The end of the 50km race was in sight. After nearly 12 hours on a chilly Blue Mountains track, Townsville runner Jenni Hearn had reached her goal.
Ask runner Jenni Hearn how she came to enter the gruelling 50km Ultra-Trail Australia race in May and she laughs. “It all started with alcohol,” she says. But there’s a catch – last September, when she and her running mates decided to enter the 50 or 100km events in the Blue Mountains, they were celebrating success in the 28.7km Airlie Beach run. When it came to trail-running, the group had form.
“I don’t know who brought it up,” said Jenni. “But we said, yes, that sounds like a good idea, and some silly buggers said ‘we’ll do the 100’ and I said ‘I’ll do the 50”. The challenge was on!
Running is a pleasure for Jenni. As a Sydney schoolgirl, she competed in junior events, training nights and weekends, encouraged by her parents – Jenni’s dad was a keen tennis, cricket and football player. “I loved cross country running, my sister Christine was a race walker,” she said.
Later, living in Alligator Creek with husband Wayne, she was busy working as a health professional and caring for daughter Kate. It was Kate’s skill at hockey – she was selected for the Australian Country team – that drew Jenni back to organised sport. “I started playing hockey – I had to take her to training anyway – and then I started running around the road at Murray Sporting Complex.” Jenni and a friend from hockey entered the 10km at the Townsville Running Festival in 2006. “I won a trophy for coming third in my age group and it gave me a bit of encouragement, but I was still training half-heartedly by myself at that stage.”
There are plenty of younger women runners, but by the time they reach their fifties, the ranks start to thin out. Yet it was around that time that Jenni got serious about the sport, joining the Townsville Roadrunners. As she became more involved, she linked up with Running Works Townsville, training around Townsville and further afield. After retirement, the Airlie Beach race beckoned, followed by her pledge to run 50km at Ultra-Trail Australia.
To train with Running Works Townsville, you must be an early riser, meeting at Riverway at 5.30am to enjoy cooler temperatures. Jenni began training in December for the 50km event, joining Running Works three mornings a week and also throwing in some Outer Limits Adventure Trails. Her weekly routine included two 60 minute runs of easy or moderate difficulty on trail or soft ground surfaces, one or two longer runs at ‘talking’ pace that added hills, and cross-training sessions at the gym. Locations included Castle Hill, Riverway, Mt Stuart and Alligator Creek.
But in February and March, Jenni suffered hamstring problems that threatened her 50km goal. “You can’t really train, you need time to recover,” she said. Fellow runners were encouraging. “I did think about pulling out, but everyone said ‘give it time, you’ll make the cut-off time even if you walk it’.”
On a visit to her mother in Sydney in February, she checked out the daunting Blue Mountains trail. “There were winding rocky paths with views across the valley, with steep stairs, more stairs and more stairs.” Spectacular scenery, but challenging terrain and the Blue Mountains is cold in May, especially for a north Queenslander.
Then another setback: Jenni suffered severe lower back pain while picking up a petrol can. With Wayne away visiting their daughter, good running friend Lee came to the rescue, calling an ambulance team to Alligator Creek to assess Jenni’s pain. She spent the night in hospital and couldn’t train for three weeks.
“I love being outdoors, especially trail running. It’s the challenge, to see if you can actually do it.”
It was now April, and with the race just weeks away, Jenni could barely move. It seemed her quest was over, but the 62-year-old was made of sterner stuff, vowing to do the race “even if I have to walk the whole way.” Physiotherapy soothed sore muscles, step by step she eased back into training.
“As it got closer, I said to myself, I’m really going to do this even if I have to crawl over the finish line.”
Cold misty rain wafted over the track on 20 May, as Jenni and the Townsville runners arrived at the starting line. Some were aiming for 100km, but Jenni was happy just to get to the start for her 50km. She checked in her bag of snacks and warm clothes to collect at the end of the race and waited for her start group to be called. It was the moment of truth.
Jenni got away at 10:06am, a delayed start with an altered route due to rain in preceding days. Her progress could be viewed online, as she checked in to a series of points along the way. She took it easy over the first kilometre which was slightly uphill. “It was going to be a long race and I expected to walk at times, especially going up hills.” There was a delay due to an old landslide and an hour’s wait to ascend temporary ladders. Trails under the canopy were narrow; going up the Golden Stairs, a woman collapsed and first aid came down to assist.
At Checkpoint 3, around 36km, it was 6.30pm and getting dark. Jenni put on thermals, buff (tubular bandanna) and reflective vest. “I had something to eat and set off, a little later, I turned my headlight on.” At Nellies Glen, she was faced with a long set of stairs. “You could see the headlights of other runners going up the stairs. I didn’t know how many stairs there were, so I sat down for a quick rest, then got up and just got going.” By this stage, she had been eight hours on the track, but having made Checkpoint 3, she knew she could do it.
“At Checkpoint 4, after 48km, I was really hungry, my knee had started to hurt and the soles of my feet were sore. I ate bananas and lollies, drank water and put on my gloves. I felt really good, whether it was the food or excitement and adrenalin, but I ran the rest of the way to the finish line.”
After a gruelling run of 11 hours, 51 minutes, 34 seconds, Jenni was home. “I ran through the crowds, crossed the finish line and thought ‘I’ve really done it”.
Next day, she was stiff and sore, but so was everyone else, and her feet were in good shape for someone who had done 50km the day before. The team celebrated that night, with one strict rule: “No-one was allowed to talk about what goal they might set next,” Jenni laughed.
Running Works Townsville