Núria Picas, Ultra Trail World Tour Champion: “In long-distance races you are your own main contender”

Núria Picas was born in Manresa, in central Catalonia, 39 years ago. She considers herself a “daughter of the Montserrat mountain”, where her parents brought her climbing as a child. Since she was little she established a strong bond with nature and is now the ‘number 1’ woman in mountain trail running. Last year she won the Ultra Trail World Tour, a competition with ten races (twelve this year), of at least 100 kilometres each. Last season, Picas ran four of these races winning three times and coming runner-up in the fourth. In 2015, however, her “main goal” goes beyond the running world. She is on cloud nine with her new challenge and will soon be literally closer than ever to the clouds: in the spring she is going to attempt to climb an 8,000-metre peak in the Himalayas.

Núria Picas admits she never leaves her sunglasses at home (by M. Force)
Núria Picas admits she never leaves her sunglasses at home (by M. Force) / Marina Force Castells

Marina Force Castells

March 13, 2015 09:47 PM

Barcelona (ACN).- Núria Picas lives in Berga, where she trains, but she is originally from Manresa, in central Catalonia. In her late thirties, Picas is riding high in her career as a trail runner. Last year she won the Ultra Trail World Tour, after participating in four of the ten races of the circuit and achieving three victories and a second-place finish. “Running on asphalt in the city bores me”, she admits. Her close relationship with nature dates back to her childhood, when her parents brought her to Montserrat mountain to climb and she “felt in her element”. Although Picas is known as a long-distance runner, she also has a consuming passion for alpinism. Indeed, she is over the moon with her new challenge: climbing an 8,000-metre peak in the Himalayas during the spring. “This is my main goal and it would be a dream come true”, she said. 

As a child, did you know you wanted to become a runner?

No. I grew up in a family that spent a lot of time outdoors. My parents were avid mountaineers and they instilled their love for nature in me. I was a child when they first brought me to Montserrat mountain. However, when I was asked what I wanted to be when I grew up, my answer was ‘an alpinist or a mountain climber’, not a runner. 

You had a serious climbing accident, didn’t you?

Yes. When I was 22 I fell from a great height while climbing on Montserrat. I broke the ankle bone in my left foot. Doctors told me I would never be able to run again. It was a real blow to me. I had just run my first marathon then. I had a promising future in the running world and it was suddenly shattered. 

When did you return to running?

Almost 7 years later, when I had already passed my fire-fighter entrance test. In fact, it was one of my colleagues who encouraged me to enrol in the Cavalls del Vent Ultra Trail, in 2011, after winning some races. I signed on for it at the eleventh hour, without any hope, but I was the first woman to cross the finish line. I broke the record! My career as a long-distance runner started then.

Are you still working as a fire-fighter?

Well, this is my first year of unpaid leave. I am really focused on my professional career as a runner right now.

What are your feelings about last season?

It was amazing! Almost perfect. It is impossible to perform an impeccable season but winning the Ultra Trail World Tour gave me great satisfaction.

Which was the toughest race of this competition?

All the ultra-trails are really hard! In every single one you have ups and downs. However, if I had to choose one, maybe the Ultra-Trail Mount Fuji, in Japan, was the most difficult. It was really long and I suffered physical fatigue that forced me to slow my pace. At the end, though, I recovered and finished in first place.

How do you motivate yourself to keep running when you feel like pulling out?

I tell myself that I must carry on. It is to run or to “die”. I have to stick to my guns no matter what. Pain is temporary, it may last minutes or hours, but glory lasts forever.

Races may last many hours, what do you do to entertain yourself?

I let my mind go blank. I shut myself off and carry on like a robot, I just think about running. I also divide the race into segments in order not to think that I have 100 kilometres to face. Sometimes I also put my headphones on. Music is a crucial resource I just use in specific moments. It is kind of a medicine to me. 

Do you prefer quick tempos?

Not really. On my iPod I have slow tempo music too. I love Lluís Llach songs [a Catalan singer-songwriter] and also ballads. I have no preference. I can listen to Alejandro Sanz music, but also to Catalan rock groups, such as Els Pets, Gossos and Brams. I really love Bruce Springsteen too. A bit of everything as you can see.

Do you follow any strategy in the races?

