From zero to hero

Dragon's Back winner and Tors des Géants runner-up Galen Reynolds was once told by a doctor he wasn't built for running

Galen Reynolds

by Paul Halford |

Like many taking up running, Galen Reynolds couldn’t run further than 200 metres when he started. But within 10 years he had run the UTMB, set the course record for the Dragon’s Back race and won the Montane Cheviot Goat race. Even more impressively, he had been told by a specialist in his mid-twenties that he wasn’t built to be a runner due to problems with his knees. The UK-based Canadian is an inspiration to us all, particularly to novice runners, and we can learn a lot from how he physically and mentally approaches ultra races.

After playing ice hockey at university, he wanted to get into something to try to keep fit but realised that in London there weren’t as many easy-to-reach rinks as back home. He took to triathlons instead, admitting: “With the 10k at the end, I wouldn’t be able to run it. My knees would explode, so I went to see a doctor and they said, ‘you just weren’t born to run.’ So I took that to heart.

“I didn’t run for four years or so and became extremely out of shape and overweight. Then I thought, ‘I’ve got to get into this running thing, I’ve got to crack this.’ I tried to run for a mile; I’d run for 200m and then have to walk 200m and then run for 200m.”

To make matters worse, when he finally got up to bigger distances, he was using GPS on his phone which had been telling him he had run three miles when it emerged it was only one!

However, the knee problems have never resurfaced, and one of the things he puts his improvement down to is having his running gait analysed. With this in mind, Galen turned to running movement expert Shane Benzie, author of The Lost Art of Running. Shane has worked with many elite runners to help them cover the ground more efficiently.

Galen says: “I thought I had a really good ultra shuffle and he looked at me like, ‘Oh man, you’re running like a train wreck, which is good because it means you can improve.”

Applying the individually tailored techniques carefully, he went away and put it into practice. Once or twice a week he concentrates on running form and has never been injured since.

Shane says of Galen’s rise from written-off runner to elite: “It’s a story I see a lot. A lot of people come to see me and tell me they’ve been told they can’t run or are just not made to run.”

Shane’s ‘Running Reborn’ system has recently partnered with wearable technology company COROS and, through this, analysis of key metrics can help to provide suggestions on how you can run faster for the same effort.

“A lot of the metrics I look at when I’m doing my drills for running form are on my watch,” says Galen, “Four of the data fields I look at are cadence, stride length, vertical oscillation and ground contact time. When I’m doing drills, I’m making sure I’m in the range Shane and I have spoken about, and that works for me.”

Galen believes most runners could benefit from looking at how they move when they run. “If you’re any type of runner, like if you run 10km a week, you’re going to benefit from this.”

However, if you’re running as far in one go as Galen, you need to be as efficient as possible. He has twice finished second in the Tor des Géants in Italy, one of the world’s most famous trail races and, at 353km (219 miles) long, one of the toughest. When he runs that, he’s taking more than 300,000 steps.

However, aside from the physical approach, having the right mentality to put yourself through such an ordeal for 77 hours – or longer if you’re slower than Galen – is obviously key.

He tells us: “In terms of mental preparation, it’s something I’m always working on. With the Tor des Géants, it’s just knowing that people have done it before, that I’ve gone though low spots and come through it even if it is really really rough. I just keep moving and knowing that it will never keep getting worse.” It’s a point worth remembering, no matter what your distance is.

One other tip he has for us all is to learn from your past races. Doing this helped him take nine hours off his time the second time he did the Tor des Géants. He explains: “A big issue I was having at this race is that I was having a very strict sleep regime going in. I said, ‘I’m going to sleep at this aid station and this aid station.’ But when I got there I tried to sleep but couldn’t, so one of the big lessons I learned was only sleeping when I really needed to.”

Knowing the course, too, can be a significant aid, stresses Galen. “Later on, when I went the second night without sleep, I was hallucinating quite badly. Parts of the race there’d be a big descent and you can see it on the elevation profile but then there’d be a 200m up but, since the course is so long it doesn’t show up on the map, I was losing my mind, thinking, ‘Have I turned around and I’m going back around?’ With sleep-deprived races, it’s really easy to get confused but the more you know [about the course], the better you’ll get through it.”

Few of us are doing 219-mile races, but we can nevertheless apply the same principles in our running: learn from every race and recce the course. Above all, think about how you can improve the efficiency of your running.

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