The 'miracle' of how Jenna Challenor returned to Comrades Marathon

08 June 2024 - 10:00 By MATSHELANE MAMABOLO
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Jenna Challenor crawls to the finish during the 2022 Comrades Marathon at Moses Mabhida Stadium in Durban, South Africa.
Jenna Challenor crawls to the finish during the 2022 Comrades Marathon at Moses Mabhida Stadium in Durban, South Africa.
Image: Darren Stewart/Gallo Images

Stories of runners toeing the Comrades Marathon start line with gratitude in their hearts abound.

After all, there are thousands if not millions who dream of running the world’s oldest and arguably toughest ultra marathon but just cannot for different reasons. 

Yet when you have come close to tasting Comrades glory only to almost immediately be taken away from that incredible world of road races to the point where your running career seems over, to be able to just line up again is stuff of dreams.

Spare a thought then, for Jenna Challenor who will on Sunday morning return to the race after what can best be described as a ‘nightmarish’ two years which came just after she’d epitomised the Comrades spirit with arguably one of the most emotionally dramatic golden finishes in the history of the Ultimate Human Race. 

You need not be a Comrades aficionado to recall Challenor’s finish of the 2022 race as that video was played on news channels so many times even none Comrades or running enthusiasts would have seen it. 

The Durbanite slipped in the Moses Mabhida tunnel before her legs gave up on her on the grass a few hundred metres from the finish line, forcing the mother of three to crawl her way across the finish line to secure fourth place in the 2022 race.

She received the mother of all applauses from the crowd. The winner Alexandra Morozova would have been envious. 

Typically, just about everyone put her collapse down to the demanding nature of the race having gotten to the then Murray & Roberts athlete.

It turns out Challenor was not battered by the tough route renowned for its unkindness to runners’ quads but rather by some debilitating diseases that many a doctor just could not diagnose. 

She did not only miss out on last year’s race but was in such bad shape for most of the 18 months after that race she could not see how she would ever race again.

There was even a time when Challenor wondered if it was worth living if living meant suffering and being as helpless as she felt. 

She has since recovered, albeit not enough to be considered a contender for the gold on Sunday, and looks back at it all with gratitude — glad to be able to go back to the race she has come to love so much. 

“I have decided to be brave and stand on that line with so much gratitude in my heart, just for the fact that I’ve come such a long way.

“I have got my health back and I just want to celebrate health and the love of running again. I’d lost that love of running for a long period because I’d been so sick that every time I’ve tried to run it hurt me so much that it became really scary to run. Now I’ve found that love and it honestly feels like something magical. It is so hard to explain such a magical feeling.

“It makes me so happy and so alive. I did not know if I’ve done enough or if I will be able to get to the finish or it will compromise my health, but I’ve decided to be brave and stand on that line and just celebrate finding that love of running again.” 

Challenor’s emotions were so palpable in that monologue, interrupting her would have been wrong. 

When I eventually asked her to reflect on what happened inside the Moses Mabhida Stadium on that glorious and golden June Sunday afternoon, she makes it known that trouble began long before that slip. 

“People only saw the last bit of what, 300m? The truth is I was really strong until 65km and I know they say Comrades gets tough after 60km, but I was really strong. And then I went from super strong to actually broken. That’s not normal. Like, normally you fatigue over a period in an ultra-marathon, but I went from hero to zero. I had nothing in me, nothing in the tank. I struggled to put one foot in front of the other.” 

She managed to make her way to the World Cup arena though and was perhaps lucky that the next runner was so far off she could crawl her way over the finish line for her second gold in two races.    

“As I went into the tunnel, I think there was a bit of water on that concrete floor and my foot slipped and I went down the first time and I thought I did my leg. And when I was on the grass shuffling, I remember saying to myself ‘you are on the grass, just go slowly don’t fall again’.

“As I looked up and saw the finish in my head, I thought I was there and my body said ‘OK, you are going down’ and I was like boom. And I couldn’t get up, so I put my hand out to that other athlete because I wanted them to lift me.

“You are allowed to be assisted to your feet, but you are not allowed to be carried across the line. But the other guy was worried I could be disqualified. So, when I could not get up, I just felt ‘you know what, I’ve lost all my dignity, let me just crawl’. And then I could see my children and my husband on that finish lone looking so worried and I smiled to show them that I am OK.” 

But was she OK, really? 

Recovery from the Comrades, especially the Down Run, is often long.

And after the two weeks' rest, she returned to training, but she just could not run well.   

“I did not feel great. I just wanted to sleep. Something was not right. I could not function after a 10k run. Everything ached. I had splitting headaches. I could not lift my head. I felt chronically exhausted. It felt like I could never run again.” 

Consultations with doctors and scans did not reveal anything, leaving Challenor and her husband Brett frustrated though some doctors diagnosed glandular fever as well as finding that she had the coxsackievirus. 

“We went to eight different doctors — to neurologists and professors and spent so much money on that.” 

On hindsight, she realised that the long Covid that she had suffered previously had a lot to do with what she was going through. 

“I believe it was Covid. I had long Covid before the 2022 Comrades and I put plasters on things. I remember when I struggled with training in the build-up, I put it down to me ageing. But on hindsight, we realised that the long Covid left me with underlying health issues. My hand paralysed and I could not use it. It seems it is the vaccine damage but it is starting to come back.” 

Fortunately there was no damage to her legs and Challenor has since been able to get back to running and she managed to run a qualifier at the Harry Gwala Marathon and will line up at the start of Sunday’s race — in the colours of Puma who “gave me the first positive thing that I’d had in a long time by signing me up when I was at rock-bottom of my career”.

She is registered with her first club DHS (Durban High School) Old Boys after being turned down by some elite clubs. 

Not that she is bothered, for all that Challenor wants to do is run Comrades after going through an experience she would not wish on her worst enemy. 

“For the 18 months, I thought is it worth living because it seemed like no life. The experience gave me newfound respect for people who live sick. Now, I would rather stand on the Comrades start line half-cooked than not stand there again.” 

Competitive an athlete as she is, Challenor is realistic enough to not want to risk her health by pushing herself overly. 

“My body is not in line with a Comrades start line timeline, so I am going into this race not as a competitor but someone as someone just grateful to be running again. If something happens in the race and I feel it would push me off, I will not be stupid as to continue but I will do the sensible thing.” 

Given what she has gone through, it is a miracle that she will be lining up with the other elites and it is thus understandable that Jenna Challenor is “grateful” to be running the Comrades marathon once again. 

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