Jenni in the NDW50 in May 2015. Photo: Stuart March c/o Jenni.
Jenni Ball is a new name in British ultrarunning, but a name I have a feeling will be remembered. After all, Jenni has only run two ultras and has just won her second one having placed fourth in the first. Not only did she recently win the tough and competitive North Downs Way 100, but it was her very first 100 miler.
I got to know Jenni earlier this year, like most of my running friends, on Facebook initially. She was excited about the North Downs Way 50 clearly, but I don’t think she had any idea of what she was capable of. After coming fourth in May, she quickly signed up to the 100 mile version in August and the rest is history.
There is no shortage of inspiring women within ultrarunning these days, but rarely does someone ‘get it’ so quickly. In my first ultra I finished an absolute mess, but Jenni said she could have carried on and felt she ran too cautiously, if anything.
I think it Jenni is an excellent example to women (and men) to jump in and with the right mental attitude and physical foundation, you can change the game.
You almost didn’t run the NDW100 as had some niggles a few weeks before the race. I bet you are glad you started?!
Yes! But it really could have gone either way. I had tendinitis and was so focused on this I wasn’t able to mentally prepare like I usually do. I couldn’t see past the injury. For 4 weeks I was advised not to train my lower body in any way to allow the the tendon to ‘knit’ back together.
Every morning I would wake up 100% decided that I wouldn’t run and then I’d go to bed 100% convinced I would, it was a really draining experience and not what I wanted for my first 100. The rest paid off though and I now take rest & recovery much more seriously.
What made you want to run the NDW50 in May in the first place?
I wanted a challenge that would provoke a bit of fear and as a result make me train hard. I’ve always preferred to run on hilly trail and I love being in nature. I also grew up not far from Newlands Corner so there was a sense of familiarity. On a practical level, sections of the course were close enough for me to do regular long runs. Knowing a course well can take the magic out of it a bit, but on race day it did eliminate any surprises.
Were you surprised at how well you did back then in your first race?
The NDW50 was my favourite running experience to date, that race was my baby! I smile every time I think of that day. I put my heart and soul into it but at no point did I think I could have placed highly. I just wanted to complete and finish with nothing left in me. I hadn’t and still haven’t developed the racing mentality or skill, but this year I have learnt a lot about my running style which I am going to develop.
What made you want to then throw yourself into a race double the distance just a few months later?
If I’m honest it really came down to two things, intrigue to know what the next 50 would feel like and complete impatience to do a 100 miler. In my mind I thought if I can run the first half an hour or so slower than I did the NDW50 then theoretically the next 50 should be ok. I did think this was a rather simple plan for such a huge challenge but actually this is pretty much how it worked out.
Sometimes simplifying things is the best way, there’s so much information on how we should run and train etc but in the midst of all that you can lose yourself and what feels right for you. Why make things complicated?
Have you always been a runner of shorter distances or did the journey start recently?
I used to represent my school, Woking Town and Surrey County for cross country until I was about 14-15. I was a bit of a wild child in my youth and being a good runner for my school was probably the only thing that prevented me from getting myself expelled, so I ran a lot! Unfortunately partying had become more important in my later teens, then going on to start a family and training to be a nurse. As a result running went out the window, such a shame now I look back.
Luckily I got back into it in 2012 after a friend challenged me to a half marathon. I then joined my local running club the Runnymede Runners and since then I’ve completed several 10k’s, half and full marathons most of which have been on trail.
Can you remember how you first discovered ultramarathons?
If you never want to run an ultra, never go for a run with an ultra runner! They’ll plant all sorts of ideas in your head, as did a good friend of mine Joe Gale (who is a talented and experienced ultra-runner). On early morning runs he would tell me stories about the UTMB, jungle marathon and hallucinating with fatigue. I remember thinking all that sounded like an amazing challenge but way out of my league. He’d say things like “anything is possible if you want it enough” and all that kind of inspiring stuff that gets you thinking. One day over a post run cup of tea he introduced me to the centurion running website and the rest is history. Although I doubted Joes words of wisdom at the time, I now totally agree, anyone can run an ultra if you want it enough.
Tell me about the NDW100, how did the day pan out for you?
I didn’t feel that nervous before the race because I found it hard to comprehend what I was taking on. I remember being at registration and feeling out of my depth, I was also excited at the idea of what lay ahead of me. Having a crew you can trust is very important to me and Claire Turton and Dan Milton had planned their involvement to perfection. This eased my nerves as I could just focus on running.
The first 16-20 miles were the hardest because I’m not an early bird. In training I hadn’t considered mimicking the early start time, so by 8am I was 2 hours in and my body clock was just waking up. My stomach started cramping up and I was struggling to eat. Fortunately nature called for a brief stop in the woods, following this I was able to find a comfortable pace.
Around mile 40 of the NDW100. Photo: Stuart March c/o Jenni.
I had mixed emotions coming into Knockholt. I had fantastic memories of this being the finish for the NDW50. I felt excitement that I was about to go into the unknown of 50+ miles and just a little bit of apprehension! However, I would not allow myself to think ‘this is only half way’. I had told myself that for the first 50 miles I was just running to the start line, once I got to Knockholt, that’s when the race would really begin.
I found running according to how I felt at the time and not my mileage made it more adventurous. Counting down 102.7 miles wouldn’t have been enjoyable!
