Sophie Power: 'Ireland Threw Everything it Had at Me'


, by Howard Calvert

Photography by: Phil Hill / @the_phbalance

You may recognise Sophie Power. The British ultrarunner gained worldwide fame in 2018 after Alexis Berg’s photograph of her breastfeeding her three-month-old son at an aid station during the UTMB 105-mile race went viral. She was forced to do this because, at the time, you could not defer your place due to pregnancy.

The response to the photograph prompted Sophie to launch SheRACES, a company she founded to help and inspire women and girls to push their boundaries by taking part in sports and tackling races they might not have considered.

“Women should never be scared to fail,” Sophie told Strava. “They often don’t step up to bigger distances at races because they’re put off by the cut-off times, even though they can absolutely achieve them.

“We should have the confidence in ourselves and our bodies that we can achieve.”

Sophie Power at Malin Head - the most Northerly point of mainland Ireland. Photography by: Phil Hill / @the_phbalance

The lure of the Emerald Isle

So when Sophie was looking for a challenge to aim for this year, she searched outside the race calendar in her quest to explore different ways of pushing her boundaries.

“I was looking for something outside my comfort zone,” she said, “but also something I could use as a conduit to aspiring other women.

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“Something that speaks to women to say, ‘I'm doing something extremely tough and I'm embracing potential failure.’ In doing so, I hope they’ll think about how they create their own challenges.”

Photography by: Phil Hill / @the_phbalance
Photography by: Phil Hill / @the_phbalance

The answer lay just a short skip across the Irish Sea from her home in the south of England, and the challenge of breaking the world record for running across the entire island.

“Ireland has a deep personal meaning to me as my husband’s from Cork and my three children are half-Irish. I wanted to create a connection with them and where they came from.”

Finding this ‘why’ is key to her challenge, and it was the reason she was able to push herself to her limits of endurance in her plan to run 347 miles from north to south in her attempt to break the world record of 3 days, 15 hours, 36 minutes.

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The power of ‘why’

“I found my ‘why’, and that’s the reason I was able to push myself to my limits of endurance,” she said.

This ‘why’ had three strands:

  1. The location has deep personal meaning.

  2. She planned to drop her daughter with her grandparents at the finish, then drive north in order to run back to her as quickly as she could.

  3. It provided the opportunity to inspire and speak to women and girls about the power of crossing a finish line. “Women deserve equal access to races and the opportunity to test our limits in the way that we want to.”

School children across the country turned out to support Sophie. Photography by: Phil Hill / @the_phbalance

The existing world record was set in 2012 by a runner who was the inspiration behind Sophie taking up ultrarunning in the first place: Mimi Anderson. “She was so supportive when I told her I was taking on the record, and was genuinely interested to see what I could do.”

As it turned out, the part of her body that struggled was her knee: at 150 miles, it began to give her pain due to the severe camber of the roads, something she hadn’t anticipated. Some ingenious strapping later, and she could run on, grimacing through the pain.

From rain to shine

The other challenging factor she hadn’t fully appreciated was the Irish weather. “Ireland threw everything it had at me,” she laughed. “I began the run in torrential rain and a headwind, then it was on/off rain for the next two days.”

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In an extreme weather twist, Sophie ended up suffering from heatstroke on the final day. “My crew was running that fine balance between pushing me forward to get the record and risking me ending up in an ambulance. They managed it really well.”

It helped having a photographer who’d been crewing at the dangerously hot Badwater 135 just months earlier, so had plenty of cooling protocols to help lower Sophie’s temperature, including ice bandanas and ice cream for energy.

Sophie went from torrential rain to near heatstroke during the run (R). She slept for two hours during three days of running (R). Photography by: Photography by: Phil Hill / @the_phbalance
Sophie Power at Mizen Head - the most Southerly point of mainland Ireland. Photography by: Phil Hill / @the_phbalance

Throughout the entire challenge, sleep was an issue. Sophie only got 20 minutes of “non-sleep” on the first night, and 2hrs 17mins in total over the four days — two 30-minute naps, and 10 minutes here and there when she could grab them.

“At 230 miles in, my vision started narrowing. Trucks were speeding past me and the hallucinations were starting… I was whimpering with tiredness. But there was no question of quitting.”

Her tip was to take a caffeine gel immediately before taking a nap. “I’d belly flop into the van, then the caffeine kicked in 10 minutes later, meaning I had a double whammy of the caffeine and the nap to get me going again.”

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Inspiring younger generations

The many highs of the record-breaking run outweighed the sleep-deprived lows, in particular the number of schoolchildren on the route showing their support as Sophie ran past.

“I could hear the noise of them shouting from down the road — they’d spent the morning coloring in signs. Research shows that even as young as five, girls aren’t as confident at sports as boys, and we drop out of sports at a higher and quicker rate. So seeing all these girls screaming that they wanted to become runners was another big reason why I wanted to do this — to show that women can achieve anything they want to as athletes.”

Sophie reached Mizen Head, Ireland’s most southerly point, in 3 days, 12 hours, and 8 minutes, smashing the record by more than three hours.

“I learnt that I can push myself ridiculously hard in pursuit of making an impact on others — I don’t have a drive to win medals, I have a drive to make a difference.

“When you do something that you think you might fail at, but you achieve it, it’s simply an incredible feeling.”