A couple years ago, Jacqui Bell’s world turned dark. After being plagued by injuries, the Australian gym manager found herself hooked to prescription painkillers. That tipped her into a vicious cycle of unhealthy eating behaviors, drugs and depression, she says, and after she got into a scooter accident in Bali that requires over 200 stitches and racked up massive medical bills, the situation only deteriorated. Rock bottom came after Bell lost a job and watched relationships go sour.
Instead of falling deeper, Bell resolved to pull herself out of it, she said. “Nothing was really working for me to help change anything, so I knew I just had to do something kind of drastic.”
Drastic indeed. Bell signed up for not one, but four multi-stage ultramarathons when she entered the Racing the Planets x4 Desert Grand Slam — a grueling series of multi-stage ultramarathons that take competitors across the deserts of Namibia, Mongolia, Chile, and Antarctica.
And what started as four expanded into an even more daunting quest when Bell, 24, decided to become the youngest person to complete a multi-stage ultra on each continent, raising money for mental health causes along the way.
Preparing for Ultramarathons
Bell admits she went into the endeavor with some naiveté. She had run marathons, but multi-stage ultras are different beasts entirely. These monster endurance races send athletes across vast distances of around 155 miles over several days, with daily mileage ranging from 20 to 60 miles. To add to the difficulty, many events are self-supported, which means competitors carry heavy packs of food, water, gear, and clothing.
It’s like doing an enormous, energy-sapping run with added weight, then getting up the next day to do it again. And repeat.
To say the first couple of events were humbling would be an understatement. Bell bonked, despaired, found herself with the wrong gear, and suffered from injuries. In her first race in Namibia, she said, she blew her Achilles tendon, suffered from heat rash and had a massive breakdown on one particularly painful day that took her 19 hours to complete.
“I thought I was going to die,” she said. “I was underprepared but everyone is for their first one. You just don’t really know what you’re doing.”
Despite that, she said, she never contemplated quitting.
She went on to slog through snowfields in Antarctica, run through vast tracts of sand in Chile, traverse the Gobi Desert in Mongolia, brave whipping winds and freezing rain in Iceland and pass breathtaking lagunas in New Zealand. Along the way, she experienced some of the most beautiful landscapes on Earth.
And in September, a year and a half after she started, she crossed the final finish line at the Grand to Grand ultra in the Grand Canyon. It was a strong performance; she was the second woman to finish. Still, she admits that it was with mixed feelings.
“It was amazing, but it was also kind of bittersweet. It was this huge thing I’ve been working towards and the one goal I’ve had in my life for so long. It was like all this buildup and then, ah, it’s over,” she said. “But I’m excited to see what happens over the next year or two. Loving running at the moment and just excited to see how much faster and better I can get at these races.”
And, Bell says, the impacts the events have had on her life and mental wellbeing are bigger than any title.
Mental Health and Running
The races gave her structure, discipline, and goals. And when she was out there running, unplugged and alone in her head for days and miles, she said, it allowed her the time and space to digest and sort through her life.
She had her share of challenges; she suffered from painful plantar fasciitis and shin splints, and had her skin rubbed raw from chafing. But slowly, she said, the benefits started stacking up.
“Running, it helps to put me in a better headspace to be able to deal with everything,” she said. “I slowly learned things along the way. The lessons just come kind of in each race.”
In total, she ran 1800 kilometers — roughly 1120 miles — and raised about $23,000 in Australian dollars for The White Cloud Foundation, an organization dedicated to improving access to treatment for and increasing awareness of depression.
And through the journey, Bell found her purpose, which she said helps her keep her demons at bay. Her advice to others suffering from mental health issues? Dream big, and don’t be afraid to chase your passions.
“If you can find that thing that kind of even gives you a little bit of daily happiness, or makes you want to jump out of bed in the morning … then do it,” she said. “You never know what it might turn into.”
Next up for Bell: more ultras.
“I really thought that after all of this I’d be like, alright I’m done with running,” she said. “But it’s kind of the opposite.”
Photos courtesy Jacqui Bell