BEYOND IMPOSSIBLE

Copyright © Mimi Anderson and Lucy Waterlow

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CONTENTS

Cover

Title Page

Copyright

 

Prologue

Chapter One: From reluctant runner to ultra-fit

Chapter Two: Battling anorexia and learning food is fuel

Chapter Three: Racing the Marathon des Sables as a novice

Chapter Four: Proving good enough for Badwater

Chapter Five: Winning and losing in the Arctic

Chapter Six: A race against time to run into the record books

Chapter Seven: Seeing double after JOGLE

Epilogue

Mimi’s ultrarunning achievements so far...

Further reading

PROLOGUE

I had never been in so much pain – and for me, that’s saying something. After all, I have run for 156 miles through the Sahara desert in 50˚C heat when dehydrated and weak. I have run alone non-stop pulling a sledge for six days over ice in the Arctic, facing a wind chill of –70˚C. I have given birth three times. But the pain of all those experiences is nothing compared to how I felt now running – or more like limping – towards Land’s End in Cornwall in the darkness and pouring rain.

Everything hurt from my bruised and swollen arm to my sore, blistered feet. After years of competing in ultra-distance races, I have become accustomed to the onset of pain and adept at pushing myself to continue when my body is screaming that it has had enough. This time felt different, perhaps I had finally found my limit.

I must have looked like something from The Walking Dead as I dragged my battered body along the road, occasionally moaning in pain. The only way to alleviate the excruciating agony I felt burning in every limb was to stop running. But stopping wasn’t an option. I was on the cusp of achieving my dream of gaining a Guinness World Record, and I couldn’t give up now.

Twelve days earlier I had set off on fresh legs from John o’Groats in Scotland full of enthusiasm and energy. I was aiming to become the fastest female to run the length of Great Britain. But nearly 840 miles later, I was sleep-deprived, drained and exhausted. I needed to maintain a certain pace to achieve the record but moving at all was becoming increasingly difficult.

There was only one mile to go to reach the finish line but it felt like one hundred. I had run through Britain’s hottest summer for decades, been struck by a car and held up by an overzealous police officer to reach this point. Even though I was now so close to my goal, I didn’t feel I could take another step.

My husband, Tim, was cycling beside me shouting words of encouragement and trying to distract me from the pain.

‘Come on, Mimi, keep going, you’re nearly there, you can do it,’ he said.

I should have felt grateful for his encouragement but instead I felt grumpy and resentful.

Easy for you to say sitting there on your bum on your bike, I thought. You try running with legs like lead, burning feet and an injured arm.

My body was finding various ways to tell me that it couldn’t go on. I had a headache, my vision was blurry, my stomach was sore and, thanks to the weather, I was soaked to the bone. All my muscles hurt but in particular the ligaments and tendons in my left foot were screaming for attention, as they were badly damaged and weak. Every time I took a step and landed on the tarmac road, the impact sent shooting pains up my leg and I felt as though my ankle was going to give way beneath me. I kept hobbling along and tried to find any reason I could to stop, even if only for a few precious seconds – to alleviate the agony I was in. I paused to fiddle with my trainer laces, to scratch my leg or to readjust my clothing, any excuse for a break.

By now, Tim was becoming increasingly frustrated with me. I was going so slowly, he had to dismount his bike and walk beside me. Then to his dismay, I stopped again – and this time I had no intention of continuing. I simply couldn’t take another step.

‘I can’t do it,’ I told Tim as I swayed by the roadside on my wobbly legs. ‘I can’t go any further. It hurts too much.’

‘Don’t be ridiculous!’ he replied, aghast at my decision. ‘You can’t give up now! Do you realise you are only a mile from the finish? You have run for 839 miles, you just need to keep moving and manage another one!’

I know it wasn’t rational to have come this far only to throw the towel in with a mile to go, but by this point I wasn’t thinking straight; I was too tired and in so much pain. For the previous 12 mornings, I had risen at 4.30 a.m. after four hours’ sleep, pulled on my trainers and started running. I had run two and a half back-to-back marathons a day for nearly a fortnight. I was now completely and utterly spent and all I wanted to do was stop.

At that moment I no longer cared about gaining a world record. I didn’t consider how much I had sacrificed and how much I had given to reach this point. My mind was in survival mode and was only certain about one thing – I had to stop running.

