Meet Max Nicholls (Pilgrims, 2014)
We spoke with alumnus Max Nicholls (Pilgrims, 2014) on his experience competing as a Mountain Runner.
Tell us a bit about yourself – when were you at Ashford School? What did you do after leaving?
- I started at Ashford School in Year 5 in 2005, and stayed for the rest of my School years, leaving in 2014. I then spent five years studying Dentistry at King’s College London, followed by a year working in a Dental Practice in South London, and I am now working at University College London Hospital in the Restorative Dentistry department.
Tell us about your career as a runner. At what age did you get into the sport and how did it progress?
- I first got into running when I was very young. My older sister, Grace (Pilgrims, 2010), used to go to an athletics club outside of School and I inevitably tagged along. We also benefitted from the enthusiasm of Mrs. Orr and her lunchtime running club at Ashford School, as well as a number of inter–school races. I was fortunate to enjoy National success from an early age and made good friends at the athletics club. These sowed the seeds for my running career and kept up my enthusiasm for the sport.
How did you end up finding Mountain Running, given that you grew up in Kent (with its very flat landscape!)?
- I discovered Mountain Running by chance through an advert in a running magazine that was encouraging under 18s to take part in a trial race to represent England in the World Youth Cup. I travelled up to the Shropshire hills to take part, alarmingly unprepared for what I would face and without having done a recce of the route. I went tearing off, unaware of the enormous final climb up to the finish, but somehow managed to crawl across the line in a high enough position to make the team. This ordeal bizarrely had me hooked, and Mountain Running has since been my focus for the summer months.
What do you enjoy about it?
- Having grown up on the Romney Marsh it is curious that I gravitated to running up and down hills, but I have always much preferred the winter months of cross–country to the summer track races and so Mountain Running has become the perfect alternative to competing on the track. In day–to–day life, the enjoyment comes more from spending time outdoors and blowing off steam. I have also been lucky enough to compete internationally in some amazing locations, and I have come to find the added challenge of tackling difficult terrain as adding to the thrill and satisfaction of racing.
How do you go about your training?
- My training isn’t overly structured – I aim to fit in some form of running every day, with targeted training sessions depending on what race I am preparing for. Living somewhere relatively flat, hill training usually means running up and down the same hill for an hour or so, or if I am training for an ‘uphill only’ race then I’ll go on a treadmill with the incline as high as it will go.
How has the lockdown period impacted you?
- The lockdown period has been very different for me as a runner and also as a dentist. Most forms of racing have been postponed or cancelled for the foreseeable future, so I haven’t had the usual goals to work towards. This coincided with a few months of dental practices being reduced to emergency telephone consultations and the amount of time that I needed to be in practice being greatly reduced. A silver lining of this was that I was able to spend time helping my Dad in his pharmacy, which was completely inundated. It was a very poignant time for us as a family as my younger brother, Euan (Pilgrims, 2016), was home from university, and with my Mum there too we often had 4 out of 5 members of the family working in the pharmacy together. Euan is also a runner and our evening runs together were the perfect escape from everything that was going on.
Tell us about your most rewarding moment in your sporting career so far.
- The English National Cross-Country Championship was very special this year. The conditions were awful, with streams of water to wade through and knee-deep mud in some parts of the course. I managed to overcome these and finish in 11th place to lead my club, Tonbridge Athletic Club, to first place in the team category against some very stiff competition. Having competed in National Championship since I was very young and having always aspired to perform well in the senior men’s race, which often has around 2000 participants, it was an especially rewarding moment.
What has it been like representing GB?
- Competing for Great Britain has definitely been the pinnacle of my sporting career. The excitement of the kit being delivered is like being a child on Christmas Day and the whole experience of travelling as part of a big team with the support of doctors and physios is very novel. I would definitely say that having all of this buzz around the race and the privilege of wearing the singlet has a beneficial effect on performance.
Have you been able to travel to lots of different places with your running? Where have been your favourite places to visit?
- Running has given me the opportunity to travel to all sorts of slightly obscure places like Macedonia, Bulgaria and Poland. My favourite race would have to be running through the famous Carrara marble quarries in Italy, a very surreal experience.
What are your long-term sporting/career ambitions?
- I have always had the mentality that running is my hobby and something that I have as a bonus alongside studying or work. I feel that this mentality has kept me from putting too much of an onus on my running and has removed the risk of me falling out of love with it.
What are you tips for dealing with setbacks, for example if a race doesn’t go your way?
- When there are setbacks, I will remind myself of the benefits that running brings to my life, and how lucky I am to still be competing at a high level.
Thinking back to your time at Ashford School – what are your memories of Sport?
- I was a Sports Scholar, and I always enjoyed sport at Ashford. My proudest moments were when I could represent Pilgrims on Sports Day and when I captained the first team for Hockey in Upper Sixth.
Was there a particular teacher that inspired you whilst at Ashford?
- Spanish was definitely my favourite subject at School, which is probably not what you would expect of someone aspiring to study Dentistry! I had a lot of fun with Mrs. Calver over my five years of Spanish lessons, two Spanish exchanges, and particularly during my A levels, when I was lucky enough to have one-to-one lessons. She encouraged me to pursue the things that I am passionate about and not only what was necessary for my degree. This philosophy is something that I have continued to live by, most notably granting me the opportunity of working in a Peruvian dental hospital during one of my summer holidays. I’m sure that my teachers would be proud to hear that I have continued to live by the Ashford School ‘Adventurous Learning’ motto!