Travelling through the North Island, ultra-runner Claire Akin-Smith (35) stopped to run the Tongariro Crossing on her way to Wellington—a casual refresher, in the same way mere mortals stop for a cup of tea in Taihape.
We’re flicking through the family photo album and she points out a picture taken at the finish line of the Tarawera Ultra, a 100km race in Rotorua, where she placed third female in an international field. Her longest run was a 122km race across the island of Gran Canaria off Spain, where she placed first non-professional (fourth female overall). In fact, Claire has placed in the top four of her last five races, competing against the world’s top professionals.
So, a photo of Claire dressed as Wonder Woman, along with her husband Ben as the Incredible Hulk, seems beautifully apt. They are competing in a marathon through the vineyards of the Bordeaux region of France. Fancy dress was compulsory, and the theme that year was ‘superheroes’.
It’s a fond memory for Claire and Ben (no slouch as a runner either). But a mere 42km is not a serious challenge for this Wonder Woman. As an ultra-runner, Claire regularly completes marathon distances and further. In one race, she ran for 17 hours straight.
Claire is strikingly uncompetitive in the way she talks about running. ‘I love the distance—I’m much more excited about exploring and seeing as much as I can, than about how fast I can get there,’ she says. ‘In every event, I’ve run through the start line with the intention to enjoy the run, rather than it being a competition. Finishing in a good place has always been secondary.’
Claire’s fondest memories are not of winning races, but of the beauty she has experienced by immersing herself in nature. ‘One run I hold very dear to my heart was running the Queen Charlotte track in a day,’ she recalls of the 71km Marlborough Sounds coastal trail. ‘Just to have been able to see that whole track in all its beauty and variety in the space of a day was really special.’
Ben, Claire and their dog, Digby, recently moved to New Zealand from their home in Bristol, UK. They are seizing the opportunity to choose the life they want, rather than following the crowd into a bigger house or better job. ‘The style of living here in New Zealand is what we’d been yearning for. We want to live simply, and so much of what we love doing in our free time is actually free,’ explains Claire. ‘We had good jobs and a good house in the UK, but New Zealand gives us the opportunity to do something different with our lives.’
For Claire, her faith connects deeply to the physical world. ‘To be running alongside a cliff with coast on one side, and hills on the other, and to be sharing that with another human being, is very special and spiritual.’
Although she regularly competes with, and wins against, professional ultra-runners, it is because of Claire’s faith that she has never pursued running professionally. ‘In every other part of my life I’m very tick-box orientated, but with running I’ve found that it’s holding it lightly and enjoying it for its own sake and being free in it—that is what I love about it.’
Being emotionally healthy is as important to Claire as being physically fit. ‘In the past, I have been quite a driven person. Distance running gives me the time to wind down and get back into an even keel and has helped me deal with life stresses in a healthy way.’
Claire admits that running can be ‘addictive’, and for that reason she has never followed a regime. She chooses instead to stay ‘generally physically fit’ by cycling to work, swimming, doing strength exercises and running about 40km a week.
Okay, it probably still sounds extreme to many of us, but it’s all relative as other ultra-runners rack up hundreds of kilometres a week. ‘I fit my running around the rest of my life, rather than my life around running,’ she says. ‘I want to be known as me, Claire, not just as ‘a runner’.
Despite her own achievements, Claire’s heart is for helping others to start moving and get healthy. ‘We’ve not only been given a soul and mind, but a physical container—and it’s important to develop disciplines that keep the body working, in the same way [we develop] other spiritual or life disciplines,’ she observes.
As a well-regarded physiotherapist, Claire’s passion is to see everyone using their body optimally. ‘I truly believe that we all have that capacity to run swiftly and with ease. Everybody, no matter what size or shape, can learn to run.’
Ben and Claire began a running club at their church in Bristol to encourage others to get active while building community. They met weekly, receiving teaching on how to run well and techniques that could be practised in their own time. ‘It was somewhere people felt free to bring non-Christians—not to be evangelised, but just to be normal and have opportunities to have conversations about life.’
This club became ‘Love Running’, Claire explains. Which meant ‘love ourselves by looking after ourselves physically, love those around us by doing something completely for free, and love the community by being involved with local charities’.