‘Tell the rest of the crew it’s over; they need to come and get me,’ I told Tim, referring to the rest of my team who had trailed me in two motorhomes throughout my journey. They had gone ahead to the finish line where they were waiting for me along with other supporters, local press and the mayor of Land’s End. They had all gathered to cheer me on for the final 100 metres and were ready and waiting for the guest of honour, holding up tape made from pink toilet paper for me to break as I crossed the finish line. But I wasn’t going to make it to the party.

As I stood catching my breath and feeling some relief from standing still instead of running, I looked at Tim and saw he looked as sleep-deprived as I felt. He had dark, puffy bags under his bloodshot eyes and looked drawn and exhausted. He had taken time off work to support my run and instead of having a relaxing break away from his job, he had been snatching a few hours’ sleep in a motorhome, cycling beside me for miles and ensuring my needs for food and water were met – often without much gratitude. I had mostly only been able to grunt thanks as food and water was handed to me as I ran, or complained when I was told I had to run faster to stay on target. He had done it and put up with my mood because he knew how much it meant to me to complete this challenge and achieve a world record.

‘You’ve come so far, Mimi,’ he told me. ‘One more mile and you could be a world-record holder! One more mile and then you can stop and celebrate and all this will have been worth it.’

Then he added: ‘Don’t think you can give up now and try again next year as we can’t go through all this again!’

This was actually spoken with a number of expletives I won’t add here but you get the idea, he wasn’t going to let me quit with such a short distance to go. While I hate to admit my husband is ever right, in this instance, he was right. This was my second attempt at achieving a world record and I might never make it this far again. I knew too well that just making it to the start line was a challenge in itself and even with the best-laid plans, things can, and will, go wrong along the way.

After all the preparation and the pain, I had made it to Cornwall and I couldn’t quit now. I wouldn’t just be letting myself down but Tim and the rest of my crew who had worked tirelessly to get me to this point. They had believed in me and supported me, stepping away from their own lives for a fortnight to help me achieve this crazy goal I had set myself. It wasn’t as if I was an Olympian with the hopes of a nation riding on my success. This challenge had been for me and me alone, and the crew had done what they could to help, with nothing to gain for themselves. They had given their time and support for me. So now I had to finish for them.

I resumed my painful plod, dragging one foot in front of the other as Tim got back on his bike beside me.

Just one more mile. One more mile. I can do this, I thought over and over trying to keep my body in a rhythm and block out the pain.

As my mind got back to the task in hand, I realised the self-imposed delay had cost me minutes I couldn’t afford to lose. There was only a mile to go but time was precious, and more importantly, running out. I was going slower than a sloth – would I be able to make it to the finish in time to break the world record?

CHAPTER ONE

FROM RELUCTANT RUNNER TO ULTRA-FIT

Day one: John o’Groats to Tain, 85 miles

The journey had begun 840 miles north of Land’s End, 12 days earlier. My friend Becky Healey had nudged me awake at 5 a.m., rousing me from a restless night’s sleep. We had spent the night in a motorhome, which would be our home for nearly a fortnight. As I lay in bed, I could hear strong winds blowing around outside the van in its exposed position on the tip of Great Britain. The seemingly gale-force gusts had rattled the sides of the vehicle all night. But even if conditions had been perfect, I doubt I would have slept better. I had been tossing and turning worrying about the challenge I was about to face.

It would have been all too easy to roll over and go back to sleep, but then I remembered where I was and what lay ahead. It was days before my 46th birthday, and while other people may have jetted away on holiday to celebrate the occasion or thrown a party, I was going to attempt to run into the record books. From my starting point in John o’Groats, I planned to run 840 miles to Land’s End, faster than a woman had ever run it before.

Becky and the other members of my crew would be responsible for my timekeeping and she wasn’t going to let me get behind on day one.

