Meet the unstoppable Brisbane mum who could run Forrest Gump off his feet

Keeping track of your daily steps has become the new pathway to good health . For others, it’s somewhere further down the track, writes Michael Blucher

May 24, 2024, updated May 24, 2024
Inspiring ultra-marathon runner Saliann Powell. (Image: Supplied)

Inspiring ultra-marathon runner Saliann Powell. (Image: Supplied)

Have you noticed? … the number of people now keeping track of their daily steps?

There are some – many – who are just obsessed. I’ve got one mate who’s recording them on a spread sheet. He updates it daily. Apparently more than 400 days consecutively, where he’s topped the 10,000 mark. Good on him. Not that we catch up as much as we did at one point in our lives. Read into that what you will.

The new age information revolution. It’s helping us all become a lot more interesting, isn’t it?

One person who’s not counting her steps, but probably should be, just to see if her Garmin can cope, is ultramarathon runner Salliann Powell.

By day, the 54 year-old mother of three is a mild mannered physiotherapy practice manager, but outside of work hours, she transforms into a fearless, endorphin-seeking junkie, hell bent on exploring her physical and mental boundaries. And then finding out what’s beyond there.

Sal’s aiming to become the first Australian to run all five “Racing the Planet” desert ultramarathons in the same year, a quest that becomes all the more unfathomable, the deeper you delve into the detail.

Five 250 km runs, across different deserts, all in the most extreme conditions – searing heat in four, capped off with blizzardly cold, minus 25 degree temperatures in Antarctic, where even the penguins huddle together, knowing it’s their best chance of survival.

Before we go any further, bear in mind all the races are “self catered” – every competitor has to carry their own food and sleeping apparel for the six days – in short, a pack weighing somewhere between 8-10 kg, depending on how creative you can be. And there’s no cutting corners – officials even count your daily calories, to ensure you have sufficient “fuel” for the journey

There’s a fair bit to unpack here, commencing with the obvious question – why?

“I’ve always liked running,’ she says. “Perhaps this is my own private Olympic moment, who knows? Beyond that, there’s probably a message to our children – they’re now all in their 20s. Great kids, though through no fault of their own, they’ve never hit the really hard stuff, never been exposed to severe adversity.

“I figured if I can demonstrate that you don’t stop, just because things get hard, it might help them deal with whatever they encounter later in life. In short, Mum kept on going, so will I. It applies to every body – you hit a bump in the road, keep putting on foot in front of the other.

Sal’s already passed the first test, earlier this month completing round one the “ultramarathon” Grand Slam, conquering the six day race across the Namib dessert in Namibia, on the east coast of Africa.

She was a one of 128 competitors from around the world to start the event, staged in five running blocks – four of 40kms, one of 80, and then a leisurely 10km stroll to the finish line on day seven. Day six was a well earned rest day after the “long march” which has most competitors running deep into the night.

In the middle of the day in Namibia, desert temperatures soared to 55 degrees, plummeting to between 5-10 at night, depending on how far the camp was from the coast.

Setting to one side the blisters and the torn toe nails and the horrendous chaffing from the backpack straps – “there were times I felt my whole body was on fire!” – what Sal cherished most was meeting the other competitors and hearing their remarkable life stories.

Like Marc, the 60-something year-old lead viola player on the Boston Symphony Orchestra, who in his spare some time, has built not one but two holocaust museums in the United States. It was also his umpteenth desert run. If Sal could have mustered the energy, she might have asked him: “Geez Marc, when are you going to do something with your life?!”

There was also the hydroponics girl – she began life as a scientist working in the US space program – she’s since developed a business that has the capability of growing fruit – food – in the middle of the desert. Chatting to her whiled away a few Ks.

Koji Oku, the “adorable” 75 year Japanese man, who twice a day stopped running to have a shave (he had a rechargeable electric razor in his 10kg pack!) – Koji was everybody’s favourite, not far behind him, a dad who’d signed up for the race with his 15 year-old son. A pretty handy bonding experience for that pair, even if technically, boy wonder was too young to be running. Conditions of entry stipulated 18 and above – good thing race officials didn’t notice – a small communication error.

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In amongst the awe-inspiring stories, there were moments that was purely bizarre, like the runner who at the 65km mark of the “long haui”, missed a marker. In pitch darkness, he crashed into a drunk local cyclist, riding alone in the desert at 10pm. In the collision, the runner broke his collarbone. His race was over. Sometimes, luck just doesn’t fall your way.

At 1.54pm on day seven, Sal crossed the finished line in Swakopmund, on the country’s central west. One down, four to go. The second leg of her running odyssey – the Gobi desert in southern Mongolia, is just three weeks away – hardly sufficient time for her body to recover from the trauma of race 1, but hey, as she’s demonstrating to Emily, Ned and Max, this was never meant to easy.

“I learned from race one, this will be as much a mental test as it is physical,” Sal says. “There was one girl in Namibia who withdrew from the race on day two, on account of bad blisters. I tried to talk her around, highlighting how much she’d regret withdrawing, when the pain subsided, but sadly, she just didn’t have it in her.

“Yet there was another girl who fell heavily 35ks into the 80km leg. With the aid of poles, she managed to cover the remaining 45ks. She ran the next day with a brace, and as she’d learn later, a fractured fibula!

“That’s what makes life so interesting – how do some people keep going, long after others have tossed in the towel?”

After Gobi, there’s a slight reprieve – the other three desert runs, in Jordan, Atacama in Chile and Antarctica are spread out over the balance of the year. A little more time to taper.

To widen the scope of her single minded endeavours, Sal is raising money for the Nerve Connection Foundation, a charitable entity dedicated to medical research and the discovery of a cure for devastating muscle and nerve diseases.

She’s witnessed at close quarters friends, once strong, vital, able bodied people, deteriorate before her eyes after inexplicably contracting Motor Neurone Disease (MND). Life is not only tough – it’s bloody unfair.

Waking up every day and being able to go for run – being able use all her muscles – is a privilege she will never take for advantage.

“If somebody else far less fortunate can benefit, in some small way from what I’m doing – that’s just another motivation to keep going,” she says.

You can follow Sal’s journey on Instagram @runsalrun

And support her cause

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