JO MEEK - RUNNER
In April 2013 Jo Meek finished second lady overall in the iconic Marathon des Sables ultra marathon. The result was a major turning point in her running career. Largely unknown before the race, Jo was suddenly thrust into the global spotlight as one of the top female ultra runners in the world. I talk to Jo about her meteoric rise, the different countries she has raced in, how she prepares for an ultra marathon, and her ambitions for the future.
The Marathon des Sables (MDS) involves running 156 miles, the equivalent of 6 regular marathons, over six days through the Sahara Desert, one of the most inhospitable climates on earth. Temperatures can reach over 50 degrees and runners are self-sufficient, carrying everything they need to survive except water in packs weighing up to 10kg.
The brutal 56 mile fourth stage involves runners navigating through the night using head torches and glow sticks, which light up the night like fireflies. The terrain is a punishing mixture of sand dunes, wadis, mountains and desert flatlands. You sleep shoulder to shoulder with your fellow runners in ramshackle bedouin tents, which are regularly battered by intense sand storms. It is no wonder, then, that the MDS is often called the toughest footrace on earth.
You could be forgiven for thinking that anyone wanting to pay a small fortune for the privilege of suffering for a week in the desert must be mad. Certainly when I announced that I had entered the race, most of my friends thought I had lost my marbles. Anyone who enters the MDS has strong reasons for doing so, for some it is the physical challenge while others are drawn by the prospect of running through beautiful and unique scenery. The trouble is, it is very difficult to articulate in words why running 160 miles through a desert is a good idea.
For Jo, it was her passion for extreme challenges as well as the opportunity to explore a new country and some gentle encouragement from her husband Jon, a former Royal Marine who also enjoys endurance sport, that persuaded her to sign up.
For years Jo has focused solely on marathon running, doggedly trying to improve her time each year, despite knowing deep down that she is better at the “long stuff”. She was reluctant to start ultra running out of fear that she might lose her speed and was desperate to realise her dream of being an elite marathon runner. It was only when races like the MDS started to become better known that she started toying with the idea of stepping up in distance.
The idea of the Marathon des Sables was born in 1984 when Patrick Bauer, a French concert promoter, walked 200 miles across the Sahara desert carrying all he needed to survive on his back. Two years later Bauer organised the first Marathon des Sables, which attracted 186 participants. The race’s reputation as one of the most dangerous ultra marathons in the world was forged during its infancy.
For instance in 1994 Mauro Prosperi, an Italian police officer and pentathlete, was lost in the desert for 10 days after losing his bearings in a suffocating 8 hour sandstorm. Miraculously he lived to tell the tale, managing to survive by sheltering in a marabout, a Muslim shrine where Bedouin nomads stop while crossing the desert, for three days with bats blood and urine his only nourishment.
Now in its 31st year, the race is a much larger beast today. There were only 80 participants the year Prosperi ran, whereas nowadays the race attracts up to 1,300 runners from all over the world. The runners are like a giant snake slithering through the desert so it is virtually impossible to get lost. Of those 1,300, there are always a handful of well-known athletes and adventurers taking part.
In 2015, the year I participated in the race, the legendary explorer Sir Ranulph Fiennes was also running. Sir Ranulph is as hard as nails – he once cut off his own fingers with a fretsaw after suffering from severe frostbite on his left hand during an expedition to the North Pole. He describes the MDS as “more hellish than hell”, which gives you some indication of how savage the race can be.
Furthermore, in 2010, the Olympic rower James Cracknell finished in 12thplace, the highest ever placing in the race by a Brit (in 2013 James lost his mantle to Danny Kendall who finished 10th). This was an incredibly impressive achievement as standing at 6 foot 3 inches and weighing almost 15 stone, James is hardly built for long-distance running. What is more, he ran most of the race with a broken metatarsal and suffered from severe dehydration on the long stage. The Discovery Channel made a fantastic documentary about James’s MDS adventure, which really captured the brutality of the race and James’s relentless quest to push his body to the limit. The participation of the likes of Sir Ranulph and James Cracknell in the MDS has significantly raised the profile of the race amongst the general public.
Ultra running is a sport that involves long periods of agony. I wonder if Jo has a perverse enjoyment for the suffering. She says she “probably does” and really enjoys “pushing herself to the limit.” The top ultra runners in the world have a capacity to endure extreme suffering and keep going when most people would stop. Scott Jurek, one of the most successful ultra marathon runners in the world, highlights this in his latest book, ‘Eat & Run.’ “Hallucinations and vomiting, to me and fellow ultra runners, are like grass stains to Little Leaguers”, he writes.
The rising popularity of ultra running extends beyond the Marathon des Sables. As running a marathon has become more and more commonplace, the ultra scene has started to boom. Other iconic races such as Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc [UTMB], a 103 mile ultra-marathon through the Alps, and the Western States, a 100 mile ultra-marathon through California’s Sierra Nevada Mountains, have, like the MDS, been forced to employ lottery systems because they are so oversubscribed. Even relatively new ultra marathons have no trouble attracting large numbers. For instance the Oman Desert Marathon, which was first held in 2013, now attracts almost 1500 runners.
