It’s a fair bet that Emma Timmis and her partner Tristan Phipps had a worse Christmas Day than you. On 25 December 2021, Timmis was eight days in to an attempt to set a record for running from the top to the bottom of New Zealand, aiming to cover 100km a day for 21 days.
The home of the Hobbit is overloaded with natural beauty, of course, but to cross it fast meant taking the main highway – a high speed, generally single-lane road with no shade and very little space between her and the cars. Phipps was riding a bicycle behind her, in high-vis with a flag, when a car hit him at 100km/h. If Timmis hadn’t broken his fall, it could have been much worse.
‘The bike went into the bushes, he hit me, I turned around and he was on the floor, screaming. His arm looked like it was snapped in half,’ she says. ‘Thankfully a couple of paramedics turned up within a few minutes. Another person stopped and held a beach umbrella over him to keep the heat off. The fire service turned up, the police turned up, all the traffic was stopped, and we were covered in tar for a long time afterwards from the melting road. It was pretty horrendous.’
When we speak, the 38-year-old from Derby in England is working on a talk about the run to be presented to a local business near her home just north of Christchurch. Multicoloured sticky notes cover the wall behind her like a detective’s mind map. She says she still can’t talk about the accident without crying, and the rest of the journey doesn’t sound like a rollicking good time either. ‘It was definitely the most challenging thing I’ve ever done. New Zealand decided to throw everything at me.’
This isn’t her first epic undertaking. In 2015 she won the award for Physical Endeavour at the National Adventure Awards, for spending 89 days in 2014 running 3,974km across Africa between Namibia and Mozambique. She has also crossed the Netherlands on rollerskates and in 2017 set a Guinness World Record for the longest elliptical bike journey in a single country: almost 8,000km across Australia on a kind of mobile cross-trainer called an ElliptiGO. But she says that everything she has done before has been about the travel experience first and the physical challenge second: ‘Have you ever been on an ElliptiGO? You have to try it! It’s like the motion of running but without all the impact and pain. It was so much fun.’
This time, fun went out the window. About four years ago, she came across a quote. She can’t actually remember if she heard it or saw it, or who said it, but it hit her hard: ‘It was something like, “If you’re not pushing yourself towards a goal that has a huge chance of failure, then you’re probably not pushing yourself enough.” All the journeys I’d done before, they sound hard but I really believe anyone could do them. I wasn’t being vulnerable and exposing myself to failure, which I thought could be a huge space for growth.’
She applied to do the New Zealand run as a Guinness World Record attempt in 2017, believing she could complete it in 21 days. Then, a major setback. A mystery pain in her calf ended up preventing her from running altogether. It took over two years of being misdiagnosed before one doctor finally worked out that it was a vascular problem – a vein and an artery incorrectly connecting. During that time she had to take anti-depressants and engage in group counselling, feeling so low from being kept away from the sport she loved and not knowing why.
‘Throughout my life, I had found that the harder I work, the better the results I get. With this injury, that wasn’t happening. I saw so many doctors and didn’t get anywhere, and really struggled with that frustration. My whole social life was around running, and I didn’t have that any more. I felt so isolated and lonely.’
The experience inspired her to use her comeback challenge – 24 hours running laps of Hagley Park in central Christchurch in April 2021 – and the New Zealand run to raise money for mental health charities. Youthline in New Zealand and Young Minds in the UK have benefited. She also switched from working as a climbing instructor to becoming an artist, producing work including a mural for Queenstown International Airport’s departure lounge and a children’s book about her run across Africa.
‘Most of the adventurous, active, brave characters in kids’ books are still male,’ she says. ‘I want girls to see that there’s a space for them.’ In fact, the Africa run came about because she came away from an adventure film festival angry that every documentary was about a man – apart from one about a dog.
She reached the yellow signpost marking Stirling Point in Bluff on 7 January, completing the New Zealand run in 20 days, 17 hours and 17 minutes. She wouldn’t do it again – ‘The roads are just too dangerous’ – but the adventures certainly aren’t over. ‘Everything I do, I always say is the last thing, but then two days later… The Te Araroa Trail is beautiful and would take twice as long. I still don’t feel like I reached my limit.’