Cath Wallis is an Australian ultra-endurance athlete who has completed some of the world’s most iconic foot races – from the back of the field. Her passion is encouraging those who do not consider themselves “athletes” to follow their wildest adventure dreams. Tell us a bit about your everyday life? What is it you do for a living? Where do you live? What were your hobbies and leisure activities before trail running?
I’m a lawyer and a single mum of three and I live in Canberra, Australia. So my day to day life is mostly long hours in an office, and for many years all my non-work time was spent supporting my kid’s activities.
You mention being a late comer to trail events. What prompted you to get involved at the age of 41?
It was the realisation that, quite frankly, I was a bit boring. I was trying my best to juggle work and parenting, but I had not stopped to think about what I really loved doing. I had always been attracted to wide open natural spaces and was looking to be more active. Trail running as a sport seemed like a great option because it welcomes walkers and slow runners, and there was no significant equipment or skills required to get started.
Tell us a bit about the first trail events you did, that eventually led you to try desert running? How did you build up to eventually be able to do the distances you now do?
So my approach has been totally the opposite of all recommended strategies! The very first event I entered was a 100km single stage ultramarathon through forest. I had three months to prepare and pretty much started from the couch. It had a really generous cut-off time and I walked it in just under 29 hours. Thinking back now I was so naïve about what was required to take on such an event. But I persevered, and I finished. Afterwards I was looking for my next challenge and I came across an Internet ad for a multiday ultra in the Simpson Desert. From there I was hooked.
What was the reaction of your friends and family when you first got into ultras? Were they encouraging? Worried? Doubtful?
Oh, they all thought I was mad! And then they thought I would do one and get over my madness! But I think they have given up on thinking that now. They were also concerned that I might seriously or permanently injure myself, and I think a lot of that was tied to societal beliefs around what fat people are capable of and what they can achieve.
Where has been the most challenging environment you’ve been for an ultra-event?
For me it’s the extremes of weather that are challenging. The extreme heat of the desert is very draining. In Oman we had a day that hit 50 degrees Celsius in the sun. And on the opposite end, on the Mongol 100 we were crossing a frozen lake near the border with Russia, with winter winds blowing across from Siberia. It got down to -30 degrees Celsius at night and we had to think about things like frostbite and avoiding falling through seams in the ice.
What are the worst conditions you’ve ever faced in the desert?
The heat can definitely be tough. But the worst is getting stuck in a sandstorm. We had one come through camp in the Australian desert and it took us by surprise. We had our tent flaps open to try and get some airflow. In 5mins literally everything was covered in sand – inside our sleeping bags, through our clothes and food – nothing was spared.
How do you train for a desert run?
For me, as a back of packer, the training is really the same as any multiday ultra event. You need to commit to get outside 5 times a week for about 6 months, practicing with your race pack and working on your skills for both running (if you plan to run) and power hiking. The most important aspect is building up “time on feet”, getting used to being out for a whole day and then backing up to do it again the next day. In my opinion mental toughness is at least as important as physical fitness, so it is also important to practice dealing with hardship and developing some strategies to cope with that. If you can practice on sand it is ideal – but if you don’t have any, then stair climbing is a good alternative.
What things/behaviours should you avoid when competing in a desert foot race?
A desert one-week event is about the long game. So the biggest thing to avoid is going out too fast on day 1. You need to pace yourself for the week. You also need to avoid dehydration and calorie deficit (as much as possible). I think about it as you are eating and drinking on day one to set yourself up for day 4 and 5. Anyone can complete one stage without proper nutrition but it comes back to bite later in the week. You have to be disciplined.
What part/element of desert running do first-time competitors overlook or underestimate? What surprised you the first time you competed in a desert foot race?
I had no idea how soft the sand can be and how draining it is on the legs. Coming from a place without sand I had no idea how to be efficient. Some really great people taught me how to climb a dune by using the footholds of the people who had gone before me. And to choose the darker coloured sand as it was denser and had less give. This made a huge difference.
Who do you see as your inspirations? This could be other ultra-endurance athletes or people from other walks of life.
I am inspired by people who think really big and come up with ideas that bring people together through adventure. People like Jim Mee (Rat Race Events) who has come up with amazing yet achievable “bucket list” adventure events all world. Justo Ngonga (Kimbia Kenya) who creates real connections between runners and Kenyan schools. And Jenna Brook (Race Director Simpson Desert Ultra) who brought ultra running to the middle of the Australian outback and made it feel like everyone there was part of her family.
