Human Race: ‘I ran across Africa’

Photo: Jon Enoch

In autumn 2014, the first thing Emma Timmis would do when she woke up in the morning was wiggle her toes, flex her ankles and bend her knees ‘to check they were still working’. The 31-year-old from Derby was midway through a gruelling 2,472-mile run across Africa.

Clocking a daily average of 35 miles, Emma found the trip was taking a considerable toll on her body. ‘Even with daily massages I was horribly stiff and I had problems with my knee,’ she says. The mental side was even tougher. ‘I got through by breaking every run down into manageable chunks, so it felt less daunting.’

But there were some amazing close encounters with nature to keep her going. One of her favourite moments was encountering an elephant pulling down branches to feed her babies just metres away from the hot, dusty road.

‘It was incredible to see an elephant in its natural habitat,’ she says. ‘She didn’t seem bothered by me at all. And it was so cool to see giraffes sauntering along.’

One day in Malawi, after a long climb up a zigzagging road, Emma found herself looking down on Lake Malawi, the ninth-longest lake in the world. ‘It was a stunning sight,’ she says. ‘I thought, why would you ever want to be sitting in an office, surrounded by four walls, when you could be here?’

Emma – now based in Manchester – is no stranger to endurance challenges. In 2011 she ran from Durban to Cape Town – a distance of 1,425 miles – and it was this achievement that prompted her friend, charity worker Aysha Madha, to suggest the trip, with an offer to take on all the logistics and support. ‘The idea was to raise funds for small charities that show real respect for the people they work with, the countries they work in and the people who work for them,’ says Emma.

They began planning the epic trek in spring 2013, but it wasn’t until the following summer that Emma quit her job as an RSPCA inspector and set off for the Atlantic coast of Namibia, where the transcontinental run would begin.

‘I was eager to get going, even though I knew it would be tough,’ she says. Emma was accompanied by her friend Michael Whitehurst, who cycled, and the pair had a small support team with a car, who would travel ahead before meeting the pair every few days. ‘I liked having a linear route to follow, knowing that each step I took was one step nearer to the finish,’ says Emma.

‘But when I reached halfway, it was tough knowing that I had to do the same all over again.’

One consolation was being able to visit two of the beneficiaries of her fundraising efforts. In Zimbabwe, she met some of the staff at the SEED Project (the acronym stands for Sustainable Ecological and Economic Development), a charity that helps disadvantaged communities develop skills and self-sufficiency; and in Namibia she found out more about an initiative by the charity Tusk to prevent farmers shooting cheetahs and leopards. The third charity Emma was running for was much closer to home, a Manchester-based project named Think Plan Do which offers support and training to young people who want to do something positive in their community.

Once on the road, Emma’s days followed a regular pattern. ‘I’d set my alarm for 30 minutes before sunrise, eat an energy bar and then begin running. I’d run for two or three hours before stopping for breakfast.’

After an hour’s rest, she would run for another three hours, until it became too hot to continue. ‘We would rest in the shade before another couple of hours’ running until sunset. After eating, I’d go straight to bed, totally exhausted,’ she says.

There were long periods when Emma would run alongside Michael in companionable silence, marvelling at the landscape and wildlife around her. ‘Warthogs would cross the road in front of us. At first, I was worried they might attack us with their sharp tusks, but they would run off squealing.’

The west-to-east trek also took the pair through areas where lions roamed. ‘We didn’t spot any, but we had the support car right beside us at that point. The plan was that if a lion was seen, the guys in the car would drag us inside straight away.’

Sometimes, nature did get a little too close for comfort. ‘A scorpion chased me around the camp one night when I got up to go to the loo,’ laughs Emma. ‘And one time, we accidentally set up our tent near a puff adder. Another night, I was in the tent and could hear an elephant crashing through the forest. I was scared that it wouldn’t see the tent and would crush me inside it. But to my huge relief, it lumbered by.’

Though Emma developed some running injuries, they occurred in the early stages. However, in Mozambique, with only three running days to go, she picked up a nasty stomach bug.

‘It was a low point,’ she says. ‘Every 10 minutes I’d have to stop at the roadside to go to the loo. I had no self-respect left – I think everyone in the town must have seen my white bottom.’

Emma somehow still managed 30 miles that day, but, totally drained of energy, she had to rest on a church floor all the next day before she felt strong enough to continue. 

‘I had 37 miles left to run on the final day. I was so excited about finishing that we set off at 3am wearing head torches. It was great watching the sun rise over the ocean.’

When they arrived at Pemba, on the Mozambique coast, Emma waded into the Indian Ocean before swigging champagne with the team. 

‘I actually felt quite empty and I was not as emotional as I’d expected to be,’ she says. ‘But I was so relieved to have finished and to know that I wouldn’t have to run the next day.

Emma took just 89 days to run from coast to coast, including 13 rest days along the way. ‘Even now, it’s crazy to think I actually ran across Africa.’


Emma has raised more than £6,600 for the SEED Project, Tusk and Think Plan Do