© Colin Clarke
In 2017, Jacqui Bell hit rock bottom after enduring a downward spiral that included breaking multiple bones and becoming addicted to prescription pain killers. Struggling to find a reason to get out of bed, she signed up for a crazy challenge that would change the direction of her life – to complete four multi-day ultramarathons across the world’s most inhospitable deserts, from the Namibian Desert to Antarctica, the Atacama Desert and the Gobi Desert.
With just eight months to train, Jacqui threw herself into the world of ultrarunning and at the age of 23, became the youngest woman to finish Racing the Planet’s Four Deserts Grand Slam. Since then, Jacqui, who is an Ultra X pro athlete, has become the youngest person in the world to run an ultramarathon on all seven continents. I caught up with her via email to find out more about how it all came about.
Firstly, have you been safe and well during the pandemic?
I am well and very safe, thanks. Brisbane has been probably one of the best places to be during COVID as the whole state of Queensland here in Australia got it under wraps quite quickly. I have been spending lots of time outdoors on trails, riding, surfing, spending time with family and, as restrictions ease, with friends as well. The biggest impact COVID has had on me has been the instant cancellation of all events and up-coming travel which meant all my goals were put on hold. This tested my motivation to train for sure – I’m sure most people who are goal-orientated felt this!
Rewinding a lot, can you share a bit about your health battles in 2017 prior to you entering Racing the Planet’s Four Deserts Grand Slam?
I had a bad run (excuse the pun). In short, I had my tonsils removed, broke five bones consecutively playing sports, became addicted to prescription pain killers and then pretty much became hooked on everything that wasn’t good for me – the simplest being food. I was very unhappy and numbing how I felt with anything I could.
What was the catalyst that led you to where you are now?
I realised one day that I had to stop the pity party and had to make a change. I wasn’t enjoying my life, I was hating it, and each day was a struggle to get out of bed and to find any joy in anything. I didn’t just click my fingers and have the answer, and I’m still to this day working on it, but by just starting, by choosing a running event, by training one session at a time, slowly changing my eating habits, sleeping, and with each little daily choice I made, I began to see structure come back into my life and after a while, I had created healthier habits for myself.
These little things became bigger things and the small wins of completing a run or a gym session gave me that drive back and I began to thrive again, all through running… then came the races and well, they were like life heightened: you get to choose to stick out the shit in the races or quit and give up when the going gets tough at 170km in. For me, if I was to quit, that would have symbolised quitting at life, so it was never an option for me.
At the time, you were only running 30km a week and had just 8 months to prepare. How did you change your training in preparation for 250km of multi-stage racing?
I started working with a running coach and pretty much overhauled everything from my nutrition to recovery, gym, sleep and social life. Over the duration of six months, my running coach had me go from 30km run weeks to 150km run weeks. It was kind of addictive to see my fitness and running improve so much!
What was your first Grand Slam race in Namibia like?
Namibia was really tough! I can still to this day, eight multi-stage races later, say it was the hardest of them all. I think the main takeaway from that long day in Namibia was self-talk. We are with ourselves 24 hours a day, 7 days a week – heck, our whole lives – and what we say to ourselves can make such a difference in everything we do. Is it positive or negative self-talk? For me, on that long day, I got myself into a negative loop and found it almost impossible to get out of. Namibia was really, really hard, [but] quitting wasn’t an option. That was the only thing that got me through.
Since then you’ve run multiple desert ultras. What does your heat preparation involve?
I’m from sunny Brisbane in QLD, Australia so we get some very warm summers. Prior to race one, I spent two days at Moreton Island, just an hour away from Brisbane, in the sand dunes for back-to-back days of about 40km each to replicate as closely as I could what a race would be like. I also love to use the infrared sauna and sit in there for 45-60 minutes at 70 degrees about twice a week to prepare for the discomfort of the heat.
