© Pete Rees
As a test pilot for Rat Race Adventures, ultra-runner Allie Bailey has seen it all – humungous spiders included. She was the first woman to run 100 miles across Mongolia’s frozen Lake Khövsgöl (average temp -47°c) and the first to run 124 miles across the Namib Desert, from east to west, all in the name of a ‘recce’. And then there’s the jungle, home of said spiders.
Allie, who took up running on her doctor’s advice to help her depression, shares the highs and lows (and downright terrifying) of her incredible ultra experiences with me below.
Rewinding a lot, it was your doctor who suggested you start running for your mental health, is that right?
It was! I ignored that advice for a long time and I still remember my first run, in a pair of knackered converse, from my house in Whitechapel to London Bridge – it was awful but I did feel better. Running is my therapy and my medication. It has not cured me, and it won’t, but it helps me function and it helps me to appreciate the beauty of the world and switch off for a minute. The trail and ultra running community are amazing. I’ve heard people’s life stories on races, I’ve heard people’s deepest and darkest thoughts – people that I’ve never met before. There is something about running that makes it OK to say the things you would never otherwise say to a stranger – like group therapy but not sat staring at each other. It makes me feel like a worthy human being. It’s a leveller.
You’ve run 60+ ultra distance races – what do you like about them?
It’s a way of really feeling something physically and emotionally and sitting with it and then realising how much you are capable of. I have yet to find my breaking point; I know it’s there and I will probably chase it until I get there. I love the challenge, the people and the places you can run.
In road marathons, you rarely find people chatting away, munching on sandwiches and generally having a nice time – you’ll find them silently pushing as hard as they can to get that treasured PB. Ultra running is a shared experience – it can be lonely at times, but that allows you to really sit with yourself without distraction. You get to points in ultras where you properly have to have a word with yourself, and get yourself back on track. I both love and hate those times. But what I do know is it’s those dark moments that I treasure and call upon back in real life. If you know you have coped with feeling like you can’t do something and have overcome it on the trails, you can do it in pretty much any other situation.
How did your role as Rat Race test pilot come about?
I have a friend called Lee and he is every bit as suggestible to nonsense as I am. I met him through the Bad Boy Running Podcast group (Allie is a co-presenter) and one day he messaged me to ask if I wanted to go on an adventure. I said yes, as long as it wasn’t cold. Fast-forward six months, and I found myself on a frozen lake in Mongolia in -47 about to attempt to run 100 miles across it. That was a gateway drug. I’d never done anything like that before in such harsh conditions and it changed my life.
I became really good mates with the Rat Race crew. On the lake, I was pretty vocal about the fact I thought their events were very male skewed, and that they should try and represent the amazing females that take part in their events and market towards them too. They listened to me and a beautiful partnership was born. They also know that I will say yes to pretty much anything. I’d like to think we work as a team, although sometimes I wonder if they’re just trying to kill me!
Earlier this year you became the first woman to run east to west across the Namib Desert – what that like?
This was another recce for rat race, for an event called Race to the Wreck. The idea was to part-bike, part-run across the Namib Nuklaft Park – a route that had never been attempted before. I told Jim from Rat Race there was no way I was getting on a bike and maybe they should have a run-only stage – so the run-only option was born! The idea was to get across the desert in four days on foot, camping at night and running the day, then reach the wreck of the Eduard Bolen on the Skeleton coast. We were fully supported by Rat Race crew. It was just mind blowing.
What was the desert running like?
I’d not done desert running before and I didn’t know there were so many different type of terrain. We dealt with everything from boiling salt plains to gravel to 300ft sand dunes that went on forever. It’s also very hot. The Namib is the oldest desert in the world – 50 million years – and at any one time we could be 300km away from the nearest human. It was so humbling to be allowed to run there. We ran about 27-30 miles a day, starting off at 5am and finishing as the sun went down. Getting through the sand was exhausting and the dunes were relentless. Mentally, it was tough. Getting to the top of one dune and looking out to see another 30 in front of you when you are tired, hungry and hot, not knowing when they are going to end – that is hard. But we had crew, and without them it would have been very different.
