WE met at Hampstead Heath, one of London’s most popular open spaces, located just 6km from central London. In any weather, Hampstead Heath is “a gloriously varied, irregular grouping of heathland, woodland, fields and formal grounds” where runners meet and run, where families take a stroll and enjoy tea in one of the pretty tea places there.
It was raining, but that was not an excuse not to run. For runners, especially ultra runners like Alison Walker nee Tay, the drizzle and the falling temperature were nothing. For someone eyeing the Spartathlon, a 246km run in Athens next year, for which she had qualified in March this year, it was just a stroll down the heath. She did the qualifying race in Dover in 21 hours and 36 minutes!
“The qualifying time for women is 22 hours!” she said proudly, not forgetting to add that she did it fighting all odds, especially battling with the Beast from the East — with howling winds of 86mph.
Alison, 31, who hails from Johor Baru and has been in the United Kingdom since she was 18, is one of the rising number of ultra runners in the UK and indeed around the world, where running the mere 26.2-mile (42.195km) marathon is just not challenging enough, even if you add in a gruffalo costume or some other fancy dress.
So marathons are usually run as a road race, and any other footrace longer than that, especially involving challenging terrain with severe and extreme weather conditions thrown in, would be classified as an ultra marathon.
Alison, who studied law in Swansea, only went into running when she wanted to see the beauty of the Welsh coastal regions and she ran along the scenic route of the Gower Peninsula for fun.
Then it became serious and to date, she has done the Brecon to Cardiff (44 miles) run where she emerged the seventh woman in 7 hours and 39 minutes, the 100 mile Samphire 100, second woman, eighth overall in 21 hours 36 minutes, emerged third in the Beer Lovers Marathon, first woman in the 56-km London to Brighton run and many more including the recent Tooting 24, a 185.9-km run where she emerged the third woman and 11th overall which put her firmly in The Malaysia Book of Records, while in the qualifying race for the Spartathlon, she even achieved the men’s standards.
About the Spartathlon, she says: “Only two men (in Malaysia) have completed it ever. No female has ever qualified — the closest 100-mile time in Malaysia is 24 hours something and the 24-hour distance is 150km. Mine is 19:41 and 185.9km, so my recent race has sent some shockwaves in the ultra running community. The fastest man for 24 hours is 186.9km and for 100 miles 19:31, so only 15 minutes faster than me. But both these men have been running ultras for many years!”
All these statistics are, of course, important for the tax senior director who works at a London firm, although she insists that it is her coach, Peter McHugh De Clare, owner of Run Fast, who would usually look at the performances of other people.
“She is doing very well. She is very strong mentally. There is not much that one has to do except to observe that the training load isn’t getting too much for her, and she is getting tired because that affects her mind. But generally, mentally, she is very strong,” said McHugh when we met at the Heath after their run.
“For me, if I have done the distance before, I want to be faster than that and if I get the podium, it is even better!” says Alison.
The runner meets all expenses herself. But she is interested in getting a sponsor. “Running can be expensive.”
To say that she is competitive is an understatement. That she is a non-quitter is obvious. Add determination and focus to that, those are the ingredients that make this seven-time ultra marathon record holder a winner. And, of course, she is, as she herself admitted, a crazy runner. It’s a word that frequently pops up when you read journals of ultra runners.
Alison has her own challenges; a grandmother who likes to feed her and her craving for food and cakes. She makes cakes whenever she craves them. In London, she has an aunt who runs the C&R Malaysian restaurant to feed her yearning for home-cooked food!
However, her strict and regimented upbringing most probably made her what she is today; disciplined and always reaching for the goal. Her childhood days of commuting from her hometown in Johor Baru to Singapore where she was sent to school since the age of 7 till she was 18, probably had a lot to do with the discipline and resilience of this runner.
Every day, since the age of 7, she woke up at 4am to go to school in Singapore and returned at 10pm to continue with homework and other studies.
Alison is also lucky that she also has people who run along with her on her journey to make her dream a reality. It was when she joined the running club in London that she met her husband, Matt Walker, a sub 3 marathon runner, her dedicated coach, McHugh, who coaches her for free, a running physio, Scott Newton, and most importantly, an ailing father, Tay Boon Keat, in a nursing home in Johor, who awaits eagerly for good news from her to bring daily cheer into his life.
This running addict, the last time I heard from her, is ever ready to sprint home, should she hear any news about her dad. The last time I saw her, she was tucking into a piece of cake feeding another of her addiction after her run in Hampstead Heath.