Hayley White - Cheshire’s Arctic trailblazer
PUBLISHED: 00:00 05 June 2019
Not content with running across the Sahara, Hayley White from Davenham, has now become the first British woman to complete a 383-mile race across the Arctic
Hayley White, 43, shrugs her shoulders and rolls her eyes in mock despair; 'You 'haven't got time' to exercise? That's not an excuse I buy,' she says.
This isn't just the rhetoric of a personal trainer who's showing her clients some tough love. The no-excuses mantra is one the exercise professional and mum from Davenham lives her life by. Because Hayley had more excuses not to exercise than most.
'I was a very sick child,' she says. 'I was chronically asthmatic, in and out of hospital all the time. I wasn't even allowed to celebrate my birthday or Christmas properly in case I got too excited and it brought on an attack'.
Then at 17, after a childhood of avoiding PE lessons, she forced herself to her first step aerobics lesson. 'I was just fed up of not being able to do things. I was on the floor within 10 minutes with all these 50-something women in their Jane Fonda gear laughing at me,' she recalls. 'When they found out about my asthma they were a bit nicer.'
She may have ended up in a crumpled heap but she went back the next week…and the next. Then she challenged herself to go for her first run. 'It took me five months of regular running before I could manage a slow mile,' she says. But it had begun; not just the realisation of how much better exercise made her feel - she was barely having to use her inhaler anymore - but that when she put her mind to it, she could achieve what she had always assumed was impossible.
And so from there came a 5k, 10k, half marathon, marathon and then triathlons. She started off with sprint distances (400m swim, 20km bike ride, 5km swim) and within a few years took part in her first Ironman, which involves a marathon only once you've completed a 3.8km swim and 180km bike ride.
'Weeks afterwards I was still really, really tired. It turned out I was pregnant and had been when I'd done the Ironman,' she laughs. 'Two weeks before Freddie was born I ran a 10k. I was back to work three weeks later and seven weeks after that I ran a half marathon.'
Her son Freddie is 10 now. It's only in the past few years that he and dad Andy, 53, have watched mum-and-wife-respectively head off to do the 'really big' stuff. Three years ago, in April 2016, Hayley completed the Marathon des Sables; a six-day, 251km race across the Sahara desert.
I ask her how hard it was, expecting tales of heat exhaustion and emotional cliff edges. But she does one of those light shrugs again. 'I'm not saying it wasn't hard but I'd really, really prepared. During my training I'd driven over to Leeds twice a week to spend the evening training in their environment chamber - it heats up and recreates the humidity you're going to face in the desert to help get you used to the conditions out there.'
She does say that upon crossing the finish line she burst into tears: 'It's emotional and you know that everyone at home has been tracking your progress.'
But essentially she found it doable enough that she wanted more. And so back home she began looking for her next challenge. She found the Deadwater Ultramarathon, a 235-mile race from Scotland to Wales; the opposite sort of terrain to the desert and with the added kicker of carrying your own kit. Out of the 50 people who started, she was one of only 11 who finished and the second woman to do so.
It was someone from the race who later mentioned the 6633 Arctic Ultramarathon. It was a few weeks before she had a good Google of it - a nine-day 383-mile race across the Canadian section of the Arctic. It's quickly becoming considered to be one of the toughest footraces in the world. Immediately she knew she wanted in. 'I said to Andy, "You know how I've done extreme heat. Well, I'm now doing extreme cold".'
This race was different from the others; it wasn't against the clock or others or even herself. 'It's really about survival,' says Hayley. 'Surviving the elements.'
So her training went beyond runs across the Brecon Beacons and pulling a giant tyre - which weighed about the same as her sled would - around Davenham village.
'I'd sleep out in the garden on freezing nights in my bivvy, which is like a sleeping bag that wraps all the way around your head. I'd freeze all sorts of food and then try them out to see what was edible, so I'd know what was best to take. I'd wear the full kit and practice going to the toilet; it sounds ridiculous but you have to be able to do these things in under a minute or so or you'll start to freeze.'
In April she was among the 18 men and women who started out. 'It was nine days of hell,' she says bluntly. Temperatures dipped as low as -32 degrees celcius and often they couldn't see more than a few feet in front of her.
'I can't say I enjoyed it. I just went into a particular mindset. We only had 21 hours of sleep over the entire nine days. We were moving at about three miles an hour. On one of the days we probably did more than 26 hours of trekking on just an hours sleep.
Within a few days the hallucinations had started. 'I'd hear people whispering things in my ear. At one point I saw a boat full of pumpkins bobbing on the horizon.'
There were some scary moments for Hayley. 'One day I woke up to find my bivvy full of snow. There'd been a snow storm in the short time I'd been sleeping. I couldn't feel my fingers and you're warned that happens you're in real danger of developing frostbite and losing them.' Hayely managed to get her fingers warm again - although I'll leave her to divulge the details of just how in the book she's writing about her experiences with trek partner, Mark Whittle.
The two were the last pair out of the three to finish - only six out of the original field completed the race and Hayley was the only woman to finish that year; the first year the course had been extended from 350 miles to 383 miles.
The end point was a tiny hamlet called Tuktoyaktuk. 'In the end it was a good last day. We relaxed a bit, had some really open, in-depth conversations as we knew it would be the last time we'd be together like this.'
As they got to the streets of Tuktoyaktuk the other competitors and race organisers were waiting for them to cheer them to the finish line. 'This time there was no bursting into tears or big whoops. I had nothing left. It was just sheer relief.'
Months on Hayley says she is still waiting for it to hit her. She does think though that this time she got something out of her system; she's raised more than £7,000 for the mental health charity Mind and there's no craving for the next big challenge.
So looking back, what did those nine days in the Arctic teach her? 'I've realised that I just don't know the phrase 'give up'. Is it because I was such a sick kid? Probably. I could have carried on being that sick kid, become a sick adult. But I developed the mindset to not quit until I've achieved what I need to achieve.