‘Come on, Mimi, time to get up,’ she said, giving me a prod. Although I didn’t appreciate being awoken at that moment, Becky’s strict punctuality was exactly what was needed and why I had wanted her to be on board. We had met through running and, as a natural leader, who runs her own accountancy business, she was the perfect person to keep my challenge on track. Becky is always mega-efficient and super-organised so I was delighted when she had offered to join my crew after she heard I was attempting a world record. Knowing someone so diligent was managing my timekeeping was one less thing for me to worry about. She also knew exactly what to say to keep me motivated. Even though I had been training for months to prepare for what lay ahead of me, being told you have to get up and run 840 miles is a daunting prospect. If Becky had said: ‘Time to get up and go for an 840-mile run,’ I would certainly have stayed in bed. Having crewed on ultra-races before (an ultra is deemed anything over the marathon distance of 26.2 miles), she knew the right words to use and what I needed to hear. To face this arduous journey, I would have to break it up into stages and just focus on making it to the end of each day.

‘Tain, here we come,’ she said. The scenic, historic town in the Highlands would be our first overnight stop – a mere 85 miles away.

Just why had I decided to try to become the fastest woman in the world to run the length of Britain? Well, whenever I am asked ‘why?’ my usual response is ‘why not?’ And this is exactly what I thought about tackling JOGLE as it is known (or the Gallic sounding LE JOG, if you go south to north), when a friend had suggested it to me after I had completed a number of other ultra-races. I thought about it and I couldn’t think of a single reason why not. I’m a strong believer that you need to challenge yourself in life and shouldn’t be afraid to take on something that scares you. Failure isn’t something I am afraid of. How can we ever know what it is possible to achieve unless we try?

The history of the event also appealed to me. People had been trying to set records for travelling the length of Britain in weird and wonderful ways since the 1800s. Some had cycled it, some had travelled on unicycles, one even did it in a motorised bathtub. But I, like a brave (and perhaps a little crazy) few before me, wanted to run it.

The route would involve travelling from John o’Groats down through Scotland to the Lake District, then passing through Preston, Shrewsbury and into Wales via Chepstow. I’d then cross over the Severn Bridge back into England to run through Somerset and Devon, eventually entering Cornwall and running all the way down to Land’s End. The previous record set in 2006 stood at 12 days, 16 hours and 23 minutes. In order to beat it, I would have to stick to a strict schedule of running at a decent pace, with minimal time ‘wasted’ to rest and recover. My crew and I decided to break the days up into four four-hour stints of running with no more than an hour break in between, when I could rest, eat or get a massage. This meant after the first day, I would be awoken at 4.30 a.m. so I could get going at 5 a.m., running in the four-hour blocks till I could stop to sleep around midnight. My crew would have to be very bossy about getting me to keep to the schedule as much as possible, as every minute counted towards getting the record.

On the first day, I had been afforded a lie-in as my world-record attempt would start at 7.15 a.m. Thanks to Becky’s wake-up call, I was on schedule. She handed me a coffee and a smoothie to drink and then, like a knight going into battle, I pulled on my athletic armour – three-quarter-length leggings, a long-sleeve running top and a high-vis waistcoat over the top for safety, not forgetting to pin my ‘lucky charm’ to my sports bra, a brooch my godmother had given me when I was christened, which I wear in all my races. I pulled my blonde hair out of my face with a headband in my favourite colour of pink and laced up my trainers. I was ready to go.

Opening the motorhome door I was greeted by a crisp July morning. The sun was just beginning to peep over the horizon and it promised to be a fine summer’s day.

‘Morning, Mimi,’ said my friend Phil Bullen, the second member of my crew, as he emerged from our neighbouring motorhome. ‘Are you ready to run?’

Phil is a police officer and keen ultrarunner who had also offered to join my crew after hearing about my world-record attempt. He was an asset to the team, as well as being lovely company – I knew his strong, authoritative presence would make me feel safer when he accompanied me on sections of the route I might otherwise have felt apprehensive about running through alone, especially in the evenings when it would be dark. He was also an excellent map reader, which was essential, as I couldn’t afford to waste time getting lost and going off track if I wanted to gain the record.

As well as Becky and Phil, my good friend Karyn Moore, who I have known since I was 23 years old when we met through our husbands, was also part of the crew. She is a warm, smiley person who loves to talk and get to know people. She chats constantly, asking so many questions, finding out everything there is to know about someone within half an hour of meeting them. I knew her endless entertaining chatter would be a distraction to take my mind off the pain as the challenge went on.

