*This is the first of an occasional series of conversations with members of the Richmond Harriers running cohort.
The place and time we give to running changes with our life situations. Here, Jess shares her trajectory as a runner and athlete.
Hello, Jess! Nice to meet you. So, what is it that got you into running?
It was a bit of a slow process I guess. I wasn’t always a runner. I was not an active kid, but I come from a sporting family. My sisters were swimmers, and my brother played football. But, I’d spend all my time on the computer playing Diablo and eating cookies instead.
My Mum signed me up for a daily swimming camp in 1999 before I started my first year of high school and I became really fit.
Wow, just like that?
I’d always been curious about running, so I signed up for the Cross Country team at my school in Perth. We started running twice a week and I loved it more than anything. The feeling I had while running was the greatest. I was also faster than everyone on the team which was a real surprise.
Wow – sounds so easy!
I started racing after winning our inter-school championships and was beyond thrilled when I was selected to represent WA in the Australian Junior Cross Country Championships 2000. Unfortunately, I had a knee injury at the time of the event, ran poorly and finished 41st. I wasn’t happy about it, but the experience and my love for running surpassed the disappointment.
I guess that must have been disappointing. How did it change for you as a young athlete?
I reduced the amount of running I was doing due to injuries and stepped up my swimming again. The Sydney Olympics were on TV around that time and I saw my very first triathlon. I was amazed that the athletes could compete across three different sports and it seemed like a new challenge that I could potentially take on.
I raced in my first triathlon event and had never felt so defeated by anything in my life. It exhausted me more than anything I had previously done. Yet, just like with my earlier experiences with running, it gave me a great feeling.
Sounds like you’re a very focused and determined person.
I guess so. I started to compete in a lot of triathlons. While I would dominate the field with my swimming and running legs, my cycling was always a bit inconsistent. I decided to join a local triathlon club and worked hard to improve my cycling. At this point I was winning majority of the local races, the State Championships, and represented WA at the 2001, 2002 and 2003 All Schools National Triathlon Championships (I placed 6th in the Intermediate category and won the School Sport WA trophy for best overall performance).
As my cycling had improved a lot, I decided to enter the WA State Road Cycling Championships. I was pretty shocked to win those events and was then selected to represent WA in the Australian National Cycling Championships. I focused my efforts towards the Individual Road Time Trial, my new specialty race. The reception I received when I crossed the finish line was unreal. I was now the U/17 ITT Australian National Cycling Champion.
I guess winning such an event is a different kind of buzz from the ‘runners’ high’. That kind of feeling, based on months and years of training must have its own special thrill.
At this point I stopped a lot of my swimming and running training to focus on cycling. I trained with some extremely talented people at Midland Cycling Club and the WAIS, won multiple cycling state championship races on both the velodrome and the road and represented Australia at the Oceania Games and the Youth Olympics. My ultimate goal, however, was to ride the Open Women Individual Road Time Trial at the 2006 Commonwealth Games, followed by the Olympics in 2008.
But, some things can’t be controlled and 2004 and 2005 were disappointing years for me. I was struck with glandular fever and wasn’t able to leave my bed for months. I had also gained about 20kgs, which was a nightmare – not only for my performance as an athlete, but also for my self-esteem. This pattern was something I couldn’t understand or accept at the time. It was quite depressing as you can imagine.
Totally. It seems that one of the risks of being a high performing athlete is being susceptible to injury which leads to other difficulties – perhaps depression. It must have been tough when you were so clear about the goals which were clearly achievable.
As I started to get back into the rhythm of regular training again, I found my energy levels weren’t what they used it be. I was constantly tired, so I was tested for chronic fatigue. The results were unclear, but it may have been something that lingered from glandular fever.
I kept training and could still perform well, but I never felt as good as I used to. Regardless, I never gave up on my goal of representing Australia at the Commonwealth Games for the ITT.
In 2005, I flew to NSW for the first Commonwealth Games Individual Time Trial selection race. My splits during the race were on fire, but I punctured towards the end of the race. This was devastating, but not all hope was gone, there was still another selection race I could compete in.
I kept training and things were starting to look up, until I was involved in a bad crash and had my face smash into the road at 40km/h – breaking my nose (requiring surgery) and fracturing my arm in 3 places. I had to give up on the selection race.
At this point I became quite depressed and started questioning a lot of things. I thought about the amount of sacrifices that elite athletes have to make to be the champion of their sport. I wondered if it was really worth it. This was the point I stopped competing and decided to focus on my studies and career instead.
Had you given much thought to your career post-triathlons?
No, not at all. My parents had often asked me, ‘what are you going to do if being an athlete doesn’t work out?’ I had just said, ‘I’ll drive a truck or whatever.’ Needless to say they weren’t thrilled with my response, but, they supported my dedication in being an athlete. They just wanted me to be aware that being an athlete is a tough and precarious job.
So, what came next?
After recovering from my injuries, I found myself yearning to cycle again, but not to compete. I did a few rides with some casual groups, but I didn’t really enjoy it. I loved Cross Country and Triathlon far more than cycling, so how did I become so absorbed by the sport? What did I actually love about it?
Then it hit me, the best times I had weren’t winning competitions… it was the friendships that I’d formed with the other cyclists and the adventures we’d have together. We were all so different, but we had a shared passion. We were a family and I’ll cherish those memories forever.
Fantastic. Sounds great.
Cycling isn’t the same for me without those people. If you’re not training and competing at the same level, it’s easy to fall behind and became distant. They continued that elite journey without me (and have achieved the most incredible things), and I chose to start a different chapter of my life.
It was really tough for me at the time, especially when I’d see my friends travelling around the world together while achieving the most amazing things. I’d be cheering for them every step of the way, but at the same time, that would bring back the realisation that I wasn’t there with them which would bring me down pretty hard. I think I took it all pretty well though and I am so incredibly proud of them all.
So, how did you make it to the Richmond Harriers?
Thirteen years later, I’ve landed my dream job, moved interstate and bought an apartment. In an attempt to obtain some kind of work/life balance, I started looking at a few different clubs to potentially join. I then noticed that the Richmond Harriers club was just down the road from me. I was far from fit, but the thought of running with other people really excited me, so I figured I’d head down and give it a crack. I was instantly hooked.
Everyone at the club was really lovely and welcoming on my first run. The second run I did was with a much larger group and I struggled to keep up. Kevin slowed down so that he could run with me and I apologised for being slow. He said that with the Harriers “no runner is left behind”. That phrase really stuck with me and speaks a lot about the comradery of the club.
How goes it so far?
I’ve been running with the Richmond Harriers for fourteen months now and I’m still loving every moment of it. I’ve even decided to sign up for the Athletics Victoria XCR season this year!
I don’t plan on being an elite level competitior, but I love being able to share my passion for running with so many amazing people. I still have a competitive streak in me – but it’s more about competing against myself than others as the need to win doesn’t hold as much importance to me.
I also have a personal goal, which is to be able to run 5km in 20mins again – just to PB high-five myself from the past. 😉
*Thank you to Jess for being so candid in sharing her story. Any tips about who I should speak with next, please drop me a line.