One of the Ladies Running Club activities is the weekend long run, a regular chance to meet up with other club members for a group run instead of pounding the pavements alone. While most of us are content to finish with a coffee and a chat after some 10k, one of the ladies is barely getting warmed up. Astrid Fleri Soler has taken her passion for the long run from 26 marathons to the ultimate level of ultra marathon. We met up for a coffee and talked about what keeps her feet ticking over those endless miles.
How did you get started and how long have you been running?
I have been running some 20 years. I got started when I saw an article featuring the LRC on the Times shortly after that year’s marathon. My son was 3 years old and I wanted to get fit and lose weight. I used to see Geraldine Cassar Torreggiani running past every day after work. Little did I know then that she would actually be forming part of my life as well as a running companion. Eventually I called the LRC number as instructed on the newspaper and I was welcomed to that weekend’s run. I felt I was going to die at first but gradually those Sunday runs became my weekly social outlet. However, I never wanted to race, never! Then came the introduction to coaching and track work. I was placed in the slowest group but I couldn’t keep up with them. First time I ran one lap. Next time I had to run five laps, just five laps without stopping and that got me going. After a while coach John Walsh wanted me to participate in the upcoming fun run. Again I didn’t want to take part but he convinced me to give it a try. Following that I took part in the LRC 10k. I thought I’d never be able to finish but I did. Malta Challenge was coming up and we all took part. I ran the first stage and it was fine, same with the second stage. I was daunted by the last stage – 15 miles! but I said I would do it, just for the medal if anything and I didn’t want to let the team down as everyone was so supportive and lovely. We ran together all the way and the longer I ran the better I felt. Something fell into place, I had a very good run that day and never looked back from thereon. Marathon followed and after that came many, many races. By 2000 I wanted to focus more on marathons and started to travel abroad to run them.
How did Comrades Marathon come about?
The Comrades Marathon is the world’s largest and oldest ultramarathon race of approx. 89km of brutal elevation and descents between Pietermarizburg and Durban, South Africa. Founded in 1921 by WW1 veteran Vic Clapham as living memorial for the soldiers killed in the WW1, its primary aim is to ‘’celebrate mankind’s spirit over adversity’’.
While my son was small I trained running, swimming and cycling and someone suggested I should train for the Iron Man. I got interested in the challenge but after a while I felt I didn’t have the time and resources to do it properly and ultimately I prefer running to anything else. I had never heard of ultra marathons before until I saw a film on cable called ‘The Long Run’. It’s a story about the Comrades Marathon and I watched it every time it was on. If I had the opportunity to run an ultra marathon, this would definitely be it I said to myself. My biological clock ticking and shortly after my 45th birthday I decided to take the plunge and go for it – it was either now or never! I felt it was the right time in my life. People told me I was crazy thinking of running more than two marathons back to back on mountainous terrain, higher altitude with no flat sections at all. The road would either go up or down, worst being 19k ofcontinuous ascent, a bit like the San Martin hill, but stretching on forever on much higher ground. I started training for it and at times it felt lonely but I didn’t mind once I had set myself on course. I was well into training when I got a virus that attacked my muscles but I had to keep on going although the pain was unbearable at times. At one point I told my coach I didn’t know what a pain free run was anymore. However, I just wanted it so badly nothing could stop me. With a near 4 – 6 hours of daily training and seven weeks to go for the challenge, my life had turned into a complete chaotic mess not knowing when I ate, slept or worked. It was very hard but I was happy and this is what actually got me through the race.
How did you prepare yourself for such a gruelling race?
