Audrey McIntosh is living proof that neither age nor gender should stand in the way of anyone wanting to participate in sport. However, as Susan Egelstaff discovers, McIntosh does tend to take it to extremes – she is planning to run seven ultra-marathons on seven continents in seven days. And don’t even ask what she has in store as part of her preparations
The start of Audrey McIntosh’s running career was inauspicious, to say the least, which makes her latest target all the more remarkable. Far from being a child prodigy, McIntosh did not even start running until she was in her mid-thirties; but now, at the age of fifty-three, she has her sights set on one of the most severe physical challenges imaginable. She plans to run seven ultra-marathons on seven continents in seven days. It will be the fiercest of tests and the logistics of the trip mean that she may even end up running more than one ultra-marathon in a day.
It is a far cry from McIntosh’s younger days when she would wait until night had fallen before she felt confident enough to venture out on the streets for a run. Growing up, she was far from a fitness fanatic. “I was quite an overweight child and teenager and my parents weren’t all that sporty,” the Glaswegian says. “And what really killed it for me was that there was a real team sport focus at my school – primarily hockey and lacrosse and I wasn’t particularly good at either of those. I just hated them. So I would do absolutely anything to dodge PE.”
As McIntosh reached adulthood she kept fit, but no more. When her husband was being treated for cancer, though, she decided to sign up for a 10k run in an attempt to raise money for the local hospital’s charity. “I started off on the treadmill because I was quite nervous about going out running on the streets,” she remembers. “Then I’d sneak out late in the evening when I knew there wouldn’t be many people about because I was worried about being slow and not very experienced. I did the 10k, but I did pretty badly and I thought, ‘This really isn’t for me’.”
But as the following year’s race approached, McIntosh began to feel that she wanted to improve on that initial performance. And the rest, as they say, is history. She repeated the 10k, doing better this time around, and from there she continued to increase the distances until she reached ultra-marathons. It reached its zenith when she became only the second British woman to complete the Antarctic Ice Marathon and Antarctic 100km double, both in the space of three days.
The seven ultra-marathons on seven continents in seven days – her Odyssey as she calls it – is McIntosh’s ultimate goal. But first she will undertake a double extreme marathon in January 2017, which consists of a marathon in Namibia in 40-degree Centigrade heat, closely followed by another marathon in Outer Mongolia in minus 40 degrees. It is, admits McIntosh, quite a prospect.
“This is the first time that this double marathon event is taking place, so I feel privileged to be getting this opportunity,” she says. “Having this coming up really helps my motivation to train because you know that you have to be spot on with your conditioning so that you’re ready to take on the challenge. The 80-degree temperature swing will be tough to deal with, but I think this will really help me in my preparation for my Odyssey. It’s the mental side that’s so important, though. Your body will start sending signals to your brain saying, ‘Why don’t you just stop?’, and so you have to have that mental strength to ignore the pain and the voices in your head.”
McIntosh is a firm believer that if you set your mind to something, it is achievable. Her past achievements, and the targets that she has set for the future, prove that neither age nor gender should be a barrier. She is keen to share her passion and spread her message that achieving your dreams is always possible, whatever they may be. When she shares her ambitions, though, not everyone has the same level of belief that she has.
“I hate to say this, but I think that the age and the gender factor has been there when it comes to the negativity that I’ve faced,” she says. “When I turned 50, and I said that I was doing these ultra-marathons, there were people who asked me if I was crazy. I think women of my age, women in our fifties, can be a bit overlooked. That’s one of the major things that’s pushing me to keep going – I want to overcome that negativity and prove it wrong. People have always said to me, ‘You can’t do that’, and I’ve always bucked against that. I do think that you’re capable of a lot more than you think, and that’s the message that I like to put over.”
The negativity that McIntosh talks of has meant that she is still in the process of trying to secure sponsors to help fund her challenge. She estimates that it will cost around £50,000, but her motivation is not purely a selfish one. She is a keen fundraiser and, to date, has raised more than £20,000 for Alzheimer Scotland, as well as a number of other charities.
“I think it’s very important when you have a nice, comfortable life that you should do charitable work and, for me, running is a good vehicle for me to raise money,” she says. “That does drive you on, especially when you’re mid-race and it’s getting tough and you’re tired. You just think about the people you’re helping and that really helps to keep you going. But with the 7x7x7, there is a lot of personal drive there, too. This is the ultimate test for me.”
McIntosh’s double extreme marathon in Namibia and Outer Mongolia in January will give her a small taste of what the Odyssey will be like. There will be some who think it is an impossible task; for McIntosh, it is nothing more than the latest exciting, and achievable, challenge.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Susan Egelstaff is an Olympic badminton player who competed at London 2012, as well as representing Scotland at three Commonwealth Games, winning two bronze medals. She retired in the aftermath of the London Games after a 12-year international career. Having written the occasional article for newspapers while still competing, she decided to try and make sports journalism a job. Susan is now a columnist and sports writer with The Herald, The Sunday Herald and The National and is a regular contributor on BBC Radio Scotland. Susan is also heavily involved with the Winning Scotland Foundation, a charity which helps children achieve their goals. Susan’s latest articles.