Adventure athlete Emma Timmis is no stranger to endurance feats, having been the first woman to run the 1500 mile length of South Africa’s Freedom Trail – the equivalent of running 57 marathons in 57 days (!) She’s also cycled 2000km from Manchester to the Dolomites in Italy on a touring bike, and run 2452 miles across Africa. Right now, however, the 33-year-old is more than 5705km into her challenge to ride an ElliptiGO (a seat-less elliptical bike) 8000km across Australia, solo and self-supported. With only a quarter of her journey left, she’s already broken the distance record.
I caught up with Emma on the phone the day before she left for Australia to chat adventures (she’s had a few), endurance and ultra running.
Most of your challenges are endurance based. Did you have a sporty childhood?
I started running at a young age, but not super-long distances. I used to do 800m and 1500m. I was never really very good at it [laughs]. And when I was about 12 or so, my PE teacher pulled me over at the end of class – I thought I was in trouble – and he said, ‘I think you might have some natural talent. Would you like to go and join the local running club?’ At that point I was hanging out with my mates, smoking cigarettes and just causing chaos at the weekend, so I just ignored her and didn’t do anything about it. And then it was probably a year later that I thought: ‘I really don’t want to be doing what I’m doing with my life. I want to be a bit healthier.’
I then remembered what my teacher had said and I went and joined an athletics club. Doing that, and having some kind of motivation and drive towards something, I think that was the thing that changed my life and meant I didn’t go down the route of smoking and drinking.
How old were you when you joined a running club – and did you compete?
I was 12/13 years old. I did compete, but I was always rubbish. I must have been interested in doing it because I managed to stick with it when I think most people would have left! I only knew track and field when it came to running; I didn’t know there were other things that you could do – I guess I knew there were marathons, which were for adults and really long distance freaks, and then track and field. So I thought I slotted into that section, but obviously I didn’t because I was terrible at it! And then it was only later on in life that I realised, ‘Oh my god, people do these crazy things like running across countries and things.’
And then you did a crazy run 1500 miles across South Africa yourself!
Yeah… I didn’t even know that people did that kind of thing when I did it!
How did the idea to run the Freedom Trail come about?
In 2010/11, when I was working as an RSPCA inspector, I wanted to raise some money for the RSPCA and had an idea about doing some kind of big challenge somewhere abroad. And I saw that Eddie Izzard was doing some number of marathons (43 marathons in 51 days), and he was doing that whilst I was having these ideas of wanting to do something for the RSPCA. I thought he started off being not very fit and if someone can do something like that with no fitness, well I go to a running club now, so…
Were you running long distances at the time?
I wasn’t even doing 6 miles. I used to think 6 miles was the longest distance – I really struggled to do 6 miles! I’d done two half-marathons, one over ten years beforehand and the other probably four years before. But that was it. This was still at the time when I though 6 miles was a really long way.
So you decided on running the Freedom Trail in South Africa?
The Freedom Trail is actually a mountain bike route from Durban to Cape Town – no woman had actually ran it before. And actually only one person had run it, and that was the guy that founded the mountain bike route. He ran it to establish the route. Quite a funny way to do it – you’d have thought he’d do it on a bike to establish the bike route, but he ran it. I contacted him to ask whether it was possible to run the route and he said, ‘Yeah, actually I ran it’ and that’s the only reason I knew it was achievable
How did you go from thinking 6 miles was a ‘long run’ to preparing to run 1500 miles?
So literally as soon as I had found this route and had gone ‘Oh my god, I’m going to do this!’ my mental idea of what it was like to run long distance instantly changed. It was really weird. As I said, at the time I thought that six miles was a long way. Then I thought, ‘I’ve just committed myself to running 1500 miles, so I’ll have to change my attitude’. So I decided to go for a run that was 7 miles – so further than the 6 miles that I thought was a ‘long’ way – but at a really slow pace. And, I think because I’d come from that track and field background where everything you do is really fast, it was like an epiphany. I was just like, ‘I can run 7 miles, it’s easy, I just run it slower! THIS is how these long distance runners do it, they just do it slower.
So literally my mind just changed from then on. That was probably a year before my South Africa run, so I had a year’s worth of training – just generally building up my mileage, spending more time on my feet, getting used to the distances, because it was alien to me. So, very, very basic training – nothing complicated.
