A former Belgium national team athlete and multiple race winner, Vanja Cnops was a Vietnam Trail Series 2019 Champion. Here she reveals more about her running past, transitioning to longer distance trails, her training and her return to Vietnam for VTM 2020.
What led you to running and when did you start?
I started running when I was about 12 years old. Before that, I did gymnastics and I also played other sports like football, basketball, volleyball, tennis, baseball, ping-pong… Running was the only sport that gave me the satisfying feeling of being really tired and happy at the same time. This wonderful feeling of bliss and fatigue must be the reason why I started and why I still love running.
You raced for the Belgium National Team at European Champs from 2005 – 2009. How did it feel to wear your national colours?
It was a great honour to race with the national team and a super exciting, unforgettable experience. The National and European championships were some of the most important races of the year for me, so I was proud and honoured when I was selected to run with the national colours. It felt like a reward for all the hard training, not only for me, but also for my coaches and my family who were always there to support me.
Running with the national team also gave me extra motivation to train well, even in the cold, dark winter days. I remember sometimes I was cycling home after training with frozen hands and feet. It was painful, but I didn’t care because I was so excited to go for the Championships.
Why did you gravitate from the relatively short cross country and track distances to marathon and ultra?
I always liked running long distance, but when I was young, my coaches told me to do short cross country and track races to improve my speed. Now that I am older and not getting faster anymore, I prefer to run races to enjoy the experience and to see beautiful places like Vietnam!
When you increased your race distances, how did you change your training?
Of course, my training now includes more long runs and less speed work. I rarely run more than 25 km in training though. I prefer combining a run with a bike ride, rather than going for a really long run. It reduces the risk of overuse injuries, and it still improves cardiovascular fitness and endurance.
There are also other differences between short and long distance races that you can practice in training like which shoes and clothes to wear, how to run in the dark, which equipment to use, how much to eat and drink… There are so many small things that can influence your performance in trail racing. I think it’s impossible to be prepared for everything, so I also see every race as an opportunity to learn about myself and to learn how to deal with problems.
We know you have worked with coaches – how have they helped you and why do you recommend using a coach?
My coaches have helped me enormously with speed work. Speed was always my biggest weakness. In shorter distance races like cross country, it’s important to have a strong start and a fast sprint finish. However, I was always pushed away in the start and I consistently lost if the race ended with a sprint. So my coaches tried very hard to improve that.
In addition, a coach brings structure in your training program. A good coach knows when to increase/decrease your mileage and when it’s time to rest. But most importantly, I think a good coach is someone who brings people together and makes them enjoy the training. I believe that challenging each other and having fun in training is equally important as finishing your sets.
You avoid running road unless it’s in a race – what is it about trails that you prefer?
I prefer trails because I love nature! I love seeing wild animals on the Singapore trails like snakes, wild boars or even mouse-deer. Trails also offer more variation than roads. You use more muscle groups when you run on trails, and this reduces the risk of injuries. The terrain is also softer and the temperature on the trails is cooler than on the road. Lots of advantages!
You have joined all three Vietnam Trail Series (VTS) races – Vietnam Mountain Marathon, Jungle Marathon and Trail Marathon. Do you have a favourite and which is hardest?
Vietnam Jungle Marathon was my favourite race, and it was also the hardest for me. But maybe my judgment is biased because VJM was my first 70km race.
I had trained well and I was prepared for the heat, but the last 20-30 km of the race still felt so hard! The race started with a long, steep hill. I forced myself to start slowly, but already after the first hill I could feel that my legs were not used to this kind of elevation. I tried to keep up the pace, but after 50 km I really started to struggle, and then there were still two more hills to climb! At the end, my legs were so sore that I had to walk even downhill.
Although it was a painful ordeal, the course was absolutely stunning! I will never forget the sunrise on top of the first hill, the tiny villages surrounded by mountains, and the sights of the beautiful, green rice terraces. The cozy atmosphere at the race village also made the experience extra special.
You signed up for VTM 2020 for the same distance (42km) as 2019. Same distance, same race! Is there any special reason for that?
Yes I will race the VTM 42km again and I will try to do better than last year. If the race course and the conditions are similar to last year, it will be a good chance to check if I have made any improvements. The race also fits well in my schedule; I’m planning to run more short distance trails in the first half of 2020, and maybe try a longer one at the end of the year.
It is just 1 month to VTM. How is your training going and what is a typical week of training for you now?
Training is going well! The Annapurna 55 km was my last big race of 2019 and then I took some rest. Now I have started training again and I’m doing to some fun runs to end the year well.
In a typical week, I would do one long run, a hill training session and some intervals or fartlek on the trails. About 60 km in total. I also bike commute whenever possible. I don’t go to the gym, but I like little challenges to improve strength and flexibility like pull-ups, handstands or high jumps.
What will be your nutrition strategy for VTM?
My stomach does not digest much when I am running, so my nutrition strategy will be to eat a lot the days before the race, maybe have some fruits or dried fruits along the way and then feast on local Vietnamese dishes after the race.
What advice do you have for those who run trail marathon for the first time?
The most important thing is to enjoy the race. Trail runs are a unique chance to see remote natural places. Take some time to look around. Make some selfies. Greet the people in the villages. It’s those things that make trail runs special. You don’t want to miss these opportunities only to finish a few minutes faster.
Lastly, do you have any main influence and/or inspiration?
Everyone I meet inspires me in his or her own way, so I can’t give one big inspiration; I have too many!