Mentally, how have you built up resilience over the years? You’ve been known to test your mental strength with an hour of burpees or a marathon on an Assault Bike…
As you mentioned above, I’ve done some really tough physical challenges in training for no reason other than to get used to that feeling of wanting to give in and learn to fight through the voice saying you can’t go any further. I don’t think anything really can replicate that feeling of thinking you can’t go on any further until you are out in the desert and the only real way to finish the day is to keep pushing ahead. I always remind myself that the faster I run, the faster I get into camp.
Do you use mental strategies when it gets tough during races?
I try to think about things that make me happy, and I focus on what feels good in my body rather than what is hurting. I also force myself to smile and it makes things a tad more enjoyable.
Which has been the most challenging race you’ve run so far?
Namibia, purely because it was my first ever one and I had no idea what I was in for – my gear wasn’t as light as it should have been, I didn’t know what food I would really feel like eating or how to fuel myself out there, and my body had never done anything like run 250km across a desert before. I was also a very inexperienced camper… so there were many elements that were new to me. Just like the first time you ever do push-ups, you can’t move your arms, well, this first time doing a race was tough. I was also emotionally exhausted by day five after feeling such heightened emotions. I guess out there everything just comes up for you.
What does a typical week of training look like for you?
You will usually find me doing 1-2 sessions a day with a variety of running – mainly trails and grass. I bike, swim, I enjoy strength training twice a week, some hiking and mixing in my other sports. During COVID-19 isolation, it has been about staying interested and motivated, [and] with all races being put on hold I had a little more freedom. As racing creeps up on me again, I will knuckle down and start to really focus in on race goals.
I love training early mornings though and then again in the afternoon. I also love doing lots of recovery at a place in Brisbane called Recovery Science where you’ll find me using NormaTec boots, ice baths, and infrared saunas.
Do you aim to meet a particular weekly mileage or elevation goal in training?
I work with Matty Abel as my coach and my training really varies depending on what I’m working towards. We also take into consideration how my body feels, any injuries, travel, and everything [else]. At the moment, we’re in a building phase and getting me a strong base to then be able to increase the kilometres more and more.
I enjoy a mixture of trail runs, tempo runs, progressive runs and I’m also playing AFL (Australia Rules Football) at the moment which includes training 2-3 times a week for 1-2 hours which is more speed work and change of direction. So it’s a real mixture for me. I’m not the easiest person to coach due to loving a variety [of sports] and you will find me throwing in rogue 100km bike rides and five-hour hikes throughout the week which Matty then has to alter my program around. Haha, he’s great!
How do you fuel your single-stage ultras and does this differ from multi-day racing?
The fuel for these two different sorts of races is varied for sure, as with single-stage racing I don’t have to worry about the food being as lightweight and calorie-dense as in a multi-day race. For single-stage racing, I will have my True Protein Endurance Drink throughout the entirety of the day, CLIF Bars, CLIF Chews (as I don’t love gels), bananas and some salt and vinegar Pringles.
You’re an ambassador for Ultra X. Will you be racing in their 2021 World Championship?
I will be in Sri Lanka early 2021 for the 250km race and then will head to Slovenia for the World Championships on 5-13 June 2021 for sure.
What are your favourite items of kit for multi-day ultras?
My RaidLight pack is what holds everything in and I love it – I usually use the 24L pack for multi-day races. I also always have my Jaybird Vista Earphone as I love listening to music on the super-long days, it pumps me up. Another must-have is my gaiters to keep sand and small rocks out of my shoes.
I really prioritise my recovery shakes from True Protein and I also use their Endura whilst running which keeps me well fuelled if I’m struggling to eat. And a really good sunscreen – I use Kinesys.
Are you sponsored by anyone right now?
I have the support of some amazing companies and brands that have believed in me and my running goals since day one. Jaybird, Brooks, True Protein, Flight Centre, Lululemon are some of the ones that have backed me from the get-go!
For more information about Ultra X visit www.ultra-x.co.