From dodging cars on the streets of London, to regularly trudging through the wind and snow of the French Alps, British international Robbie Britton’s plunge into ultra-running has taken him to all sorts of places mentally and physically.
The steep, treacherous mountains he has struggled around during so many tough races are now where he calls home, residing in Chamonix near Mont-Blanc with his fiancé, who he recently proposed to after “weakening” her with a 580km run across Bulgaria.
Indeed it was Robbie’s desire to share the pain, triumph and even bragging rights of running with those closest to him that unintentionally got him into the sport eight years ago. “My mate at university signed up to do a marathon, so I signed up with him to stop him bragging about it too much. I did that marathon in May and then in September did my first ultra, which is quite a quick jump.
“But then my background was years and years of football, which obviously involved running and running training. I didn’t come from a background where I was like ‘Oh I’ve never run before and suddenly I’m brilliant’, which obviously picks up more press. I had this sort of endurance background through football, through rugby and through American football.”
Ultra-running however requires balls of a much different kind, with immense, tiring distances that make marathons seem minute. Yet tiredness or fatigue is often the least painful of all the hazards of ultra-running, as Robbie soon found out.
“My first ultra-run was London to Brighton and it was a trail one,” he says. “I got lost a few times…I got dehydrated which meant I chafed a bit more and also got a stone in my shoe.
“But I thought ‘I don’t want to stop and take it out’ because I would have lost a few seconds, so it got worse and worse as I went along until it actually got right underneath my heel and dug in, so when I got to the end that heel was quite black.
“Even though I felt broken at the finish, I soon started to wonder if I was capable of going further, if I could go quicker and what else was possible. I don’t think I ever said the words “never again”, I had found something challenging but also highly enjoyable, if a little masochistic.”
As the sense of wonder grew, so did the distances, the pain and the mistakes, but it was all outweighed by the desire to achieve more, which built up to his big moment of glory at perhaps the most ultra of all ultra-runs; the world 24-hour championships.
Just as it says on the tin, Robbie represented his country by running around the clock against 300 other runners, until the last second of the final hour when he could finally just about stagger to the podium with a triumphant bronze medal.
“I was steaming round at the finish giving it absolutely everything,” says Robbie recalling the race “yes it did hurt, but if you’re hurting while achieving something wonderful then I don’t think it really matters.
“Sometimes the pain actually brought tears to my eyes, but honestly in the last part of that race I would have run through hot coals or broken glass, so it was definitely painful, but for me it didn’t hurt.”
But perhaps the biggest triumph for Robbie is the one he experiences every day when he opens his door, with his home in the French Alps having almost everything an ultra-runner needs.
While now being in a better position than almost anybody trying to start out in the sport, it wasn’t something he achieved quickly or without hard work. “It took me years of changing my lifestyle, leaving jobs, starting coaching and all these kinds of things that build up to moving out.
“Yes, we moved out on one weekend, but it was a long term goal of mine and my girlfriend’s to be able to sustain ourselves remotely. So when people say ‘yeah but you’re lucky you live out there’ well there is some luck involved, there always is, but really I made it happen.”
Ambitions as a coach now form a high priority in Robbie’s life, being the main source of income to continue thriving up in the mountains. And while he admits there are “certain parts of coaching (he) can generally improve”, there is certainly no doubt that he has come a long way since that first eventful trip from London to Brighton.
Photos: Robbie Britton