Women Who've Conquered Extreme Physical Challenges

Find out how these ladies found the inner strength to take on everything from Everest to ultramarathons
ByJennifer GibsonWednesday , 08 January 2014
Laura Connelly, 29: Brit Laura was ready to run the New York Marathon in 2012 when Hurricane Sandy disrupted her plans. After resuming training, she finally crossed her first finish line in Edinburgh earlier this year. “I’d been doing some volunteer work for the UK’s Help a Capital Child charity when one of the organisation’s reps convinced me to sign up for the New York Marathon. It seemed like a good deal – a weekend in New York City raising lots of money for a great cause and all I had to do was run a few kilometres (42.2 to be precise). I’d only started running a year earlier and wouldn’t have described myself as keen, but I do enjoy a challenge. I started working on my fitness and before signing up for the full marathon, I completed a 10km race in Chamonix and the Brighton half marathon. Then, sixteen weeks before the race, I embarked on a serious training plan. Nevertheless, it wasn’t easy. Two months before the race, I moved to Dubai and started a new job. Finding running routes and getting used to the September heat was tough enough without a hectic work schedule. Then, when race week came around, I arrived in NYC to find chaos and destruction in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, and was dismayed to find out the race had been cancelled moments before. As consolation, we ran a couple of laps of Central Park with several thousand other runners instead. It was a gorgeous crisp autumn day and the atmosphere was upbeat – but the challenge remained. I couldn’t let the charity down so I needed to find another race. I finally completed the challenge in Edinburgh in May 2013. People talk about hitting the wall and for me that came around kilometre 27. I was physically and mentally exhausted, my legs were cramping and I was a long way from home. But by 30km, I got a second wind. I was nearly there, it hurt less to run than walk and the distance I had left was nothing compared to that I’d already run. There was a lot to motivate me as well. The route along the east coast of Scotland was stunning and quite nostalgic for me as the race finished at my old school. The scenery, the atmosphere and the amazing camaraderie from other runners distracted me from the run itself, while knowing I was helping a worthy cause kept me moving forward. To be honest, as amazing as it was, when the run ended I genuinely could not imagine ever doing it again. I was sure once was enough – and yet, I’m now training for my second marathon. My boyfriend and I will run together for a cancer charity to support his recently diagnosed uncle. Once again, a good cause is the key driver, but I’m glad to be taking on the challenge again. With the right training and attitude I really believe anyone, regardless of age or fitness, can finish a marathon and it’s such a rewarding experience, physically and mentally. It’s just about keeping your head up, being positive and not letting your body be constrained by your mind. Your body is stronger than you imagine.
© ITP Images
Laura Connelly, 29: Brit Laura was ready to run the New York Marathon in 2012 when Hurricane Sandy disrupted her plans. After resuming training, she finally crossed her first finish line in Edinburgh earlier this year. “I’d been doing some volunteer work for the UK’s Help a Capital Child charity when one of the organisation’s reps convinced me to sign up for the New York Marathon. It seemed like a good deal – a weekend in New York City raising lots of money for a great cause and all I had to do was run a few kilometres (42.2 to be precise). I’d only started running a year earlier and wouldn’t have described myself as keen, but I do enjoy a challenge. I started working on my fitness and before signing up for the full marathon, I completed a 10km race in Chamonix and the Brighton half marathon. Then, sixteen weeks before the race, I embarked on a serious training plan. Nevertheless, it wasn’t easy. Two months before the race, I moved to Dubai and started a new job. Finding running routes and getting used to the September heat was tough enough without a hectic work schedule. Then, when race week came around, I arrived in NYC to find chaos and destruction in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, and was dismayed to find out the race had been cancelled moments before. As consolation, we ran a couple of laps of Central Park with several thousand other runners instead. It was a gorgeous crisp autumn day and the atmosphere was upbeat – but the challenge remained. I couldn’t let the charity down so I needed to find another race. I finally completed the challenge in Edinburgh in May 2013. People talk about hitting the wall and for me that came around kilometre 27. I was physically and mentally exhausted, my legs were cramping and I was a long way from home. But by 30km, I got a second wind. I was nearly there, it hurt less to run than walk and the distance I had left was nothing compared to that I’d already run. There was a lot to motivate me as well. The route along the east coast of Scotland was stunning and quite nostalgic for me as the race finished at my old school. The scenery, the atmosphere and the amazing camaraderie from other runners distracted me from the run itself, while knowing I was helping a worthy cause kept me moving forward. To be honest, as amazing as it was, when the run ended I genuinely could not imagine ever doing it again. I was sure once was enough – and yet, I’m now training for my second marathon. My boyfriend and I will run together for a cancer charity to support his recently diagnosed uncle. Once again, a good cause is the key driver, but I’m glad to be taking on the challenge again. With the right training and attitude I really believe anyone, regardless of age or fitness, can finish a marathon and it’s such a rewarding experience, physically and mentally. It’s just about keeping your head up, being positive and not letting your body be constrained by your mind. Your body is stronger than you imagine.
