Podcast Blog: Episode 35
Sarah Gillam is the reigning British Canicross Champion and is also a Personal Trainer and DogFit Canicross Trainer. She has just come back from competing in the legendary Trophée des Montagnes (TDM) in the French Alps with her dynamic duo Poppy and Sonic. Widely regarded as the toughest Canicross event in the world, the TDM consists of 8 challenging stages over 7 days, with people travelling from all over the world (mostly Europe) to take part.
She is currently in her rest and recovery phase and we are delighted to be able to chat with her about her experiences.
Congratulations, Sarah, for completing the TDM and achieving an incredible first place in your age category. How are you feeling?
Pretty good in general. I think my legs and body recovered quite quickly, but I have been quite tired this week. Perhaps it’s the adrenaline come-down and the long drive home.
For those listening who don’t know what the TDM is, could you give us a brief outline about what’s involved, where it took place and how long it went on for?
TDM stands for Trophée des Montagnes. It’s a beautiful stage race in the French Alps, close to Alpe d’Huez. It normally takes place around the first week of August, but this year it was a bit later. This year, it was eight stages in seven days – previously, it has been ten stages in nine days. You are running every morning, sometimes with double days that involve a night race as well. People from all over Europe go there to take part and there’s a lovely mixture of dogs – and humans! The scenery as you run along is just incredible.
How many people took part this year, do you think?
I think that, because they were a bit late releasing the dates and then pushed it back, there were fewer participants than normal. There were around 150 adults teams, whereas often, the event has attracted anything up to 300. There is a kids’ race as well, so a lot of people go as a summer holiday with the whole family. Once you have done the run in the morning, you usually have the rest of the day free to relax.
Did some people run with two dogs, or were they mainly single?
No, you could only run with one dog at once. Some people took and registered two dogs and alternated which one they ran with. I took both of my dogs. I had mainly been doing my training in the lead-up to it with Poppy as she is smaller and more reliable on the trails. I ran with her mainly, but pulled out Sonic, my wild card, for two of the stages.
Tell us about your two dogs, Poppy and Sonic.
Poppy is quite a small, female Scandinavian hound. She is five years old, so she has built up a good amount of experience. She’s the best trail partner as she is small but mighty and will pull me up the hills. It’s easier to run with her on the down-hills too, because I’ve finally cracked the ‘back’ command. She’ll run by my side now and constantly try and trip me up, but at least she’s not always out in the front, pulling me downhill too quickly. Her focus on the trail is unbelievable. I can trust her 100% with difficult starts and lots of people, which is great.
Sonic – I call him Supersonic – is younger. He is only three years old and thinks he is about 18 months! He is nearly ten kilos heavier than Poppy, so he is strong. He is unbelievable on the up-hills. On the down-hills, though, he doesn’t really like the ‘back’ command. I haven’t properly trained him in that yet, so that has been very challenging, but I was still very glad I ran with him out there.
How does someone go about entering the TDM? Are there pre-requisites?
The good news is that anyone can enter. Normally, entries open in the spring and usually it sells out within a few hours so you have to be quick! This year, it was a bit later, so the process was a bit different, You sign up for the whole stage race beforehand. What you can do is enter individual stages when you get out there. So you might be out there and just want to enter the first two races, for example, or the final three. There’s three different regions that move around different mountains and you can enter stages region by region.
Is it mandatory to wear the GB team kit?
No, it’s not. You’re entering as a individual. However, since there are a lot of different nationalities there, it’s quite nice to represent your country and wear the kit. There were a good number of people from Great Britain there this time, but fewer than previous years, I think Brexit has made it more difficult and more expensive to travel to Europe. I really like talking about my experiences there, as I hope it will inspire more people to go.
I’ve been following your progress on your Instagram page and feeling like I was there myself – and at the same time being glad that I wasn’t, as it sounds very hard! You give a really good synopsis, and I think that if anyone is thinking about taking part, they should definitely check out your Instagram feed. It must have been an amazing feel to be over there, representing Great Britain with your dogs.
Yes, it was a lot of fun. It was nice to meet other people from Great Britain, We had good competition from people from Belgium, France and other places too. It was a lovely atmosphere as everyone was there for the same reason.
How did you go about preparing for an event like this? You are a personal trainer already, but I would imagine you had to set yourself a fairly stringent schedule to get you and your dogs ready in time.
Honestly speaking, my training wasn’t all that great leading up to this event. Last year, I trained really hard and had a good three-month programme set up. Then, I broke my hand two days before it started. So this year, I was so nervous and excited about getting to the starting line that I didn’t put as much pressure on myself.
I had a good level of fitness as I had just completed a trail marathon, so my body was used to training five to six times per week. However, I had been doing a lot of longer, slower runs and I was missing the speed side of things. I was lucky enough to be able to take six days out to do some training in North Wales, which I found out was very hilly!
I went there to visit a good friend of mine, Bryony, who is also a DogFit trainer. She showed me some incredible trails that you just don’t get where I live – the ‘up, up, up’, rather than constantly going up and down. We had some horrific weather when I was there in July with rain every day and cold temperatures. So, I didn’t have to get up early to beat the heat; I could run at any time of the day and it would be cold and rainy and perfect for the dogs. I mainly ran with Poppy, but also did some heights with Sonic in the harness, which helped his fitness too.
