‘I never really did running as a sport’ was the answer to Daniel Andrade’s first question as Sportscast Jersey caught up with the man behind the famous Gorilla outfit.
Will Highfield has only been running for 3 years but has already completed the Jersey Marathon twice, 4 ultra events and a lockdown trail monkey run around the island. All of this whilst raising a mammoth amount of money for The Jersey Zoo.
It really is impressive and very inspiring.
Will told Daniel, ‘The closest I got (to running) was doing the 100m on a sports day, but that was just to tick a box because we had to do a track and field event. I did the 100m because it was over quickly!’ which is somewhat at odds to what he is doing now, as he takes on the hardest of running challenges over a series of days.
‘It was when I started volunteering at the Zoo that I really started to get into running. I volunteered with Mark Beresford, who is our Head of Gorilla’s and the Zoo do the Durrell Dash and Durrell Challenge every year. I had never ran before, so when Mark said that he was taking part and I that I could run with him, it was an offer I couldn’t refuse. Mark is a top guy, one of my best mates at the Zoo and a really strong runner, it’s thanks to him that I started running and most importantly enjoyed it!’
‘I found that, whilst I didn’t know much about it, and I hadn’t done much training, I was actually averagely good at it and from then I started to enjoy it.’
When asked if he was hesitant to start off with, Will said ‘Massively. To go from never running to doing 13km was quite daunting, but there was a really good atmosphere and I was with loads of mates so it was a nice way to get into it.’
Talking about his first ever marathon Will summed it up by stating ‘I had no real support, no proper training and winged it, but managed to finish it, even if it was really tough.’
That was 2018, and then a year later he did it in the now famous Gorilla suit. Here is what he had to say about where that idea came from, and how it was.
‘I actually applied for the Jersey Zoo’s London Marathon 2019 place, but was unsuccessful. Part of my pitch was to try and make it different, and I thought I’ll run in a Gorilla suit. It was our 60th anniversary and I worked with the Gorilla’s so it felt right. Seeing as I didn’t get the London place, I thought I would just do the Jersey Marathon in the suit instead!’.
‘It is horrible running in the suit, I’ll be honest! It is a very basic fancy dress costume from Amazon so it is plastic lined. The head is actually the worst part. It sticks to your face, you can’t really see or breath through it that well. It certainly isn’t ideal for running in.’
Amazingly, Will finished that marathon in 3 hours 53 minutes. ‘I was made up with the time. My first marathon I did in shorts and t-shirt, and did it in 4 hours 20 minutes. The fact I did this one 30 minutes faster in a full Gorilla suit, it goes to show how important training is. I had James Manners from Traction Running & Fitness to train with, who actually ran the marathon the year before in a Storm Trooper suit. I started running with him in June, and from June to October, the progress I made was phenominal. It was all down to his training and his support.’
‘Hitting the wall’ is something that any runner has come across and Will is no different. ‘In the first marathon I hit it at the very end. I tried to do a very strong sprint finish because I saw my girlfriend at the time (now fiancé) and all my family and friends at the finishing line so I gave them a really cocky wave, I was really chuffed. However, when I got to the line, my Glutes completely spasmed so I limped across the line and fell into the arms of this marshal. It definitely wasn’t my proudest moment!’.
‘In the Gorilla suit I think it was between Corbiere and Les Quennevais. By then you have done three quarters of the island and it is quite a tough stretch. I was getting super hot, super tired and everything just hurt. James (Manners) really got me through that. Once you get to St Aubins you know you are on the home straights so you get that second wave of energy.’
Will wasn’t short of support in the second marathon either. ‘It was honestly phenomenal. Before I did the marathon I read about running marathons in suits and everyone’s advice was, once you have done a marathon in a costume or fancy dress, you will never want to run without it. I remember thinking that, that was quite weird, but now I have done it I completely get it because when you run as a normal runner you might have the odd family member or friend cheering you on, but when you run in a suit everyone cheers you on because they just love the suit.’
‘Beforehand I did so much marketing and publicity. I went into all of the schools, nursery’s, we did business events so everyone knew what it was about by the time the day came.’
Will takes on these challenges to raise money for Jersey Zoo, raising over £32,000 in 2019 alone. ‘It is something I will always be super happy about, but also really grateful. Whilst I did the running, I think every single person who donated was so generous and so kind. I could never have done that without them.’
‘It is really nice now to have built a following of likeminded, kind people who really care about the Zoo. Obviously now we have pushed the fundraising even further.’
Talking about the importance of the zoo to him, Will stated ‘It is always going to be quite important purely because I reached a personal, massive milestone. Something which I thought was impossible, running a marathon, and I went over and above doing it in a suit. It was also my first ever experience of fundraising or marketing. It really did show me what was possible if you really do engage the public. Wear Your Belief have been a huge help this year with marketing and advertising by designing a Jersey Gorilla range of merchandise. 50% of all sales proceeds are kindly donated directly to my fundraising campaign’
With the global pandemic, all events were cancelled, so what did Will do to keep himself busy?
