• Helen Phillips

Meet our VLM19 Marathoners #13: Alison


Not everyone can run a marathon. You have to be a special kind of determined and crazy to train and then complete 26.2 miles on the day.

In my VLM19 Meet Our Marathoners Series we meet ordinary people who have battled through and achieved extraordinary.

Today we meet Alison, who ran VLM19 as a Rhino for Save the Rhino International. Please read on to hear her story. Click HERE if you'd like to donate to Alisons fundraising.

Tell me about your running journey

I had knee surgery in high school and, after my recovery, I found that I couldn’t run for more than a couple of minutes without my knee swelling. I stopped playing basketball because I couldn’t stay on the court for more than a few minutes. Every few years, I would go for a run and have the same result.

In 2008, while I was working in Africa, my job was very physical, but I felt like I needed some cardio. I was in the middle of the bush without a gym or any fitness equipment nearby, so I laced up and started running on the dirt airstrip. Possibly due to the lower impact of dirt over road and an increase in leg strength, I was able to begin to run regularly.

A friend suggested we sign up for the Victoria Falls Half Marathon and that became my first race. Most of my training was up and down the airstrip in North Luangwa National Park in Zambia. It was tedious at times, but broken up by gorgeous views and wildlife crossings.

After staying healthy through Vic Falls, I kept going. That was 10 years ago and I am still running – registering for races just to keep it part of my routine.

In 2017, with the encouragement of a friend, my “running rock”, I ran my first full marathon. It went well and I felt great after, though decided I would stick with the lower distances except for special occasions due to the amount of time that went into training.

About this time, I had friends from rhino projects training for VLM as part of the Save the Rhino International team. I wasn’t ready to jump into another full so soon, but filed it away in the back of my mind.

This year, I turned 40, one of my best friends was running it as her first marathon and I was ready to commit and to share the experience with my friends and colleagues from Zambia and Zimbabwe so it was time to run London!

Why did you decide you wanted to run a marathon?

I was inspired by a good friend I run with. She’s an amazing person and an ultra runner and helped me find the confidence to try a full marathon (and by that, I mean she told me I was ready and was going to do a full!)

How much have you raised for your charity?

I ran for Save the Rhino International. Rhino conservation is very close to my heart and Save the Rhino has done great work for many years, supporting worthy projects practicing good conservation on the ground.

I worked in rhino conservation in Southern and East Africa for 10 years and SRI supported several of the large scale translocation projects in which I was involved, so I was familiar with them and the good conservation they support.

My declared fundraising minimum was $3000 and I raised it to a pipe dream of $5000 after I met it. I never thought I would get to $5000 and am now over $6200!

An incredible local artist, Samm Wehman-Epstein, donated her time and supplies to co-host a “Paint Your Pet” night where people donated an activity fee and Samm helped all of us paint portraits of our pets.

I had a friend donate some InknBurn clothing that I sold on the resale page, all proceeds going to SRI. I had a raffle, where several people donated art, jewellery, textiles, hand-crocheted items, and goodies for dog and cat bundles. Ironically, the only items I had no one take chances on were the runners’ bundles! I may launch a second raffle with the runners’ bundles.

I have spent a lot more time on social media during the fundraising period than I have the past few years, and it has definitely taken a lot of time and effort. I don’t like asking people for things, especially money, so it is far outside my comfort zone to do so, but worth it if it means more rhino protection!

Did you have a goal for the marathon?

I had hoped to finish in under 6 hours, but the rhino suit was a complete unknown so I wasn’t sure if that was reasonable or not. I didn’t stress about my time because of the rhino suit. Ultimately, I went over my goal (6:16) but since I walked so much and didn’t hurt myself, I am good with that.

How did training go?

Training went fairly well. I travel a lot for work which has gotten in the way of training in the past, but for the most part, it was consistent.

I trained with a weighted vest to help me prepare for the suit, which I knew would weigh 8-10kg. That went well until I went from 15 lbs to 20 lbs, and I started to develop plantar fasciitis. I was able to train through it and felt pretty good on race day! I also live in a hot, humid area, so the heat and humidity inside the rhino suit was normal for me!

What do you love about running ?

What I love about running is the comradery and the diversity of the running community. I run because it’s a relatively inexpensive way to stay physically active.

I race because it keeps me motivated to get out the door, and I like to travel to new places to run races – it’s a great way to see a new city, country or park!