The couple entered Love Running into the local Bristol 10km fun run, with the aim of getting together with the community to raise money for charity. They hoped to encourage up to 60 people to join, but on the first entry day had 300 people sign up. By race day, over 600 people participated under the Love Running banner.
‘What was really exciting was that many, many people completely unattached to the church joined,’ says Ben (who ran in a suit and bowler hat). ‘There was such a sense of community. Just seeing 600 runners in Love Running tee-shirts, and hearing someone in the crowd yelling, “Go Love Running!”, you really felt you were part of something.’
That year, Love Running raised £75,000 ($141,240 NZD) for World Vision and three local charities. Since then, it has raised a total of £250,000 ($471,806 NZD), with other Love Running clubs spreading throughout the UK, and even to South Africa. That’s the power of using your passion to help others.
It’s not just in Claire’s approach to running, but in her physiotherapy practice, where she has found that mind, body and soul are closely
interwoven. ‘Life experience has an impact on how each person moves and holds themselves, so unless you address of the things behind the injury, you won’t be as successful in treating it,’ she explains.
It was astonishing to observe a consultation with a client who came to Claire with a severe back injury. Instead of giving him back exercises, she observed his general posture and breathing, identifying where he had held his stress since childhood. Areas around his lower ribs and sternum were extremely sensitive, and as she manipulated the areas, her client began to laugh uncontrollably.
‘Laughing and crying come from the same area of the brain,’ says Claire. ‘It’s very normal for clients to either laugh almost hysterically, or to quickly become overwhelmed with emotion and cry. It’s your body letting go of tension from unprocessed stress.’
As Claire assessed and treated her client in the space of an hour, his chest physically opened up and it was striking to see the difference in posture. She gave him exercises for his back, but concentrated more on giving him breathing exercises.
‘I’ve noticed, through seeing thousands of clients, that how somebody thinks or feels will have a direct relationship on their demeanour,’ observes Claire.
She recalls one client who came to her with bilateral knee pain. As she assessed him, Claire found his breathing was very shallow, his middle back very stiff and muscles around his pelvis and upper legs very tight. Most significantly for Claire, she sensed a lack of self-confidence. His chest and abdomen—where he held his stress—was so sensitive that it took five consultations before she was able to touch the area to provide physical therapy.
‘What was lovely and so rewarding for me was seeing him come in for the last time in a completely different manner. He had a lot more confidence entering the room and was a lot more at ease with himself, and that was as much a success as the fact that he didn’t have knee pain anymore,’ she recalls.
But it’s one throw-away comment that strikes me as an insight into the real Claire Akin-Smith: ‘I know it would be totally inappropriate, but whenever I see someone who is out of shape and maybe a bit overweight, and they’re out running, I want to shout, “Yay you, well done, keep going!”’
Having been one of those people (attempting to run in the very loosest sense of the word!), this strikes me as generous and kind, and altogether lacking the arrogance we might expect from high-achieving sportspeople.
So, calling all Kiwis who want to get their bodies moving—our newly-adopted Wonder Woman is cheering you on from the sideline.
By Ingrid Barratt (abridged from War Cry 7 September 2013, p5-7)
‘I truly believe that anyone can run,’ says ultra-runner Claire Akin-Smith. ‘But you have to make the definition of running right for you. You can’t put on trainers and expect to run two kilometres straight away, it’s something that needs to be built up.
‘The difference between walking and running isn’t speed or bio-mechanics. It’s determination. If you have the determination to stick with a simple programme, you’ll soon be a runner.
Mix running and walking
Don’t try to run a full route, you’ll get discouraged and quit. Instead, mix running and walking.
Take the ‘talk test’
Always run at a relaxed and comfortable pace. This isn’t the Olympics—it’s a lifelong fitness quest. You should be able to speak without gasping or feeling out of breath.
Be a tortoise, not a hare
Running works just like the tortoise-and-hare race. It rewards the patient (with weight loss, steady progress, less stress, more energy and a host of health benefits), and penalises the overeager (with injuries, burnout and the like). Slow and steady wins the race.
Don’t compare yourself with anyone else
Don’t feel bad if you see someone who’s faster, thinner or smoother-striding. Running is your activity—make it work for you, and don’t worry about anyone else.