Andrew Douglas knows how it feels to spend an extended period of time away from the office.
The British mountain runner took a sabbatical from his job in finance in 2019 so that he could focus on training full time. It paid off handsomely as he ended the year by winning the 2019 WMRA World Cup, having been victorious at three of the seven individual races in the series.
“There were a few factors that influenced my decision,” Douglas says of his sabbatical. “From a career perspective, after having been working in finance for almost 10 years, I felt like I was ready for a proper break but without wanting to leave my job.
“In terms of running, over the past couple of years I had been beginning to feel a tinge of frustration in finishing just outside the podium places in the big races, and the thought of how much of a difference being a full-time athlete would make always lingered at the back of my mind. I had experimented with training at altitude and other types of training camps, but often felt that the gains made were soon lost when returning to work.
“Another factor that was important to me was the desire to spend more time with family, in particular my young nephew and nieces living in the far north of Scotland.”
As much as Douglas enjoyed immersing himself in the sport for a year, he also relished his return to work at the end of 2019.
“It’s funny because when I was getting ready to go back to work towards the end of last year, I felt like I should be dreading going back to the office,” he says. “But it wasn’t the case, and I was looking forward to seeing everyone that I worked with and having that degree of separation again from my life as a runner and my career.”
Douglas says that his year of being a full-time athlete has helped him realise the most important aspects of his training.
“I never really viewed being a professional athlete as a sustainable lifestyle and a way to make a living independently,” he says. “There were times during the year I did feel a void in my life that should have been filled with work. But the obvious advantage to being a full-time athlete was the ability to train more, recover longer, have the freedom to pick and choose races, and when I could go abroad to train.
“More specifically, though, it helped identify the areas that I needed to be more disciplined with, like drills to help running economy and the strength and conditioning aspects that I thought less about while I was in full-time work.
“In terms of my training now, the whole experience has really emphasised the importance of optimising recovery,” he adds. “That’s best achieved through sleeping well and going to bed early. I focus more of my strength and conditioning sessions on the glute muscles and core stability, setting aside other exercises that seem less relevant. And quality training weeks are better defined by the hard sessions I’m able to do rather than hitting high mileage.”
Like most people around the world, the outbreak of the coronavirus has impacted Douglas’s plans for 2020, but he is trying to keep it all in perspective.
“I am doing ok, staying safe and healthy most importantly, and adjusting in the best way I can in the circumstances,” he said. “There's much I can be grateful for in my own personal circumstances in that I'm still able to do my day job and train outdoors once a day, so I’m just trying to keep a grounded perspective on things and keep in frequent contact with family and friends.”
Onwards and upwards
Once he is able to return to racing, Douglas wants to push the boundaries.
Up until now, he has focused on the standard mountain-running distances, achieving top-10 finishes at the World Mountain Running Chammpionships in 2015, 2017 and 2019 and at six consecutive European Mountain Running Championships from 2014-2019.
The 33-year-old wants to start increasing his racing distance, but he may have to put those goals on hold in the short term.
“It was my target this year to step up to the longer distance, but with the racing calendar somewhat decimated for at least the next couple of months, it has forced me to reconsider my targets,” he says. “I have had two really positive experiences at Sierre-Zinal (a 31km race) over the past couple years so that’s given me some confidence in my ability over long distances, which has in turn helped me get over my not-so-positive experiences on the road with the marathon.
“But it appears at this moment in time that we may not even get back to racing until late summer so I’m not going to rush into committing to anything just yet and instead take some time to consider my options.
“There are certainly a few races on my bucket list, but most of them I’ll need to keep under wraps for now so I don’t panic my coach!” he adds. “I’d love to do one of the UTMB races, probably the OCC (Orsières-Champex-Chamonix) to begin with; I don’t want to dive into the deep end straight away. The atmosphere that surrounds that event just seems so special.
“In all honesty, though, the most exciting races for me are the European and World Championships and having that opportunity to be part of a team and represent your country. So wherever they are held, I just want to keep trying to qualify for those for as long as I can.”
One advantage of having a break from racing is that it has given Douglas – and, indeed, the wider mountain-running community – time to reflect on the sport.
“I think one of the big challenges we face is how to market mountain running to a mainstream audience, while still respecting its traditions and all the things that make this discipline of athletics special,2 he says. “But overall, I’m feeling positive in the direction that mountain running seems to be going in. There are so many things that make this sport special and, with the will of those involved to keep moving things forwards, I can see a bright future ahead.”
Kirsty Reade (WMRA) for World Athletics