At the TDM, are the events all different distances?
Yes. The average is around 5km to 5.5km, while the shortest is 3.8km. the longest was meant to be around 8km, but it ended up being reduced to around 5km because of the warm temperatures. The real difference is in the elevation. So, the minimum elevation was 180m over that short run and then up to 450m over some of the longer ones. Lots of going uphill!
How much of your training was with the dogs, and how much was off-road?
I didn’t run much with the dogs because the event fell later in August this year, and it was quite warm in the weeks leading up to it. That made it harder to train with the dogs. I had done a lot of training with Poppy in the late spring and early summer before it got warm, so I knew she had a good base fitness. So, I just did a training blast with her and Sonic in Wales to get their fitness up to the right level.
I also did several sessions with both dogs in the harness, but just hiking, not running. They’ve both got the mindset of pulling all the time, even when they’re only walking. So, I think that helped to condition them quite well.
I would say that I did 90% of my training off-road. Occasionally it’s good to have a speed session or a hard interval on the road and I did a few track sessions here and there. However, I think that the off-road training is really important, which is why I went to Wales. I also ran on the trails around me. It does feel like you’re going more slowly, but the trails are more replicable to what I had to do during the TDM. Lots of hill sessions and undulating runs.
How did you condition the dogs for the higher temperatures they would encounter during the TDM?
When it came to preparing the dogs for the heat of the French Alps in August, I found you can only condition them to a certain degree. There was a heat wave in France when we were there and I found that really hard. I had to pretty much hibernate during the day, as it was too hot to do anything. In the mornings though, it was really cool.
We were at an elevation of something like 1,700m and the runs were normally scheduled between 7am and 7.30am, before the sun had risen above the mountains and warmed up the day too much. The humidity in France was so much lower than it was in England, even though it was ten degrees hotter. For my dogs, it’s the humidity that gets them more than the heat.
You obviously drove out in your van with your dogs and had to take food, equipment etc. How long did that take you and what did you pack?
Good question! It’s like a glorified race weekend, except that you have to pack for seven days and be a bit more prepared about the things you take with you. I had a few different lists to make sure that I wouldn’t forget anything. When you’re in your van and people are about, though, you can always ask for help if you have forgotten anything vital.
I made sure I had a spare harness for the dog and one for me, loads of lines. I ordered a load of dog booties as the terrain is quite rocky. The French dogs are probably quite used to it, but around here, our dogs’ paws aren’t necessarily acclimatised to running on rocks all the time. In terms of human kit, I packed so much stuff that I didn’t even use, such as long-sleeved tops and racing t-shirts. You get a racing bib from the TDM organisers that you wear every day and most people just wear that.
What harnesses do the dogs run in?
I’m using the I-Dog harness, the blue one. It’s adjustable and fits them quite well. They both have quite skinny necks, with deep chests and long bodies so you can adjust it and get a nice fit. I use the I-Dog belt for myself as well. When people first see it, it can look a bit bigger than some of the other brands, but it give such a good fit on your lower back and bottom that you don’t get any back pain. It’s super comfortable once it’s worn in.
Going back to nutrition, when you’re running long distances how do you cope with that? The dogs need fuelling for their early morning run but also their protein intake to help them recover. How do you handle that?
This is one thing that I have focused on a lot, both for me and the dogs. First of all, I would say not to try anything new when you are at an event. Everything that I did during the TDM, I had practised at home beforehand. My time in Wales was really good for helping me sort out a lot of that for me and the dogs.
The dogs were always fed breakfast – Sonic in particular is terrible when running on an empty stomach. I like to feed them two hours before a race, which meant getting up very early. I’m not all that good at getting up at 5am, but I did to feed them breakfast. They got a slightly lighter breakfast than normal so that there wasn’t too much in their stomachs. I also gave them a pre-drink mixed in with their food.
After the race, I would give them a recovery drink and a bit of wet food about an hour or so afterwards, once they had cooled down and calmed down. Then, they would get their dinner later on and maybe that would be a bit bigger to make up for eating less in the morning. All of this helped them to recover quickly and well after each race.
For myself, I did experiment with a few things. When I did the 5km races, it felt like I didn’t really need anything from an energy perspective. However, from a recovery perspective, what I did this time really helped. So, I would eat breakfast as soon as I had fed the dogs, about two hours before the race. I also had a carbs and electrolyte drink too, about 30-45 minutes before the race, sometimes with caffeine and sometimes not. That gave me the extra fuel going into the start of the race to help during the race and with my recovery afterwards.
Then, at the end of the race, I had a protein and carbs drink to refuel myself straight away, A lot of the time, I felt a bit a sick after the race and had to force it down me but it did help with my recovery, muscle and leg wise.
What kinds of dogs were there?
