Born To Run

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In 2019 Jacqui will be racing the New Zealand 323 km ultra marathon, and hopes to finish two more overseas events, making her the youngest person to complete an ultra on every continent. 

Having experienced first hand what it’s like to live with mental health issues, Jacqui is an active fundraiser for depression support services. In awe of what she has accomplished, we caught up with Jacqui to find out how she does it.

Deserts are pretty inhospitable places. Why choose to run 250 km in one?

I was searching for a challenge of some sort to help find my focus and drive again. I knew I wanted it to be running related so I researched ultra marathon events in remote locations. I came across the desert challenge both online and through Lisa Tamati, an Ultra Runner whose book I’d read. Looking back, I didn’t know ultra running was going to become such a huge part of my life and that my favourite thing to do now would be to run in the desert!

Jacqui Bell Photographer N_A .jpeg

Each desert race went for seven days and all you were given was drinking water and a tent to sleep in. How did you manage? 

The self-supported aspect is a real challenge, especially the first race. You think you are using lightweight gear and only packing the necessities, but when you get your pack weighed and it’s 13 kgs, you know you have to get ruthless. I had to let go of usual comforts and get very specific, as extreme as counting out just 10 baby wipes for the week and choosing between a small hair brush or deodorant. You also learn what foods to take. If you get a craving of some sort (which trust me you do) you either need to be prepared to have it with you or dream about it everyday! In Antarctica we were fed on the boat, but honestly I prefer to be self supported. I like the idea of living very minimalistically for the week and having everything you need just on your back, it simplifies everything.

Did you make any significant adjustments to your training or gear after completing the initial races?

After the first one, I struggled a lot with my achilles and feet. I had to incorporate different exercises and recovery measures into my daily routine to ensure I was more prepared for the remaining races. I also battled pretty badly with plantar fasciitis. Between races, I spent a lot of time swimming, boxing and on the exercise bike to give my foot a break. 

Gear-wise, I made many adjustments. My first sleeping bag was 800 grams which seems light…but think again! I swapped it out for a 400 gram ultra lightweight one and felt the difference. I honed in on all my gear and by race three my backpack was 5 kgs less than race one. I was stoked and it made running a lot easier. 

You switched from running on hot sand dunes to cruising past penguins. What was it like racing in such diverse desert conditions?

There was honestly no way for me to try and prepare for the cold weather in Antarctica. Brisbane was getting up to 40 degrees before I headed to the snow. I put a lot of hours into training, and set extremely mentally and physically tough workouts to simulate being in a situation where I would want to quit. I completed a marathon on an assault bike, an hour of burpees (815), a half marathon on a rower, soft sand running and other insane sessions which really tested me. 

Namibia was by far the toughest as I didn’t know what I was in for. It was my first multi-stage ultra marathon so I was a real rookie in almost every aspect of the race. I went all out in the first few days and even ran up all the hills (wasting a lot of energy). Fifty kilometres into day four (the long day) I hit a massive wall and had my slowest and worst day of the whole year. It took me 18 hours to do 80 km and I learnt a very hard lesson. 

The Antarctic scenery was surreal, a picture perfect place. However the course was mind numbingly repetitive at times due to the format of the race. Some days were just 1.2 km loops over and over for up to 12 hours. It was tough.

A real highlight was the Atacama Desert in Chile. On day four I had run 45 km through mud flats, salt flats and torturous terrain before arriving at a huge laguna. I stripped off and leaped about five meters into the water. I was still competing so I had to quickly scramble out via the rocks and mud, slip my shoes and clothes back on and run at least another five kilometres back to camp. I was on cloud nine. 

Photo by: Thiago Diz

Photo by: Thiago Diz

Now that the deserts are done, you have set your sights on completing seven continents. What challenges are you preparing for?

The toughest race will be New Zealand because it’s an extra 83 kms on top. For me, I think a 250 km race is a big effort, so 323 kms seems intimidating. I have a strong mindset after completing the deserts last year, so think I have set myself up quite well mentally. 

You have been open about your experience with depression. Is there anything that has helped you along the way?

Two years ago things hit rock bottom for me. I was pulled from my scooter in Bali on the way to dinner to meet some friends and I was lucky to come out of it alive. I spent some time in a Balinese hospital before being fit enough to fly back home where I recovered further.

What has helped is being easier on myself, not setting the bar too high and knowing my values. I know that I can react, particularly when a spanner is thrown into the works, and that bad food and alcohol (among other things) negatively affect my mental health. Being aware of this, and acknowledging it, has been half the battle. 

Like anyone, I slip up but I don’t beat myself up about it like I once used to. I just pick up the pieces and try to learn from it. I figure out what set me off and try to avoid it happening next time.

Do you have to give up anything to do what you do?

I don’t really look at it as ‘giving up anything’ because the things that I no longer do are things that were not good for me. I don’t drink or party as much, but for me this has made my life so much better. 

Running takes you to some pretty spectacular places. What does being in nature mean to you? 

In society today many people haven’t really experienced what it is like without social media, television, a car, music and all the little things we are addicted too. Having the chance to experience life without all these ‘distractions’ is very eye opening. I try my best to implement boundaries with such things in my life back home, but sometimes I still get caught up in it all. Being in nature makes my mind feel at ease and I am able to enjoy each and every moment.

Photo by: Brett Hemmings

Photo by: Brett Hemmings

You have worked for years as a personal trainer. What advice do you have for people thinking about an ultra marathon or who just want to get more active?

If you are struggling with your mental health you don’t need to go to this extreme to get better. Find something you are passionate about and incorporate it into your daily life. Personally, I like doing activities first thing in the morning, so I start the day with something I enjoy. Try this and you will find it may put you in the right mindset to fuel yourself for the day, paired with the right diet and nutrition. Exercise is something I enjoy, however don’t run if you don’t find joy in it. 

If you could pursue any other sport what would it be?

I would love to take up more competitive surfing. If I grew up by the beach I believe I would’ve been really into it. 

What is the best bit of advice you have ever been given?

Two things I learned this year: 

There is enough room in the world for everyone to be succeeding and we don’t need to be competing but instead encouraging each other to be smashing goals  

Not to place my self worth on the validation of others.

What three words would you use to describe yourself?

Ambitious. I like to accomplish things that most people think aren’t possible. If anyone says something cannot be done, I like to find a way to make it happen. 

Driven. When I make a plan in my mind, I will do everything I can to achieve it. 

Larrikin. I am a bit of a joker who can have fun and a good time. Life is inevitably short so I like to laugh as much as I can.

TPL Interview: Athlete, Jacqui Bell

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