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Gavin Dale: his Arc of Attrition win, returning from NZ and future UTMB ambitions

Patrick Ryan
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When Gavin Dale joins our video call from his home in Ambleside, it’s less than a week since he won the 2023 Arc of Attrition 100. 

He is, understandably, in good spirits – yet it isn’t just to do with his upset victory in his debut 100-mile race. 

He’s due to start a new job the next day and he’s excited about it, even if it’s not as a professional trail runner. 

“It’s at a youth hostel up here in the Lakes,” he explains to me, “taking kids out and doing archery and all kinds of different things.” 

It’s the next in a varied range of jobs, which has seen him do everything from studying music at University, tree felling and working in hotels.  

Oh, and amidst all that he’s managed to become a rather decent runner too. 

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“I just completely converted”

Growing up in Herefordshire and going on to live in Bristol, Dale was a keen marathon and half marathon runner, but eventually he had a change of heart when it came to road races. 

“I started out with road running about five years ago,” he said, “I did that for a couple of years and I enjoyed it for a while.

“But then I started to get a bit tired – you end up looking for the flattest or fastest courses all the time, constantly checking your splits per mile and stressing if you were one second off it.” 

With a big move to New Zealand planned, Dale saw the switch to the Southern Hemisphere as an opportunity to get more out of his running. 

“I moved to the trail stuff just as I moved to New Zealand,” he explained, “I went there at the start of 2020, at that point I was just starting to think I would like to give trail running more of a go and it was just kind of perfect timing. 

“The trail scene in New Zealand is amazing, they’ve got some incredible trails to explore over there.  

“I was there for two and a half years and in that time I just completely converted and never looked back really. 

“It was the best way to explore – you’d have these big, long trails, and often they’d be 30 to 40 miles long and normally you’d hike them over several days and stay in huts. 

“But as a runner there’s that option of going and running it in a day. I still made a point of stopping and enjoying it at times – it was one of the best experiences, and such a great way to explore that country.”

Speaking with Dale, it’s clear that he has a love for the outdoors and adventure, something ultra-running has allowed him to combine with his deep appreciation for the technical side of running. 

Gavin Dale at the Arc Of Attrition
Gavin Dale en route to Arc of Attrition glory

“I really fell in love with the rhythm of trail running,” he said. “When you’re going up a steep climb, you’re not thinking about pace or thinking about time, it is just that feeling of I need to get to the top here however I can. 

“Those rhythms of slowing when you hit the uphills, and then you get to the downhills and there’s this change of pace. 

“For me the focus did switch a lot from being purely about speed with road running, and with the trail running in New Zealand it became far more about going to brilliant places that I wanted to see or that I’d heard about from friends or a mountain range that I hadn’t explored yet.” 

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At home, but out of his comfort zone

Out in New Zeland on a working holiday visa, Gavin Dale got to the country near enough just as the Covid pandemic began to shut the borders. 

Working as a tree feller in a conservation programme, he got himself out onto the trails around the country as often as he could. 

Then, as races restarted, he began competing more; he came sixth in the 2020 Taupō 100km in a time of 9:42, his first go at the distance, came first in the 2021 Mount Oxford Odyssey Salewa Mountain Marathon and won the Three Peaks plus One in 2022, to name just a handful of his notable finishes whilst out there. 

In mid-2022 he decided to return to the UK, but having only really got into ultrarunning whilst he was away the British scene was a mystery to him. So, what’s the biggest difference?  

“There’s a lot more training in the rain!” Dale joked. “It has been quite a shift, but a big reason why I moved to the Lakes was to get into fell running and give that a go, which is brilliant because it is its own little world of running. 

“It threw me out of my comfort zone. In New Zealand I’d been doing a lot of mountain marathon distance where it’s sort of 50-60k, over big terrain so you’re six, seven hours out on those courses. 

“I tried the Golden Trail Series when I got back last year and it just threw me off, because I was used to these massive steep climbs where you’re climbing for an hour up a mountain with no thought of running it, and then suddenly I’m on these big wide gravel paths where you’ve just got the shallowest incline and you have to run the whole thing. 

“That was a real shock for me, I just wasn’t prepared for that style of running.” 

Moving to the Lake district, Dale threw himself into the local scene. He runs for his local team, Ambleside, and is trying to take advantage on everything that the British landscape has to offer him. 

“I’ve tried to do a variety,” Dale said, “I’ll do a mix of long big days in the fells, getting loads of climbing into the legs and that stamina of being able to go for hours at a time. 

“I’m lucky that where I am there’s real variety, so there’s plenty of lower trails on the days where you want to focus on a bit of speed or the weather just isn’t good enough. 

“I still do a bit of road training because I think the variety helps. 

“The biggest change I’ve had coming back here has been in terms of the fell racing; I’ve started doing these races again that are like 30/40 minutes that are often only three or four miles, and all strategy goes out the window.  

“It’s just how hard you can push yourself on the uphill, and how much fear can you let go of on the downhill. 

“It’s great because it takes me right out my comfort zone.”

Arc-ing for a challenge

Back in the UK, Dale looked at the challenges on offer. 

He picked up a ninth place finish at Trail Marathon Wales 2022 and ran for Ambleside at the British Fell Relay Champs 2022, where he came sixth overall in his leg.  