‘I was really gutted because I had signed up to do the Trail Monkey Jersey Double Top which is a 40 mile ultra marathon across the North Coast of Jersey. I was super excited for that, but obviously with lockdown all events got cancelled. I just did it anyway. We were only allowed out for four hours so I ran up to the North Coast from home (by the Waitrose in St Saviour), ran across the North Coast and ran back, and then jumped straight on the treadmill and put it on the hilliest setting and just ran from four hours on the treadmill.’
‘That was tough. It would have been my first ever event where it would have been solely on the trails and hills, which is much harder than road running anyway. It was also the first time I had ran more than 26 miles, so being almost double, it was really hard.’
Will is fairly knew to running in terms of the amount of years he has been doing it, but is already doing ultra challenges. ‘I am really proud of it. What I try and prove with the events I am doing is that anybody can do it. You have to put in a lot of hard work and time, and it helps having the right people supporting you. That’s why I am really lucky. I have Beau from Pinpoint Nutrition helping with my dietary advice, providing easy to follow breakdowns of what to eat before, during and after a race. I have got Alex, Paul and Fiona from Performance Physiotherapy Jersey, meeting up with them every two weeks (or calling/messaging daily during events!) is a huge help staying injury free and fit and as I said before, James from Traction Running and Fitness not only training me and getting me to my current fitness level but also being a constant support in actually running these crazy challenges by my side. I constantly look up to him as a friend and athlete. Having the right kit is vital for piece of mind and trusting your equipment during these long challenges. I’m immensly grateful to GreenKiwi Sports who has provided fantastic running gear since before I even ran the Marathon in the gorilla suit last year, they were the first sponsor to offer any help and Mark’s great service and advice has been brilliant ever since.’
‘The team at Big Maggys Coffee and Bike Shop have been fantastic, I cycle every day as greener transport but also to maintain my fitness when not running. They’ve generously sponsored my Specialized bike and have been my go to for all energy supplements, bars and gels. As high performing athletes themselves they give me great firsthand advice on what works for them and any pros/cons to look out for rather than just recommending the highest price as most sales teams would do! Finally Landscape Lighting Limited Jersey for sponsoring my Gopro with all associated tech and accessories, this has taken my marketing to the next level by showing my supporters something beyond phone photos! This will become even more important when I begin to head overseas on my projects. It is important to have all of the experts all in my corner, helping me too. With them, and if you work hard, you can accomplish so much.’
Talking about the importance of the nutritional side to running Will explained ‘The first marathon I had nothing and it was really tough. The second marathon I had James’ support so physically I was in a good place. But this year, having Beau onboard, it has not only helped me build up my energy reserves to take part in these events, but he has also given me the knowledge to recovery well afterwards through what I should be eating. It has been vital.’
Will has now done four Ultra-Events, and he explains how doing such events is such an addiction. ‘Now I love running and marathons have been really good fun for me but I wanted to challenge myself. I was seeing on social media other runners who were taking part in what seemed to be super human events and I thought I just have to give that a go. If I try and I am no good, and can’t finish it I haven’t lost anything. As it happens, with the support I get, I have loved them. You get your tough moments but as long as you have a cause you believe in to run for you will always complete it.’
During lockdown Will also ran 100 miles in four days in a community event which was ran by Centurion Running. ‘I broke it down that you have to run a marathon every day for four days. Originally I didn’t know if I would have been capable of doing that. They gave us seven days to complete it so I thought I would start off small and build up to it and if it takes me the whole seven days, it does.’
‘I was running before work and then I would run home after work. After the first few days I was surprised as I wasn’t as tired as I first expected so I ended up pushing and ending it in four days. The reason I signed up was because my coach James not only competes in these events in England where they finish it in one day, he usually finishes in the top 20. I thought he must have started somewhere so if I do it in four days this year, maybe next year I could do it in one.’
Whilst doing these challenges, Will is working full time and he stated that ‘It is the hardest part about it, for sure. With the 100 miles events I was doing because it was road running I was getting up at 6am covering 30/40km and then going to work, and then running home. It seemed okay because it only takes 3 or 4 hours out of your day. The difference with the elevation event I did last week was the sheer time it took and because we were running up and down the stairs at Les Platons where there is no flat. It was taking me 8/9 hours a day to run the distances I needed to do, when I was also working 9 hours a day. It leaves you 6 hours to travel, have dinner and sleep. That was the toughest part of it.’
At home, whilst he is doing all of these crazy events, Will’s Fiancé, Gemma Sutherland will be brilliantly supportive and helpful so he can complete the challenges. ‘As a runner, I cant do what I do without her. At the start of the week she asked me to wake her up each morning when I was leaving, at 3am, just so she could wish me good luck. It really helped, her being that supportive. I would get in at 10pm after getting up at 3am and running and working, she would have my dinner ready so I could scoff my dinner down and go straight to bed! She would prep my bags for the next day too. She is amazing.’
