Ultra-runner, surfer, snowboarder, dancer, BBC 2 Special Forces: Ultimate Hell Week contestant – Sarah Thomson is a sporting all-rounder, world record holder and former martial arts gold medallist.
Here, Sarah chats Hell Week beastings, ultra-running and how, for her, it all starts in the pain cave.
Special Forces: Ultimate Hell Week – you came second! How was it?
Hell Week was literally the best two weeks of my life. I have never been so on edge, driven, exhausted, pushed and just genuinely desperate to reach the end of something! The experience as a whole was mind-blowingly amazing! It takes a certain person to want to put themselves through that kind of experience, and the most valuable part of it was the inspiration I walked away with from the people I shared the experience with. There were so many points where I felt broken, but there was never a second I even thought about quitting. I spent the whole time in fear of being sent home and I knew that if I got to the final day, then I would be able to walk away content.
What did you find most challenging about your Hell Week experience?
The biggest challenge was probably the sleep deprivation and the heat. I’m quite happy to get physically beasted and starved, but the sleep deprivation just brings a whole new level of hard … and when all these are combined with an average temperature of 40-degrees Celsius everyday, you’re in for a whole world of pain!
How did you physically prepare for the show?
Physical prep for the show was hard! It’s really difficult to prepare for something when you have NO idea what they will throw at you. I went to South Africa (where the show was filmed) straight from four months of snowboarding in Canada. The temperature difference from -20-degrees to 40+ heat was savage!
For the four month lead-up, I was out running on the cross-country ski tracks, snowboarding every day and getting in the gym in the evenings. I did a lot of sleep disruption with physical training sessions in the night too, to get used to springing into action. I tried to put myself through mentally draining tasks to build robustness. There were some nights I would run up and down the same 25-metre stretch of car park for 2 hours at 02:30am whilst listening to white noise.
Physically, I didn’t go into the show in the best shape I have been in, but the biggest part of the selection was the psychological side. I am extremely driven and stubborn and had no doubt that I would sooner break a leg and fall unconscious before quitting! Before heading to the snowy mountains, I got heavily involved in ultra-marathons. They are great preparation for anything because they are by far the toughest mental and physical challenge. If you can run an ultra, you can do anything!
I trained in water, snow and mountains so I think having diversity in endurance and strength helped also.
Speaking of ultras, you set a record when running the 870-mile Wales Coast Path – what was that challenge like?
After Ultimate Hell Week I set out to run the Wales Coast Path – 870-miles with 60lb of kit on my back, solo and self-supported. I did 36 miles a day and covered 97,869ft of elevation to set a new world record of 23 days, breaking the record at the time by 16 days.
The Wales Coast Path (Llywbr Arfordir Cymru) runs from Chester to Chepstow and in addition to its 870-mile length it also rises and falls by 95,781 feet – the equivalent of 33 marathons and climbing Kilimanjaro sixty times! I slept wherever I could to stay warm. I had a tent, but sometimes would curl up in hay on a farm or just cosy up in a bivi in a forest. I ate berries from the bushes and freeze-dried ration packs.
I was running to raise money for the charity ShelterBox and managed to raise around £4000 which was great. Thinking of them kept me going through the hard, tiring long days.
What is it you love about endurance sports?
I think the main thing I love is the community. The mutual respect every person has for each other. To compete an endurance event takes hours of training and willpower of rock. The hug you give to someone at the end of event is one of pure love and admiration, and the sense of achievement is massive.
How do you get through the pain cave during your ultras and endurance events?
The entrance to the pain cave is where it all gets started for me. I begin to feel alive when it gets tough. When things get tough on a long race, I use counting as a distraction method, inspirational speeches on my iPod or I just visualise finishing; it’s like a short film on replay!
There are a few inspirational YouTube clips that I watch almost every day, just so that when I’m on my last legs, I can watch the video in my head and pump myself back up.
I think humans are capable of some immensely incredible things and the thought of pushing myself more and more to see what I can manage to do in this life time excites me beyond words.
