On Thursday, I met Shona, albeit virtually. Shona calls herself average, but anyone who has the pleasure of coming across her, knows she is everything but. She is admirable and has done plenty to earn a place on my list of role models. This is her story of how she conquered seven marathons on seven continents:
Well, basically, I’m just a pretty average girl from Scotland who loves running and endurance. I'm probably a crazy running bore to most non-runners. I've always run, never very fast, but I have buckets of slow twitch muscle and a lot of stamina. My PE teacher told me at school that I'd never be a sprinter so I should just stick to the cross country field. Well, I did just that and gradually over the years, the distances increased from 5k, to 10k, to half marathon, to marathon, to ultra-marathon, to stage day events.
It's hard to explain why I love running. If you run, you'll understand. It's that "me" time where you can put on your headphones, not listen to anyone, not speak to anyone and let your body take over. Ok, well, that's a very good run and most runs are not quite like that. More often than not, there is a little voice chirping away telling you to stop. However, when it comes together, and it feels effortless, the feeling is immense. Mother Nature really does reward with a euphoric runners high. I challenge anyone who says it's not worth the discomfort. It is. It’s that simple.
People often ask me why I decided I wanted to run a marathon on every continent. I don’t think I was even drunk when I came up with the idea. I suppose there are a number of reasons but the simple answer is I need a challenge. Without something to aim for in life, I tend to get myself into a bit of a negative state. I don't think I'm different from everyone else. We all need something to drive us forward, and for me, running provides direction, as well as that euphoric "runners high".
I want to start by saying that I actually felt a little awkward writing about my experience. I don't think what I've done is terribly special. Lots of people run marathons raising millions for charities and in much quicker times. Many people have overcome significant hardships in life and gone on to accomplish amazing feats. In fact, one of the most humbling parts of this journey, has been meeting some truly inspirational and remarkable characters.
North America – New York (Nov 2010)
In November 2010, I ran my first marathon in New York, and despite vomiting and a fairly high degree of pain at mile 23, I really enjoyed it and I was buzzing for about a week afterwards. At that time, I thought I would only ever run one marathon. I thought it would just be something to tick off the life bucket list, but by the middle of 2011, I was suffering from a very bad case of post marathon blues. I was still running but with no real direction and I needed a challenge, or more truthfully, I needed to give myself a massive kick up the butt!
I started to look into other races but nothing was really exciting me. Picking a race is a lot like picking a puppy in my opinion. It chooses you, and not the other way round. You go looking for a black lab dog and then a little bitch turns round, wags its tail, grabs your shoe lace and the decision is made for you. For me, Comrades ultra was that “little bitch” that grabbed the laces of my trainers and challenged me to run it. Comrades is a very famous ultra marathon in South Africa. It's 90k (56 miles) and runs from Pietermaritzburg to Durban. I read an article in Runners World about the race and within a few seconds of reading it, I knew I had to do it.
"Every run is a new adventure, and every race serves only to expose some piece of us. The greater the race distance, the deeper the unpeeling. This makes South Africa's 55-mile Comrades Marathon a long and probing quest. The distance alone makes the Comrades intimidating. The infamous climbs make it torturous. Midway, the course snakes upward through the Valley of a Thousand Hills, an English appellation as accurate as it is terrifying".
It sounded brutal but perversely that made me want to do it all the more. In order to run Comrades, I needed to run a qualifying marathon. I did some further research on potential qualifiers. It was at this time that I stumbled across the Antarctic Ice Marathon and the Seven Continents Marathon Club. This club is run by Richard Donovan and in order to be eligible to join it, you have to complete the Antarctic Ice Marathon, the only marathon run on the interior of the Antarctic, as well as a marathon on all the other six continents. This completely resonated with me. There are less than 100 members of the Seven Continents Marathon Club and Ranulph Fiennes is one of them. There are fewer than twenty woman and, at that time, no Scottish women had ever done it. Well, I decided that I needed to sort that out for Scotland!
Europe – London (April 2012)
My original plan was to run the remaining six continents in one year. However, the small matter of a full time career in an Investment Bank meant that, with North America already in the bag, it seemed more realistic to run three marathons in 2012 and three in 2013. Comrades was on the list for 2012, as was the Antarctic Ice marathon. The third would be the Comrades qualifier. I had planned to run Xiamen in Asia in January 2012 but a thigh and foot strain soon put a stop to that! You could say that things didn't always go according to plan!
One thing that running marathons teaches you is to be resilient and adaptable. It's fine to change your plan, just don't change your goal. I went back to the drawing board and decided to keep the Comrades qualifier simple and tick off Europe by running London in April 2012. If I trained properly and kept out the wars, I would run Europe, Africa and Antarctica in 2012, leaving South America, Australia and Asia for 2013.
Well, again, things didn't quite go as scheduled! Ten days before London, I strained my right thigh and it hurt to walk; not a good position to be in - if London was out, then so was Comrades. Looking back, getting through those ten days was pretty tough. It felt like taper and injury psychosis combined. All I could do was rest, foam roll and ice. Ten days felt like a decade but luck must have been with me as I made it round London in a safe qualifying time. Continent two was ticked off. Next stop was Comrades in early June 2012, less than six weeks away.
