Jenna Challenor On PBs, Babies & Comrades Dreams
Jenna Challenor is a mother, a wife, a family woman with three daughters – and she still decided to dive head first into the world of competitive running at the highest level.
She placed second in her debut Two Oceans in 2017 (first SA woman), and ran the fourth-quickest marathon time for a South African woman in 2019, claiming a gold medal in her first Comrades in the same year.
We caught up with Jenna to find out when her running aspirations began, and how they fit in with her future as a powerful and inspirational woman.
I grew up with two older brothers, who were pretty sporty. Everything and anything they did, I did too.
I never wanted to be left out or left behind, so from a very young age I was very competitive, and tried to keep up with them. I was sport mad, and literally tried everything throughout my school career: swimming, running, judo, gymnastics, ballet, synchro (swimming), life-saving, hockey, netball… you name it, I tried it.
I loved sports, all sports, but I definitely wasn’t a ballet dancer [laughs]. I represented KZN for hockey, athletcis and cross-country, swam in the A swimming team at school.
I was very competitive at surf life-saving, and at the age of 16 I represented Durban Surf at World Champs in New Zealand. This is when I met my husband, Brett – we were in the same team. I think I would say it was at high school – Durban Girls’ College – that my running aspirations developed. I started cross-country when I was 12, and fell in love with running. I loved how it made me feel. I loved the freedom of it, and I loved being able to do well.
I never had the opportunity to have a running-specific coach; but I was very fit from all my sports and channelled that into reaching my goals I set myself…
I clearly remember sitting in a room getting ready for a party with a very good friend of mine, Kate Hector (now Woods), looking over at her bedroom cupboard and seeing all her goals boldly pinned to the door. I was in awe. Kate went on to realise those goals, representing South Africa at the Olympics for hockey, and various other achievements.
I wasn’t brave enough to write my goals down for anyone else to see; but I etched them in my heart, and I knew one day I would achieve them. I’m not scared of working hard. I’m very dedicated, driven and committed, when I put my mind to something. I knew I’d have a shot.
PBs and Babies
I was a young mum, and having three kids puts you out [of running] for a good period of time. I did run throughout all my pregnancies, but never raced after the first trimester, as I didn’t want to risk anything; and I always wore a heart-rate monitor.
“I feel like I’ve waited my whole life to step up to the ultras, because of having young kids. I didn’t want to do it while they were so little, and needed a hands-on mother. 2019 was the perfect time for me.”
After school I went on to study a B.Ed foundation phase degree. I took a bit of a break from running, and did the varsity-life thing – had fun, and kept running socially just to keep fit.
And that’s when I moved to the next level in training, racing and focus. I went on an Endurocad camp with Elana Meyer, and was lucky enough to be accepted into the programme. And that’s where I met my coach, Ernie Gruhn, who is still coaching me.
“My long-term goal is a podium finish in the Comrades marathon, one day – and on the right day, possibly even a win, with some luck.”
Injury With Purpose
All was well until I picked up a major injury in 2018, which forced me to stop running for six months and reassess everything. I changed a lot, and now I feel like a new athlete.
I ask for help now. I schedule in recovery, I focus on nutrition, and my sessions are so much more constructive. My injury was a blessing I can honestly say I’m so grateful for.
At the time I was also wondering if I was too old for this level of competitive racing, and if maybe it was time to retire. Well, my injury reignited a flame that is burning brighter than ever – it reminded me how much I absolutely love running, and what a huge part of my world it is. I’m definitely not ready to hang up my shoes now.
I’m loving the journey – especially the process, and the training.
I believe being a mother complements my goals. I have purpose – I run for my daughters, to teach them by example, by showing them how to dream big.
And how to be extremely committed and dedicated, and how to train and work hard to achieve these dreams. They see the highs and the lows, the obstacles I’ve had to overcome as well as the victories and incredible opportunities that have come with that.
I love that they are part of my journey; they inspire me not to give up. They are my biggest fans, along with my husband Brett, and I wouldn’t change my path now for anything.