Last updated: 06-Nov-18
By Ian Corless
The heat of the Sahara provides an illusion, a mirage. The silhouette of distant camels are transformed into deformed black objects that seem to float between sand and sky and then amongst them, way off in the distance, a figure appears.
At first just a head, then a glimmer of white and finally red, the glow of red that confirms that Jo Meek is going to win the final stage of this iconic race. Sprinting hard, Jo pushes the pace to the line and beyond. Even the open arms and warm embrace of race director, Patrick Bauer, cannot break the concentration of a lady who is in the zone.
Medal around her neck, this slight lady looks around, almost lost, searching for comfort. Our eyes lock and suddenly, I am the only familiar face around. Before I know it, I am in her arms; tears are saturating my shoulder as she sobs with emotion. Finally the release can come, Jo Meek has just placed 2nd lady overall in the famous, 28th edition of the Marathon des Sables.
April 2013 seems such a lifetime away. For Jo Meek it was a moment in time that changed her life. This little known lady who had been running for over 20-years had suddenly broken into the big time of ultra running placing top-3 at the most iconic multi-stage race in the world, the Marathon des Sables. Billed as the toughest race on the planet, I think we all know that it’s not, but it is extremely hard and it does demand a unique set of skills, focus and determination irrespective of natural ability.
Jo is ex-military and I remember asking her mid MDS, how do you find bivouac life, self-sufficiency and not being able to wash. Jo’s reply summed things up perfectly, “I’m actually quite a ‘skanky’ person. I like roughing it. At MDS you can use this to your advantage. I planned really well and had my nutrition needs at an optimum. It’s a game of calories ‘v’ weight. I like the challenge of the MDS scenario but equally your running style changes; your speed changes as you are carrying the burden of the pack. I like to run and that was always my objective for MDS, so, I made sure my pack was as light as possible, I had no comforts.”
The strain of the desert took its toll on Jo and it took several months to regain the calories lost during such an epic week. However, not one to return to a race, thoughts moved away from sand and to the epic undertaking of The Coastal Challenge (TCC) in Costa Rica. “I think I have found a format that really works for me, the challenge of running for multiple days is something I enjoy and of course, the opportunity to travel and see a new place is something that I can really embrace.”
Heat, humidity, technical terrain, plenty of climbing and some of the longest and most beautiful beaches you could ever imagine provided a backdrop for Jo’s 2014 TCC experience. “I realised at MDS that I gave the race far too much respect, I was too cautious in the early days and it was only really on that final day, when I gave it everything, that I realised that in future I must race and race to win.” And race Jo did. Going head-to-head with Julia Bottger (Salomon) and local adventure racing specialist, Veronica Bravo, Jo showed them all a master class in racing. “I gave everything on that first day. I had assumed that the competition would have done the same? I assumed some heat work would put me on a par. As it turned out it wasn’t the heat that struck me but the pace! We were running slower than I expected so I ran at what was comfortable for me and nobody ran with me.”
The blinkered vision, the focus was there for all to see. This was no holiday with some running. This was a competition. Jo was running to win and nothing would stop her. “I didn’t want to take anything for granted. I could have fallen and hurt myself and with Veronica and Julia chasing, I couldn’t be complacent. I raced hard to the end.”
A dominant victory and course record in the bag at TCC and one would have anticipated that Jo would look for another multi-day event later in the year. No! Not one to sit on her laurels, Jo had already entered the iconic Comrades Ultra Marathon in South Africa. Renowned as the blue ribbon event in road ultra running, Jo would test herself against the best-of-the best on the roads between Pietermaritzburg and Durban for the 2014 down* run.
In preparation, Jo lined up at the Iznik Ultra in Turkey. “I wanted to run this race in control and test my pace for Comrades. It was all about preparation and focus.” If you hadn’t already worked out, this lady leaves nothing to chance. Leading from the front, Jo pulled away from every runner in the race and not only won the race outright but smashed the course record. The stage was set for Comrades, however, Comrades is no ordinary race. The course, the speed, the history and the experience can make the bravest runner crumble. Despite less than ideal race morning logistical issues, Jo ran the race of her life. Using the pacing strategy honed in Turkey, mile after mile this unstoppable Brit worked away through the field and placed 5th behind Ellie Greenwood, the Russian twins (Elena and Olyesa Nurgalieva) and Irina Antopova.
It’s not possible to follow on from such a result is it? The world is a stage and surely, Jo Meek had just gained her Oscar. The crowds applauded, the accolades came and exit stage left awaited.
“I had gained a place at the Lakeland 50 at the end of July, it was a British Championship event and believe me when I say, I have tried for 20-years to earn and wear a coveted GB vest.” The trails and hills of the Lakeland 50 would most certainly provide a different playing ground to the rolling roads of South Africa. Not known for her technical running ability, Jo would need to be in top form to beat previous Lakeland 50 course record holder, Tracy Dean. In addition, Lakeland 100 winner and course record holder, Lizzie Wraith would be on hand to make this race extra tough.
“I wanted to run my own race, I had prepared and trained on the course. I knew the route and if I was going to win, I wanted it to be on my own terms. I took the lead and never looked back. I went through some tough times but ultimately my focus, my dedication and my commitment paid off. I got the GB vest…!”
It’s like a fairy story. I use broad-brush strokes documenting the rise of Jo Meek. In time, I will replace my 4” decorators brush with a fine sable artist brush and paint in minute detail this incredible journey. A journey of a lady who has worked hard for years, committed herself to the task at hand and who has repeatedly picked herself up, brushed off the dirt and tried again and again to be the best that she can be.
Crowned British Ultra Trail champion at the end of July, the story is complete. Or is it?
And I quote from a letter received by Jo on August 11th from British Athletics:
I am pleased to inform you that you have been selected to represent Great Britain and Northern Ireland in the 24H World Championships to be held in Doha/Qatar on 21 November 2014. You have been selected for: 100km Women’s Competition.
‘All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players.
They have their exits and their entrances,
And one man in his time plays many parts…’
As You Like It by William Shakespeare
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Note: *Comrades Marathon changes direction each year. The course runs from Durban to Pietermaritzburg, (the up run) or Pietermaritzburg to Durban, (the down run).