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The Jungle Marathon. Photo credit: S4C.

Lowri Morgan Q&A: Jungle, Ice and the 333

21-Dec-16

Last updated: 05-Nov-18

By Luke Jarmey

Lowri Morgan is a Welsh television presenter, perhaps best known for presenting S4C’s coverage of the World Rally Championship and Adventure documentaries. However, she’s also a seriously badass ultra-runner, with a coveted 6633 Ultra finish to her name and has recently thrown herself into a unique running challenge in Snowdonia -  the 333.

Q. So for those of us that haven’t been lucky enough to see you gracing our screens, who is Lowri Morgan?

A. I’d like to think of myself a jack of all trades. When I was growing up, I always wanted to be a classical singer. That is what I had always dreamt of becoming and what I had trained to do. On the other hand, adventure and sport was always a passion of mine but it was singing that I saw myself doing professionally. Life chose a different path for me! Now people call me an Adventurer, Ultra Marathon Runner and TV Presenter.

Q. Before we dive into your recent exploits, let’s rewind back a tad. How did track and field and high level rugby morph into a clearly passionate ultra-running addiction? 

A.  I was lucky when I was younger to represent my country and with the exception of a few years away from the sport due to injury (rugby), I’ve always run. After re-hab I lost my speed but was eager to get back to running, although they did tell me that I’d never be able to run properly again. I started running slowly and found that I could always run a bit further. Three years after the operation, I was running my first marathon.

When I started presenting a children’s show, and they found out that I had completed a few marathons, they asked if I’d like to do the London Marathon for TV. After that, it was competing in an Ironman competition and it all spiralled from there. Through my work as a broadcaster with different TV channels, I have been very fortunate to have followed world championships as a journalist, jumped out of planes, dived looking for pirate ships, lived with indigenous tribes and in 2003 I was one of only 80 in the world to have dived 2.5miles to the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean to see the wreck of the Titanic.  After that, I was asked to help produce an extreme sports series which saw me taking marathon running to another level. We came across the Jungle Marathon and decided to film me training and racing the seven-day ultra in Brazil’s Amazon forest. It was my first ever ultra marathon. I was so happy to finish, especially since only 50 finished out of 150, and even happier to be 10th. 

Q. Just homing in on the rugby for a second. I read that you were confined to a wheelchair for a year after your injury. How did you cope with that? Did you get involved with any wheelchair-based exercise or sports?

A. When I went to University, I was invited to join the women’s rugby team. I was still racing cross country but agreed to play one game as a favour. I thoroughly enjoyed playing and during my first season I was very fortunate to represent my country. However, towards the end of my first season, I badly shattered my knee (plus the rest). I remember leaving the hospital in a wheelchair determined to prove to myself that the news that I wouldn’t be able to run properly wasn’t going to be true. So when I was out of my plaster, I was in the pool training. I couldn’t move my knee but at least mentally I was retuning back to running. I spent a year in a wheelchair and then on crutches but didn’t get involved with any wheelchair-based sport. My training was spent on my own. I’d be in the pool, in the gym and walking or running very slowly along the Gower Peninsula.

Photo credit: CREAD Cyf.

Q. Ok back to ultras, what was your first race and was it a pleasant experience…?

A. Despite running a few ultra distances during my training, my first official ultra was the Jungle Marathon in 2009. I spent up to 20hrs on my own in the jungle's extreme conditions. My feet were a mess – they were sceptic, had deep blisters, trench foot and I had lost all of my toenails. I had been bitten 40 times by hornets and I was about to give up. As the Producer, I was happy that we’d have enough footage to make a great programme - even if I didn’t finish. However, when I had accepted that I was giving up and my body gave up … a surge of energy came from deep in the soul and I believe this is where my mind took over. It’s amazing what the mind can do. All of a sudden when I thought I could no longer carry on – I found a 6th, 7th gear. I felt really strong and ran towards the finish line with a huge smile on my face. I was hooked!

Q. Talk to us about the Jungle Marathon. How did you fare going from wet and windy Wales to the testing climate and terrain of the Amazon?

