Majell Backhausen is Talking Trail Running

Majell Backhausen is one of Australia's finest elite trail runners and since very recently the official Coach of our Asia Trail Master series. Currently residing in Europe for the summer trail season over there, Majell has taken time out of his busy schedule for what turned out to be an in-depth, honest and overall thought-provoking conversation covering most aspects of trail running as we know the sport today. A true fan of Asian trails, Backhausen will be a regular visitor on the ATMs circuit in months to come, and all runners are kindly invited to contact him for any kind of advice on race preparation, nutrition, recovery and so on. But first, sit back and relax, as Majell Backhausen is Talking Trail Running!

By K. Van de Velde

First, please tell us a bit more about yourself, where you come from exactly and how did you develop into a long distance runner.
MB: It is probably best described in the two short films linked below. But, in short text, I was brought up in a famous street in the town of Red Hill, Victoria, Australia. It's known for its Australian Rules Football and Cricket stars, two sports which filled most of our days as young kids.  I was able to grow up with a great amount of competition and fun.

However I did become a teenager and thought the best way around things, was to be an idiot, smoke and drink. How stupid, I was. Running didn’t happen until late 2011 when I was 23. I used it to replace football, while living in London and since then it has become a part of my life, for the better. 

Here are two short film worth a quick watch- RUNNER and “It’s Just Running”

Your family name suggests you have German ancestry. Correct? 
That's right. Dutch and German to be exact. I can eat a large amount of sauerkraut, to prove it.

What is so great about trail running for you? 
The unforeseen adventures that can happen. No matter how good or ‘bad’ they are, they always come with a story and an experience, which can more often then not be laughed about. The people who you meet are often just as good too! Also, the food that can be eaten after a good session. Food is important! 

Is running part of your family history?
Judging by the blank stares and shaking heads i get from my family, I would say, No!
Holland is the flattest country in the world, but I love mountains, so that doesn’t really add up either.

What is your personal best on the road marathon?
I would like to better this time in the future, but currently it is 2:37.

You are quite tall for an elite trail runner. Is there any kind of terrain where you feel disadvantaged? 
I will take this as a compliment, thank you. I am just over 6 ft 1” (1m85). I think I can develop a lot more strength in certain areas, due to my physiological make up. I am not disadvantaged though. If I wanted to be better in a Vertical Kilometre, it is up to me to train and work hard in that area, to succeed.  I would not give up on a certain discipline, just because of my size.

What is your favourite type of trail terrain?
Something that is a little bit uncomfortable, whether that is a lot of elevation gain, technicality or length. It really is ‘fun’ to stand on the start line, a little scared, of what is to come. 

Which race has so far made the biggest impression on you?
It is an event called UTTJ (Un Tour en Terre du Jura)  in France.  It is an event that showcases everything that is important in Trail Running. The people, their passion, hospitality and commitment is something I have not seen in any other event. It is tough, scenic and you can eat very well in Jura.

How has the trail running community developed in Australia over the past few years? There have been rumours of draconian new regulations lately, which hamper further development.
Just like it has globally, trail running in Australia has grown substantially in the past few years.
Like most ‘young’ ventures and new to the market ideas, the future in Australian Trail Running is exciting and a little unknown. We always have draconian regulations in Australia, so it's not too surprising to us. Have a look at a mandatory kit list for GOW100km or UTA100… you will see what I mean.

If runners travel to Australia once in a lifetime, what is the race you would recommend to them?
This is a tough question to answer! I would recommend they book a journey that last approximately 12 months, which will allow time to acclimatise, then race, recover and race, again! Two events I would equally recommend would be: Great Ocean Walk 100km (GOW100) and Ultra-Trail Australia 100km (UTA100).They both showcase great Australian scenery but are very different in there organisation and execution. They are must do events in Australia.

You are sponsored by Salomon and Suunto, two of the biggest brands in trail running, but all in all most events lack sponsorship, despite the so-called boom. In your view, what are the main hurdles for brands and companies to embrace trail running?
It really comes down to the chosen avenue and approach towards marketing. There are so many options available at the moment for success in marketing. Sponsoring events, has been a proven way, to successfully market a brand to a target audience. Now, I see a lot of other marketing techniques and projects being employed by companies such as Salomon and Suunto. It comes down to exposure and the more exposure a marketing campaign will generate, the greater benefit a brand with gain. The more the sport grows, the more opportunity there will be for brands and companies, to become more involved and embracing.

