Ordinary Women Being Extraordinary
Mimi Anderson, 55, is an ultra runner and a phenomenon – the very definition of endurance woman. She doesn’t give up. She finds opportunities when things change. At the start of this week, she tweeted: ‘I’ve had 18 years of running around the world it’s been AMAZING but I stay positive that new & exciting adventures will happen with my cycling & swimming: When one door closes another opens. There’s always another door we just need to search for it!’
I don’t have the space to list the multiple record holder’s achievements and fortunately she’s selected her highlights on her own blog, which include running double versions of ‘hard to get your head around’ ultra races such as, Badwater, the Grand Union Canal 145 mile race and Spartathlon. Mimi’s recently documented her running life in a book, Beyond Impossible: From Reluctant Runner to Guinness World Record Breaker. I spoke to her (interestingly, my longest interview to date) about her life as a runner and how she’s adapting after a recent run-stopping injury…
‘I’ve bought myself a turbo, and I’m having swimming lessons,’ Mimi tells me as we start to chat. ‘I promised myself I’d learn how to do front crawl.’ She started learning to swim on the 5th January, by blowing bubbles in the water. As a child she’d seen her sister nearly drown and had she says subconsciously it turned her against swimming. But now she’s up to swimming one length without stopping, and although she finds it frustrating she’s feeling determined. But why is the record-breaking ultra runner swimming?
In 2017, Mimi ran 2, 217.2 miles across the USA, that’s three quarters of the way across the third largest Continent in just 40 days. She was aiming to run 2,850 miles in 53 days but the excruciating pain of serious knee injury that if she’d carried on running would have left her in wheelchair meant the end of the challenge – and for now, it seems an end to her running career. ‘Bone was rubbing against bone and the pain levels were unbearable, even for me,’ she says.
‘At first I felt like I’d lost my identity,’ says Mimi, who’s been running big challenges for 18 years. ‘It’s been like grieving. But, I’ve shaken myself up and I’m focussed on looking forward. I’m thinking about maybe doing a half Ironman and I’ve entered a big bike ride. I can’t think small,’ she adds laughing.
Mimi’s running career did, however, start with a small idea. ‘I wanted thinner legs,’ she admits. ‘I hadn’t done any sport since school and when I first went to the gym and got on the treadmill, I felt very self-conscious. My first goal was to run a mile.’
Before her 18-year relationship with running, she’d had almost the same amount of time caught up in a far less healthy battle, with the eating disorder, anorexia nervosa. ‘Like lots of girls it started off at school when someone called me fat. I was at a boarding school which I loved and in sports was quite competitive. The weight loss began by cutting down on second helpings, then puddings until eventually I was skipping meals. But I’m an addictive type and I soon became obsessed with losing weight and keeping it off.’
Mimi managed her anorexia and in 1985 gave birth to Emma and had her second child Ruariadh in 1987 but after each birth the cycle would start again. Mimi was weighing herself about 10 times a day, taking over 100 laxatives and vomiting when she did eat food – this had to stop. She eventually plucked up the courage to go and see her doctor to ask for help and was treated as an outpatient at St George’s hospital. Part of the treatment was having to consume 3,000 calories a day, ‘This was terrifying,’ she says. ‘But I continued to lose weight. By the time my third child, Harry came along in 1993, I was weighing myself up to 10 times a day.’
‘After eight weeks of treatment at St George’s it was obvious it wasn’t working so it was decided that Mimi should be admitted as an impatient at an eating disorder unit. With children to care for Mimi decided she had to find an alternative way of overcoming her anorexia and a friend recommended she tried hypnotherapy.
‘At first, I’d hear the traffic, all the noises around me, but couldn’t open my eyes. I was certain I couldn’t be hypnotised, and would sometimes be naughty and scratch my nose or twitch my face to show I wasn’t hypnotised. But eventually, stuff came out, things I’d forgotten and had planted deep within myself. After one year, I knew I was free of my eating disorder.’
A new beginning
In 1999, Mimi took her running outside. ‘The significance of the distance I ran didn’t occur to me. I just loved the freedom, and very quickly I was running five miles out and five miles back. It felt natural to me.’
With long distance running Mimi had found her peace. A 10K was quickly followed by the Hastings Half Marathon in 2000. Next she had entered and completed the Thames Path Meander – ‘I wasn’t frightened by the distance, I saw it as an adventure’ – and then in 2001, she was one of just 12 women (now there are 40 plus women) who took on the race described as the ‘toughest footrace on the earth’, the Marathon Des Sables, a multi-stage 251K ultra marathon, held in the Sahara desert and run over six days. ‘I was one of a team of three, called Tuff Muthers. We were very lucky in that we managed to get sponsorship and were able to pay for a week’s training in Lanzarote. We turned up at the gym in our heels and the trainer looked at us as if were mad, and said, in disbelief you really think you can run in a desert? By the time we’d finished the week’s training, he said he’d never seen anyone work so hard and had no doubts were up for the challenge.’
