Running South America – interview with Katharine Lowrie

A record-breaking couple Katharine and David Lowrie sailed the Atlantic to begin their epic 6504 mile run through South America. Katharine chatted to WanderOwl about their adventure,  abiding passion for wildlife and running.

When most of us think about running, we are talking about exercising. But to say to your friends: “we are just going to go and run the entire length of South America,” there must have been some good reactions?

Yeah, I think people thought we were stark raving mad actually. They couldn’t believe we were going to do it.  We weren’t looking like athletes either so I don’t think they thought we  had much actual chance of achieving it. We were doubting it ourselves too. Our parents were quite worried about some of the countries that we would be running through. So yes, it was a very crazy idea, but we just adore running and we wanted to have a big adventure. We loved the idea of being out there in these big open spaces, running with wildlife, just really soaking it all up and understanding it.

Is the wildlife the reason why you chose South America? 

I’ve actually always dreamt about being in South America because it is a continent of superlatives; it’s got the longest mountain chain, the biggest rain forest, which has some of the highest number of birds, mammal and amphibian species. It’s got so many different biomes and habitats, so it has always been incredibly appealing.

We had actually sailed out to the Caribbean to survey seabirds. We had decided to sail because we wanted to do it in the most carbon neutral way possible. Then we thought well, let’s sail to the very bottom of South America and start the run there. 

Running the length of South America was not the only aim, could you tell us more about the 5,000 mile project?

So yeah, running is something we love and it was just a wonderful way to travel through South America. But the real impetus of the whole expedition was to share our enthusiasm for these incredible places and inspire people to want to conserve them as much as we do. So we had organized to raise money for three charities in South America, who are doing conservation work for wild areas and wildlife. We also wanted to speak to schools, so we set up an online classroom. It was a great way to get the message across and share some of the stories about the wildlife and the people who are looking after it. We also visited schools and universities along the way. We learned so much more about those countries, what matters to them and what they thought about their wildlife. For us it made the whole trip so much more visceral and amazing. 

It’s amazing you did that all while running these crazy distances every day. 

Ha ha, yeah there were times when we were so exhausted. When we came to towns we would find a hostel where we would stay perhaps for two or three days.  We would stay up all night writing our blogs and articles for magazines about some of the environmental concerns and the great things that were happening wildlife wise. And we would just argue a lot because we were so tired. But as soon as we left the towns and were running again, it was bliss and we remembered why we’re doing all this and it made it all worthwhile. 

It must have been amazing to share this experience with your loved one, but it’s not very common even for a married couple to be with each other constantly for 15 months, let alone while going through an extreme physical challenge. How was the relationship during the expedition? 

That’s a very good question. Actually, at the beginning I thought we were going to have a divorce. Honestly I didn’t think we would ever last the run because we just argued and argued so much… about the silliest of things, like where we were going to camp,  who would put up the tent,  who would make the food,  who was going to enter our running statistics or bird data, as we were also doing bird surveys every day. 

We had previously lived and worked together on a 50-foot boat and yet the whole of South America didn’t seem big enough for the pair of each other. At the start we were often running apart, good couple of meters between us, often annoyed. But then we started to get fitter and fitter. We were trying to average about 20 miles per day, so we started to concentrate on the next mile rather than those huge distances, which helped. 

Initially, we only had one bowl in which we would put all our food and draw a line down the centre and then attack one another as we were starving. So, we bought a second bowl and  that eased the tension. Before long we got into a really good routine, worked out who did what and all these problems we were having at the beginning started to dissolve and most of the time we just had fun.

What dictated your route? Were you trying to complete the shortest distance possible to get from bottom to the top of the continent, or were there specific places that you wanted to see?

That’s a really good point. Both actually. We wanted to make sure it was the longest distance that had been run. So, an amazing Ozie chap ran the length of South America with a support van. It was therefore important for us that the length was the same or more than his route. Other than that, we can’t compare ourselves with him, as we were self-supported, pulling all our food/water/equipment behind us in our trailer that we shared pulling (swapping it every 5 miles).  We had to go through the Amazon as that was one of the main reasons for being in South America. The route was also dedicated by our charities.  We felt that by visiting them we could get under the skin about the people who are doing the work. So in Chile we went via Chacabuco Valley, where we stopped to meet Conservacion Patagonica. In northern Bolivia we visited Asociacion Armonía charity who has big sanctuary for critically endangered  blue-throated macaw, a really rare species of massive parrot that lives only in Bolivia. 

But to be honest, once we had elected the run through the Amazon, there’s really only one route going north. So from Bolivia we had to go straight to Venezuela and to the coast, which we worked out would give us enough mileage.  

At the end you ran quite a bit further and it ended up being a 6500 mile project.

Ha ha, yes – we got the mileage slightly wrong. How embarrassing. We were halfway through the Amazon when we reached 5000 miles in less than a year was our target. And then we realised we have still hundreds of miles to run. We are so used to using GIS and maps  but actually in some sections in Brazil for instance, there was very little recordings. Google Maps would say there was a settlement somewhere, where really there wasn’t. Some of the roads weren’t there. Then you have to add the potential of flooding in the rainforest so you have to do a detour. But our main problem was that we based our mileage on naval charts, using nautical miles! A nautical mile is 1.151 miles so longer than a statute mile! But somehow our bodies coped and we managed to do the full length. 

