© Hamish Frost
In January, Polar adventurer and endurance athlete, Jenny Davis, was 19 days into her gruelling mission to be the fastest solo and unsupported person to ski to the South Pole, when she developed peritonitis (infection of the inner lining of the stomach) and a bowl infection which required a medical evacuation, ending her expedition.
Thankfully, she recovered but that still meant coming to terms with the end of her project. The ultrarunner and mountaineer, who has finished a host of extreme ultramarathons (from the Arctic Ultra 250 and Iran Silk Road ultra to the Marathon des Sables and Cape Wrath Ultra) tells me about what she learned from the experience, why she doesn’t fear failure, and the upcoming challenges which are getting her excited now.
You grew-up in Borneo and then moved to Scotland. Tell me about your childhood outdoors?
We moved there when I was around 4 and left when I was 11, I was French schooled over there so really it’s my first language. Borneo definitely gave me my love for the outdoors and sense of adventure. My memories are of playing with local children in the rainforests and being aware that they had so little in terms of physical possessions yet they had so much in life. The games we came up with just by being inventive with banana tree palm and coconuts! My brothers and I got into some pretty interesting scrapes whilst out there as you can imagine. We really put our parents through it!
Everything out there centred around being active. How could you not want to explore Indonesia when it was on our doorstep? I’d done 200 runs as part of the Hash Harriers club by the time I was 9. I became a strong swimmer out there too and really just developed a very simple love – just being outdoors.
A few years ago you were hospitalised in severe pain due to a large benign tumour. Did this experience further inspire you to do epic things with your life?
This feels so long ago now that I don’t even remember the year this all happened! It was rough, there’s no denying that, but I truthfully never believed it was going to be malignant. I never really entertained the idea that it could be, and after some aggressive treatment to shrink it followed by surgery to remove it, the test results came back and it was benign.
It took a lot out of me, and at the time I was making my way up the ranks in a City law firm in London. It made me question why exactly I so focused on that and how the balance between work and the love of adventure had drifted slightly. It wasn’t long after that I resigned and moved into an in-house role as a lawyer.
Is it true you signed up to the Marathon des Sables from hospital whilst delirious on morphine?
Yes, that’s true! I was left with an iPad whilst family went looking for coffee, on their return I’d figured out the hospital WIFI – an achievement in itself whilst that drugged up – and signed up to the race. I forgot all about it until about a few months later when I received an email from the race organisers congratulating me on securing a spot. Turns out I’d paid a £500 deposit at the time and was on a waiting list!
You’ve run many ultras since then. Which has been the most memorable or significant?
The most significant was the Silk Road race through the Dasht-e-Lut desert in Iran. We’d put together a women’s team to take part beforehand, I coached us all and the lead-up was fraught with difficulty. Finally, after 38 years, the news came through that Iranian women were allowed to take part in sporting events in Iran alongside men. Huge news and the glorious Mahsa Torabi completed the Silk Road Ultra, the first Iranian woman to do so!
We battled 66°C heat and to this day I do not know how we did it. Looking back, the race was poorly organised and wasn’t safe, the water stations were repeatedly moved and we’d run out of water. But it was significant for so much more than that. It sparked the idea for a new charitable foundation women’s running team and after funding it myself privately ever since, I’m nearly at a point of being able to formally launch it.
In your ultras and expeditions you’ve had to push through extremely tough periods. What mental strategies do you call on to help you keep going?
I do a lot of counting, sounds mad I know, but I often count up to 100, in time with my steps, and start over. I rarely listen to music or audio books as I don’t like having a dependency on that kind of stimulus to see me through. For me, I use that as a treat. My favourite in Antarctica was audio messages left by friends and family – some enacted entire plays, some shared stories from our past, some told me to hurry up and be home in time for Christmas! Although I often find that I just don’t want music etc. as it can sometimes ruin the ‘view’ or environment for me – I love the sounds of nature and music takes that away.
I focus on so many things but ultimately you’re drawing on your resilience to get you through the tough times. I also think I’m brilliant at blocking out the really tough moments once it’s over. So once you’re done with a race or an expedition, it isn’t long before you start planning the next thing. The mind tricks me into thinking that the tough times weren’t so bad. Even if my husband, Matt, tries to remind me just how rough it was, I always manage to come up with reasons as to why it couldn’t have been…
19 days into your record attempt in Antarctica you were hospitalised with a bowl infection, which must have been devastating. How are you feeling about things now, and how did you feel at the time about having to end your attempt?
I was diagnosed with a bowel infection and peritonitis. It was devastating. It also felt like the most public failure I’ve had to date and I didn’t enjoy the weeks that followed. Medically, there was a lot to get sorted – that’s easy as there’s a process and doctors take care of all of that. Mentally, it took some time to adjust to being back in the UK, but also to process the failure. I focused on the good that came out the trip, the charitable fundraising and my role as a Polar Ambassador for the British Government.
If there’s true meaning to what you do and why, I think it’s easier to bounce back from failures like this. I still refer to it as a failure and I notice it irritates some people, they think I’m being hard on myself. I’m really not – it’s just a word to me, and the fact is I did fail at it. The simple goal was to reach the South Pole and I failed to do that. Failing is OK! It’s good for you. I’ve failed hard at many things and succeeded at many things. Neither are absolute and one can’t happen without the other. Roll on the next failure or success, whatever it may be.