Did you have any low points?
My lowest point came on the last day when I ran alone for a long time. I’d been having a great time with the rest of the Pilot crew, but having time alone allowed me to reflect on what we had achieved and it made me sad it was almost over, but also it made me ask myself why I do these things and if anyone actually cares. The answer is that I do them because I can and I’m lucky enough to be asked. I just felt empty that day. But it’s like life. You have good days, you have bad days. The Skeleton coast is one of the bleakest places on earth, and when you’re alone there, it can really get to you. Once I got to the wreck and had a little cry, I was fine. I think if I’m honest, I was exhausted from the week’s running and from what I had put my body through. I tend not to think about how hard these things are physically and then it catches up with me mentally!
What preparation did you do for the Namib Desert run?
I did what I always do – I read a lot, I talked to a lot of people who’d done things like Marathon des Sables, I got advice from people I trust and I did a load of back-to-back marathons and ultras. I couldn’t afford heat acclimatisation training, but I don’t think I actually needed it. It was hot, but as long as you’re sensible with salt, hydration and suntan lotion you’re all good. I was most worried about my feet, but turns out that they were just fine! I was very well prepared with kit and I am queen of admin so I knew what I was doing. I also re-learnt how to use poles – you need them on an event like this. They were the single most important piece of kit I took with me.
You then went on to traverse the jungle in Panama, which looked incredibly tough…
Because of travel time we went straight to Panama from Namibia, via a run up Table Mountain in South Africa, which I hated– I don’t do heights or ridges. We were exhausted and had a 6-hour kit changeover at Heathrow. The day after we got to Panama, we crossed the country on foot and by Kayak via the Panama Canal. That was tough. We started at 4am, ran 6 miles, kayaked 9 miles through crocodile infested water, ran 18 miles through the jungle and then ran 13 miles along the road. On paper, that looks fine. In reality, the jungle is terrifying and tough. It’s muddy, mountainous, unmarked and full of things that would quite like to kill you. The humidity is ludicrous and there is no wind. I have never sweated as much in my life. It was a real eye opener. We completed the traverse in 17 hours – a world first – and that wasn’t even the event, that was just a taster.
Tell me about the main event – the 300km run and your jungle experience?
The real event was a 300km run across the country taking 5 days with 3 days totally self-sufficient in the jungle. The first 2 days were road running a marathon a day, the next 3 days – spolier:it turned into 5 – were some of the hardest days of my life. We had to carry everything we needed; there are no roads, no crew and no way out. My pack weighed 20kg and I hadn’t ever run/walked with weight like that before. We slept in hammocks strapped to trees. I have never been as hungry as I was that week. The jungle was tougher than I could have ever imagined and I still find it hard to describe what it was like. Knee deep mud, steps, ants, spiders, bigger stuff, fallen trees, thick vegetation and constant ascent. We made it 28,000ft of ascent over the week – that’s Everest from sea level. It’s beyond comprehension for anyone that hasn’t been there.
Because we were carrying everything, I had one set of wet clothes for day and one set of dry for night. I ended up not really getting changed for the full 5 days. We got lost, the days stretched out and we ended up spending 5 days in there. We were tired, we were exhausted and we all went a bit mad. There was no option though. No way out other than emergency helicopter. When you’re faced with that, you have to just get on with it. This is why we do the recces, to make mistakes so the people going on the event don’t have to!
You got up close to plenty of venomous creatures – did this bother you?
I thought it would, but it didn’t at all. You have other stuff to worry about. Like staying upright! One night my hammock slipped and I woke up on the floor in pitch black. There was something on my face – I don’t know if it was a spider or a huge stick insect, but I didn’t care. I was so tired I just went back to sleep on the floor of the jungle. One night we slept on the porch of a farm shack we found. There were spiders as big as my hand, but again you don’t care. Those things aren’t important anymore.
It sounded like you were in a calorie deficit the whole time. What did you eat and was it enough to sustain your energy levels?