Fiona Winterburn, 41: Scot Fiona took on Everest last year, reaching base camp following a strenuous 21-day trek. Earlier this year, she followed it up by climbing Mount Kilimanjaro. “Last year, when I decided to leave my old job, I felt I was in a rut. My confidence and self-belief were low and so, before moving onto something new, I decided it would be good to take time out and challenge myself. I remembered seeing photos on Facebook of a friend who had been to Everest base camp and, thinking it seemed an amazing thing to do, I booked a trip to leave two weeks later! With no real time to train, I realised the only climbing I had done was as a kid with my parents in Scotland, most of which I hated. Nevertheless, I bought a good pair of hiking boots and, with a fortnight to break them in, set about wearing them all the time. I certainly got a few funny looks in the mall. I would put my boots on and walk up and down the stairs in my building time after time, and I did a lot of cycling too. Both helped build my stamina and endurance, which are what you need for long treks. Physically the Everest trip was very long – we walked over 120km in 10 days, which doesn’t sound like much until you consider it was all at altitude above 2500 metres. Mentally, you have to adapt to the monotony – get up, dress, have breakfast, walk, have lunch, walk, have dinner, bed, repeat. Strangely, that became part of the allure. With no real decisions to be made, life is basic. You eat for fuel, you stay warm, you rest, you breathe and you walk. Each day gets harder as you deal with higher altitudes. The air has only 50 per cent oxygen and it gets very cold, so breathing becomes difficult. You get hot walking then, as soon as you stop, you cool down and can quickly suffer from hypothermia. Sleep is difficult. And of course, altitude sickness can kill. One of our team was airlifted from Everest and someone died two days ahead of us on the trek. There’s always a risk involved. But the stunning scenery kept us going. By the time you reach base camp you really feel you are in the middle of the earth. Nothing lives on the glacier, there are no plants, no animals. It is truly spectacular. Kilimanjaro, however, was very different. It was a much shorter trip and, while I thought I knew what to expect, climbing to a higher altitude in a shorter time was much tougher than I anticipated. I suffered slight altitude sickness, my nose and lips were blistered from the cold and I suffered ‘kumba cough’, where the lining of your lungs is damaged from breathing air with depleted oxygen. I’m not normally much of a crybaby but I broke down several times and wanted to give up. Thankfully, getting to the summit brought a massive sense of achievement and I found it really emotional. You realise how strong you are as a person. I now know that, while it’s easy to give up at the first hurdle, I have the capability to dig deep. I have a great life here in Dubai, with a great job, great friends and a wonderful lifestyle. So climbing mountains and going back to basics, that’s my reality check.
