Ever worn the same pair of shoes for 6 days at a time, without taking them off? On top of that, have you run 251 kilometres in the same pair in the searing heat of the Sahara Desert, in record time? Well, we spoke to someone who has. Athlete of the extreme, Ragna Debats, is world champion trail runner who beat the women’s world record in the 2019 Marathon Des Sables, a gruelling 6-day 251km ultramarathon through Saharan Desert, in a pair of Merrell’s MTL Long Sky. To put that into perspective, it’s the same as running from London to Dover and back again, except in 38 degrees Celsius with everything you need to survive on your back. She’s played a huge role in the Merrell community, contributing to the design of one our most advanced 1TRL models as well as being an undeniable inspiration to every outdoor athlete who’s come across her amazing physical feats.
We sat down with Ragna (via phone) whilst she’s taking a pause in Costa Rica on the Central American leg of her world tour and talked to her on her role in the creation of the MTL Long Sky, how she got into the sport and her current challenge, to run a marathon on every continent on the planet, even Antarctica.
First of all, could you tell us the difference between the sports you’ve participated in, trail running, sky running and snowshoe running?
Well, trail running is always 90-99% off-road and very fast and athletic. Sky running is very much the same except it gets a lot more technical because of the higher altitude. Also, the weather can be unpredictable and you are often running along steep cliff faces so you have to be really careful with your stride. Snowshoe running is, of course, in the snow, but because of the challenge of the snow itself, these races are quite short and flat. I’m mostly a trail runner or sky runner.
How did you get into the sport as a whole, has running always been the sport for you?
Actually, I used to be an equestrian. I wanted to be an Olympic rider, but it’s a very complicated world and I didn’t feel comfortable in what I was doing. So, I quit and started looking for other things. It’s important for happiness to stay physically active, so I was trying out all sorts of different stuff, because sport makes me happy. First it was cycling in the mountains, it’s fun but I realised I much prefer being on my feet. Then, 11 years ago I found that I like running because it makes me feel tired very easily. I didn’t really have a wish to be really good at it. So, I started doing 2km and 3km, that made me feel really tired, but I love that feeling, so as my physical condition improved, I needed to run further to feel that same tired feeling I was searching for. After a few months I could run a half marathon. Then, I started to run in the mountains a little bit… until one day I was handed my first starting number and completed my first trail running race. The race was very hard physically, but I absolutely loved it and when I finished the race, I knew for sure that this is what I wanted to do. I started racing at a local level and I started to win all the races.
Was this the beginning of your professional career then?
Yes, I was found by the Catalan selection team who asked if I wanted to run for them, I accepted, and they took me to national level. The next year I was introduced to sky running and every year my goals became more important and more difficult and every year I took it more seriously. I had a trainer; I had more sponsors. I took a year out because of my pregnancy and when I came back, I took it to the next level. I developed, together with my trainer, a very effective training programme that could fit around my daughter. I took my last step to the top. A few years later I won my first world championships in snow running and then in trail running and sky running as well.
It sounds like a very meteoric rise…
In a way yes, but to me my journey was a very gradual progression, adding short distances over the years. I ran along the canal path every day a little bit further until one day I ran all the way along to the next village, which was 3km away, and back again- so 6km in total. Then I carried on running, a little bit further at a time, until one day I could run to the city which was 10km away. I look for challenges for myself. I’m not very competitive towards
others, but incredibly competitive with myself.
The MTL Long Sky, the shoe you ran the Marathon Des Sables in. You helped a lot in advising the design of the shoe. What specifically about it is useful for an athlete like yourself?
It had to be light. That’s one of the most important things for trail running, and hardy. Because of the varying terrains you run on, you need a grip that’s going to be able to handle anything. For the Marathon Des Sables, it was a mixture of sand and rock, a lot of people run in regular running shoes, but the grip of the Long Sky was really effective on the rocky terrain which covers the majority of the race. But performance isn’t all you need. I’d say being comfortable is even more important on those long races. This is something Merrell is so good at. You don’t need to break in a pair of Merrells by walking around, you can put them straight on and run a marathon. For the race, I needed specific features such as a raised gator. The membrane had to not let any stones in, I had these covers that were purposefully designed for this, so over the 6 days of the race, not a single stone got in and I didn’t take them off the whole time. They were on my feet for 23 hours a day, I was sleeping in them! All of this insight went into the final design of the shoes and the race played the part of testing ground to them. To run and win in a pair I’d help create was truly something else.
What sort of preparation do you put in for a race as challenging as that?
I think any more than 2 months training and you start to get bored. It’s really full on, in the gym and outside trying to recreate the different terrain you’ll encounter. Interval weight training too. Even for the sand training, I only went to the beach once the whole time, just to test the gators. Mentally preparing myself was the easiest part, I wanted to run the race so badly nothing was going to stop me doing it.
The same dedication you’ve given to your latest challenge, the Rolling Mountains project which sees you visiting 7 continents and competing in 9 races with your family. With 2 continents down, you’re currently on the Central American part of your journey. Are you keeping the training up until you can travel again?
Yeah, we’ve been waking up at sunrise, about 5:15- 5:45am here in Costa Rica, then running from sea level up a 400m altitude to the top of a mountain. It takes about 12 hours and it gets really technical in the jungle, plus it’s very humid here which adds to the challenge. Afterwards you can jump straight into the ocean to cool off. It suits this chapter of confinement. We’ve had to extend some of our plans and switch a couple of things around. So instead of North America, which was next on the cards, we’re going to Tanzania to do the Kilimanjaro trail run. It’s a great chance to test myself on some higher altitudes. I really hope we can finish the project in 2021, so far, the coverage we’ve received, and all the encouragement has been amazing. More than I ever thought it could be.
I feel very lucky to have discovered this world through trail running, to live in nature and enjoy nature all the time. I think it’s a very human thing to do, a natural thing to do. I think it helps the muscles form in a natural way. The runner’s physique, it’s very beautiful.
You can find out more about Raga’s Rolling Mountains Project here: https://rolling-mountains.ragnaypere.com/en/
The 1TRL MTL Long Sky comes in two different colourways: BLACK and EXUBERANCE.
Designed to give everything the wearer needs, and nothing they don’t, the MTL Long Sky is available in UK 6.5-14 and EU 40-50, full and half sizes.
Discover the MTL Long Sky and other Merrell 1TRL models online now.
Photo credit: Cimbaly/Marta Bacardit@ MDS2019