‘You sweat, you die’ – Inside the mind and body of an ultra-athlete

Founder & CEO of PledgeSports, Richard Pearson, recently caught up with ultra-athlete, Audrey McIntosh, as she prepares  for a challenge never before attempted by any woman in history. 

Audrey McIntosh is a 53 year-old mother and ultra-athlete from Scotland. By her own admission, Audrey is an ordinary woman fitting in training around her family and work life. Audrey works full-time as a freelance Business Consultant and Project Manager.

Coming to running in her mid-thirties, Audrey started with 10k runs in support of her local hospital. By the time she was 40, Audrey was running marathon distances. Many marathons, ultra-marathons and extreme runs later Audrey is ready to write her name into the history books.

In an interesting conversation of mental toughness, enduring freezing temperatures, and using nature as the ‘facilities’, the following interview provides great insight into what drives an ultra-athlete and how one woman is flying the flag for women in sport and women over 50.

Here’s what happened when Audrey met Richard. Enjoy!


In 2013, you ran 100km in Antarctica. How would you describe the feeling of running in -30 degrees temperature? And what major obstacles does it throw up? Have you ran in colder than -30?

Actually I have run in colder. During the North Pole Marathon the temperature dropped to -41. Running in the cold requires you to slow down and moderate your pace. It is very important that you do not sweat. They tell you, ‘you sweat, you die’. You also have to have complete skin cover including a face mask and so you have to get used to breathing through it. The cold are can really hurt when you breath too, so again you need to moderate your effort to ensure that your breathing is steady.

The toughest foot races in the world

Running on uneven underfoot conditions with soft snow with more layers of kit was one of the main obstacles. I had trained on sand which is a good alternative and that proved to be really helpful and I had chosen mountaineering kit for my outer layers which were flexible, lightweight and windproof. Underneath those I used merino base and mid layers. Again that has the benefit of being lightweight and warm.


What was it like to run in a volcano marathon? Any close calls?

The big challenge was the altitude combined with the heat. It was at 14.5k feet in the Atacama Desert and there is only 11% oxygen in the air at that height. The temperatures rose to 30 degrees too. The effort required to run was greatly increased as my body fought to get oxygen. One thing that my altitude training did not factor in was how eating and sucking on the water tube left me gasping for breath and dizzy.

How different running surfaces affect the body

I ended up not hydrating enough and getting a bit of altitude sickness. I needed oxygen when I finished and my contact lenses got  to my eyes too. It was a harsh but amazing environment to run in and I saw Llamas, alpacas and donkeys. Being able to complete it even with mild altitude sickness was a great achievement.


Some people run for fitness, others do it for enjoyment, but what drives a person to deciding they want to run 350km across 7 different continents in 7 consecutive days? What on earth possessed you to attempt such an extreme challenge?!

It is the love of the challenge and wanting to see how far I can push myself; what I am capable of. But also I am an ultra-marathon runner and so this presents the ultimate challenge to me. A number of people have now completed the standard marathon distance of 26.2 on 7 continents in 7 days, but only two others have completed what I am attempting and to date no woman has done it. I want to show that a woman can do it, but not only that but that an older woman can do it.

When running ultra marathons people speak of hitting a wall, of being completely depleted and can’t go on, has this happened to you and how do you overcome it?

Yes, it has happened and in an ultra-marathon I expect that, and I expect it to happen several times depending on the distance. Our bodies use all of their stored energy by about 20 miles, and it is traditionally between 18 and 20 miles when runners hit the wall. There is also a significant mental element to it. I try to eat and drink small amounts at regular intervals throughout to keep my energy levels topped up.

The toughest endurance sports

I have various techniques to deal with hitting the wall. I take some extra high energy, easily absorbed food or drink but even that takes about 20 minutes to have an effect and that is where the mental toughness kicks in. So, I will walk for a while and I will remind myself that it will pass and find something else to focus on; the scenery, getting to the next tree or rock, focusing on my music. Things like that.

Trail Vs Road Running

 Photo 2 - Volcano Marathon, Chile 2014

How do you prepare mentally for an ultra-marathon?

I do a lot of my training on my own which builds mental strength and enables me to be able to motivate myself to keep going when things get tough. Being familiar with the route and what the race involves helps reduce the fear factor. Visualisation is another thing that I use. If you break things down into smaller chunks they become much more manageable so I visualise myself reaching certain points or aid stations.

How do you relieve yourself in a race?!

No shame. It’s often a case of doing what bears do in the woods. In Antarctica things are very strict and there was a ‘no yellow snow’ rule. The environment has to be protected so everything that is taken in is taken out including human waste. There we had to ensure that we used the toilet facilities provided so that the waste did not pollute the environment. At the North Pole it is not regulated and the facilities were very primitive; a hole in the ice.


Why or how did you get involved in running initially, and how did it escalate to this challenge?

My running story is like many others. I started by doing a 10k to raise money for the hospital unit where my husband was treated for cancer. I did not run it well at all and said I would not do it again. But there was a nagging thought that I could do it better and so I did it again the next year. Then I realised I actually liked running and so it grew from there. Training properly, getting better and setting new goals and challenges: 10k to half marathon to marathon, ultra-marathon and extreme adventure races.

What are some of the strange or funny things you have thought of while out on a long distance run?

My head is a strange place when I am running. It quite often empties of thoughts, almost like meditation which is good. Sometimes I plan things out, sometimes I problem solve. There are times when you can hallucinate when extremely tired.

Choosing the right running shoe for different surfaces

I thought I saw people standing out next to a remote section of the course in Antarctica during the 100k; and I saw a chimp in red trousers during the 75 mile Great Glen Ultra. Whilst running at the North Pole I found myself thinking  ‘why am I cold’ . Sometimes my husbands ‘bad dad jokes’ pop into my head.

The most common running injuries

You can support Audrey’s ‘Global Odyssey’ by visiting her campaign and helping her raise the money to make this for this epic event possible!

Know anyone else looking to fund an expedition, then put them in touch – 

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