We are never too old to be brave. Shirley Thompson, 60, whose quest is to be a solo Atlantic rower.
Discovering a love for running
Some could argue that one is born with this longing for personal transcendence, but in Thompson’s case this penchant was only ever explored later in life. For 27 years she had been attending to the needs of others as an air stewardess working on private jets, her life a whirlwind of planes, limos and 5-star hotels that did little to fulfill her. It was during that time that she was first introduced to running.
“I had a boyfriend that was a runner at the time, and he asked me to come with him for a run,” she reminisces.
And even though, at the time, Thompson would have rather watched a film or stayed by the pool, she decided to join her partner.
“I ran for 5k and I thought, ‘This is cool. I like it.’ ”
Soon enough, Thompson was sneaking out to run on her own, pushing herself to increase her distances weekly. In 2001, at the age of 42, she signed up for her first marathon, and she hasn’t stopped since.
To date, Thompson has accomplished six marathons, and several ultramarathons, which are races longer than the traditional 42km. Some of these in pretty unusual (to say the least) environments. There were mountain races and a race through the Antarctic, as well as the Marathon des Sables, a 270km run across the Sahara desert.
“My feet were completely crushed, I had lost the skin on the sole of my feet and on the last days I had to have a shot of morphine to be able to stand up, but I was absolutely determined,” she says. “That was the first time I proved to myself I have an incredible mental tenacity.”
“Mental tenacity” is something Thompson and I end up talking about a lot: the ability to nurture and develop your willpower in order to override desires or discomfort. “It’s really 30 percent physical and 70 percent mental. It doesn’t matter how fit you are if you don’t have the mental capacity to push yourself when you are struggling.”
Thompson kept putting that newfound fortitude to the test, signing up for more and more races while she still worked on private jets. “The more I got involved in this, the more I thought I’d love to do something related with it for a living.”
A run through the Amazon
In 2002, she set up a website which evaluated, rated and took registrations for races worldwide. Wanting to take her passion even further, she decided to organize her own race: a 250km jungle run through the Amazon rainforest.
“Not speaking a word of Portuguese, I went to Brazil,” she reminisces. “People thought I was crazy: ‘Who is this nut who wants to set up this race, and why would people want to run through such a hostile environment?’ ”
But Thompson got the project off the ground in 2003, with over 200 participants from all over the world taking part in the race. And if running 250km through the world’s largest and densest jungle seems wild, imagine organizing one of these things. Dealing with government bureaucracy, demarcating the tracks, flying medics from abroad in the eventuality of snake bites or a jaguar attack. “Just the logistics of getting thousands of litres of water to remote places,” laughs Thompson.
The Jungle Marathon happened for 14 years, with Thompson settling in a small village on the edge of the jungle in Brazil and marrying a local. The whole endeavor was a real labor of love; sometimes she was just about covering the cost of the race, and other times she was subsidizing it herself, but it was the test itself, the effort to overcome, that animated her spirits every time.
“When you work on a private jet you have a lot of organization to do — you have to work to a schedule and to a timetable. To a certain extent, that prepared me. If you couple that with my love for running and extreme environments, I have a great capacity to organize. I love the challenge,” says Thompson. “And it was a challenge every single year.”
Extreme personal challenge
But the hardest of Thompson’s challenges would come when she was in less hostile lands. She had moved to the South of France with Danilo, her Brazilian husband, after discontinuing the The Jungle Marathon due to increasing governmental bureaucracy. One day, she woke up to find Danilo missing. Simply not there. After searching for him far and wide in France, calling every police station and hospital, she found him at a psychiatric hospital in Paris, where he had been taken after suffering a mental breakdown, barely recognizing Thompson when she walked through the door.
“We were very happy, I never imagined something like this would happen,” she says.
Danilo’s family took him back to Brazil, and Thompson was separated from her love from one day to the next. “Losing Danilo, I lost him twice, it was probably one of the toughest chapters of my life, coming to terms with that.”
It was during that dark period that Thompson realized she needed a new challenge to