The Marathon Des Sables
But, when it did come to the race, Mimi hit an unexpected barrier. ‘I was put on a drip for dehydration and felt awful. It had never occurred to me that I may not come home with a medal, that I may not complete the race, but on the day before the longest day of the race, it was looking like some far-off dream.’ A hug and some words from her friend reminded her why she would complete the race. ‘Just think of all the people expecting you to fail,’ she’d said. ‘As I watched the runners ahead of me pouring over the Dunes like ants, tears rolled down my cheeks, and I promised myself I’d finish.
‘It was such a fantastic feeling. I’d proven I wasn’t some dumb blonde on a long holiday, I felt as though I could achieve anything. As for the medal, I slept with it for the whole week after the race!’
Let the Good Times Roll
From then on Mimi’s achievements continued with one or more big races every year. It seems strange to not mention all of her challenges, one of them, for example, coming third in the Marathon of Britain, a 175-mile run done over six days, would be enough for most of us to dine out on for a lifetime, but for Mimi there are so many epic achievements, that it has to be edited highlights.
‘I’d heard about Badwater around the end of 2003. Back then not so much was shared online so I was gleaning bits of information. I knew not many Brits had done it and that to run it you had to qualify by running 100 miles in under 40 hours. I set my sights on the Grand Union Canal race, and everyone told me I was mad to go for sub 40 hours. I ran it in 39’39.
Badwater covers 135 miles (217km) non-stop, starting in Badwater Basin, Death Valley, at the lowest elevation in North America at 280’ (85m) below sea level and finishing at Whitney Portal at 8,300’ (2530m), which is the trailhead to the Mt. Whitney summit, the highest point in the contiguous United States. The course covers three mountain ranges for a total of 14,600’ (4450m) of cumulative vertical ascent and 6,100’ (1859m) of cumulative descent. ‘It’s held in July, it’s very hot and there was a time limit of 60 hours,(now it’s 48 hours)’ explains Mimi. ‘It was a must-do,’ she adds. Mimi first ran the race in 2005 and managed to run under 48 hours (41 hours and five mins) which meant she was awarded the much coveted ‘Buckle’. You can read her blog here. Then in 2011, Mimi went on to a far greater challenge, running the race twice. She became the female course record holder, completing the 292 miles in 108 hrs 10 mins 24 seconds (at the time the third fastest ever crossing). Read more about that race here.
So how did Mimi, a mum of three fit in the training and commitment required to complete these challenges? ‘Running became my full-time job,’ she says. ‘But I still made sure it fitted around family life, running a baseline of five sessions a week on Monday to Friday, and then doing nothing at all on Sunday as this was family time.’ Like many of the elite, long distance athletes I’ve spoken to, Mimi avoided getting too hung up with stats. ‘I had no idea how many miles I ran. I never kept a journal or logs. I had no phone, no watch, no GPS and when I did have a plan it had to be very flexible, especially when racing. I had to listen to my body and realise I could only run as fast as it would allow me to (I’m not naturally fast but I can go long!).’ But setting a clear goal was vital. ‘Without a goal race I would just be floating along,’ explains Mimi.
What about the mind? Do long distance runners in particular need to focus their attention on training their mind? ‘I believe the mind plays a huge part in my ability to run long and keep going. I’m someone who is happy to put myself out there. I’m determined, and I don’t like to fail.
‘Before I race I like to reccy the course and familiarise myself with the hills, the flats, the hard and easy parts. I like to look at photos of others who’ve done the race. When I’m running I keep looking forward at what’s ahead, and avoid looking around. Running for 30-plus hours requires me to empty my head of all thoughts. I listen to music – and I cry. Crying is a great way to release pent-up emotions. I also use visualisation and picture my family at the finish line.’
After the initial disappointment about her injury and having to abandon her run across America, it’s clear that Mimi has applied all she’s learnt as a runner to his next chapter, where she’s learning to swim, discovering Zwift and even buying brightly coloured socks for cycling! Mimi went from ordinary mum to extraordinary athlete, inspiring others along the way. Now as she heads off on the journey to be a triathlete, this extraordinary grandmother is a trail blazer in true endurance woman-style showing 50 plus women what’s possible. Take a leaf out of Mimi’s book and put yourself out there. You never know what’s ahead until you try.
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