Close the books. Ready the gongs. We may have already seen the most remarkable performance from a British athlete in 2019. The fact that Jasmin Paris became the first woman to win the 268-mile Spine Race, which swaggeringly bills itself as one of the toughest endurance contests in the world, was jaw-dropping enough. To also beat her nearest male rival by 15 hours and set a course record time by 12 – while pumping milk for her baby daughter at feeding stations – marked it out as a feat for the ages.
But there was another reason why Paris’s story resonated so deeply it made the BBC’s News at Six, received enormous traffic on the Guardian’s website and was tweeted by Chelsea Clinton. There was a purity which harked back to a bygone age of pushing at impossible boundaries for the sheer love of sport and unfettered adventure.
In running the entire Pennine Way from Edale in the Peak District to Kirk Yetholm in 83 hours, carrying a 5.5kg backpack containing her emergency supplies and 3,000 calories of snacks required by the rules and barely sleeping three hours across three nights, the 35-year-old vet from Edinburgh evoked the ghosts of Sir Edmund Hillary and Roger Bannister and other legends of the heroic age.
It also brought to mind great endurance feats of past centuries, such as Foster Powell walking the 404 miles from London to York and back again in five days and 18 hours in 1773 – a story that captured the nation’s attention to such an extent that he was greeted by thousands of well wishers and the triumphant parp of French horns on his return. Or the exploits of Captain Robert Barclay who won a 1,000 guinea wager that he could walk a 1,000 miles in 1,000 hours – one mile every hour of every day and every night without a break – at Newmarket in 1809.
Famously Barclay resorted to carrying pistols around his waist and having Big John Gully, an ex-boxing champion, to act as bodyguard because he was afraid someone would attempt to scupper his bet. Alas there was little time to celebrate his success given he had to leave Ramsgate eight days later to fight Napoleon with the British Army.
Paris, who allowed herself a glass or two of champagne to celebrate her latest triumph, is taking a page out of the Barclay notebook by returning to work to write her PhD thesis on Monday morning.
Indeed when I spoke to her, 36 hours or so after the race, she confessed to being a bit befuddled with all the attention – and made light of the fact that she had had just three hours’ sleep in three days and had “elephant feet” because they had swollen up so much. She was also unbothered by hallucinations on the final day, insisting that seeing animals in the rocks and trees were “interesting in a way, and diverting”.
“Also my thermo-regulation is all over the place with the hot and cold, that’s another thing that tends to happen after all races,” she added, almost as an afterthought. “But overall I am feeling pretty good.”
It was deeply impressive stuff. Especially when you consider that she only started running at 24. Then again, why would you be fazed when you have spent months preparing by getting up at 4am, while your husband and daughter are asleep, to run around 70-80 miles a week?
Even at the start Paris believed that she could beat her male rivals, which included the previous record holder, the Irish international Eoin Keith. She also knew that in long ultra endurance events the physical advantages men have start to dwindle and the race would become about the head as well as the legs and lungs.
“A massive part of it is mental,” she says. “With ultras it is always going to hurt at some point. You just have to know how to get through the bad times.”
Paris could easily capitalise financially on her latest victory. But while she is helped by the small British company inov-8, which provides kit and shoes, she does not have a major sponsor – and does not want one. “I have been offered something more significant but I have a career already – I am a scientist and a vet – so I don’t need a second one,” she insists. “And I have absolutely no desire to tie myself to a contract or have anyone tell me what to do and when. I just want to keep it fun.”
Can you blame her given we live in a world where athletes are reminded to put the correct hashtags on their instagram posts to please their sponsors? Or have carefully calibrated media training to ensure they offer little more than dull platitudes? There is too much preening and posing and bullshit in sport. This was a welcome antidote.
Indeed Paris is uneasy when she is told that her achievements are exceptional. “Part of me thinks that if other people tried it they could do it too,” she insists. “All you need to do is keep putting one foot in front of the other and feed yourself. We can do much more than we think, if we actually give it a go.” Something Paris, of course, knows better than anyone.