We were eating three pre-made meals a day from wet pouches but our calorie deficit was huge. We were burning around 10,000 calories a day and only eating around 2000. We ate from Wayfarer food pouches. We heated up jungle water and made them warm and had them for breakfast, lunch and dinner. The boys opted to take puddings as well but I wanted to keep my pack as light as possible so me and James Appleton (photographer and videographer) shared a tub of Nutella, having one spoonful a night. I love snacks but I had to ration them. I ran out on day 3 and remember only having a bag of Fruit Pastilles left. Because everyone else was suffering, the whole group shared them. They were like tiny nuggets of happiness. I lost about a stone and a half during and in the weeks post-jungle – your metabolism keeps burning fat and it’s hard to adjust back to proper food.
How do you summon the mental strength to get through low moments?
Being in harsh environments teaches you a lot about mental strength. For a start, the majority of the time there is no way out. The only way is forward and you don’t have a choice. Of course, if any of us got really ill or injured it would have been a different story and we would have been safe. I have learnt that when it gets really tough it’s important to stop and breathe and take stock of the situation. You can go on. One step at a time. I spent a lot of time in the desert and jungle leaning on poles and swearing at trees. It’s happened to me in the UK, too. On various ultras I have just thought ‘Fuck this shit, I’m done’, but that feeling is temporary. It’s OK to have a mini meltdown. Get it out, have a cry, have a swear, and then one foot in front of the other and you’re going again.
The people you’re with are also important. The right people will help and support you, and you can do the same for them. When one of us was low, the others would help carry them – sometimes physically. We’d carry their stuff for a while. I was stripped back to the very essence of who I was in the jungle and that was hard. But ultimately it’s an experience that has given me so much. I wouldn’t change it for the world.
Last year you were the first woman to run across Lake Khövsgöl in Mongolia for another Rat Race recce. Just how cold was it?
It was -47°C when we got to Mongolia – cold enough to freeze a bottle of water within 90 seconds. The main challenge is keeping warm and warding of hypothermia. I was wearing up to 5 layers while running. Keeping warm while moving was easy; it was the stopping that was hard. Everything freezes at those temperatures – gels, shot bloks, water, wet wipes, toothpaste, saline solution, even bloody beer! I kept my water and nutrition close to my body and stuffed my food down my bra to keep it warm. You utilise all your body heat all the time.
The nights were the hardest. I remember waking up in the Ger (Mongolian yurt) in a military issue 4 seasons sleeping bag with all my clothes on, a one piece on over the top, my North Face jacket on top of that and still feeling like I was going to die. We all ended up sleeping in the same Ger to try and keep warm. It wasn’t pleasant but it was brilliant. It’s a dry cold in Mongolia as opposed to the wet cold we get in the UK, so no real risk of frostbite, but the danger is you don’t realise how cold you are until it’s too late. Toilet trips in the night were fun.
How did your kit stand up to the job?
My kit for the ice was brilliant. I took a lot of thermals and wore them over my compression tights in layers. Buffs are really important – you need to keep your face covered where possible. Anything that holds moisture will freeze. I got through about 20 buffs, I think! I also lost about 5 pairs of gloves – you go ‘ice mental’ where you’re so cold and tired you start to forget where you’ve put stuff. You can be looking for a glove for 30 minutes and realise it’s in your hand. On my feet I wore Altra Lone Peaks a size too big with three pairs of socks, and Kahtoola spikes – they were amazing. I didn’t fall over once and they stayed intact.
Out of the jungle, Mongolia and the desert, which was most challenging?
The jungle, hands down. All three challenges were amazing and hard in their own ways. The world is such a beautiful, extreme, challenging and sometimes hostile place, and I am so grateful to have been able to see some of the extremities of it. When I talk about the jungle, I want to be honest about the experience and it was brutal. But I have taken so much away from that. Having no contact with the outside world, the internet, your friends and family – being genuinely scared and getting through that, and working as part of an amazing team. It’s all taught me so much.
The relentless nature of the jungle, not knowing where you were going or when you’d stop, the calorie deficit, the lack of being able to get changed or be comfortable, the fear at night, the noises you heard and things you saw or thought you saw – all of it is built to break you. And it does break you. But at the same time it builds you more than any other experience on earth. I don’t know if I will ever do anything as hard as that. I don’t know if there is anything as hard!
