I first met Anna last year when she turned up at The Ox Epic (a weekend of 82 miles of hills in Dorset), and casually came second lady, having very little ultra experience. I was blown away by her attitude, her natural ability and her wonderful face. I so desperately wanted her to some on this trip and am really excited she jumped on board.
“I’ve had a pretty tough year to be honest, so for me this coming year is about maxing out on fitness and endurance experiences.” Says Anna. “In July my Mum passed away after a 4 year battle with ovarian cancer. She’d been fighting it right up until the end and I definitely learnt a thing or two from her about toughness and resilience, but it’s been hard. Whilst all this was going on I also found out a year ago that I carry the BRCA2 mutation. This means I’ve got a higher than average risk of developing certain cancers with the biggest risks being breast and ovarian. There are 3 ways to deal with this – ignore it and pretend it never happened (probably not ideal), just go for annual monitoring scans for the rest of my life and deal with the cancer when it crops up, or go the full ‘Angelina Jolie’ and have surgery to reduce my risk. I’ve been working in cancer for over 10 years and seen my Mum fighting it for 4 - so it’s safe to say I know what’s involved – and I don’t particularly want to wait for it to happen. I’m planning on the more aggressive option and strangely, the thing that has bothered me most about this decision, is how it will affect my exercise and fitness after surgery. I know it will be possible to run and exercise again, but what I don’t know is how long it will take me to recover and how different it will be. I don’t want to leave these experiences like Marathon de Sables or running the Hebrides until after surgery when I’ll have to spend more time re-building my fitness and getting used to the ‘new’ me. I’m saying yes to as many exciting opportunities as I can right now!”
Yeah. Read that again. This is pretty heavy stuff. This is why I love Anna. Instead of falling into a pity hole, she is turning the whole situation around and making it work for her. And that is just amazing.
Anna explains “I’m trying to use these runs and challenges that I’m doing over this 12 month period, not only for a positive focus for me, but as a way to raise money in my Mum’s memory. I’m fundraising for the Eve Appeal who fund research into early detection of gynae cancers which due to the nature of this group of diseases are often diagnosed too late. It can’t help her but it will hopefully help other women. Aside from this I love Scotland, the outdoors and travel and I love to travel overland under my own power. I’ve done a few point to point cycle trips in Europe and I just think it’s the best way to see a place when you have time to appreciate it, rather than zooming past on a train or in a car. I think traversing the Hebrides by foot is going to be an amazing way to experience the Islands – and making that running not hiking is just an added challenge!”
Whilst not being a hugely experienced ultra runner, Anna has some pretty cool stuff under her belt. “I’ve run 6 road marathons over the last 10 years or so, but have only dabbled with trail and ultra distance in the last year” she says. “So far I’ve completed a 50 miler, a 100km and a 50km since May. The 50 miler weekend was the closest I’ve got to a multi-day as it was The Ox Epic challenge so it ended up being 120km in less than 2 days – I was pretty tired by the end! (Editors note – SHE CAME SECOND LADY!) I’m quite used to doing a lot of back to back days of 10-20km, but I’ve never done a proper multi-day trip like this with such large distances.”
Previously, Anna has never really thought of herself and an endurance runner. Like most people, these type of challenges were relegated to the ‘in your dreams/maybe later’ area of her brain.
“I’ve never really considered something like this as something I could do. I always read adventurers blogs or listened to their podcasts and really wanted to be living their lives but somehow didn’t see how to make the transition. I’ve mainly gone for active holidays rather than actual adventures like this. I think the BRCA result has made me realise life is, or can be, short and I need to make the most of my health and fitness right now rather than waiting around for the stars to align.”
Anna might not like me saying this, but she defo has a naturally competitive streak in her (possibly from her rowing days – did I mention she was a championship rower as well??) and I think it’s that streak which powers her through some of the bigger challenges.
“I’ve always loved a challenge” she says. “There is something very satisfying about getting yourself from A to B under your own steam and I love to push myself to do things I didn’t think I was capable of. Hopefully it will also give me more confidence when I tackle MdS (in 2020). Knowing that I’ve completed a similar distance over fewer days will definitely help.”
As a former competitive rower, Anna understands the importance of training her brain as well as her body. It’s just applying that to running for unknown times and s=distance that may be a problem.
“I find physical training easier but I think mental training is equally important. It’s something I haven’t done a lot of since my rowing days - we used to visualise races and work on psychology which made a massive difference to our racing. I’m not really sure how to transfer that to running – it’s something I need to work on. I’d like to think I can make the mental challenges less by getting my physical fitness up, but I’m pretty sure there are going to be some dark (and cold and wet) places I need to talk myself out of in the Hebrides!”
“If I can break down what I need to do into manageable chunks – aim for landmarks or distance targets, it will help. One of the things I find really difficult at the moment is the idea I’ll never get to share these experiences with my Mum. My Dad recently reminded me of the time she was jumping up and down on the side of the lake watching me race the Commonwealths and I think I’m going to try and use that mental image for future tough times as I know she’d be as proud of me as he is.”
When it comes to women taking on endurance challenges like this, Anna, like the rest of us, wishes more of them would come forward to take on the challenge.
“I don’t think a lot of the women I know, other than the rowers, would even begin to think they were capable of something like this. Anyone who has functioning limbs can do this if they put their minds to it and don’t mind a bit of type 2 fun. I’m definitely not a natural runner and I’m sure my technique is appalling, but I’ve built up the amount I run over a significant period of time and can now cope with fairly long distances and get a massive sense of achievement for doing so. If you want it enough, you can make it happen.”
So there you have it. Wonder woman Anna – the very epitome of triumph in the face of adversity. I have such respect for this kind of attitude, and whilst I am not qualified to comment on it at all, I think what she’s doing is immensely brave and shows huge strength of character. Pretty inspiring, right? It’s also good to know that even Anna has her insecurities about the challenge ahead.
“I really am worried about failure” Anna admits. “I will be so disappointed if I don’t manage to complete the distance. I know there are a load of factors that could mean we don’t manage to do the whole thing – that’s the whole point about being test pilots – but I’m worried about the negative spiral I might fall into if it goes wrong. I have previously suffered pretty badly with post-adventure blues, but this time I need to be able to pick myself up pretty quickly and get back on training for MdS. Hopefully - barring any injury disasters this will be enough of a positive focus to keep me going once we come back from the Hebrides.”
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