In August last year, Laura Jones couldn’t run a kilometre. But now, 10 months later, she has three marathons under her belt as part of her incredible ICANRUN7 challenge to run 7 marathons on 7 continents within a year. Yesterday she hit marathon number three, in Banff.
I quizzed Laura about her experience so far, including how it felt to run the highest trail race on Earth, the Everest Marathon.
You’re running an incredible 7 marathons in 7 continents within a year. How did this awesome challenge come about?
Like many great things, it started with a few too many glasses of wine. Last summer we were visiting a client and he mentioned that he would like to run the Everest Marathon and he was looking for someone to join him. I must have thought it sounded like a great idea at the time and jumped at the chance. The next morning I woke up with a feeling of slight disbelief. What had I signed up for?! As someone who had never really run in a race before, apart from walking the odd charity 5ks here and there, it is without a doubt the most ambitious challenge I have ever signed up to. Nevertheless, I started training and as it started to pay off I gained more and more confidence. That’s when I started to build the bigger picture; as my husband Rhys had climbed the seven summits, I decided it would be fantastic to run a marathon on each of the 7 continents, in one year.
So have you always been pretty adventurous?
Yes, I guess I have. Growing up in South Wales I spent much of my childhood surfing and being a member of a local lifeguard team. When I met my husband, Rhys, he introduced me to the world of rock climbing and mountaineering. We went on a self-supported ski mountaineering expedition to Greenland in 2014 where we climbed the highest mountain in the Arctic Circle. You could say that I’ve been desperate to find something else to challenge me in the same way ever since – and now I can say that training for marathons has certainly done that!
You have no running background and only started in August last year. Were you fairly fit already?
I was certainly fit enough to spend a good day walking in the hills but no, I wouldn’t say that I was aerobically fit. That’s why, when I went for my first run, I only made it to the end of the village before turning lobster-coloured and having to return home after just 1k!
How have you found the journey to getting ‘run fit’?
I found it very challenging at first. I couldn’t breathe, I would get tired in no time at all, and I had no idea where to run and what kind of distances I should be covering to train for a marathon… put all this together and I just wasn’t enjoying running. Things changed pretty quickly, especially when I joined a running club. I understood what my body was telling me and that it was going to take time, patience, commitment and determination.
Have you learned a lot since joining a running club?
Yes. I’m a member of Dorset Doddlers running club. They’ve been fantastic and I’m sure my journey would have been much harder without them. When I joined the beginner’s class in August and told them I was training to run the Everest Marathon, I think they thought I was crazy. But they always encouraged me to go for my goal and said they’d help me get there, and they have.
Are you pretty motivated or have there been many times when you’ve struggled to get out for a run?
I’m not going to lie, a long winter of dark, wet, and painful training sessions have not been easy and sometimes motivation to get out and run has been at an all-time low. However, having an end goal really does give you that drive to get out there and power though.
You finished your first marathon, the London Marathon, in April – woohoo! How did that go?
I was so pleased to complete the first of the 7 marathons in London. I learned so much about my body and how it feels to cover 26.2 miles. The race was an incredible experience, both enjoyable and painful. The atmosphere was electric and the scale of London was so much bigger than I’d ever imagined. I had some real low points on the way around – my legs cramped up at 16 miles and didn’t get any better until after I’d crossed the finish line. My heart and lungs felt 100% the whole time, but the leg pain hit my morale. That was until I finished and felt the weight of the medal around my neck.
You’ve just done the Everest Marathon, which is the highest trail race in the world. How was it?
It was incomparable to London, having taken 14 days just to trek to the start line, all the while having to acclimatize to the thin air and dropping temperatures. Pre-marathon regimes usually follow a strict routine of tapering, rest and nutrition, none of which was possible for Everest, the hardest of the races. Instead, for the last few nights before race day I managed around 3 hours of sleep each night, and spent two nights at Everest Base Camp itself, on the ever-moving glacier, which cracks and groans.
Did the altitude make running any different?
Yes, it made running at the beginning of the race (at just over 5,300m) almost impossible. I was unable to catch my breath so I fast-pace walked instead, which made not only passing over the terrain safer but helped keep my heart rate under control. As we got lower it became easier to open up for short bursts until I got to around 4,000m which felt pretty much like running at sea level.
What were the highs and lows of running the Everest Marathon?
Of course crossing the finish line was incredible. But there were a lot of highs on the journey to Base Camp, too. It was amazing to be amongst those Himalayan giants, craning my neck at the highest peaks on earth. On the final stretch before the finish line, the trail opened up to a wide, sandy track. I really hit my groove, found a new energy and knew I was going to make it. I found a fast pace, started to overtake others and began to cry as I knew I was going to finish this race and see Rhys at the line.
As for challenging, I’d forgotten a big climb to Tengboche Monastery, after which came the steepest descent of the course. We crossed one of the famous suspension bridges over the white water river, before going straight in to the longest climb, gaining roughly the same height as climbing Snowdon. It was nothing short of punishing! Mentally the lowest point was a loop around the half-way mark, which is necessary to make the course an exact marathon. It just seemed to go on forever but I knew that once I was back on the main trail I’d broken the back of the race.
What did you wear to run Everest?
On the morning of the race it was around -10c before sunrise so it was important to keep my muscles warm for the first part. I wore a long-sleeve Inov-8 base layer with an Inov-8 thermo shell jacket over the top and my race t-shirt on top of that. It was also pretty cold and harsh on my hands so I wore Inov-8 Mitts.
