In the span of six days, Sally Orange ran the highest and lowest marathons in Great Britain. On October 4, she ran a treadmill marathon in the London Eye, the city’s 135m-tall observation wheel, and less than a week later on World Mental Health Day, she and six teammates ran a marathon 1,000m underground in a mine in North Yorkshire. While days apart, the two runs were connected symbolically, representing mental health. One day, an individual can be riding high, and the next, they can be at their lowest point. The mine run, which set the Guinness World Record (GWR) for the deepest underground marathon, was called Beneath the Surface, and Orange says it was designed to show “you never know what’s going on in someone else’s mind.”
Getting started in running
Orange served as a physiotherapy officer in the Royal Army Medical Corps for 22 years, and she is now an ambassador for the Army Cadets youth organization in the U.K. She didn’t start running until she was 34, but now, a little over a decade later, Orange has run 60 marathons, finished multiple Ironman triathlons and completed many other incredible tests of endurance that have taken her around the world. In all of these events and challenges, Orange runs for different causes, which are often related to mental health (something she has struggled with herself).
Early on in her running career, Orange says she “found a unique and fun way” to raise money for charity — by dressing up for her races. In her first race, she dressed as a superhero. Next, she wore an orange costume (to match her last name), and since then she has raced in more than 40 different fruit costumes, from bananas to Pink Lady apples and much more. “You stand out when you’re dressed as a piece of fruit, and people ask about it.” Orange says this is a great way to start conversations about mental health, and she has spoken with many people at races about their own struggles.
Orange has raised money for other causes — including the Invictus Games (which was the focus of her London Eye marathon), veterans and cancer research — but her main focus is mental health, and she says she is currently in the process of writing a book about the impact of physical activity on mental fitness and nutrition. “I see the three as a triangle,” she says. “You can’t have one side without the others.”
Beneath the Surface
The idea for the underground marathon came about pretty randomly. Orange was at the National Fruit Show in the U.K., and she began chatting with a fellow former member of the military. She told him about her different races and challenges, and he asked, “Would you run a marathon underground?” He explained that he worked closely with the world’s deepest polyhalite mine, and Orange said she was in. The two stayed in touch, and they eventually organized Beneath the Surface, which took 10 months to get everything ready and up to the mine’s standards. There were many safety measures that needed to be met before anyone could go down into the mine, where it was about 35 C and incredibly dusty, which are not ideal conditions for a marathon. “We were very lucky the health and safety team let us run,” Orange says.
Everyone involved had to wear safety kits that included hardhats and headlamps (Orange sported her classic orange costume as well), and they each had to spend half a day in the mine prior to their run, Orange says, “just to make sure we were happy with the environment and that we weren’t claustrophobic.” Once in the mine, the runners were accompanied by a medic who watched for any signs of heatstroke or respiratory problems among the team. Orange was joined by fellow Army Cadets ambassador Jordan Wylie, who took time off from paddle boarding around Great Britain (another GWR attempt) to take part in the underground run. Along with Orange and Wylie were five employees of the mining company, some of whom work in the mine and some who work in I.T.
The run took the team eight hours, 31 minutes, and Orange says it “was an incredible experience.” Thousands of metres above Orange and the Beneath the Surface crew that day, hundreds of Army Cadets members took part in their own GWR project, which saw the most people completing an online mental health awareness course in a 24-hour period. In total, more than 1,600 people took part in this course.
Orange says this made the day all the more important, because while she was underground trying to raise awareness for mental health, the Army Cadets were actively learning about the issues that plague so many people around the world. “I’d like to get to the point when it’s as easy to speak about mental health as it is for the common cold,” Orange says. “We all get colds, there’s nothing to be ashamed of, and mental health is the same. We can get over it. It doesn’t mean we have colds all our lives.”
In addition to spreading awareness for mental health, Orange, the Army Cadets and the Beneath the Surface team raised close to £5,000 (more than C$8,000). Orange is also still accepting donations for her London Eye marathon, linked here. Finally, to learn more about Orange and her past and upcoming challenges, head to her website.