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 surmount. “I was reaching my 60th. I had a year of mourning for Danilo and I thought, ‘I need to do something for me. To validate my life, and feel better about myself.’ ” Thompson told herself, “Let’s do something out of my comfort zone, let’s do the rowing.”
Runner to Atlantic rower
Rowing across the Atlantic definitely sits outside the comfort zone for most — only 17 people have completed the feat (far fewer than have seen the top of Everest).
This will be Thompson’s second attempt at the challenge. Last December she set off from Gran Canaria but had her voyage interrupted on day eleven when her boat started to take in water. For many, having your boat start to sink would be seen as a bad omen, but for Thompson it was yet another obstacle she was prepared to surmount.
“I was terrified. I had no electrics, my boat was sinking…But you do what you can to know that if something happens you can manage it. No one is making me do this.”
Thompson is hoping to be the oldest person to do the solo row. “I feel that as you get older you become of less value to society. I’ve seen it career-wise. Forget trying to apply for a job after 45! Especially as a woman of a certain age, she has no value in the corporate world,” says Thompson.
Although the row is a deeply personal venture for Thompson, she is also hoping to defy stigmas about being an older woman: “Age is something on your birth certificate, it’s not something that defines you. For a lot of society it does define you and that’s tragic,” she says.
Currently, Thompson is in the process of securing corporate sponsorships for the row. Although there are plenty of people interested in supporting her, it’s still surprising that more female brands haven’t thrown their weight behind her. “I can’t understand why a woman of 60 rowing across the ocean would not be interesting for a female-focused product,” she says, and we both agree that perhaps there are not that many women sitting at the board of these companies.
Not all of us have Thompson’s limitless willpower, but she stresses that all of us have more of it than we think we do. “Women have incredible mental tenacity; we supersede men in that. I saw this every year in the race in Brazil. The men go out there and push themselves too hard in the start, and all the women are managing the race and taking it easy and getting to the finish line,” she says.
“All I have to do is to row and survive”
Come October, Thompson will be taking off with her 7 x 1.80 meter rowing boat, RV Amigo, from the Canary Islands all the way to St. Barts in the Caribbean. She can sleep within the tiny cabin but she can’t stand up in it, and there is no toilet on board. There is no cooking equipment which means that all her sustenance for three months will be dehydrated. The only connection Shirley will have to land will be her satellite phone, to be used in case of emergency. But despite these lacks, which translate to most of us as sheer discomfort, Thompson will also be surrounded by the quiet solitude of the ocean, the unique shine of stars when viewed far from any land, and the occasional whale or playful dolphin that will swim next to her boat. Shirley will also, with every push and pull of her oar, take herself further, not only physically, but also mentally to new depths of self-reflection, self-discovery, and self-discipline.
“How often do you have a time like this in your life, that you can’t check your emails, or go to the supermarket or just have something that you have to do? All I have to do is to row and survive,” she explains. “It’s really self-indulgent, but the rowing gives you tremendous possibility to think and daydream. This journey is about me.”
Main portrait photo by Peter Leath.