As I got lower, I started to get warm and then I took my thermo shell off. As it’s super-lightweight, I was able to place it in my running vest without an issues.
Have you any tips for people thinking of signing up to the Everest Marathon?
Got for it, it’s an experience of a lifetime! But don’t think of it like a normal marathon; there will be times when you can’t run, maybe even barely walk… think of it as an adventure race. The whole journey of getting to Base Camp adds to the adventure of the Everest Marathon and sometimes it’s just really tough, but it’s 100% worth it when you cross the finish line!
How is your body coping so far with the marathons and training?
So far, so good. I’ve learnt how to listen to my body and to make sure that I can push it when it has to be pushed, but also rest it when it needs to recover from what I’m putting it through. After all, I’m still very new to this so my muscles haven’t yet properly developed to ‘runner’s muscles’, which means I could give myself an injury easily if I don’t know the limits.
How’ve you been fuelling your marathons so far?
Nutrition is something which I’m trying to get better with. Not only is marathon training about running, but it’s all about what you put in your body to fuel it and this is all a learning curve for me. I only have one type of energy supplement and that’s a Cliff Bar Shot Blok. They’re the only thing that I can stomach without making me feel sick during a race. I usually have some potato rosti and bacon a few hours prior to a race with an electrolyte drink and then after a run, salty nuts and crisps.
Are you following a running programme or freestyling it?
In the run up to London I went online and from a number of sample marathon training plans, I designed my own. I mean, how are you able to follow one that doesn’t take things in your life into account? That is a recipe for failure. So I created my own which worked around my routine with gym days, short runs, long runs, hill sessions, trail sessions and pilates. The running club also do a great programme of different sessions on how to run up and downhill, tempo and also pace-setting, which I’ve found extremely helpful.
Do you incorporate any strength work into your training?
Yes, I go to the gym and spend short bursts working on different muscle groups there. I also try to find time during the day to roll-out the mat at home and follow an online pilates/core workout program which has been amazing for building up a great core strength – even a couple of abs!
When you’re not running a marathon, what does a typical week of training look like for you?
When I’m not tapering for a marathon or resting from just doing one, then a typical week will have 3 short run days, 2 gym days, 3 core strength days and Sunday is my long run day.
You’re doing the Antarctic marathon next February when the average windchill will be -20! Are you doing anything to prepare for running in such extreme temperatures?
This winter just passed I did do some training whilst we were skiing in Canada and France. I found a nice 5k circuit which I used to get used to running on ice and snow.
Is there a marathon you’re particularly looking forward to? And which do you think will be the most challenging?
That’s a difficult question because all the marathons are so different and challenging in their own right. I think I’m most looking forward to running the Patagonia marathon because the scenery is truly breathtaking, however I am well aware that this may actually be one of the most challenging marathons too with such harsh climates.
Do you use a watch or app to log your runs?
I use a Suunto Spartan watch, which not only can be used for running but a number of different sports. It’s useful for me to be able to use on mountain races too because it has GPS navigation and an altimeter.
What kit do you swear by for your training and marathons?
When your feet are happy, that’s half of the battle. I always make sure I change my footwear to match the terrain I’m going to be running on. I also make sure that I switch my Superfeet insoles and have the best-fitting socks.
What’s your advice to anyone who doesn’t run and thinks they’d never manage a marathon?
If I can do it, then you can do it! Everyone has it in them to run a marathon, just be patient with yourself, commit to training and you will see yourself progress. Remember that it’s just for you, and concentrate on getting to the finish line, not on your finishing time.
You’re raising money for two charities, can you tell us about them?
Yes it’s hugely important to me that alongside the personal fulfilment of these marathons that I’m also using it as a great way to raise money for two worthy charities, The Jonny Wilkinson Foundation and The Scout Association.
The Jonny Wilkinson Foundation is very close to heart, as I really wanted to support a mental health charity. My dad spent his life helping and saving others, as he was a paramedic. Sadly, he suffered with mental health issues, and took his own life 16 years ago. As a family we had some very difficult times. The fact that charities like the Jonny Wilkinson Foundation provide support for those at their darkest hour, is exactly the support that’s needed. If only my dad had found someone to talk to, and society had recognised that mental health needs professional treatment just like physical health.
I’ve been involved with the Scout Association since I met my husband, Rhys. He was a Beaver, Cub and Scout, and later a Scout leader. What I love about the Scouts is that it gives young people of all backgrounds the chance to experience the great outdoors and have good, honest fun, whilst learning important life skills along the way. The Scouts helped Rhys hugely when he was undertaking a personal challenge to climb Mt Everest and the 7 summits (highest mountain on each continent). Scout expeditions and training gave him not only the skills to climb the biggest mountains, but also the confidence, and he has always talked fondly of the many people in Scouting who influenced him. The local community is heavily focused around the Scouts and they have always been hugely supportive. In fact, the local leaders even saved our wedding day when they stepped in to run our catering and entertainment!
I Can Run 7 is an epic challenge and must be expensive – have you got sponsors who support you with the cost?
Yes, it is an expensive undertaking as well as a physical one. I have had one very generous sponsor who has given me a third of the costs to get the project going. I am now appealing for more to help underwrite the costs of the challenge so I can continue to run and raise money for my two chosen charities.
I’m also an ambassador for Ellis Brigham Mountain Sports.
Good luck Laura!
You can follow Laura’s ICANRUN7 challenge and epic marathon adventures on www.instagram.com/explaura_, www.facebook.com/icanrun7 and www.twitter.com/icanrun7 or visit Laura’s website, www.icanrun7.com for more information.