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Setting a Guinness World Record for Most Consecutive Half Marathons: A Q&A with Impi Ambassador Sharon Jessop

1.    When did you start running and what sparked such a passion for it?

I literally start my “running career” as a 5-year-old on the track “sprinting” the 50m dash, running ahead of my friends and then stopping and waiting for them to catch up, just to dart ahead again, much to the frustration of all the spectators – I fell in love with running back then and it is the only sport that captivated my very ADHD soul, spirit and interest forever and a day.

I loved everything about being on the track – from the smell of the grass (we had a grass track) freshly mowed after a thunderstorm, to the nervous excitement waiting for the start gun to go off, to the atmosphere and friendly competition amongst friends and adversaries -- even today smelling a freshly mowed lawn instantly takes me back to my school days on the track.

I progressed from sprinting on the track to middle distances, then to cross country and after school, I started road running. I did that for many years and completed many marathons and ultras, including 3 Comrades marathons which I loved! I still love that race and want to go back and do at least another two. Then around 12 years ago I “discovered” trail running and I was 150% hooked for life! The freedom and exhilaration of running in the bush, up and over mountains, through rivers and seeing places that you will never ever see unless you are on the trails is so special to me. I love everything about it, and it is truly my happy place.

2.    Have you always lived in South Africa, if not, when/what brought you there?

I am South African born and bred. The rhythm of the African drums beat in my chest and her wild waters curse through my veins – I am an African wild child and will always be. I love this country and no matter where I go this will always be home. There is magic in the bush, and the rich and diverse culture and wildlife is simply astonishing – once you’ve been to Africa there is no turning back!

3.    When did you start working with Balega as an Impi ambassador?

I was chosen as a Balega Impi for the first time in 2020…which was a bit of a bummer as we all know what happened in 2020. A fellow Impi Ambassador and a person I respect and admire greatly, Steven Lancaster introduced me to this amazing brand and also mentioned that I should apply to become an Impi. I never thought I stood a chance, but I was selected, and I nearly did flick flacks down my passage when I got the email! I love this brand so much and they are truly the “Best Socks Ever”! Even if I didn’t make the grade again for 2021, I would continue wearing the socks as I cannot imagine running in any other socks ever again.

4.    Why did you choose Rhino Conservation to raise money for?

I’ve always been a passionate conservationist and I love the outdoors. My love affair with rhinos started around 5 years ago, when I became painfully aware of the crisis these amazing animals are facing and just how special they actually are through the One Land Love It Foundation. Rhinos are a keystone species, which means that they help define an entire ecosystem. Without its keystone species, ecosystems would be dramatically different or cease to exist altogether. They are also our last link to the dinosaurs, and they are being murdered for their horns, which are nothing more than keratin… the very same stuff our hair and nails are made of. As a result of wanting to learn more about these beautiful gentle giants, I interviewed a whole host of people for my show, including but not limited to Wayne Bolton, the co-founder of the One Land Love It Foundation, Dr. William Fowlds, the world-renowned rhino vet; his brother Grant Fowlds; and Petronel Nieuwoudt from the Care for Wild Rhino Sanctuary. I also watched the documentary “Stroop” which is an Afrikaans word for poach. I cried, then sobbed, then ugly cried with sadness – and then I got really angry for our rhinos.

I had reached a pivotal point in my life where I knew I could no longer simply care about our rhinos being carelessly slaughtered, but that I had to do something too. The OLLI Foundation (One Land Love It) puts it so nicely, to “move from caring to doing”. So, through educating myself about rhinos and poaching, and liaising with amazing people I decided that rather than start yet another nonprofit organization, I will support OLLI and essentially become their ambassador. Their values, vision and mission totally echoed the way I think and feel – hence the “save the rhinos – save the people”.

And then I thought, I might as well use my God-given talent to run halfway around the world and use my legs to speak for those who can’t speak for themselves while also raising much needed funds for anti-poaching and conservation initiatives.

5.    What made you want to break this specific world record?

When I initially planned this adventure, I was going to run from the Komati Poort border between South Africa and Mozambique back to Port Elizabeth. Essentially, linking all the game reserves that contain rhinos; engaging with owners, the communities and schools; and getting everyone to physically sign a memorandum of cooperation to help curb rhino poaching. This also aimed to create jobs in travel and tourism involving the community members so we can create a “human fence” around our precious animals. But then worldwide lockdown happened, and I was stumped… at least for a week or so. I consulted Google and started looking at other options after the strict lockdown in South Africa. At that stage we could only exercise between 6am and 9am every day (which makes no sense anyways) but I thought, “Okay, so what can I do in 3 hours?”

