Vanessa Walker chose to celebrate her 60th birthday in 2019 by competing in the Dukeries 30 ultra race with her two sons and six friends from her running club. Despite a very early start and 30 miles of running, she had enough energy left to attend her own birthday party that evening and to dance the night away.
Vanessa is clearly a woman with a lot of energy and endurance.
I was introduced to Vanessa by Andy Hodgson, one of the organisers of the Falklands Ultra which is taking place in April 2021 in the Falkland Islands in the South Atlantic. Vanessa signed up to do the race as her “big challenge” for 2021.
Vanessa’s been running on and off since her twenties, although she says it was more jogging than running back in the 1980s. She didn’t have much time for running when her three children were growing up but, as it was an activity that was relatively easy to fit in, she managed to run a few miles from time to time.
When Vanessa’s children had grown up, she started running more and running further and joined local groups. When one of her sons suggested entering a race, Vanessa was far from keen, asking “What if I get lost? What if I come last?” Her son managed to persuade her despite her reservations and the Stilton Stumble 10k in 2013 was her first race.
After that the whole family decided to enter the Loughborough Half Marathon the following March: Vanessa, her husband Ray, her sons Calum and Seb, and her daughter Justine.
Vanessa joined Stilton Striders, the running club based in Melton Mowbray where she lives. She went out on runs with the club and participated in more races. She’s become well-known locally for the green shorts which she wears for races.
Melton Mowbray parkrun began on 10th January 2015, and it was Vanessa’s first parkrun. She has run 143 parkruns, 134 of them at Melton Mowbray. Ray joined her from time to time, running and volunteering as photographer. Sadly, Ray fell ill with pancreatic cancer and died in 2018. Since then Vanessa, her family and friends have devoted much energy and time to raising funds for the charity Pancreatic Cancer UK which funds research and provides support to people affected by pancreatic cancer. Vanessa is often to be seen wearing one of their purple running vests. To date they’ve raised over £25,000 and they’re continuing to fundraise and to raise awareness of the work of the charity.
Vanessa says that fundraising for Pancreatic Cancer UK has become her main focus for running:
Fundraising for Pancreatic Cancer UK has been very much part of my running motivation, it keeps me going, provides a much needed sanctuary and I couldn’t do what I do without my amazing family and friends supporting me so wholeheartedly.
Vanessa has started to run and walk longer distances. In 2019, as well as completing the Dukeries 30 in May, she ran the London Marathon in April, walked the Cotswold Challenge 100k with her family in June, ran as part of a team in the Equinox 24 Hour Race in September and in October, ran the Amsterdam Half Marathon and the 23-mile Gower Coastal trail race organised by Run Walk Crawl. She also took part in Equinox 24 in 2016 and 2017.
The Tokyo Marathon in March was to be Vanessa’s big challenge for 2020 and she had an ultra race in the diary for August. Both events have been cancelled due to the coronavirus epidemic. She’s hoping that the Carpathian trail marathon in Romania that she’s booked to run with her son might still go ahead in June.
I asked Vanessa how she was managing to run during the current “lockdown” which allows us to go out for exercise once a day. Vanessa would have been going on a weekly long run with her daughter, Justine, who was training for the London Marathon. She’s used to running with friends and finds it hard to keep motivated with no races on the horizon. However, she’s still managing to run several times a week and is doing about 30-40 miles a week near home in preparation for starting running races again once the epidemic is over.
Vanessa takes great care not to get injured. Regular sports massages and assessments by a sports biomechanist are part of her routine, contributing to keeping her moving. She also does a lot of strength and conditioning work and uses body balance and yoga as part of her rest and recovery. During the lockdown her routine includes a daily online HIIT (high intensity interval training) class.
The Falklands Ultra appealed to Vanessa because of “the sheer fact that it was something so completely different.” She is looking forward to the wildlife and scenery. She also likes to set herself one big challenge each year: “I’m at the age where I need challenges, things to work towards. It’s there to be done.” Vanessa will be using the event to raise more money for Pancreatic Cancer UK.
Vanessa has chosen to do the longest distance, 100 miles, and she is a bit worried about the distance, which will be 31 miles further than she’s covered before. But, she says, “If it was going to be easy, where’s the challenge? I’m well enough, I’m fit enough – I should do it.”
The challenge will be mental as much as physical: “Overcoming those tough miles occurs in the mind, as your mind gives up before your body”. Vanessa told me she will use her mantra to get her through the tough times during the race:
Run if you can, walk if you have to, crawl if you must, but never give up.
Good luck Vanessa! I look forward to catching up with you and hearing how your training and your charity fundraising are going.
Pancreatic Cancer UK website.
An article written by Calum Walker for Pancreatic Cancer UK about the family running the London Marathon 2019 in memory of father and husband Ray.
Report from Melton Mowbray parkrun, remembering Ray, November 2018