Jasmin Paris is really a very modest person. She’d prefer not to talk about herself at all, but when a new mom crushes the course record in one of the world’s toughest ultra-marathon races by 12 hours, the phone doesn’t stop ringing.
Paris did just that in the 268-mile Montane Spine Race along England’s Pennine Way in January, stopping to express milk at checkpoints along the way and still smashing the old record by 12 hours. That’s half a day.
I hope can be an inspiration, rather than making people feel they’re not doing enough. Because it is really a tough thing just being a new mum, regardless of whatever else you do.
Paris finished the race in 83 hours, 12 minutes, and 23 seconds, almost 10 miles ahead of former record holder Eion Keith who, like 115 of the 125 competitors left in her wake, is a man.
Naturally the media lost their collective minds.
Coverage leaned heavily on the Supermom theme, with a strong Battle of the Sexes undercurrent. The Financial Times took the opportunity to run a long piece headlined “Why women are outperforming men at the extremes of endurance” and illustrate it with a photograph of Paris double-fisting her 14-month-old daughter and a breast pump.
The story is full of science and great anecdotes, like this one: “When the race organizer Scott Gilmour presented the winner’s medal, he told Paris she had secured an ‘epic, crushing victory over every man in the world.’ He was half-joking but did he have a point?”
Paris, a veterinarian who is busy writing her PhD thesis between changing diapers and crushing ultra-marathons, would rather not answer that one. “That’s not really my area of study so I anything I say would just be my opinion,” she told AJ in an interview from her home in Edinburgh. But when we asked her about mountains and the backcountry and an obscure British pastime called fell running, she opened right up.
AJ: What do you love most about running?
JP: I love to be in the mountains and the hills. It just makes me happy. It’s beautiful, but also I just feel at ease there. Mountains give you a sense perspective and make all the things that worry you seem much less important. And running gives you a real feeling of freedom.
How does your love of mountains and the outdoors play into your life as an ultra-runner?
I guess that my background is really as a hill walker. That’s something my brother and I did from when we were really small children, and then as a teenager and in my 20s we’d go away at least once, sometimes twice a year for a week or 10 days in big mountains. We wild camped and carried all of our gear and some of those trips were relatively epic.
So that formed the basis for my love of the mountains, and hill running was kind of a natural next step—a transition to just kind of moving a bit faster in the mountains. Hiking is similar to ultra-running in many ways. You find this kind of rhythmical lung activity and kind of lose yourself in the mountains.
Where did those backcountry trips take you?
All over Europe, really. And my brother’s currently in America so we’ve done a little bit there too. We started with a hike in Yosemite for about 10 days, then got the train to Colorado and just hiked for three weeks from where we got off the train. We ran out of maps so we just kept hiking until we hit the Colorado Trail and then hitched a lift into town. It’s quite funny.
Did you run out of map because of the distance you covered?
I’m not sure whether it was that or whether it was just slight disorganization and we didn’t actually have all the maps. We were on a budget so we just printed off pages of maps that you had to lay out in the right order. We just sort of ran out of sections.
Maybe we went a little farther than we thought we’d go, because my walking boots fell apart at the end of that trip. I left them in the bin at the airport.
Are you still able to do that sort of thing now that you’re training and competing at such an elite level?
Yes, because I do what I love, so if the training got in the way I wouldn’t do it. We went when I was pregnant we went to Gran Paradiso in Italy, and we wild camped. And we’ve just come back from skiing the Haute Route from Chamonix to Zermatt, so we’re still doing adventurous things in the mountains.
You’re finishing your dissertation. You have a brand new daughter. You say you don’t take training too seriously. And yet you broke the Spine Race record by 12 hours. What gives?
Well I definitely train consistently. It’s just that I enjoy it so I didn’t really feel like it’s a chore. For the Spine, I trained every day at 5:00 in the morning. During the week that was an hour or an hour and a half, and at weekends it was longer, maybe four hours. I would get up at 5 a.m. on Saturday and Sunday as well because that meant I was back with my family by about nine.
