Mimi runs across America, and into the unknown

A 55-year-old ultra-marathoner challenged herself to beat the record for fastest woman on foot between L.A. and New York

However far you think is too far to run, Mimi Anderson has run farther.

The 55-year-old British grandmother of three holds multiple World Records for distance running and ultra-marathons. She’s competed in more than 50 long-distance events from the Sahara to Death Valley, the jungles of Peru to the Arctic, running dozens of miles in a day and becoming an inspiration for many.

In September, she attempted to set a new World Record for a woman running across the United States from Los Angeles to New York. The previous record was set in 1979 with a trek of 2,850 miles in 69 days. Anderson’s goal was to accomplish the run in 53 days—a pace roughly equal to running two marathons a day for nearly two months.

Anderson’s journey wasn’t just about pushing her own limits, but also serving others by raising money for cancer research. Volkswagen of America championed her endeavors, providing two support vehicles, a Volkswagen Tiguan Limited and Golf Alltrack, which Anderson and her crew affectionately named “Tiggie” and “Penelope.”

All long-distance races have their surprises, and this effort would test Anderson in a way she had not expected. She sat down with VW Newsroom to share the long, emotional journey.

VW Newsroom: First, how did you get into endurance running?

Mimi Anderson: It is rather a silly thing, really. I always wanted to have thinner legs, so I took up running. I started training on a treadmill. Literally, I couldn’t even run for a minute. So, I gradually got on a treadmill and taught myself how to run. Eventually, I would run for three miles without stopping, so I was very pleased with myself. That’s how it all started, on a treadmill. And that was in 1999 when I was 36.

VW Newsroom: What was the longest race you’d run before this goal?

Mimi Anderson: The Freedom Trail in South Africa. We basically ran over 1,000 miles across South Africa in 2014, it was an amazing adventure.

VW Newsroom: Why do you push yourself to run such long distances?

Mimi Anderson: I do like to have a challenge. I’m constantly looking for ways to push my boundaries and limits—beyond what most people could even imagine is possible. Running has taken me all over the world, and allowed me to have some extraordinary adventures I would not have otherwise been able to experience.

I decided to run in South Africa, because it has always been a country I’ve loved. I was looking for something to do and somebody said, “Why don’t you run across the Freedom Trail?” It just seemed absolutely perfect. The scenery was breathtaking.

VW Newsroom: What gave you the idea to run across United States?

Mimi Anderson: I’ve run the lengths of the UK and have achieved the female world record for that, and hold the female world record for the length of Ireland. Ever since 2011, I’ve always wanted to run across America, because to me, that’s the ultimate challenge as far as a road event is concerned. The record was originally set in 1979. I knew it was doable, if everything went in the right direction. The thought of starting on the West Coast and continuing running until I eventually end up on the East Coast was something that excited me.

VW Newsroom: What was the high point of the effort for you?

Mimi Anderson: For me, it was my fantastic crew who supported me during the run, but also going through all the different states—we had 12 states to go through and they were all so different. Obviously, we were starting off in California and the one thing I noticed about California is that the skies are so big. I mean, they’re massive. Everything seems much, much bigger than in the UK.

You then go into Arizona and you’ve got the mountains. They are quite scraggily sort of mountains and red in color. Going into Colorado you’ve got the beautiful colors of all the trees as it was the fall and all the leaves were beginning to change on the trees. We were surrounded by beautiful mountains, very different to Arizona.

It was wonderful to meet lovely people along the way. A group of 6 people would turn up with a great big RV and two vehicles and people let complete strangers stay on their property or would cheer me through a town, it really was very special. Two marvelous guys in Missouri even bought us all breakfast at 4 a.m. I had lots of people who came and ran with me and the moments spent with the runners was wonderful and something I will never forget. Everyone was very generous with their time and to complete strangers.

VW Newsroom: What was your day-to-day routine like?

Mimi Anderson: I would be woken up at 4:30 a.m. and my crew would also get up, make me by breakfast and one of them would get ready to run with me. Breakfast consisted of a smoothie and a coffee which I drank while getting dressed. All my kit would have been laid out the night before to make it easier and quicker in the morning, so all I had to do was literally get dressed. I would start running at 5 a.m.

My support vehicle with two crew members in (one would be my physio) would meet me every 4 miles for the first 4 stops of the day then it would be every 3 miles. I would run between 30 to 32 miles, then have a short lunch break of about 20 minutes to half an hour. After my lunch break I would continue running for a further 28-ish miles. During the last section of the day the RV would find a suitable and safe place to park up and on my arrival I stopped my watches, showered, had some food, a massage then sleep.

On events such as these you need to have a good routine, not just for me but for the crew as well. If you don’t have a routine, then nothing works properly. It’s extremely important that everyone knows what they are doing.

VW Newsroom: From the start of the effort, how did you feel physically?

Mimi Anderson: My training got me used to running long distances every day. I wake up quite early at home, so I didn’t mind waking up at 4:30 a.m. in America. There was only one day, when I actually felt tired during the day, my crew were totally on the ball and made sure I had lots of coffee to keep me awake, but that was the only day I actually felt physically tired.

VW Newsroom: Along the way, what was the most challenging part?

Mimi Anderson: The toughest part for me was when we were going on Route 40 in Illinois. It was a really busy road, and on huge sections of it there was no hard shoulder at all. I was concentrating the whole time on the cars coming towards me, thinking “is that car going to hit me or will it go round me go so it doesn’t hit me or is it going to continue coming towards me?” You are constantly watching the cars; I nearly got hit about three times—pretty frightening. There was one occasion, where I was absolutely shattered from just literally watching the cars. I got into my RV for lunch and the thought of going out again into that traffic was simply awful, but I had to do it. I was trying to set a new world record, I had no choice—there was nowhere else to run. That, I think, was the hardest part.

