“It’s hard to believe I went from wheezing and walking when I tried to run two miles, 10 years ago, to where I am today – someone who’s completed the Marathon des Sables (MdS) and who’s aiming to one day run right around the world,” says Tish Joyce, 49, from Otley, West Yorkshire.
“I enjoyed cross-country at school, but then at 18 had my daughter. Juggling life as a single parent, studying and working forced running to take a backseat. However, by the age of 39, married with three step-children under six and a successful but busy career, I returned to it again as I felt unhealthy and overweight. I found running tough but persevered and finished my first half- marathon in Aviemore in 2:06, bursting into tears as I approached the finish line.
”A few days later, I signed up for one of the toughest marathons in the world, the 2008 Inca Trail Marathon in Peru, which involved running through three mountain passes at high altitude. I was delighted when I finished it in eight hours, three hours faster than I expected, coming sixth out of 14 runners. I carried on running and did four more marathons, but eventually that petered out due to family and work pressures, and I turned to wine for stress relief.
“The death of my stepfather Eric in December 2015 made me reassess my life. He died aged 81, but my father and brother had died in their early 30s and the reminded me how precious life is. My life was without purpose. My marriage was over. I was smoking and drinking. And, although outwardly successful, I was unhappy. I felt I owed it to everyone and myself to make the most of my life, so in January 2016 I entered the Great Wall Marathon (GWM), even though I could barely run 5K, which was due to take place in May.
“I trained a lot on stairs and was very glad I’d done so as there were 5,164 steps, unlike any I’ve ever seen in terms of their depth, gradient and irregularity. I finished in six hours, coming in the top third of female finishers. But it wasn’t about that. I was happy that I’d started to balance personal wellness with work, business travel and family responsibilities. I also stopped smoking. I’d been trying to quit for years and had been using e-cigarettes. I was getting increasingly addicted to them and so decided to go cold turkey by not taking them to China. And it worked.
“It wasn’t until I returned from China that I realised how much alcohol, too, was holding me back from achieving my goals. I was so used to drinking on a daily basis that it seemed normal – it felt more unusual not to drink. I needed a game changer to help me stop drinking, something I knew would demand 100 per cent commitment, and so I searched for the hardest race I could find and came up with the 156-mile MdS, dubbed the ‘toughest foot race on the planet’, where temperatures can reach 50 ̊C.
“I sought out a coach and in June 2016 went to see Rory Coleman, who’d completed the MdS 13 times, and is also a former alcoholic. Rory helped me realise how much alcohol was preventing me from being the person I wanted to be and a few weeks later I decided to quit drinking for life. It was really hard for the first few weeks: I was tearful, exhausted and couldn’t sleep. Rory was incredibly supportive and I couldn’t have done it without someone to text during the tough times. I’d lost 10kg leading up to the GWM and I lost another 6kg when I stopped drinking and increased my running.
“I had a major setback in August 2016 when a stress fracture in my foot required surgery to insert two screws, meaning I couldn’t run for 20 weeks. I was determined not to lose my fitness however, so I did strength training and hopped along trails using crutches.
“The following April I ran the MdS, finishing in the top 50 women. Aside from the birth of my daughter and granddaughter, it was the most incredible moment of my life. The people I shared this amazing experience with over seven days inspired and humbled me. I met people who’d lost both legs, and who’d survived heart attacks, cancer and other serious illnesses.
“The pure beauty of the desert is indescribable: seeing nothing but the Sahara in all its barren beauty was deeply moving. However hot it got, however hard the climbs got, I genuinely loved every single minute of it. The hardest part for me was having to ration even toilet paper as you have to carry all your supplies with you!
“I was really mad with myself the day after finishing, however, as I succumbed and had a drink to celebrate. It was then that an MdS tent-mate told me I was never going to find what I was searching for externally – that I needed to find peace within myself. His words really hit home. It wasn’t just about being physically fit, about running, about not drinking, there was something much deeper that I needed to resolve. I once again vowed to stop drinking and using food or alcohol as crutches. I began running almost daily and spending as much time in nature as I could. Now that I’m just as committed to my health as I am to my work, I feel balanced for the first time in my life.
“I’m going back to the Sahara next April and this time I’m striving to be in the top 10 women. And I’ve figured out the ultimate challenge: I’m going to break the world record to be the fastest female, and the fastest granny, to run around the world – a minimum distance of 16,300 miles. That should keep me on track for another few years. It’s early days and MdS 2018 comes first. But I’ve started my initial steps towards it and the journey to the start will be as much fun as the run itself.”
Words: Lisa Jackson