This led me to decide on half marathons.

I searched the Guinness World Records for most consecutive half marathons run by a female and at that point it was 50. So, I decided that I would attempt 62, which would take me from World Rhino Day on September 22nd, until November 22nd, 2020. I completed my application and was accepted.

Lo and behold, I received an email from Guinness World Record shortly after stating that the new record was 75. In response to this, I promptly decided that I would do 86 half marathons. I then had two friends contact me to tell me that another lady from Durban, South Africa was attempting 100 consecutive half marathons… what a blow! The only thing I could possibly do was attempt the 101 consecutive half marathons, which would take me to December 31, 2020.

The girl from Durban actually got hold of me on Facebook messenger. She was very sweet and an amazing athlete, so I told her that if she did 100, I would do 101. If she did 200, I would do 201. And so on. Luckily, we had a good chuckle, and she was emphatic that she wouldn't go over 100 half marathons, also it’s worth mentioning that she was attempting an unofficial record whereby mine was an official Guinness World Record attempt.

6.    What drives you to keep going towards your goal?

There are a few things. Firstly, you CANNOT do something like this just for yourself. There has to be a greater cause. Mine is rhinos. I have a rhino tattooed on my right wrist with “#olli” underneath the rhino. This keeps me going and is a visual reminder of what I feel in my heart. Secondly, I was not going to let my amazing team down that have sacrificed so much to make this Guinness World Record attempt happen. Thirdly, I had made it very public, so I knew I had to persevere as I had an entire nation watching my every move. And fourthly, and maybe the most important thing, discipline! I always preach to everyone that motivation sucks and it is short lived. You have to be disciplined, as it is your discipline that will get you to the finish line-- whether in sport, work, business or in life.

7.    What do you do that makes you feel empowered?

I run in the mountains… and I aim to inspire others to reach their goals in life, business, work, etc. Empowering people sets my soul on fire and inspires and empowers me. I am at my happiest and most fulfilled when I can help another human reach their full potential.

 

8.   Do you have any advice for new runners?

Absolutely yes! Just do it! Don’t overthink things, don’t make it complicated. Go out there and have fun. Learn to love it. Make sure that you don’t up your mileage too soon, you want a gradual build up. Make sure your nutrition is on point and never ever run “just to lose weight”. Explore trails and the road less traveled – you see and experience the most amazing things. Don’t ever be scared to spend time alone with yourself – that is when you get to know and understand YOU. It is a beautiful thing.

 

9.    What has been your favorite experience while running the 101 consecutive half marathons?

My favorite experiences are the amazing and extraordinary stories of “ordinary” people overcoming huge adversaries and triumphs over illness and injuries. People that beat cancer, who have recovered and competed in endurance events such as the Comrades marathon and Ironman. These stories amaze, inspire and humble me.

Any specific stories or half marathons that stand out?

The entire experience was amazing, start to finish… And I grew into a completely different person because of it. The day that five horses from the South Africa Police Mounted Unit did the entire half marathon with us really stands out. As does day 76, when I became the “unofficial” official record holder, or day 101 when I was paced to an all-time half marathon personal best by our South African marathon champ, Melikhaya Frans – an amazing and humble individual. Then of course, day 102 when I wanted to prove to myself that I can do another half marathon AFTER the hype subsided.

10.  What has been the most challenging part of breaking this world record?

To be honest the physical running was the easy part. I love running and I live for the cause I am running for – rhino conservation. The admin work involved is a killer though. Goodness… The Guinness World Record rules and regulations are very strict and like most “doers,” I suck at admin. However, I am getting it done. Discipline! Every disciplined effort has multiple rewards.

11.  Anything else you want to share?

When you do something like this, do it for a cause greater than yourself because it gives your plans longevity. You MUST have a great team around you that shares a common goal, you cannot do things alone. And believe in yourself and your team.

Just a final note from me -- I am nothing special. I am a very normal 51-year-old. The reason I feel I need to mention this is so that people can realize that when you find your passion and determine your purpose, with perseverance you can and will reach your goals and dreams. Anyone can achieve anything provided that you believe in yourself, your team, and your cause.