By this point in the training, I was getting tired and it required a lot of inner strength to get up and run into work, and do the long weekend runs. I had been training since October 2011. Thankfully, I had a great personal trainer at this time, who helped me with basic running conditioning, as well as providing support when I needed it. Those six weeks were hard, but I got through them and was soon on a plane to South Africa.
Africa – Comrades Ultra (June 2012)
Comrades was everything I expected it to be and more. Nothing comes close to the support and encouragement given by the South Africans that lined every kilometre of the route. Few other races in the world reflect the courage, endurance, stamina, determination and the human spirit more than the Comrades ultra. The rules of the race are brutal. It is run 'gun to gun' with a 12 hour cut off. Anyone who does not complete the 90km course in 12 hours is not allowed to finish, they are removed from the course, no medal, no recognition for the months training. To add to this, 'gun to gun' means that the clock starts ticking immediately and the cut off time includes the ten minutes it can take to cross the start line. Cruel perhaps, but it added to the tension and intensified the challenge.
It was a long tough route to do in under 12 hours. Out of all the races, I was the most apprehensive about this one. I didn't fear the heat, the distance or the hills. It was the brutal cut offs that caused anxiety. Would I be the one who was stopped from crossing the finish after 12 hours and 1 second? To my delight, the race went exactly according to plan and I passed each major distance marker at the intended time. I knew by the time I reached half way that I was going to make it within the cut off time. I was then able to relax, settle down and enjoy the home run.
It was at the 70km mark that I began to feel I needed to dig deep. I had heard that you run the last 20km of this race with your heart and this was true. I passed bleeding runners, limping runners, runners lying on the edge of the road, grown men crying, people vomiting and lengthy queues outside the physio tents. Despite the tiredness, the thought of stopping didn't even enter my mind. I knew that I still had more than enough strength in me to get me through the last 20km to the end. I just kept going and gradually the time and distance passed. After over eleven hours of running, I entered the Kingsmead Sahara stadium, where the race finished. Tired but happy, continent three was ticked off.
Antarctica – November 2012
After Comrades, I took the summer off. I had a couple of non sporting medical issues so I was in and out of hospital. It felt odd pitching up at London Bridge hospital without a crutch heading for the Sports Injury clinic, as that was my usual reason for going there. By late August, I was ready to start preparing for the race in Antarctica, which was in November 2012. Unfortunately, having rested for most of the summer, my fitness level had dropped quite considerably. However, I wasn't too worried. For me, running a marathon near the South Pole was far more about the experience, than winning. I knew I would be mentally tough enough to get round, and that would be more than half the battle in those conditions.
Running in Antarctica is an experience that is hard to put into words. Not fazed by the pre race briefing that centred around warnings of frost bite, lost fingers, hypothermia, snow blindness and crevasses, we were piled onto a Soviet war plane, complete with paratrooper ropes, to fly from Punta Arenas in Southern most Chile to Union Glacier Camp. Punta Arenas is literally the end of the earth. Don't forget anything if you go there - you'll need a new credit card limit to pay for it! The flight took around four hours and the ice landing was well, I didn't think we were going to stop!
There were only sixty runners and we stayed in tents at Union Glacier Camp. It was 24 hour daylight and unbelievably cold at night, falling to minus 40 degrees. We had five days there and spent much of the time waiting for the perfect running conditions. We were lucky and got to run only one day later than planned. We also got out safely, unlike runners in a previous year who were still there at Christmas!
With such a small race field on such a vast landscape, it was a very isolating experience. There were no crowds to cheer you on. The field spread out quickly so the nearest runner was merely a black dot against an immeasurable expanse of ice. It was just the endless sound of my feet crunching on the snow, step after step, and thousands of pristine white miles. It was just me alone running on some of the harshest conditions on earth. However, this only added to the magic of the experience. It was a truly memorable run and continent number four was now ticked off.
South America – Rio (July 2013)
I arrived back from Antarctica and entered the busiest period at work. This made keeping fitness up very challenging. When we reached February 2013, I knew it was time to start making plans for the 2013 races. After going round in circles a number of times, I picked Rio for South America in July 2013, Perth for Australia in August 2013 and the inaugural marathon in Da Nang, Vietnam in September 2013. This would mean that Australia and Asia would be run consecutively.
Rio was in early July and was a stunning course along the coast, taking in Leblon, Ipanema and Copacabana. However, despite being winter in the Southern Hemisphere, the conditions were pretty gruesome for running. It was over 30 degrees and very humid, which made it hard to get oxygen into my lungs. I don't think I will ever forget the last two miles of that course. I had well and truly hit the wall. In fact, I think I had crashed into several walls from mile 20 onwards. I remember passing a fellow runner who looked like he was closer to death than me. He muttered something in Portuguese. I had no idea what it meant but it sounded like encouragement. It was this small gesture, as well as the sight of hundreds of other depleted and exhausted runners, that spurred me on to the end. I didn't think running could get much more unpleasant than those last few miles of Rio but Vietnam was to provide me with a special final Continent surprise.