There was a really nice mix of dogs there. We had Euro hounds, quite a lot of German and English pointers and other ‘trainable’ athletic dogs, such as collies and Australian shepherds, Labradors etc. There were several smaller dogs there too. That mixture was what was so nice about the dogs there. Even some of the people competing at the top were running with collies and smaller dogs. Not everyone had big Euro hounds.
The TDM has a number of intense stages. What was each stage like – did any stand out for you in a good or bad way? Did everything go to plan?
The plan was to have eight stages, but one was cancelled as it was too warm. Normally, they were in the morning but one was a night race that started at 10.30pm. The first region had two identical runs – they were probably the most brutal with regards to the steepness of the climb. They were 5km runs and had an elevation of around 450m in just over 2km. They were definitely the toughest climbs. They started on a ski slope and then went into the woods on a twisty, softer trail. That section was nice as it was all quite shaded by the trees. Then there was the downhill part that was a gravelly, wide track that was super runnable and very fast. I ran those two races with Poppy and they went quite well. On the second day we took 90 seconds off our time, which I was delighted about.
Then, the next region was in a valley with just one race. That was a bit tougher, as it is usually the one that is much warmer. It was shortened for us from 8km down to around 5km due to the temperature. Not too much climbing, but a really technical down-hill on a camber that made you feel you were going to fall off the sides!
Were there staggered starts?
Most the event started in threes, every 30 seconds. You had people to run with, depending on the type of trail and dog that you ran with. Sometimes you get caught up by people, or catch up yourself with others ahead of you, so it was quite nice and sociable.
That third race didn’t go so well for me because the dreaded thing happened, which was that my dog didn’t have her second poo before the race! It was my fault, as the start of the third race was about 1.5km away from where we were camping, with an uphill walk. There were a lot of other dogs around and I was trying to sort out Sonic and get him started on the walk. I thought I could get Poppy to go to the toilet somewhere on the way. In the end, as there were so many dogs around her, she was too excited to go! Lesson learned on that one.
The first 3km of the was uphill, all very gradual, and she was doing well, but not as well as I know she can do. As soon as we got to the downhill bit, she was delighted to just trot along behind me. She wouldn’t stop to have her poo, and I only eventually got her to do so about five to ten minutes after the race had finished. She was fine in the end!
Poppy has a great running ethic, then, if she didn’t stop halfway round!
Then we moved on to the final region on the fourth day. There were meant to be five runs there, but we only ended up doing four. At that point, we got a bit of a rest. We ran in the morning and then didn’t run again until the evening of day five for the night race.
That was the one where I decided to pull out my wild card and race with Sonic. I was really nervous as well, because I knew how strong he is. We were racing in the dark with a head torch. Also, normally Canicross races are seeded with the fastest competitors going first. However, with the night races, the seeding is reversed, so the slower people go first. That did make for a really fun run, and they still did the 30 second starts. However, it is far more likely that you are going to catch people up in front of you, and other people behind are going to catch up with you. Taking Sonic into that sort of carnage was a bit of a gamble, but actually, he was unbelievably good.
We started quite near the back, but he was so strong! I let him pull me at the start for the uphill section and we caught so many people. Then, there was a nice, flat bit along the top before we had to turn around and come back for the dreaded downhill bit. Fortunately, he’d used up some of his energy by then and I did manage to get him to run alongside me for a bit.
There was a thin, single, uneven ‘goat’s track’ with potholes that zig-zagged back down the ski slope for about 500m. You drop about 100m in about half a kilometre, so you have to get your dog behind you if they are a puller. It was dark and I couldn’t really see where I was going. At that stage, though, the race produced my best result and my first top-ten scratch.
Unfortunately, the second time that I wanted to run Sonic was an evening stage that got cancelled. So, I had to be brave and use him on another course that was a bit difficult. I wanted him to have another run, though.
Do they do post-race testing at that event?
Not that I know of. It is quite competitive at the top, but it is also super friendly and they do a lot of checks when you register. They check your equipment, the fit of the harness on your dog and the length of the line., Then, they have a vet do a proper check of the dogs as well beforehand. Afterwards, it’s not so serious that they need any other kind of testing.
How many times have you done the TDM and do you think you’ll do it again?
This was only my second time doing the TDM. I would love to do it again, as I had such a good experience this year. Perhaps it would be hard to match that again with regards to the runs and the people whom I did it with. I’m pretty sure I will be sucked back into it though!
We’re glad you had a great time. Hopefully you have inspired other people to think about taking part in the future. It’s an inclusive event that you can join in without being at the absolute top of the sport. What would your advice be to anyone thinking about training for the TDM and taking part?
You could start with a smaller stage race event that isn’t quite as intense to get a taste for it – that would be the perfect build-up. Then, with a bit more training and willpower, you could progress to the longer event. It really is about getting the right training and nutrition.
The TDM organisers have a website with the routes and trails, contact details and other information where you can also find out how to enter. You can find it at: http://tropheedesmontagnes.fr.
Thank you and good luck with your training and your next Canicross event!
You can find out more about Sarah on our DogFit Trainer page >> here
If you would like to follow Sarah on Instagram you can find it >> here
If you would like to see the YouTube of this podcast you can view >> here