Jacqui Bell is the definition of resilience, determination and hard work. From all-time low to riding high on a lifetime of experience gained in just 16 months, the 24-year-old athlete is the youngest person in the world to complete ultra-marathons on all seven continents. Jacqui’s final race in the Grand Canyon G2G Ultra in October saw her leave with a silver medal around her neck after successfully running over 273km in one week.
The first time I met Jacqui, her infectious energy and passion for being her very best was inspiring. The fact that this young woman centres on being a role model for others says a lot about her ability to turn an extreme challenge into positive action for change.
Even when she is discussing hardship, Jacqui has a smile on her face. But this smiley personality didn’t come without serious life evaluation. When I asked Jacqui how she became involved in ultra-marathon running, she explained that she was initially in a dark place, abusing prescription drugs due to severe depression. She knew depression would consume her if she didn’t channel her energy on other things, the things that she loves most: sport, fitness and running. For Jacqui, being in tune with her body and knowing when to push, when to pace herself and most importantly how to stay mentally steady throughout her races has allowed her to block out the negatives in life and focus on becoming fitter, faster and healthier.
Congratulations Jacqui on your amazing conquest to become the youngest person in the world to complete ultra-marathons on all seven continents! How did you feel near the end of the G2G Ultra race in the Grand Canyon?
The Grand Canyon was unlike any other race I had done and was by far the hardest race I had completed. I ran the first two races with severe plantar fasciitis and then the next three with a ruptured fascia of my right foot, my last race however I was running 80% of it in soft sand and the temperatures were extreme, so I have been thrown lots of different curve balls. It was so hot in The Grand Canyon! I had blisters from my pack; I got sunburnt; I received a time penalty on day six for being 200 grams underweight in food. So yeah not carrying enough mandatory food was a problem. I tried not to be too emotional, especially as my two best friends surprised me and cheered me over the finishing line. I think I have come a long way from my first race in April 2018 in Namibia, where I honestly thought I was going to die in the desert.
I guess race one was my real learning curve, and I was wasting my energy crying and ‘sooking’; not learning at all. Now that I look back on that race, I know how to push through, and I know the feeling of being momentarily beaten will pass. By the final race, I was tracking pretty well, and I got to cross that finish line with eight other racers who I had the chance to bond with. I ran with Ann Verhaeghe from Belgium in Antarctica, and the two of us crossed the finish line together in Utah. I was so happy and to finish as the second female is an achievement.
How do you prepare for such a race?
Starting in this sport, I had only eight months to prepare, which included training and conditioning as well as saving up for registration. The more and more research I did, the more it became apparent; this sport was serious work and a lot bigger than I had anticipated. You race through so many different climates, which was the first obstacle, and then I discovered upon signing up for ‘Racing the Planet’ – a four-desert marathon – that I was the youngest female to enter such a sport! From that point on, I was determined.
The one question I ask people when they say to me that they want to get into running is how many times a week do you run? You cannot get better at running if you don’t run at least three times a week. For me, I’d love to be running 200km per week, but my body doesn’t agree with this, so I work around it. I am still searching for that happy medium between running, staying injury free and cross-training. I have learnt a lot from running coaches throughout the course of my races. They have helped me design exercise programs and how to complement that with proper nutrition. You have to find what your body is comfortable with and keep pushing just a little bit further to get better.
An after-race routine is just as important as preparation training. You will find after running any amount of time at full force that your lower back will take the brunt the most. It is important to loosen and stretch those muscles. My go-to stretch would be pigeon pose. It opens the hip flexors that take the harsh beating of the run through the legs. Any stretch for the glutes is good, and I really like using the True Double Ball and True Lacrosse Ball to roll over seriously sore muscles. I have taken them on all my races, and so many of the runners have borrowed them. Everyone says they relieve the muscle stress and tension. You should see me on the ground after a race; I am there pushing and rolling my body over these blue things!
What does your diet consist of during the race?
I know a lot of other runners like to carb-load; however, this is not the case for me. I find myself really full, and I get a sore tummy. I like to keep it basic and reward myself after the race.
Before the race, the runner’s packs are weighed. The pack includes all the gear and food we must carry. For this reason, I need nutritious meals that don’t take long to prepare.
For breakfast, I have a couple of tablespoons of peanut butter, and for the protein content, I will have a True Protein WPI90 shake. Rich Chocolate and Salted Caramel are my favourites! At night, during the desert races, the meals have a high-calorie content like spaghetti bolognese, macaroni and cheese, and the standard two-minute noodles. Throughout the race, you lose a lot of electrolytes, and anything to refuel your body and get those levels back up again is important. I sip on True Protein Endurance blend, and it has the added benefits of three carbohydrates.
Why do you do what you do? Why run?
I have always pushed myself to reach a goal, and that has always been in the area of sports. I avidly played tennis when I was younger. I would practise and practise solely because I had a goal to do better constantly. I have always had a drive for performing at my best. When I hit a few pretty rough years, I pushed all my issues under the rug and tried my very best to distract myself from my mind because I was stuck in this place where I was so unhappy.
I decided ultramarathons would be my centre of focus and this began the overhaul of my mental health. From the beginning, I wanted to raise money for mental health charity, the White Cloud Foundation. The charity’s belief that a person needs to be healthy physically, emotionally and socially as well as mentally is a mantra I truly believe in and, thus, I wanted to help them spread this message. More and more people are asking how you are and are responding in a way which is comfortable, and it’s really good to see. There is taboo and stigma around mental health, which is slowly disappearing, and I like to see how open these conversations are becoming.
What’s next on your agenda?
I am continually looking forward, and the next step for me is to improve my running. There is always a chance to be better and train harder. That is what I am focused on doing right now. In saying that, my 2020 calendar is filling up quickly! I will be doing the 100-mile run at Brisbane Trail Ultra and the 100k at Blackall100 next year in Queensland, with more focus going into the 100-miler. I am heading to New Zealand for the Alps 2 Ocean 323km Ultra-marathon and then to Sri Lanka for a 250km Ultra-marathon.
It is not just my physical body that will be exercising next year. I am working tirelessly on my public speaking. Since completing the seven-desert race, I am keen to share my learning and experience. Being a voice to inspire is something I am passionate about. I am really enjoying this part of my journey and having people listen to me is pretty extraordinary. I like to keep my mind and body busy. The future as a young person in this sport will be interesting.
Follow Jacqui HERE