A Track Star Returns to Her Trail Roots 

The mountains have always beckoned Olympian Julia Bleasdale. Today, she’s answering that call.

If you watched Julia Bleasdale in the 2012 London Olympic Games, where she finished eighth in both the 5,000-meter and 10,000-meter races, you’d probably never know it. But the slender, blonde 30-year-old circling the oval again and again, displaying a Great Britain vest and an unusual tolerance for monotony, has an equal, if not greater gift for a very different discipline: mountain running.

Long before she stamped her name in the track and field record books, Bleasdale fell in love with running in its purest sense. She remembers being on a family vacation in southern Germany at age six and asking her dad where he went and what he saw during his early mornings away from home. He offered to show her on his next outing. “I can vividly remember traversing a golden field,” she said, “the wheatsheaf almost as tall as little me.” And nothing was quite the same again.

Photo courtesy of Julia Bleasdale

From that first run, Bleasdale was smitten. More than just a hobby or a routine, she learned to see running “as a mode of exploring and traveling at speed through a landscape, a way to connect with nature,” and an opportunity to “lose oneself, challenge oneself and find oneself.” She can’t point to a breakthrough moment but credits a gradual, step-wise progression to getting her to the highest level of athletics. “Deep down I always felt I had the potential to do something special,” Bleasdale said. “But sometimes I barely let myself believe, especially when I was only just making the top 100 in the national cross-country championships. However, I always held the feeling with me that everything would have its time and place.”

Her instinct was spot on. Bleasdale’s selection for the IAAF World Cross-Country Championship in 2011 set off a cascade of national team selections and personal records that culminated just in time for the 2012 Olympics. There, on her home turf and to the tune of 80,000 screaming fans, Bleasdale pulled off an excruciating 5K/10K double, requiring 50 laps of the track over the course of just a few days. Not only did she finish as the eighth woman, but she also walked away with two new personal records—one of which bumped her to third on the all-time list of British women (30:55.63 for 10K). “Following the race, I ran a lap of the stadium to thank the crowd,” Bleasdale said. “That was the perfect celebration.”

While she hadn’t quite made the transition from the track to the mountains yet, her gift and heart for that off-roads style were unmistakable.

That the London Olympics were not a springboard for a track-focused career may come as a surprise to some. But for those who knew Bleasdale as a child, or have seen the energy that courses through her while plotting or executing runs in the mountains, it should not. I was fortunate enough to meet her toward the end of 2012 at Yaya Village, a high-altitude training camp in rural Ethiopia where we were both living for several weeks.

While I delicately traversed Mount Entoto (the rugged training grounds of running icons like Haile Gebrselassie), doing my best just to stay upright, let alone move quickly, Bleasdale’s style evoked a ballet dancer: graceful and sure-footed and agile over the technical terrain. She expertly navigated ditches, roots and boulders that stood in our way. While she hadn’t quite made the transition from the track to the mountains yet—Bleasdale was putting in an altitude stint prior to the upcoming cross-country and track seasons—her gift and heart for that off-roads style were unmistakable.

Bleasdale’s next major track season was slated for 2014, but she was forced to withdraw from the Commonwealth Games and European Championships due to an injury. Though devastating, the belief Bleasdale honed as a child—that there’s a time and place for everything—served her well in coping with this disappointment more than two decades later. Since then, she’s been leaning more and more toward mountainous environments.

Photo courtesy of Julia Bleasdale

In addition to Ethiopia, Bleasdale has explored over 25 countries by foot, often with her husband, Kevin, by her side on wheels. Her favorite place of all is the Alps, because “there is such diversity and familiarity for me there,” she said. “Those mountains just feel like home.”

“A healthy mixture of mountain pursuits.”

It makes sense, then, that Julia uprooted her life in England and settled in Pontresina, Switzerland, a couple of years ago—a region of the world I remember her lusting over as a potential permanent base back in 2012. Without a rigid or prescriptive training structure, Bleasdale calls her approach to running right now relaxed. Unlike many seasons in the past decade, her runs are dictated by the mountain weather, her energy levels and her desire on any given day. “This way I am enjoying greater harmony and connection with my body and with nature.”

Mountain running is just one of several activities that occupy Bleasdale’s full life in the Alps. She also spends her free time mountaineering, climbing, cycling, mountain biking and cross-country skiing—what she calls “a healthy mixture of mountain pursuits.” And while not in motion, Bleasdale taps into her creative side, currently gravitating toward photography and film.

All of this may seem like an unusual trajectory for an athlete who, not too long ago, competed among the world’s finest distance runners within the confines of a small oval. But to Bleasdale, it’s all an adventure, and each new discipline offers opportunities to test her limits and learn about herself. She credits running with teaching her how to make the most of her strengths and channel her energies to a very specific goal. But the most important lesson of all is that whatever she achieves in running, she never loses sight why she does it. “The greatest joy is just the simplicity of running free in nature,” she said.

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