“Tough” is just one of the words Kelly uses to describe her experience at the Orbis Challenge, but it’s far from the only word. There’s also “inspirational”, “emotional”. And there are parts of the experience that no words will do justice.
The event, supported by On, offers participants a unique trail running opportunity in Malawi, Africa, on the untamed and not-to-be-underestimated routes of Mount Mulanje. Dame Kelly led the runners at the event in 2018 and 2019. As she explained when we caught up with her, the event offers much more than the satisfaction of overcoming a physical challenge. It’s also a chance to discover and support the relentlessly positive Malawian people with the many daunting challenges they face every day.
Dame Kelly, you’re a household name in the UK, so must get offers to take on new initiatives all the time. Why was the Orbis Challenge one you wanted to be involved with?
“I met Kate [Webb, Director of the Orbis Challenge] in 2018 and we talked about me going to Malawi with an initiative to help women build sustainable businesses. "I loved the idea, but I couldn’t go there and not also do something active.
“We discussed encouraging athletes to go over – to challenge themselves physically, but at the same time also supporting the charities that Kate and the team were involved with. The idea of the Orbis Challenge – Sport with a Purpose – evolved from there.
“I’d never been to Malawi and I really wanted to experience it – both to support with charitable work but also as an athlete.”
After the first Orbis Challenge in 2018, you went back for more in 2019. It must have been a positive experience?
“Yeah, it really was, mostly because of the great team of people you become part of. Both times we all had the the same mentality. No one is there just for a holiday, but to actually experience the environment.
“As athletes you have common ground in knowing that it's going to be hard. I’ve been in similar groups before, but I never got so much out of them personally. I’m still good friends with people I met at the Challenge in 2018. I didn’t know if we could create the same experience in 2019, but we did.”
The guides for the challenge are local runners like Edson Kumwamba. How was it running with them?
“I couldn't believe how good they were given they have very little equipment and facilities. Their athleticism is amazing. They were so welcoming and I could see that they loved the chance to support us.
“The trails were really tough so having experienced local guides there to support was incredible. We had a mix of abilities in the group and the guides really encouraged anyone that needed a little extra support. Everyone else is dying going up the mountain and they’re flying.
“Their knowledge of the environment is also so important because it can be dangerous. When you get tired with the altitude and heat you can pick up injuries, but they were always there. They inspire you to push yourself.”
So it was a tough test even for an Olympian?
“Oh, without a doubt, yeah. I'm not an endurance athlete. Obviously, my knowledge of running is an advantage because I know how to push myself.
“Having the career that I had, I have the ability to push when it gets tough, but that doesn't mean it doesn't take a toll. It becomes a mind game as well as physical because you've got the conditions to contend with. I never go over that kind of terrain when I'm at home. It's not something that's in my environment. Some of the runners in the team were fell (hill) runners or ultrarunners. That is not me.
“The first part of the mountain we ran, Mount Mulanje, is literally so steep you're pretty much crawling up. It felt like I was rock climbing at points. I didn't have time to train as much as I wanted beforehand, so coming down was painful on the legs. That said, I don't think there's anything that could replicate it in England because the environment in Malawi is so different. There’s the dust, then the altitude and then the big boulders and small rocks.
“At the same time, the views were incredible. You have to take them in, even if it’s hard to when you're struggling. You have to actually look up and go, this is amazing. I made sure I took the time to take it in this time, because I didn't in 2018. This time I appreciated it. I thought to myself, look at where I am and what I'm able to do.”
You mentioned the need for mental strength in such a challenge. You are known for your strong focus but also have been open about tackling your own mental health challenges. Are there techniques you use to keep your mind healthy and strong?
“I think I have the ability to understand where my off switch is – and my on switch. “When you push yourself too much you feel it. Whether that's kind of being frustrated or anxious or tired or whatever. It's that ability to know whether you need to take that step back.
“When it comes to pushing yourself physically, I think it’s important that you know where your goals are and what you're trying to achieve, because it can become very frustrating or disheartening when you don't feel like you're progressing.
“It’s a journey and I think a lot of people get down if they don’t think about it in that way. I know myself quite a lot more now after having really bad experiences in my life. “You get to understand when you need your own freedom and ‘me time’ as I call it.
“I use running now as a tool for my mental and physical health. I'm fortunate I can just put on a pair of running shoes and go out the front door and run. “How fast or slow I choose to run depends on how I'm feeling and normally if I'm feeling like I need to get a lot of frustration or tension out, I run hard.
“I feel privileged to be a runner because it's a great tool for when you're not feeling great.”
You’ve run so much in your career, but your passion for running seems as strong as ever – how do you keep that motivation high?
“I think it’s because running does so many different things beyond watching the watch I guess.
“I still set goals and I will focus on my running in 2020. I want to prove to myself I can still perform. As I get older, I kind of want to prove that age is in the mind, not in the body. I'm actually going to try and push myself to do more new challenges this year.
“One of the other things that I enjoy away from goals is the social side of running. I do a lot of Parkruns and I try and encourage people to run together because I think it's an empowering tool. It gets people out socializing, helps with isolation, helps people with mental health, physical health, well-being, communication, sleep, meeting new people and going to different places, and I love that.
“I think that's what's happening with running at the moment. There are a lot of communities that are building, from 5K and 10K programs to ultrarunning. It becomes a community and I think people really value that now.”
Coming full circle, the Orbis Challenge is a great example of that community spirit…
“Absolutely. In both years that I've taken part in the Orbis Challenge everyone has coped with each challenge in different ways. Some are fell runners so they do well in the hills, but then when it gets flatter other runners can perform better. What is really nice is that it is never competitive. You only compete with yourself. Every athlete has their own goals, and you help each other so everyone can achieve.”
From the images it appeared to be an emotional experience?
“For sure – there are a lot of emotions tied with personal achievements. There’s also the knowledge that you're raising money for the country, which is awesome. Then of course you go to schools where you see the kids and learn about the importance of combating child malnutrition [the fundraising cause of the 2019 Orbis Challenge]. That's overwhelming. There were hundreds of kids at the school we visited, all loving the fact that they are there even though have very little. Six out of ten classrooms don't even have desks or chairs. They all sit on the floor. But they are always smiling. With so much of the experience, words are really irrelevant in a way because you can’t actually describe it.”
You mentioned big challenges in 2020. Are we going to see you taking on more trails?
“Who knows?! I really enjoy trail running because the environment is completely different to where I normally run. Where I live you can run off road though, and I like that because I feel changing surfaces minimizes injury risk, but I also really enjoy it. I'm not running cross-country though – I don't do mud haha!“
Well, you’re always welcome to run with us in the Swiss mountains. We've got some pretty gnarly trails here too…
“Wow, that would be a challenge, wouldn't it? I'll have to put that on my list…”
The 2020 Orbis Trail Running Challenge takes place October 3–10 and applications are now open. For full details, and to apply, visit orbis-challenge.com/running.
Photography by Venetia Norrington.