5 Questions: Long-distance ultra runner, Charlie Lees

Part five of an occasional Q&A series on my blog, where I'll share conversations with athletes in the world of adventure sports. This time it's Edinburgh-based doctor and ultra runner, Charlie Lees.

File reference:  chenderson_grey_corries_0616-172.jpg

Update - Charlie did finish the 95-mile West Highland Way Race in 2016, in a personal best time of 22 hours 45 min 47 seconds.

In a previous blog post, I detailed the reasons behind a mountain biking shoot with Naomi Freireich in the Grey Corries near Fort William in Scotland. In that post, I mentioned that Charlie Lees, an Edinburgh-based doctor and ultra-long distance runner, who's also Naomi’s partner, joined us for the shoot. In between shots of Naomi mountain biking on the Grey Corries, I had the pleasure of capturing images of Charlie as he ran along this great mountain ridge.

Charlie, Naomi and I met at the rudimental car park in Glen Spean which provides access to the Lairig Leachach, a glen that heads south from Spean Bridge down to Loch Treig and eventually to the remote Corrour station (commonly known as the place where Ewan McGregor and friends disembarked in Danny Boyle’s film adaption of Irvine Welsh’s novel, Trainspotting). Charlie, Naomi and I's plan wasn’t to head to Corrour but to head south for 5km to the mountain bothy in the Lairig Leachach and then break off west to bivvy on the summit of Stob Choire Claurigh, at 1177m the highest of the Grey Corries Munros (Scottish mountains over 914m high).

As we walked along the Lairig Leachach, I quizzed Charlie on his training plans for the West Highland Way Race, a 95-mile run along Scotland's most well-known trail route between Glasgow and Fort William.

Q1. How long have you been competing in ultra races?

Charlie: I've been running ultra races (distances over 42km in length) for 2-3 years. I've competed in a few smaller ultras but the first big one I did was the West Highland Way race in 2015. It was hard but I was pleased to finish it in under 24 hours (Charlie crossed the finish line in 23 hours 55 minutes). This was despite the fact I had to walk in from Kinlocheven (81 miles into the race) due to injury.

This year I hope to PB! Last year I did a lot of fundraising for Crohn's and Colitis (my area of expertise at work). This year it has become much more of a personal endeavour ... I really want to see just how far and fast I can push myself! I have an awesome support crew lined up with Naomi once again firmly in charge. This year she'll be joined by Fraser McCoull and Barry Queen - both highly accomplished ultra runners - for the final legs.

Q2. What do you think about when running long distances? Is there anything specific you do to keep yourself occupied?

Charlie: Listening to music mainly. I have a very strong musical background (I'm a retired trumpeter!) and use my time on the trails to listen to new tunes ... currently loving Turin Brakes, Digitaria, Muse, Ben Folds, Broken Bells, Caribou, The Japanese House, Rune and Vessels. I listen to a lot of dance music on the trails too, classical music, sometimes a full operatic production (!), as well as long-format audio podcasts. During very long races like the West Highland Way Race, I often go back to classic albums from my youth - currently dialling in some Pink Floyd and the Orb for this year!

I also use the time to think about future plans. I have a tendency to have great lightbulb moments when I'm running, where I come up with the most amazing solution to a challenge or problem I'm having, but when I get back home and review these in the cold light of day, I've often got a different view of it. It does help to pass the time though!

Aside from the above, just the usual running thoughts. Where am I in regards to the route, how am I feeling, what's coming up, when's the next checkpoint, what do I want to eat?, etc.

Q3. Is there a specific nutrition plan you follow? And is there anything you'd change from last year's WHW race?

Charlie: I've experimented with various liquid supplements during races including Osmo and TailWind but they're not for me. During the West Highland Way Race in 2016, Naomi will keep me fed with Weetabix (loaded up with fruit, chia seeds and lots of honey!), chicken and rice soup and her amazing homemade flapjacks! In between fuelling stops, it's water and SIS gels to keep me going. For that extra kick, I like warm tea with honey and Red Bull!

Q4. You're being coached by Donnie Campbell, who I've photographed on a few occasions. What does a weekly training schedule look like?

Charlie: I've been trained by Donnie (www.getactiverunning.com) for the past 3 years. Before that, I had done little to no exercise in 20 years. I just worked the whole time. The training has helped me take myself from where I was 4 years ago (20 pounds heavier, unhappy with my life and trying to ditch a cigarette habit) to where I am today. 

My weekly mileage varies quite a lot, depending on other factors. Last year I was easily clocking up 60-80 miles a week on the trails but this year it's been more like 40-50 miles, with biking and treadmill sessions thrown in. A typical week is a tempo run, a hill reps session, 2 easy 10-15km runs, a long run and a beasting (PT session) with Donnie, working on strength and conditioning (with lots of pleiometrics).

I like to take advantage of the fact I live out of town and I often run to and from work along part of the Water of Leith (a 22-mile stretch of water that winds its way through Edinburgh city centre). Also, increasingly, I'm doing a lot of cross-training on the mountain bike with Naomi. The Pentland Hills above Edinburgh are right on our doorstep so we're ideally placed for a good cross-country session after work.

I need to fit my training in around my family (I've two children, Holly aged 11 and Cameron aged 9) as well as around my busy job as a consultant gastroenterologist at the Western General Hospital. I am a full-time clinician but also have a busy portfolio of clinical research (currently running two major clinical studies across the UK - GEM and PREdiCCt - aiming to find the cause(s) of Crohn's disease - GEM - and to establish what genetic, microbial and environmental factors predispose to disease flare in patients with Crohn's and Colitis - PREdiCCt).

l also do a lot of lecturing - in Scotland, UK, across Europe, the US and the Far East. When I'm abroad, I like to seek out the local trails. San Diego was a high spot recently - running through the cactuses in Balboa Park was a cool experience. Running is how I do my sight-seeing when i'm travelling! 

Q5. What's next on the horizon for you, after the West Highland Way Race? 

Charlie: First up is supporting Naomi in her GT24 challenge. After that, I'm not quite sure yet what the race plans are for the rest of the year. I do fancy some multi-discipline events but the big goal for me is to compete in the Dragon's Back Race (a 5-day adventure by the team behind the recent Cape Wrath Ultra). The race website details how it 'traverses the mountainous spine of Wales from north to south ... approximately 300 kilometres long with 16,000 metres of ascent across wild, trackless, remote and mountainous terrain', saying that 'it’s definitely not a trail race!'. So I'll be looking to spend a LOT more time in the mountains (hint hint!).