My fourth crew member, Alan Young, was an old hand at JOGLE as he had been part of the crew when the existing record had been set by Sharon Gayter in 2006. As she had set the mark with his help, he knew exactly what I would have to do to beat it. He took his role very seriously and I knew his professionalism and experience would bolster my record attempt further.

Finally, my husband, Tim, would be joining us on day eight. I wasn’t entirely happy about this initially as he had never been involved in my racing before and had never crewed. Although he was well-qualified having served in the Army with the Queen’s Own Highlanders for five years, I was concerned his emotional attachment as my husband would prevent him being an effective member of the crew, and he could end up being more of a hindrance than a help. Would he be able to push me to keep going when the going got tough and he saw how much pain I was in? After a number of arguments, we reached a compromise and decided he would join me – but only for the final five days, enabling me to get into a routine and push my worries about how he would cope to the back of my mind at the start of the run.

Having a well-organised, supportive crew is crucial to success in many ultra-distance events, and especially when attempting to run a world record. The crew would follow me on the whole journey in the two motorhomes we’d hired, taking it in turns to cycle behind me or run beside me (as per the Guinness rules, they were never allowed to cycle in front of me), ensuring I was happy, fed and watered. A vital part of their job was keeping a logbook of the journey, noting every time I stopped for a break and when I started up again. The distances I covered in each section and the length of time taken for each break all had to be recorded. At every opportunity, they had to obtain witness statements from the general public, asking them to sign forms confirming they had seen me run past them, giving their name, location and the time they had seen me. This would all be used as evidence to ratify a new world record – should I be lucky enough to achieve that goal. Guinness World Records criteria are very strict, so no stone could be left unturned in gathering evidence of my epic run.

As well as being unable to prove a record without my crew, I quite simply wouldn’t be able to do it without them. They would be my rocks, allowing me to focus on running while they sorted everything else – meals, massages, map reading, laundry, emptying the motorhome loos, refuelling. Their work was relentless. On top of all that, they would provide the support, encouragement and, at times, light relief I would need to keep me going. Such is the organisation and constant support needed, Becky has often told me crewing an ultra can be harder than actually running one!

With my crew assembled for JOGLE, I then had to plot my route and overnight stops. I decided to start in Scotland instead of Cornwall for a number of reasons. Firstly, somehow it seemed psychologically easier to run ‘down’ south rather than ‘up’ north. The previous record had been set doing it the other way round, and I was concerned that if I followed the same pattern, I would constantly be comparing my times to where Sharon had been at each stage, which could prove to be demoralising and distracting – it would be far better just to focus on what I was doing. Thirdly, as I am a Scot, I wanted to start the run in Scotland so I would be running through my home turf, where friends and family in the area would be able to come to cheer me on, when I felt fresh. I knew the longer the challenge went on, the more tired and grumpy I would get, so I would rather see friends and family when I still had the energy to fully show my gratitude for their support.

The final reason for doing it this way round was to banish the memory of a failed attempt to break the record the year before. I had tried to do it in 2007 starting at Land’s End and running north but I was forced to pull out in the early stages due to injury. Towards the end of the first day, I’d felt as though my knee was going to give way but I chose to ignore it. By the second day, it had become so bad I was struggling to run at all and had to resort to walking. Setting out on the third day, I then began to develop a niggling pain in my hip joint as well, so that even walking became painful. I knew it didn’t feel right and that I couldn’t ignore these issues any longer. I went to see a physiotherapist, who confirmed my worst fears. She told me there was a serious issue with my pyriformis, a muscle situated in my bottom, and if I continued running on it for another nine days, I could make it even worse and risk further injury, possibly preventing me from ever being able to run long distances again.

I wasn’t ready to admit defeat yet so after her treatment, she asked me to try a run outside her building. I barely managed a step, as my hip was so sore. I was devastated, I felt as though I was a complete fraud – who did I think I was trying to run the length of the country? I couldn’t even manage to jog across a car park. It took ten minutes until I eventually conceded – it was over. With great reluctance, I had to listen to my head and not my heart and call it a day.

‘You can try it again next year,’ Tim had told me trying to raise my spirits after I called him in tears to tell him the attempt was over. I knew quitting was the right thing to do but I still felt completely dejected and disappointed. I hated having to give up on something I had worked so hard towards accomplishing because one muscle had let me down.

