Allie Bailey runs a really, really long way. For fun. In early 2018 she went to Mongolia, where she was the first woman to run across a frozen lake. Since then, she has taken part in race recces in Namibia and Panama, two incredibly tough adventures that you can read about on her blog.
But Allie’s not someone who takes her running too seriously, despite posting race wins and impressive PBs. She is thoroughly normal and believes that everyone – anyone – can take part in seemingly impossible ultra-distance events, with a little self-belief and a decent amount of courage.
She wasn’t always sporty; in fact, it’s only been in the last seven years that Allie has found a passion for running at all. She wasn’t interested in sport at school, and at university she was more likely to be found indulging in pints and nachos, than trainers and trails.
It was her mental health that gave Allie the introduction to running. During those university days, she was “mega depressed” to the point where she tried to take her own life. Doctors at the time suggested that exercise could help. While she didn’t take the advice immediately, after a further relapse, she decided to give it a go: “[I thought] maybe I should get some exercise. Then, one day, I put on my Converse trainers and left my flat in Whitechapel and ran to Tower Bridge. I ran/walked. And I actually felt better.”
The journey begins
From there, she started running more regularly, up to 15 minutes a day at first. She was working in the music industry at the time, with fairly high-profile music acts. One of these acts, who shall remain nameless, needed to get fit, so they were entered into a local 10K race.
Allie decided that she’d get involved and set herself the challenge: “I trained up and I got there in the morning. I was really scared. I was wearing tracksuit bottoms and a hoodie. And I ran this 10K and it was the worst thing I had ever done. I was just exhausted. It was awful. But you know how you get that ‘rose-tinted spectacle’ feeling? I was like, maybe I should do some more running. It wasn’t that bad after all!” And the seed was sown.
Allie used to watch the London Marathon every year, and the big change came when she decided she wanted to do it for her 30th birthday. “I don’t know where the idea came from. I wanted to do it in four hours, but I got injured and I did it in 4:02. And I was like, ‘I need to go back and do it again!’”
However, her journey to distance running was far from over. Her sister, who saw her running the London Marathon on the TV, was encouraged to take on a marathon herself. She started running and then decided to enter an ultra event instead. Given her sister is 11 years older, Allie saw this as a challenge that she herself needed to start running ultras: “And then it got completely out of control and basically I was running all these races! I was coming back to Dorset to run races a lot. It’s where I grew up and it’s very glorious. Before I knew what had happened, I was in ultra-running racing-ville. And now I find myself in the position where I am doing ridiculous things.”
Building up the miles
Those ‘ridiculous things’ include the London to Brighton 100K ultra race, the Pony Express and the Thames Path 100K. She then decided to do the Autumn 100 in 2017, her first 100-mile event, which all eventually lead to her agreeing to run across a frozen lake in Mongolia in -40°C.
Since her entrance into the world of ultra running, she doesn’t really take on shorter-distance events, except as training runs. “Training runs for me will be between 10 to 20 miles. Which is nice. But my distances are marathon and ultra. To be honest, I feel like I’m moving away from marathons now. I feel like they’re just training runs. What I’ll do is book in shit loads of marathons for the year, but they are just training runs. Because at least that way you are with other people, you don’t get bored and you get a medal.”
Sense of focus
Allie is pretty focused; you’d have to be to undertake some of these epic challenges. “I’m really driven, but I am driven for me and for what I want to achieve.” She says she’s not massively competitive, but she does like to win: “I don’t run competitively. I’m not competitive. Well, I kind of am… I never go out to win races. But I have found this amazing thing you can do where you enter a race that’s really hard and that no other women will enter. I won the Cotswold Ultra in 2017, because I was the only women. I won it before I’d started. I do like winning big medals, but I’m not bothered about it. I have a 3:36 marathon PB. I don’t think I’ll ever beat that, but at the back of my mind I do want to go under 3:30 at some point.”
The thing that she loves most about running is being able to see the world in a different way. “One thing that the whole running thing has brought me is the fact that you can go see the world through your eyes and not your phone. I’ve been to Sierra Leone and run a marathon there. I’ve been to Berlin. I’ve just been to Mongolia. I’m hoping to go out to Peru. And that’s what running brings; you can see the world the way no one else sees it. The Jurassic Coast is beautiful and if you can run it, that’s amazing. You can run to places that people can’t get to unless they run to them. You see things that other people don’t see.
