Published on December 8, 2014
Mimi Anderson Freedom Runners Interview
Mimi Anderson is undoubtedly one of the UK’s greatest ultra-distance runners; in addition to her many achievements (double- Badwater, double-Comrades, anyone?) she holds both the 840-mile John O’Groats to Lands End and 345-mile length of Ireland female world records – the first person to hold both world records simultaneously. In September Mimi and her ‘equally mad friend’, Samantha Gash, set out to conquer the 2,000+ km run along the Freedom Trail in South Africa in a mere 32 days, covering between 48 and 95.6k per day over technical terrain with a cumulative ascent of 37,000m. All, of course, for an incredibly good cause…
RunningMonkey talked to Mimi about the adventure, the charity, the experience, and Twiglets…
RunningMonkey: How did this incredible challenge come about?
Mimi Anderson: In 2010 I was looking for a big project to get my teeth into. There were a few suggestions but one in particular caught my interest, The Freedom Trail in South Africa, a route originally set up by David Waddilove as a mountain bike race called the Freedom Challenge with riders having 26 days to cover the tough course. The trail starts in Pietermaritzburg and finishes in Paarl just outside Cape Town, a distance of approximately 2,000km; it sounded like the challenge I had been looking for, but was I capable of running this sort of distance?
However the idea was put on the backburner for 2011 as I had my Double Badwater and Spartathlon to concentrate on, but once those races were over it was time to get back to the planning!
RunningMonkey: Tell us more about the charities, and why you were running for them…
Mimi Anderson: With the support of Save the Children Australia/South Africa the money raised will set up a social enterprise business in the Free State Province that will employ a dozen women to make re-usable feminine hygiene produces (sanitary pads to you and I!) these will then be sold on to the girls in the community at an affordable cost.
We discovered that 1 in 3 girls miss out on 4-5 days of school each month once they reach puberty simply because they are unable to afford to buy sanitary pads; instead they remain at home using old rags, rolled up news papers and sometimes nothing at all, eventually giving up on education altogether. The re-usable sanitary pads will enable the girls to remain and finish their education, empowering them to make choices about their futures.
Mimi Anderson: Although initially we didn’t know exactly what cause we were going to support, the route and the charity were definitely connected. Both Samantha and I knew from the off that we wanted to support South African girls/women living in rural communities and when we discovered the issues they faced trying to remain in education once they reached puberty, we knew this was something that people needed to be made aware of and we both wanted to help.
I feel that I’m privileged and lucky to be able to run the distances I do, so it’s important for me to give something back in some small way to others who need support by raising money and therefore awareness for a charity/cause. Freedom Runners was no different.
RunningMonkey: How did you come to be partnering Samantha Gash on this challenge?
Mimi Anderson: I spent a few months researching the route and putting together as much information as I could in an attempt to build up a picture of how tough this challenge was actually going to be. I began by chatting to various people who had cycled the trail and very quickly realised this was too big a project for me to tackle on my own – I needed a like-minded running partner.
The first time I came across Samantha was when she emailed me in 2010 asking for advice on how to tackle running four multi-staged events in one year. Since then Samantha has gone on to compete in many challenging events with great success, so I knew she would be a great person to be part of this.
RunningMonkey: Did you find you had similar attitudes to the challenge and running in general?
Mimi Anderson: We both had similar attitudes to the running, we ran together each day as a team and if either of us thought the other person was going too fast it was up to us to say something and the pace would be slowed – it worked well. It was also important for us to enjoy the experience and soak in the atmosphere of such a beautiful country.
On the challenge side the only real issue we had before the run started was whether we should have a rest day if needed. The plan had always been to run the distance over 32 days with no rest days, so the accommodation was booked accordingly. Samantha was concerned (quite rightly) that there were no rest days and if she really needed one then she felt that she should take it. My issue wasn’t about taking a rest day, it was more about the domino effect of being a day behind on the run, which would mean driving for miles backwards and forwards each day to get to and from our accommodation as changing the bookings wasn’t an option. Thankfully Samantha was stronger than perhaps she gave herself credit for and no rest days were required…
Mimi Anderson: 32 days is a very long time to spend with someone you have only met once in person, it was a bit like having an arranged marriage; we knew each other but not really well, there was still a lot to learn! Thankfully we both had the same end goal and we worked well together as a team, supporting one another when needed and equally gave one another space. While out running we would chat, laugh and discuss various topics, sometimes nothing needed to be said and we enjoyed the silence.
RunningMonkey: This must have been logistically difficult to plan and manage, what sort of planning went into the challenge?
Mimi Anderson: The planning that went into this project was huge! It took over two years. Trying to get the funding for the expedition and the charity in this current economic climate was really tough; there was also the logistical side of the expedition; this was extremely time consuming and difficult, especially as I lived in the UK, Samantha in Australia and we were running in South Africa!
RunningMonkey: How did you divide up the organisation?
Mimi Anderson: It was my job to organise the route and accommodation. There was a lot of information on the Freedom Challenge website but trying to work out daily distances to match up with accommodation was difficult, especially as not all the accommodation was listed on the website.
I put together the initial plan and Andrew King, who has been involved in the mountain bike race since the beginning, rejigged it, then nearer the time the Freedom Challenge organisers re-tweaked it again (bearing in mind we were running the route not cycling) from a safety point of view.
Next was the transport, this we thought would be the easy part, how wrong we were! Luckily through a contact of mine in the UK, VW Commercial came on board to support us, they were amazing and the 4×4 was perfect for the job.
It was easier doing the running than the organisation…
RunningMonkey: How difficult was it from a navigational point of view?
Mimi Anderson: All the maps and route descriptions were printed off, one for each vehicle and a set for the runners plus a spare just in case, but if Samantha and I were to spend the time reading maps it was going to add a good two plus hours onto each day, thankfully Andrew and the Freedom Challenge guys provided me with GPX tracks for each day, which I down-loaded onto two GPS devices, one for the runners and another for the vehicle, this part of the planning took months and months…
It wasn’t only the route for the runners that had to be considered, there were occasions each day when the vehicle wasn’t able to access the areas we ran through, so they had to go round on dirt roads to meet us on the other side – these diversions for the vehicle were sometimes 60km plus!
RunningMonkey: What about safety?
Mimi Anderson: I was very conscious of security during the run. I have never felt unsafe in South Africa in all the years I have been going over there, but felt that it was important to take safety seriously, we didn’t want South Africa getting bad press for something that we could have prevented. A friend of mine who had provided me with two personal protection officers during my Double Comrades in 2009 very kindly agreed to provide us with a PPO for the Freedom Run which was fantastic. We had a lovely guy called Iggy (Ignatius) who spent the 32 days with us and became an integral part of the team.
RunningMonkey: Despite all of the immense pre-planning was there room for spontaneity and improvised stages or rest?
Mimi Anderson: With all the planning in place you always have to leave room for a bit of spontaneity as you never know what might happen, there was some room for flexibility but not much!
The distances could be changed slightly each day. If we felt that one of the days was particularly long or if we were feeling good we could add additional mileage, but we had to bear in mind the drive back to the accommodation, which we would also have to do the following morning in order to get back to where we had finished.
There wasn’t really space to take a rest day as the distances between accommodation was too great and in many cases longer than the actual distance we had to run due to the diversion the vehicles had to make. If we had needed to take a rest day it would have impacted hugely on things.
Mimi Anderson: Trying to find crew is tough especially as most people are unable to take six weeks off work. Luckily Samantha’s partner came out as our head crew (he is also a personal trainer so understands the body, which is essential for the runners) together with his cousin, who was a very good photographer. To finish the initial team off we had two amazing guys who were to film the run for a possible documentary. Half way into the trip my husband, Samantha’s sister and another friend came out – all these people gave up their time to come and support two crazy ladies running a ridiculous distance!
The support team were fantastic. Initially we had five support crew including the two filming and Iggy, but they all mucked in and helped us in everyway – filling our water bottles, making sure we ate, massaging when necessary, making our lunch as well as running sections with us and of course the most important part keeping us on track and motivated.