Back in Herefordshire he also set a fastest known time on the Malvern Hills End to End route, and in September of last year he had a go at one of British racing’s most iconic routes, running a Bob Graham round in an incredibly impressive 16:37. 

But after that, Dale had his eyes on the Arc of Attrition 100… if he could get in. 

“I’d known about the Arc for a while,” he explained, “It had been on the back of my mind for a few years. 

“I did my Bob Graham in September which was the first longer distance thing I’d done since returning to the UK, and I was really happy with how the recovery went; I felt really good afterwards and bounced back quite quickly. 

“I did a few fell races again but got this itch to get back so around October I started to look at it. I asked for an elite place and at the time I had no UK credentials, and I was just told thanks but no thanks – we don’t really know you. 

“I went on the wait list and forgot about it, but then I got an email through, I was top of the wait list and I realised that every time I thought about it, it excited me.  

“For me that’s a big part of any kind of racing, I want to do something that challenges me in a new way.  

“I knew I had it in my legs and it just made sense.” 

“I just began to rely on instinct”

“I had this feeling that I could go well,” Dale said, as he recalled the build-up to the Arc. 

Across the 100 miles, which he had to pay to compete in, he was never far from the front in what is rightly deemed one of Britain’s toughest winter races. 

Over the course of the race, it became clear that he and Ellis Bland were a level ahead, the two running much of the race alongside each other which prompted an intriguing mix of collaboration and competition.

“Part of what draws me to longer distance is it becomes a lot about strategy and your mental game,” Dale said, “reading both yourself and the others around you. 

“Ellis and I ran about 80 miles of the race together, but we always came back together and there was no sense at that time of one of us trying to pull ahead. 

“In terms of strategy, I knew Ellis was the one to watch. Early on I just sort of tucked in alongside him, and my plan was just to see what the pace was like and trust myself. 

“It makes a huge difference on that long, long stretch through the night in the dark to have that reassurance of doing that with someone, it felt at times like me and Ellis were working together against the course almost. It was us versus the terrain. 

“It really became a sense of teamwork which is something I love about this longer distance racing.” 

But eventually, the race mentality had to return. 

“I feel like I just began to rely on instinct,” Dale explained, “As we came into St Ives, I kind of noticed on a few of the climbs that I had the slightly better strength in my legs, and just as we hit tarmac again I just had this feeling I could move slightly better than him. 

“As we came out the checkpoint, I thought this was the time. I then spent the next 20 miles worrying it was the wrong time because it was still pretty early to try and break, and Ellis got really close to me about ten miles later. 

“I thought ‘this is where he’s going to pull back to me and go ahead’ and I was ok with that; my intention going into the race was a top three, and at that point – unless I fell – top three was quite guaranteed. 

“But I just had enough in my legs to keep moving well.” 

Crossing the finish line in a time of 19:56:58, less than half an hour ahead of Bland who finished in 20:24:25, Dale claimed victory in his first 100-mile event, and one he nearly was unable to compete in. 

But for Dale, his desire for adventure and love of natural beauty still punctuated the race.  

“The moment that visually stood out most was as we were coming into Kynance Cove, only about 12 miles into the race,” he said, “you could just see the silhouettes of all the crew standing on the cliffs. 

“Visually it just looked so stunning.” 

UTMB ambitions, but no rushing

So, what’s next for the newly crowned Arc of Attrition champion? 

“I think it will be a mix to be honest,” Dale explained, “I love picking stuff that you can do by yourself in your own time, I’d love to have a look at the Ramsay Round, there’s countless challenges and rounds around here. 

“Because I got into trail running in New Zealand, I’m now playing catchup in the UK – it’s like being a child in a sweet shop. 

“I’m going to keep up the shorter fell racing, because it’s a great part of the local community and it’s great as an extra form of training. 

“I will be doing some bigger longer races as well this year. I don’t know what yet, because the plan was to do Arc and then go from that.  

So far, I feel really positive about the whole experience, the will is there but I’m just looking around and trying to figure out which one I’m going to go for.

Ultra-Trail Snowdonia by UTMB is definitely one that looks incredible, and I’d love to get back into that proper mountain running style. Lakeland 100 is one I’ve known about for a long time and I wouldn’t mind giving some other winter races a go – the Cheviot Goat appeals – and I’d love to do some European racing just for the experience I think.” 

“I’d like to do a few 100k races as well, I think it would be interesting to sort of step down kinding of having the confidence to know I can go further than that, so what can I actually achieve in that 100k spot?” 

When Europe comes up, the inevitable question of the Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc (UTMB) arises. 

“You look at the atmosphere,” Dale said, “and the thrill of being there at that start line would be worth it. 

“But I’m content not to feel like I need to rush that stuff; I’m 28, I have got the time to settle into it, I don’t want to overcook it early on and do all these races at once.” 

A keen traveler, another big move abroad is also not off the cards. In fact, if circumstances had been different, his return to the UK might not have been a long one. 

“When I actually first came back to the UK I had a visa all lined up to go to Canada this year,” Dale explained, “that was very much the plan.” 

“But I fell in love with the Lakes a lot more than I expected to, and with the running scene and the people and the atmosphere up here – so I’ve put those plans on hold for now.” 

Patrick Ryan
Written by
Patrick Ryan
Patrick is a major contributor to TRI247 and RUN247. A keen hiker with wide experience in sports journalism, he has covered the Olympics and Commonwealth Games.

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