She has no running background whatsoever. So what would provoke her to run seven ultra-marathons, on seven continents, in seven weeks a Guinness World Record?
Conceicao is the founder of the Maria Cristina Foundation, which provides education for street kids in Dhaka in Bangladesh. After nine years of fostering hundreds of young boys and girls, securing them educational scholarships and employment opportunities, Conceicao has reached the threshold for sponging off the same people for so many years.
“There are only so many times you can ask someone for money, before they become ambivalent, even if it is for charity,” she says.
“I needed to do something out of the ordinary to capture the world’s attention. My aim is simple – to raise $1 million (R11 million) and draw global attention to the Foundation’s pioneering work, which has been to challenge the class system, and to break the vicious cycle of poverty in Bangladesh. Running these seven ultra-marathons is going to be the toughest challenge I have ever taken on, but that is nothing compared to the daily struggle our kids face on the streets of Dhaka.”
Conceicao has been training for the past six months to run one of the world’s toughest endurance races and in 42 days (six days less than intended) she has achieved her goal.
This is a marathon of intense difficulty. Not only does it take place in temperatures that average -20 degrees Celsius, but the terrain is beset with snow, hills, mud, stones and penguins, not to mention the strong winds that Conceicao was faced with. And with 68 runners running the same seven loops repeatedly, melted ice is expected.
“Last year, the weather was so bad that all the runners had to be evacuated,” she says.
“This year, with bad weather looming again, I knew I had to stay focused and finish as soon as possible. I kept thinking about how cold I was, but every time I was reminded of the children who sleep out on the streets in the middle of winter, with no clothes and warm blankets.”
Thinking she had the worst one done and dusted, Conceicao set off for Chile. For the last six months, she’d been taught that her recovery time would be key. For every 20km, it takes two days to recover and so she had set out six days rest between each marathon. To throw a spanner in the works, the race director pushed the South American race forward by four days.
“I had no choice, I had to run,” she says.
Finishing in five hours and 18 minutes, Conceicao stuck to her rule: run for eight minutes, walk for 90 seconds.
After countless hours at the border, Conceicao arrived in Oman, sleep deprived and about to tackle her third challenge. With a 1 000m ascent and 1 000m descent, Conceicao hit her first mental block at 5km. With 45km still to go in the gruelling heat, she started to doubt herself.
“I kept telling myself if I do this, it’s one more child or family out of poverty,” she says.
“Imran [her photographer] started running with me and that was really motivating. He also made sure I had a water break every three kilometres to help with dehydration.”
Thinking that the UK would be the easiest of all, Conceicao was in for another surprise. Due to heavy rains in the area, the course was knee-deep in water. Out of the 65 runners, only 23 finished, including Conceicao.
“I had to assess the situation, run where I could, otherwise I walked. Better safe than sorry. The race was also at night, so it was pitch dark, and with a tiny head-torch you couldn’t see two metres ahead.”
Conceicao picked up a stress fracture on her foot in the UK, resulting in a seven-hour walk in Melbourne.
“This marathon was more mental than physical. I was in tears but I had to remind myself that I can do this. I wasn’t about to let down the people who had invested in me,” she says.
Arriving in New York, Conceicao was spent. Her foot had doubled in size, and despite doctor’s risks of potential permanent damage, she continued the undertaking.
“If you cannot climb the mountain, go around it,” she says.
“I wanted to show the kids that no matter what life throws at you, there is always a way out.”
The final leg of the challenge was completed and Conceicao had achieved a Guinness World Record. But her purpose was far more than breaking records.
As a young girl, she was adopted by an Angolan refugee living in Portugal. This is her way of paying it forward.
“I have honoured my promise and now I can go to sleep, knowing I did well,” she says.
“I expected a long and tough course in Africa with lots of rain, but the race was a cherry at top of the cake. The support I got from South Africans was awesome – so far they’re the nicest people I’ve come across.”