© ITP Images
Fiona Winterburn, 41: Scot Fiona took on Everest last year, reaching base camp following a strenuous 21-day trek. Earlier this year, she followed it up by climbing Mount Kilimanjaro. “Last year, when I decided to leave my old job, I felt I was in a rut. My confidence and self-belief were low and so, before moving onto something new, I decided it would be good to take time out and challenge myself. I remembered seeing photos on Facebook of a friend who had been to Everest base camp and, thinking it seemed an amazing thing to do, I booked a trip to leave two weeks later! With no real time to train, I realised the only climbing I had done was as a kid with my parents in Scotland, most of which I hated. Nevertheless, I bought a good pair of hiking boots and, with a fortnight to break them in, set about wearing them all the time. I certainly got a few funny looks in the mall. I would put my boots on and walk up and down the stairs in my building time after time, and I did a lot of cycling too. Both helped build my stamina and endurance, which are what you need for long treks. Physically the Everest trip was very long – we walked over 120km in 10 days, which doesn’t sound like much until you consider it was all at altitude above 2500 metres. Mentally, you have to adapt to the monotony – get up, dress, have breakfast, walk, have lunch, walk, have dinner, bed, repeat. Strangely, that became part of the allure. With no real decisions to be made, life is basic. You eat for fuel, you stay warm, you rest, you breathe and you walk. Each day gets harder as you deal with higher altitudes. The air has only 50 per cent oxygen and it gets very cold, so breathing becomes difficult. You get hot walking then, as soon as you stop, you cool down and can quickly suffer from hypothermia. Sleep is difficult. And of course, altitude sickness can kill. One of our team was airlifted from Everest and someone died two days ahead of us on the trek. There’s always a risk involved. But the stunning scenery kept us going. By the time you reach base camp you really feel you are in the middle of the earth. Nothing lives on the glacier, there are no plants, no animals. It is truly spectacular. Kilimanjaro, however, was very different. It was a much shorter trip and, while I thought I knew what to expect, climbing to a higher altitude in a shorter time was much tougher than I anticipated. I suffered slight altitude sickness, my nose and lips were blistered from the cold and I suffered ‘kumba cough’, where the lining of your lungs is damaged from breathing air with depleted oxygen. I’m not normally much of a crybaby but I broke down several times and wanted to give up. Thankfully, getting to the summit brought a massive sense of achievement and I found it really emotional. You realise how strong you are as a person. I now know that, while it’s easy to give up at the first hurdle, I have the capability to dig deep. I have a great life here in Dubai, with a great job, great friends and a wonderful lifestyle. So climbing mountains and going back to basics, that’s my reality check.
Doris Matlock, 44: Having completed numerous marathons and beaten a series of Ironman challenges, Aussie lawyer Doris decided to take on the world’s ‘ultramarathons’, traversing the Sahara and the Gobi Desert. “Last year, I was looking for a new challenge. I’d competed in various triathlons, including two Ironmans, but wanted to return to my first love of running. I was looking for the chance to combine it with my love of travel, so taking part in ultramarathons seemed like the natural next step. An ultramarathon is any running event that is longer than the standard 42.2km, but I chose to take on the Sahara Race, a seven day challenge where you run a marathon a day for four days, followed by an 85 km stretch known as the Long March. The Sahara race is one of a group of events called the 4 Deserts, which are fully self-supported, 250km races. Each competitor must carry their own food and clothing for the week, as well as a sleeping bag and mandatory equipment like a medical kit, lights, a whistle and toilet paper. It adds up to a kit weighing 10.5kg, which you carry on your back throughout the race. You also have to take on an additional 1.5kg each time you pick up your quota of drinking water, which is one of only two things provided by the race organisers. The other is a tent to sleep in, which I shared with seven other competitors. The race organisers are on hand if you need medical support, but that’s it. There are no washing facilities for the entire race and you are not allowed to use drinking water to wash yourself or your clothing. While it was tough, my strength training meant my legs were strong and I didn’t suffer muscular pain. Instead, what I found most challenging was pushing through the pain in my feet. By day two, they