Sarah Fuller would probably describe herself as just an “ordinary” runner, but her extraordinary levels of drive and determination have seen her complete some of the UK’s toughest ultra marathons, including the Lakeland 100, Hardmoors 110 and the 268 mile Spine Race. Her emotion at reaching the finish of the 2017 Spine Race, brilliantly captured in the footage from Summit Fever Media, was an inspirational reminder of why we run ultras.
When and why did you start running?
I ran a lot of cross country in school but apart from that didn’t really pick it up again until after I had my 2nd child in 2006. I ran occasionally before kids and did the KIMM (now the OMM) back in 2003 but running was something I did rarely and only when I couldn’t go climbing or mountain biking!
What was it about running that got you hooked?
It’s mostly about escapism for me – I love the outdoors, so any means to that end really. After kids it was the easiest way to get time to myself and to enjoy the outdoors in the (limited) available timeslots. I love the feeling that when you take on a big challenge you go right back to basics and all the general worries of everyday life are forgotten – the simplicity of moving, eating, sleeping and working towards a common goal is incredibly liberating.
How did you get into ultra-running?
Through mountain marathons. I got into doing 2-day mountain biking events back in about 1998 which I usually did with my other half as a mixed pair. After kids I was doing more running, so entered the RAB in 2008 with a friend as a natural progression from the cycling events. We ended up winning the ladies’ event much to our astonishment and I was hooked. I ran my first ultra 4 years after that – the Lakeland 50 after seeing it on Facebook. No idea why I thought it was a good idea, but I fancied a new experience and to see if I could go that far.
Tell us about your first 100 mile race?
An absolute disaster! I entered the 2013 Lakeland 100 straight off the back of doing the 50. It was probably a bit cocky to think I would be able to get round first time after only a year of ultra-running, but training went well and I ran a number of events in the lead up (including the Lakes 10 Peaks and the Fellsman), but mentally I wasn’t ready for it and when I felt an old niggle I pulled out at 66 miles a complete wreck. It wasn’t really the niggle, it was mostly my head. But I learnt a lot! First 100 miler I actually finished was the Spine Challenger in 2015. I don’t race very much so have only done a handful of 100+ milers.
What does a typical training week look like?
No such thing I’m afraid! With travelling a fair bit for work, 2 kids and other interests I get out when I can – this can be anything from 2 to 4 times a week (and sometimes less often!). Generally though as I don’t work Fridays I’ll try to get a 1-3 hour run depending on what else is happening that week and if I’m training for anything. I also try and run 1-2 short runs during the week. Weekends depends on what we have planned, but I try and get a run and/or some hiking in. I also do a couple of strength training sessions in the gym per week. If I have a long race I will try and do a couple of big back to back weekends in the 3-4 months before and/or a shorter ultra or LDWA type event as training.
What made you want to have a go at the Spine Race?
I’d always fancied doing the Pennine Way – living in Yorkshire I know a fair bit of the route in that area. I became aware of the race through Facebook and I followed a friend via the online tracker in 2014 and was intrigued. I read a lot about it and thought it sounded like my kind of race (with a bigger emphasis on mountain and navigation skills over speed!).
Did you do anything differently in training to prepare for the Spine?
Yep – lots more walking and training with a pack (although I already did this a fair bit for mountain marathons). I also did several 2-3 day ‘runs’ including things like the Bob Graham route over 3 days, UTMB route over 3 days and the Hadrian’s Wall Path (although to be honest I would have done those things anyway, even if I wasn’t training for the Spine!). Plus a couple of recces on the route, including 2-3 day trips. All with emphasis on walking over running and carrying all the kit. Oh and I tried to get a bit more night navigation practice and go out on my own in the dark more as that scared me a bit!
What has been your worst experience at the Spine Race?
Being timed out at Byrness (240+ miles in) in 2016 due to a last minute change in the cut off times due to poor snow conditions on the Cheviot. There were quite a few of us impacted at Byrness and it was devastating, but we all went back in 2017 and all but one completed. Oh, and ‘Isaac’s Tea Trail’… (horrible and there is no trail and no tea!)
Other than your amazing 2017 finish, what has been the best thing about the Spine Race?
The people, without a doubt. It has a unique feel and sharing intense moments with others has been incredible and led to some amazing shared experiences on the event and fab friendships. I also quite like eating like a pig!
