Eyes on the prize — a Tom Evans story

“What’s the minimum we need to do in order to achieve the demands of this race?”

It’s not a question about shortcuts — it’s one loaded with intent. Tom Evans trained hard and smart. He created a structure that aligned not only with his ambition to win the Western States Endurance Run, but also his lifestyle and his personality. The epitome of that most elusive skill — peaking at the right time. But with months of training in the bag, the most important dot still to join lay on the other side of the finish line.

How do you stay focused on something that’s so far away? A dot on the horizon obscured by months of routine and rigour. A calendar page not yet in view. In the absence of discipline — the keystone to success — it’s tempting to flirt with complacency. When time and distance feel endless, it’s easy to be lulled and to convince yourself that a missed session doesn’t matter. That you’ll catch up tomorrow. But time doesn’t come back to you — it’s rarely on your side. There’s a magnetism about that slippery slope. Switching off can feel easier than recalibrating and maintaining motivation. It’s a trap.

With the predictable, metronomic steps forward of each session mirrored by the passing of seconds towards the inevitable start line — the ones who show up ready are the ones who applied method and structure. The ones who have done the graft and felt the satisfaction of those incremental gains. Each simultaneously tiny on paper yet immeasurably huge for the mindset. But it’s not always about training harder. For running 100 miles it pays to train smarter.

This is the Western States Endurance Run. It’s casual to say that Tom’s entire season has been leading up to this point, when the reality is that Western States is elevated above that status. For elite trail runners, it’s a life goal — always in the back of the mind somewhere. It’s the oldest and, possibly, most sought after 100-mile trail race in the calendar. Months of training, and all its variables, converge here.

Tom works hard to keep the process fresh and stave off boredom. In his words, maintaining focus when the training is mundane is “Impossible. For me — impossible. I’ve got to enjoy it”. It seems obvious, but in the absence of variety — Tom adds cycling and strength work into his training — preparing for very long endurance races can descend quickly into drudgery. He builds in subtle benchmarks to keep things on track. Things that are easy to quantify. “Western States is 100 miles with 4,000m of climbing. So for me, in training, every 100 miles that I run, I also need to climb 4,000m. Training with very similar elevation ratios has been hugely beneficial.”

Other races — hard in their own right —­­ have been no more than training milestones. A gauge to measure progress towards Olympic Valley, California. Months of effort and experimentation. Testing and practice. But there was a time, right back at the start, when Tom and his team had a blank piece of paper. “Before thinking about any of the sexy stuff — the heat training or the altitude testing — in order to win the race or run a time that I think is capable of winning the race, what have I actually got to be able to do?”

When we think about endurance sport and describe the process, it’s hard not to run full force into a world of clichés, but here they seem literally so appropriate. You have to enjoy the journey as much as the destination. For Tom, this is critical. “A lot of people are involving themselves in Type 2 fun. Whereas for me, it's like, ‘No! Find a way that you can really enjoy doing it’. Winning races is great — doing races is great. But I might only race 4 or 5 times a year. Yet, I train 350 days a year. And if I'm not enjoying that, and I'm worrying about races, then there's just no point in it.” He continues that it’s all about getting the balance right. “Is where I live the best place to train for hard mountain ultras? No, it's not. But it's where my family is and it's where I'm happy.”

Running beyond marathon distance starts to stray outside the boundaries of predictability. Tom makes the point that, “For half-marathon and down, there are relatively few external or non-controllable factors. Your threshold is your threshold, and this is what you are capable of doing.” Those shorter distances are black-and-white. “Whereas, from the marathon and above — the further you run — the more uncontrollable factors there are.”

To prepare for a 100-mile race you have to embrace and accept the unknowns that you simply won't encounter until you reach those distances. In essence, on a basic level, you can’t really train for it — no off-the-shelf template exists. Tom continues, “Physiologically you can be consistent and you can rack up good mileage, but I won't get anywhere near 100 miles in a training run. Compare that to a 5km runner who will probably surpass the race distance with each track session.” Or even a marathon runner doing a 20-mile run a couple of weeks from race day. “I won't go and run an 80-mile long run 3 weeks before the race, because I just won't recover in time — I'll be completely broken. So it's about trying to be super-consistent with load.”

“Do I ever just go for a run, for the sake of going for a run? No. When everything serves a purpose it's easier to put together the pieces of the whole training puzzle.”

For Western States, Tom has another ace up his sleeve — experience. He quite candidly admits to making mistakes in training. The sort that are almost a rite of passage for any would-be ultrarunner. “Traditionally athletes would ask themselves – ‘what's the maximum amount of training I could do in a week?’ For example, I'm doing 25 hours a week. What happens if I do 27 hours? What happens if I do 29 hours? I even had a couple of weeks over 30 hours.” It’s not just that the training reaches a point of diminishing returns, but that it becomes entirely detrimental to progress.