We don’t really go out much. We tend to socialize over food so we’ll go around to people’s houses and vice versa. We don’t have a television. You prioritize things in life, and what’s important for me is my family and my running.
Does being a new mom working on your PhD give you an edge in a race lasting nearly four days with almost no sleep?
I’m a specialist veterinarian, so I did three years of relatively intense training and then an internship in Minnesota that was really tough. I was training and working long hours and overnight shifts, so I was already well trained for the lack of sleep—and then my daughter was born. It’s quite normal for me to just get five hours of interrupted sleep at night. I don’t think it’s necessarily good for you but I just can’t do anything about it.
How do you feel about the media painting you as a supermom athlete?
I get kind of mixed feelings. Loads of people have gotten in touch just to say they’ve been inspired to run the hills or get involved in sport, or to say they’ve just had babies and were inspired to do something really positive. I’m proud of that and I’m obviously proud of that run.
And at the same time I’m uneasy being presented as some sort of superwoman. I hope can be an inspiration, rather than making people feel they’re not doing enough. Because it is really a tough thing just being a new mum, regardless of whatever else you do.
It is incredibly tough, and yet the Spine Race was a breakout performance for you, and you did it when your 14-month-old daughter was still nursing.
The Spine Race was probably my highest profile performance. But I hold the record for the big three U.K running rounds, and I hold the men’s record as well—the overall record—for the Ramsey Round in Scotland. I think that that was probably as good a run if not a better run than the Spine Race, but it’s not the sort of thing that attracts much media attention.
As a scientist, what do you make of the idea that women may have a physiological edge in ultra-endurance races?
That’s not really my area of study so I anything I say would just be my opinion. But I have been asked several times whether I think that childbirth has trained me for pain and I honestly don’t think that’s the case. I do think that childbirth is more painful than anything else I’ve ever done, including any race I’ve ever done. But I don’t think the single act of giving birth trains you for pain.
Tell me about fell running. It’s more than just racing up and down hills, isn’t it?
It’s quite a long tradition in Britain, and there’s nothing quite like it anywhere else in the world. It’s racing across the hills, often not on any sort of trail. You might just be racing across the moors and on the hills and even bits of rocks and so on. Usually you race between several points on the way, so there’s this navigation element as well.
It’s a really wonderful community. It’s quite close-knit and very relaxed and it’s absolutely not elitist at all. You’ll get an Olympic athlete racing the same race as an 85-year old, and everybody just has cups of tea and cake together at the end. There’s very little money in it really. You’ll maybe get a bottle of wine or a homemade cake as a prize at the end.
There’s a lot more publicity and media interest in sky races, which is basically racing along technical trails and usually quite stunning scenery.
Those races are longer as well, and you’re required to carry some of your own gear. How heavy was your pack?
In the Spine Race you have to leave the checkpoints with 3,000 calories of food, and you have to have a stove, a sleeping bag, a bivvy bag, clothes, and waterproofs. So my total kit weighed five and a half kilos (12 lbs.) The checkpoints are about 50 miles apart and when you get there you can get a meal and restock your own supplies. And you’re allowed to buy food along the way.
So can you just pop into a pub and get . . . what, bangers and mash?
One of the checkpoints actually was in a pub so I had some soup there, but you’re not really hanging around. Some of the competitors who are racing sort of less manically do stop for full meals.
Is there such a thing as a professional ultra-runner?
There are some people that manage to do it professionally, like Kilian Jornet and Emelie Forsberg. I’ve had some people approach me but I think I’d have to be more keen on doing media stuff to go pro. I hate doing any sort of promotion of any products or myself. I prefer to just do what I want to do.
And also you know, I’m a scientist. I’m actually okay at my job and I don’t want to give it up. So I’m happy to keep running as a hobby.