You’re an inspiration to many people who don’t see themselves as typical athletes. You mention that you’d like everyone to try a desert foot experience, so what do you think needs to change to encourage more diversity, and more people to try it?
There is a saying that ‘you can’t be what you can’t see.’ While the images we see in the media and in advertising are of – mostly – white, male, young, athletic body shaped people, those who are not like that will continue to think that they don’t belong. In addition we have a long way to go in terms of companies making clothing and equipment for a larger range of body sizes. It is extremely hard as a woman to buy technical clothing above size 14. And that can be both really limiting and also reinforce the self-doubt about whether you belong.
Based on the above question, have you seen any positive signs in the right direction?
Absolutely! There is some fantastic work being done in the US, by people like Jenny Bruso, partnering with outdoor companies to create gear that suits people of different shapes and sizes. And I was overwhelmed when the Race Directors at Simpson Desert Ultra and Southern Lakes Ultra invited me to be their event Ambassador because they wanted to encourage people to come and give the sport a try – and someone who looks like me is not intimidating!
You speak warmly about the trail running community. But have you ever felt unwelcome or uncomfortable in the environment? If so, what have you done to combat this?
Look there will always be haters. Sometimes it is dressed up as concern: “You’re going to injure yourself unless you lose weight first.” Sometimes they go after my family: “You are a terrible role model to your kids, encouraging people to think it’s ok to be fat.” I find that these are rarely the people out there doing the actual event. My fellow competitors are super supportive. The haters tend to be armchair critics. And frankly their opinion doesn’t count.
How did you come to be an ambassador for the Simpson Desert Ultra? What does the role entail?
I was incredibly fortunate to be asked to be the event Ambassador for the inaugural Simpson Desert Ultra. My role was to inspire people to attend this friendly allcomers event – to step out of their comfort zone, travel 2000+ kms from the nearest city and experience the harshness and the beauty of the Australian desert.
How did you recruit your team of 18 women for the Simpson Desert Ultra?
To recruit the team I put out a call on my social media. The criteria were: first that you had to be terrified – and second that you were willing to commit to train for six months. I chose people who really wanted to see what they could do, but who were hesitant to go by themselves. I think that so many people would like to live more adventurously, but it is really hard to overcome self-doubt. By creating a supportive environment I can help them do that – and achieve their goals.
What words of advice would you give to people who would like to experience a desert foot race but feel daunted by it?
First – you can do anything you want to do, it you are prepared to train for it! So if you want to do a desert event, start by researching all the different events out there and choose one that has a generous cut-off time for your first event – you want to enjoy it, not be worried about making the time. Give yourself at least 6 months and follow a program. Read lots about how to organise your gear so you are not carrying too much. And practice dealing with heat, including feet swelling, and how you will keep cool and hydrated. And finally – don’t overthink it! At the end of the day it is just one foot in front of the other.
What are your must-have pieces of kit for undertaking an endurance event in the desert?
Number one is quality sand gaiters. You HAVE to keep the sand out of your shoes – Raidlight or AR are the best. Next is wicking clothes – forget that compression gear – you want light weight, light coloured with good air flow. My preference is merino wool. And decent sunglasses – desert glare is fierce! Finally sun sleeves for those with pale skin – they are much more effective than sunscreen and you can get technical fabric that cools your skin using your sweat.
What ultra-events do you plan to tackle in the future?
Coming up I have the Southern Lakes Ultra in the mountains of New Zealand which will be spectacular, and then Dominica Toe to Tip – a traverse of this beautiful Caribbean Island.
Where in the world would you like to explore/compete if distance and/or restrictions were not an issue?
On my wish list I have events in just about every country. One day I’d love to be fit enough to do the 6633 Arctic Ultra marathon in far northern Canada. I would like to travel to Bhutan for the Last Secret ultramarathon which finishes at the famous Taktshang Goemba – Tiger’s Nest Monastery. And to cross the American continent on Rat Race’s Panama Coast to Coast.
Are there any other interesting stories or facts about your life and ultra-endurance experiences that you’d like to share?
The craziest thing that has happened to me at an event was literally catching on fire! I was in the Namib desert and had put my phone on a portable charger in my pocket and it over-heated and caught alight. I had to roll in the sand to put it out, and my fellow competitors had to pull my trousers off to avoid serious burns. It was certainly an icebreaker! The next day everyone who passed me on course sang related lines like, “Baby you can light my fire”…. “This girl is on fire”…..
Read more about Cath Wallis’ desert racing feats at DiscoverInteresting.com
Images: Rat Race International – Leo Francis