The goal of becoming an Abbott World Marathon Majors Six Star Finisher is often described as the Everest of marathon running, but that’s not to say there aren’t other challenges out there that offer runners the chance to test themselves in other, unique ways.
The World Marathon Challenge is one such offering. The premise is simple: run seven marathons in seven days. On seven different continents.
It was a challenge too great to ignore for two AbbottWMM runners earlier in 2019 when Susannah Gill from the UK and America’s Michael Wardian took on – and won – this one-week, eye-wateringly tough contest.
Wardian, a highly accomplished athlete and already one of the fastest Six Star finishers on record, not only won the challenge but then added three more marathons to make it 10 in 10 days.
For Gill, currently a three-star finisher (she has run London, Berlin and New York City), it was a notion that entered her head in January 2018. The 10-time London finisher has run over 50 marathons in total plus a few ultras of distances up to 100 miles.
“I never thought it was something I was going to do,” she says. “So I was delighted with how it all went.”
A communications director by day, she classes herself as “very much an amateur. I fit running in in the mornings and evenings. But I run better because I work and work better because I run.”
Clearly it’s a balance that brings the best out of the 34-year-old. Not only did she win this year’s ‘seven in seven’, she did so in record-breaking time, clocking 24 hours 19 minutes and nine seconds.
Beginning in Antarctica before travelling to Cape Town, Perth, Dubai, Madrid, Santiago and finally Miami, Gill gradually asserted her control over her rivals and ended up on top.
“I thought it (the world record) might be doable but it wasn’t front and centre of my mind. It was all about just competing. But when I saw the list of runners this year and we had two professionals in Stephanie (Gicquel) and Kristina (Madsen), I just thought coming third would be great. It just turned out that I had a slightly higher cruising speed than they did.
With such vast experience of the distance, Gill found the greatest test was in recovering while having to travel so far each day.
“If you’re going to recover between races, the idea of traveling around the world is the last way you’d do it. You’d eat, have a bath and rest, whereas I was showering, getting to an airport, getting heavy legs travelling and have to put myself back together again. That just appealed as a completely unique experience.”
“We pushed each other all the way and in race five (Madrid) Kristina and I had a race the whole way. She caught me up with 200m to go and we ended up doing a sprint finish. I won by 13 seconds.”
Apart from her seemingly God-given ability to ‘cruise’ along at a settled heart rate and grind out the miles, Gill says it’s ‘the bit between the ears’ that counts when the going gets tough.
“Whether you are running a 2:30 marathon or a 5:30 marathon, it’s going to hurt, and it’s about what you do at that moment that it starts to hurt. Do you say ‘it hurts, I’m not enjoying this’ or, as I do, grit your teeth and say ‘come on, this is what I trained for’.
“That’s what I love and that’s what I loved about the seven in seven. I knew (marathons) one to four would be OK and the last three would be hard, but you embrace that moment when it comes and think: ‘I’ll never have this chance again. Do it right now.’”
And right now, she is looking forward to her eleventh Virgin Money London Marathon before setting her sights on adding the remaing three Majors to her CV.
“I live in London so that’s what got me started. Everyone falls in love with running on marathon day but they forget how many months of training have to go into it. I know the year I don’t do it, on the day it comes around I’ll be so sad.
“New York was incredible to run, and it’s wonderful to have a weekend in New York City. It has that same feeling that London has - the restaurant I ate in afterwards gave me a free glass of wine for having run the marathon!
“Berlin is fast and flat. It was one of the early ones I did and I was trying to break 3:30, but messed it up. I was seriously considering Tokyo this year but came up a bit quick after the seven in seven. To complete all six is definitely the next challenge.”