What was the furthest distance you’d run before the 57 marathons in 57 days?
So, the running club I was with was the South Cheshire Harriers and they had an event which they’d broken down into a relay – I think it was around 36 miles. But I decided to do the whole thing. And I probably wasn’t prepared enough to do 36 miles, but I did. The funniest thing about it was that I went out and got absolutely steaming drunk, got home about 4am in the morning, woke up at 7am and went out to do this 36 miles. And I was so hungover the only thing I could consume was a banana. For the whole 36 miles.
I think the first half of it was super-easy because I was drunk – this is not the kind of thing you should tell people for inspiration! – so the first half just disappeared. Then I started to get hungover and was like ‘I just want it to end!’ and I felt so rough that I could only eat the banana.
I think someone ran with me for a bit and took my mind off how I was feeling. But because I was in such a bad state when I ran that, I just knew it was possible [for me to run that distance]. That was probably the summer or spring and then I headed out to South Africa for the run in October.
Did you run the Freedom Trail alone?
No, my brother was there as support team on the bike. He carried all our kit. Quite laughable, but it just about worked! It took us 57 days, but I had 11 days off, so I ran around 30-miles a day so I could have some days off.
How tough did you find the challenge of running 30-miles a day having never done any consecutive ultras before?
When you’re working full-time and training, planning and preparation is just so exhausting that when you get out to the country and all you have to do is run, it’s actually really nice and really quite simple. You feel so much more relaxed. Even though, physically, it’s demanding on your body, mentally it’s nice that you’re not having to do everything else as well, including leading a normal life – like doing your laundry, doing your housework. Once you’re away from that, I find it so much easier. But I’m quite a physical person so I enjoy having the simplicity of: all you have to do today is wake-up, eat, pack up your tent and run, then go to sleep! Very, very simple and I quite like that.
You’ve also done other incredible challenges – have you always been adventurous or did your first challenge whet your appetite for adventure?
I didn’t have a particularly adventurous upbringing. I would say I had a very normal upbringing. I left home and did the normal thing of take a gap year and then plan to go to university. I actually realised that I don’t need to go to university but I took the gap year and went travelling around Asia and Australia, so I always had that love of travel. But I soon realised that I was going away travelling and then coming back and trying to get fit and healthy and it was a constant cycle; go away, travel, eat bad food, socialise, come back and having to get fit again. Then I thought, well, surely there’s a way that the two – the fitness side and the travel side – can be combined? And I think that’s where a lot of these desires to have adventure have come from.
Do you feel like you can still push your body’s endurance limit further?
Yes, definitely. That’s something that I’ve really started to contemplate a lot over the past year or 6 months, because I’ve not particularly looked after my diet, I’ve done a lot of drinking, but I’ve still managed to do these adventures and challenges. Over the last year or so, especially getting older and thinking I need to start taking care of my body, I’ve started controlling my diet a bit more and drinking less. It definitely has me thinking: well, if I can control all of those factors, and train properly, then yeah, there’s a lot more in me.
And I’ve started racing as well. I started doing marathons and ultra marathons – ones which are within my budget. They’re so expensive, so I have to pick and choose based on price!
Where did the idea to ElliptiGO 1800km across Australia come from?
When the earthquakes in Nepal happened in 2015, adventurer Squash Falconer did some fundraising and she had one of those giant Toblerones – I realise this story is going off on a tangent! – which she divided up and said, ‘Whoever donates some money to the charity I will personally deliver this chocolate Toblerone to your house.’ So I donated. She came round to my house on the ElliptiGO. I was like, Oh my god that’s amazing, I need to have a go! I was terrible. I couldn’t even turn a corner – I had to get off and walk it round. Then my mum got on and she was brilliant.
I was terrible on the ElliptiGO but I just thought it was really great fun. And the double purpose of the ElliptiGO is that it’s ideal for injured runners, so with my running increasing to marathons and ultras, I was thinking it would be fun to go on the ElliptiGO and still train all my running muscles. And yeah, ideas went from there. And I decided I was going to ride one across Australia.
What’s it like riding an ElliptiGO – is it similar to riding a bike?