They entertained us each day by singing or dancing as we ran towards the support vehicle, always putting a smile on our faces, this made a huge difference to our day; we couldn’t have done it without their support, they were invaluable.
Mimi Anderson: The aim of the run was to raise not only funds but also awareness for our cause, so it was extremely important that we engaged in social media during the 32 days.
Blogs and photos were put onto Facebook and Twitter daily (if we had internet connection) to keep the run and the charity side in the forefront of everyone’s mind; tagging people in the photo draws attention to their friends and family. People following the various posts would then share, like or re-tweet, again increasing the awareness of the issue we were raising money for, to support South African girls remain in education.
At significant points during the run we would also post videos, these were a huge success and certainly raised the Freedom Runners profile, raising more money for the charity.
RunningMonkey: You encountered incredible hospitality along the route – tell us more…
Mimi Anderson: During the run we stayed in a variety of accommodation, this included B&Bs, ‘community stays’ and a home stay, game lodges and one evening we stayed in the most wonderful cottage in the middle of nowhere with no electricity only Kerosene lamps for light – quite fantastic…
The community stays were very special. All the money they receive from people staying with them goes back into the community, which is fantastic as everyone benefits. The food they gave us was quite delicious and the accommodation was extremely comfortable and clean; a lovely experience.
I really loved staying with the farmers and their families. They welcomed us into their homes, made us feel extremely welcome and comfortable as well as feeding us more of the most delicious food. Nothing was too much trouble; they even did our washing, which, although only a little thing, was huge to us. I loved being a small part of their special family for the night, something I will never forget.
Although I think most people thought we were totally mad, the support we received from people in South Africa was fantastic.
RunningMonkey: Apart from those home cooked meals what was your general nutrition like?
Mimi Anderson: Nutrition is something I always struggle with during races, I don’t seem to get hungry and then go off food that usually I like, quite odd and frustrating. However, I promised my husband and family that I wasn’t going to fail this run because I didn’t eat.
The beginning of the day always started with a good breakfast that consisted of a bowl of either porridge or granola-type cereal that I mixed with yoghurt followed by two pieces of toast with marmite, sliced avocado and tomato, plus black coffee. This set me up for the six hours of running ahead before our lunch break.
RunningMonkey: What about during the run?
Mimi Anderson: During the run itself I tended to stick to ‘normal’ food, as I can’t stomach gels or bars – they just don’t work for me. I would eat anything from dried figs, dates, nuts and dried fruit mix, custard, pureed fruit sachets plus some wine-gums, little and often. My favourite treat, once I had finished for the day, was a bag of Twiglets (I had to bring them over from the UK as they’re not sold in South Africa)
The first 10 days we ran without any major stops for food during the day but both of us were losing weight too quickly so it was decided to have a stop at about midday for lunch. I have to admit that initially I was not happy about this idea, as I don’t usually stop for any length of time in my other long events, but as it was only for half an hour I agreed (the lunch stop was something that I began to really enjoy and look forward to!) During the half an hour stop we would have delicious sandwiches made for us by the crew, followed by orange that had been cut up for us and bag of salt and vinegar chips (Samantha loved these) and occasionally a piece or two of chocolate (special treat!)
RunningMonkey: And hydration?
Mimi Anderson: I didn’t have a specific sports drink as again I find after a couple of days I stop drinking it, but I would have a half-fruit juice/half-water mixed together with some protein powder added into the bottle, this worked really well for me and had variety depending on the flavour of the fruit juice.
RunningMonkey: What’s your general advice on nutrition to people taking up endurance running?
Mimi Anderson: If you are looking to getting into long-distance running I would suggest experimenting with a variety of foods during your long training runs, some foods that you can eat when not running might not suit your stomach while exercising. The body can only absorb about 240 calories-per-hour, so try not to eat too much in one go or you will feel sick; eat little and often throughout the run to keep your blood glucose levels as normal as possible. Try some of the specially formulated carbohydrate sport drinks on the market and see if they work for you.
Very important: do not try anything new on the day of the race, simple advice but you would be surprised at how many people eat food from check point tables that they haven’t used during their training.
