Photo: Martin Paldan
Mimi Anderson is an ultra-running phenomenon. Her collection of ultra achievements is too long to list, but includes winning outright the notorious 6633 Arctic Ultra and setting a course record that still stands; setting a world record for running John O’Groats to Lands End (838 miles), and completing the Double Badwater – an epic 292-mile run in Death Valley. Wow.
What makes it all the more incredible is that Mimi only began running at the age of 36. Now 55, the grandmother is a 3x record holder and last year ran 2,217.2 miles across America in 40 days before injury forced her to retire short of her 2850 mile target.
In the first of a two-part Q&A, Mimi chats about her running journey and her attempt to run across America. Check back on Friday for part two!
You didn’t find running until your late thirties. What started this incredible journey?
My journey into running began quite simply because I wanted thinner legs! How vain is that? I remember someone telling me that the best way to get good legs was to take up running so that’s what I did.
Can you remember your first run, aged 36?
Oh, I can definitely remember my first run as if it was yesterday. I was fairly fit as I did a variety of classes at my local gym, but had always avoided the treadmill as I was embarrassed that the other people there would watch me make a complete fool of myself. The desire to have thin legs obviously outweighed any embarrassment I might have felt running on the treadmill, but I did do my first session at the quietest time of the day, just to make sure. Tentatively, I pressed the start button on the treadmill until I was walking, then increased the pace to a gentle jog; the jog lasted for about 30 seconds before I had to walk as I simply couldn’t breathe. My first goal was to be able to run a mile without stopping and after weeks of huffing and puffing on the treadmill, I eventually achieved this. Not content with just being able to run for a mile, I set another goal of running three miles. It was only after I conquered goal number two that I considered myself a runner!
You entered the Marathon des Sables* when the furthest you’d previously run was 13 miles. Was this a turning point for you?
Taking part in the MdS was a massive turning point for me. I only entered it as it sounded like such a fantastic adventure and so completely different to my normal life at home, looking after three children and my husband, that I knew I had to do it.
[*The Marathon des Sables is a 6-day ultra-running event covering 251km across the Sahara Desert]
At the end of the third very hot day, I took myself off to one of the medical tents to sort my feet out before going back to our tent. Then I lay down to wait for my teammate, but when she tried to wake me up I struggled to even open my eyes; all I wanted to do was sleep. The medics took me to the medical tent that resembled something out of a war zone. I was given five bags of intravenous drip in order to revive me; I was severely dehydrated as I hadn’t been able to keep much food or fluids inside me since the race had started. After several hours I returned to my tent in order to try and get a few hours’ sleep before the longest stage of 54 miles the next day.
The next morning I felt better and was determined to finish. Unfortunately, I was having an incredibly tough time half-way through and seriously had doubts as to whether I was capable of doing this. As I lagged behind my teammates with tears rolling down my cheeks, wondering whether I had the strength to continue, one of them came up to me and said: “Just remember all those people at home who think you’re going to fail.” Although this sounds harsh, the words struck a chord with me and I knew it wasn’t an option to go home without a medal; I had to show everyone that I could do this. We did finish the race, where I had to be given more IV drip, but those words have stayed with me ever since. It showed me how strong, resilient and determined I am and although my body hit rock bottom, my mental strength shone through enabling me to continue.
Last year, injury forced you to withdraw from your run across America, 40 days and 2217 miles in. What were the highs of your attempt?
The TransCon last year was one hell of an adventure, even if I didn’t get the result I was after. There were many, many highs. I began running each morning at 5am which meant that for 40 days I had the most wonderful sunrises and whatever mood I was in that morning they always lift my spirits. Each State we ran through was different to the last. I remember in California just thinking how huge the sky was, it felt as though it was giving you a huge hug; Arizona had the stunning rock formations and Colorado showed off her beautiful colours, rainbows and mountains. Colorado also gave us tarantulas! Apparently it was their migration season so the males were crossing the busy roads in order to find the females who very sensibly stayed put waiting for the males to turn up – I would have been very happy being a female tarantula as the chances of survival were much higher!
