INTERVIEW: Svenja Espenhahn and the Journey From Non-Runner to Ultra Running Star

INTERVIEW: Svenja Espenhahn and the Journey From Non-Runner to Ultra Running Star


1. How long have you been running?

I started running around April 2016. Up until then, I rarely tried to run as I absolutely hated it and could not understand how people would love this sport. For whatever reason, I decided to give it another try and went out with a group of people running along England's beautiful South Coast. And to my surprise I really liked it even though my body was really tired after ~35 fun- and laughter-filled kilometres. So, I have been running for a bit more than 2 years now.


2. Was it a gradual build up to longer distances?

I guess I am a bit of an all-or-nothing person and thus, once I was hooked on running, I kind of jumped straight into endurance/ultra running. I took part in my first 50 km race 7 months after starting to run (before having done a marathon) followed by mountain races on Gran Canaria and in the French Alps, and my first 50 miler a year after I started running - I guess I am in for the long run ;-)

3. You dominated at your first race in Canada by coming in first place at the 5Peaks Half Marathon - congrats again! You’re now running along the Rocky Mountains on very technical terrain that often involves rock scrambling to not fall off the side of a mountain. Any advice for newbies transitioning from road to mountain running? 

Mountain running is a lot of fun and rewards you with stunning views. But it is challenging in particular on rocky, technical terrain so I'd recommend taking it easy initially and wear the right footwear - something grippy and protective as toes don't like it when you kick rocks. Also, you should always take food, water and some warmer clothes with you as the temperatures can change quickly in the mountains. 


4. Any pre-race rituals?

There are no specific pre-race rituals I adhere to but since I like food and it plays a big role in ultrarunning, I like to have a big bowl of porridge with banana on the morning of the race. 

Since I generally have a bit more time the week leading up to a race (thanks to tapering), I love watching a good running documentary that gets me into the right mindset.


5. What’s your nutrition plan in races? E.g. How often? Solids vs gels

Apart from loving eating food, I am one of these lucky runners that can stomach quite a bit of food and run, which comes in handy for ultrarunning.

During races I generally use a combination of liquid and solid foods but mainly rely on Tailwind and Clif Bar Shot Bloks to get in the right amount of calories. Everything else I use as a treat and a cup of coke here and there as a mental stimulant. 


6. What are the most important items in your race kit-bag?

The most important items in my race kit-bag are my trusted running shoes, those that don't give you blisters and are grippy, my Runderwear performance running socks so I can run chafe-free, and my Salomon vest in which I can stash some food ;-)

And I love a Buff. They are super handy! As a head wrap, a neck warmer or a snot wipper (haha)! 


7. Do you have an ‘ultimate goal’ in running, or do you tend to go from race to race?

I simply love running as it allows me to explore, adventure and have fun. It also surrounds me with like-minded people who inspire and challenge me to find my limits and push beyond them. Hence, running for me is not just doing well at races but to experience everything this type of sport has to offer, and ideally for as long as possible.


8. What do you enjoy doing when you’re not running?

When I am not running (which is not that often ;-), I love spending time with friends over good food or ice cream (yummy), read a book or do some other sports such as swimming, yoga, climbing or Tennis.


9. Who do you look up to or admire in the running world (or outside it!)

There are so many inspirations in the running world, from the incredibly fast runners to the runners at the back of the pack that have incredible stamina and willpower. Inspirations are everywhere and currently I am in awe with Hillary Allen's comeback from a near-fatal fall of a mountain. It shows that determination, perseverance and passion are powerful and vital in following your dreams.


10. How many miles a week do you run? Are these all longer sessions or do you do any speed sessions for example?

Depending on where I am in my training and which race I am training for, I typically run 65-85 miles a week with 2 specific sessions (speed or hill work).

Since moving to Canada, I also average 3000-5000 m of elevation a week with some stunning views that make up for some hard, steep climbs. In addition, I try to do core strength and stability 2-3 times a week and if I find the time for some Zen, I like doing Yoga.


11. You’ve run in so many incredible places - from South Korea (Ultra Trail Jeju - 2nd female) to Spain (TransGranCanaria - 17th female). Any favourites among the bunch?

That's a tricky one! I guess there are three races that stand out for me for different reasons. First, the Centurion NDW 50 miler which was my first ever experience of running

two back-to-back marathons. I had no clue what I was doing and stuffing my face with all sorts of food which miraculously worked out pretty well for me, finishing second woman. Second, Marathon du Mont Blanc was phenomenal with its beautiful vistas and route, and an exhilarating atmosphere that got me completely hooked on mountain running.

Lastly, I guess my best race to date in terms of performance must be the Monschau Ultra marathon which allowed me to run in my home country, placing third woman, while being greeted at the finish line by my parents. And to celebrate, we stuffed our faces with all the food!


12. What are your plans for the rest of this year? Any other big ones on the horizon?

Since I moved to Canada at the beginning of the year, I am currently absolutely loving running in one of the best places on earth - the Rocky Mountains. Thus, a lot of my running involves exploring the endless trails and scrambling up as many mountains as my legs can handle.

Besides my weekly run-adventures in the Rockies, I will take part in the following races:

- Squamish 50 miler in August (Canada)

- UTHC 125k in September (Canada)

- Golden Ultra - 3 days of racing in September (Canada)

- Chicago Marathon in October (USA)

- TNF EC California 50 miler in November (USA)


13. What advice would you give someone wanting to make the step up to Ultra distance races?

Keep it fun and be patient! Enjoy the journey and the places this sport allows you to visit and get inspired by the people and energy of ultrarunning. Don't make it about numbers - no numbers, no worries. And listen to your body!

Follow Svenja's adventures on Instagram @TheHareRuns

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