At 6am on the 12th of December 2021, the sound of 7000 foot steps echoed throughout the streets of Melbourne on their way to the start line of the Melbourne Marathon! After nearly 2 years of cancellations and postponements, there was a unique mixture of both relief and excitement among the thousands of runners and supporters assembled just outside the MCG. However, there was little time for complacency, and the usual rush of adrenaline made an oddly welcome return as the starter began to count down from ten, and the sound of beeping wrist watches silenced the nervous small talk. Among the masses on the start line that day, Jen Robertson stood poised as a picture of health and fitness. As the gun fired, the initial strides of her 42.2km journey shared equal promise. 3 hours and 7 seconds later, Jen crossed the finish line 7 minutes and 30 seconds faster than any other female in her age category had ever done so before; a rare result in Australia’s largest Marathon! Undoubtedly, envious onlookers would now pass comment on natural talent or ability. However, as I sat down with Jen to hear her reflect on this incredible feat, I am left a little frustrated by the assumptions so easily made that dismiss these record results as primarily attributed to fortune. Instead, this is a story of resilience, commitment, and work ethic, and I am left wondering if it is perhaps these attributes, rather than talent, that are most ‘rare’.
In April of 2021, things were going seemingly well for Jen, and so she decided to run the Leconfield Wines Marathon in McLaren Vale. Finishing in a time of 3 hours and 6 minutes, Jen was 2nd female in that race, in a time that would have broken the Melbourne Marathon age category record by just 1 minute. On this day, the general consensus would have been that the Melbourne record was just on borrowed time. However, the beauty of marathon running is that there are no guarantees, and this concept certainly pushed Jen to near breaking point over the coming months. Locked in a battle with iron deficiency, and forced to ride the lows of this reality in her daily life, Jen was forced to tackle each daily run with a brave face that fought the underlying uncertainty of whether her body would cooperate on that day, or betray her. After an infusion in August, Jen was rewarded for her resilience during that period preceeding treatment. At the state championships over 10,000m, she ran a personal best and secured an Age group victory; state champion! Now back in sync with her group at RunAsOne, running was once again a highlight of each day for Jen. However, it wasn’t long before that dreaded feeling of slipping off of the back of her RunAsOne training partners had once again returned in an untimely fashion. Now just 4 weeks out from Melbourne, Jen was faced with the harsh reality that the race day that she deserved to have was unlikely to become a reality for her. Never one to shy away from a challenge, Jen decided she would just focus on what she can control. Determined to stick to the plan, Jen lined up at the Greenbelt Challenge for a 30km race. A whopping 15 seconds per kilometer slower than her goal pace in Melbourne, and with her muscles screaming in overwhelming debt to her lungs, Jen crawled across the finish line at West Beach completely demoralized by the experience, and with her confidence now at an all time low. Spending the next week tripping over herself at home, barely able to raise an effort off of the couch, Jen somehow kept the Melbourne Marathon dream alive. With the clock ticking, she was lucky enough to be afforded another infusion with 27 days to spare. Accepting the slower paces and higher efforts, Jen approached the next 3 weeks with blind optimism, holding faith in her body completely transforming from its current state. Clinging to her unwavering positivity, and with some helpful words from her coach Riley, Jen waited patiently with the true belief that the work she had done this year would serve her well in Melbourne.
“I had such limited expectations. I just dreamed of feeling strong during the run. I love that feeling of being able to push! I dreamed of that.” Race day had finally arrived, and by now Jen had afforded herself the hope of a small PB. However, she is forced to concede that her running right up until that weekend challenged this hope. Despite this, her mental state was measured on that start line; still far from the aforementioned picture of health and fitness presented to those around her. At the 4km mark, her husband Geoff stood waiting for her with an early drink. With unconditional support and encouragement, Geoff was set to enjoy his own challenge of getting himself to each drink spot in order for Jen’s journey to be appropriately fuelled! At 10km, Jen’s efforts to enjoy the day were still marred by the intrusive thoughts that had her questioning when her body would once again let her down. Nearing half way, her body had already experienced some “ebbs and flows”, but the sight of some familiar faces lifted her spirits, as Riley came passed on the other side of the road, shortly followed by Jacob, Bryn, and Dylan. For each, Jen was able to raise a word of encouragement which in turn instilled some confidence in her that she was doing fine. Remarkably, the half way point was the first of her two Personal Best runs on the day, and it was achieving this milestone that really lifted her confidence to push; just as she had dreamt of doing! Remaining measured in her effort, and not letting the excitement prevent her from executing her race plan, Jen continued to focus on simply staying strong. At 39km, the thought of running under 3 hours became a possibility. This is a result reserved for the top 5% of all marathoner runners worldwide! As the finish line approached, Jen knew that the 3 hour barrier was going to beat her, but that didn’t challenge her elation at crossing the line just 7 seconds later. In the opening lines of this paragraph, I shared part of a quote from my conversation with Jen that stood out to me. She finished her reflections of dreaming about being able to push during the race, with gratitude to have been able to do just that. “I felt so lucky to have experienced it. I felt completely elated to have had that.” Ever the modest competitor, it is no surprise that the word luck has crept in to her personal recount of this record breaking run. However, I think we can all agree that any luck afforded to Jen on that day was a result of her resilience in the face of adversity, and commitment to giving herself every chance to experience fortune on the day for which she had so long prepared.
At the conclusion of our conversation, I asked Jen for some significant thoughts she had during the lead in to this race, and in the initial moments straight after. Unsurprisingly, she put a lot of effort in to considering this question in order to offer some potential guidance for others experiencing similar situations in the future. Jen has promised herself to hold more faith in ALL of her training in the lead up to an event, rather than focus on what she hasn’t been able to achieve. While it is nice to finish a program with a seamless execution, she is optimistic that this is not a necessity. Jen also makes mention of the importance of rest and recovery. She is forced to admit she struggles most with this advice! Her tendency to train too hard is perhaps both her strength, and her undoing. Jen’s advice is to accept this as a challenge, as opposed to a weakness. Perhaps in that frame of mind, the over trainer may find peace in achieving the often difficult task of taking a step back. Overall, Jen emphasizes that if the lead in to a marathon was only about the training, then most people would be successful. It is the other challenges which are bound to present themselves along the way that are the real tests of discipline and resilience, and these deserve more focus and attention. With these lessons learned, we can be confident that not much will stand in the way of Jen achieving her next goals! Speaking of which, she already has her eyes set firmly on next year’s age record at Melbourne, as well as the hope that she can travel overseas to some faster courses in order to lower that PB even further in 2022! With some shorter track race goals mixed in there as well, Jen is quick to come back to her main goal of just being able to train consistently, and manage her health as carefully as possible. We look forward to seeing Jen smash all of her goals in 2022 and beyond!