Margaret, or ‘Mags’ as her running partners know her, tells an admirable story, with a narrative quality not often found in the real world. It is a quality that is difficult not to get emotionally engaged with, as you may read, it is a story that has more than it's fair share of tragedy, yet like any critically acclaimed literary prose, is quite obviously cathartic and shows the true qualities of the human spirit, courage, the guts to keep going, and doing things for the right reasons.
Margaret Mathieson, from Dundonald in east Belfast, is a mother of three and a civil servant.
That all sounds very normal and unassuming, but she has also climbed the world's fourth highest mountain, Kilimanjaro and Peru's Machu Picchu, has run two marathons, walked the Great Wall of China, and in so doing has raised over £19,000 for charity. And what set her off on what is a wonderful journey of physical and mental endurance was a promise to her mother Meta, who passed away on November 9, 2006.
Margaret said of what drove her to climb one of the most difficult mountains in South America: “When my mum was diagnosed with lung cancer, she told me she always wanted to go to Machu Picchu. She said she was sad she never got to visit it and it had always been a dream of hers.
“She'd never mentioned that to me before. I'd always tried to take her wherever she wanted to go.
“She said once she wanted to go back to Limavady, where she grew up. So I took her there and we went to look for her old school and the house where she used to live.
“When I told her where Machu Picchu was, I had to tell her we couldn't go together because of her condition. But I made a promise to her that when she had gone I would go there and scatter her ashes so that she did get the chance to go.
“It was as if things were meant to happen a certain way though, because Marie Curie were doing a trek to Machu Picchu the following May, but I didn't want to make mum think I was hurrying her along.
“I decided to go for it so I signed up for the trek, sent off the cheque for £300, and then mum went into Marie Curie for pain relief,” said Margaret.
Sadly, Meta Smith died in the Marie Curie centre shortly after Margaret heard she had a place on the trip to Machu Picchu, accompanied by her daughter Hayley.
Meta had her wish though, and now rests in one of the world's most spectacular climbs.
Of the trek up Machu Picchu Margaret said: “The loveliest thing was everyone took turns to carry Granny on the trek. She was quite heavy,” joked Margaret.
After climbing Machu Picchu and raising £8,900 on the Inca trail for Marie Curie, Margaret went on to walk the Great Wall of China, aiding the very same charity not only for the memory of her mother but to help her friend who had been diagnosed with cancer.
“Shortly after I came back from Peru I found out my friend Jenni had pancreatic cancer. She was only 36, and though she fought, there was nothing that could be done to save her life. There was nothing she could do, or the doctors could do or that medicines could do.
“Before she died she said: ‘Thank you for all your fund raising because now I'm benefiting.’
“Jenni died in the same room in Marie Curie that my mum died in, room 36,” added Margaret.
She said of the Great Wall of China: “China was my favourite trek, the scenery was amazing and of the 6,300km of wall, we walked 80km.
“And since I've come home I haven't been able to eat a Chinese — the food just isn't the same here as it is in China.”
Buoyed by these conquests, Margaret went on to climb Mount Kilimanjaro, the highest freestanding mountain in the world and the fourth largest mountain on earth.
Of that trek she said: “I climbed Kilimanjaro because I was fit and healthy and I wanted a challenge, but I didn’t enjoy it.
“It was the hardest climb, and I never want to do it again.
“The night we set off it was -20 degrees, which was tough.”
Of the 25 people embarking on the climb, Margaret was one of the 12 who made it to the summit.
She says her friend Jenni's death had affected her and made her think about her own mortality.
She said: “I decided then that for her I was going to do the best with my body that I could. What propelled me was that if I should ever get cancer or suffer a stroke I can at least say I've given my body the best chance.
“When I'm running and I think I can't do it any more or that it's too hard, I think of Jenni and how she would love to be in my position, thinking, ‘isn't this hard’.
“So when I feel like that there are some songs I listen to through my headphones that remind me of her and the times we had together. That just makes me keep going.”
Margaret wants a different challenge every year although this year is already packed.
In April she is running the London marathon again, hoping for a time of four hours 10 minutes, in June she will run the Mourne Way marathon (running up and down mountains), and these events, in this crazy world of hers, are training events for the Ultra Marathon, a 40-mile slog on the North Coast in October.
Margaret ran last year's London marathon in five hours and 40minutes and the Dublin one in four hours 13, and said she was delighted to have taken an hour off her time, yet she is still trying to go faster.
“I'll be running a few half marathons too in between, and doing some 30-mile training runs for the Ultra,” she adds, admitting that she must be a little bit mad to take on so much.
Her children too seem to have
caught the running bug— Hayley, having climbed Machu Picchu with her and her son Stuart having taken up running. She says they gave her the best Christmas present last year by getting up early and doing a 5km run with her and the club after the London marathon Parkrun.
“The highlight of my Christmas was Stuart and Hayley getting up early, and coming for a run with me, because they're older now and sleep in on Christmas.
“They both made me really proud and I'm glad I've passed this on to my children. I was so proud that three people from one family got up and did that run together.”
Her advice to anyone thinking about starting running was this: “I never dreamed I could run a marathon.
“The first time I ran I timed myself, I got to one minute and 40 seconds and I thought I'd run 10 miles.
“When I started I'd just build myself up, so I got to a mile, then a mile and a half, and then two. Before I went to China I said I would run three miles.
“I hadn't done it, so the day before I left I got a lift to three miles away from my house and just ran back.
“A problem people tend to have is they can't get their breathing right, but your body has to breathe so if you just forget about it, you do it naturally.
“People can walk for 26 miles — running is the same just a bit quicker. And nearly anyone can do it, it's more mental than physical, and if you think it's too tough just slow down to a pace that you can cope with,” she added.
Of her charity work for Marie Curie and the other charities she is helping now — Multiple Sclerosis and Whizz Kids — she said: “It's okay that I should suffer a bit to raise money for charity, but I hate asking for sponsorship, though that's not to say I haven't had sponsors, just I don't like going and asking.
“I'd rather raise money through fund raising events like dinner parties, pub quizzes, wine and cheese cruises and raffles.”
Margaret’s next event is a pub quiz on February 11 at Civil Service Pavilion near Stormont; proceeds to Whizz Kids and Multiple Sclerosis.