Interview with Hilary Matheson
- Vancouver, BC, Canada
When and why did you start running?
As a kid, I grew up on a farm so I was always active, but I hated structured exercise and managed to get out of most of it through a combination of doctor’s notes and excuses. I halfheartedly started running in my early 20’s as a way to get in shape after some big health challenges as a teenager left me very sedentary and atrophied. And to be honest, I really really hated running. It wasn’t until I discovered the trails that I realized that running didn’t have to be slogging along a busy road breathing in exhaust fumes – and I was hooked. I very quickly jumped into ultra distances, running my first 50km race on a week’s notice – mostly because I was told I couldn’t do it. Naturally, I decided to go for it, and I paid the price. That race was an absolute disaster, and I walked/hobbled/crawled for about half of it, but at no point did I think about stopping – and that’s when I realized that a twisted part of my brain actually embraced the suffering.
Describe your ideal race.
My perfect race is one that takes place in the Spring, on a sunny but cool day. The trails would be lush single-track, and there would be enough climbing and descent to let me make up for my lack of running speed on the flats. My “sweet spot” distance seems to be around 100km or so – 50km requires running too damn fast, and 100 miles is just an (excessive) exercise in pain.
What’s your favorite trail race to date, and why?
My favourite race I’ve ever done is the Fat Dog 70 mile. While I’ve also raced the 120 mile distance, I consider the 70 mile to be the perfect course on that route. It’s full of beautiful single-track, rolling hills, and a punishing climb and descent in the last third of the race. My favourite kind of suffering. I actually won this race a couple of years ago, but I swear that’s not the only reason I like the race… ahaha. Mostly I love it because it has a proper homegrown, grassroots feel to it – and who wouldn’t fall in love with being surrounded by sweeping panoramic views as far as the eye can see?
We love the photography that you take whilst out on the mountain. What tips do you have for comfortably running whilst carrying an SLR on a big day out?
Well thank you! I usually carry my DSLR in my right hand the whole time I’m running, and I’ve just gotten used to it. It’s almost an extension of my arm now. I’m sure one day I will be permanently lopsided from always leaning to the right when I run, but I’ll worry about that later… I’ve found having a good wrist/hand strap has helped distribute the weight a lot more evenly. I use one by Cotton Carrier – it’s cheap and it does the trick.
What area have you enjoyed photographing the most, and why?
Well the main reason that I started taking photos to begin with was because my backyard in BC is just so incredibly beautiful. As an ultra runner, we cover more ground than most hikers/adventurers do, and I’ve always loved being able to capture areas that few people make it to.
Have you ever had any accidents or made big mistakes whilst in the mountains with your camera kit?
Ohhh yes. There was this one time last year when my most expensive telephoto lenses came tumbling out of my not-quite-closed pack, flew over my head, and bounced down a ravine… that was a sad day. Luckily it’s mostly made of metal, so I was able to scramble down and retrieve my lens – one slightly expensive trip to the repair shop later, it was back in business. And then there was the time last week when my camera body and favourite lens drowned in saltwater because they got in a fight with the ocean… I’m still recovering from that one. My camera has also been banged against many an ice or rock climbing route when its hanging from my harness. The thing is, though – I would rather use my gear doing what I love, than worry about keeping it safe in bubble wrap. Also, I just discovered I can get insurance on my gear, so that’s a potential game changer going forward.
What has been your biggest running / adventure challenge to date?
Definitely Fat Dog 120mile was my longest and most challenging race to date. As far as most challenging adventures go, I actually had a mountaineering trip this past weekend turn a little bit epic when we weren’t able to find any water on the route. We ended up delirious and calorie/water deprived during a heat advisory, trying to get down from a giant summit that required a lot of route finding/rappelling/bushwalking/getting lost. Two 18 hour days later and one night of sleeping on a tiny ledge (where I had to stay anchored into the side of the mountain to keep from falling off the ledge), we made it back safely. I spent the next day with a glorious array of junk food, water and Netflix. That part wasn’t so bad.
There was this one time last year when my most expensive telephoto lenses came tumbling out of my not-quite-closed pack, flew over my head, and bounced down a ravine… that was a sad day.
Do you have any advice or technique tips to help our Instagram community take even better running photos?
Yes! Is your photo horizon on a massively crooked angle? Straighten it!! Can you tell that’s my number one pet peeve? Other than that, using an app like Lightroom or Photoshop mobile can really elevate your iphone photos. Pay attention to details: Is your exposure or shadows way too dark? Are you losing details because your highlights are too blown out? If you aren’t sure what each little setting does, my trick is to crank it to its maximum – that will show you what it does on an extreme level, and then you can adjust it to taste from there.
What is your most important piece of kit in your camera bag (apart from the camera!)?
Honestly, I don’t travel with much gear besides my camera and a few spare batteries… mostly because it just adds extra weight. I usually run with a wide angle lens on my camera, and then carry a telephoto (telephoto lenses do a much better job of capturing mountains and fine details than the wide angle lens does).
