Last year, Shona Thomson became one of a handful of women to run a marathon on every continent. She tells us about her most recent adventure, the North Pole Marathon, and why it’s always wise to keep an eye out for polar bears …
WHO IS SHONA THOMSON?
Former Investment banker who has given up life in the City to embark upon a new challenge in life.
THE EARLY DAYS ...
I was a fairly serious runner in school, competing in cross-country, but then university and work came about and I let it go. I started training around eight years ago for some 10ks and, adding mileage gradually, the step-up just seemed natural.
RUNNING CV ...
When I moved to London I realised I missed running and took part in some 10ks. Then the marathons took hold; London (April), which allowed me to qualify for the Comrades (June) in South Africa, then the Antarctic (November) as the final one in 2012. Last year was a bit of a whirlwind too with Rio first (July), then to Australia for the Perth Marathon (August) before Vietnam (September).
IS THE COMRADES NOT AN ULTRA?
It is, just over 56 miles between Durban and Pietermaritzburg. The race is ‘gun to gun’ with a 12 hour cut off, which means if you don’t make it in time you are removed from the course and it’s just tough luck. The last 10 miles of the race were absolutely brutal, along the side of the road you could see runners bleeding, vomiting, and crying.
WHERE DOES THE DETERMINATION COME FROM?
I’ve always set goals in life and after New York in 2010 I got hooked. And my folks took me across the West Highland Way when I was six; perhaps I owe my sense of adventure to them!
YOU’RE NOW PART OF THE SEVEN CONTINENTS CLUB?
I know, it’s so exclusive! To be honest I still don’t think of it as anything special. I’m proud of what I’ve achieved but thousands of runners set and accomplish their own goals every year, so I don’t regard what I’ve done as any different.
Waw perhaps the toughest of all (Shona, coincidentally, ran the first few miles of the race with SCOTTISH RUNNING GUIDE’s publisher, Terry). Even at the start time of 5am, the humidity was around 90% and temperature was creeping into the 30s. The organiser suggested to everyone running the marathon to drop down to the half, but having travelled so far I never even considered it.
AND THE CAREER CHANGE?
It's been quite a roller-coaster couple of years! I’m currently working with the Dame Kelly Holmes Legacy Trust, which promotes physical activity and helps to get young people passionate about sport. Recently become involved with Dr. Andrew Murray and as an ambassador for the 5x50 Challenge. In many ways my time is now my own and it’s rewarding in a very different sense to what I used to do.
TRAINING FOR THE NORTH POLE ...
Wasn't too different from a regular marathon; there were no climate chambers or altitude work and I kept to a schedule of four runs per week. Over the past couple of years, I’ve changed my approach slightly to focus on strength, dead-lifts, cleans, mobility and core work. The biggest task was ensuring I had the right kit (sometimes this is more important than fitness)!
WHAT WAS THE NORTH POLE LIKE?
I’ve had experience of running in polar conditions before, having run the Antarctic Ice Marathon in 2012, challenging as this was, it felt like a walk on the beach in Barbados in comparison to the North Pole. The course was 12 loops of 3.5k as there had been sightings of polar bears near the Camp a few days earlier so it wasn’t safe to send us out too far. Unlike Antarctica, the snow did not compact, which meant it was largely a balancing act to stay upright against the thousands of other footsteps which had gone so bravely ahead.
CHALLENGES IT PRESENTED?
Apart from the underfoot conditions, the other challenge was keeping a close eye on your body temperature. It was minus 30 degrees and the risk of hypothermia and frostbite was all too real. The vapour from my breath froze on my balaclava and then ice froze to my skin.
LASTING THOUGHTS ...
This run was in every respect mercilessly beautiful. She was the true Ice Queen of all the races I have done. The North Pole is a hostile, brutal and unforgiving environment to run in, yet at the same time, it rewards with the most spectacular scenery. Never before have I seen the sun shine in such a glorious soft yellow haze, yet it provided no warmth against the bitterly chilling air. It was a true honour to be able to run at the North Pole. Nowhere on earth do you get Russian paratroopers with polar bear guns as race stewards.