A. In the Amazon the challenge was 140 miles in a week - through swamps full of anacondas, and a jungle full of snakes and jaguars. We also had to swim through rivers full of piranhas in 40-degree heat and 90% humidity. And on top of all of this, we had to be self-sufficient with around 15kgs on our backs. To call it tough is an understatement. The only assistance was drinking water. I was so nervous for those 18 months of training because I was walking into the unknown. There were good days and bad – more bad days if I’m completely honest.
 
I remember phoning my boss, early on in the training, in tears as I explained to him that I was in too much pain to make it to work. I had run 40 miles that week and my body was so tired. However, after 18 months of training, I had increased my weekly mileage to 100 miles a week and those miles included me carrying 15kg of sugar bags in my rucksack. During training I do back-to-back (-to-back) long-run equation to emulate tough race-day efforts. I try to simulate in-race stresses but without overworking myself in training. For example, I might run 18 miles at a moderate effort on the first day, a 20-mile run on the second day, and then a 15-mile run on the third day–all on similar terrain as the upcoming stage race.

Q. Keeping on this topic of ‘extreme’ ultras, we’ve got to talk about the 6633. I mean wow, that really is a serious accomplishment finishing that behemoth of a race! I believe the current stats are only 26 finishers in the history of the event. So firstly, what inspired you to give it a crack?

A. I had tested myself in the heat and humidity, I wanted to see how I’d cope in the coldest of conditions. Also, at the time only five people had completed the 350 miles and I was keen to push my boundaries again. This wasn’t a competitive race for me but a personal challenge. I wasn't looking to break any records or compete against others. I just wanted to push my physical and emotional limits and see how far I could go. 

For readers interested in the 6633, check out our interview with Gavan Hennigan on the 2015 edition.

Q. Now, how did you go about training for the rather unique condition out there? I’m guessing winter in Snowdonia played a part? 

A. Success in this race is down to three things: a third is down to your physical strength, a third depends on your mental attitude and the last third is down to your personal administration or your systems. So I went about training 30hrs a week, running 150miles a week. In 12 months, I ran 4000 miles and 7,500miles in 3 years. I trained with the Special Forces in Northern Norway. I ran in industrial sized freezers. I would run up and down Snowdon non-stop, three times purely to challenge the mind. I ran a 46 mile race around the Brecon Beacons (Beacons Ultra) and then decided to run home – a total of 105 miles in 21hrs. These kind of training sessions, although tough, were invaluable for out in the Arctic when it came to my last 100 miles. Mentally I felt strong knowing that I had already run 100miles on tired legs. I spent hours packing and unpacking my kit at home. One of the things the elite soldiers taught to me was how to assemble and disassemble my cooker whilst being blindfolded. When you're exhausted, sleep deprived, hungry and freezing even the simplest of challenges like doing your shoe laces is a nightmare. 

Q. How did the race actually go then? I’m sure aside from anything, it was an absolute emotional rollercoaster. Do you think the mental aspect of it was the toughest?

A. The hardest thing to accept was how slow I was during training and during the race. I was used to running 3hr marathon distances whilst out in the Arctic I had to accept that it would take me 6hours+ to complete the same distance. I was fifth but decided to carry on through the night whilst the others slept. After 180miles, I was the only one left in the race. All of my fellow contestants, marines, special forces, soldiers and highly trained athletes had, for one reason or another, dropped out.

Yet even after all the years of training, there I was thinking whether this experience was really worth the emotional and physical pain? I had given so much into the venture, had sacrificed so much, had dedicated years into the challenge and had received so much support leading up to the event… could I return home with my head held up high knowing that I had given up? … Yes, I could. I was the last person standing. However, having said that I felt that at that moment I had proven enough, failure still was not an option. I kept telling myself that the pain of failure would last much longer than the pain I was going through in the race (I found out after the race that I had fractured my feet). Tears would well up in my eyes and instantly freeze but I had a positive attitude. Every time I’ve wanted to give up - I kept reminding myself that it was also the time that the wonderful magnificent northern lights would come out to entertain me. I kept reminding myself why I run. I love the freedom it gives me, the space to be by myself, the beautiful countries I have had the privilege to race in, pushing the boundaries beyond what other people consider normal and lastly the people I have met along the way who have inspired me, made me dig deeper, strive to be better and believe in myself. I tried to zone out and find a quiet place and white space in my head. I focused on my goals and then I had clarity. I finished the race - the only person that year to do so.