Running an ultra marathon is all about heart and mind. You train your body but it’s your mind that gets you to the end. It’s a fascinating aspect how the mind shifts when you keep on running hour after hour until six – seven eight hours and your body becomes like a robot, an automated machine that keeps on moving because your mind overrides your physical being.You have to remain very positive and learn how to control your mind, how to switch away from any negative thoughts because if you get caught in them you’ve had it. We all have negative thoughts at times but you practice it and it becomes part of you. I believe in training for any eventuality so during the race I know what to do because I’ve already experienced it. In Comrades I ran out of fuel at 61k, I hit the wall. I was dizzy and hallucinating, my legs gave way but I knew instantly I needed salts and sugar to restore my body and keep on going as I had been through this before. I recall during one of my training runs, my body ran out of energy while I still had over two hours with 13 miles to go. My husband couldn’t pick me up so I simply had to keep going. Few pears from a hawker got me through several miles and later a coke from a petrol station revitalised me to finish the last eight miles.
What about recovery and taking time off?
After the second Comrades I had a bit of a break as I was feeling tired, the distances wear you out and my body needed a rest. During a group meditation session one day, someone said we should let go of what we love most. But how can I let go of running? Paranoia hit me there! However, I did let go for a while, running easy, taking up yoga and meditation. I have niggles and pains but I have learned to listen to my body and take care of myself. I don’t take medication but try to focus on within, listening to what comes out like ‘where does the injury come from, what am I afraid of?’. Your body tells you so many things, Emotional baggage which blocks us from moving forward can be released and the body will heal itself. I have had a lot of injuries and I used to get very angry and frustrated when I felt I was losing all the fitness I had worked for so hard. Eventually I have learned a lot from the injuries, I know where it is,what to do, why it occurred. I can’t grumble anymore about it.
Your return to running was the Safaricom Marathon in Lewa Wildlife Conservancy in Kenya
The course is a 21km loop on rough dirt roads across savannah plains, along river banks and through acacia woodland over an undulating terrain of the Lewa Wildlife Conservancy, at an average altitude of 5,500 ft. The race is run in the game reserve while the route is watched over by armed rangers and helicopters. Participation is limited to 1,000 runners and funds raised go towards wildlife conservation and community programmes in Kenya. Lewa marathon is established as one of the ‘must do marathons of a lifetime’.
Coming back from a break I wasn’t really in optimal condition for Lewa but it was a challenge I felt it would either break me or fire me up and in fact it did just the latter. I had been feeling very ill the month leading up to it so I decided to do the half marathon, just go with the flow and enjoy every second of it, come what may. I arrived in Nairobi a week before and ran some trails in the area getting acclimatised and then we moved up to Lewa. Everything went against usual city marathon rules; no carbo loading, sleeping out, waking up at 6:30am in a tent and standing at the starting line at 7:15; very hilly, rough terrain, animals running free around you, a completely different atmosphere and as the name suggested ‘Run wild with the Wild’! The views were simply spectacular – you just had to stop and inhale all that beauty!. I saw a giraffe, a zebra on the side of the course and a buffalo crossed the path I was running on. When I was approaching the finish a Kenyan dashed by, then another, then someone on a bicycle yelling ‘elite, elite elite!’ I asked who it was, but the man didn’t know – just elite – because they all are. There they were, these runners half my size flying by finishing the full marathon as I was coming to the end of the half. A unique marathon, an amazing adventure and a wonderful experience because of all the runners I met from all over the world, The Kenyans make you feel honored and treat you like a king or a queen just because you are a runner. I definitely want to do it again, train properly for it and do the full distance.
Your milestones for the future?
Now I’m back to structured training with a coach. Apart from doing core work, there are the track sessions and running six times per week, four of them hard and two even harder. It’scvery disciplined with consistently increasing distances. I will take part in the Mdina Spinola race and probably do the half in Malta Marathon. Next full marathon will be Rome in March but what I am most looking forward to is a Desert Marathon in Jordan in September.
I’m in my fifties and running has been an amazing journey with incredibly enriching experience. I was the first Maltese runner to do the Comrades Marathon and I’ve met so many people from all corners of the world and stayed friends with some of them to this day. I don’t mind the solitude while training hard, but I love my workouts, meeting people and joining on training runs, especially when the Malta Marathon is approaching!