On one of the days, as I was running down a very busy road towards the traffic, singing to myself, a large lorry stopped just in front of me. I thought he was going to get out and give me a talking to about running on the road, and he seemed oblivious to all the cars queuing behind him. As he got out of the lorry I stopped and he gave me a big hug, told me what a great job I was doing and handed me a cold can of drink, got back into his lorry and drove off. I smiled all the way back to the RV for my lunch break.
We met some amazing people who showed us such generosity in terms of letting us park on their land, providing us with food and turning up at 4.30am with coffee and breakfast for us all. Lots of people came and ran with me which was wonderful, and my crew were always there to give me a lift. They were great and I couldn’t have done the run without their support and encouragement.
What were the low points of your run across America?
The lows didn’t happen very often but when they did they were spectacular. An anonymous fellow drove 5 hours to come and check that I wasn’t cheating. He was driving extremely dangerously and at the time we were two women running alone on the road in the dark (my support crew were also two women). He would drive off at speed if the support car tried to talk to him and it was pretty scary. We eventually had to call the police because he wasn’t just a danger to us, but also to the other drivers.
Many of the roads had a lovely large hard shoulder to run on where I felt safe away from the fast-moving traffic, but on lots of them there was no shoulder, so I actually had to run on the road as close to the edge as I could. I always wore high-viz clothing, making me very visible to the on-coming traffic. On quite a few occasions I was nearly hit by cars which was terrifying, and the lorries would drive past so fast that they literally picked me up off my feet and dumped me somewhere else on the road. Running on these roads in the rain was horrid.
What kind of daily mileage were you running and how did were you feeling prior to your injury?
My average mileage over the 40 days was just under 55.5 miles per day. I had several days when I’d run 60+ miles but most days were around the 57 mile mark. Prior to the pain I was coping with the distances really well, getting in at the end of the day to have a shower or a wash, food, massage then at least 6 hours sleep which really helped.
Most days I was in good spirits. One of my crew would always run with me for a section in the morning which was lovely. Once they’d left I would run on my own until the last 5-10 mile section of the day when another crew member would come out and run with me again. On my own I would either run and enjoy the scenery or put one earphone in and sing along to music. My crew did catch me on one occasion dancing up a very long hill while singing at the top of my voice!
When I did have a low moment the crew knew me well enough and would leave me alone; I’d simply need to process the situation in peace then I would be OK again.
How bad did your injury get?
In the last two weeks of the run, with 2000 miles already completed and the constant impact on my knees having taken its toll, I used to dread waking up at around 2am to go to the loo. I eased down from the bed putting my right leg on the floor in an attempt to stand up but the pain caused me to cry out – shooting pain up and down my leg. Initially, I wasn’t able to put any pressure on the leg which meant walking was almost impossible, but I needed to get to the loo. After standing up, I swivelled my way to the sliding door that separated my room from the rest of the RV, using my bed as a prop, slid the door open, and with the support of the top bunk, managed to turn my body round so I could reach the shower room door. I hauled my way through the narrow opening gritting my teeth with the pain and, with a bit of a balancing act, I managed sit myself down on the loo.
As I sat there I held my head in my hands wondering how on earth I was going to get up in just over two hours and persuade my body to run fifty-something miles. Somehow, I found the strength to keep pushing, trying to ignore the pain in my right leg, but eventually it became so severe that I couldn’t cope with it any longer – the pain was beyond anything I’d ever experienced before. The lowest point was having to stop – there really was no choice unless I wanted to go home and have a knee replacement, and for months afterwards I felt totally ashamed of having failed.
How did your feet stand up to running 55 miles a day for 40 days?
Due to the extreme heat in the first two weeks, my feet did swell slightly (so did my crew’s feet)! This meant going into my ‘half-a-size-larger’ trainers much earlier than anticipated but thankfully my feet didn’t swell up any further.
For some reason I got two small blisters on the inside front of each foot. My physio sorted them out and before setting off each morning would put moleskin on them protecting them while they healed. They were the only two blisters I got during the whole trip.
Check back to read the second part of Mimi’s Q&A on Friday!