"When I tell people I ran across Africa, they awkwardly change the conversation. It’s as if they think, 'she must have said the wrong word there, no one runs across Africa!'"
In 2014, Emma Timmis became the first person in the world to run across Africa – completing the equivalent of 94 marathons in 89 days. So what leads someone to cover a continent by foot? Emma takes us back to the beginning… As told to Jess O’Connor.
About five years ago, I embarked on a journey that changed my life – but little did I know what I was getting myself into at the time. I was living in England and working as an inspector at the RSPCA. Every few weeks I’d visit my local wildlife centre, and help out where I could. The wildlife centre was run by a mix of volunteers and low-paid staff, and they were all incredibly dedicated to looking after the animals in their care. I decided I wanted to raise some money for the centre, and began looking for ways how.
At the time, Eddie Izzard (a British comedian) had just announced that he was going to run something like 43 marathons in 52 days around the UK. He was an older guy, he wasn’t fit – I think he even said before he started that he’d never done any running whatsoever… I looked at what Eddie Izzard was about to do, and the need for funding at the wildlife centre, and everything started to come together in my head – here’s Eddie Izzard, he hasn’t really done any running, but I do run. So I thought, you know what, I should probably do something like that! Only I didn’t want to run around the UK (dismal – I’m a fairweather person!), so I started looking at other locations. I knew I wanted to run about 1000 miles, preferably somewhere with mild weather and not too much rain.
I came across The Freedom Trail, which is a 2,350km mountain bike trail across South Africa, between Cape Town and Durban. I wrote to the guy that organises it and asked, “has anyone ever run this before? I’m thinking about running it”. He wrote back and said, “yeah, actually, I ran it when I was trying to figure out if I could create the mountain bike trail – so it is possible.” And everything kind of went from there. I went and did the run at the end of 2011, raised some money for the wildlife centre, and went back to work at the RSPCA. And I didn’t have the intention of doing any other kind of run ever again… until I went out to the pub one night and drank a bottle of tequila with my friend!
My friend found out that I’d run across South Africa and she said, “I can’t believe I don’t know this! And I can’t believe that the world doesn’t know this! Would you be interested in doing something again, something similar?” Obviously being drunk, I was like “yeah, sure!”. She worked for a charity and wanted me to fundraise again. And that led onto my larger run across the whole length of Africa.
I ran the equivalent of 94 marathons in 89 days. But I was only running for 76 days, because I took 13 ‘rest’ days. Towards the end I was so fed up with running that I just wanted it to be over, so I think I ran 213 kilometres in 3 days…
When I tell people I ran across Africa, I think they think that I said the wrong word! They just kind of change the conversation, because they’re like “she must have said the wrong word there, no one runs across Africa!”
It was an amazing, exhausting, exhilarating experience. It’s so hard to sum it up in words… but I’ll do my best to describe what it felt like.
For the first two months, everything hurts. Joints, muscles, feet, legs, ankles, toes, hips, back, skin, etc. Every morning I would go through a physical checklist before I could even contemplate getting out of my sleeping bag. First I’d wiggle my toes, if they moved I would think ‘great, they are still working’, next I’d move up to my knees and then my hips and back. This was a pretty slow process and every day I was surprised when everything still worked! Sometimes I would have to slowly increase the range of movement in each joint, as they began the day so stiff. After running for two months I think my body started to understand what I was asking of it and the stiffness and pain reduced.
The physical challenge was enormous - but so was the mental challenge. I would try to occupy my mind throughout the day while I was running, so that I wasn’t focusing on the pain in my body. Each day was broken down into three sections of running, and then each of those sections was broken down into smaller and smaller parts. I would so this so in my mind, I only had a ‘short’ target to achieve. If I had been thinking about getting to the end each day, then I would have really struggled to feel it was achievable. What helped immensely was my support person, Mike - I always had Mike cycling beside me so some of the highs came from having good conversation with him on days when the running felt easy. Highs also came from occasionally getting a cold drink or an ice cream!!
Once I completed this run, I didn’t return to my job at the RSPCA like I did before. It signalled the start of a new beginning. Ever since then, I’ve been travelling around the world, doing similar expeditions, such as hiking The Alpine Trail in Australia by myself, or roller-skating across the Netherlands. Nothing quite as intense as running across Africa, but you can see the theme that connects my travels! I love being active and healthy, and I think it’s one of the best ways to see the world – you’re actually out there experiencing what you see, not sitting in a bus and watching everything go by through the window.
A lot of people ask me why I do what I do. And for awhile, I wasn’t really sure. It wasn’t until a conversation with my boyfriend that it became clear to me. My boyfriend doesn’t do the same things as me, but all I care about is being with someone who understands that this is me – and that I need to do this kind of stuff. Early on my boyfriend said to me, “I understand. You do it because you can.” And I was like, oh right, of course… I can. There are so many people in the world that can’t do something for a reason – people who have been injured, or are ill. And I’ve got this gift that I can physically do this stuff, and I may not have this gift for the rest of my life… so I need to take advantage of that, and not waste it. A lot of people do waste it – so many people just sit on their backside and watch TV all day, and it’s such a waste.
There’s a whole world that I want to see and I don’t want to miss out… I guess some people are quite happy with a normal life, working 9-5, taking a holiday every now and then and going to a few places. But I don’t want to miss out. There’s such a big world out there and I want to see it all, and do it all.
And most of all, I want to inspire other women to do the same. When I was 18 years old, and first went travelling, I wish I could have seen someone like who I am today, and been inspired to explore differently – instead of just sitting on a bus with other 18 year olds and getting drunk.
Anything is achievable. All I have to remember is – “I ran across Africa”. People think it’s not manageable, but I achieved it… because I could. Because I can.
Born in the UK, Emma Timmis become the first person to run across Africa in 2014. An avid traveller, she likes to explore the world while running, rollerskating, hiking, rock climbing, cycling or anything else that allows her to be active and outdoors. You can follow her escapades at emmatimmis.com.
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