Can you tell us about the crazy weather conditions you experienced in Antarctica?
I was hit with three major storms and they were ferocious. The worst season on record weather-wise, being hit with 10 times the normal snow fall was incredibly tough. Antarctica is the driest continent in the world with an average of 16cm of precipitation a year. The 60-70 knot winds days weren’t too pleasant either.
I had extensively prepared for this expedition but being hit with that much snow was never part of my planning, simply because it has never happened out there. The whiteouts were best described as living inside a marshmallow with zero depth perception for 12 hours a day. Navigation was tough and at one point the nausea from the whiteout conditions meant I vomited into my mask. Not recommended! It meant progress was slow and I wasn’t covering as much daily distance as planned.
I still don’t know how I got through it, but I did. Hot Mac ‘n’ Cheese for dinner seemed to make everything all right again. Never ceases to amaze me that no matter what the temporary difficulties you’re facing, it’s the simple things in life that make everything feel OK again.
In such extreme conditions, was it as much a mental battle as a physical one? And did you learn anything new about yourself in those 19 days?
I learnt that such an expedition is absolutely within my capabilities. My preparation and training were as close to perfect as they could have been (always room for improvement!) and I actually took a lot of comfort from that. I spent a great of deal getting my kit to be as lightweight as possible and my research was meticulous in terms of physically preparing. I gained 18% muscle mass whilst there and felt I was recovering strong each day.
It also seems to have left with me a confidence that I wasn’t particularly aware was missing. I do a lot of keynote speaking and I’ve noticed a real change in how I prepare for them and how confident I feel whilst speaking. I’m sure that confidence has carried over into other things but the keynote speaking is an area I’ve really noticed it in.
Tell me about your training for Antarctica and how you prepared?
Lots of strength and conditioning work. It’s the hardest session for me because I find them so dull, so I always train 1:1 with a coach. Form is also so important for this kind of training so I like to outsource that and not have to worry whether I’m doing it correctly.
I did lots of weightlifting, cycling, running and swimming! I cut down on a lot of the harder cardio sessions when it was time to try and gain some muscle and weight. Having an extreme form of hyperthyroidism at the time meant weight gain was hard, as was muscle gain.
I slept at high altitude for 6 weeks prior to leaving for Antarctica, I also trained at high altitude in the Altitude Centre in London. I’m a big fan of that gym, the gains from training at altitude constantly amaze me. Then, you guessed it, lots of hours on end of dragging tyres! Our dog loved coming with me at first yet by the end he’d run away from me if he saw I was preparing for a tyre drag!
What’s on your radar next and how are you training for it?
Next is the sister race of the infamous Norseman triathlon, the Black Lake Triathlon in Montenegro. I couldn’t make the Norseman this year so I picked this race because I genuinely wasn’t certain if I could correctly locate Montenegro on a map. So I decided that was a good enough reason to go!
Here’s my next week of training:
Swim x 3 sessions per week
Weightlifting sessions x 3 per week
Strength and Conditioning Sessions x 3-4 per week.
Endurance Cardio sessions (i.e. long and slow) x 4 per week
Cycling x 3 per week
You have some epic cycling challenges coming up next year, including the RAAM (Race Across America) and a Canada to Cuba cycle. Can you tell me a bit about what your preparation will entail?
Convincing work to give me the time off is always the first and foremost most important piece of preparation!
For RAAM: I’ve got into Zwift in a big way recently, the convenience of it for structured training is just unbeatable. We’re still looking for final team members for this event but I’m so excited for it, my husband Matt is taking part too and it’s so fun to be part of a team again.
Canada to Cuba cycle: A lot of strength and conditioning work and my usual endurance training. I do 1:1 sessions for S&C work with the team at Performance Rx in London.
What are your favourite items of kit for training, races and expeditions?
Training – Garmin Fenix 5 and my HR monitor.
Races – OMM running backpacks. I have tried, unsuccessfully, for years to destroy these bags through adventure. It isn’t possible. From being used in Antarctica to racing across the Gobi desert, they’re indestructible. Sort of annoying as I love buying new kit, but never have a justifiable reason for buying new backpacks.
Expeditions – A brilliant tent. I own most of the Hilleberg range (I’m banned in my household from ever purchasing another tent), they’re not the cheapest but they are the world’s best and will last a lifetime.
Are you sponsored by anyone right now?
DHL is my logistics partner for everything that I do. The team there are so supportive and I love them for being as passionate as I am about the expeditions and plans for the future. Right now we’re working on a new charitable foundation for women’s running teams that I’ve been privately funding for the last few year. To be moving onto a proper footing with my main partner by my side is an absolute dream come true.
Atkins is my nutrition partner as I’ve always been a low carb athlete. The ketogenic diet is of huge appeal to me and whilst I don’t train ketogenically year round, I find the benefits in racing and long expeditions to be significant. But basically I just love their protein bars and always have!
Finally, the company I work for! Atlantis Energy. I’m their group Head of Legal and they’re the most important sponsor of all; I couldn’t do what I do without their support.