Salomon has been a pioneer in Asia when it comes to trail running. Many runners even believe it is the only brand out there with trail running gear. As an elite athlete for the brand, how can Salomon keep this position as market leader, now plenty of other brands are moving in? 
Salomon keeps the original values of the company, behind its forward progression. Which will allow it to always be a leading brand in trail running and mountain sports. Salomon was born in the French Alps and is driven by progression, product development, quality and craftsmanship. The equipment and gear produced by Salomon, allows people to move freely and explore the challenges in the outdoors. Simply, listening to its core customers and athletes, Salomon will continually develop products that will benefit people involved it the sport and they will lead the market.  

This year you have again been selected by your country's national association to take part in the world championship of trail running, which takes place in Portugal this year. Not a lot of people are actually aware of the existence of a world championship race, would you agree?
Yes, just like the sport as a whole, the World Championships for Ultra Distance Trail Running, is still relatively unknown. But has an equally bright and promising future. In 2015 the IAU, put together a really great event and it was executed very well. A certain improvement on the 2013 edition. I believe the 2016 World Championships will again be better then previous years and just like the sport, it will draw more attention and interest! I would advise everyone to view the selection criteria for their own country and see if they will be putting a team forward to compete. Then work hard to be selected and become a part of the experience!

Is UTMB simply too dominant? In other words, should UTMB simply be recognised as the world championship of trail running? 
UTMB is a fantastic event! The course, the atmosphere and the history, all come together to make a really amazing event to experience. It is dominant, but I think this is just one of many great events. I don’t think it is necessary to make it a World Championships. There are other events, which are capable of hosting a World Championship. In the next few years, more events will be as well known as UTMB. 

The sport is growing and the events are becoming better and better, it is an exciting time!

Would you like trail running to become an olympic sport? 
Yes, it would be amazing to see. But it should still hold the true values of the sport.  It could allow the sport to grow and be accessible to more people, therefore allowing the benefits to be experienced by more people too.

Are you afraid of the influx of banned performance enhancing drugs in trail running? Another professional runner we recently spoke with refuses to do races in certain countries, because he is convinced the local elite is using drugs to score as much prizemoney as possible.
I am not afraid of it, no. It is a shame that this happens. I much rather focus on my own abilities and improvements. Along with helping other athletes achieve their goals. Being fast in one thing, being respected for being a nice person and having a good laugh is much more important to me. 

Given drug testing is prohibitively expensive for the big majority of races, should there be a cap on the maximum amount of prizemoney to avoid PED abuse? 
I would like to see more investment in the fight against PED use. Prize money is a small factor of financial gain. Sponsorship deals and other financial assistance, in the long term, is far more valuable then prize money.  It is a question of managing the investment into the events, predicated on the future of the sport. There is a clear way to control PED abuse in the sport, but the investment is not seen as being important enough. It is a short term view on the matter, unfortunately. 

Would you argue that the sport has grown so much that it warrants more and appropriate governance from an institutional body such as the IAAF, via its two arms, the IAU and ITRA? 
It depends on what the end goals are for the sport, as a whole. What does trail running eventually want to become? Trail running was developed from a very pure place, with minimal governance and structure. I think the sport should be accessible to everyone and an opportunity for everyone to experience. If governing the sport takes this away, I think, it could be a bad thing. 

However commercially maybe governance will assist in growing the sport in a manageable way and allow more people to access it. It is hard to see what the future will hold, but I do believe it will be bright and benefit everyone. 

Who do you look up in the trail world?
I look up to other athletes who achieve their goals in the true spirit of the sport. By this I mean: being ‘clean', giving back to others by being helpful and honest, and also giving back to the sport and organisations when possible. Some ‘elite’ athletes can have terrible attitudes and believe they are ‘above’ others due to their ability to run faster, this is so wrong. We are all humans and should be happy to share the experience and trails together. People who demonstrate respect, not matter how fast they run, are the people I look up to most.

You have been a fan of the Asia Trail Master series from early on. What attracted you and how do you see the development so far in our second season? 
The events that make up the Asia Trail Master Series, are very diverse and located in some amazing places, with incredible scenery and hospitality.

