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Q&A with Ann Ashworth

Apr 2, 2020

Ann Ashworth is the winner of the 2018 Comrades Marathon, a full-time career woman and an advocate for women’s running in South Africa.

She also currently manages and captains Team Massmart, a ladies-only elite running club focused on developing South African female long-distance athletes. In addition to all of this, she still finds the time to coach and mentor a number of non-elite and elite runners.

Run Life asked Ann a few questions about her running journey.

Ann Ashworth

When did you first realise your talent for running and what inspired you to take it further?

I’ve run since junior school but didn’t start to do well at things like cross country and middle distance track until my later years in high school. My Dad was always convinced I would be good at long distance running and so when he died in 2005, I decided to enter the Two Oceans Ultra the following year. Off relatively little training, I placed 1st novice and first runner home in the 20-30 age group. I was hooked.

What are your running PBs?

5km – 16:45

10km – 35:42

21,1km – 1h15

42,2km – 2h35

50km – 3h24

Comrades – 6h10

Your training schedule must be quite intense. What kind of training goes into winning the Comrades Marathon?

I’ve tried different things in different years.  In 2018 I was running twice a day, 5 days a week with 2 long runs a week in excess of 50km each (my longest run was 75km).

That doesn’t leave much time for strength or cross-training.

This year, I’m running twice a day 4 days a week but have included a lot more strength and cross-training and I have 1 day off a week from running completely (but I still cross-train). I’ve learnt that “rest” is as important as training.

You are qualified as an Advocate and the year you won the Comrades you were still running a full-time practice. How did you manage to find a training, work and life balance?

It was (and is) hard. It means I don’t get nearly enough sleep which can leave me pretty ratty at times. I think working for myself gives me greater flexibility as to when I run – so I can get up and start working at 5h00 when its dark and then run later after the traffic has settled down. I never really have any down time – I’m either working or running or coaching or managing the team. But… we only live once right!?

Every runner hits the mental wall at some point. What do you do to push through that mental barrier on a race?

I think you need to prepare for that ahead of the race. I practice quite a lot of visualisation, not only the positive aspects like finishing well, but also going through a bad patch and having to get through it. I also don’t cut myself any slack in training. If I’m having a tough training session or a weak day on the road and I’m tempted to cut short, I try to force myself to push through as a “practice” for race day.

Tell us about your training nutrition. What do you generally eat for recovery from a long run or in the week of a big race?

People laugh when I say I eat my way through Comrades, but I really do. I’ll take on nutrition every 5-8km in an effort to avoid “hitting the wall”. I use gels, electrolyte drinks, protein shakes or additives such as PeptoPro and will try sneak in the occasional baby potato along the way.

I try to mimic this in training using the same products but eating less frequently – probably every 10-15km. Post long run I always have a protein shake and try to have my “treat meal” that same day (so it feels like I’ve earned that big burger).

You are clearly an advocate for women’s running which can be seen in the development of the Mass Mart ladies running club. What advice do you have for women who would like to take up long distance running but have their doubts?

I think running in a group of friends is critical. So depending on your level of fitness and the distances you like to run, joining up with something like CMIYC (Catch Me If You Can) or a local running club is a great idea.

Having said that, everyone has an opinion about the right way to train and what kind of training works. To avoid getting contradictory opinions and information overload, it is a good idea to follow a set training plan or to consider getting a coach to guide you through the process.

With reference to the above, what is your long-term vision for the development of women’s running in South Africa?

I think we have seen a huge improvement both in the quality and quantity of women’s running over the past 3-4 years. This is directly related to things like parkrun and is assisted by national running icons such as Gerda Steyn and Caroline Cherry who serve as a source of inspiration. Caroline certainly inspired me to start juggling my career with life as a more serious athlete.

I’d like to continue to see the rise of black female marathon and ultra-distance athletes. Runners such as Enie Manzini and Ramadimetja Babili are current pioneers insofar as ultra distances are concerned (similar to athletes such as Blanche Moila) and have done exceptionally well, both at Comrades and Two Oceans as well as marathons outside SA. I hope to see them do better in the years ahead and I hope to see many more black women following in their footsteps.

We’ve recently seen the cancellation of running races in South Africa and across the globe due to COVID-19. Whilst the cancellations are undoubtedly the correct decision all round, many runners are naturally still feeling disappointed. How are you managing this disappointment and staying motivated? And what are you doing to stay fit the lockdown?

It is a very difficult time for all of South Africa and potentially heartbreaking for runners who were focused on major races up to and including the Comrades Marathon. I do feel very strongly however that we (as runners) need to stand in solidarity with the rest of the nation and stay indoors. I know that there is some “secret midnight running” happening and that some runners have continued to pound the streets despite the lockdown and this makes me sad – because we really should be working together to flatten the curve. No one is immune to COVID-19.

I am extremely fortunate in that my husband and I invested in a home gym last year when I developed a stress fracture in my spine. I needed to be able to cross-train and do strength training every day and usually at times when our local gym was full to overflowing. So we cancelled our gym contracts, cleared out our spare room and set up there. This has been a real blessing to us in lockdown.

We try to do online yoga/pilates/strength classes every second day (alternating with our own strength routine) and then we run on the treadmill and use the indoor trainer daily.

What is your biggest vice and how do you balance this with your training?

Wine, chocolate and cupcakes. If I’m stressed at work I find myself making a bee-line for the fridge for a glass of wine in the evening – the only solution for me is not to keep wine in the house. I also really struggle with post-dinner munchies and am always tempted to look for something to nibble as dessert.  Cupcakes are my absolute favourite.

I used to feel really guilty about my treats, but over time this has become more balanced. I allow myself a treat three times a week and rationalise this by saying that I train really hard – I’ve earned it.  All things in moderation.

You’ve won the ultimate human race. Do you have any other running dreams that you’d be willing to share with us?

I dream of representing my country internationally. With deep regret it has been made clear to me that I will never be selected to represent South Africa and, for this reason, I am in the process of transferring my allegiance to the United Kingdom where I am also a citizen. I hope to represent Great Britain at the 100km World Champs later this year.

I also still harbor a dream of running close to a 2h30 marathon. I’m getting old now to do that, but I’d still like to try. I’m hoping either the Boston Marathon or the Berlin Marathon in 2021 will provide me with that opportunity.

If you could offer one training tip to other runners, what would it be?

Be kind to yourself.

As runners we often place a lot of pressure on ourselves to “eat properly”, train hard and do everything “right”. That situation is made worse by following full time athletes without the stresses and constraints of everyday life on social media. If we try to do everything right and fail, any guilt or stress associated with that is likely to demotivate us to the point that we will wonder why we even bother. We can’t compare ourselves to others. We each have our own athletic path to follow.  So train according to your individual abilities, goals and time allowances. Be kind to yourself – just focus on being the best version of yourself that you can be. That is enough.

You can follow Ann Ashworth and her running journey on Instagram @ann.ashworth.

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