I always go from slow to faster. I try to start at a slow pace to conserve energy. I let the other runners overtake me in order to keep an eye on them. From behind you can read the race much better. I believe that in the ultra-trails time tells the tale. 

What do you eat during a race?

It is complicated. Just talking about it makes me shiver…You have to eat the food you like and that you know would do no harm to your gastric system. The day before a race you have to prepare all the foodstuffs and energetic gels; and know where and when you will eat them. Loss of appetite can cause great adversity.

Changing the subject, some Spanish newspapers published that you showed a lack of respect to the Spanish anthem during the award ceremony of the Ultra Trail World Tour. How do you feel about all this criticism?

Well, it was difficult to accept it because a few newspapers and television stations just invented the whole story! My feelings are clear and it is true that I would rather listen to the Catalan anthem. However, I did not show any lack of respect towards it. I listened to the Spanish anthem without saying a word nor screwing up my face up. Maybe I showed my feelings through my face, because I did not expect that anthem to be played, but I had to swallow it. Talking honestly, though, I hope this year we don’t have to listen to it again. 

You always wear the ‘Estelada’ [Catalan pro-independence flag] when you are near to finishing a race. Is this well received?

You know, you cannot please everyone, so it is better to do what your heart tells you to. I have many friends with different political ideologies and we get on like a house on fire! It is true that sometimes the Spanish Federation warns me not to display the Estelada on the podium if I do not want them to withdraw the prize from me. However, I do not get any economic help from the Spanish Government, so I guarantee you that I will not stop expressing my feelings for this reason.

What is your main goal for this year?

My biggest challenge this year is a bit different for me and it will be taking place during the spring: climbing an 8,000-metre peak in the Himalayas. It will be a dream came true!

What about your participation in this year ultra-trails?

I want to repeat the Ultra Trail World Tour circuit. I have already run the Tarawera Ultra Marathon in New Zealand and the Transgrancanaria in the Canary Islands. I would also like to run the Ultra Trail of Mont Blanc. Apart from these, you will see me at the Buff Epic Trail, an independent race in the Aigüestortes National Park, which is starting to gain a name for itself in the long-distance running world. To end the season, I will take part, for the fifth time, in the Salomon Ultra Pirineu and I would really love to win it again in order to achieve a five of a kind hand of victories, but it is really difficult.

How did you feel in the Tarawera Ultra Marathon?

Well, when I went to New Zealand in February it had been two months since my last run. I am really focused on my new challenge in the Himalayas and I have changed my training routine a bit. I do lots of climbing practice. To be honest, I found the Tarawera Ultra Marathon extremely hard and long. I suffered a lot! Now, a month later, my fitness has improved, but I do feel that I am not in the best physical condition. 

Who are the contenders that worry you the most? 

In ultra-trails you are your own main contender. Long-distance races are a constant fight in which many elements play an important role. You have to ration your efforts, know what to eat and at what moment, have a tough mind…It is a mix of things.

Body and mind work in tandem, don’t they? 

Sure. I think it is a fifty-fifty ratio. Genetics play a significant role and as does your daily training. I think that in an ultra-trail there are three important factors: physical preparation, your mind, and how you look at yourself during the race.

Which is your favourite non-Catalan race?

The Ultra Trail of Mount Blanc, without a doubt. It is the most emblematic one. It takes place once a year in the Alps, across France, Italy and Switzerland. It is like the Championship, one of the most renowned races at international level and the one with the most competitors [2,300 participants].

Last year you finished in second place. What will it mean to you to win it?

It would be a dream came true. It is a goal of mine that remains unachieved. To win this race for the first time and the Salomon Ultra Pirineu, for the fifth, would be amazing!

You travel a lot. How do you juggle your private and professional lives?

Very well! I have two children and I train in the morning while they are at school. So I see them in the afternoon and during the weekend. I often bring them with me to races. They know what I do and they live the experience with me.

Have you ever thought about what you’ll do when you finish your running career?

I have never thought about it, although it will happen someday sooner or later. Every year it is more difficult to confront a new season. This is a really exigent sport and the physical pressure is at a maximum. I am a woman of change. Maybe I will stop running and go climbing and practicing alpinism.

And afterwards, will you return to your fire-fighter job?

Sure. I have the possibility to come back whenever I want to. I love the profession and I think it suits me a lot. It demands fitness and mental training. I really miss my colleagues and it would be nice to work alongside them again.