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  • Writer's pictureSusie Chan

Desert Jack - The ultra running hero you need to know

Jack Denness is the UK Godfather of desert running. He’s the ultra runner you have probably never heard of, a pioneer in the sport at a time when it was so underground, so niche, that soft flasks for race vests were a mere twinkle in the eye of Sports Companies.

Ultra Running has seen a huge rise in popularity in the last few years. With social media spreading images of people running in hostile environments, posting selfies with race buckles, and now good sources of advice and race reports. Information about where and more importantly how you can run ultra marathons has never been easier.

It hasn’t always been that way. When I started ultra running in 2013, there were under 20 ultra races in the UK. The scene was very small with familiar faces at races. Things were low key. Nearly 8 years later (in normal non-covid times) there are hundreds of Ultra marathons to choose from. Imagine what it must have been like wanting to run 100 mile races in the 1980’s.

I meet 84 year Old Jack on a snowy winter day in his home in Rochester, Kent to find out his story. Achingly modest, he became known as “Desert Jack” to those around him. He decided to take up running at the age of 39 in a bid to help him give up smoking.

“I started with running a half marathon, and it went from there” The one half marathon turned into several, next came marathons. He started to travel to races abroad, and one day after completing San Francisco marathon, he decided he wanted to visit the hottest place on Earth, Death Valley. It just so happened that Jack Denness was about to come across the notoriously difficult Badwatwer 135.

“I saw a runner and a car, and thought.. what’s going on here then?” Frequently billed as the toughest footrace, Badwater135 starts off 283ft below sea level in Badwater Basin Death Valley, snaking 100 miles through the parched desert landscape and ends up scaling the snow-tipped Mount Witney. Jack wanted to do it.

“It wasn’t easy, communication wasn’t what it is these days. I had to go and find a fax machine for my entry and hope they had received it” With scant information about the race available, and not even 100% certain he was in, Jack flew to America with his wife as support crew to race.

In 1991 Jack toed the lie with a fellow 13 runners to start what was the race he became known for. He went on to finish the race then, and a further 12 times, entering the “Badwater Hall of Fame” He has completed numerous other ultra races, many in the desert environment

After volunteering at Badwater with his wife in intervening years, in 2009 Jack returned to Death Valley completing the grueling race at the age of 75. He became the oldest person to finish and it is a record that still stands.

How did an Englishman from Kent prepare for such races I ask him. “I did 80 mile races along the South Downs, you used to get a Patch for them, not a medal” He shows me his patch collection. I asked him about trainers and kit. “Oh you just wore normal trainers really”

You can imagine how low-fi the shoes, kit and nutrition might have been like back in the 1980’s. This is long before heel drops was even a discussion and gels and electrolyte tabs became a readily available thing.

Jack shows me around his Office, a shrine to his running achievements. Photos, medals, caps, and awards all jostle for space on his shelves. He was one of the first people in the UK to run the Marathon des Sables. The memorabilia is enough for the achievement of an entire Running Club.

Pride of place is his MBE, which he received in recognition of the amount of money he has raised for Charity by his running, well over £100,000

We sit and watch the short video of him being awarded the Honour at Buckingham Palace and Jack wipes away a little tear watching it. The word “Legend” and “Inspiring” is banded around so much these days, but Jack really personifies both of those words. I tell him.

“Oh I’m no legend” he tells me “But it’s a nice thought to think I’ve inspired people”

I met with Jack in winter 2018.

An Interview with Chris Kostman, Badwater Race Director chatting to Jack is available Here

Jack in his office 2018

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