From 5km to 100 miles….All you need is a lot of love and little bit of crazy! by Zoe McLennan


Most of us are not in the fortunate few where our sport is our career and for those non pros amongst us then we do our sport purely for the passion and the “fun” of it. I’ve always had an outlook that everything we do is all for the story book of life and when we are old, drinking tea and eating cake in our rocking chairs we can look back on the adventures we had and think “yep, I did some pretty cool shit in my time”.

For those of you that know me then you know that my life is all about my running (and my dog!), I just love it! But it wasn’t always that way. I only took up running 10 years ago and before that let’s just say the only running I would do was to catch last orders at the pub! That’s is a bit of a lie, I went to the gym like most people and worked my way around the cardio machines for an hour or so a few times a week but a “runner” I was definitely not. However I decided to do Telford 10k in 2008 and thought a 20 min run on the treadmill was enough to prepare me for a running race…how wrong I was! I remember turning up and seeing all the fast guys in their shorts and vest in the middle of December about 3 degrees outside and just thinking they were mental, and even more mental that they would go running before the start, why the hell would you want to do extra miles than is necessary in the race?! How little I knew!! 50+ minutes later and my 10k was complete. The 10k led into doing a half marathon which the led into a marathon. I can honestly say that I wasn’t that bothered about the whole running thing until I ran a marathon and then I was hooked! The sense of achievement was something that I will never forget and is the same every time I cross the finish line of a marathon as no matter how fit and fast you are it is no easy feat. The phrase “it doesn’t get easier you just get faster” may be cheesy but it is so true. However I remember finishing the marathon and looking at the fast front runners and wondering how can I get there? I also quickly learnt that 3 hours is the magic barrier to break in the marathon world, even more so for females. I remember saying to Phil, my other half) there and then that I wasn’t going to stop until I ran a sub 3 marathon (I ran that race in 3h52 mins so I had a long way to go!).

And that was my goal for the foreseeable future to chase the magic “3 hour marathon”. During which time I happened to read the book ‘Ultra Marathon Man’ by Dean Karnazes. I had never even heard of an ultra marathon until this point and I followed his story of running 100 miles at the Western States 100 mile race in California. He describes it as the most horrendous thing ever with people collapsing, vomiting, not being able to walk never mind run, sleep deprivation, heat exhaustion and just sheer hell! I remember saying “I want to do that, I want to run 100 miles!”. I think he just thought I was mental but he also knows me too well and just answered with “one day”.

So I spent the next 4 years chasing the goal of a sub 3 hour marathon to achieve it at both Amsterdam and then Manchester the following year with a PB of 2:51. So I had to ask myself what do I do now that I have achieved my running goal? There was only one answer… ultra! So most people would start on the ultra road with maybe 55km race or something like that but I figured ‘in for a penny in for a pound’ so entered a 75 mile race around the Llyn Peninsular in North Wales. The biggest learning curve for ultras is the nutrition, get that bit right and you’re half way there. So many people struggle with the nutrition side of things in long distance running so I made sure that I had this bit dialled before the race. If you have seen Brad Pitt in Ocean’s Eleven then I took my inspiration from him….every scene you see him, he is eating! Well this is how I approach an ultra, I graze my way through it. The race itself was awesome but brutal, I was ok until about mile 45 but then started to get a pain in my hip and it only got worse, however, I did know at the 60 mile marker I would see Phil again and he would be running the last 15 miles with me. It was also on road so I thought this has got to be the easy bit as I am a road runner. Again in my racing career, I was severely wrong! The pain in my hip just got worse as did my metal state. At this point I was 2nd female with 1st just minutes ahead of me so it made me even more determined to dig deeper. By the time we hit the tarmac I was a mess and running wasn’t really an option due to the shooting pain through my hip and as any good boyfriend should at this point, he said nothing but just ran along side me keeping me moving. I grinded out the last 15 miles to keep 2nd and was chuffed to finish 2nd female and 3rd overall in the race. The world of pain that was ahead of me for the next 4 days was nothing I had ever experienced before. Running a marathon comes with a physical and mental pain that you know will stop the moment you cross that finish line and stop running however in an ultra that pain doesn’t stop, it just gets worse! Sleeping will not be an option!! Delirious twitching and pain lies ahead. So following this race of hell you would think that most people would never go back…well that is the problem with ultra runners, we are all a bunch of nutters!

Since the 75 miler I have done a couple of 50 milers which were awesome, one was ‘Lakes in a Day’ over some of the hardest peaks in the Lake District in biblical rain, wind and hail and the other the 50 mile route of the Llyn Peninsular Ultra. But the idea of the 100 kept playing on my mind so when I looked up how to enter the Iconic Western States 100, it said that you had to run a qualifying race and one of these races was the ‘Lakeland 100’, a 105 mile route over the fells in the Lake District. I hadn’t really given it a chance to sink in about what 105 miles with over 20,000 feet of climbing in actually meant! But sod it, get the entry in and worry about it later!

So 2018 came round, and many weekends were spent running the hills up in the Lakes with my running buddy Merlin (at this point the UK’s fittest border collie) as well as any mates I could get to tag along with me for the ride!! Lots of random bus journeys around the Lakes to get to secluded spots to just start running.

Roll on Friday 27th August at 6pm….. so not only was 100 miles the most daunting thing ever but also the fact that you have to run through the night! Night running for an hour with mates, the dog and head torch is one thing but running all night and missing a night’s sleep is another. So 420+ nutters, sorry I mean runners, line up on the start line on the Friday evening in 30 degree sweltering heat following the race briefing where they highlighted to us that only half of the room will finish the race, quite a sobering note. The gun goes and we’re off!! I find myself in the front pack as we set off, not where I had planned to be but wasn’t worried, I was happy to let people pass me. The other runners are one of two: a) they are shit hot and you couldn’t keep up with them if you tried or b) they are going to blow up further down the line and you will see them again. So no point chasing! And especially in the first few miles of a 100 mile race.