VW Newsroom: Did you get any fans to stop and run with you along the way?

Mimi Anderson: There were a few people who turned up and ran with me which was lovely. One man just turned up, and took me through his town of Alamosa in Colorado, which was fantastic and he had also arranged a crowd to cheer me through. Another guy who was a marathon runner had heard my interview in the United Kingdom, so he turned up and ran with me for about 6 miles each day for two days and a marvelous group of ladies from Archie, Mo., came out and ran with me along part of the Katy Trail. Loved them all for taking the time to run with me.

VW Newsroom: How did the vehicles help out?

Mimi Anderson: The vehicles were fantastic, making a huge difference to the day to day running of the event making life much easier for the crew and safer for me. VW very kindly gave us two vehicles—the Tiguan and Golf Alltrack—so one of them was always with me. The Alltrack had all of my food, drinks, medical stuff and everything I needed as I ran. This vehicle would go two to three miles ahead and wait for me. If it started pouring or something happened, it would turn around and come and drop off my raincoat or whatever I needed.

The Tiguan was great, because it enabled the crew—because our RV was so big—to actually go scout my route ahead. There were occasions where we had to take a slightly different route because the planned one was flooded. The Tiguan was also used for the crew to go off and do laundry and buy food, without having to take the big RV with them. Both vehicles were invaluable—couldn’t have done without them.

VW Newsroom: By the 40th day, you’d run 2,217.2 miles through nine states and raised $12,000 for charity. What happened in Indiana?

Mimi Anderson: The last of two weeks or so, my right leg was getting more and more painful. You notice in some of the pictures, my leg was going in toward my left leg in sort of a V-shape. Subconsciously I was trying to take the pressure of the leg as it was so incredibly painful. Because of this I began to lean to the left causing my back to become sore although I felt as though I was running straight. If I didn’t concentrate on my posture I felt as though I would fall over – a very odd feeling. The pain was unbearable.

Eventually, my crew said, “we are going to go to the hospital.” I carried on for a few more days and I managed to get the mileage in, but putting any pressure on my leg, either trying to walk or run, was very painful and I have a very high pain threshold.

We ended up having an MRI scan and it showed that I had a lot of bruising on my bones, which in itself could have caused multiple stress fractures. I also had a lot of fluid at the side and on the back of my knee. The pain was actually firstly by the bruised bones and secondly the bones on the lateral (outside of my knee) were rubbing together; this type of pain is excruciating, I have never felt a pain like it before. If I continued, I could have ended up having to have a total knee replacement on returning home.

Even being given all the facts by the doctor it was an incredibly tough decision to make, and giving up seemed unthinkable. I thought about having an injection in the knee which might have reduced the pain for a bit, but a lot of the time they don’t work. It just wasn’t worth injuring myself or causing so much damage that I would never run again, which could easily have happened. It was awful. It was the worst decision I have been faced with, because I was on track to get the record and the only thing stopping me was my leg. When I finally made the decision to stop I sobbed my heart out. I had given this run my all, but even that wasn’t enough.

On returning home I felt as though I was going through a bereavement, I was struggling to come to terms with the outcome. I can hold my head up high and say without a doubt that I never gave up, not once did I think of stopping even when the pain became overwhelming painful.  On receiving my results the plan had always been to continue running; I even had my running kit on. It wasn’t me that gave up—it was my body that gave up on me!

VW Newsroom: How do you feel now?

Mimi Anderson: Once home it took me a long time to come to terms with the fact that as far as I was concerned, I had failed. I found it difficult talking to people about it as I wasn’t quite sure what to say. Before the run, I could say, “I’m off to America to try to set a new world record.” What do I say now? I don’t mind the fact that I haven’t got the record, but what have I achieved? It has become easier as the weeks have gone past, but it is still a big disappointment.

VW Newsroom: We know you feel disappointed, but we hope you know we’re amazed by what you’ve accomplished. How has this changed your perspective on running?

Mimi Anderson: One of the things that running long distances has taught me is that that the mind is incredibly strong and when the body wants to give up the mind will persuade it to keep going! My running life is going to take a slightly different route from now on as I unfortunately won’t be able to do the long distance runs any more because of my knee, but I know I made the right decision as once my knee is feeling better I can start running shorter distances again.

I don’t regret anything about taking on such a big challenge as I know I did everything I could have done to get there in the best possible shape together with the best support crew looking after me. Between us we couldn’t have done any more. It was never going to be easy, but if everything in life was easy everybody would do it, wouldn’t they?

VW Newsroom: What is next for you? Another attempt in the longer run?

Mimi Anderson: My brain can’t function at the moment on things like that. I am putting all my energy into getting myself back to fitness. Once I’ve done that, then I can start thinking about what I want to do next. It is almost like my brain, as far as my running is concerned, has gone into shut down mode for a bit, allowing me time to recover—physically and mentally. I’ve been planning this for three years. I spent a lot of time going over the maps, getting sponsors and my crew together. There will be a goal for 2018 but it wont be running until my knee is sorted. Perhaps I can give cycling a try!

VW Newsroom: Mimi, we’re proud to have helped you on your effort. You deserve a vacation.

Mimi Anderson: It was an honor to have your support, thank you. Hopefully my husband will take me on a vacation!