Until a few years ago Annie Conway had never run at all. Now she’s the best long distance mountain runner in the world.

Seven kilometres into the race it didn’t look good for Annie Conway.

It was the World Long Distance Mountain Running Championships in the forest-flanked village of Podbrdo, 535m (1,750ft) up in Slovenia’s Julian Alps. The Brit, just one sixth of her way into the 42km course, was lagging three minutes behind the lead group.

“I didn’t really know how I’d fare,” Conway, 35, admits. Her training in the build up had gone well. Better than in the winter months, when she “didn’t do much at all really, through illness and tiredness and things going on at work”.

But she was determined to do herself justice in the race. “I was confident I’d done everything I needed to prepare. Wherever that left me in terms of position, that was good enough.”

She kept in touch with the leaders who, by half way, were no longer a group but a string of individuals. Conway sat in sixth. Then she passed the first straggler to move into fifth.

“This is good,” she thought. “I felt really strong on the second climb and caught some of the ladies up.”

Before she knew it she was third. Conway could smell blood: “It sent me to the next level.” Yet with five kilometres to go she still trailed the leader by three minutes. The punishingly perverse nature of mountain running means the door for a shock is always open; the hard part is stepping through it.

Conway had raced smart. “I knew I’d left something in the tank for the last climb and descent,” she says. On the final climb she passed home runner Lucija Krkoc to move into second.

With three kilometres to run she moved into first, coasting past Italian Antonella Confortola on the final descent. “I can’t leave this,” she told herself, pushing as hard as she could. Having invested all her energy to haul herself to the lead, she was “scared” of a counter-thrust from Confortola or Krkoc.

“I was so focused on getting to that line as fast as I could, I didn’t want to smile or relax until I’d gone through the banner.”

Conway needn’t have worried. She completed the 42.195km course, which included 2,800m (9,100ft) of climbs and 2,800m descents, in a course record 4:29.01, nearly a minute ahead of second place Confortola. She’d paced her race to perfection.

Annie Conway ()

"It was just great. The feeling was… I was on a high."

From a distance it looked like an experienced runner hitting that elusive sweet spot between speed and tactical acumen. But Conway is far from an experienced runner. Until six years ago she’d literally never run before. As a child she had danced tap and ballet. In her 20s she swam a bit. Jogging for fitness had never featured on the agenda.

Then her husband, Terry, began to run. Annie would go along to support. “Then I joined him,” she says, “and we both got into it and really liked it.”

Annie began to enter races in Worcestershire, where the couple lived. Although she posted a decent 10km time (39:31) and won a couple of Park Runs, niggling injuries persisted. “I had to stop,” she says.

In 2012 she moved 200m miles from Worcestershire to the Lake District, a National Park in northwest England, for work. She and Terry had visited a few years earlier and fell in love with Wordsworth country. The move was a “dream come true” for the psychological therapist.

Terry was unable to join her for the first year. For lack of anything else to do, Annie began “running up to the top of the hills at the back of the house”. Something clicked. “I didn’t get any injury problems. I just kept running.”

She fell in love with the fells. Mountain runners often talk about “that feeling” you get. Conway was no different: “It made me feel happy.”

Fit and smiling, she joined Ambleside Athletic Club. 2012 was portentous: third place at a local 10k (36:52); 11th at the British nationals in mountain running; 5th in a 40 mile ultra trail race in Italy (6:47:06).

“I realised that I had a lot of stamina and endurance,” Conway recalls. With the help of her border collie dogs, Billy and Memphis, who “need to go out three times a day”, and a growing appreciation of the outdoors, she was developing strength almost unknowingly.

“I managed to keep going most days out for a run, but it still took a few years to build up strength and the fitness,” she says.

“I did a few fell races, but didn’t really do very well. I suppose it took a while to build my confidence, aside from my strength.”

This wasn’t the sort of strength you can build in a gym. “I don’t like being inside,” Conway says. And why, when you can wonder lonely as a cloud, would you bother with the gym? Exploring Cumbria’s vales and hills is an all-over workout enough.

“Some days I’ll do flatter, faster runs,” Conway says, “some days I’ll just get out on the hills and do a bit of scrambling, try to have a bit of fun.” When the weather is nice she’ll do yoga in the garden.

Only when there is a big race to target will she tailor her training. Before her world champs tilt she spent a week in Chamonix. “I did lots of specific climbing and descending training, which helped with my preparation,” she says.

“After that it was a case of resting and doing shorter, faster races to get back into the race scene, because I hadn’t raced for a while.” On the last weekend of May she finished 4th in the British trial for the European Championships on a 10km course. “That gave me some confidence in terms of my speed, racing with some really talented people.”

Annie Conway ()

Conway (r) led the British women to team bronze. Their male counterparts won team silver

She headed to Slovenia confident, but far from expectant of success. “I really wanted to enjoy it, being in a new country, enjoying the trails and feeling relaxed.”

It was only in the closing stages of the race, her body wilting as she powered to the head of the field, that she began to believe. “I was thinking about all my friends, family, teammates, and representing my country … I wanted to do well for everyone who supports me.”

We know how the story ends. If only we knew how to bottle “that feeling”. Crossing the line brought that indescribable buzz on stronger than ever before. “It was just great. The feeling was… I was on a high. I was ecstatic.”

The new world champion is still buzzing three days on, when SPIKES catches her on the phone during her lunch break. It just happens to be her 35th birthday. Her mum is heading over later and they will go for a meal to celebrate a momentous week. Barbecues with teammates and friends beckon.

Running-wise her focus is recovery. Conway will assess her shape before deciding on trying out for this year’s short course world champs. Now is a time to bask, to reflect and continue with a passion that came late.

“To be able to run round something that would have taken me hours to walk when I first started is just amazing,” she says, wistfully. “I love seeing the nature, the birds and the flowers that I can see at the moment at this time of year. It’s beautiful.”

Pictures courtesy of British Athletics

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