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Amazing Places, Community and Family: What Drives Andrew Douglas

Andrew Douglas has been a regular feature on the mountain running circuit for the last 6 years. He made his mark instantly on the World Cup, winning it in 2015, then again in 2019,  finishing 2nd and 3rd in the intervening years. In 2019 he decided to take a sabbatical from his job and it certainly paid off, with wins at Snowdon and Broken Arrow and impressive positions in other World Cup races with stellar fields. We spoke to him about his journey in running, what he learned from his year of focussing on his running and what he thinks the future holds for mountain running.
Firstly, how are you and how are you coping with the current COVID-19 situation?
I am doing ok, safe and healthy most importantly, and adjusting in the best way I can in the circumstances. There's much I can be grateful for in my own personal circumstances in that I'm still able to do my day job and train outdoors once a day, so just trying to keep a grounded perspective on things and keep in frequent contact with family and friends.
Can you tell us a bit about how you got into running initially?
My Mum tells me when I started going to primary school she had to buy a bike because I wanted to run all the way to school and she could no longer keep up with me, so I guess from a very early age! I joined the local athletics club in Caithness when I was around 10/11 years old, but it wasn't until I started university where I properly began to focus on middle to long distance running. I think I always knew deep-down that distance running was my forte, but I didn't really show any notable talent for it during my school-years so it was just something I participated in alongside other sports like swimming, football and badminton. I loved the social aspect of being in the Athletics and Running clubs at University so by wanting to become more involved in that way also got me to focus a bit more on training and developing as an athlete. Towards the end of University and starting working life, distance running then became the only sport I wanted to do and had the time for, so around that period was when I started working with my coach Sophie Dunnett on a more structured training plan and having targets to aim for.

And how did you get into hill/mountain running specifically?
I dabbled a little in hill running when I was at University and the first few years of working life, but that was just the odd occasion at a Highland Games when I wanted to pocket an extra bit cash! I was primarily a road and cross country runner, and with the 2014 Commonwealth Games taking place in Glasgow, it was my main aim to qualify for that. But when things didn't work out in that respect, I was desperate for a new challenge and something that would take the focus off roads and aiming for specific times. In the summer of 2014, I planned for a season of hill and trail racing. I made the GB team for the European and World Championships, as well as winning the British Mountain Running Title, so the transition couldn't have gone any better! But it was no fluke, and much of the credit needs to go to my coach Sophie who put in place the kind of training that got me well prepared for competing in the hills/mountains. Those experiences really got me hooked on mountain running, and notwithstanding the abundance of amazing places I have been to race in, meeting a whole new community of athletes that have become great friends is something that has made the switch such a worthwhile decision!
How did you come to the decision to take a year off work to focus on running in 2019?
There were a few factors that influenced my decision to take a year’s sabbatical from my job. From a career perspective, after having been working in finance for almost 10 years I felt like I was ready for a proper break but without wanting to leave my job. In terms of running, over the past couple of years I had been beginning to feel a tinge of frustration in finishing just outside the podium places in the big races, and the thought of how much of a difference being a full-time athlete would make always lingered at the back of my mind. I had experimented with training at altitude and other types of training camps, but often felt that the gains made were soon lost when returning to work. Another factor that was important to me was wanting to spend more time with family, in particular my young nephew and nieces living in the far north of Scotland. It’s not the easiest of places to get to, and with the limitation of annual leave that’s mostly being consumed with racing, I felt I was not seeing them as much as I should be. My parents make a tremendous effort to come and watch me racing as much as they can, but after my Dad underwent a hip operation in 2018, I knew after that I wouldn’t see them nearly as often unless I made the effort to visit them. So having that freedom away from working life made those trips a lot easier to make.
What advantages did you find being a full-time runner gave you? What did you learn from it that you apply to your training now?
It’s funny because when I was getting ready to go back to work towards the end of last year, I felt like I should be dreading going back to the office. But it wasn’t the case, and I was looking forward to seeing everyone that I worked with and having that degree of separation again from my life as a runner and my career. I never really viewed being a professional athlete as a sustainable lifestyle and a way to make a living independently. There were times during the year I did feel a void in my life that should have been filled with work. But the obvious advantage to being a full-time athlete was the ability to train more, recover longer, have the freedom to pick and choose races, and when I could go abroad to train. More specifically though it helped identify the areas that I needed to be more disciplined with, like drills to help running economy and the strength and conditioning aspects that I thought less about whilst I was in full-time work. In terms of my training now, the whole experience has really emphasised the importance of optimising recovery; so whilst you’re balancing that with work its best achieved through sleeping well and going to bed early. I focus more of my S&C sessions on the glute muscles and core stability, setting aside other exercises that seem less relevant. And quality training weeks are better defined by the hard sessions I’m able to do rather than hitting high mileage.
I understand that you are aiming to step up to the longer distance at this year’s world championships (assuming it goes ahead). Why did you think it was time for you to compete over a longer distance?
I must admit, at the time of writing, I am still deciding on that one! It was my target this year to step up to the longer distance, but with the racing calendar somewhat decimated for at least the next couple of months, it has forced me to reconsider my targets. I have had two really positive experiences at Sierre-Zinal over the past couple years so that’s given me some confidence in my ability over long distances, which has in turn helped me get over my not-so-positive experiences on the road with the marathon. But I was hoping to test the water in a couple of the Golden Trail WS races over the summer, and the trial race for the GB team for the WLD champs was due to take place in July which would have allowed me time to switch back to the classic distance should it have not gone to plan. However, it appears at this moment in time that we may not even get back to racing until late summer so I’m not going to rush into committing to anything just yet and instead take some time to consider my options.
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What are the key global races that you’d love to take on in the future?
There’s certainly a few on my bucket list, but most of them I’ll need to keep under wraps for now so I don’t panic my coach! I’d love to do one of the UTMB races, probably the OCC to begin with; don’t want to dive into the deep end straight away! The atmosphere that surrounds that event just seems so special. In all honesty though, the most exciting races for me are the European and World Championships and having that opportunity to be part of a team and represent your country. So wherever they are held, I just want to keep trying to qualify for those for as long as I can.
Why did you decide to volunteer to go on the athletes' commission?
It was a no-brainer for me, I fell in love with the sport back in 2014 and if I can play any small part in helping it evolve and grow into something better than it already is, then that’s something I’m not going to think twice about doing. It’s fantastic that the WMRA value the opinions of current athletes and want to utilise our experiences of how things are in the current climate. Whilst there’s not going to be agreement on every initiative or plan, it’s important that we facilitate dialogue and debate so views can be heard from across the spectrum.
What developments would you like to see in mountain running in the future?
One of my favourite races to be a part of is the Trofeo Vanoni relays, and it’s a format that I want to see more of in mountain running. It’s such an exciting event, and for spectators its great because they get to see more action than what they would do when athletes are competing individually. From an athletes perspective it’s a different kind of experience in racing and a rare opportunity in feeling like you’re playing a team sport. I think introducing mixed-gender relays would be a great initiative; determining which nation is the best all-round at mountain running.
I think one of the big challenges we face is how to market mountain running to a mainstream audience, whilst still respecting its traditions and all the things that make this discipline of athletics special. I would like to see more coverage across various media outlets, because from a visual perspective there’s so much going for it. I think if we’re aiming high then ultimately becoming an Olympic sport would be the pinnacle, but to even get close to that stage we have to see how we can appeal to more athletics federations and increase the representation of countries at regional and global championships.
Overall, I’m feeling positive in the direction that mountain running seems to be taken in. There are so many things that make this sport special and with the will of those involved to keep moving things forwards, I can see a bright future ahead.

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