What does a typical week of training look like for you at the moment?
I honestly don’t have a typical week! I have four dogs and they need to go out every day, so I get out to run or walk every single day without fail. If I’m training for a long, 100+ mile ultra, I’ll gradually up my weekly mileage with back-to-back long runs or races at the weekends and shorter 5-10 miles runs in the week with a couple of days off when I fancy. I don’t stress about it, I just make sure that every week I’m doing a bit more overall mileage. I think it’s important to listen to your body and do what works for you. Days off involve at least 5 miles of walking either with dogs or just instead of driving places. I think walking is an under-rated way of training for ultras. If you can walk at 13-minute mile pace up 30% inclines then you’re doing well!
What have you learned about yourself from doing these incredible multi-day adventures?
I’ve learned so much. I’ve learned that I am a lot more kind and patient than I thought was. I’ve learnt it’s not about being the fastest or the first or the best. It’s about being part of a small, supportive group. Kindness is so underrated. We, as humans, are born to work together as a team, and being in these extreme environments shows you just how important that is. I’ve learnt that I’m incredibly resilient and adaptable. And that it’s OK to have shitty days, even when you’re in the most beautiful places on earth. It’s important to be honest with yourself and your team. It’s OK to ask for a bit of help. I’m quite vocal about how I feel, but I found the blokes that I’ve done these challenges with are not as vocal – they bottle it up and won’t say they’re in pain until it’s too late and their feet are ruined or they end up dangerously dehydrated. Nobody is going to judge you for having a little complain or saying something is wrong. It’s not a boardroom – it’s a survival situation.
What are your favourite items of kit for racing, training and recces?
I swear by Ultimate Direction packs – I won’t use anything else. I used the Fastpack 25 for the lake and desert crossing; it has a built in dry bag and it’s super-comfy. I’ve jumped in lakes with it on and my kit has stayed completely dry. The Fastpack 35 is also brilliant as it’s huge, but rolls down really small for shorter races, and has a waist strap which takes the weight off your shoulders. Most UD packs have loads of pockets on the front which are brilliant for storing snacks, phones, gloves, buffs and all the stuff you need to keep near to hand.
I’ve just trialled the UD FKT pack which is also brilliant and I use my ‘Jenny’ pack every day when running with the dogs – front pouches are brilliant for poo bags! Other than that, you won’t find me wearing anything other than 2XU compression tights and shorts – I live in them. They’re great for racing, long slog ultras and recovery, plus they dry really quickly and are extremely hard wearing. For staying dry, I have a Montane windproof taped seam jacket that was so expensive but one of the best investments I ever made. It’s never failed me.
Are you sponsored by anyone right now?
I wish! It would make life a whole lot easier if I was. I get offers from people all the time, but I won’t ever endorse a product or race company that I haven’t tried, tested and loved. You need to be true to yourself to be authentic and that is massively important to me. There are so many people saying so many things about what kit to use, that it can be hard to know who to trust
What’s on the horizon for you for the rest of 2019?
A lot of fun stuff! I’ve got a few top secret Test Pilot recces on the horizon, and I’m going back to Namibia and Panama as comfort crew for this year’s events. UK-wise, I’m attempting my longest run to date: 117 miles Devon Coast to Coast in May along the Two Moors way and I’m lucky enough to be travelling around the country doing talks and panels at a load of events which is one of my favourite things to do! I’ve got about 40 events in the diary for this year – mainly back-to-back marathons and ultras to keep me match fit for whatever 2020 holds. I find running distances with other people is brilliant training and keeps the boredom at bay.
There are also a couple of amazing projects I am managing – all will be revealed later in the year! I have my own bucket list – Dragons Back, the Spine, the Centurion grand slam, The Barkley Marathons – all stuff that I want to do, but I have to be ready for them and that will take me a good few years. I am under no illusions that I have only just begun this journey. I’m not an athlete or a professional – I’m a normal person who has had some great opportunities. The main thing is to keep enjoying running, encouraging other people to give it go and being part of the best community in the world.