The week after Rio, I took a few days to recover but I only had seven weeks until I flew to Australia to run Perth, and eight weeks until I ran in Vietnam. Training recommenced as soon as I got home. As with training in 2012, it became a mental battle towards the end, as much as a physical one. There were times that I just couldn't face another long run when I woke up on a Saturday. However, I knew that by the time I had a coffee, got my trainers on and got out the house, I'd be fine.
Australia – Perth (August 2013)
Before I knew it, I was on my way to Perth. This was one of my favourite races ever. The conditions were perfect - about 16 degrees, slight drizzle and a cool breeze. The first half was along the beautiful Swan River. The second half went through Kings Park and over to Ocean Beach. The race atmosphere was superb and very friendly. I knew it wasn't a flat course but I wasn't expecting the second half to be quite so hilly. It almost rivalled Comrades. I finished Perth feeling strong, which was just as well really as I was about to face the most challenging conditions yet on the last leg of this journey in Vietnam.
Asia – Vietnam (September 2013)
I flew to Vietnam a few days later. I knew it was hot and humid there but really nothing could've prepared me. I've been to lots of Asian countries before so I knew what I was letting myself in for, the difference was that on previous occasions, I hadn't tried to run a marathon. The race started at 5am to avoid the heat of the afternoon. At that time, it was already over 27 degrees and the air was very muggy. I knew this was going to be brutal. In fact, when the race director announced at the start that he would encourage marathon competitors to stop after the first lap and just complete the half marathon, I sensed that hell awaited. I mean, it must be bad if we're being encouraged to stop!
Anyway, stopping before the end was not up for discussion. I would crawl round before I quit. Acutely aware of the risks of heat stroke and heat exhaustion, my plan was to take it really steadily and take fluid on board at every water station. I wasn't going to be precious about the time - the goal was to complete it and complete the last continent. There was no way I was getting on the plane back home without that 7th medal. After a gruesome 5 hours out in 36 degrees and over 80% humidity, I crossed the finish line. The seven continents were ticked off:
What have been the hardest parts?
Well, I'm not going to lie. It's not been a walk in the park. I haven't had it easy all the way. As I mentioned I wanted to run Xiamen marathon in China in January 2012 as the Comrades qualifier. However, a foot and thigh strain ended that. It was upsetting pulling out after months of training but you've just got to accept it and move on. The lead up to London wasn't easy either as I didn’t know if I would be able to run it - if I couldn’t run London, Comrades would be out the question.
I've had a few cases of nasty shin splints. Of course, as most runners ignore medical advice, I carried on running and put myself on crutches for a month! I’ve had Osgood-schlatters disease and bone bruises and been written off for months. I’ve lost most of my toenails, which is the ultimate running badge of honour. I’ve had nosebleeds on runs. I’ve fainted and vomited yet I still go back for more because I absolutely love it. I don’t call it crazy, I call it passion.
What have been the highlights?
Running in Antarctica was a very special experience so would definitely be up there. In fact, there is barely a day that passes that I don’t think about that race, which speaks volumes and is more than I can say about most things in life. The absolute unconditional support and spirit of the supporters on the Comrades route was very moving. Crossing the finish line in Vietnam was a pretty special feeling too.
This experience hasn't just been about running in some amazing places, challenging myself in cold, heat, humidity and altitude. Some of the people I have met along the way have overcome some truly remarkable feats. It has genuinely been an extremely humbling experience. I feel lucky to have been able to run all the places that I have, and felt privileged to have met so many interesting characters.
What have I learned through this experience?
I think the key to everything is not being afraid to fail. No one ever gets anywhere if they sit in their comfort zone. It's also important to find a goal you're passionate about and commit to it. Life is not linear and the chances are you'll have a lot of rough times too, but so does everyone. I have learned to be more patient and flexible, you have to be in order to deal with injury, setback, mid race cramps and nausea! Stubbornness, or I prefer to call it determination, is also critical if you want to do something. I think a short memory (to forget the pain), a sense of humour, persistence and tenacity are also key qualities. You’ve also got to learn to be resilient to bounce back from bad runs and disappointing performance. Most of all, you just need the ability to handle pain and keep going!
A strong support network is also important. I’ve been lucky to have had the amazing support of friends and family, and an amazing coach, David Arnot. Ultimately, no one can achieve your goals for you but having a positive and supportive network really helps. Listening to the advice of others is really helpful. You don’t have to take it but I have certainly found that I’ve learned a lot by sharing war stories with other runners.
So what's next?
I am running the North Pole marathon in April 2014. I also want to try to encourage more people to take up running and get the message of the importance of exercise into schools, especially for girls. I am no one special, maybe a little more stubborn than most, but I honestly believe that with the right support and mind set, anyone can achieve what they want to achieve in life.
I would love to use my experience to work with other individuals who would like to take up running. If your goal is a marathon or to be able to run round the block, I would love to hear from you and mentor you.
I am also available to speak in schools, workplaces, or other functions about my experiences to try to inspire and motivate others. If you would like to get in touch or follow my North Pole preparation, please follow me on Twitter at shona_d_thomson.
(PS: Next week I’m meeting up with Shona to share more running tales, so watch this space for my account of that!)