When running for an extended period of time you need to have variety otherwise you will become extremely bored of eating the same thing day in, day out – variety is after-all the spice of life!
RunningMonkey: South Africa is a country that really embraces distance running but did the scale of what you were doing still surprise people?
Mimi Anderson: I think many people couldn’t quite comprehend the distance we were running, especially over that time scale. The people we stayed with were surprised to find that we were running, I think they were under the impression that we were riding the route like everyone else does. When they asked us what distance we would be doing the following day and we said 75km their response was ‘Oh, just a short day for you then?’ When we explained that we were running it they quickly changed their minds!
Mimi Anderson: The toughest day had to be the final one. We had 50km to the finish in Paarl and knew that this last section was very technical and could take us hours so we set off at 4.30am.
We had done an extra 5k the day before to make the start of the final day slightly easier, so only 5k to run on the dirt road before heading cross-country to an area called Stettynskloof. The terrain was incredibly technical, river crossings, steep ascents and descents covered in rocks and boulders, scree. In places the undergrowth was extremely dense making our progress much more difficult, we were literally crawling and bashing our way through the overgrown trees and thorn bushes.
I was wearing my ankle supports in order to protect my ligaments/tendons. They had been badly damaged in 2008, leaving them rather vulnerable on technical terrain. I had to concentrate really hard to maintain my balance and not twist an ankle, especially on the long rocky descents. About three hours into this section we were having a short stop to eat and I just burst into tears, I didn’t know how else to cope with how I was feeling, I felt completely useless – everyone else seemed to do it with ease, yet for me every step was becoming harder and harder… But I pulled myself together and managed to get out of the valley in one piece – the mind and body are a great team!
RunningMonkey: How do you get through those ‘down’ moments? Do you have a regular coping strategy?
Mimi Anderson: Part of my training before any big event is both to prepare myself physically and mentally – each are an equally important element of long-distance running.
Years ago during the long stage of the Marathon des Sable I had hit a really bad point and didn’t know whether I was strong enough to continue. One of my teammates came up to me and said ‘Just think of all those people at home who think you are going to fail.’ Those words have stayed with me ever since and given me a huge kick up the backside when required!
Although I’m used to running long distances on consecutive days I had done nothing on this scale before and during my long runs I would picture in my mind what it would feel like when my body was in pain or my legs couldn’t take another step and then try and find ways that I could deal with the situation.
There are always going to be low points during a race but it’s how you deal with them that make the difference between success and failure. I tend to do a lot of talking to myself (I know, totally mad!) telling myself: ‘Pull yourself together, it was your idea so get on with it…’ and: ‘I can and will do this; I’m strong and failure isn’t an option.’
I didn’t really have a ‘down’ moment during the Freedom Run apart from a couple of moments when my legs felt tired or that last day with a few tears; perhaps my mental preparation had worked…
RunningMonkey: You have said there were many highlights on this adventure; can you tell us a couple?
Mimi Anderson: Some of the highlights for me were climbing 8km up to the highest point of 2,700m; there were no paths to follow and the wind became stronger as we climbed but with the views from the summit it felt as though I was standing on top of the world.
On one of the days we climbed up, up and up this stunning winding and twisting mountain dirt road going through the Swartberg Pass, it seemed to go up forever. When I turned round to look at the view all I could see for miles was this never-ending road. Once at the top the dirt road continued until eventually descending into a place called ‘Hell’!
The scenery really was breath taking and it just got better as the run went on. The first eight days in Natal were more mountainous in character and as we ran through the Karoo the landscape became much more open, surrounded by beautiful rolling hills. Getting closer to Cape Town it changed again to beautifully manicured vineyards.
The last day had to be the most stunning scenery I have ever seen; the area is so remote that many South African’s will never see it, I felt extremely privileged. There were no paths to follow and the terrain was hilly and steep, covered in rocks that you couldn’t see because the plants had grown over them. We climbed down waterfalls, over boulders, had so many ascents and descents I have lost count, waded through and across rivers and at times had to fight our way through the undergrowth in order to keep moving forward – Then just when we thought we had finished there was a near vertical climb to get out of the valley. We covered 10km in 6 hours!
