A Life in the Mountains : Sarah Tunstall

After last year, getting a couple of medals, just having a good season, I kind of do feel...quite content. You know, if I never have to win another race or break another record… I am in a very fortunate position where I’ve done quite a bit with my running.

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For all her successes over the last ten years or so, 2017 represented the zenith of Sarah Tunstall’s career so far, with outstanding podium finishes at both the European and World Mountain Running Championships. Winningly, she also exudes satisfaction with her chosen path: a runner who is truly happy with the unique quirks and challenges of the mountain running scene on the continent.

I always think I’ve had two parts in my running career, or life, or whatever it is. In my early twenties, when I was running well, I did take everything for granted. I was just pushing, I wanted more all the time, I was never really… I was second at the National cross one year, and I can remember just thinking “It’s not the Inter Counties is it?” I was really dismissive of it. Now, a couple of years of injury, a few disillusioned years, I think I do appreciate it a lot more. I enjoy what I do and I don’t take it for granted when I win a race: if I do well, I celebrate it, appreciate it.

Rather than this perspective simply being down to the chance events of Tunstall’s life, she is an athlete who has consciously made decisions in her life to maximise her chances of finding enjoyment and fulfillment in her sport.

We moved out [to Chamonix] in 2015. The World [Mountain Running] Championships that year were in Wales so I wanted to give it a good shot. Every summer I’ve spent between three and six weeks in Europe, but with it being a home world champs, I used it as a bit of an excuse to get out longer, so we went out for three months … but we stayed about six. We came back home for the championships, we stayed in Manchester that winter to earn some money, and then we came straight back out to Chamonix the following April. And we’ve been there ever since.

As a top class athlete and a qualified physiotherapist, she uses her athletic skills and experience to make a living in the Alps. Sports massage therapy and sports conditioning instruction are apt offerings in sports mad Chamonix with “skiers, runners, climbers, there’s always people getting injured!” but she ensures she uses her specialist insight to keep her own body free of injury.

I’ve done quite a lot. I mean, I have some of the worst biomechanics imaginable, so I don’t think that helps! … A lot [of work] on muscle imbalances, so (I hope) I can get through unscathed.

As this tone implies, the physical demands of competing in the mountains at Tunstall’s level are enormous, but she explains that Mountain Running has something to offer for every type of runner.

There’s a bit of confusion in mountain running at the moment I think. There’s so many ultra races, trail races - there’s sky running - there’s all these different divisions of mountain running … The classic mountain races, they’re very low key, almost like celebrations of the local towns.

Sometimes the trend towards really long ultra running at the moment can be a bit intimidating for beginners. You don’t have to run 50 or 100km. You can quite easily come to the Alps and race a 5k mountain race. And you don’t have to spend a fortune to enter a race, or get points, or carry a massive rucksack with you with loads of kit.

And even as a world beating competitor with a satisfying career already behind her, there remain plenty of challenges up in the hills to get her excited and motivated.

In Chamonix, it’s right on the border of Italy and Switzerland, so we’re spoiled for choice with races really. Within an hour and a half we’ve got dozens of races that we can go to and mix it up with different competitions and different gradients.

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Two weeks ago I did my first marathon. I suppose it was a bit of a bucket list race; I’ve always wanted to do the Zermat Marathon, so I ran that. I’m still quite competitive, there’s things I want to do!

An uplifting presence who runs with terrific grit whatever the discipline, Sarah Tunstall will be no doubt be gracing tracks and trails across Europe for many years to come.