What would be your top tip for others aiming to complete the Spine?
Don’t neglect the mental side – you can do all the training in the world and have the best, lightest kit, but if you don’t have a very good reason to be there and have strategies for dealing with the low points, then it’s going to be hard to get through those times at 3am when it’s been dark for hours (and will be dark for hours more) and you are sick of the wind and rain and being cold and trudging through a deep bog. A sense of humour is also useful!
Women are obviously still in the minority when it comes to ultra-running; what would you say to other women thinking of taking on an ultra or other long distance running challenge?
Believe and just give it a go – it sounds like a cliché, but anyone can do ultras. Many events have generous cut offs and a great supportive atmosphere. You don’t need to be fast and most people walk the hills! It’s also a great way to meet like-minded people and share an adventure.
What do you think could be done to encourage more women to participate in trail and ultra-running?
More women sharing their stories and experiences (and more normal people as well as the elites). Most people are motivated by a challenge and personal achievement rather than prizes, so demystifying races and improving awareness that they aren’t just for racing snakes and fast runners. I think many people are put off by the navigation element as well and lack confidence, so it’s about helping people build that confidence and learn the skills.
Where is your favourite place to run?
Anywhere with hills and no people! I love the Lake District, but also enjoy the trails on my local moors (Wharfedale in Yorkshire) and the Chevin Forest Park right next to my house! I think sometimes it’s easy to forget how nice our local trails are.
What would be your ideal race?
Something that has great mountain scenery that offers an exciting journey and something a bit different (and generous cut offs!). I like the idea of running across things, round things, along historic trails, long distance paths, things like that. Lots of things are on the bucket list – race wise I’d love to do the Yukon Arctic Ultra, Lofoten 100 mile race and Dragon’s Back (if I could get faster!), but I’m increasingly excited by personal challenges and just getting out and having an adventure somewhere.
Who or what inspires you?
In the world of running, then people like Joss Naylor, Mimi Anderson and Nicky Spinks; amazingly talented runners, but also with a true grit and determination. There are some amazingly inspiring ladies doing brilliant things, such as Carole Morgan, Jasmin Paris and Shelli Gordon. Really though, anyone that has a true ‘can do’ attitude and goes out there looking for adventure and gives things a go I find inspiring. My 10 and 12 year old daughters recently climbed a 4,000m peak with me and their determination to get to the top was amazing. Finally my Dad, who at age 70 is still out there giving things a go! He did his first ultra 4 years ago when he completed the Lakeland 50 and he has done it every year since. I definitely had ‘something in my eye’ this year watching him get a V70 prize!
What do you wish you’d known when you started running?
That Injinji socks exist!
That lots of people walk the hills!
That lots of people are slower than me and runners aren’t all skinny racing snakes!
What are your next big running goals?
Running wise I am doing the Northern Traverse in May (190 miles following Wainwright’s Coast to Coast) – the route looks amazing and should be a good adventure. I’m doing the Hardmoors 55 again as a bit of a warm up and have also got a ski touring expedition planned for February (not running, but I’ve always wanted to drag a sledge around in the snow at -35 degrees – who doesn’t?!). I also feel strangely drawn towards Mark Cockbain’s ‘The Hill’ race (which is completely inexplicable!).
What has ultra-running taught you about yourself?
That I have pretty good mental strength and resilience, and an ability to put up with low grade discomfort for a very long time! This is particularly important to me as I had a period of struggling a bit with mental health and a lack of confidence when I was young. It has also taught me to totally be myself; I love that in long races people are stripped right back to the core of who they are and you can really connect with people.
What do you get up to when you are not running?
Spending time with my girls (now aged 11 and 13) and husband, dragging them on all kinds of adventures! We are working our way through the Wainwrights and this summer climbed Mount Toubkal (4,100 metres) in Morocco. We try and get away a lot in our little camper van, mostly in the UK, but have been as far north as the Lofoten Islands in Norway in it!
I love hiking and also want to do more rock climbing and sea kayaking adventures again at some point (not enough hours in the day!). I used to climb and kayak a lot when I was at university, but not so much recently.
I work 4 days a week as a consumer research manager in the telecoms industry. I also love music and just chilling out with a beer or two!