The Trail Beyond is four Australian women with a big goal: to inspire 100,000 girls and women to achieve more than they thought possible. By running four ultras in four countries in four months as a team of four, they hope to achieve their aim.
Two years ago, Donna Urquhart faced a choice. Getting older and watching close friends pass or suffer from ill-health, she realised life is short and health is a gift, not a given. So she decided she could either keep humming along, or do something different. And by something, we mean something big and showing a lot of sisu: four of the toughest ultramarathons in four different countries in four months as a team of four.
“A couple of tragic events happened in my life which made me realise life is no dress rehearsal. You have to get out there and do what you're really passionate about. So I went on a mission to make an impact and help others.”
Donna, a physiotherapist and mother of a three-year-old, was already into ultrarunning but she decided it was time to really "step it up". She looped in a close group of female ultra friends -- ordinary women from the age of 30 to 60: Anne, a mother and science teacher, Caroline, a gym owner, foster carer, vegan and ultra-runner and Olga, a helicopter pilot and adventure runner -- and started brainstorming.
The group settled on The Trail Beyond project. Starting in August in the Australian outback, the group would run 132 kilometres in four days over the Larapinta trail in Australia's Big Red centre, followed less than a month later with 110km in Japan, then on to Hong Kong five weeks later for 70kms before finally ending up in Cambodia in December for the toughest of them all: 220kms in six days.
“We wanted to get the message out there that we are everyday people; we are the ladies around the corner holding down jobs while looking after a three year old to 27 year old. We have set ourselves a challenge that we don’t know if we are possibly able to do. But we’re going to try.”
They looped in Cassie de Colling from Natureel to document their adventure and help tell their story. “We are really making examples of ourselves. We want to say: We are having a go, and whether we fail or succeed doesn’t matter. If we can do it – follow our passion – as everyday women, then so can everyone else.”
Not only did signing up represent a huge physical toll, but being virtually self-supported it was also a massive commitment of their time and money. Anne perhaps summed it up best: “When you work full-time, doing something like this means waking up at 5am in the morning to make the training happen, then going to work, coming home to some stretching before going to bed and waking up to do it all over again. You’re surviving on six hours sleep a night. It’s tough.”
Despite the physical battles (Anne ran the entire challenge on a broken knee, Donna also suffered from knee injury after Japan and all have suffered from various aches and pains) on Friday the group crossed the finish line in Cambodia as a team of four holding hands, having finally completed their goal.
We caught up with the women last month before they set off on their final leg in Cambodia to hear about their journey.
What have you learnt during the journey so far about your inner 'sisu'?
Anne: You can do lots of thing to the human body and it bounces back. After every race I have to go to the doctor to have my knee drained. The knee is actually broken and the bone marrow is bruised. The first time I went to explain what I was doing he said, What are you talking about? I’m used to only working with people who need to walk again, not run. I showed him the race plan and his jaw hit the floor. Every time I go back he can’t believe how far I’ve been running. In Japan I had to stop at 66km, because of severe pain and swelling. But even then the doctor thought I’d go no more than 10km.
Completing these sorts of challenges is more mental than physical. I find a lot of people out there, as soon as they feel a bit of pain or start to suffer, they pull out. When you have a job to do, you just get it done.
Olga: I’ve learnt to reframe pain. In the past I used to think that pain was something to numb out. Now, I don’t take painkillers or anti-inflammatories at all when I run. I look at pain differently: it’s a consequence of me doing something wrong to my body. After 110km in Japan I was at the stage where I was constantly scanning my body for the pain and using that feedback process to change my gait, my posture, for example. Pain is neither good nor bad. It is inevitable. Whether it causes you suffering is up to you.
I’ve also learnt about the importance of being grateful – it can mean the difference between a good race and a bad one. But then again, I know all the right things to do, and sometimes in a race it doesn’t make a difference. You’re still miserable or in pain. But the more I do these sorts of challenges, the better I get at controlling my mind.
Donna: I’ve learnt two things: In Japan we were out there for 19 hours. A number of times I thought to myself that mentally and physically I couldn’t keep going. But somehow I did. And it made me realise how the brain kicks into protective mode before you’ve reached your physical limits. You can always go forward.
Secondly, because my injuries meant making it to the start line in Hong Kong may not have happened, I’ve learnt about appreciation in new ways. I was immensely appreciative of the opportunity to run, so much so that I flew through the first 40km. I was loving it. I felt it had been taken away. So every kilometre felt like a gift. And I feel that is the best way to approach these sorts of challenges, and indeed life. That it’s a gift.
Caroline: I've learnt I’m tougher and more resilient that I thought I was. I know I’ve always been sporty and capable, but I’ve never thought I was stronger or better than anyone who didn’t do ultras -- I’ve always thought that everyone could do ultras if they want to. But now I’m beginning to realise that I really am strong.
I've also learnt a lot about the process in Lantau. I had a shocker: thirteen kilometres in my legs were jelly and I was exhausted and cramping badly. But there was also that knowledge and trust that I was able to come out of it. I knew I just had to ride it out, keep eating, keep drinking. I knew I would finish. And I like that feeling, that trust in myself and my ability. I knew I could do it and get through the bad patch.
How has being part of a team changed the experience for you?
Olga: I’m always thinking of the other girls when I’m out there. Even if we’re not running together. Whenever I’m in pain or feel like my knee hurts, I always think – Anne is probably in more pain than me, at least my knee is not broken!
Caroline: Donna and I are quite similar. I always sprint off at the start and she catches me. In Lantau I had confidence we’d run together, even though she’d been injured. I thought to myself: Donna will either have to die or be running with me. And as I was running I just remember having this thought that I didn’t care. I’d rather goes slow and with Donna than going on my own. I’ve always been competitive, so it was weird to have that shift, that I’d rather do it with someone. It was lovely.
How will you know if The Trail Beyond project has been a success?
Donna: For us personally, it has already been an amazing success – the people we’ve met, the experiences we’ve had. As a team, we’ve achieved great things and it’s been an incredible experience. To step outside the box and take on the challenge- that’s success to me.
Ultimately our mission is to inspire 100,000 girls and women. Assessing whether we’ve done that in the end that will be the true test for us. Anecdotally we’ve had plenty of women who’ve told us that we are inspiring them. We’re starting to get some coverage and media interested in our story and our social media following is growing.
Do you think what you’re doing is extraordinary – or do you think anyone could do it?
Olga: If you surround yourself with people who do extraordinary things, then these actions become the norm. But if you don’t know anyone like you, then I think these sorts of things are pretty extraordinary. It’s about the company you keep.
The more people we reach out to, the more communities we go to, the more we touch people and the more they realise what they might be capable of. I think there is as bit of fear; some people questioning if we’re mad, but the higher we set the “baseline”, I think the more “normal” these sort of endeavours become. We start redefining what’s possible, particularly for women
Donna: I truly believe anyone can do extraordinary or amazing things, but the key thing is having persistence. Often people have innovative ideas, they start on a course, reach obstacles, question what they’re doing, and it gets too hard and steer away. If you want to do amazing things you just have to keep pushing and pushing. And when it gets hard you have to grit your teeth and push through…And that’s the difference.
Caroline: Ultimately for me, having already been a runner, doing an ultra in and of itself wasn’t so unusual. But doing four in four months as four women – that was new and challenging. What is a challenge to someone is individual to them. It could be starting a business or a new career. Whatever it is, we all have new boundaries that we can explore, so go there.
Anne: And it’s all about baby steps. If you’re on the trails, the one thing you have to do is keep moving, you never stop. Even if it’s just half a step, you have to take it. Keep moving and never stop.