFar: Now having done the two ends of that spectrum, there is a sweet spot of efficiency in the middle but do you ever find yourself on a really long climb actually varying that consciously?

Albon: That’s also what Kilian said, especially when you start a climb, it’s really great to go straight into the fast feet, just to sort of get yourself running or if you’re going between hiking and running, when you start the hiking a little bit so you can do the fast feet. I’ve not done so much of the bounding but I definitely know when there’s a big step or you’re jumping over something, it helps a lot that you don’t get that sudden hit of lactic acid in your leg, you don’t get that stiffness suddenly because you’re a lot more used to it. And the work out like that is really, really handy and really fun and it’s not that hard either, you just concentrate on doing the movements you could look at a hill or mountain thing, I could never run all the way up that but once you break up into these three minutes, before you know it you’re at the top and it’s been a great workout. And then it can be coupled really well, which they do that in the morning, and then maybe like an interval session like a happy hard, later interval session in the evening and your legs already feel kind of primed already and the stride is kind of there.

iRunFar: A little experimentation this winter might be in the works. All right, thank you Jonathan and congratulations.

Albon: Thank you very much.

iRunFar: Look forward to seeing you out there again.

Albon: Cheers guys.