“I went to Sierra Leone last year and that was brilliant. That was for Street Child. We went out and spent three or four days working with kids in these rural schools. When I say rural, I mean four hours on a bus out to the school and four hours back. Some of the kids ran with us… one kid ran 10 miles with me in sandals. He kept telling me to go faster. It’s like 99% humidity! Seeing that stuff opens your eyes to the world and it’s real. We live in a world of phones and tablets and the internet, and that’s real. That’s the thing with running: you can’t fake running.”
Out of the ordinary
Allie’s passion is doing stuff that other people haven’t done before. “The more ridiculous the race, the more likely I am to do it! Which is what led to me running in Mongolia, 100 miles across a frozen lake in three days.”
It was, as hoped, an incredible experience: “It was beautiful, brutal and one of the best experiences of my life. It was cold; it got down to -50°C one night and that took its toll on all of us. You don’t get hungry or thirsty in those kind of temperatures, plus everything freezes. Everything. Shot blocks, gels, saline solution, moisturiser, toothpaste, wet wipes… One morning I went outside to brush my teeth with my defrosted toothpaste and the water I was using had frozen after 90 seconds!”
She says that this challenge was as much a survival mission, as it was a multi-day ultra. “The landscape is some of the most hostile on earth, and you have to be sensible and keep your wits about you. It’s not a holiday and you have to be prepared to muck in, get your head down and expect a certain amount of suffering. But we did it. I completed the entire thing on foot – the first woman to ever have done that. It was the most special, epic adventure and I would recommend it to anyone with a sense of proper adventure. It’s definitely not the end of the journey for me. It’s the start.”
Ultra running for all
Allie firmly believes that she’s not ‘special’ to have completed this kind of brutal event. In fact, she believes that anyone can do it. The lack of women in ultra-running is a particular point of interest and she strives to empower and encourage more female runners to take on ultra challenges. “One of my big things is empowering women through sport. I think women are afraid of these massive ultra events, because they don’t think they can
do it. If I can do it, anyone can do it. It just takes a little bit of time and the space to go out and practise doing it.”
Allie would like to see more women enter ultra events. “I think they are quite put off by the branding of it. It’s all very ‘MAN VS LAKES’, ‘SURVIVOR’, ‘THE SPINE’. When I did the Autumn 100 there were hardly any women in it. That was really unlike Centurion events; they usually have a lot of women. I just think it frightens them. But if you look at women vs men, women are better at endurance than men.
The mental side of running
Allie’s own mental health issues played an important role in why she took up running in the first place, but it is something that she still struggles with. She is candid about her experiences: “I had a really bad breakdown earlier in 2017 and that was because I was stressed out and things were going wrong, but I’d also stopped running. I thought, what was the point? It’s happened to me twice, where I’ve stopped running. But running is literally the best medication for me. It helps me massively.”
She credits the people she has met through running as a key reason why running helps her mental health. “You meet massively inspirational people. You meet people who are 18 stone and still go out and run a marathon. I’ve never let running interfere with the rest of my life… I don’t eat vegan or not drink booze. Sometimes I will even smoke. I’m not one of those people who’s a purist runner, because I feel like it illustrates the rest of my life rather than defines the rest of my life. People always say to me, ‘You don’t look like a runner’.”
She uses running as stress relief from the daily toil and it’s her best form of treatment for depression: “If I’m stressed at work, I go for a run. If I’m stressed about anything, I go for a run. I don’t understand why doctors don’t prescribe it more, because it is so good for your mental health. If I wasn’t a runner, I would probably be dead by now.”
It’s fair to say that Allie won’t be quitting running any time soon. So, are there are goals that she has left to achieve? Well, she’d like to do the Marathon des Sables, just to tick it off her list. And she has a number of other bucket-list races too. But her ultimate goal is to be able to live, breathe and encourage others through running.
“I want to do what I do for fun, for a living. And usually if I want something, I will get it. Whether it’s marketing, whether it’s running ridiculous races, whatever it is. The ultimate goal is to inspire other people to do what I do, because literally anyone can do it. I don’t want people to be afraid of trying to do it.”
Find out more about Allie and her running adventures: