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Canterbury runner who completed gruelling Sahara Race and freezing Yukon Arctic Ultra to inspire others

By Marijke Hall

When Michelle Smith pulled on her trainers and attempted her first run she made it less than a mile up the road before heading home.

The 39-year-old deputy head teacher, who lives in Chartham, was no fan of running and admits she even disliked sports at school.

Determined to carry on, the self-confessed plodder built herself up to eventually enter her first half-marathon - for which she was late and had to run the wrong way past other runners to reach the starting line.

Michelle Smith during the Yukon Arctic Ultra. (8471944)
Michelle Smith during the Yukon Arctic Ultra. (8471944)

But after years of pushing on, Michelle, now a qualified international mountain leader, has some seriously impressive feats under her belt.

She was the only Brit in 2018 to complete the coldest endurance event in the world - the Yukon Arctic Ultra - and ran the equivalent of six marathons in seven days in the gruelling Sahara Race.

This year, she attempted the 430-mile Yukon Artic challenge, but had to pull out after developing bronchitis.

Michelle, who works at Saint George’s Church of England School in Gravesend, is hosting a talk in Chartham on Tuesday, April 23, through the Stour Striders running group about resilience and determination, to raise money for the Royal British Legion and Young Minds.

She hopes to inspire others not to fall at the first hurdle.

Michelle Smith during the Yukon Arctic Ultra. (8471946)
Michelle Smith during the Yukon Arctic Ultra. (8471946)

“I could barely run a mile,” she admits. “But I loved being outside so I thought I should use it.

“I ran along the river path in Chartham, which is less than a mile, and I was so chuffed.

“I was awful, though. I felt like I’d run 10km. But I’ve always loved a challenge so I carried on.”

The endurance runner has since completed the London Marathon, as well as a number of half-marathons.

In the Sahara Race in 2017, she ran an astonishing 86km in one day in more than 52C heat as part of a 155-mile, seven-day challenge.

Competing in the Sahara Race 2017. (8471950)
Competing in the Sahara Race 2017. (8471950)

“It was horrific, but looking at all the runners doing it this year I wish I was there,” she said.

“You’re running on sand dunes, rubble, dried river beds and there’s no respite.

“My feet felt like they were going to explode. I had to strap them up and they were so swollen I could hardly get my trainers on.”

Michelle Smith's feet during the Sahara Race 2017. (8471942)
Michelle Smith's feet during the Sahara Race 2017. (8471942)

Last year, Michelle undertook the gruelling 100-mile Yukon Arctic Ultra in -50C, in which she came fourth overall out of about 40 competitors and was the first woman and only Brit to complete it that year.

“I still find running hard,” added Michelle, who is married to ex-serviceman Scott and is step-mum to 23-year-old triplets Ben, Harry and Emily.

“I spend the first half-an-hour arguing with myself, telling myself to get my breathing right, and then I’m fine.”

Michelle’s talk is at 8pm at The Pavillion, St Augustne's, Beech Avenue in Chartham.

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