Q&A: Abbi Naylor on her thirty4thirty challenge

Abbi Naylor is an outdoor instructor, expedition leader, endurance athlete and charity fundraiser. She loves to help young people and adults to achieve their dreams in the outdoors, however big or small peoples dreams may be, and teaches and guides in a variety of natural environments all over the world.  

We became aware of Abbi’s incredible journey early last year. Firstly, she was the expedition leader of our founder Chris’ brother, Nick, when he took a school trip into the Norwegian Mountains. And secondly, she just so happened to be doing ‘The Wall‘, a 69-mile ultra-marathon that James Randall (Chris’ cousin) was also doing. The reason she was doing it was that she was in the middle of a thirty4thirty challenge – one that we’ve followed and been inspired from since. To give you a glimpse of what’s coming, our favourite of her thirty challenges was a 100 mile multistage run in the Himalayas, which included the Everest Challenge Marathon at 4000 metres altitude…

Having completed the challenge, we’re delighted to chat with her about her experiences, her love for fitness and the great outdoors, the mental aspect of fitness and exercise, her motivations and more.

The interview:

Hi Abbi, we’ve followed your journey for such a long time and loved every second of it! We’re so delighted to be able to ask you some questions about your experiences. Let’s start with a bit about you – what should we know?

My mind never stops, it constantly works. I find it very hard to concentrate on one thing at a time. I am constantly planning, pushing, striving, comparing and conjuring up new ideas. It is pretty exhausting, to be honest.

I love a list.

I cannot be inside for more than a couple of hours unless I am asleep!

A real outdoors person then! Okay, so what does exercise mean to you? And how did you get started?

Exercise means so much more to me than ‘fitness’. Fitness is the outcome but the process of exercise is my passion. To me it means freedom, it means time to be outside, an excuse to explore. Exercise for me is a form of meditation and mindfulness. It is a huge driver for my positive mental health, if I don’t exercise and especially if I don’t get outside I have huge slumps into a negative thought pattern. If I don’t exercise I actually feel a lot more sluggish and tired. 

I have always lived a life in the outdoors and a life of exploration, I think back to when I started to ‘exercise’ it was at the point in my teenage years when things started to get tough, I was running away from myself, I ran to feel and I ran not to feel, in the end, it became I very negative time; for 3 years I was wrapped up in a cycle of depression, an eating disorder and an exercise obsession. Before I went to school I would run for 10miles and probably wouldn’t have eaten. However, many years of help and encouragement I got through the dark times. I still sometimes need to rein in my thoughts and be kinder to myself but what I realised is that exercise makes me happy and gives me goals to work towards. 

In respect to the term exercise, I think that it can sometimes lead to the wrong impression. How much exercise do you do? Well if you look at my Strava or Garmin connect I do very little compared to some. I never go to the gym and I don’t obsess with speeds or times (sometimes I look at others speed and compare myself, but that doesn’t feel positive). But I am constantly outside being active and then on top of that I go exploring on my bike or in the sea or a put my trainers on and run. That’s what makes me feel alive. 

So back to how did it I get started… I just used my two feet to explore. Then I found people and clubs that had the same passion.  Being part of a club helps to keep up the motivation and gives you ideas. Now I am not part of a club in any sort but at the start of becoming active, it can be very helpful. I now choose not to be part of a club as I don’t have the routine to be able to commit myself, but I grab at the chance if anyone what’s to run or ride with me. 

Last year, you completed your incredible ‘thirty4thirty’ challenge, tell us about it?

I was thinking of a way to mark my 30th birthday and to raise money for a youth mental health charity. Turning 30 to me was a big deal, at one stage in life I never thought I would make it. I thought of thirty4thirty about 20months before that big birthday. I kept it to myself for a while as it was such a crazy idea, I then told my husband thinking he would say it was stupid. He didn’t. He said it was a great idea and I should go for it! The final idea was to take part in 30 endurance events in my 30th year, starting on New Year’s day 2018 and finishing on New Years Eve 2018, one full year of events. 

The events ranged in discipline and distance. Some of them were pretty extreme events and recovery time between them was lacking. The events ranged from 100mile ultras, an ironman, triathlons, ski races, long-distance swims, obstacle races and multi-day events.

My goal was to raise awareness of the charity YoungMinds and to start everyone talking about their own mental health. I also encouraged everyone to get outside and to start exercising. A couple of the events were open to everyone and anyone who wanted to join, they could come and join in for as little to as much distance as they liked. I think on one of the events I had 60 people all getting outside and doing 30-minutes of exercise on my actual 30th birthday – what a great gift that was. 

What preparation goes into getting ready for them?

The first thing I did was to hire a coach, he had the experience and knowledge for me to get fitter without getting injured. It also took a huge weight off my shoulders as it meant I didn’t have to plan all of the training I just did it. Each week he gave me a plan to fit around my work and life commitments. That was fantastic; I think if I didn’t have that support I would have been injured before I had even begun.

Because it was a full year of events, I tried to plan them progressively so that the distances got longer and the endurance could build up. 2-3 endurance events per month were tough on my body, so each event became training for the next with more gentle multidiscipline training in between. I swam and biked a lot, as well as ran, even though I was running huge distances in the races I didn’t run huge distances in training, rather I would run twice in one day or do a bike/run. This also helped with getting me ready for the larger triathlon events.

I also did a lot of yoga and incorporated strength into the yoga, as I said before I am quite averse to going to the gym so I tried to do any weights and strength work at home. 

