For Mina Guli, running 40 desert marathons in 7 weeks is just a means to an end: raising awareness of world water crisis

Told she’d never run again after a serious accident, Australian defied doctors to compete in Ironman event. Now she braves searing temperatures, harsh terrain and stinky clothes to raise awareness of our need to conserve water

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 10 December, 2016, 6:31am
UPDATED : Monday, 12 December, 2016, 5:50pm

She has run 40 marathons in seven deserts, across seven continents, all in seven weeks. But Mina Guli is adamant she is “not a runner”.

“Running is simply a vehicle,” she says. “There are a lot of similarities between running long distances and solving big problems. We think it’s impossible, but when we break it down, solutions become achievable.”

And 46-year-old Guli has a big problem on her hands. She has made it her life’s mission to raise awareness of the world’s water crisis, ranked as the single biggest threat facing the planet over the next decade by the World Economic Forum (WEF).

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In 2017, to help raise awareness of the UN’s No 6 Global Goal out of 17 – clean water and sanitation for all – Guli has taken on a new challenge: running down six dry rivers on six continents in six weeks. She calls it “six for six”.

It follows her feat earlier this year, whereby she completed the 7 Deserts Challenge and the last of her 40 consecutive marathons on World Water Day on March 22.

“By 2030, unless we change our behaviour, the demand for water will be 40 per cent greater than supply,” she says. “That’s where the idea of 40 came about.”

Working as a WEF young global leader in 2010, she realised the extent of the global water crisis and left her career in 2012 to establish Thirst, a charity focused on raising awareness about the issue. More than 500,000 students have graduated from the charity’s programmes in China since.

Running – even just a few metres – did not seem likely for Guli, after suffering a serious accident at age 22. She was told she would never run again. Believing “no one set limits on me but me”, she started walking, swimming, cycling, then running. Eventually she trained for and competed in an Ironman (a 3.8km swim, 180km bike ride and 42.2km run).

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“That was the start of understanding how important it is to create a goal, and do whatever has to be done to achieve it. Too often people think we can’t achieve change, but it’s just an excuse. When you really want something badly enough, you can do it – five kilometres, a marathon, running through seven deserts, or achieving global change, you can do it.”

Why such a crazy challenge simply to raise awareness?

A big part of the issue is people genuinely don’t understand the nature or extent of the global water crisis. I have seen first-hand that once people get to grips with the important challenges we are facing, they want to change.

Growing up in Australia, I always thought saving water was about turning off the tap when I brushed my teeth or taking shorter showers. Actually, that type of consumption is just a small part. Truth is that 95 per cent of the water we use every day is invisible, hidden inside the things we wear, eat, use and consume. Eating chicken, instead of beef, for example, saves 2,200 litres in water consumption. And every T-shirt takes 2,700 litres of water to make. We can’t continue to use water the way we do now – we need to be smarter about our business practices and supply chains. And that means being smarter consumers, too.

How did you prepare for the 7 Deserts challenge?

I literally had to learn how to run; how to run really, really slowly to burn fat as fuel. In the peak of my training I was running 160 kilometres a week. I also worked with a great team of people – my coach Nathan Stewart, my physio Justin Faulkner and my podiatrist Brock Healy – to design a programme to avoid injury, stay healthy and keep getting stronger, which involved a lot more time in the gym than I ever had before.

What was your daily routine like during those seven weeks?

I woke up about 5am, would change into my stinky, smelly running clothes, stiff with caked-on salt and dirt, pack up my tent, grab a sandwich and head off into the dark about 5.30am. The idea was to get as many miles as I could before the sun [took its toll]. During the heat of the day I’d run, do interviews, run, meet local people to understand the water problems in their region, run, then run again – often late into the night to make up miles.

One thing you couldn’t live without on the run?

Apart from my epic support crew and sponsors, my 2XU compression tights. I wore them whenever I wasn’t running, even when I slept. They were a total lifesaver.

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Was there any time during the challenge you felt over your head?

Um, every day? Any time it got tough, Justin or Brock would read out messages of support, which reminded me why I was doing it. If I was doing it for myself, I never would have finished it.

Any lasting impressions?

There were many, of course, but one in South Africa sticks out: we were waiting to cross the Orange River by barge, but the river was too low. The river had dropped six metres in six years because grape plantations were using the water for irrigation. And that’s when it really hit me: grapes are not a necessity, they’re a luxury. I realised this is a problem we can solve. I sat on the bank of the river and thought, I can’t go back, get a job and slip into “normal life”. Telling these stories, solving this crisis – this is my future.

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I’m not running for me, but for others, and a cause and an issue that I vehemently believe that we can solve, if we all move together.