Published on March 24, 2016
Tobias Mews Interview
Tobias Mews is an ultra-runner, adventurer and writer. With his new book, 50 Races to Run Before You Die, already proving to be the perfect bucket-list planner RunningMonkey caught up with him to talk achievements, ambitions and all things ultra…
RunningMonkey: You previously had a career in the military, was that where the fitness and endurance fascination was founded?
Tobias Mews: Pretty much. The irony is that I almost didn’t get into the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst (a year long course, where officer training takes place) due to my lack of fitness at the time. I remember my first day, where we had to go on parade in boiler suits –military term for onesies – and when I stood to attention, my poppers burst open. It was a kick up the arse. Sandhurst was definitely where I discovered that I could do anything I set my mind to.
RunningMonkey: How easy was it to adjust to civilian life and how did you manage to forge a career as an endurance athlete and journalist?
Tobias Mews: After almost six years in the Army I decided to leave. But I needed a new identity. I had been incredibly proud of serving my country, but I needed a new focus, something that established respect. So, I decided I’d become an ultra runner and subsequently signed up for the Marathon des Sables – even though it was three years away and I’d only one marathon to my name. I had no ambitions for the MdS apart from simply to finish it. During that period, I raced almost every weekend, getting faster and stronger. I loved it.
By the time I finally arrived in the Sahara for the MdS, although an unknown, I began to believe I could do quite well. And sure enough I did, finishing 21st overall and ‘Top Brit’. It also brought me into contact with Alison Hamlett who at the time was editor of Triathlete’s World and also wrote for Runner’s World. She gave me my break, offering me a column in her magazine called ‘Weekend Warrior’.
Writing was at first a ‘hobby job’, but I quickly established myself as a sort of ‘Rapid Reaction Corps’ of adventure journalists – being fit enough to compete in an Ironman or ultra marathon at the drop of a hat. Within a couple of years, I was writing for over a dozen magazines, mainly about races I’d complete around the world.
RunningMonkey: You’re living the dream to coin a cliché…
Tobias Mews: I’m totally living the dream. I get to travel the world indulging in my hobby, which I’m totally passionate about. I love to write, I love to race, I love adventure – so to be able to earn a modest living from this is a definitely a dream.
RunningMonkey: You’re the Ordnance Survey 2016 #GetOutside Champion – What does that entail?
Tobias Mews: I love maps. In fact, I’m a firm believer that they’re the key ingredient for a true adventure. I applied to OS to become an outside champion on the basis of my pledge to complete a winter based, 15-day, road trip around all 15 national parks in Britain, completing a 4hour ‘micro adventure challenge’ in each. I teamed up with outdoor photographer and filmmaker, Dave MacFarlane, and set off from London in our MINI Countryman with slight apprehension as neither of us bargained on starting our trip on the same day that Britain was hit by the worst storm in a hundred years…
My role, alongside the other OS #GetOutside Champions is to encourage people to simply get outside more often. I’m totally passionate about this, so it was a no-brainer to partner up with OS.
RunningMonkey: Despite a truly impressive list of races there must still be plenty on the bucket-list – let’s start with ultras?
Tobias Mews: I’m so easily seduced by races – the harder, the better. Although I’ve tackled more than 200 races, from classics like the Cape Epic MTB race to the Norseman triathlon, to cycling Land’s End to John O’Groats in the Ride Across Britain or expedition adventure racing across New Zealand in the GODZone, there are thousands more to choose from.
I’m most easily seduced by races that ooze adventure; stunning scenery and a good back story. Oh and if they happen to be in remote destinations, all-the-better. To that end, I’m tackling the inaugural Heroes Ultra in Crete (154kms) that follows a WW2 escape route. And then in June, I’ll be off to South Africa for the Rictersveld Wild Run, a 5-day, 200km adventure run through one of the most incredibly beautiful national parks in South Africa and the first trans-frontier footrace, as it finishes in Namibia’s Fish River Canyon.
RunningMonkey: How about Marathons? Any of the big ones make your list?
Tobias Mews: I like marathons, but, for me, they’re simply a marker of fitness. It’s all about time, staring at your watch and trying to maintain pace. I’ve done about 45 marathons around the world, but I’ve only done two of the ‘Majors’. So I’d like to tick off all of those, and perhaps a few obscure bucket list types, like the 7 Continents, 7 Marathons challenge, which would give me a good excuse to go to Antarctica!
RunningMonkey: Outside of ‘official’ races are there any particular countries you fancy taking a run through?
Tobias Mews: Well, as we speak I’m in the process of moving to the French Pyrenees. Consequently, I’d love to run the GR10 or GR11, which go from the Med to the Atlantic in France and Spain respectively. I’d also love to run the Alps End to End, which is quite a long way… The Great Himalayan Trail is on the list, as is the Tour Divide. Gosh – there are so many. But with a baby girl and a wife in tow, I need to earn my pink slips to make those happen.
Tobias Mews: When I give talks I often say that despite the fact that I can’t reach the top shelf of my kitchen cupboards, I can run across deserts with relative ease, something I discovered during the two Marathon des Sables I’ve completed, where I was Top British finisher the first time round, and 15th overall on the second occasion.
But I’m most at home running in the mountains – which is why I’ve moved to the French Pyrenees. I simply love being in the mountains: the views, the scenery, the technical aspects, the feeling of accomplishment of summiting, etc.
RunningMonkey: Is there any such thing as a typical training week for you or are you just generally ‘race fit’?
Tobias Mews: I’ve only ever once followed a training program, and that was when I left the army and trained for the London to Brighton trail run. I built up a really good level of fitness, which meant that I could run sub-3hour marathons on any day of the week. But it also meant that I couldn’t ‘race’ every event. Instead, I raced to train.