After giving myself time to recover and regroup, I knew I had to try again. I set my sights on doing it the following year, and this time I was determined to finish. I had learnt a lot from the aborted attempt and I knew in order to succeed the second time, I had to get the logistics and crew right and start the run injury-free. Starting in Scotland rather than Cornwall would give me a fresh start. I am a great believer in positive thinking so told myself this was a new attempt, and this time nothing was going to stop me. But once again it seemed luck was not on my side. Three weeks before the record attempt was due to start, I was involved in a collision with another car while driving to the shops. My vehicle was struck head-on by another car and I suffered from whiplash due to the impact. It was touch-and-go whether I would be able to make the start line. But after seeing doctors and my osteopath, I was given the all-clear to proceed. The world record attempt was on.

What had happened the year before was in the back of my mind as I stepped out of the motorhome in John o’Groats that July morning, feeling full of adrenaline. I didn’t want to fail again. I headed to the campsite entrance where my journey would begin on the same spot as many others had started their own JOGLE quests (or finished them). A giant white line was marked out on the road with the words ‘START’ and ‘FINISH’ emblazoned on either side in capital letters, enabling the words to be read depending on the direction you approached from. Our early start meant there were few people around so there was none of the gravitas or excitement I had experienced at the beginning of other races. There was no jostling for the best position on the start, as mine was the only foot toeing the line, poised and ready for the crew to tell me to begin. Becky was ready to mount her bike to cycle behind me and Alan was beside the line stopwatch in hand ready to start the clock on my record attempt. Meanwhile, Karyn and Phil sought witnesses to confirm the time they had seen me leave.

I took a deep breath as Alan shouted: ‘Three, two, one, GO!’ and then I was off on my epic journey to run the length of Britain. As I began to run my heart was pounding as I contemplated just how big the adventure I was embarking on was. While Becky tailed me on the bike, the others remained to pack up the motorhomes – which were adorned with the details of my world record attempt, including the logos of two businesses that had sponsored me – ICG and Cazenove Capital and how to donate money to Beat, the UK’s eating disorder charity, which I was raising money for. The first motorhome would drive ahead to my first four-hour stop while the other would leapfrog me every two to three miles. To any people passing by when we were all on the move, we must have looked like something out of The Wacky Races, with me as Penelope Pitstop at the front decked out in pink.

After all the planning and preparation, it was a relief to finally get going and leave John o’Groats behind. Arriving there the night before had been a bit of an anti-climax. It was grey, drizzly and desolate with a derelict hotel perched on the cliff adding to the feeling that this was a place the world had long ago forgotten. The spot where we had set up camp had seemed isolated but, true to form, Karyn had met other people on the site when she had been out and about who were all there for similar reasons to me – one runner was also planning to run to Land’s End, a group intended to cycle and one lady was walking the distance in memory of her late mother. Karyn had been fascinated by their motivation to do it and why the route was a rite of passage for so many. She had met a group of cyclists when heading to the toilet block before we set off on the first morning who were astonished by our plans.

‘They said it took them nine days to cycle here from Land’s End so they think it will be amazing if you’ll manage it in less than 13 days’ running,’ she told me later.

It would be amazing if I could do it – and in all honesty, I didn’t know if I would be able to manage it. But I was going to give it everything I had; failure wasn’t an option this time.

I felt confident it was possible on that first morning as the opening miles flew by thanks to my fresh legs and the distraction of the spectacular Highland scenery around me. I began to relax into the run, feeling surprisingly perky. I was happy to finally be on my way after all the preparation and the previous year’s disappointment. Completing the first ten miles running down a single lane from the campsite to join the A99 felt like a stroll in the park. It reminded me of how far I had come in the last ten years. When I was 36, I had barely been able to run for ten minutes, let alone ten miles. If you’d have told me then I would be attempting to run 840 miles and set a world record, I’d have thought you were completely mad.

 

Back then my motivation to run had not been to achieve records or win races, it had simply been because I wanted thinner legs. I was recovering from an eating disorder that had plagued my teens and twenties and while I’d had treatment to help me battle my demons and overcome my body dysmorphia, I still had a hang-up when it came to my legs. While some people have bad hair days, I had bad leg days. Those were the days when whatever I wore, or whatever angle I looked at them, I didn’t think my legs looked good. They looked fat and ugly and I couldn’t bear them.