It’s quite different, balance-wise, to being on a bike because you have to use your whole body. It definitely uses your core a lot more than you would ever imagine. It’s got bicycle handlebars, but your arms are supposed to stay still. However, when I first got on I was pulling it with my arms loads, purely because I wasn’t using my core how you’re supposed to. It uses your arms quite a bit to begin with, but it shouldn’t do! I started like anyone who is new to a sport – new to cycling, new to running – and went for a short ride to start with to get used to the balance.
Did you buy an ElliptiGO to train on?
No, so I was originally hoping I’d be able to find some sponsorship and would be able to buy one with the sponsorship money, but no. As with all of my adventures, I’ve not managed to get any sponsorship. But I managed to speak to the people who run ElliptiGO, and ElliptiGO in the UK let me borrow one for a few months to train on, which was amazing. And then ElliptiGO in Australia have let me borrow one for when I’m over there. So I haven’t had to pay for anything with the ElliptiGO, and they’ve been really supportive. And yeah, they obviously provided one for the journey, which is great.
What’s the furthest you’ve ridden the ElliptiGO in a day?
I started by going on small rides, learning to get my balance, then I put the trailer on the back – I borrowed Squash’s trailer for a bit. So I added that with a small amount of weight in it, did small rides again and built up the weight in the trainer. Then, after a couple of weeks, I decided to ride over to my friend’s on the other side of the Peak District, so that was 75 kilometres of undulating road. I did that with a full trailer so it’s given me an idea of how much weight I’ll be carrying and how it’s going to feel.
How much will the trailer weigh during your 8000km?
It depends on the gaps between the towns and how much food and water I’ll be carrying. Towards the end of my trip, there are a lot of towns and big cities so I’ll probably only be carrying a few days’ food and water at that time. But at the beginning of my journey there’ll be four or five days between towns, possibly even up to a week, so obviously being Australia that’s a lot of water I’m going to have to carry in the trailer. And a lot of food.
What kind of food will you be packing?
A lot of this will again be based on how long I’ve got between towns – I like to eat lots of fresh fruit and veg, but if it’s four days between stops and 30-degree heat I can’t really keep anything nice and fresh in the trailer. So a lot of it’s going to be dehydrated stuff which is all quite boring, but it’s got calories and that’s what I need! My latest favourite thing is couscous. I’ve got a stove that runs off petrol so I can just fill it up at petrol stations.
Will the trailer include your tent?
Yeah, I’ll be wild camping for most of it.
And you’re travelling solo and unsupported throughout the challenge?
Apart from the fact that now and then people might come and ride their bikes with me. Apart from that, it’s all me by myself and I’m happy that way. But when people invite me to stay at their house, I’ll take them up on it!
You’re basing your schedule on covering 100km a day on the ElliptiGO, right?
As an estimate. Based on my 75km undulating ride to my friend’s house that took me five hours. I kind of thought, it’s going to be flatter in Australia and my fitness hopefully will improve, so hopefully I’ll be able to do 100km in 6 hours, maximum – hopefully! Once I’ve got used to everything!
I kind of estimated it on average of 100km a day because there’s going to be times when I want to stop in a town as there might be an opportunity to do things for the charity or some talks in school. So I might do 150km one day, then take one day off, then do 150km the next. So that’s kind of how I’m looking at it. It’s all quite flexible, but averaging out 100km a day, which I think is doable.
What will your talks at schools be about?
I plan on stopping at schools along the way to talk to them and try to inspire them to stick with sport. So many young people, girls especially, but some boys too, end up leaving sports between the age of 12-15 due to body confidence, not feeling like they fit it, pressure from their peers and all that kind of stuff and I really want to try and make a difference in that area.
Will you try and get your rides done early before it gets hot?
Exactly like you said, get up early and get most of it done before the middle of the day when it’s hotter, just to avoid the things like sunburn and dehydration. I’m not really a morning person at all, but when I’m on expeditions and adventures, I do try and get up early and get everything done as early as I can.
That’s the plan. But if I stay at someone’s house and they want to make me a cooked breakfast…! I’m not going to turn down bacon and eggs! [Laughs]
Will you be using a GPS to navigate your Australia journey?