The impact of overreaching is sudden — a fast-track to injury. And like many athletes, Tom fell into the old trap of assuming huge volume was right. “I was just broken and not enjoying it. So with my coach we flipped it.” Going against the grain seems to be working and Tom admits that for a lot of athletes the idea of reducing mileage is surprising. “You've got to really buy into it. Some of the time the training might seem almost illogical and a bit outside the box. But that's what you have to do and to have confidence in that process.”

Talking to Tom, you get a sense of someone very much in control. But more than that — of someone who thrives in creating an environment in which he has control. “Do I ever just go for a run, for the sake of going for a run? No. When everything serves a purpose it's easier to put together the pieces of the whole training puzzle.” In other words — it’s important to sweat the detail in training and reap the benefits of that effort on race day. And this is a point that Tom comes back to often. “If I have a 4-hour training run planned but it takes 5 hours because I'm stopping to practice an aid station or experiment with fueling, that's not the end of the world. That practice in training is as critical as running the steps.”

Underpinning this mindset and structure is Tom's military background. Crew members are not simply given a briefing — it’s more, as he describes it, “a Tactical Aide-Memoire”. Clear instructions for every eventuality. If this happens or that happens, what do I need to do? And then there's Mission Command. Tom's crew need to know the end-state of every scenario. They need to know how Tom should leave every aid station in order for him to safely reach the next checkpoint. It's more than a checklist. It's about enabling the athlete to just run. No distractions or added stress. And although this level of detail might seem intense and loaded with pressure, the result is the opposite — it gives everyone involved in the race clarity on what needs to be done.

This isn’t just about being fastidious. It’s about applying life skills to the sport of trail running in order to improve efficiency and the likelihood of winning. It’s calculated and meticulous, and it gives everyone a purpose. “Running is not an individual sport in these big races — it's a team effort. You need to have the right people around you and people you trust. People who understand and know the sport.”

Successfully running 100 miles and dealing with the building fatigue has a lot to do with tolerance. Weather, friction, discomfort, pace, and, most importantly, fuel. We talk about training your guts and getting used to it, but Western States is a course of two halves — high and cool to start, then lower, hotter and fast towards the end. Tom explained how it has been critical to build an understanding of how he can take on fuel as the course changes. “Fueling in the cold is easy. In parts of the high course, that might still have snow, it shouldn't be a problem. Your body is saying — ‘it's cold, I need to fuel more’. When things start to get hot, I know that my body will start to struggle to take on the high carb drinks and that I can't rely on them for my fueling. From that point — Gels are great. I'll switch from the Maurten 320 Drink Mix down to the 160 and then top-up my carbs with an extra Gel.”

Tom has spent many hours testing at Loughborough University, replicating the course and refining a fueling strategy that’s manageable at race pace. “Realising what the limitations are on my body and backing it up with data from the lab testing and science, and the prospect of putting that learning into practice on race day, has been a lot of fun.“ Combining this with knowledge from his previous attempt at Western States — Tom has the course record for the last quarter of the course — and you start to sense an underlying confidence. He is buoyed and positive. There’s an unwavering trust that this process is positioning him as a possible winner of the race. Delivering him to the start line in the best possible shape.

Coming into a major goal like Western States requires body and mind to feel relaxed and ready —tapering so that the legs peak on race day is irrelevant if the mind is not in the same place. Tom is attentive to reducing the load in all areas of life — simplifying — in order to ease both the physical and mental stress. “People talk about flow-state and runner’s high. For me, when I feel like I'm flowing is when my body and mind are fully connected. Which doesn't happen all the time. Because at times your body will be far more tired than your mind. And at other times your mind might be more tired or there might be other distractions going on.” It’s about being aware — identifying — the things that might be adding unnecessary burden to your system and how to reduce that. For the elite runners this includes pre-race media commitments, that may seem light but still require you to think about answers. Those are the sorts of mental demands that have a low-level, but cumulative burden.

Having a well structured training plan is one thing, but there’s a final — perhaps biggest — piece of the puzzle. Being able to execute that work on race day. To bring it home, if you like. Overcoming the hype and seeing it through. Holding your nerve and sticking to the plan when all around you is chaos. Running your own race and embracing the unknowns. Keeping eyes on the prize.

As Tom arrived at the finish in Auburn, at the far end of his journey — 100 miles and many months of practice now trailing off behind him — the once distance target was there, crystal clear and ready to grasp. Winner of Western States and the fourth fastest time ever run on the course. Mission accomplished.

Words by Ross Lovell, Photos by Dan King