I envied anyone who had thin legs. I thought theirs looked beautiful compared to mine, which I believed were big and wobbly, and I wondered how they got them. I found the answer when I was talking to another mother at the school gates one warm day as we were waiting to collect our children. I told her I wished I had better legs so I could get them out in the summer to wear dresses and shorts and feel more attractive. She recommended I try running as she had noticed a change in her own leg shape once she took up jogging.

That’s it then, I thought. The key to getting the lean legs I have always dreamed of is running.

I was already a member of a gym where I joined in various exercise classes. I occasionally used some of the gym equipment but I had always been far too embarrassed to go on the treadmill. But now I had been told it could make my legs thinner, I was prepared to give it a try.

I felt ridiculous and self-conscious the first time I whirled the dreaded machine into action. I set the belt to turn as slowly as possible and attempted to jog. Even though the belt was going at a snail’s pace I still struggled to keep up. I was sure everyone was looking at me and judging how fit – or rather unfit – I was. I had barely been jogging for a minute when my heart started pounding and I was gasping for breath. I tried to keep going but I felt like I was going to have a heart attack.

I can’t die at the gym, I thought, for a start none of my family would know to look for me here when I don’t come home.

I desperately stopped the machine and stepped off defeated. As I bent over catching my breath, a muscular man took my place, putting me to shame as he upped the speed and ran at breakneck pace, bouncing in time with the belt and barely breaking a sweat. He made it look so easy.

At that moment, I could have easily given up and never gone back to the gym again. But as I watched this man on the treadmill, I was mesmerised by how marvellous his legs looked as they bounded back and forth in perfect sync with the whirling treadmill. His legs looked strong, toned and – best of all to me at that time – slim. If I could master running, I could have the legs of my dreams, I believed.

I kept going back three times a week, running on the treadmill with walking breaks in between and setting myself the goal to reach one mile running non-stop. Each time I went I tried to keep going for longer than the time before, even though I was still huffing and puffing and felt completely out of my depth.

Gradually it began to feel easier and after a few weeks my breathing became less laboured and my body seemed to be moving with slightly more finesse. I was elated on the day the distance marker ticked over to one mile after I had been running continuously. It may have only been a mile but I felt as though I had completed a marathon. I threw my arms in the air and whooped with joy, excitedly announcing to everyone in the gym, ‘I just ran a MILE!’ They were underwhelmed with my achievement and carried on their own workouts wondering what all the fuss was about, but I didn’t care. It was the first goal I had set myself and the first goal I had achieved. I couldn’t take the smile off my face for the rest of the day and it really spurred me on to set my next goal. Now I would try to run for two miles continuously, then three.

Once I hit the three-mile milestone I kept going back and running that distance every visit, gradually increasing my pace to see if I could complete the three miles in 24 minutes. I don’t know why I picked that time but running faster seemed like a good idea as it meant my time on the treadmill would be over sooner, as I wasn’t enjoying it. Those treadmill runs were boring and monotonous and I was only doing them because they were necessary. I had to stick with it as I was getting the results I wanted – when I looked in the mirror, I saw my legs were getting slimmer. That was all the motivation I needed to continue.

At that time, my three children, Emma, Ruaraidh (Rory) and Harri were aged 14, 12 and six, so going to the gym while they were at school had become something of a highlight of my day. It was a chance for me to get out of the house, meet other people and enjoy some ‘me’ time away from being a wife and mother.

It was still a very male-dominated domain back then, so there were few other women at the gym. This meant I soon started bumping into the same friendly faces every time I was in the changing rooms or heading to the treadmill. Initially we would say hello in passing, but as time went by, we found ourselves chatting about our lives and workouts. I learned that Maxine Ward (Max) and Louise Clamp were both mothers like me, although their children were younger than mine. They would leave their children in the crèche or at a playgroup so they could hit the gym. Like me, going to the gym was a chance for them to escape the pressures of motherhood for a short time, but, unlike me, they actually seemed to enjoy the exercise they did there. I thought Max was mad when she got to the gym with a big smile on her face and said she had been looking forward to her run all day. Yes, I enjoyed escaping the house, going to the gym and having a coffee there, but the actual exercise bit? I dreaded it. Running was not a pleasure but a chore, a means to an end to get the legs I wanted.

