At We Are Explorers we’re accustomed to jumping in the car and heading 100km down the road in search of adventure. However, ask most of us to run that far and it’s probably a different story. Not for Dan Whitehead. Since taking up trail running 4 years ago in his country town in the corner of South Australia, he’s run 20 ultramarathons on some of the most high profile trails in the world.
Whilst doing so he also jumped on YouTube and over the past year he’s quickly grown an audience of 10,000 who tune into his videos about running, diet and the lifestyle that surrounds it all. What’s more, Dan has fought through the crippling effects of Crohn’s Disease and still manages it today whilst running at an elite level.
Explorer Jack Brookes chatted with him in August, as he was coming to the end of a 3 month stint in Europe and preparing to take on a 119km race in Italy.
What was it about trail running, as opposed to just running, that lured you in? Would you be interested in running if it wasn’t on the trails?
It’s the always changing nature of it. No trail is the same, no race is the same as the trail turns, goes up, goes down and gets technical. There’s so many variables that keep it exciting and being submerged in the bush or mountains is a lot more appealing to me than running roads. I do enjoy road running and the different challenges it presents; it’s good to mix it up occasionally.
How many ultramarathons have you run now? And what exactly is an ultra?
I think it’s getting up around 20 now, but a lot of those have been shorter races around 50km. Technically, an ultra is any distance greater than a marathon. But a lot of people — especially in Europe — think of it as 100km and up. So, if we go off that way of thinking I’ve done 3 and I’m a few days out from my 4th.
Yeah, just a short 50km, haha. In the three years that you’ve been running, you’ve done a fair bit of travel, where’s your favourite trail in Australia? And what about the rest of the world?
In Australia it’s the Mount Solitary Loop in the Blue Mountains. For the rest of the world it’s impossible to choose. I’ve been lucky to run some real jaw-droppers, so I’ll just go with my most recent favourite: the route up to Albert Premier Hut out of Le Tour in the Rhône-Alpes in France. It’s a savage climb up to the ridge, right next to a glacier, and the refuge up there is really cool.
You’re currently right in amongst it all there in Europe — a 108 day stint — and from all reports on your Instagram @dann_whitehead it looks insane. What took you over there? Was it more of a personal trip, to compete, or both?
I guess a bit of both, but definitely focused on running and racing. I was lucky to make it through the lottery for the Lavaredo Ultra Trail and for TDS (Sur les Traces des Ducs de Savoie) so I thought rather than doing that horrendous flight over twice I’d just stay, hang out and train.
The mountains here are incredibly inspiring, nothing like what we have in Australia unfortunately, and the whole scene and racing is on a totally different level. It’s quite big here, obviously. The mountains and outdoors are a huge part of the culture in these parts of Europe and they really embrace it, which creates an insane atmosphere during these races.
Since taking up running what’s been a highlight?
The whole journey from randomly deciding to go for a run one day to now has been a highlight. It’s really improved my quality of life and made me a better person — I feel that’s the real achievement. Results-wise the CCC (Courmayeur – Champex – Chamonix) last year was my best race, I really surprised myself and ran 14 hr 45 min and finished just outside top 100 out of 2000-something runners.
More than the result, it was amazing to feel as though I ran strong from start to finish for a tough 100km in the mountains and have Mum and Dad there cheering me on.
From a bloke who just wants to stop and walk every 100m when he tries to run around the block, how the hell do you do it? When you’re at the 80km mark with a few kilometres left and you’re absolutely spent, what’s going through your mind and where does the inspiration come from?
My mate Scotty and I were chatting about this on a run the other day. How do you run 100km, 100 miles, or whatever. He summed it up pretty well, ‘Ya just do!’ Haha. Lots of things inspire me but generally when I’m in deep, I’m thinking about my family.
In the lead up to a race do you have a pretty specific training regime? What about day-to-day?
I have a coach to plan all my training out for me. I’m usually running 6 days a week with a rest day. Usually some kind of speed and hill workout, a long run on the weekend and easy running in between.
Do you plan out a specific route or just go for it and see where you end up?