Pay attention to details: Is your exposure or shadows way too dark? Are you losing details because your highlights are too blown out?
Which photographers inspire you?
Jimmy Chin is my ultimate hero. Not only is he beautiful (sigh) and a phenomenal photographer, but he’s also a badass athlete in his own right. I aspire. Other than that, I’m a big fan of Chris Burkard’s work, and I admire Angela Percival’s work as the senior photographer for Arc’teryx.
Tell us about your greatest running fail (we’ve all had – or will have – them at some point!)
Well, as someone who makes a habit of falling over my own feet, and since I’m currently just starting to run again after breaking my big toe in July by doing exactly that, you could say I’m quite the pro at running fails. My most impressive one, however, happens to have also been captured in glorious high-res. I was in the UK earlier this year with Inov-8, racing my very first fellrunning race in the Lake District. While barreling down from the summit of Skiddaw Mountain (because apparently in fellrunning that’s what you do – you just throw yourself down the mountain and hope for the best), I managed to trip and faceplant directly in front of the poor unsuspecting race photographer. Full-on superman. Funnily enough, it’s actually my all-time favourite race photo now. If you’re going to go for the epic wipeout, might as well do it properly.
You’ve done races up to 120 miles before. What is your approach to training and do you follow a particular training plan?
I’ve been very fortunate to work with Gary Robbins and Eric Carter (Ridgeline Athletics) for the past 3.5 years as I’ve ramped up my ultrarunning distances. They have definitely been instrumental in my success, as well as keeping me from overtraining and burning myself out. When I’m training for a big race, I usually ramp up my volume about 2.5 months out from the race. I hate tracking my stats while I run (aka I wouldn’t bother following me on Strava, there’s not much to see), so they have always been good about designing my training plans based on total hours on feet instead. A typical high volume week might include about 18-20 hours of time on feet in total. Within that would usually include one high-intensity workout (hills, tempo etc), one cross-training session (strength workout), one rest day, one two-hour long run, and then two back-to-back long runs on the weekend. Even when training for a hundred mile race, I’ll rarely run over 45km on one day. I’d rather split up the distance over several days and save my body some wear and tear. Also, it trains my body to recover faster and get used to pushing through fatigue.
What advice would you give to a new trail runner?
Start slow. I know many new runners these days want to jump right in and run a hundred miler, but I also see a lot of new runners burning themselves out by signing up for every race they can get their hands on, instead of focusing on building a solid base first. I ran over ten 50km races before moving into longer distances, and I learned something from every single one of those races. I’ve also backed off from racing more than 2-3 races a year, focusing on adventuring in the mountains for the sheer love of it. Finding balance is always hard to do when something is new and exciting, but it’s the key to longevity in a demanding sport that has a high rate of burnout.
What is your favourite bit of running kit?
I have been a diehard fan of Smartwool’s phd running socks since day one. I never worry about blisters no matter how soaking my feet are, and the wool is the perfect balance of keeping my feet warm through the often-chilly Vancouver temperatures, and still letting them breathe.
What challenges / races / adventures are you planning for the coming year?
I was planning on racing Cascade Crest 100m this year, but unfortunately breaking my big toe was a toe-tal buzzkill on that front. I’d love to run it next year as redemption. Aside from that, the biggest adventure I have coming up is a trip to Nepal in October. I’m travelling with a talented team of explorers, and we will be heading into the Khumbu Valley to tackle some amazing objectives. If you are interested in following our adventures, I’ll be posting about them on my IG (and we will have a website up and running for October as well where you can follow along).
I know many new runners these days want to jump right in and run a hundred miler, but I also see a lot of new runners burning themselves out by signing up for every race they can get their hands on, instead of focusing on building a solid base first.
What’s your favourite running/adventure book, and which songs keep you going when things get tough?
I have to admit I love the book “Born to Run”. I’ll never be that person that can run in leather sandals, but I found it an exciting read nonetheless. As far as music goes, when I’m bonking on a long run or race I’ll sometimes throw an earbud in and listen to some music (never both, cause bears and cougars..). My go-to is usually something super campy that I can sing along with to my heart’s content… so if you ever come across a crazy person running down the trail singing Queen’s “Don’t Stop Me Now”, that would be me.
Finally, what do you get up to in life when you’re not running or adventuring with your camera?
Well up until last year I had a very comfortable career in the public sector, working in communications. However, I knew I didn’t want to be there in twenty years, so I quit my job and went back to school. I’m just finishing up an intensive program in graphic design now, and I’m hoping to combine my photography, design, and love of the outdoors into some big happy package. If you want to collaborate on projects, I’m all ears! Say hi anytime: email@example.com
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Thank you, Hilary, for giving us lots of great tips on becoming better photographers, whilst out on the trails. You have a fantastically fun outlook on life and adventuring that really shines through in this interview.
Hopefully we get to meet you, the next time we are visiting BC! I’ll make sure I bring my camera! 🙂