You’ve been a professional surfer. How did that come about?
I got into surfing from growing up by the sea. I stated teaching surfing when I was about 17 and got to travel to best places with the job. I surf-coached as a main job right up until I joined the RAF in January this year.
I was originally looking at getting back into the UK Pro Surf tour this year but with the current training schedule with work, it’s not going to be possible. I’ve got lots of trips planned to get back into the sea and surf to my heart’s content but I won’t be back onto comps until November 2017, looking to jump back on tour in 2018.
What are your top tips for beginner surfers?
Get in as much as you can! Whether the surf is awful or amazing, just get stuck in.
Watch surf films/clips, comps and try to learn from watching too. Get lessons. It’s so easy to pick up bad habits or spend months trying to figure out what can be taught to you in 2 hours!
Keep fit so that you can make the most of you time in the water – swim, skate, snowboard, paddle board, cardio work, weight training. Practise standing up in any environment using your towel as a surf board! The pop-up will become muscle memory.
You’ve been a pro surfer, podiumed in ultra-marathons, danced professionally and achieved gold in martial arts – which sporting achievements are you most proud of?
Achievements in different sports are valuable for different reasons, but I think gaining a place with Jasmin Vardimon’s apprentice dance company was my biggest achievement, because it was a complete shock to me! I had spent years watching the company in theatres across the UK and always dreamed of performing with them, but never in a million years thought it would be possible. When I saw the audition notice, I hadn’t danced for nearly 2 years and was up against people that had come straight from other professional companies or fulltime professional training. I have never crammed so much hard work into a short space of time to get to an audition-worthy standard. I still can’t believe I got to spend 9 months training and touring with them!
What does a typical week of training look like for you at the moment?
I’ve recently started a new career in the Royal Air Force and am at a base that doesn’t allow me to follow my usual outdoors training schedule, so this is different to normal, but it currently looks like this:
7am weighted run or longer free run.
Average 3-hours physical training at work (either sport or general fitness).
Lunchtime WOD – including a lift, a skill and some cardio e.g. clean and press, handstand walk and rowing.
Evening – CrossFit.
Friday – 7am – an hour of mobility work, sometimes dancing. Lunch – gentle bike work. Evening – rest.
Saturday – RACE DAY! Either ultra marathon, marathon or obstacle course race.
Sunday – Outdoors day – weighted march, surfing, mountain hiking or run if I’ve still got anything left in the legs!
When it comes to sports and fitness, do you set goals or are you pretty laidback?
That’s a good question. When people first meet me, they think I’m super laidback … In actual fact, I’m the complete opposite! I constantly have goals, without them I’d be lost. I’m super-strict when it comes to training and I can become really short-tempered and twitchy if my schedule gets knocked off track!
I can’t imagine life without goals. They keep me going and striving for achievements.
I have a lot of big goals set for the rest of 2017, but you’ll have to follow me online to find out what they are…for now they are kept secret! My two constant goals are to continue to push myself and to inspire people in whatever way helps. To inspire to be positive, strive for happiness, take on a challenge, to travel, to dream, anything!
Tell us about why ShelfterBox is a charity you support?
In 2016 I went to ShelterBox HQ and joined their team of volunteers by fundraising and raising awareness. Whilst I was there I got a real insight into what they do, where they work and the way their shelter and aid delivery works from start to finish.
I loved how much thought went into villages building broken homes and lives; giving local communities and tribes the tools, materials and guidance they needed to put their lives back together after a disaster, without having to relocate them.
I hope to start up my next fundraising project and continue to learn about and help with the work they do.
So what’s next? I’ve seen you recently did obstacle course race, Born Survivor…
I’ve really got into CrossFit, looking to get into competitions commencing September. In terms of OCR, it’s become a bit of a new obsession and I have just qualified for the European and World Championships for the world-renowned Spartan Race obstacle course racing series.
What are your favourite pieces of kit for training and events?
Salomon everything pretty much! [Laughs]