What I loved about training was knowing that it would get me towards the end goal – seeing good friends while raising awareness for rhinos and sharing that amazing experience with people I love.

Do you have a post run treat?

It isn’t always the same, but after morning runs I almost always want a cup of coffee. After races, I usually want something salty.

If you could choose, who would you like to present your race day bling?

My grandpa – He passed away when I was 16.

What were you most looking forward to on race day?

I was excited to share the day with great friends and my goddaughter who live half a globe away and whom I hadn’t seen in a very long time. I do a lot of races, but when you can share them with people you love, either running or spectating, it makes a world of difference.

Tell me about race day?

I was freezing at the start of the race, but knew I’d warm up once I got in the rhino suit. I was excited and nervous. I had wanted to visit the start and finish areas the day before the race to see the layout, but I hadn’t been able to, so once I put the suit on, I really felt blind.

The rhino suit greatly limits your field of vision and your sense of hearing. Even though I couldn’t see my surroundings, it was exciting to walk up to the start with about ten other rhinos. A proper crash of rhinos! Once we got going, I stayed to the right side, partially because I planned on Jeffing, and partially to help me stay on course and out of everyone’s way.

Once we got going, I got jazzed up and went out too fast. I felt pretty good the first few miles after I adjusted to the movement of the suit, and I adjusted my intervals to something more comfortable. The first time I knew where we were, we were about 7 miles in. My vision was so limited, I completely missed the water stops that were on the left side of the road – it was only when I saw empty bottles on the right side that I realized I had passed one. I almost missed a couple on the right where the volunteers were passing water over the barriers because I expected them to be in the road with us and I couldn’t see behind the barriers unless I looked up.

At about mile 12, I could feel my back tensing up. It would ease when I walked, but as soon as I started jogging again, it wanted to seize. I have dealt with back injuries in the past and I also knew I had a long day of sightseeing followed by a long flight home after the marathon, so I wasn’t interested in risking severe injury, and decided to walk the second half.

I got so much encouragement from other runners and from the crowds, it was insane. Everyone had told me about the support for the rhinos, but I didn’t realize how much there was.

At one point, I was going under an overpass so there was an echo when a group of people started chanting, “Rhiiiiino…rhiiiino…rhiiiino.” It was so moving! I kept thinking there must be another rhino running near me because they couldn’t possibly be cheering for me, but they were! I could often see kids on the sides, so I high-fived as many of them as possible. It made me so happy to hear “I high-fived a RHINO!” after I trotted past. Even a lot of adults put their hands out once they saw that I was high-fiving the kids. The adults, being taller, were more difficult to see, though.

The last 4 miles I had to ask the marshals where we were because I hadn’t seen any of the mile markers and was getting impatient! I shuffle-walked the last km, and was able to actually run the last couple hundred meters and finish strong. I fully expected to be bawling by this point, but I didn’t actually start crying until I found out they didn’t have my size in finisher’s shirt.

I was able to pull myself together, walk the 6 miles (obviously I am being dramatic, but it felt long!) to the gear bag collection truck and on to SRI’s meeting point. Once there, it was a relief to strip the suit off and be greeted by my gorgeous goddaughter, who gave me a big hug and made me cry once again! Another friend caught this on video and I still tear up every time I watch it.

Overall, the race was an absolutely incredible experience and even though I barely saw a thing, I am so glad I ran as a rhino.

The number of charity runners was so inspiring and I wish I had the time and money to hear everyone’s story and donate to all of them! Personally, the work I did with rhinos made my heart whole and I felt grateful to be able to run alongside (well…hours behind!) people working on the ground at North Luangwa Conservation Project and Gonarezhou National Park to protect wildlife and wild spaces. I was honoured to be a part of the Save the Rhino International team and appreciate them, the work they do, and their organization and communication throughout the process.

How did you celebrate your achievement?

I had the most amazing salty chips and vegan burger at Old Compton Brasserie, some celebratory prosecco with my friends, and a delicious chocolate hazelnut croissant from Nora and Nama. I spent the next day sightseeing with friends and my goddaughter. It was perfect!

Alison the Rhino You're Awesome! You smashed VLM19!

If you're already thinking about your next marathon, maybe you've got a race this autumn or you're entered into one next spring you'll be pleased to hear I'm opening up Marathon Club Hub.

Marathon Club Hub is my training & preparation programme for first and next time marathoners to provide you all the advice, information and support you need to get ready to run.

Click HERE to get going NOW!