‘It can be boring running on the treadmill all the time,’ Max conceded when I moaned to her in the changing room about how little I had enjoyed my latest treadmill run.

‘You should come and join us on our weekly run outside.’

Max and Louise said they met up with a group of friends every week to run 10 miles along the Cuckoo Trail, an old railway line in Sussex that has been converted into a trail path.

‘Outside!’ I exclaimed as if they had invited me to run on the moon. ‘Don’t be silly. That’s seven miles more than I have run before and, well, it’s outside!’

To me, running outside was an alien concept. It was the 1990s and running wasn’t as popular as it is now. I only considered running on the treadmill at the gym as an acceptable place to run. The thought of running outside in shorts and a T-shirt with my legs on show for all to see was a scary and ridiculous idea.

‘Don’t worry, we’ll stick to an easy pace and take a break halfway,’ Max replied, thinking my only concern was my fitness. ‘You’ll love it!’

I wasn’t convinced but Max and Louise were so encouraging, their energy and enthusiasm was infectious. How could I refuse?

It turns out they were right. From the moment the run began, it was the best I had felt for a long time. It was a perfect June day and the sun was shining through the trees as we set off. There was a cool breeze and all I could see was a picturesque route stretching out in front of me – that certainly beat staring at the same wall when on the treadmill. The minutes flew by as we ran past wild flowers and under railway bridges, the hum of our chatter and the pitter-patter of our feet mingling with the peaceful sound of birdsong.

This is glorious, I thought. What have I been missing?

The route was flat and pretty, the conversation flowed and before I knew it, we reached the halfway point and stopped for a break beside a small bridge.

‘That’s five miles done,’ said Louise stopping her watch.

‘Really? I have just run five miles?’ I asked in disbelief. I couldn’t believe it; it was the furthest I had ever run.

As we sipped water, one of the other ladies, Jan, who had joined us on a bike carrying a rucksack, pulled out snacks and started handing them around. At the prospect of eating, familiar alarm bells started ringing in my head. I instinctively thought about saying no when a banana was passed to me. I had plenty of well-used excuses for why I didn’t need to eat at that moment – ‘I’m not hungry’, ‘I had a big breakfast’, ‘I’ll eat later’. But I remembered how weak I could feel when I didn’t eat enough. I was already running low on energy from the first five miles of our run and I felt I was pushing my luck by wanting to do another five. I was enjoying the run so much, I didn’t want to miss out because I didn’t have the fuel to keep going. So I happily ate half the banana and for once I was grateful for the calories it provided. It might not seem like an accomplishment but to someone who had been battling an eating disorder for 15 years, it was a revelation. This was the start of me truly understanding that food wasn’t the enemy but an essential part of helping me achieve my goals.

Refuelled and rested, we were ready to run again. I wondered as we set off back the way we had come if I would be able to manage another five miles but I truly surprised myself. We continued as before, the six of us running in sync and chatting away, greeting the dog walkers and cyclists we passed along the route.

Once again, the time flew by and we were soon only two miles from where we had started. I had been concerned that by the time I got to this point, I would be flagging and desperate to stop. But in fact I felt strong and was surprised by how much energy I still had. Without realising it, or making a conscious decision to do so, I suddenly started picking up the pace. I didn’t say anything to the other girls but started pulling away from them as I got faster and faster.

I had never felt so free. It was like someone had given me a pair of wings and I could fly. I drove my arms and legs and kept getting quicker. I felt elated. My mind was clear. I forgot about the other girls running behind me, I forgot about my past, I forgot about being a mother and the jobs I would need to do when I got home. All that mattered was how I felt at that moment and all I thought about was how I was running. I kept pushing forward, willing myself on. Should I slow down? No, keep going! Can I keep this pace up? Yes, I’m flying!

For the first time in my life, I didn’t hate my legs – I was delighted with them and what they were doing. It didn’t matter what they looked like, it didn’t matter how thin they were, what mattered was that they could keep going and keep me in this moment. They were no longer a source of anxiety but a wonderful mode of transport.