In recent years, trail running has become an emerging sport in Malta and around the world, with numerous athletes making the transition towards running in the natural environment. On Saturday, a good number of athletes from around the world made their way to Gozo for an official XTERRA Malta leg. Ultra-trail runner MATHIEU BLANCHARD, one of the big names in the race, spoke to Kurt Aquilina ahead of the race…
French-born racer Mathieu Blanchard is relatively a newcomer to competitive running, having taken the streets to race back in 2014. However, being a self-described nature lover, Blanchard discovered a love for trail running in 2017.
“One day, I just started to run in nature. In the beginning it would be around five or 10km. I enjoyed spending time in nature, and I said ‘I want to spend more time here’. I never thought about distance but only about spending the weekend walking and running in nature. Eventually, I discovered that you could do races in nature and this is how I turned to ultra-trail. It was for the sensation and to spend a lot of time in nature – it’s the time I am happiest,” Blanchard said.
The 34-year-old took part in XTERRA’s 50Km race around the coast of Gozo yesterday, but this was not his first time both in Malta as well as at an XTERRA race.
“This is not my first experience with XTERRA actually, I discovered it in Tahiti French Polynesia,” Blanchard admitted.
“As a pro athlete, every year I receive maybe 50 propositions to run internationally. What I do is I put in my calendar the main ultra-trail races usually around 200 miles – usually four or five races per year. Then I see if other races could fit in my calendar, their criteria, and if I can integrate them into my path. This is in the middle of two races and it’s about geography as well. I had a race in Morocco and then in France so in between was Malta. It was a perfect fit for me. The first time I came here I enjoyed it so why not come again?”
Asked about this weekend’s race, Blanchard said he loved the fact that it was going to be a coastal race as it mixes his passion for trail run as well as the ocean.
“I spent 20 years in the water, kite surfing and windsurfing so I really love the races where I can see the ocean,” he said, “this gives me a lot of happiness and energy. For Gozo, the race goes all around the island so I will see the sea all the time so it’s a balance to mix my two passions – nature and the ocean, and this is what I expect to feel again.”
As a professional athlete, training at the highest level is essential and Blanchard believes that Malta is home to the perfect environment. However, after a few days in Malta speaking to fellow athletes and giving talks at National School of Sport in Pembroke, he believes local athletes need more support to become better.
“I think that Malta is perfect to train because somewhere it is always too cold or too hot to train but in Malta it’s like spring all year. You can do everything, so you have the perfect environment to train. But if you want to improve your level you need to compete, and you need to have a reference,” Blanchard explained.
“It’s easy to be the champion of the island but it’s difficult to be the champion of Europe or the world if you don’t know the level.
“So this is why, if you want to improve the level of the athletes here, they need to compete in other countries because maybe they will get destroyed by the other competitors now, but they will come back and think ‘this is the real level, and this is how I must train to beat them’.
“If you stay on the island, you may become the champion and think ‘I don’t need to train any more than this because I am already the champion’.
“I know that you need help and support because it’s not free to go to the competitions and I think it comes from the governments or private brands like for example the brands that produce the gear to help the athletes because there is the perfect environment here. But they are human and need this push to compete for the real level of Europe and the world. “
Blanchard, now based in Canada, was an engineer before he quit in 2020 to turn pro. He believes his body, like everyone else’s is “not a machine” that runs early in the morning or late at night in between work commitments.
“I felt that my body works differently, and this is why I had to quit,” he admitted.
“If I feel I don’t want to run early in the morning, I don’t need to. Of course, it’s much better to revolve your life around the running instead of revolving the running around your life.”
Now one of the big names in his field, Blanchard speaks after his experience earning a podium finish at last year’s Ultra Trail Mont Blanc (UTMB), the world’s most prestigious ultra-trail race.
“All the sponsors and media look at UTMB, so it was a big moment for me. It gives you a lot of attention and I built a stronger career. The crazy part was that I arrived at the finish line still with energy and I thought maybe I should have started stronger and maybe I would have won. But you never know,” Blanchard said.
“I will definitely go back to UTMB, this year actually, and I won’t go for a better place. But I will want to run it faster. I ran it at 21 hours last year and I want to run it faster but then we will see what the others will do. In my case, I love running even without the competition – for me they are just bonuses.”
A guest of the French Embassy in Malta, Blanchard said that sharing his experiences is key to his energy in life.
“I discovered that running is not only about the individual, but you share the trails and the training with friends,” he said.
“You share moments with family but I discovered later that with your story you can inspire lots of people that you don’t even know, and when I started to do this, I received so many positive messages from people I don’t know.
“Having people tell me I did something positive in their lives, gives me so much gratitude and energy and I use it in my races and my own life. This is why I came to Malta as well. Here I was invited by the French embassy and around the races, they proposed that I speak and meet people round sports. It was a good mission to come here.”