These days, U.K. runner Ricky Lightfoot is a dad first and a runner second.
But that doesn’t stop the former IAU Trail World Champion and 2009 Zegama Marathon winner from knocking out 80- to 120-mile training weeks alongside a full-time job as a firefighter, representing Great Britain at the recent 2022 European Athletics Off Road Championships, and notching up results on the U.K. domestic scene that command international attention.
One such result, as noted in our This Week in Running column, was his overall win at the unique Welsh mountain running event Man Versus Horse in June of 2022. Legend has it, the event was borne out of an argument in a pub about whether or not, over a particular distance and terrain, a man could outrun a horse. This year, Lightfoot became the third runner in the race’s 41-year history to do just that.
Ricky Lightfoot comes from the town of Maryport on the west coast of Cumbria, right at the edge of the Lake District in England. Having already dabbled in soccer and cross-country running as a youngster, his trail running and mountain running journey began in his teens:
“I started when I was about 14, when I got my first taste of fell running. I was in school, the then-caretaker of the school used to come around and ask some of the kids if they wanted to go and try a fell race. Me and a few of my mates decided to go along. It was a typical Northwest of England day, it was pretty wet and horrible. I got lost, spent an extra 30 minutes out on the course, but I finished feeling like I’d found my sport!”
He continued to go along to fell races with friends but said, “It was another year or so before I started to do some training. I didn’t start winning races until I was about 17. By then I was doing the local championships and the Junior and Senior British and English Fell Running Championships. It sort of snowballed from then.”
Lightfoot was still racing as a junior at this time but confessed to occasionally lying about his age to run the senior race. His successes did not go unnoticed, and in 2003 was selected to represent England as an under-18.
Lightfoot continued racking up wins as a young adult. In 2007, he won the coveted Lakeland Classics Trophy, a league taking in the most revered long fell races in the Lake District.
He was selected to run for England in 2009, in the 44-kilometer World Mountain Running Association Long Distance Championships, where he placed third overall. As a progression from fell racing, in 2009 he also became immersed in the world of skyrunning and placed third in the Skyrunner World Series, winning the much-loved Spanish Zegama Marathon in the process, which he pinpoints as a highlight of his career.
“They were all great experiences, to run in those races [Skyrunner World Series races]. They’re sort of bucket-list races. Especially now, as some of them are so hard to get into. Zegama, you see it in the media now with the crowds and the locals coming out to support, and it was like that back in 2009 too. I was only getting into skyraces then after mostly just racing in the U.K., and to do that race and win it was one of the best experiences I’ve had.”
Although he was already accomplished at a host of distances, and his training and running with friends often involved very long days out in the hills, Lightfoot didn’t delve fully into ultramarathon-distance racing until 2012. He said:
“I got to the point where I was just fell racing and doing some of the longer skyraces. I just fancied a little bit more, just to test myself a bit more. My first ultra was on an island called Bornholm in Denmark [the Salomon Hammer Trail 50 Mile]. I traveled over to that, and I won it and then after that, I thought I’d have a go at qualifying to run for Great Britain at the IAU Trail World Championships. They were in Wales that year, in 2013.”
Before 2012 was out, Lightfoot had also won The North Face 100k Singapore and — not only qualified for, but — won the Trail World Championships the following year.
He took sixth in The North Face Endurance Challenge 50 Mile Championships in California in 2014, but despite an obvious talent for endurance running, pushing out the distances any further wasn’t something that Lightfoot wanted to pursue.
“If I’m completely honest, I’m not a fan of much longer distances and I probably prefer about the marathon distance. For me, a good marathon is hard because you don’t let up on the pace. And I’m not a fan of standing on a start line thinking, Bloody hell, I’m going to be out there for 10 hours. I’d rather be out for four hours and say I’ve had a good day and go back home.”
Lightfoot and his partner, Sophie, have two kids — Isobelle, who is eight, and Joey, who is just 18 months old. He says, “Having a family changes things, especially with the bigger distances. I’ve had to adapt my training over the years, and going away for races, I try to limit it and only go for a short time.”
He continued to do well within his chosen fortes of fell running and skyrunning, winning the 50k Xtreme Dodo Trail in Mauritius and the competitive 37k Three Peaks Race at home in 2014. In 2015, he won the 55k Ultra SkyMarathon Madeira and the Lakeland Classics Trophy for the second time, and in January of 2016, he completed the arduous task of a winter Bob Graham Round, which he saw as preparation for one day completing a fast round in better conditions.