At home I’m limited for trails to run on so I’m pretty much always running the same route. Here in Europe, for example, when I’m planning out a route I want a run that is suitable for the distance and vertical gain I want to hit for that day.
Sometimes it’s fun to just have no plan and go for a mission!
Your YouTube videos are far from another teenage kook on an iPhone trying to be Casey Neistat, they’re shot and edited super schmick and the storytelling keeps the viewer in. How did YouTube come into the equation? And when did you start?
I started it a bit over a year ago, really because I was coming to Europe for the CCC and really wanted to have something to look back on. Then it just kept on going from there. I’ve always loved shooting photos and making videos and I’ve ended up really enjoying YouTube due to the interaction with like-minded people.
The accountability keeps me making things consistently regardless if I think they suck or not. Just don’t watch my early videos, man they suck!
The photos and video from the trails are all rad. What camera gear do you use when you’re running? I can imagine you can’t carry anything too heavy.
Lately I’ve been using a Sony RX100 MKV, a GoPro Hero 5 with the Karma grip stabilizer and a DJI Mavic Air. I’m usually only carrying one of those at any given time though due to space and weight.
Filming and shooting while I’m running is an afterthought — for the most part I always prioritise running. I also don’t like any of those cameras by the way, haha, but it’s the best setup for the purpose. I’d rather have my Sony A7III and a couple of lenses with me but it’s just too big and expensive to chuck in a running pack.
The videos touch on how running, and mostly the diet, has drastically improved your health. Can you tell everyone a little bit about that?
I changed from eating a lot of meat to a vegan diet not long after I started running. I read a book called Eat and Run by Scott Jurek that really crushed the vegetarian/vegan stereotype I had in my head and the book generally inspired me. Overnight I just switched to a vegan diet, gave it a try and I felt great. Four years later I still feel great, so I’m still doing it.
I love food and I love to cook and nutrition is a huge part of running so it naturally falls into my videos. It’s usually the most popular part of my videos to be honest, and I think that’s because everyone can relate to diet, everyone wants to feel better whether you run or not, and food is the best way to do that.
How important is fueling your body properly when training and competing like this? Any moments where you notice that you should have done something differently? For the novices, how does it feel when you’re not eating right?
I mean it’s pretty much the most important part. If you’re not fuelling properly you’re not going to be able to train properly. And as far as in-race nutrition goes, again it’s crucial. People joke that ultra running is “just an eating and drinking competition”. It’s very important and it can be very hard to get right. All sorts of things work for different people and for me it’s always changing.
Something works for a while and then I get sick of it. I really struggled with race nutrition early on and so I can tell you what it feels like to “bonk” — as they call it — during a race. You pretty much just feel like laying down and taking a nap on the trail, haha.
The body is an amazing machine though and with experience mine has learned to burn fuel a lot more efficiently — I can see the signs of a low patch coming on before it happens and offset with what I need at the time…usually, haha.
What’s one trail or competition that you’re itching to go and have a crack at?
It’s got to be UTMB (Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc — approx. 166 km) which is kind of like the Tour de France of trail running. It’s just over a 100 mile loop from Chamonix around Mont Blanc.
I came here last year and ran the CCC (Courmayeur – Champex – Chamonix), which is the 100km version, and in a few days I’m running the TDS which is 120km and a really tough and amazing race in its own right. If I make it through TDS I will have the points to apply to enter the UTMB next year. It doesn’t mean I’ll get in as there’s a lottery system but that’s the plan, fingers crossed!
Update: Dan completed the TDS in 75th place and felt successful and that he ran “close to his potential”. Shortly afterwards he suffered an inflamed stomach and spent some days in hospital but is now out. We’re wishing him a lightning-fast recovery!
Any parting words of advice for beginners looking to get into trail running?
Just get out, give it a try and take it easy to start with. When I started running I couldn’t make it 400m without walking, so I’d just walk, run etc. Most importantly, have fun with it.
To check out more of Dan’s adventures on the trail you can head over to his YouTube Channel or check out his daily uploads from his 108 day Europe trip on his Instagram where we chatted. @dann_whitehead
Wait, what’s this ultrarunning business?