The race soon spreads out and people just naturally fall into small groups of runners. I was lucky to hook up with a girl Hayley along with 2 other guys after about 3 hours of running and we continued to run together well into and through the night. Hayley and one of the guys dropped back in the early hours of the morning so myself and Alistair Hearne pushed on as we felt good. What I didn’t know at this point was that Alistair was to be my knight in shining armour and get me to that finish line! If you are ever going to buddy up with someone then a mountain guide who lives in the Lake District and knows the route like the back of his hand was a good find!! By 6am the warm weather had long gone and the Lakes was showing its true colours with torrential rain, hail and driving cold winds. The weather was set for the day so it was going to be a slog of a race. By the morning I had moved up into 4th female and had every intention of keeping it. The problem is that you have no idea how far the runner in front is or how far the runner behind is. I knew that the 1st lady Sabrina Verjee was way up front and in second overall at that point, soon to take the lead overall and hold this until the end when she took a wrong turn and ended up losing the race by 10 minutes. But apart from that I had no idea where the other female runners were, but to be honest there was such a long way to go that I had to just concentrate on my own race. Coming into Dalemain at the 60 mile marker was a particularly low point for both Alistair and I, I remember thinking that there was a bloody long way to go and I was feeling pretty awful; my legs were hurting, my feet were hurting and I was knackered. I think this was the sleep deprivation that was taking over at this point. At the next checkpoint I had two friends Rick and Clare waiting for me and to see their faces just made me feel so much better 😊. A change of socks, a dry top and a dry waterproof jacket + some Rice Krispies and some more coke (2 litres down, many more to go! Coke is the saviour in an ultra!!) and we were off again. My dry feet and body lasted about 60 seconds until the heavens opened as we set off and I was drenched again in no time! Oh well, 60 seconds was better than none!

I knew that my family were waiting for me at the 90 mile marker in Ambleside so I knew that I had to get to there. By mile 75/80 my feet had started to fall apart, they were starting to really hurt and just didn’t want to run! But this was not an option. I knew I had so many friends and family following me back home so I know it was time to dig deep and push on. The back end of the race was never going to be easy but it really was brutal. Alistair was awesome and just kept me running, although I can definitely say that I have perfected the Ironman shuffle for those who know what that is! You hit some all time lows that only you can get yourself out of. I just wanted to cry. And I did. For no real reason, just because I was exhausted and it made me feel better for a few seconds. At this point Alistair ran ahead knowing I was having a low patch and just left me to deal with it myself. Normal banter resumed for a bit and I had got myself out of my pit.

Running into Ambleside at mile 89 and seeing my friends and family was just the best moment ever. I was so broken by this point with a lot of pain in my feet and legs but their encouragement and support was just mega and made me realise that I can do this and its going to take something major for me not to finish now. I’ll drag my ass to that finish line, whatever it takes!

The next 15 miles were the longest 15 miles of my life, literally! I think it took us nearly 4 hours to shuffle 15 miles. Granted we had to run (walk!) over a number of peaks but I just thought it was never going to end. By this point I was delirious and my brain was not working properly so my game plan was just to follow Alistair’s feet all the way to the end.

My second night out running drew in and I knew I was out there for another few hours yet! My goal was to come in by midnight so we just marched and ran as much as we could to get there. The pain in my feet was unreal and any normal person on any normal run would have given up a long time ago but when you have come this far it is going to take a broken leg or getting struck by lightning to stop me.

The last decent into Coniston where the finish line is was one of the most technical descents on the whole run so just what you need at the end of the race! You can see the lights in the distance of where you need to be but they don’t seem to be getting any closer. I managed to fall and do something to my ankle which thank god was at the end as it really started to hurt then. Shuffling down the village and coming into the finish was just the most amazing feeling that I just can’t put into words. Sense of achievement doesn’t even come close and to finish 4th lady in my 1st 100 in one of the biggest ultra races in the UK was just amazing. However the adrenaline soon left me and I just collapsed onto a chair. My friends Rick and Clare managed to roll me into the car and take me back to theirs where I proceeded to pass out in bed for the next 10 hours!

Lessons learnt from my race – 2 things that you need to complete a 100 mile ultra are: 1) running poles and 2) a sense of humour. Without both of these you are destined to fail. The poles will become your best friend and if you can’t laugh at the shit that you are going through then you will spend 100 miles crying!

A massive thank you goes to Alistair for getting me to the finish line, Rick & Clare for being the best support crew ever, my family for driving up from Chester to give me the lift I needed 90 miles in (they will never understand how much it meant to me), and Phil for always encouraging me and inspiring me every day to dream big and never give up.

My point to this story is to show you that you can achieve whatever you set yourself. Ok if you set yourself the goal of being the next Mo Farah then you will no doubt be sadly disappointed however setting real life goals that might seem so far from possible right now really can become possible with hard work and dedication. Take it from a girl who couldn’t run one mile without a walking break 10 years ago to running 105 miles in 30 hours non-stop. Your only limiter is your mind, we are all born with 2 arms and 2 legs, what sets us apart is where we draw the line mentally. There will be challenges along the way but these are what make us mentally tougher and even more determined to succeed, do not be scared of failure, every great person has failed, the best have failed more than most.

And at the end of the day, whatever happens, it’s another chapter in the story book of life!

Here’s to the next adventure and the dream of one day running the Western States 100……

Over and out,