Q. That truly is an incredible ultra running achievement, Lowri, well done. On a slightly lighter note, were there any funny, scary or particularly euphoric moments out there?

A. I can now understand why this is considered to be one of the hardest races on the planet with the continuous walking and running, the lack of sleep and loneliness all playing mind games throughout. I suffered from hallucinations –during the first 40hours (which I did without stopping) I saw very dark things. However, towards the end, when I was in a good place I saw a park bench lined up on the ice road. I thought ‘how kind of the organisers to sort this out for me’. I went to sit on it and obviously it disappears in front of me! I immediately pulled out my bivvy bag and slept for 45mins!

Q. How long did it take to recover from it and are you chomping at the bit for any more sub-zero races?

A. I’m as proud of my achievement in the Arctic as anything else I’ve achieved in sport, especially as it turned out I’d broken bones in my feet. So as you can imagine, I didn’t go back to running until I felt I had given my body (and mind) enough time to repair. I wanted to have a break and not be governed by an intense training regime. For me, it’s important especially since I have plates, screws in my knee and less cartilage than most. We were also at the time hoping to start a family and I was told that I’d have to cut down on my mileage so I concentrated on marathon distances for a few years.

Q. Ok, on to your recent exploits with the televised 333 challenge. For anyone who hasn’t seen the first episode yet (UK readers, watch it here), give us an overview on what it’s all about?

A. This year it’s been the Welsh Government’s “Year of Adventure”. I’m an ambassador alongside Bear Grylls. I have travelled the world racing and going on adventures but with the exception of the Ring O’ Fire Ultra Marathon, I have not completed a big endurance challenge on my home turf. I’ve always wanted to run through Wales and thought of the 333 Challenge - three ultra marathons (a total of 150 miles) over three of Wales’ most iconic Peaks (Snowdon, Cader Idris and Penyfan) in 3 days. The Three Peaks Challenge attracts thousands of people each year and I had never heard of anybody attempting to run between them in three consecutive days. 

Photo credit: CREAD Cyf.

Q. How did you come up with the idea to do it? And what makes it a particularly tough challenge?

A. It was 2014 when I initially hatched this idea. I wanted to go for a ‘world first’ challenge but I also wanted to do it in Wales. Eventually, I thought of the 333 Challenge; three ultra-marathons, taking in three of Wales’ highest peaks, in three days, a total of 150 miles with over 6000metres of climbing. I still haven’t been through the Guinness book of World Records, but I don’t think anyone has ever completed this in three days.

This wasn’t the first extreme endurance challenge I’d done as part of an S4C series. The Amazon and the Arctic races were shown on S4C, so it was inevitable that I would someday feel the need to take on something else.

S4C were very supportive of the idea from the start. However, everything changed shortly after pitching the idea, when I found out I was pregnant. Luckily, the channel kept their interest throughout. I knew becoming pregnant in the meantime would make the story a very different one. The challenge always remained the same but tougher because I couldn’t train like I used to due to new priorities.

This wasn’t a race against the clock due to filming logistics but also I wanted to do it alongside some of Wales’ most inspirational endurance runners. Among those who joined me were my friend, ex-SAS soldier Nigel Thomas, the actor and ultra marathon runner Mark Lewis Jones (Stella, National Treasure) and a young long-distance runner, Owen Roberts, who spent time this year training in Kenya in the company of double Olympic champion David Rudisha. What really surprised me was how tough it was to not only run a very long distance but to also interview these runners along the way. They were amazing and the camaraderie between us all - runners and TV crew - was incredible.

Q. Tell us about your training plan? Did you do anything differently to your standard race training?

A. With the exception of the first three months, I ran throughout my pregnancy and was back running 20 days after having our son. The drive to get back out there racing was an emotion too strong to ignore. I wanted to push myself to see if I could get back to where I once was fitness wise. So when Gwilym was one-year-old, I entered my first 50 km ultra marathon and came 1st female and 4th overall out of 150. I could spend hours on the mountains and on the trails as I used to before having my son. My training as a result became shorter but more intense. I’d get up early in the morning to run a marathon for example before everybody got up and then I’d spend a few miles running, pushing the pram and with the dog around the parks which always makes me smile!