But the following year brought an enforced sabbatical and an extended break from racing. Lightfoot had to have surgery to address a hip issue, which had been building for some time. The hip arthroscopy, keyhole surgery, involved extensive recovery time.
“They shaved the top of the femur and drilled a hole in my pelvis and stitched the labrum [a soft tissue inside the joint] back to the pelvis.” Lightfoot had to hang up his racing shoes for more than a year.
However, he made a full recovery, and from 2019 to 2021, barring a break for the COVID-19 pandemic, he had plenty of success on the domestic fell running scene. Wins included the Ennerdale Show Fell Race and Criffel Hill Race in 2019, and the renowned Borrowdale and Wasdale Horseshoe Fell Races in 2021. Lightfoot now chooses to stay closer to home to be with his growing family, rather than returning to the international skyrunning circuit.
Then in June 2022, he scored a victory in a Welsh race that was impressive and strange enough to bring him back into international focus. To make his Man Versus Horse race victory even more impressive, Lightfoot arrived straight to the start line from the airport following a family holiday, and had already been awake for 30 hours at the start of the 22-mile race.
“We had a holiday booked for the end of May and I had an entry for Man Versus Horse rolled over from the two years of COVID-19. Only a couple of days before we were meant to go on holiday the kids picked up chicken pox. We decided to knock it back two weeks, which meant that the only day we could come back on was the day of the race.
“We had a late flight, which meant we were traveling through the night. I had Joey on my lap, which meant that I couldn’t really get any sleep. We were delayed with the flight and then delayed getting our bags, which meant we arrived into the U.K. airport at 6 a.m. It was still touch and go. I didn’t know if I was going to go to the race because I was so tired. But anyway, I made the trip to Wales, it was a three-hour drive. Made it just on time to pick my number up.”
The race got underway, a staggered start, with the horses starting seven minutes behind the runners to spread out the field. Horses and runners run the same distance and follow essentially the same route, but there are a number of singletrack sections where the course forks sending the horses on a different track. Lightfoot recounts:
“There is an opportunity for the horses to pass the runners, which is quite exciting. I was passed by the first horse after an hour, which I wasn’t expecting. At that point, I thought the race was over. But then the more technical the course becomes, the more difficult it is for the horses and so that’s where the runners excel, particularly on the downhill. The horse passed me shoulder-to-shoulder and galloped off. About a minute later we got to a technical section, and I repassed the horse just before the veterinary check.”
A crucial part of the race in Man Versus Horse is the vet check. This is where riders must stop to have their horse checked by a vet and for welfare reasons they are not allowed to continue if the horse’s heart rate is elevated above 60 beats per minute, and must wait until it has come down, often allowing the runners to get ahead. If the rider gets caught up in a race with a runner, it can lead to their horse becoming over-exerted and they can lose time in the vet check — as happened in this case with Lightfoot’s four-legged adversary.
Lightfoot continued, “I didn’t really have an inkling of where the first horse was for the rest of the race after that vet check. I ran the course as fast as I could really, and then I had to wait at the end for seven minutes to elapse to see if I actually won!”
Lightfoot, who still lives in Cumbria, just a mile or two from where he grew up, balances running and family life alongside his career as a firefighter. He says, “I work two day shifts of 10.5 hours and two night shifts of 13.5 hours and then I’ve four days off. It’s quite good for training and looking after the kids as well.”
He says his training varies a lot from week to week depending on his shifts. He says, “The kids dictate a lot now. If I want to run before Sophie goes to work, I’ve got to get out early in the morning, or else in the evening. Most days it is twice a day and when I’m at work I’ll use the gym at work.”
In 2021, he qualified to run for Great Britain over the 40k distance at the Trail and Mountain Running World Championships in Thailand, which were ultimately postponed until 2022 because of the COVID-19 pandemic. This year he has decided to forego an attempt at qualification in order to take a step back and address a niggling injury, while still taking part in some local fell races.
Although it’s taken a back burner for now, a speedy summer Bob Graham Round is still part of the long-term plan for Ricky Lightfoot. He still doesn’t see 100 milers as part of his competitive running future, but said, “I look at races like the Western States 100, and I’ve always quite fancied the Leadville 100 Mile. And I think maybe one day when I’m old and retired and fancy a long day out.”
As retirement plans go, we think that’s a pretty good one.
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