About 2 miles before the next CP (mile 60) I started feeling really euphoric, I’ve never experienced anything quite like it. I just felt invincible; I was on the greatest adventure and just totally in love with the experience. People would pay good money for a high like that!
From that point on I just felt stronger and stronger which I really didn’t expect at 60 miles in. Sadly the euphoria didn’t last, but you get highs and lows and often for no apparent reason, you just have to hope that the lows don’t last and just enjoy the highs.
Somewhere between Holly Hill and Bluebell Hill a sharp pain in my right Achilles caused me to trip- not somewhere I had previously experienced any injury. I recall having to walk sideways up a hill which worried me as I still had 30+ miles to go, I used some self massage techniques & tried to overlook it. I don’t remember when the pain subsided but after Bluebell Hill I don’t remember it being a problem.
Jenni with Richard ‘Santa’ Goulder at Holly Hill. Photo: Stuart March c/o Jenni.
In each of my drop bags my daughter left me a note. At Detling it read ‘Go Mum – not long now- you can do it’, a crumpled up little note like that was just what I needed before entering the dreaded ‘deadly Detling’ section. I had planned to sit down and eat at this CP but I was almost frightened to stay there, it was warm and inviting, it would have been so easy to stay there. As soon as I sat down I realised it was dangerous, so I abruptly announced to my pacer that we were leaving! Not long after, the heavy rain started which made it difficult to see with the head torch and some of the paths were overgrown and narrow so my legs and coat were getting ripped.
This was beginning to frustrate me; I decided to channel this by showing nature it wasn’t going to beat me. However, any of my fellow runners that night will tell you, nature became a formidable opponent at that point! I started passing more runners, some looked pretty fed up due to the conditions but this just made me feel even stronger.
Leaving Detling I felt a bit wobbly. I was reassured by my crew that Detling was a particularly difficult section and this far in it was to be expected, we had a team ‘high ‘5 and continued on.
I had grazed on foods like cheese, baby food and tomatoes the whole way round, it was hot in the day so I soaked my buff in water and kept it round my neck, I also had a bottle of apple juice on me for when I needed something sweet as I avoided gels.
I genuinely did not think I could win this race and this was not my intention when I entered. Even getting sub 24 feels huge. I keep having to check the trophy is on my windowsill as it still feels like a dream.
At what point did you realise you were going to win?
When I reached Lenham CP (mile 92) I was informed that the leading lady was 10 minutes ahead but was looking strong. I had already picked up the pace from Detling and I felt pretty good at this point. Not long after the CP my pacer pointed at a runner in front of us walking up a hill. She whispered “that’s First Lady what do you want to do?”. While I hadn’t even dreamed of a podium position or being faced with this scenario, I knew I had enough strength in the legs & suddenly found my competitive edge – I wanted it! I ran up the hill past her trying to look as strong as possible.
Terror then immediately set in, I could not believe I was in first place, every minute I’d turn to my pacer and shout “where is she, can you see her?” I was convinced she was right behind me the whole way. When we reached the final check point I couldn’t get out quick enough. I gunned it through the slippery mud and the last few fields, checking behind me every now and again. It was a total buzz, my adrenaline levels must have been through the roof! It was not until I came into Wye by the train crossing, literally yards to the end that I really knew I had won.
Can you describe the feeling crossing the line?
I wish I could tell you I broke into tears or that I was on a massive high but I don’t think I felt anything if I’m honest. Everything was very surreal. I had gone so deep into my own mind that for the last section of the race, the only thought process I had was ‘get to the finish’. I strongly believe that there is no place for negotiation with the urge to stop when you’re tired. I just kept saying over and over “get to the finish”. It was almost as though my mind and body were separate entities so it took some time after for things to sink in.
Jenni collects the winner’s trophy from James Adams. Photo: Stuart March c/o Jenni.
How has your recovery been?
About 5 minutes after crossing the finish line I was a mess. I cramped up, my vital signs and glucose levels were low and I was freezing cold. The St johns ambulance crew got me to lay down and encouraged food and fluids, they were amazing. I won’t go into much more detail about what followed but let’s just say the rest wasn’t pretty and I have sworn my crew to secrecy.
For a couple of days I could barely weight bare on my feet. Luckily my daughter was like a little Florence Nightingale she helped me mobilise, and even made me cups of tea for the first two days – she’s my hero! (I’m still waiting to find out what she wants or what’s broken!)
I was surprised by how painful my recovery was for the first 2 weeks but I’ve been for a couple of gentle runs recently which have gone well albeit some stiffness.
Do you have a dream race?
A race that really pushes me to my limits both physically and mentally. It would need to be hilly or mountainous so I guess something like the UTMB.
You are a busy mum with a full time job. How did you get time to train and train well?
I think you just have to be creative with your time and accept that sleep is going to be the first sacrifice (that comes with parenting anyway!) I try to minimise time away by running home from work a couple of times a week. Instead of walking the dog I run the dog, (it may sound odd but I have learnt a lot about running from observing my dog. She’s relentless and just gets on with it, never questions how far she’s being pushed).
I also go to the gym early in the morning or when the children are at clubs. Compromise is vital, family come first and without them all of my achievements mean nothing. I believe in quality over quantity when training is concerned but mainly because I have to. Every session I do, I have to make it count, it must have a purpose.
What is your next race likely to be, do you know yet?
For the rest of 2014 I want to concentrate on strength and speed so I won’t be doing any long distance races, I think my body needs the rest. I have signed up to the SDW50 in 2015 where I aim to beat my NDW50 time.