RunningMonkey: What about the wildlife?
Mimi Anderson: The wildlife we encountered along the route was fantastic. We ran through various private game reserves where we were surrounded by wildebeest and antelopes. Sometimes springbok would literally leap over the fence and run across the track in front of us and on one occasion a warthog ran out from the undergrowth right in our path. We even spotted five rhinos; thankfully they were the other side of the fence from us! During the last 10 days we saw lots of monkeys and baboons – one of the baboons even stalked us as we ran past the rocks where he was sitting.
Mimi Anderson: I didn’t have any real issues with the heat. In July I had completed the Cyprus Ultra where the temperatures sored to the high 40s and at one point hit 50 degrees so I felt well prepared. The heat however does zap you of energy, so when it got very hot I did notice that it was more of a struggle to keep going at the same pace we had done in the cool of the day.
We would start running at 5.30 each morning so we could have a few hours before the sun got really hot. The mornings were always cold, one particular morning it was -2 and after running a couple of kilometres Samantha and I had to get into the vehicle for a couple of minutes as our legs felt as though they were burning it was so cold – so we had the two extremes of temperatures: very cold to very hot.
The general conditions in South Africa were good and for the majority of the days we had good weather (especially the nearer we got to Cape Town). There were a few days of high wind and rain in the first week and, in fact, the coldest, wettest day was towards the end of day seven. Coming down from the highest point of the route 2,700m above sea level, where it was incredibly windy, on the way down to Rhodes where we were staying for the night we had an 18km downhill run into strong winds and icy rain. We were both running way faster than we should have been, but it was the only way to remain warm – I defrosted in a lovely bath when we arrived at our accommodation!
RunningMonkey: You’ve had a couple of injuries and medical problems in the last couple of years. All good in South Africa though?
Mimi Anderson: Luckily for me everything was great in South Africa. My main concern was the injury I had sustained during The Spine Race in January (268 mile non-stop race along the Pennine Way) where at about 20 miles into the race I got my foot caught between two stone slabs and my knee bent the wrong way, stupidly I continued for another 130 miles until I pulled myself out of the race due to something in my ankle going pop! My knee still wasn’t fully healed by the time I left for SA – I was extremely lucky that it held up.
There were countless river crossings so our feet on a lot of the days were wet from pretty much the beginning of the day until we finished. My feet held up incredibly well and I came away with only one small blister, so pretty pleased…
RunningMonkey: Before you went you described this as your ‘biggest and toughest challenge to date…’ Was that what it proved to be?
Mimi Anderson: It was certainly the biggest challenge I have done to date but I’m not quite sure about the toughest, although there were sections that for me were extremely tough. From the point of view of toughest I think my John O’Groats to Lands End (JOGLE) World Record was tougher.
Firstly, although the distance wasn’t as huge, I was up against the clock, whereas in South Africa there was no racing against the clock each day, so much more relaxed. Secondly, during the Freedom Run we got a normal night’s sleep, we were always in bed at 8.30, but during JOGLE I was lucky if I managed to get three hours sleep each night – consequently, as well as having to cover 68+ miles each day, I was having to cope with sleep deprivation. And finally JOGLE was all on tar roads; much tougher on my body but the Freedom Trail was a mixture of dirt roads, jeep tracks, a bit of tar and a lot of off road so easier on the body.
So, in answer to your question, no, I don’t think that the run in South Africa was my toughest challenge to date…
Mimi Anderson: We are extremely close to our $50k target, but still have a few thousand to go. If anyone would like to make a donation they can do so here. It will make a huge difference to the girls and help them have a choice about their futures.
RunningMonkey: What do you have planned next? We understand you might be considering Run the Rann in India?
Mimi Anderson: I have lots of plans for next year, nothing however as big as my South African adventure, I may have to wait a couple of years, but there are plans!
I’m definitely hoping to take part in the Run the Rann’s new 161km non-stop race in February next year, the event sounds fantastic and takes place in India’s biggest salt desert, the Kutch Desert, perfect!