What has been your best experience? What was your worst?

There were so many ‘best’ experiences from last year. thirty4thirty as a whole was so much more than I could have asked for. People were incredible, supportive and so generous when it came got the fundraising. However if I had to name some best experiences it would be cycling from London 2 Paris in under 24hours with 5 other ladies who hardly knew me but were following the progress of thirty4thirty on social media, secondly running 100miles non-stop in 22hours, I still can’t really believe I did that, thirdly becoming an Ironman , that is also unreal and lastly being able to take part in the Himalayan 100 mile multistage ultra with my husband. 

My worst experience was the Nuts Challenge. It was meant to be a fun and reasonably short team event with lots of mud and laughs. However, it turned out to be a seriously tough day. About 3 days before the event the organisers emailed us all to say that the event was not going to be cancelled but the ‘beast from the East’ is expected and recommended that every one transfers to the summer event free of charge. This was great for the rest of my team who jumped at the chance but I was unable to transfer as the whole year of weekends was already fully booked with further events. I was going it alone.

At the start line, there was a tiny handful of runners all trying to brave the minus god knows temperature. I was handed a wooden stick and was warned that I may have to break all of the ice whilst running through the obstacle course and swimming through the lakes. Within 100m I was using this wooden stick and jumping into water that had about 3iniches of ice on top, instantly freezing us all and cutting our legs to shreds. About 200m in I could no longer feel my hands or feet and felt like I was running on stumps. The obstacles became a problem when I couldn’t hold any ropes and was gradually losing the power of speech. I ended up just crying my way around the 14km obstacle course, most of it I have blanked out of my memory or maybe it was the hypothermia that does that?! 

What motivates and inspires you / what keeps you going when it gets tough?

Motivation and inspiration come in so many different forms. I pick and choose which one I need at which time. My body is a huge motivation and fascination to me; I think the human body is mind-blowing, it can be pushed far harder than anyone can possibly imagine. People motivate me; there are so many incredible runners and triathletes, people that have gotten over adversity and carry on; I am not always inspired by people who run quickly or break records but by people just giving things a go and pushing there own body further than they thought. That could be someone who has never run before training for a 5km, or maybe someone getting into climbing for the first time. The list is endless. I feel I have an itch to scratch and that itch never seems to go away, I keep thinking when I have done this or that I won’t need to run or push myself physically anymore.  I think this scratch is an innate part of who I am. This part of me just keeps going as the thought of stopping when things get tough isn’t an option (I, however, would stop if it was due to injury.) The brain is the most incredible tool we have and it can overcome huge barriers; whilst running the 100mile ultra my brain just took over my body, I had nothing left but it kept everything going and me moving forward. 

My Mum is my biggest inspiration. She has been through some hard times and we have been through some horrid scenarios together. She is has made me who I am and gives me strength. Her encouragement throughout my life in every aspect has been endless. She doesn’t actually like me running ultras but still supports as it is what I love to do!

You are an incredibly inspiring person. What would you say to anyone looking to start training for endurance events, but are not sure where to begin? And to those who are turning to exercise to improve their wellbeing?

Thank you! Anything is an endurance event if you haven’t done that distance before, so start small and get longer. Then you will know when you are ready to sign up to a decent sized event that is going to push you to another level. I would say pick an endurance event that you really like the look of and appeals, don’t pick a running one if you don’t like running, think of swimming or biking or even an adventure race. Book onto the event which gives you the motivation and timeframe to train (give yourself time to train). If you can get yourself a coach or training programme online and try to stick to it. Give yourself loads of recovery time and sleep, oh and eat lots of good and nourishing things; this is one of my favourite parts of ultra training.  One thing that also really motivates me is to read books which may inspire you, I am not keen on ones that are too scientific but books such as Vasos Alexanders’, Running up that hill, or George Mahood’s, Operation Ironman. Both incredible people and athletes but they don’t seem so out of the leagues of normal humans turned endurance athletes and that is the end goal you need to focus on. 

I also use visualisation a lot, I imagined myself at each finish line and imagined myself doing all of the events. It really helps me when times get tough and I don’t feel like an endurance runner or get imposter syndrome which happened massively before the Ironman (anyway, another story). 

To improve wellbeing I would just tell people to get outside, take in the moment, start small and enjoy the activity. No exercise will ever be stuck to if you don’t enjoy it. If the outside isn’t for you, join a gym class and take in the encouragement of others; even if there are people in the class who you think you will never get to there level, appreciate the work they have put in to get there and take inspiration from that. 

Also, remember that mental wellness should be the priority and the fitness and body benefits you get from that should be second. 

Abbi’s list of achievements

What are your plans for the future?

I have some big adventures coming up very soon, I am climbing Aconcagua in Nov, then walking/running the SW coast path and then I am going to cycle the Velo 6 across Europe. As for running endurance I have a big idea in mind, it is going to take a few years of commitment and some qualifying ultramarathons to get there but fingers crossed – I am keeping it under wraps for now but some of the ultras to qualify will be another 100mile, other 100km and the Union Canal ultra which is 145miles, I need to try and do this in under 36hours!!

What’re the three most frequent questions you get asked all the time?

  1. What is your toughest ever event?
  2. What is your nutrition plan?
  3. Where is your most favourite country?

Abbi – we salute you.

Abbi Naylor Ironman

Thank you so much. You’re an inspiration!

If you’d like to follow Abbi’s story, see her Instagram (@abbi.naylor) and check out her website: www.abbinaylor.com.

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