The champions’ interviews: Finlay Wild

It has been an annus mirabilis for Finlay Wild. The Lochaber runner has raced across Europe, won numerous events and broken course records, but in this interview he says it is his love of wild places that remains his inspiration.

You spent much of the early part of 2019 ski mountaineering. How does this sport complement running? Do you think you are a better runner for taking a winter ‘break’ from hill running?

The appeal of ski mountaineering is more as another fantastic way to be in the mountains rather than for running training per se. That said, there are a lot of training crossovers to hill running and it’s an ideal low-impact winter alternative for runners, as countless European runners have been showing for decades. Skiing is definitely a good way for me to reset and rekindle running ambition for the following year – I’ve had mountain experiences on skis which have been some of my most memorable days out ever. But I’ve always enjoyed winter in the mountains – before I was a runner I did a lot of winter climbing. I love the idea of the ski as a tool for travel in winter mountains – the reality of ski mountaineering is that you are rarely cruising down perfect powder; there is satisfaction in dealing with varied snow and weather conditions, and managing risks to make the most of the day. Some of the worst weather I’ve been out in has been on skis, so maybe there is an element of ‘adversity training’ going on too!

How are you balancing work as a GP with training and racing?

At the moment I work as a locum GP, which means I am self employed and provide shorter term cover to multiple practices when they need an extra doctor. It is working well, giving me lots of flexibility to plan my work around racing and training, and it’s useful for practices to have access to a locum who knows the local system and how to navigate it. In a few months I am undertaking a course in plant-based nutrition for healthcare professionals which I am very excited about.

Can you give a snapshot of your racing abroad this year?

I always feel it’s best to target races you are excited to do, rather than to blindly follow a series. This year I wanted to return to Zegama Aizkorri in the Basque country for the incredible atmosphere, and the Dolomites SkyRace near Canazai for the rugged scree running and great course. I was pushing for a personal best in each and managed to improve by about two minutes in both races. I was delighted with these results: I ran well last year so to improve again is what I wanted. The depth of competition is always increasing though – I was two minutes faster over the two-hour race in the Dolomites, but was seventh this year compared to fifth last year.

You supported Es Tresidder’s record-breaking completion of Ramsay’s Round. Is it a record you would one day like to eclipse?

I can’t claim full supporting kudos – I went along until the first summit only as I was doing Glamaig Hill Race later in the day and needed to drive to Skye. It was really exciting to watch Es’s attempt on the tracker as we’ve talked about the Ramsay quite a bit over the years during training runs together. I was struck by just how long a 16-hour run takes – I ran for two hours with him at the start, then drove to Skye, did a short race, relaxed, then was in the pub at 11pm watching him on the tracker as he finished. I’d love to have a go in the next few years. It needs to be in a year where the Ramsay is my main goal, so I will need to balance it with desires for other races or rounds.

You have raced six times this year in Scottish hill races, winning every race, breaking two course records and almost breaking two others. Are you doing anything differently this year in training or preparation?

I seem to have hit a good patch with my racing. I think it’s a combination of many factors: pushing hard in the ‘top ten but not winning’ positions in sky races has been good for my uphill speed and taught me to push myself that bit more; flexible work has let me take more time for recovery; I read a fascinating book about the importance of sleep for recovery and immune system functions so I have embraced that; I’ve been a bit more organised in my training and just generally increased my training mileage.

What has been the Scottish highlight of a year that has seen you take the long-standing record at Creag Dhubh and win at Glamaig for an eighth time?

Glamaig is one of my favourites, but it was boggy and not one of my fastest wins there as a result. As for Creag Dhubh, I’d never done the race before so just walked the course earlier that day. It was a whopper field with lots of strong competition as it was a counter in the Scottish and British championships. I got a terrible start and didn’t start my watch so had to battle to the front and then didn’t know how close to the record I was. Part of the descent involved passing runners still ascending, so I took some risks crashing though bushes just alongside the trod. It was special to be able to break John Brooks’ record from the previous millennium.

You were so close to running a course record at Arrochar Alps too. What happened?

Arrochar was great fun. Physically, I pushed myself really hard, but this backfired a bit when my brain didn’t have too much extra capacity to navigate properly in thick clag on the middle two summits. I made some pretty embarrassing mistakes – partly because I was just on the right side of what was sustainable without bonking, and partly because the visibility was pretty terrible at points. I knew I’d have to run fast to get near the record but it wasn’t really record-breaking weather, and I should have slowed the pace a little to allow more accurate navigation. If I’d done that I think I would have broken it – but there’s always next year…

You have also spent a lot of time racing and running in England and Wales this year. How highly do you rate your Welsh 3,000s record, a mark that had previously stood for 31 years?

The Welsh 3,000s was my biggest goal for 2019 – or biggest ‘new’ goal; I obviously prioritise the Ben and others – and had been a dream for years. The whole experience of going to Wales, methodically recceing, and then breaking the record without any major mishaps or issues was fantastic, and I suspect it will remain one of my best runs ever.

What about your experiences in preparing for and racing the Lakeland Classics?

I didn’t know the Lakes that well so it was exciting and refreshing to head down and recce some new terrain. Ennerdale coincided with terrible weather, especially in the first half, and hood-up navigation around a long, fairly intricate course in a very low key race really felt like a return to my roots. Buttermere was a contrast as it was almost too hot! I enjoyed the fact that these two routes cross each other, going in opposite directions for a while – something that you don’t really see in Scottish ‘classics’. Running past the place where I bivvied during my Ennerdale recce while racing Buttermere certainly made me a chuckle.

You have been running at such a high level for so many years. What is your motivation?

It’s always been a pretty simple enjoyment of being in the mountains. At first I was a climber and walker and learnt how to move safely in the hills; later I became more interested in running and now I just love being able to flow efficiently along. Although I’ve put a lot of time into developing these skills over years, it sort of feels like a privilege now to go fast and cover ground with ease – on a mountain day out when not racing, say. Or the fact that it’s possible to just decide to go out the door at 4pm and still do a 20 kilometre mountain ridge circuit without any stress. More recently I have been more interested in the biomechanics of actual running though, in wondering how I can improve and finding what my limits are.

And why do you think you find so much fulfilment in the presence of mountains?

A few days after Creag Dhubh we had a great recovery day on Beinn Dearg of Torridon. It was mostly walking and jogging, but was a memorable day – it was a new Corbett for me but the experience intertwines and overlaps with all my other memories of Torridon over the years. I love how memories build up in layers related to particular mountain places. If I am lucky enough to walk up there again as an old man then maybe I will remember that previous time on that beautiful hill a few days after breaking the Creag Dhubh record – it’s all connected by a love of these wild places.

This interview was first published in The Fellrunner. Photos by Harry Gilmore and from Finlay Wild.