In September 2013, Shona Douglas Thomson became the first Scottish, and only the third British female, to run a marathon on every continent. In this second post [read the first here] Shona talks about her toughest race to date, training for it and what's next for (in her own words) a 'pretty average' Scottish girl living and working in London.
"There were a few! There were parts of Comrades, Rio and Vietnam that will live with me for a while! Comrades, being an ultra marathon, was tough. 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, anything for the months of training. 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 mental 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. I was tired but elated.
"Rio 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.
"I flew to Vietnam a few days after running Perth marathon so my legs were a bit tired. I knew it was hot and humid there but really nothing could have 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!"
"I did three runs a week, two "commute" runs into work, with a longer run on a Saturday. In early March 2013, I started training with David Arnot at Reach Fitness Gym in Clapham, London. David is a former Scottish rugby player so I thought he would understand what others considered a "suicide mission", but he did give me a dubious look when I told him what I was planning! I trained there twice a week, often within less than an inch of my life.
"There were plenty savage training runs and even more savage training sessions but I was lucky that I managed to do them all relatively uninjured, bar a hip niggle towards the end. Training twice a week with David Arnot helped enormously. Although gruelling at the time, the mix of punishing intervals on the bike, rower and versaclimber sprints really helped, as well as a mix of weights and prehab. 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."
SO WHAT HAVE I LEARNED?
"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. Most of all, the ability to handle pain and just keep going!
"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 races I had wanted to do, and felt privileged to have met so many interesting characters. I've also been lucky to have the amazing support of my family and friends."
"In April 2014, I shall be running a marathon at the Geographic North Pole. Ellis Brigham have kindly offered to sponsor some of the kit for the race. As part of the preparation, I shall be blogging on the gear, training and nutrition. In addition, I am looking forward to doing some talks in selected stores on my return about my adventures, with my trainer and nutritionist, David Arnot.
I would also love to mentor others on their first half marathon or marathon journey so would love to hear from anyone setting out. I'm also passionate about encouraging others to get into physical activity, and am doing a number of motivational speeches and workshops in schools.
"I was greatly honoured to be asked to be an Ambassador, alongside several internationally renowned Scottish athletes, such as Mark Beaumont, Andrew Murray and Liz McColgan, for the Scotland 5×50 challenge 2014 aiming to inspire and encourage Scotland to become more active by doing 5k of activity for 50 days."
If you would like to get in touch, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow me on twitter at @shona_d_thomson.