Many people have caught the running bug, but few to the same extent as Susannah Gill.
Ten years ago Gill was a novice preparing for her first London Marathon. Fast-forward to last Thursday and she was crossing the finish line in Miami to complete a remarkable feat of endurance.
Gill’s 26.2 miles in Florida was the final leg of a gruelling seven marathons in seven days on seven continents. Not only did the 34-year-old Londoner take home a medal, she claimed a World Marathon Challenge world record for the fastest time by a woman, achieving the feat in 24 hours and 19 minutes – an average of three hours and 28 minutes per marathon – to beat the previous best by over three hours.
For someone who took up running simply to get fit and cross the finish line on The Mall, it’s quite the leap.
“I’d run a little at university to keep fit, but I’d not done any competitions,” she tells City A.M. “I’d lived in London for two years and I wanted to do the London Marathon. It’s such an inspirational day, so I thought I’d have a go. That was 2009 and I’ve done every year since. I keep meaning to stop running, but I love it so much.
“My first marathon was 3:34 minutes and I wanted to get under 3:30, which took three attempts, and by the time I’d done that I was addicted.”
Forty-five marathons later and the communications director found herself drawn to follow in the footsteps of fewer than 200 people, including explorer Sir Ranulph Fiennes, and take on the World Marathon Challenge. After taking the plunge, paying the £31,500 entry fee and agreeing to raise money for SportsAid, she got straight to training in September.
“It was eat, sleep, work, run, repeat,” says Gill, who works for the Alizeti Group, which is working on a deal to buy horse racing bookmaker the Tote. “In the last five months I haven’t been enormously sociable because I’ve been training pretty much every evening after work. Then on a typical weekend I’ll run three hours on Saturday then compete in a marathon on Sunday, or do a four-hour run. By the time you’ve done that you haven’t got a lot of energy left for anything else.”
Gill often walks the 50 minutes along the Thames from her home in Vauxhall to work in Temple and has running routes all around south London, taking in Clapham, Streatham and Tooting. The steep hills of Greenwich Park helped with endurance, as did weekend trips to Shropshire for a change of scenery.
“I’m not bouncing into work after a long weekend of running, but you need to make sure you eat lots of food,” she says. “The two balance each other quite well because when you’ve been outside running all weekend, it’s nice to sit at a desk and use your brain instead.”
With training over it was time to undertake the challenge of a lifetime, with marathons in Antarctica, Cape Town, Perth, Dubai, Madrid, Santiago and Miami.
“My ambition to start with was just to complete it,” she says. “I had no concept that I could string together seven performances like that. Three or four maybe, but not seven.”
Alongside 39 other competitors, Gill was flown 55,000 miles around the globe in a chartered plane. While after running a conventional marathon you are afforded ample recovery time, Gill was quickly whisked off in the cramped confines of the cabin to the next leg.
“Flying around the world in between marathons is about the worst way you can recover,” she explains. “Your legs get heavy on the plane, so it looked funny with people having their legs up against the side to drain the blood, or using foam rollers to relax muscles and ice bags for sore joints.”
Beginning in the snow and freezing conditions of Nova in Antarctica, Gill then flew to South Africa for the second leg in 30C heat. The final five marathons were run at night and, with time zones blurring, the runners had to adapt to a strange routine.
“We got used to being semi-nocturnal, running at night and eating and sleeping on the plane in the day,” she says. “But the only times that registered with me were the times it took to run each marathon – everything else was completely fluid.”
Despite the challenges, Gill managed not just to complete the race but beat two professional runners and win it. It’s now back to work, but with the London and Manchester marathons in the diary and a desire to push herself in ultra-marathons there’s much more to come.
Gill hopes that her achievement and Jasmin Paris’s win in January’s 268-mile Spine Race will help inspire other women to take up running.
“I had no greater ambition than to run one marathon. I fell in love with running and if I can do this then lots of other people can too,” she says.
“It’s physical, but it’s very much a mental thing. It’s not about having big muscles – it’s about being very fit and being mentally strong.”