It was while lying in a hospital bed suffering from an eating disorder, that no one (including myself) expected me to survive, that I first decided to run a marathon,” says Charley Jennings, 42, from Rayleigh in Essex. “In my early 20s, I suffered from anorexia and the worst point was when, aged 22, I weighed 5st and ended up spending a year in hospital. I’m not sure how it came about, but one day I decided I wanted to get better and began pinning some inspiring things to the noticeboard next to my bed, one of which was to run the London Marathon. I used to run 1500m at school and compete in interschools competitions, so I’d always hoped to run London one day. Although I stopped running once I left school, I always kept active, so that dream became one of the motivating factors that helped me to get well.
“It took a couple more years to fully recover, after which I began training in earnest and, in 2002, ran the London Marathon in 4hrs 32mins in aid of b-eat, the eating disorders charity. I loved the exciting atmosphere and was amazed by how many spectators had come out to cheer us along the entire route. I think I spent the whole time smiling from ear to ear! I subsequently did some voluntary work in eating disorders, and occasionally I still raise money for b-eat, including my Four Marathons Under Four Hours in Four Weeks Challenge, which I completed in 2014. I was overjoyed when I finished in the top three in all four of the marathons!
“I think it was my charity work and fundraising, together with having overcome an eating disorder (which claims more lives than any other mental illness), that led to me being chosen to be an Olympic Torchbearer in 2012. That was definitely the proudest moment of my life and I felt incredibly lucky to have been given this honour. The organisers told me three months beforehand that I was due to run and said, ‘Don’t tell anyone’ as it was supposed to be top secret. Of course, the minute I heard the exciting news I was straight on the phone to my mum!
“Running still keeps my demons at bay: there is nothing better for clearing my mind or lifting my mood than heading out to run on trails. It makes me feel better about myself and appreciate things more. Trail running (I rarely run on roads) has also helped me stay mainly injury-free. Trails are generally softer than road, so there is less impact, and the surface is more uneven so your foot always strikes the ground at a slightly different angle, which can help prevent some overuse injuries. I always listen to my body as well: I don’t stick to schedules and take plenty of rest days.
“I help out at my local parkrun at Hockley Woods sometimes, which is all on undulating trails. It welcomes runners of all abilities and it’s wonderful seeing people progress. I also enjoy it because the scenery in the woods changes over the seasons, from spring flowers to golden leaves in autumn and snow (or mud!) in winter.
“I always love to run and, if I do so at a comfortable pace in nice scenery, it feels great. However, there are times when I push myself to do well, and those runs can be tough and painful. One of my favourite marathons is the Thames Meander. It’s held three times a year and I always try to finish in the top three. The times of all three marathons are added together at the end of the year, and a special trophy is awarded for the fastest time. I’ve managed to win it for the past two years. It’s hard work but it’s worth it to get the result I’m aiming for. I always feel the worst between miles 16 and 22 as, by then, I’ve already run a long way at a fast pace, but I still feel as if I have a long way to go.
“My biggest achievement is winning the HARP24 in 2015 and 2016. It’s a 24-hour run in aid of HARP, a local homeless charity in Essex, close to where I live, and consists of a four-mile trail loop that you can run solo, in a pair, or team. Some people run one or two loops, others 25 or more, throughout the day and night. There is a great atmosphere as everyone camps on the field at the start – it’s like a running festival! Unlike a lot of long-distance events, there are always other runners out running at the same time so you have plenty of company. The first year, I said I’d try to aim for 100 miles, then everyone sponsored me so I had to do it, and the second year I completed almost the same distance. I’m running it again this year, and hoping to run 100 miles, but I’ll just enjoy it and see how the day goes. I prefer ultras since they’re often on trails, and they’re much more relaxed. The further you go, the less expectation there is to run the whole way, and the more camaraderie there is. It was also excited winning the first ultra I ever entered, the 45-mile St Peter’s Way in 2014!
“Last year, I participated in 26 events that were either marathon distance or longer. If they were on consecutive weekends, I hardly ran at all in between so I didn’t overdo things. I also did more cycling. Since I don’t drive, sometimes I ended up cycling to and from a railway station on race day. It’s great cross-training but I wouldn’t recommend it!
“So far I’ve done 64 marathons or ultras, winning 11 of them (I achieved my marathon PB of 3hrs 14mins at London). This year I’m doing the Centurion Grand Slam 50s (four 50-mile events) and, if they go well, then I may try for the Grand Slam 100s next year. My dream race would be to take part in the Barkley Marathons in America. It’s probably the world’s toughest trail ultra and involves running 60 or 100 miles through brutal, mountainous terrain in Tennessee. There’s a 60-hour cut-off and, in some years, no one has succeeded in finishing the course. I’ve been trying to find a way to get in for several years – it’s limited to 40 runners and the registration process is a closely guarded secret. Maybe one day!
“People have said to me that I smile a lot when I’m running. I suppose I’m always smiling when I run because I enjoy it so much. I feel very fortunate to be able to run, and I have some lovely trails and woods near me. Give me a trail, and a pair of old running shoes and I’m happy.”
The HARP24 24-Hour Relay Challenge takes place on 24 and 25 June 2017. To enter, visit harpsouthend.org.
This week is Mental Health Awareness Week, a campaign dedicated to raising awareness of mental health and wellbeing, while shedding the stigma associated with mental health problems; to find out more, visit mentalhealth.org.uk/campaigns/mental-health-awareness-week. If you think you may be suffering from an eating disorder, visit your GP as a matter of priority. For further information on eating disorders and support services, visit the b-eat website.