Ultra -distance running: The unsung world beater from Horwich

When the marathon finishes, Carolyn Hunter-Rowe is just beginning. By Simon Turnbull
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DENISE LEWIS has been reaping the rewards of her summer-time successes this past fortnight. The golden girl of the European Championships and the Commonwealth Games has been presented with the female athlete of the year award by the British Athletics Writers' Association, for the third year in succession. She has also been raising her profile, and her bank balance, by modelling for Next. Carolyn Hunter-Rowe, meanwhile, has been getting on with life as a world champion in Horwich.

Lewis may be the leading lady of British athletics, and the heptathlon champion of Europe and the Commonwealth to boot, but she has yet to strike gold at global level. Hunter-Rowe has done so twice now yet, because her talent happens to be for ultra-distance running, she is a world beater without due recognition, let alone due reward. Running 100km, which is what the 34-year-old did to win her world title on the banks of the Shimanto river in Japan four weeks ago, is hardly a less arduous task than contesting seven disciplines of the heptathlon in the course of two days. Indeed, it is probably the very fact of pushing the body beyond the conventional bounds such as the marathon that the world at large finds so difficult to grasp.

To run 100km you need to complete two marathons and an additional 10 miles, all in one continuous 62-mile slog. In Japan, Hunter-Rowe raced for 8hr 16min 7sec on a hilly course, in the immediate aftermath of Typhoon Jeb. For all the impact her victory has made, though, she might as well have won a Red Rose cross- country league race. "I've had coverage in the local paper and there's something supposed to be going in Athletics Weekly," she said, taking a lunchtime break from decorating her terraced house, just up the hill from the main street in Horwich. "But it's made no difference at all really, becoming world champion.

"It would be nice for ultra-distance running to get more recognition and it would be nice to get some sponsorship too. Saucony supply me with my kit and my shoes. I've tried over the years to get more sponsorship but there's been no interest. That's just the way it is. In any case, my motivation for running is not to get sponsorship or money. It's the challenge of putting myself through it time and time again."

The remarkable thing about Hunter-Rowe is that she did not put herself through a running challenge of any description until she was 26, eight years ago. In her schooldays in Wolverhampton she was strictly a non- runner. "I don't think we ever did cross-country," she said, searching her memory-bank. "I certainly can't remember doing it. I did play hockey, though."

Hunter-Rowe, in fact, played hockey rather well - good enough to represent the south of England at schools level. It was not until 1990, when she moved from London to Leeds, that she took her first steps as a runner. Within three years she had won the 100km world title, on that occasion in Torhout, Belgium, and set world-best times for 50km, 30km and 40 miles. She had also set the women's course record in the London to Brighton race, clocking 6hr 7min and 22sec on the tough 55-mile route from Big Ben to Brighton Aquarium. In 1996 she won the European 100km championship and last year gained mainstream athletics recognition, earning selection for the World Championships in Athens where - suffering from illness and injury - she placed 47th in the marathon.

It was to prepare for the challenge of Athens that Hunter-Rowe became a full-time runner, giving up her job as director of a co-operative cycle shop in York. She remains unemployed, though she has been seeking part- time work. Meanwhile, she devotes her time and energy to her training, which rarely exceeds the high-class marathon runner's staple diet of 100 miles a week. "I've had periods of trying to do more," she said, "but 90 to 100 seems to be ideal for me. I do a three-hour run every week and it's important that I make sure I recover from that."

It is also important to Hunter-Rowe that she recovers quickly from her exertions in Japan. The defence of her world title is only six months away. Beyond the 1999 world championship 100km race, in France on 15 May, though, her ultimate goal is to be challenging for Commonwealth gold in Manchester in 2002. The Games organisers are considering a request to add a 100km race to the programme.

"As a local athlete, that would be tremendous for me," Horwich's unheralded world-beater said. "It would also be a huge step forward for ultra- distance running."