To be able to run through beautiful settings such as deserts, rainforests, glaciers and mountains is exceptional to ultra running and a key factor in many people’s enjoyment of the races. After the MDS, Jo was invited to compete in the Coastal Challenge in Costa Rica, a 230km multi-stage race along the Pacific coastline. Ultra running has also taken Jo to the Bucegi Mountains in Romania, around Lake Iznik in Turkey, from Pietermaritzburg to Durban in South Africa and through the Himalayas in Nepal. Britain also boasts races with stunning scenery. For instance Jo first became hooked on ultras after running 69 miles along Hadrian’s Wall and rates the Lakeland 50, an ultra-marathon through the Lake District, as one of her favourite races.
People often ask me what I think about during an ultra marathon. It is a reasonable question; you certainly have a lot of thinking time during 8 hours of running alone along trails. I find it a very difficult question to answer; the time flies by when I run and I often cannot remember what I was thinking about. Running is a form of relaxation for me so I try to empty the mind and not think about much at all. It is the same for the famous Japanese novelist and running enthusiast Haruki Murakami who says: “The thoughts that impose themselves on me while running are like light gusts of wind – they appear all of a sudden, disappear again and change nothing.” For Jo it is slightly different, she is ultimately running to win so during a race is “always in the moment”, constantly focused on achieving this aim.
I am interested to know how Jo adapted her training plan when she switched her focus from marathons to ultra marathons. However, it turns out she did not change very much at all; she has kept a normal marathon training plan, which involves running 6 days a week, with the only difference being that she fits in a few longer back to back runs. She is cautious about overtraining, when you prepare for a marathon traditionally you would include a half marathon but when preparing for a 100 mile ultra marathon you do not necessarily want to include a 50 mile race in the training schedule. Jo’s ultra marathon training plan is normally an intense 12-week program followed by tapering off a week before the race. If the race is in a unique climate then she will also acclimatise in the weeks leading up to it. For instance, for the MDS, she arranged some training sessions in the heat chamber at the University of Chichester so her body was used to running in extreme heat before she arrived in the desert.
Jo’s day job as a physio gives her a good insight into what she should and should not be doing. So I ask what her advice is on stretching. She says there is no evidence to suggest that you need to stretch before a run, although it is useful to fit some in after a run when the muscles are warm and intermittently during the week as it can help you feel more relaxed. She caveats this by saying that she knows plenty of runners that do not stretch at all and do not have any problems.
I wonder whether Jo ever has days where she struggles to get motivated to train. She says she “loves running” therefore her dedication to the sport has never waned. The only time she has struggled to stay positive is when she has been injured as it is essentially a frustrating waiting game. Following her success at the MDS, Jo was inundated with race offers and ended up injured after doing too many races too soon. She says it was a “miserable” period of her life, much harder than training for an ultra. It made her realise that you are only as good as your last race so she feels grateful for what she has already been able to achieve.
Jo pays close attention to her nutrition, after all this is what fuels her body before and after intense runs. She naturally enjoys healthy food so maintaining a balanced diet is not a challenge for her. Jo also spends a lot of time researching kit and equipment because, as a very small and lightweight athlete, it is important she does not carry too much weight. She says it is worth investing time in finding out what kit works for you.
Ultimately preparation is the key to success in any extreme endurance event. Your body and mind are put under intense stress so you need to know what it takes to endure that suffering before you reach the start line. There is one common goal amongst the participants in extreme endurance races and that is to survive. There is no reason why the experience should be absolute hell on earth; to enjoy the race you need to have put in the preparation work.
In November 2014 Jo was selected to represent Great Britain at the IAU 100 km World Championships in Doha. It was a euphoric moment for her; she had dreamed of representing her country since she was a young girl. I wonder whether she is surprised by her meteoric rise to the pinnacle of her sport. She says she is grateful for her success, but not surprised because she has worked hard to achieve her dream.
In her most recent race, the North Face 50 through the beautiful Marin Headlands in San Francisco, Jo tested her metal against some of the best ultra runners in the world. She says it was an incredible race, which provided the opportunity to test her self against the “cream of the crop” through some “spectacular countryside.” In the future she hopes to race more often in the States. Other ultra marathons on Jo’s bucket list include iconic races such as the UTMB and the Jungle Ultra as well as lesser known races in countries she has never visited. However, ultimately there is no place like home, and Jo’s favourite place to run is in the English hills with her beloved dog Rufus.
Jo loves extreme challenges of all kinds and says she would “love” to swim the channel and row across the Atlantic. Clearly she is one of those people who are never satisfied and always looking for the next challenge. If she won gold at the Olympics she would probably still be unhappy with the time. Jo has never rested on her laurels, be that in her day job (she is currently studying for a MA in Sports Physiotherapy) or her running. It is that determination to improve and push the limits that has propelled her to the pinnacle of her sport. She is living proof that if you want something badly enough and are willing to put in the work, ultimately you will be rewarded.