were badly blistered, and at the end, my feet were covered in wounds and heavily taped. The pain was incredible – every step felt like my shoes were filled with rocks and broken glass. In contrast, when I took on Gobi earlier this year I’d learned a lot. I didn’t suffer from many blisters and my backpack was a lot lighter due to finding lighter equipment. The terrain and climate were very different, cool during the day and quite cold at night, with a lot of climbing and descending. The Long March was actually cut short as hail and snow meant there were concerns the runners could suffer hypothermia. Completing two races means I have now qualified to take on the Antarctica Race, which I’m hoping to complete in 2014. The challenges are extreme, but I’m spurred on by the support of friends and family in the UAE and around the world. A close friend has bipolar disorder, so with the Sahara race, I was raising funds for an Australian support and research organisation. As there is currently no centralised organisation here in the UAE dealing with mental health, this year I’ve focused on raising awareness rather than funds, and I’m hoping to build on that platform to help create a mental health organisation in the UAE. That goal drives me to keep competing. These types of challenges really push you to your physical and mental limits and it can be easy to doubt your ability to finish. Crossing the finish line is exhilarating and makes you realise that you can achieve anything if you put your mind to it.
© ITP Images
Doris Matlock, 44: Having completed numerous marathons and beaten a series of Ironman challenges, Aussie lawyer Doris decided to take on the world’s ‘ultramarathons’, traversing the Sahara and the Gobi Desert. “Last year, I was looking for a new challenge. I’d competed in various triathlons, including two Ironmans, but wanted to return to my first love of running. I was looking for the chance to combine it with my love of travel, so taking part in ultramarathons seemed like the natural next step. An ultramarathon is any running event that is longer than the standard 42.2km, but I chose to take on the Sahara Race, a seven day challenge where you run a marathon a day for four days, followed by an 85 km stretch known as the Long March. The Sahara race is one of a group of events called the 4 Deserts, which are fully self-supported, 250km races. Each competitor must carry their own food and clothing for the week, as well as a sleeping bag and mandatory equipment like a medical kit, lights, a whistle and toilet paper. It adds up to a kit weighing 10.5kg, which you carry on your back throughout the race. You also have to take on an additional 1.5kg each time you pick up your quota of drinking water, which is one of only two things provided by the race organisers. The other is a tent to sleep in, which I shared with seven other competitors. The race organisers are on hand if you need medical support, but that’s it. There are no washing facilities for the entire race and you are not allowed to use drinking water to wash yourself or your clothing. While it was tough, my strength training meant my legs were strong and I didn’t suffer muscular pain. Instead, what I found most challenging was pushing through the pain in my feet. By day two, they were badly blistered, and at the end, my feet were covered in wounds and heavily taped. The pain was incredible – every step felt like my shoes were filled with rocks and broken glass. In contrast, when I took on Gobi earlier this year I’d learned a lot. I didn’t suffer from many blisters and my backpack was a lot lighter due to finding lighter equipment. The terrain and climate were very different, cool during the day and quite cold at night, with a lot of climbing and descending. The Long March was actually cut short as hail and snow meant there were concerns the runners could suffer hypothermia. Completing two races means I have now qualified to take on the Antarctica Race, which I’m hoping to complete in 2014. The challenges are extreme, but I’m spurred on by the support of friends and family in the UAE and around the world. A close friend has bipolar disorder, so with the Sahara race, I was raising funds for an Australian support and research organisation. As there is currently no centralised organisation here in the UAE dealing with mental health, this year I’ve focused on raising awareness rather than funds, and I’m hoping to build on that platform to help create a mental health organisation in the UAE. That goal drives me to keep competing. These types of challenges really push you to your physical and mental limits and it can be easy to doubt your ability to finish. Crossing the finish line is exhilarating and makes you realise that you can achieve anything if you put your mind to it.

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