In another life, Belfast born Shirley Thompson would probably be a mogul in the entertainment industry.
Born into a musical family, Thompson grew up surrounded by names like Van Morrison and Rory gallagher. As the main financial backers of Radio Caroline, Thompson’s father and uncle helped bring pop to the UK airwaves. But music didn’t hold much of an attraction for Thompson, who instead took to the skies for a career in aviation, escorting the rich and famous around the world in private jets.
All this glamour is a world away from Thompson’s new world of ultra distance running. Now when Thompson jets off to some far-flung location, it is no longer at the behest of rock stars or minor Royals, but to take part in one of her jungle marathons or for one of her eco-tourism ventures.
Not a woman to do things by halves, Thompson took on the gruelling Marathon des Sables just seven months after taking up running. The 250km track across the Sahara Desert is not a challenge to be taken lightly, as the rookie runner quickly discovered: “I had hideous blisters and on the last two days I only managed to stand once the morphine based painkillers from the medics kicked in!”
But Thompson dragged herself to the finish, when plenty of runners didn’t: “I felt very proud of myself. I had never slept in a tent before, and I arrived with far too much kit, all the wrong things, and enough toiletries and cosmetics to sink a ship.”
But the Sahara experience cemented Thompson’s passion for running (“It was a life changing experience”), and she returned the following year, only to be pulled from the course by medics after completing just 8km in 6 hours – much of it on all fours while suffering a chest infection. From there, more races and greater distances followed.
TheTrans 333 (333km non-stop across the Sahara), the Guardarun (six days across the Guadeloupe archipelago), the Verdon Trail in France and the Yukon Arctic Ultra, complete with more near-death experiences.
“I adored the concept of keeping going when I had the energy, as I often found at stage races I had fuel in the tank to keep on running.”
Thompson has now completely abandoned the world of private aviation (although true to the daring Thompson spirit, she does have a pilot’s license), and instead focuses her energies entirely on running, and organising races – in particular the UVU Jungle Marathon, which is one of the world’s most demanding ultra marathons and takes place in the heart of the Brazilian Amazon – so that others can enjoy the experience.
Her running focus has now changed too:
“Now I run where and when I want, not watching a clock. I like to go off and do my own ultra distance runs. There is nothing more exhilarating than waking up to blue skies and a warm day and setting off wherever your legs take you.”
Thompson’s professional life has changed too, focussing on organising educational expeditions in the Jungle and eco tourism. When preparing one of her jungle races, the work starts about five months beforehand, getting the necessary local permissions to hold the event –an endurance event all of its own. This is followed by trail clearance two months before the race.
Thompson plans the route, and the trails are marked with biodegradable tape. She is involved in the entire process, and covers each kilometre of the trail herself every year, often twice, before any of the other runners have even arrived. The logistics are incredible, requiring 220 staff for around 70 runners.
She is currently working on a new race in partnership with another race director, an exciting new destination that will launch later this year. She is also preparing for a second jungle marathon in Vietnam in 2013 as well as another jungle-based adventure in Brazil at the end of the year.
But “Jungle” Shirley still has some colder climes in her sights: “I have yet to finish a cold weather race and that bugs me. This year I am going to have another try at the Antarctic Ice marathon. I had all the wrong type of kit the last time I attempted a cold weather race. I am convinced that the new UVU cold weather gear will keep me alive!”