By Owen Morgan
A month’s altitude training in Kenya followed by a fortnight’s warm weather work in Spain is paying dividends for Welsh endurance athlete Clara Evans.
A half-marathon personal best on the streets of Barcelona last weekend is a positive indication that six weeks away from home over Christmas and the new year will be well worth it.
The Cardiff athlete is hoping all those high altitude and warm weather miles in the bank will pay off with a place on the Great Britain half-marathon team for the European Athletics Championship in Paris at the end of this summer.
Especially as she is now back to the reality of long working days punctuated by pounding the pavements on lunchtime and evening training runs back home in the wind and rain of South Wales.
Although not as stormy as her home city on Sunday, windy conditions provided an extra challenge as Evans clocked a new PB of 72.29 in her first competitive race of the year.
“It was a bit windy, but it was good. I’d been away for a while and it was my first race back of the year, so it was good to see where I was and I was glad to get a PB. I was hoping for a bit faster but I died in the last few ks.
“The wind was nothing compared to back here. If you were here, you’d say it was fine, not that windy. But us runners, we always worry about the wind, especially when we’re tired!
“But I‘m really pleased with the PB, it shows that I’m still moving forward.”
Evans feels the combination of an unforgettable trip to the distance running mecca of Iten in Kenya, along with two weeks with the Welsh endurance team in Spain, stood her in good stead on the streets of Barcelona.
The 26-year-old said: “Kenya was really good, the weather is so nice and you just run on all these trails, it’s super undulating and there are so many people out running. It’s probably one of the best places I’ve ever run. It’s just amazing.”
Known as “The Home of Champions”, Iten is situated in the world famous Rift Valley Province and lies at an altitude of 2,400m.
“You get so strong from running on those trails,” says Evans. “You are always running with somebody, you’re never on your own.
“Obviously the weather makes a massive difference because you’re not training in the cold like you would be at home over the winter.
“I would say to any endurance runner to go just for the experience. You will never see anything like that anywhere else. It’s like being in a running mad town. It’s the main place for running in Kenya.”
Evans says she is definitely feeling the benefits of her African adventure. “Especially then coming back down to the Welsh camp, which was at sea level,” she says.
“It helps you push on because you can build on the base that you have built in Kenya. You build your high mileage base and then you’re sharper when you come down, so it was a really good transition between the two. It really has helped me.”
The trip to Barcelona was a successful one all round for the Welsh squad. Evans’ training partner Charlotte Arter finished fifth overall in the senior women’s race in 70 mins dead.
The men’s race saw Swansea Harriers club mates Kris Jones and Josh Griffiths run new half marathon personal bests of 63.09 and 63.33 respectively, as did Pontypridd Roadents’ athlete Paul Graham who clocked a new best of 66.33 on his international debut.
Despite endurance running being essentially an individual sport, Evans says there is a real team atmosphere amongst the Welsh runners.
“I love running for Wales,” she says. “It’s always such an honour every time you get picked. Even though it is an individual sport, we are like one team and all the endurance runners tend to know each other as well.
“It’s almost like you are one big family. You go through everything together, all the highs and lows and the PBs. It’s such a great experience because it takes the pressure off because you’re not there by yourself.
“We flew out together, we go for food together, we all went sightseeing after the race together. We do everything together. We are just one big family from different places around Wales.”
Back in Cardiff, Evans is part of a highly successful training group alongside Arter and Jenny Nesbitt, who is currently preparing to represent Great Britain at the World University Cross Country Championships in Morocco.
“I train with Charlotte and Jenny. Obviously I work full time and they don’t so I’m not always at the sessions, it depends on my working schedule but I try to jump in with them as much as possible,” says Evans.
“We’re all coached by Chris Jones. So we pretty much all do the same thing. It’s really good having them around, because they are running so well, they just push you on. I’m normally hanging on at the back of the session trying to hold on to them!
“It’s great because we are all really great friends. We all support each other, if one of us is having a hard time we rally around them and try to build them up. We all just go for it together through the highs and the lows, so it’s really nice actually.”
Evans admits juggling a full time job as a transport planner alongside being an international athlete is a challenge, but it is one she relishes.
“It’s really difficult, it’s having the time to do everything,” says Evans who typically runs between 85 and 95 miles a week during the winter.
“You always feel like you’re rushing around. You don’t really have time for socialising with friends as much as you want to. You have to compromise.
“But I wouldn’t have it any other way, it keeps you grounded and grateful. Every time I run a good time or a PB I’m just really grateful that I’ve managed to fit it all in.
“I think it means a lot more because you know how hard you have to work because you don’t have as much free time as everyone else. It does mean that you have to run in the dark a lot in the winter, which isn’t very nice!
“I work seven-and-a-half hours a day, sometimes I might start a little bit earlier or finish earlier, but I fit my training in around work. Normally I will run at lunchtimes, which is an easy run.
“Then I will either go straight to the gym and then run, or I will go to the track and do my session. By that time it’s gone 8pm and I will think about going home for the rest of the day!
“I don’t really run in the mornings because I like to get an extra hour’s sleep so I wake up at 8 and then go straight into the office. I live quite close to work so that’s lucky.
“I work for a company called WYG. They are really supportive, last year they gave me some extra time off to go to America with the Welsh team. I’m really grateful because you wouldn’t be able to do it if your employer wasn’t supportive of you.”
Normally a marathon runner, Evans has taken a couple of years out from the longer distance in order to work on her speed and hopefully win a place on the Great Britain team for the European Athletics Championships in August.
Next up in her bid to challenge for a place on the half-marathon start line in Paris is a trip to London where she will feature in a stellar field at the Vitality Big Half, appropriately enough on St David’s Day.
The Big Half is a favourite with Evans and she will be going into the race in good spirits.”I’m feeling really good, especially after the weekend.
“I hope the weather is nicer than it was last year because it was like a storm, it was horrible. So I hope the weather improves and it’s a bit nicer, but I’m really looking forward to it.
“It should be a really great day. It’s always nice running London, the crowds are amazing. There is something really special about it.”
Although the qualifying standards for the Europeans haven’t been announced yet, Evans is hoping a good performance in London will stand her in good stead for selection.
“I want to try and make the Europeans team in August, I guess that’s the main goal through the summer.
“Because it’s so close to the Olympics I think it is a really good opportunity. A lot of people who do the marathon at the Olympics theoretically shouldn’t be able to double up because the proximity is almost too close to turn them around.”
Evans acknowledges gaining a place in the GB team won’t be easy given the rude health of endurance running within the home countries, including Wales.
The 2018 Welsh Half Marathon Champion said: “The whole of UK endurance running has gone crazy, the standards have improved so much and that’s really helped push the standard up in Wales.
“We have got so many good guys and girls, you can’t just rest on your laurels to make a team now, it’s actually really difficult. There are always the people behind us snapping at our heels, we’ve got to keep working to stay in that team.
“You see someone doing a good time and it spurs you on because you think if they can do it I can do it. So you just bounce off each other.”
Next year, Evans will return to the marathon distance and will challenge for a place on what should be an extremely strong Welsh endurance team for the 2022 Commonwealth Games in Birmingham.
“The plan is to go back to the marathon next year and hopefully run the time to make the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham.
“You’ve got to look at that as a home games, all your family and friends can go and watch you, I really think it’s going to be something really special. It would be nice to make it and be so close to home.
“Normally when I run for Wales my family don’t really travel to watch me, they don’t travel to Barcelona and places because they’re normally looking after my dog!
“So everyone could be able to come and watch me . . . that would be really special. They can be there, my sister and grandparents can be there. It would be really emotional to have everyone watching.”