Fantastic.   As if running the equivalent of 250 marathons and pulling over a 100 kg trailer wasn’t enough, you decided to run a third of the 6,500 miles barefoot, why?

Yeah, good question. Well, humans don’t really need heels, we run brilliantly without them. I guess we wanted to get back to the kind of natural raw state. We started training in barefoot running in Uruguay about three months before the expedition. We were 34, so we had been running with a heel for a long time and we needed to get used to  this new running technique. We had lessons from a barefoot running coach. Apparently, we had a really bad running posture and had to practise doing Masai jumps and squatting and gradually got our bodies into this new style of running. What we found though was that running barefoot or in barefoot shoes when pulling a trailer didn’t work. It  was just too much for our bodies. When you are running barefoot you have this very upright posture, whereas when you running with a trailer you are inclining much more. It’s not natural to pull all that weight, so we would swap for shoes with a bit of a lift when we were running with the trailer.

You visited five countries, right?

Yes, we started in Chile and then we crisscrossed over the Andes between Argentina and Chile just because in some places in the winter there is no road, only glacier and ice sheets. As soon as we could we went into Chile because we really wanted to run the Carretera Austral which is a really stunning route; full of wildlife, temperate rainforest and snow-capped mountains. We then crossed back into Argentina into a very flat steppe land. It was hard work because we just felt:  “God, when will I ever get to the end of this damn hill or long vista”. On top of that there was these ferocious winds we were fighting against . We carried on north in the very humid areas. The highest temperature we were running in was 42 degrees Celsius. It was probably one of the most dangerous things we did. And then we broke into Bolivia and ran through the Amazon basin for 2000 miles and then finally got into Venezuela. 

And apart from running in these extreme climatic zones. You also ran through some really dangerous terrain, like the gold mining El Dorado in Venezuela. Did you have any moments where you thought you might be out of your depth? 

Yeah.. Definitely. We were really worried about Venezuela and Brazil.  In Brazil we went through some big shanty areas. We were carrying a satellite phone, bird watching binoculars given by our sponsors that were worth over 3000 pounds, we had dollars squished into the tires of our trailer and  so much other kit and yet, we looked so terrible by the end of it that nobody even looked  at us. 

The Eldorado area in Venezuala was really dodgy. We were told by everybody that we could get killed, that people are getting shot at in buses just for a mobile phone. But we got so far and knew what a lot of the risks were. So we were hiding in the forest, didn’t have any fire so nobody could see us. We would run really early in the morning when the criminals are sleeping. Very luckily right before we descended to El Dorado we met a guy who told us of five safe havens where we could sleep. It turned out to be about a marathon between each one. One was very dodgy and didn’t feel like a safe haven at all but the others were good. Actually the Venezuelans were absolutely amazing. I think because we looked so vulnerable, they knew that we were at risk, so they often stopped and invited us into their homes. 

There are many amazing  stories from the expedition which you shared in your book: Running South America with my Husband and other animals, but is there one that you particularly like to tell? 

Yeah. there’s so many.  The wildlife was incredible. One day I saw something which I  thought was a boulder. I unharnessed the trailer and I suddenly realised it was this giant anteater. I was yearning to see an anteater for days and days on end. But actually some of the winners were the people. One day in Bolivia we met a family on a motorbike. There was Dad on the front, the Mum behind, breastfeeding her baby, a little boy sandwiched between them and behind them was another little child. They also  had this massive sack of grapefruits. They probably had so little as Bolivia is one of the poorest countries in South America, but they stopped and gave us a hand fulls of grapefruits which was  absolutely charming.  I think “the kindness of strangers”  stories stick with us the most and even now, back in the UK we are forever on the lookout for hitchhikers because we feel that we’ve got to return some of the love even if it’s on the other side of the world. 

In one of the interviews you said that that neither you nor David wanted to finish the run, that you would have loved to keep going. Now you are parents of two. I always wondered how people who led a very adventurous lives before having kids, find life with children. I mean that adventurous aspect of life. 

Yeah, that’s a really good question. I think we just want to have loads of adventures with them. We actually went  back to Argentina last year with the children and did a little cycling expedition with them. We had two trailers one with the kids and one with all the gear. The first  couple of days we thought to ourselves – what have we done? It was very humid and raining. The kids argued, they would shove everything into their mouths, their boots would go flying off the trailer and everything was filthy. But it stopped raining at last and we got more into rhythm. We ended up going to the rain forest in the north of Argentina. They love insects, so they really enjoyed seeing everything; huge butterflies the size of saucepans, leafcutter ants, snakes. It was hard, no doubt about it but also incredible because they loved it so much.

How did the Expedition change you?

From a running point of view we both feel that it’s all in the mind. You can push your body to do anything you want it to do. You have just got to be strong. I really want our children to know that. I say to my children: What would Sir Ranulph Fiennes do if he was getting upset? And they answer:  Come on, Get up, let’s keep going! 

From the wildlife point of view I think we are probably quite fundamentally environmentalists. We saw those absolutely stunning areas, but we also saw a lot of destruction. It is just heart-breaking to hear what is going on in the Amazon at the moment. For me wildlife is the most incredible thing and I just want our children to be able to see those butterflies, hear those birds and be in those places.  

Want to learn more about South America, check out our recommendation on South America books, movies and documentaries.


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