Emma Stuart: The Farm Vet Winning the World's Toughest Races

Trail Running

, by Howard Calvert

Photograph courtesy of: Emma Stuart

Ireland’s Emma Stuart won the grueling 205-mile Tor des Géants last year and is set for big things in 2024, as Howard Calvert found out.

When I speak to Emma Stuart, it’s mere days after she triumphed in the Maurice Mullins 50k race in Ireland, as well as Jasmin Paris’s historic, global headline-making completion of the Barkley Marathons.

“Jasmin taught me at university, many moons ago,” Stuart tells me. “I don’t think many people knew what a phenomenal athlete she was, as she kept it on the down low. But she knows how to go deep, and when she wants something she’ll do everything in her power to achieve it.”

As it happens, these words could equally be used to describe Stuart. Something about Paris, deep down, must have resonated with her because even though Stuart wasn’t a runner at university, she’s now one of the best endurance athletes in the world as well as working as a full-time farm animal vet (hence her nickname, ‘The Running Vet’). For someone who only took up running in 2018, it’s a remarkable rise to the top of the sport.

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The Great Outdoors

“I wasn’t a sporty child – I came last in all the races at sports day,” Stuart laughs. It was during a stay in New Zealand, where she started tackling long-distance hiking trails, that she was bitten by the outdoors bug.

“My partner had been running for years, so I began to join him on some runs, and decided to enter a half marathon.” She finished fourth, at which point someone at the finish told Stuart she was astounded that it was her first half marathon.

Emma Stuart at the Transgrancanaria Classic. Photography by: josemiguelmunoze

After a couple more half marathons, Stuart swerved the usual step up in distance to a marathon, and instead leap-frogged straight into ultramarathons by taking part in the Isle of Man’s Manx Mountain Marathon — a 50km race that traverses the entire island from north to south.

“Off the back of very little training, I ended up coming second, which was a pleasant surprise,” she says. This was followed by a win in the Keswick 50k, at which point she thought to herself, in her typically understated way, “I seem to be alright at this,” and since that point, the races have been gradually getting longer and longer in distance.

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Introducing the Giants

After wins in the 2023 editions of the 100-mile Arc of Attrition, 100-mile Ultra-Trail Snowdonia, and third place in the 120km Lavaredo Ultra Trail, Stuart ratcheted up the distance further by entering Italy’s notoriously punishing 205-mile Tor des Géants.

Starting and ending in Courmayeur, runners have 150 hours to complete the loop. “It's legendary — one of the best-known 200-plus mile races in the world,” she says. “It has so many elements that make it challenging. The elevation is three times the height of Everest, and the altitude takes you above 3,000m a couple of times, so that adds another unpredictable element into the equation.

“The Aosta Valley is absolutely stunning. It's so important for the region and the locals, and is the biggest event on their calendar, so the support is incredible. You visit all these mountain huts where the food is amazing. There are so many elements that make it one of the best races. I loved it.”

The hardest part of the race wasn’t the distance, altitude, or nutrition, though — it was sleep deprivation. “I got about 1.5 hours of good sleep during the race, plus short, three-minute naps. There were times I was running down endless miles of woodland, and I fully believed I was asleep and I couldn’t wake up from that ‘dream’. It was pretty traumatizing — mentally, extremely difficult to cope with.”

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She crossed the line in 82hrs 21mins, well over two hours ahead of second place. “This is going to sound daft, but I was so done by the end of the race, I actually felt nothing when I crossed the line. Literally nothing. I was a shadow of my former self. When you look at the photos, there’s nobody behind those eyes. It took a few days to really sink in.”

The power of belief

Stuart’s preferred distance to run, though, is 100 miles. “It’s a good mental and physical test of your endurance,” she says. “I like trying to push the limits of my abilities and see how far I can go. People can achieve a lot more than they think they can achieve if they set their mind to it and actually commit, and it’s made me realize that my physical limits are far greater than I thought.

I was so done by the end of the race, I actually felt nothing when I crossed the line. Literally nothing. I was a shadow of my former self.

“That's what I enjoy most, alongside the strategic challenge of running longer distances where speed isn't as important. It's more about consistency, pacing yourself, managing your sleep, nutrition, pain and the psychology of it. There's so much more than just physical ability — that's what I really like about it.”

Although hailing from Sligo in Ireland, Stuart’s now based in Penrith, in England’s Lake District, where she’s not lacking hills. “I do feel a certain pride when I get Local Legend status on a Strava segment — there’s a hill I train on just outside Pooley Bridge that thousands of people have run, and I’ll shortly be getting 50 reps of it in the past 18 months, so I’m be looking forward to getting a Local Legend there.”

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Being surrounded by wilderness is important for her. “I love running through the beauty of nature rather than something that humans have tarmac’d over,” she adds. “I absolutely live for the scenery. That feeling of being on top of a hill or a mountain or even just halfway up when you survey your surroundings and think, ‘Wow.’ There's so much beauty to be had out there.”

Stuart has already started this year with a podium finish in the 128km North Face Transgrancanaria Classic: “It's a tough race. It was cold up high, and I wouldn't give in and put a jacket on. I thought, ‘I've not traveled all the way to the Canary Islands to put a jacket on.’ I was absolutely frozen — my hands were like clubs.”

Emma Stuart came third at the North Face Transgrancanaria Classic. Photography by: josemiguelmunoze

Despite the inclement weather, she paced herself perfectly and finished third behind US’s Courtney Dauwalter and Spain’s Claudia Tremps. “I felt comfortable for the whole race. In retrospect, a tiny part of me thinks could I have gone out harder and tried to stay with Claudia? But it’s a gamble because I could have blown up and that would have finished my race.”

Next up is the 60-mile Fellsman in Yorkshire, England, then she hopes to be wearing the Irish vest for the European Athletics Off-Road Running Championships in May, before finishing her season with the big one: UTMB.

Following that in 2025, would she follow her former university tutor to attempt a certain five-loop challenge in Tennessee? “Maybe 2025 will be the year,” she says, cryptically. “We’ll see!”

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