VALA ambassador: Byron O'Donnell
Hey Byron, can you tell us a bit about yourself?
I'm a runner, I have a fiancée named Alex and a dog called Fig. That pretty much sums me up.
What inspired you to get into trail running?
My running journey only began around seven years ago when a colleague and friend at the time, who was an avid trail runner, was trying to convince me to ditch mountain biking and go trail running instead (although I do still mountain bike). He also educated me in the realms of the minimalist shoe movement. In my younger days I was a sports coach teaching in schools - everything from trampolining to rugby - with many team and individual sports thrown in the mix. I had also studied physical education at university so the biomechanics side of his argument drew me in. Before I knew it, I'd started transitioning into lower drop shoes, not to run but I felt this style of footwear would help with some knee issues that I'd been having and I was stunned that very quickly I noticed a difference. A couple of months passed and I was gifted some lightweight running shoes with a 4mm drop so I decided I'd give trail running a go.
I went for my first trail run, an out and back up a local fell. I had just run my first trail 6k and I was ecstatic. This at the time was a big deal, as I hadn't ran like this before. Two days later DOMS hit me like a wrecking ball and I wondered what I had done to myself. After a few solo runs I built up the confidence to start running with a couple of friends. I could immediately see that I was going to love trail running. After a few runs I entered my first organised event, a relatively flat 10 miler. 'What am I doing?' I thought, 'Can I even run ten miles non stop?'. I had to check before the race. My friend who introduced me to this sport agreed to go for a practice run together around a local lake to test my grit. I was fine, I didn't fail. From this point my love for running has grown exponentially, as has my ability. This is not to say I can run anything, it is simply that my 'difficult' is much more than it was seven years ago.
How long have you been doing it for?
I have been running since my mid 20's - I'm now 32 - and at that time running a 10 miler terrified me, now I consider myself an ultra runner and don't really worry about what a run will bring.
What’s your favourite thing about trail running?
Running for me now is a much greater experience, those anxieties have all but disappeared from my psyche. I now find it much more of a relaxing almost meditative act. There is something internally beautiful about running on a trail, finding a rhythm, a flow, a state of one between yourself and the earth beneath you. Finding that moment where your subconscious is void of all thoughts, yet you are more present and aware than you ever find yourself in daily life. I do not run with headphones for a simple reason, I seek to find that moment where you almost elevate from your own self, connecting to the trail and nature, focussing on nothing but absorbing everything, the sound of your footsteps, your breath, the nature around you the wind blowing higher up the fell side. This is peace.
Where’s your favourite place to train?
Living in the Lake District I have the most amazing selection of trails on my doorstep. Whether I fancy flat lakeside trails or a techy mountain single track, there is so much to choose from. If I had to choose a favourite run it would be up Walla Crag via Springs Woods, down to Ashness Bridge and back along beneath Falcon Crag.
What keeps you motivated on days when it seems harder than usual?
Alex and I are getting married next year and at some point after that we plan to start our own little trail running family. On the days when I feel a little flat, lacking motivation and simply can't be bothered I remind myself that I want to be a fit and healthy parent and not adopt the aptly named 'dad-bod'. My parents were always encouraging me to be active as a child, taking me walking in the fells or on surfing and camping trips to Cornwall. I want to give our future family that same experience for them to look up to me.
With the current circumstances we are all living in, I also want to ensure that I am as fit and healthy as I can be to give my body the best defence I can.
On top of the physical benefits there is the huge mental boost I get when I hit the trails. There is something internally beautiful about running on a trail, finding a rhythm, a flow, a state of one between yourself and the earth beneath you. Finding that moment where your subconscious is void of all thoughts, yet you are more present and aware than you ever find yourself in daily life. This is priceless.
Is there a specific athlete in your field that inspires you and what do you admire about them?
I have recently found huge inspiration from Rich Roll. He is a plant based runner, triathlete, writer, father and successful podcaster. I admire his open book mindset, he shares the troubles he has had in his life without filter. He tells his story of how the ups and downs of his life have led him to what he has become today. I see similarities in his past to my own and how, with the right mindset, anything is achievable with perseverance and passion.
Why do you enjoy training using VALA?
I actually stopped using energy gels altogether around five years ago as I found them synthetic tasting, difficult to stomach and one particular brand having the same ‘messy’ effect on myself and several friends. But that’s enough on that matter…
When I was first given the opportunity to try out some of VALA's new gels I looked at the ingredients, of which there are only seven, all of which I had heard of and all could be picked up from your local supermarket and not necessarily a laboratory. As athletes many of us are conscious of what we put in our bodies, we like to understand the balance of protein, carbs and fats we are consuming. Yet when it comes to a big training day or a race for that matter this consideration goes out the window and we start to chug on gels and gummies, mainly full of unpronounceable ingredients.
After trying the gels for my self running, riding and even swimming I have been more than impressed with what I have found.
- The sensation of eating real food with the convenience of a gel sachet
- Extremely tasty - almost like a fig roll centre!
- No unsettling of the stomach whatsoever
- No notable sugar spike and inevitable crash
- Maintained energy
- Keen for more!
What does ‘natural sports nutrition’ mean to you?
As I touched upon with my reasoning for enjoying VALA, I like to know what I am putting in my body and where my fuel is coming from. I have been known in the past to pull out sweet potatoes half way through ultra marathons for carbs. 'Natural sports nutrition' in my opinion is fuelling yourself with 'normal' foods. The kind that you could eat on a daily basis and those that your body is accustomed to processing efficiently.
What are your top three tips for someone else thinking of getting into your sport?
1. Get the right gear. I have lived and worked in the Lake District my entire life. Granted some people I see on the hills are wearing the most expensive kit they can buy. This may not be necessary but at the other end of the spectrum I see people walking in jeans or trail running in their gym trainers. Do your research as there are so many options for all kinds of running and depending on your form and foot shape there are some styles that just won't work for you. The same applies to your clothing and bags. Again, do your research, talk to the staff in your local running or outdoor store and get some advice from professionals.
2. Never compare yourself in a negative way to other runners. Obviously if you are racing this is slightly different, you will want to strive to be the best in your chosen event. But, if you are a recreational runner and you are out there for any other reason than standing atop a podium consider yourself equal. I speak to so many people who tell me that they've been for a run and my response would be "That's amazing!". More often than not though they will utter in a downtrodden way "Only 5k though, nothing like what you run". If someone has ran 5k, 10k - whatever distance - and that 5k is the furthest they have ever ran, and those last few hundred metres were torture, I have huge respect for them.
3. Have fun with it, relax, take the pressure off and allow increases in distance speed etc happen organically. Embrace your surroundings and be present, try and listen to the wildlife around you, the sound of your footsteps and just enjoy the experience.