As I stood on the startline of my second attempt at running 100 miles on 11 June, 2016, I looked at the other athletes and felt completely under-qualified for the race ahead,” says Emma Lewis, 45, a director in pharmaceutical research and mum of three from Hampshire. “I’d missed the cut-off in the Thames Path 100 the year before, so I wasn’t at all confident I could finish the South Downs Way 100 (SDW100). In fact, up until a week before, I was going to pull out, but then thought I might as well give it a go. I just wanted to make the first half-mile without looking like a complete fool.
“I only started running in 1999, when I was 29, and ran my first mile in January 2000. I’d watched other people run past my house and always wished I could be one of them. I couldn’t run for 30 seconds to start with, so doing my first mile without stopping was momentous.”
“I completed my first race, the Great South Run, in September 2002. By then I’d been trying for a baby for two years and had sadly had a miscarriage almost exactly a year before. Just a week before the race I found out I was expecting, so I took it easy on race day and finished in 1hr 45mins. I was so happy about my new-found fitness though, that I carried on running and run/walking until I was 36 weeks pregnant!
“Running took a back seat after the birth of my daughter Jessica. But when my second daughter, Aimee, was six months old, a friend persuaded me to join Weight Watchers to help lose the baby weight and we began running together on Saturday mornings. To have a goal to aim for, we signed up for the 2007 Reading Half-Marathon. The last three miles were a killer, but we finished and I was hooked. The minute we got home from Reading I signed up for the New Forest Marathon six months later. The training went well and I was thrilled when, by walking a minute every mile, I finished in 4:58:59.
“As soon as I crossed that finish line I knew I wanted to do more marathons, so I entered the Berlin Marathon which was due to take place in October 2008. Despite doing it in a little over five hours, I felt a bit off during that race and couldn’t put my finger on why. A week later I discovered I was pregnant with daughter number three – and on the same day heard I had a 2009 London Marathon place. I’d be seven months pregnant on race day, so I deferred my place to 2010.
“In 2009 I gave birth to my third daughter, Erin, at home in a pool. My experiences of running marathons gave me the mental and physical strength to fight for a home birth after having had two C-sections previously.
I ran the London Marathon in 5:30 the following year, but finishing 30 minutes slower than my PB felt like the end of the world – little did I know how much slower I was going to get! I was so disappointed, in fact, that I didn’t run again for two years.
“However, I eventually came back in from the cold and resumed running regularly. In fact, I enjoyed the 2013 London Marathon so much that I ran the Milton Keynes Marathon just two weeks later. This time I truly had caught the bug and went on to run 10 marathons that year, including my rst double [marathons on consecutive days] in November. The second of those two races was so cold that I was forced to wear a onesie for the first six miles.
“By 2015 I felt ready to tackle my first 50-mile ultra: the South Downs Way 50. Despite averaging a 5:30 marathon at the time and being really worried about the 13-hour cut- off, I had a great race and finished in 12hrs 20mins. A month afterwards I attempted my first 100-mile race, the Thames Path 100.
“I was the fittest I’d been in my life and was regularly running a marathon every other week. I started out strong, but managed to take a wrong turn at Windsor and the detour added three miles – and 30 minutes – to my time. Missing the checkpoint cut-off by 30 seconds cost me the race at mile 91. But I was still elated as the furthest I’d run before was 65 miles. This felt like a massive step forward.
“Unfortunately though, I struggled to recover because I developed tendonitis in my left leg and gained about two stone. This really demoralised me and my marathon times dropped to a frustrating 6hrs 30mins.
“The following year, I was still struggling to get my fitness back and lose weight. I entered the SDW50 again, but DNF’d after 27 miles. I started too quickly and had burnt out by mile 20 when the sweeper caught up with me. I threw my toys out of the pram a little at being last and made sure I was slow enough to time out at the next aid station. This really shook my confidence for the upcoming SDW100. However, once I’d decided not to pull out after the first half-mile, I focused on enjoying myself and had the most amazing weekend running on the trails with no crew, no pacer, just me. As I’d done in my first 100-miler, I got lost again, this time at 89 miles, but I managed to navigate my way to the next checkpoint and squeezed through with 30 seconds to spare. I finished the race in 29hrs 46mins 58secs, with just enough time to grab a shower and board the coach to be driven 100 miles back to the start.
“Six weeks after the SDW100 I ran the Samphire 100 Mile Endurance Run, 27 laps of Samphire Hoe Country Park near Dover. As it was an extremely hot day and there was no shade, I found it very hard going and ended up walking the last 30 miles. I finished just inside the 32-hour cut-off and my feet were so sore I took my shoes off 10 metres before the finish line and walked in barefoot.
“Combining training with my job and being a mum can be difficult. I work from home a couple of days a week and when I do I combine walking the children to school with a 30-minute run in the morning, or I run to pick the girls up from the childminder in the evening, stop in the park and, while they play, I do some strength training. I also often get up at 5am in order to t in an hour-long run before the children wake up and it’s time to get ready for work and school.
“My relationship with my body has changed significantly since I’ve been running ultras: I no longer think about what I look like, I’m just in awe of what my body can do. Ironically, since I’ve accepted myself and concentrated on fuelling for training, I’ve lost weight and my running is stronger than ever. I’ve learned not to wait to be faster, fitter, leaner or more experienced before going for your goals. If I’d done that, I never would’ve achieved my ultimate dream of running 100 miles.”
Words: Lisa Jackson