I am drawn to the less explored regions, which host some races in the series. I believe some of these locations and events have a bright future, due to the experiences they can provide. 
Trail running, to me is an adventure to explore my own abilities and new areas of the globe. Experiencing new and different cultures, seeing new landscapes and meeting new friends, are guaranteed aspects of participating in events in the Asia Trail Master Series. 

It is great to see the series grow strongly in its second year, it is a true indication, of a quality organisation and associated events. 

You have visited the race venues of MesaStila Peaks Challenge and Ijen Trailrunning recently in Indonesia. From your professional background, how was the experience and why should runners and media flock to Central and East Java for these events?
Central and East Java, are incredibly scenic places. The range or terrain and geological features is amazing. To see the locations of MesaStila and Ijen was a great experience. It is not only the locations of the event that are great, but the race organisations are also very friendly and helpful. The people of Indonesia are very honest and great hosts. The accessibility to the event locations, with the help of the organisations, was very easy and an enjoyable journey. I look forward to returning to these events, one day, to experience the trails and the hospitality again. In conjunction with the event, there are a number of other activities and side trips to be done. I recommend exploring the area after the events, there is a lot to see!

You have just become the official coach of the Asia Trail Master series. Can you explain briefly what runners can expect from you when they contact you for assistance in their training or nutrition. 
I provide a service that will guide and educate runners, increase their level of running ability, enjoyment and confidence. I work with people to establishing their personal goals and then set out to achieve them, in a tailored way. Coaching is a very personal form of learning and development. I work closely with my athletes to help understand them as a person, what makes up their life outside of running and how we can maximise development and enjoyment through specific training, tailored to their needs and experience level. 

To me it is important to cover all aspects a persons lifestyle, including nutrition, sleep, recovery and complementary activities to assist an athletes running. Taking these factors into account, can increase the ability and belief to achieve goals! When it comes to a specific event, it is about looking at all the contributing factors, that are important to success. These are all touch upon in a personalised training program.

All runners can expect a friendly response and commitment to assisting them towards their chosen goals.

What sort of training do you do to become a competitive trail runner? Let's say you are preparing for the MesaStila Peaks Challenge in October. 
The key is consistency. You must be able to train consistently and recover optimally, in order to improve and become stronger, faster and more competitive.  Training consistently is managed by including a range of different session into a weekly plan. Depending on the phase of training you are currently in, session can include, Speed Sessions, Tempo Runs, Progression Runs, Easy Runs, Recovery Days and Strength & Stability work.

Training specifically and recovering optimally, at a consistent rate, will provide great progress as a runner.

Looking at a target event, such as MesaStila and identifying the course specific, terrain and conditions, will also help shape your training. If the course is hilly/ mountainous, including specific hill sessions to grow muscle strength and climbing ability, is very important. Similar to this, if the event will be in very hot conditions, it is important to prepare for this. Matching your training to your chosen event and what it will demand from you on the day of the race, is very important.

Nutrition-wise, what can trail runners do to prevent injury or stomach sickness during the race? 
It is really important to Practice, Practice, Practice! Taking notes of what works best for you! Practice with a range of different fuelling options on your easier and long runs. Try anything from Homemade Rice Balls, Energy Gels, Fruit (dates, bananas), sushi or a burrito!
This is very specific to the individual (you) and what works for other may not work for you. So trial and error, during your own experimentation is best.

Having the right hydration and electrolytes, is also an important aspect, again it is very personal, sweat loss and sodium loss can be tested, so you use the figures, to aid your needs on the run.

Running at different intensities will have a large effect on your ability to digest and absorb your chosen nutrition. If your stomach is not working at a high intensity, you can back off your effort and allow your heart rate to lower, until your stomach returns to a  state of comfort and functionality. You can train your stomach, just like your legs and lungs, to better cope with the stress of race day.

Are we seeing you as a runner in one of our races soon? 
The list of events on the ATMS calendar looks fantastic. The issue is, which one to choose. I look forward to planning next season and possibly include a few of the events, where and when its possible. I may need to set a side some time to prepare in the location and really enjoy the country and trails! They look that good.

Good luck with all your races this summer!
Thank you Kris, very much appreciated!