By Mitch Phillips
LONDON (Reuters) - Briton Tom Evans has conquered hills, mountains and trails in events up to 100 miles long, but with racing wiped out by COVID-19, he has turned his attention to the road and what is, for him, the relative sprint of the Tokyo Olympic marathon.
The 28-year-old established his long distance credentials in 2018, winning the prestigious 101km CCC race, part of the Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc series. He also took a bronze medal in the trail world championships, only a year after stunning the ultramarathon world by finishing third in Marathon des Sables having entered on a whim after a pub bet with friends.
Evans announced himself on the other side of the Atlantic last year when he became the fastest non-American to complete the iconic Western States 100-mile race, finishing third, in the fifth-fastest time ever run on the course.
Yet, just when he seemed ready to challenge the greats of the spirallingly popular world of ultra-running, COVID cancellations left the Red Bull athlete kicking his heels.
That enforced competitive downtime coincided with a change of coach and, with Andrew Hobdell, he hatched a plan to attack the roads. The first significant milestone comes this Saturday when he races in the half marathon world championships in Poland, with a place on the start line at next year's Olympic marathon the ultimate goal.
"If you had told me 12 months ago I'd be racing the half marathon worlds on the road I'd have said 'not a chance I'm definitely too slow'," Evans told Reuters in a zoom interview from his home in Loughborough.
"I was still focused on the trails probably until July but with everything being cancelled I started to focus on the road."
His 63.15 minute half-marathon in the winds of Antrim in Northern Ireland a month ago was enough to earn him selection for the British team.
"I was really happy with the time," Evans said. "It's great doing all this hard training but having that external validation for an elite athlete is really important. You want to test yourself, you want to show the hard work in competition.
"Physically, I've improved, but also mentally it's something of a sabbatical from trails – in a 100-mile race it can be very tough to stay focused."
Evans, a former British Army captain, has always enjoyed all distances on all surfaces and is convinced of the crossover benefits.
"I run because I love running and by the end of Saturday I will have competed for Britain on trail, mountain, cross-country and road," he said. "The vest I haven’t got is track, and I don’t think I’m fast enough to get that.
"Running on the trail gives you that strength, especially in the dying stages of a race, then going from road back to the trail you have that speed and leg turnover. I've got a regular 10-mile loop that I'm running about 95 seconds quicker for the same heart rate than I was six months ago."
Evans' new regime means "cutting back" to considerably less than the usual 100-plus miles of his ultra days, though he says his long-term goal is to return to the trails.
He has one marathon to his name, a two-hour, 26.04 minute "miserable experience" in Frankfurt in 2017, which he said reminded him to always give the classic distance full respect rather than trying to wing it a few weeks after a 100km race as he did then.
Another notable difference from trail to road is the impact of shoe technology, something Evans accepts and even embraces - now the sport's governing body has finally acted to control the "space race".
"Having tried most of the all main high-stack, carbon shoes I’d be lying if I said they don't make you run faster for less effort - though you still have to put the work in," he said.
"I think a couple of years ago Nike’s shoe was head and shoulders above everyone else but now it's is very much a level playing field.
"People like seeing records broken but I’m glad World Athletics have put limits on how far shoes can go. Maybe records set 20 years ago aren’t directly comparable with records set today - maybe there should be 'pre-carbon' and 'post-carbon' records now.
"I’ll wear a pair of Adidas Adios Pros, a brilliant shoe. Do they help me run a quicker time? Yes. But the more important question is 'is my training the best it's ever been?' and the answer is 'yes', and that's why I'm so excited about this weekend and what's ahead."
(Reporting by Mitch Phillips, editing by Ed Osmond)