And now that I’m married and have a baby girl, any routine has gone out of the window. So I just grab opportunities to run whenever I can – whether that’s running to a meeting, cycling to a mate’s house in the countryside (whilst my wife drives) or simply doing errands. It’s not great ‘training’ but better than nothing.
RunningMonkey: How’s your nutrition? Would you consider yourself fairly clean or are there plenty of guilty pleasures?
Tobias Mews: I’m a mixture of the two – fairly clean, but indulging in guilty pleasures. Indeed, I’m conscious of what I eat and have a pretty decent diet. I use a NutriBullet to make my breakfast, subsequently getting my 5-veg-a-day in with relative ease. I don’t eat much junk food, drink fizzy drinks on a regular basis or chocolate more than necessary. But I do enjoy a glass or two of wine with my evening meal, even if it’s before a big race the next day.
Tobias Mews: As I began to write about races, my friends would tell me, ‘You need to write a book’. The seed was sown, and so when I was approached by Aurum Press to write a book about 50 races, I was pretty excited. However, I was also apprehensive, as I’d only get to write this book once – so it would need to look the part, with great images and funky stats; which is exactly what the book turned out to be. In fact, it’s exceeded my expectations.
RunningMonkey: Tell us about the editorial process – was it tough to narrow the field to 50 races?
Tobias Mews: It was quite tough because I’ve done so many awesome races. However, as this is not a ‘world’s toughest races’ book, rather a journey from beginner to expert, I had to include a decent balance between the three sections (Good for Beginners, Sucker for Punishment and Hard as Nails). Plus, I also wanted to ensure there was a good spread of races at a national and international level. It covers five continents, and over a dozen countries, but over half of the entries are in the UK.
RunningMonkey: Which races nearly made the cut but you weren’t able to include?
Tobias Mews: The hardest part was simply choosing which to include. I’ve done a lot of ‘Hard as Nails’ races, so choosing which ones were best was tricky. I wrote down every race I’d done, then whittled it down to running only ones, with the occasional wild card like a ‘swimrun’ (OTILLO) or adventure race like GODZone.
There were a few races that I’d written about, only to then discover they’d been discontinued – which was a real shame. There is one race down in Devon that I loved, called the Black Death Run, which, after more than 15 years, came to a close.
I would have liked to include the London to Brighton Trail Run by Extreme Races – my first ever ultra. I might also have included some classics like the Reading Half Marathon, Bath Half Marathon and the Cabbage Patch 10. Maybe in the next book…
There were of course plenty of races that I’d liked to have included but hadn’t yet done –
Western States, Tor des Geants, Spartathlon, Leadville…
RunningMonkey: If a new comer was going to pick a race from the book, where would you suggest they start?
Tobias Mews: At the beginning! But the best thing to do is to pick a ‘Hard as Nails’ race, and then pick a number of beginner and ‘Sucker for Punishment’ races that build you up to it. You then have a goal. You can’t race ultras every weekend, so it’s nice to mix it up with a good variety of races.
Tobias Mews: I’ve written for most of the outdoor fitness publications in the UK and a decent number abroad. But I realised that there were plenty of stories/races/adventures that simply weren’t of interest to editors – because they’d either been covered in previous years or were deemed ‘too difficult’. So I decided to create my own platform, one where content lives longer than a day or month. I also get invited to a lot of races that I simply can’t do, so I delegate them out to Hard as Trails contributors.
The tagline for the site is ‘An adventure lifestyle magazine for endurance athletes with grit’. I specialise in tough, aspirational challenges and believe that it’s only when you push beyond your own self-imposed limitations that you grow stronger. So that’s what the site is about. Now I’m in the Pyrenees and my baby girl is a little less time consuming, I’ll be putting a lot more time and energy into the site.
RunningMonkey: Which other endurance runners do you most respect and why?
Tobias Mews: Like so many people, I’ve huge respect for Kilian Jornet. The man is a force of nature and achieves results that seem almost supernatural. And then there are people like Scott Jurek, Anna Frost, Tom Owens, Steve Birkinshaw – all of whom push the boundaries of the sport. And there’s Richard Ussher, who I think is one of the most gifted adventure athletes on the planet. I had the pleasure of running the Abel Tasman Trail in his native New Zealand and I saw firsthand how fit he was; there is nothing he can’t do – from winning Ironman races to expedition length adventure races…
RunningMonkey: Can you give any advice to runners thinking of stepping up from marathons to ultras?
Tobias Mews: As I’ve previously mentioned, I ran my first ultra (56miles) with only one marathon to my name, which had been three years previous. I was actually quite excited at discovering how my body would react when I ran further than 26.2 miles. I didn’t set myself any expectations – I simply wanted to enjoy the process. But by the time I reached the finish, 11hours and 40minutes later, I was bleeding in places that I don’t want to mention and swore I’d never run another again. Two days later I was entering my next ultra.
The toughest part is entering the race. The next difficult bit is training for it and not getting injured. The easy bit is the actual race itself. And as long as you know there will be dark moments in the race and have a strategy for dealing with them, you’ll be fine. Oh and don’t forget to regularly eat and drink. If you don’t, it will be a very long day out!
My final bit of advice is choose a race that excites you and ideally located in a destination that you’ve always wanted to go to. It’s so much more motivating.
50 Races to Run Before You Die Published by Aurum Press (ISBN-10: 1781314446) is available from Amazon.co.uk. Read more about Tobias Mews at TobiasMews.com or follow him on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
Until April 29 there’s a chance to win one of three copies of 50 Races to Run Before You Die in our competition here.
Image © – Main: Julian Apse Photography. Top to Bottom: Leo Francis, CIMBALY, Julian Apse Photography, James Carnegie, Richie Hobson, LUT2015, HardasNails.com, Penguin Books/Viking