‘The longer ultras are really for the intelligent runner’
September 04 2016 10:42 PM
HITTING THE TRAIL: Sarah Whittington completed her first 100-mile trail race in less than 24 hours – a major achievement in ultra-running.

By Aney Mathew

Sarah Whittington runs simply for the love of running, as a matter of fact her world revolves around running. While even the thought of running outdoors during these harsh summer conditions is enough to make most of us sweat, Sarah can be spotted running diligently, sometimes as late (or early) as 1am, to beat the heat.
Sarah and her husband Steve Farnham don’t just run long distances; they take part in ultra-races, which is anything over the standard 26.2-mile marathon. They are trail runners, a sport which consists of running on a natural surface (not manmade roads or tracks). Here it›s across the desert. Trails can be smooth or technical. 
Smooth would be following a jeep track. Technical would be an animal track up a mountain which is single file only and you need to concentrate or you could fall, often over the side of the mountain! Not for the faint-hearted.  
Sarah completed her first 100-mile trail race in less than 24 hours – the pinnacle of achievement in ultra-running. Although she has won several races at regional and international levels and run alongside professional ultra-runners, winning is not Sarah’s goal. “When the day comes that I enter a race for the medal, that day I retire!” she states. Sarah shares with Community her passion for running, what got her started and what keeps her, well … running.

Tell us something about yourself and your love for running …
My husband Steve Farnham and I have been living and working in Qatar for around five years. We’re both keen runners – I do a bit more than Steve who’s more interested in organising races. I started out running half-marathons on the road in the UK in 2008 and ran about 20 races over the next few years, my finishing time gradually coming down.  Arriving in Qatar I discovered a vibrant running community, who strangely seemed to prefer even longer runs and that got us started in ultra-running. 

What got you interested in running?
My mum sadly died from cancer. It happened very quickly, she was diagnosed with melanoma and within four months had passed away. This put life into perspective for me. We don’t know how long our life will be, so it’s up to us to make the most of it and live every day to the full. My mum had always been interested in children’s rights and was a big supporter of the Girl Guides and children’s charities. I signed up to run two half-marathons on successive weekends to raise money for the UK’s National Society of the Prevention of Cruelty to Children; hence I had to start running. I had no idea what I’d signed up for — I didn’t even have the right running shoes, nothing. But runners are social and people will always help you out and show you the way.

Which has been your favourite race? 
Hmm, this is actually really difficult to answer. All races, particularly trail races are unique. The longer ultras always have highs and lows. When you line up on the start line you know that at some point in the race you will feel awful and want to stop. This is the nature of the game and the strongest competitors will just keep on plugging away because that feeling will pass. I think the 20 odd kilometre trail run I did this last June in a small town, called Montefrio in Andalucia, Spain, is my favourite. The whole town was out; if folks weren’t running they were out in the hills lining the route, or walking, and handing out water. The atmosphere was fantastic — it was a running fiesta.

What was the most challenging run? 
It’s not always the race which is the challenge but the training for the race. This is where you’re often pushing yourself harder than on the actual day of the race, and managing the accumulated fatigue of training month after month. I did a 100 mile (160km) race last September in the UK. The training for it took place right here in Doha through July and August last year. 
I cannot imagine anything worse than running on a treadmill. I always end up injuring myself when I do. Training therefore had to take place outside. Anyone who was here then, will know that the summer of 2015 was the hottest and most humid summer on record. I was really lucky, however, to have a small team of running friends willing to get up and run with me at 1am every Friday and Saturday morning. We’d run until 5 or 6am. The race was easy after doing that week after week. 
The longer ultras are really for the intelligent runner. Obviously, when you’re running for a long time, you will need to eat on the run. You have to learn how fast you can move while still absorbing food and what types of nutrition your body will tolerate. There’s so much that can go wrong, it’s a true challenge.

What are your other hobbies and interests? 
Ultra-running doesn’t leave much time for other interests. Cross-training, where you use different sports other than running, is a great idea to give the body a break from pounding the pavements. I’m a keen cyclist and teach indoor cycling. I’m also a qualified personal trainer and use this knowledge to improve my endurance capacities while circuit training and lifting weights. Steve and I are also working hard on establishing our company Ultra Trail Spain (ultratrailspain.com) running holidays in our spare time. We both love trail running in the country, the weather is fairly kind and the mountain tracks are pristine. 

Share with us an inspiring experience 
There have been many during ultra-running. When people achieve what they didn’t think they could, you cannot help but be inspired. Watching how Ellie Greenwood win the 100km IAU (International Association of Ultra-runners) World Championship here in Doha in 2014, and then see her coming back out on course and coaching other runners get to the finish line was pretty special. 
She spent a lot of time on the sidelines encouraging a Canadian team female athlete who was struggling with the surface — to keep going and not give up. That doesn’t happen at a road marathon where top runners finish and go home before the last runners cross the line. 

Who is your hero? 
There are some amazing women runners doing amazing things in the world of ultra-running right now; Nicky Spinks, Mimi Anderson, Jasmin Paris, Lizzy Hawker. Nobody outside ultra-running will have heard of them, but Google them. These women are breaking records and beating men. That’s the beauty of ultra-running, it’s a much more level race between the different genders. Pure power and speed won’t be the only talents to get you to the finish line fast. 

What’s been your greatest disappointment?  
When other people give up on themselves. It’s common to hear: “I can’t run, I’m not cut out for it.” That’s utter rubbish! Numerous doctors, consultants, physiotherapists, and podiatrists have told me that my body is very poorly shaped for running. They’re correct, it is, but as the perfect human being doesn’t exist, I use their comments as motivation. 
All you have to do it learn how your own body moves and work with it. Strengthen the muscles around the joints which are weak and your muscles will do the rest. You’re stronger than you think. And yes, it’s not easy running if you’re carrying excess weight …but then you walk. Do not underestimate how good walking is for you. We’re designed to move. 

Share with us your dream 
To keep running as long into my life as I can. Road running is notoriously tough on your body which is why I prefer trail running. The trail surface and gradient decides when you slow down and when you speed up. This gives you variety and takes you to some pretty special places. I’d love to get more people taking to the trails and enjoying time on their feet. This is one of the inspirations behind Ultra Trail Spain running holidays, we just want to share some amazing places with people. It doesn’t matter how quick you run, it’s more important that you’re getting out there and exploring. 

How would you describe your life right now?
Busy! I’m building my training back up after the Ultra Sierra Nevada race in July. We’re also establishing the new business with our first running holidays company, starting in Spain in October. There’s much planning going on to make sure all the participants have a great time and enjoy themselves. 

Lessons learnt from life  
Impossible doesn’t exist!

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