Photo credit: Lowri Morgan.

Q. You actually took on a rather unique race with an all-female team before the challenge. What was that all about and how did it go?

A. Due to not being able to put in the high mileage like before, I concentrated on racing an endurance event every month. In April and May I ran ultra marathons and in June I joined an all female crew to compete in the Three Peaks Yacht Race. The Three Peaks Yacht Race is one of the oldest and most remarkable multi-sport endurance races in the world. It is a uniquely challenging event in every way, it combines some hard core marathon distance fell running with sailing and navigating around some of the most challenging coasts of the UK with a minimal crew. There is every element you could possibly imagine to test both mind and the body, we had an incredibly competitive team as we are all strong athletes in our chosen sports, regardless of gender. Elin Haf Davies brought us all together and Skippered by Pip Hare with Nikki Curren and Jo Jackson. We all met the day before the race and we got on so well.

Starting in Barmouth, the five of us sailed up to Caernarfon, where two of us runners set off on foot. We had to stick together and self-navigate for the 24 mile run to the summit of Snowdon, then back down to re-join the boat, sail for the Cumbrian coast. 12hours after Snowdon, we’d set out for 40 miles to the summit of Scafell Pike. Afterwards we’d have 210 miles to recover whilst the sailors really showed what they were made of. Then we had to disembark at Fort William then slog up and down Ben Nevis - 20 miles to finish the race.

After some amazing sailing, Jo and I crossed the finish line to secure the historic achievement. Team Aparito Digital Health had become the first all female team in the history of the Three Peaks Yacht Race to take line honours.

Q. Nice, with all that in the bag, you unfortunately got hit with some flu in the week leading up to the 333. How did that affect your training and did it invoke significant doubts on whether to start or not?

A. The flu not only knocked me physically, it also made me question whether I’d make it through the three days of the challenge. I stopped my long runs and tried to recover from the illness. It really sapped all of the energy I had. I had to trust in the training I had done earlier in the year. I knew I could not change the dates, the crew had been booked and the logistics had been organised, also I was due to fly to the Andes (Peru) the day after I was to finish to film a documentary about running at altitude and the Andean people. No pressure then!

Q. Righto, I’m looking forward to watching the rest of the series to see how you fared with the challenge. But as we’re considerably impatient human beings here at RunUltra, can you give us a little snippet into how it all went, any setbacks and how on earth you felt finishing it? 

A. On the first day of the challenge when I arrived at the first steep incline on Snowdon, the reality of what I was trying to attempt hit me. It was a very hot day, I was still on antibiotics and that little voice in the back of my mind started to question if I was strong enough to complete the challenge. But when you’re thinking about giving up, you remember the reasons why you run and the extra pressure on your shoulders because the series is dependent on you finishing.

Sometimes that producer’s hat offers some escapism. In a challenge like this, it can be an advantage because thinking about what you’re going to say to the camera can take your mind off the pain you’re experiencing. Other times though, you don’t want to see the lens and just need to focus on the rhythm of your feet. It’s not just the body that tires, but your mind tires too and it wasn’t always easy thinking about what to say next especially as I was interviewing other athletes on the go. But the greater the challenge, the bigger the success. And 333 was much more challenging than I ever thought.

Photo credit: S4C.

Q. Amazing stuff, well done! Ok, we’re massive gear geeks and love hearing about what worked and didn’t work on these kind of extreme feats of endurance. So what single bit of kit really stood out for you? And was there anything that didn’t hold up?

A. Scott Sports have supported me throughout the year and I truly love their products. I alternated between their trainers during the 333 and I didn’t suffer with any blisters, nor fractures which is incredible considering the terrain and distance I completed. Everything worked out thank goodness!

Q. We also love food, so tell us about your nutrition plan for the 333?

A. I had Primal Pantry bars to keep me going but other than that, I ate very simply. It was a change being able to eat fresh food during an endurance challenge, I’m normally used to dry food during an event.

Q. And finally, what is the near future, ultra-running wise looking like for you, Lowri?

A. I’m hoping to do a World First next year. It’ll be called 777 and it’s in five weeks time! I better go training!

Many thanks Lowri and good luck with the 777!

Photo credit: CREAD Cyf.

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