If you know Camino then you know Jess Johnson.
Jess is the epitome of a Camino Legend.
In last years Camino Epping Forest ultra we woke up to the most immense pea-thick fog. Jess had volunteered to run the first half of the course to check our previous days course marking. Sending Jess out was quite scary but Jess was totally flawless and off she went into the literal unknown - for us. Cut to this year's Lea Valley Ultra and Jess was the back marker (walking the entire 50KM course to ensure that any runner at the back was checked-in on and looked after). We had a medical incident and it was Jess's intervention that ensured an unpleasant outcome was swiftly dealt with. These are just two book-end examples that include multiple ultra distance races with Camino and unwavering support with both herself and Team Jess for everything Camino does.
When it came to coaching Jess the deep-found friendship that we had formed made things a little bit of a challenge. We really wanted to coach Jess because she possesses everything we love about ultra-runners - a deep-routed curiosity, a powerful desire to make sure everyone in the run-community is looked after and still a yearning to prove that there is some dreamy race magic in those legs. We also knew that Jess was up for some coaching - we just danced the fandango for a while.
Cut to this year and Jess shared that the iconic Comrades Marathon was looming and she really was up for doing it justice. So we had the magic carrot and the coaching began. When we had our last Zoom call before Jess flew out to South Africa we agreed a set of goals, including an A-goal of sub 9 hours, but we were also firmly in agreement that Comrades was there to be lapped-up and enjoyed as a priority. Jess is of course super young and she has many fruitful years in the ultra running game if she wishes.
As per all our race blogs we want to plot spoil....but we will leave it to Jess to share how it all unfolded. We can feel the smiles in every paragraph x
Comrades Marathon 2022:
I’ve wanted to run the Comrades Marathon (actually 2 marathons, a parkrun and a little more in length!) for several years, however it’s taken a while for me to feel confident enough in my running ability to travel halfway across the world to do the run. Last year I got in touch with Africa Marathons, and soon enough I took the plunge and signed up. It’s funny how once you start spending lots of time with people who run silly distances (Camino Ultra – all of you!), it almost seems normal to enter races this length!
Usually when I enter races, I don’t tend to tell many people I’m doing them out of fear that I won’t actually finish them, and then having to have some awkward conversations afterwards. However, word got out that I’d entered Comrades, so the pressure was on to actually do some training for it! I don’t seem to ever be able to focus on one race, so between signing up for Comrades and actually running it, I’ve done road marathons, a 3 day ultramarathon, and a couple of single day races. I’ve also done a few cross country races with a very patient and supportive team of women - I’m sure
watching me trying to get out of third gear was fun for everyone who came to watch. However, (Camino Coach) Paula took me under her wing and with her coaching experience – and maybe a touch of magic – got me in shape for a 90km relentlessly hilly road race.
The 2022 Comrades Marathon was a 90km down run from Pietermaritzburg Town Hall to the Moses Mabhida Stadium in Durban. Of course, at first I assumed this meant it was going to be easy, and I could effectively skip my way from start to finish. Unfortunately the down run has around 1200m of elevation gain, predominately in the first 50km of the race. This is followed by a significant downhill,
which is well known for punishing those who are far too overconfident. The race starts at 5:30am, so the first of these hills are in the dark, with the sun rising as you move towards Durban. It’s definitely known as the “Valley of a Thousand Hills” for a reason – we seemed to go up every single one of them.
I’d arrived in Umhlanga, just north of Durban a few days before the race. This turned out to be really helpful as we missed our connecting flight in Johannesburg and ended up driving 7 hours to our hotel! Luckily when we drove the route of the course, it was dark. Ignorance was definitely bliss.
Soon enough, having bought everything I could find with the Comrades logo on at the expo, it was the night before the race.
We had a 3am wakeup for the race, so naturally I woke up at 2am, full of adrenaline. I diligently forced down my usual pre-race peanut butter and toast. In my usual fashion, I’d located the local supermarket and picked my favourite of the peanut butter offerings. I must have looked really picky, but kindly no-one mentioned it at the time! The bus ride to the start was a subdued affair. Whilst lively music was played to desperately try to get us into the mood, we all sat in near silence, hoping we wouldn’t actually have to get off the bus and do any running. Once we had been ushered into starting pens like lost puppies – I was in pen B, so felt totally out of my comfort zone – the traditional
pre-race rituals began. The South African Anthem is played, followed by Shosholoza, and then Chariots of Fire.
With nearly 15,000 of us lining the streets of Pietermaritzburg, the atmosphere was
so special, and I’ll cherish the memories forever.
The race itself is a bit of a blur. I was blissfully happy as I chatted away to anyone who would listen, whilst running at a pace far faster than I thought I should run at. I was having too much fun.
Whoops. We trotted up and down Polly Shortts, up to Umlaas Road, over Inchanga, and towards the 60km mark where I knew we had a cheer point. The cheers and smiles gave me a such huge boost and helped me to forget my sore legs as I started the descent towards Durban. I was surprised things were still going so well, and nothing was broken. Things started to get tough around 75km into the race, but the wonderful support from the local people lining the course just never stopped. It was hard to have too low a moment when your name was being shouted and you were being told how
fresh you looked. Even though I didn’t feel fresh at all! I made it over the final few hills with the help of a few too many salty potatoes and oranges (also salted – I wouldn’t recommend them!) and once I could see the stadium I knew I’d done it.
Entering the stadium was the most overwhelmingexperience. I had far exceeded all of my expectations, and I couldn’t believe how lucky I as to be
there. I promptly cried my eyes out at the finish, with the biggest grin on my face. I then probably cried again when I had to climb to the top of the stands to exit the stadium!
Comrades marathon is known for its brutal 12 hour cut off, and I knew I had several friends still out on the course when I finished. So we made our way into the stands to cheer them over the line. Everyone made it, thank goodness, and I am so very proud of them. The end of the race is an awfully sad spectacle, and I felt almost guilty to be watching it as those who had tried arguably even harder than me fought their way to the finish. However, the cruelty of the cut-off does makes finishing seem even more special.
I’m totally indebted to everyone who helped me fulfil my dream of running Comrades. I am actually really proud of myself for this one. I couldn’t have done it without the support I’ve received from some really special friends. It’s been a tumultuous few months, and I wasn’t sure I’d even make it let alone run well. I feel like I got the easy job really though – doing what I love for 8 hours, with a smile on my face! There is a ‘back to back’ medal for running the race 2 years in a row, and the race certainly has a bit of my heart…but at the moment I think even a parkrun would be a bit too much of a challenge!
For some reason (maybe Carla can tell us) the organisers had Carla Molinaro down as representing South Africa. So for the full 8 hour hours that Jess was crushing the Comrades course for her very first time - she was also showing as the First British Female finisher. Either way an unbelievable achievement. There are races where you just nick your A-Goal and a small number where you take them to the sword. Congrats Jess. Recover well and excited to see what dreams are floated next x