It all sounds so ridiculous but I’ve just got a map which has Australia on a piece of paper! I’m basically going to try and follow that as much as I can. It’s more difficult going through the little towns where there are higgledy piggledy roads, so for that I might have to put Google Maps on. So I can use that as my GPS, but I’m going to try and avoid it – I don’t really like travelling that way. I’ll probably be on the same road for 100km and then turn on to another road for 100km!
You’re pretty used to navigating by yourself though, having done plenty of solo adventures?
Yeah. I do enjoy it. I’m working towards getting my Mountain Leader qualification so I quite enjoy it, navigating maps and all that kind of geekery – I love it. I quite enjoy having that time and space to myself. I think, generally, in society nowadays we spend a lot of time surrounded by people and TVs and radios and noise and constant interaction, and I quite like being alone and switching off a bit.
What about the quite isolated areas you’re travelling through – will that worry you at all?
I do quite enjoy that. I think coming from the perspective of, ‘I’m not there right now’, it’s what I’m looking forward to. That might change when I’m there. Generally, I quite like that. And I’ve done things by myself, and I’ve enjoyed that. But that’s time alone knowing that in the future you will be with people again. Might be different if it was forever!
Do you need specific footwear for the ElliptiGO? Will trainers wear out like in running?
People who’ve done quite a lot on the ElliptiGO say your shoes will not wear out like they do when you’re running. The advice I’ve been given was to get a shoe that has a rounded toe, because the area your foot sits in has a rounded shape to it, and a flat sole to the shoe. I’m used to running in trail running shoes and I’d noticed that when it’s raining and I wore them on the ElliptiGO, they started slipping around. I’ve been very lucky that KEEN have sent me a nice pair of sandals for when I’m on the ElliptiGO – lovely sandals with a flat bottom and a rounded toe, so I’m going to use them. Haven’t tried them out, but I hope they’re going to be perfect!
Obviously it’s going to be hot in Australia. What about suncream – any brands you swear by?
That’s on my shopping list for tomorrow! Boots do a suntan lotion called Soltan Once, which you put on once a day. I used that running across Africa and never got burnt, except for the day I forgot to put it on. Literally put it on once a day, even though the sweat and everything [it worked].
Do you have any sponsors supporting your ElliptiGO challenge?
No. whenever I do things for charity, I like to get people to sponsor or donate to the charity direct. And I’ve never been lucky enough to find anyone to pay for any of my adventures! I just don’t know how they do it, get sponsorship. You have to deal with rejection, rejection, all the time.
5% of media coverage of sport is given to women, and 0.5% sponsorship. It’s incredible.
Can you tell me about One Girl, the charity you’re supporting?
Long before the ElliptiGO idea came about, I really wanted to do work supporting Africa. I’ve spent a lot of time in Africa and I’ve seen the struggles – which are a whole different level to the struggles in the developed world – so I really wanted to do something to help Africa. And I’m really interested in supporting women and girls, because women and girls I think get left behind a lot, especially in sport and with sponsorship. We’re just not getting the support and sponsorship we deserve – we should be getting the same as men and we’re just not. I’m always passionate about those things and I wanted to find a charity that works with women in Africa and came across One Girl.
So One Girl has got four different projects, but essentially they’re all working towards education for girls in Uganda and Sierra Leone. The projects I’ve looked into are just amazing, really holistic projects. One of them is about trying to teach the women in Uganda and Sierra Leone about business so they can have their own businesses, feel empowered and make their own money. One Girl realised that women are not going to work or to school when they have their period because of the embarrassment – they just didn’t have sanitary items, and what there was, wasn’t affordable. So they’ve found these amazing sanitary towels that are environmentally friendly – you can bury them in the ground and they will biodegrade. They’ve found a company to make them and they’re empowering women to set up their own sanitary towel company in Uganda and Sierra Leone, where they’re selling them at an affordable price so girls can go to school.
The more I looked at this charity, the more I thought that this was what I believe in. And if I’m going to fundraise for a charity it has to be one that I’m passionate about.
* You can raise money for One Girl via Emma’s Gofundraise page: https://personalchallenge.gofundraise.com.au/page/EmmaTimmis *
You can follow Emma’s ElliptiGO challenge via her social media accounts: www.instagram.com/emma.timmis , www.twitter.com/runemma and www.facebook.com/missemmatimmis or by visiting Emma’s website: www.emmatimmis.com