At the start of July, Will ran around Jersey, which is something he clearly is proud of. ‘That event, for me, was a big one. It was the furthest distance wise that I have ever run. It was a Trail Monkey event that I had signed up to, but at the time it wasn’t clear if it was to go ahead so we ran it ourselves. I did it with James, a constant support on all of these crazy challenges, and two of my mates, Evan and Dom as well. It was a brilliant run, but it was really tough. Every event I push myself further than I have before, so at the back of my head there is always doubt whether I would finish it.’
‘We had Performance Physiotherapy Jersey meeting us at every checkpoint to check that we were physically alright, giving us advice and even baking fresh cupcakes which was amazing. There were a couple of points towards the end of the event my right knee was really sore, and that was a worry. We finished it and just seeing that finish line, knowing friends and family were there, it was quite special.’
Last week Will took on his hardest challenge yet. ‘Last week Centurion Running launched an elevation challenge which was completely different to anything they had done before. They had eight different stages ranging from 250m elevation to 21,229m elevation. They were advising this wasn’t your average challenge and that even professional runners would struggle to do this much elevation in one week. It was emphasised that it could be quite dangerous. It was essentially running up and down Everest three times in a week, whilst working full time. So, naturally, we decided to do the biggest of all the challenges.’
‘It didn’t seem entirely possible and even the event organiser said it was a ludicrous challenge that they expected very few people to attempt, and even fewer to finish. I promised to all of my supporters I was going to finish, so I was going to finish it. I hit the wall on two occasions over the week. I wanted to be half way through the challenge by the end of Wednesday. I covered 100km and 9.5 thousand metres elevation over those three days, all of those being up and down the stairs. At that point every day I was waking up and my legs were tired, my heads tired. It was a real struggle and I still had four days left. I just kept that motivation that this was all for the Zoo, a much greater cause than anything I could do myself. All of my supporters leaving me comments and donations, encouraging me on. That got me through that dark patch.’
‘The second time I hit the wall was Saturday morning where I still had two full days of the challenge to go. I was running at 3:30am and I seriously thought to myself, ‘why am I doing this?’. Physically and mentally everything hurt. That is when I started to talk to my phone because I was the only one there at that point, being much less fit than the other guys I had to get there earlier and leave later to cover the same distance. I got quite emotional as I realised it was all for the Zoo. I couldn’t imagine losing the Zoo and going into work afterwards, it made me think I am happy to work here. We are lucky to have the Zoo here. That evening I thought I just have to finish this challenge. I ran from 6pm until after 11:30pm, finishing just before midnight purely because I couldn’t physically face doing another day of running on Sunday. I was in the zone and just finished it.’
As said multiple times, at all of these events, Will is raising money for The Zoo. ‘Originally my fundraising campaign was to raise money to build a brand new home for our Gorilla family. However, when Lesley our CEO announced an emergency appeal to save Jersey Zoo I really had to act and change what I was doing. It seemed stupid to raise money for a Gorilla enclosure when potentially the Zoo wasn’t going to be here. Every penny goes towards keeping the Zoo open. In two months we have raised eight thousand pounds just on the Save Our Zoo Appeal. That would feed every single animal in the zoo for two days. It doesn’t sound a lot, but it is two days which the Zoo doesn’t have to worry about.’
Plans are on hold for future challenges for Will. ‘After last week I am having a little break just to rest my right knee. I would still love to do the Trail Monkey Around The Rock Ultra Marathon which we did at the start of this month officially with other runners. For me there are only two other events this year which are definite. I really want to do the Durrell Challenge on the 27th of September and then the Jersey Marathon, without the suit and see if I can get a PB again.’
Talking about the Gorilla Suit potentially returning, Will stated ‘I still plan to do my re-wilding marathon’s all over the world with the first one due to be in Assam in India, which I am supposed to be leaving for on the 24th November this year and fly back from India on the 14th December. I would be running the marathon distance in my Gorilla suit, creating my own path as it is not an official marathon. So I shall be meeting communities along the way, seeing the work that the Durrell field teams do and doing a bit of filming behind the scenes.
Finally, we asked for some tips for those thinking of starting running. ‘I personally would say you don’t have to go and run marathons. I started when I couldn’t even run a 7km relay race. I just said I am going to go out and run for 20 minutes and I would build on that. I felt so much better. When I first get out of bed to go for a run I don’t want to do it because I just want to stay in bed, it is warm and cosy, but as soon as I finish my run, I feel alive. It is free.’
It was an absolute pleasure to talk with Will about his experiences, and his passion for both running and more importantly the Zoo is infectious.
A big thanks to Will for meeting up, and we encourage anybody reading this to donate, little or large to save our zoo. The link is below.