We spoke to ultrarunner Becca Jay, the first recorded woman to run eight 14ers in 24 hours
Colorado-based ultrarunner Becca Jay was all set to run her first 50-mile race back in May before, inevitably, it was cancelled due to the pandemic. So she set her sights on a new challenge: to take on as many 14ers (mountain peaks of more than 14,000-foot elevation) in 24 hours.
Last week, she set a new record for the fastest known time for a woman to scale multiple 14ers: eight in just 24 hours. We caught up with her to talk about this amazing feat, which helped her to raise over $3,000 (almost £2,500) for the Equal Justice Initiative in support of the Black Lives Matter movement.
She inspired us to challenge our perceptions of what we are capable of, as well as to strive to be actively anti-racist in our daily lives.
What sparked your love of running?
I grew up playing soccer [football, as we’d call it in the UK] and have always loved movement. I started out running just to be able to stay in shape for soccer but never really ran that far. When my youngest son was about 6 years old [Becca has two boys who are now 10 and 13], he wanted to hike a 14er out here in Colorado. And after we started hiking 14ers I found a love for hiking mountains and any trails that took me up and into the mountains. And I gradually started doing more trail running and hiking of mountains and never looked back. My favorite is hiking up and running down.
Can you tell us a bit about why you decided to take on this 14er challenge?
It was actually my husband’s idea. He noticed that there was a men’s FKT (fastest known time) for most 14ers hiked in 24 hours but not a women’s FKT. And he said I should go for it! He is an ultrarunner [Luke Jay has won several 100 mile races and is pretty impressive himself] and he wants to go for the men’s supported FKT in August. I had a good strength base from the strength training I do consistently and, because I love hiking, I decided I would attempt it, but I wanted a bigger intention than just the FKT. That’s how I decided to focus on raising money for the Equal Justice Initiative and honouring Black lives that have been cut short. So as I trained I knew I would be moving in solidarity with Black lives, and drawing attention to what the EJI does for racial injustice.
What was it like preparing to take on such a huge challenge?
I had a pretty good base before I even decided to do this challenge. My sons, husband and I love hiking the 14ers here in Colorado. We had already hiked three of them this summer and after doing a 14er in the morning one day when we were camping and then doing another that evening, I felt like my body could handle a little bit more training to try to complete nine of them.
Strength training was a huge part of my preparation for this challenge. It helped to balance my body, strengthen my core and build endurance in my legs [Becca is a personal trainer, strength and body balance coach]. I really didn’t do a ton of mileage to prepare, which worked well for me because it didn’t put so much impact on my body and allowed me to recover from the climbs quickly. The longest effort I did during my training was 19 miles (about 5.5 hours), and some morning and afternoon climbs to get used to climbing, sitting, and then climbing again. I have had three ACL repairs in the past 20 years from playing soccer, so I had to approach my training in a way that protected my knees and body. So the combo of strength training twice per week and a few two-mountain days of hiking really helped train my body for what was to come and also built confidence mentally which is probably the most important component.
How did you deal with self-doubt, or doubt from those around you?
The doubt I had only came from myself. I received so much positive, kind, and generous support and encouragement from so many people and that really helped contribute to such a positive outcome. The first mountain, Mt. Evans, was tough for me mentally. I had several doubtful thoughts wondering how I was going to do nine mountains if this first one was already so challenging. So at that point I had to break my effort into single mountains. Just get up this one and down this one. That was all I could focus on. And I had several intentions that I carried with me that also helped to keep me moving. The first: to move in solidarity with and to honour Black lives. The second: to be present and hold gratitude for what I was able to do. The third: to show my boys we can do hard things. I kept remembering that this wasn’t about me. It was about something much bigger than me. And these intentions helped me the most on the last mountain, Mt. Sherman, which was the hardest. I was exhausted and moving slowly and mentally had to refocus and choose to finish and move my body to the summit. I was getting close to the 24-hour time cutoff and I was so tempted to turn around because I felt we were so far from the summit. And in that moment, I remembered my boys and telling them that I would complete nine. I remembered all of the Black lives murdered and how my tiredness was minimal compared to the pain their families deal with daily. So I reset my mind quickly and just dug in, one foot in front of the other, to push it to the summit. And although I didn’t realise I missed the summit by 136 feet until the next day, I still felt every one of those nine mountains. Any time doubt crept in, I had to counter it with a positive mantra and refocussing on my intentions. So much of physical effort is mental. Reframing, changing perspective, and focusing on the positives are game changers, and I believe your body follows your mind. They are connected in a beautiful way.
Also, I had my husband or a friend with me on each mountain and they did an amazing job encouraging me and keeping me moving. Always positive and great leaders: Luke, Casey, Hillary, Marin, and Jennie.
What makes the Equal Justice Initiative (and the Black Lives Matter movement as a whole) such an important cause to you?
EJI does an amazing job of confronting our history of racial injustice through education and advocacy. They are committed to ending mass incarceration in the US, challenging racial and economic injustice and protecting basic human rights for the most vulnerable people in society. This is beautiful and I wanted to draw attention to this, especially the attention of white people like me who need to lean in to the discomfort of our true history and the atrocities that have occurred and still occur. We can’t rely on people of colour to educate us. It’s our job to educate ourselves with humility, acknowledge our racism and then take action to work to be antiracists who work toward dismantling racist policies that are harming Black lives, Indigenous lives, and people of colour. I have been working to educate myself more and more over the past few years, striving to be anti-racist which requires consistent self-examination. I know that I will make mistakes and do or say the wrong thing, but if I am not taking action then I am complicit with racism and this is unacceptable. I want my boys to be educated about how we have and they have been raised in this sea of white supremacy. I want them to understand this white privilege they have been born into and know that with it comes very important responsibility to DO something and create positive and lasting change to the racist policies that still exist in America. I hope for them to continue to speak up and advocate for justice. And carrying the names of Black lives who were murdered was important because I wanted to make a statement of solidarity and an honoring of the lives lost during my movement, hopeful that there will be no more names. But this takes continued action.
How did you cope with the practical challenges of ultrarunning?
Consistent fueling and hydration are key to maintaining good energy, along with mental and physical stamina. On each mountain I would carry Skratch Labs electrolyte drink along with water in my pack. I would sip on both throughout the hike every 15 minutes or so. I would try to take two Spring Energy gels on each mountain. These gave me a good amount of calories and were easy on my stomach at 11,000 feet and above. I never had any stomach issues at all.
After each mountain I would roll out my legs and give them pep talks. True story! I believe in how powerful our minds are in connection with our bodies and sending positive energy and thoughts seemed to help! I put a combo of vaseline and 2Toms sport shield on my feet and I came away with all my toenails and only a few blisters. I wear HOKA ONE ONE Challengers which are perfect for supporting my knees and my feet.
What would your advice be to women who are apprehensive about pushing themselves and taking on challenges?
Women! You can do hard things! You are strong. You are stronger than you think you are and you can do SO much more than you think you can do. Think about something that seems out of reach and if you want it, start taking little steps toward making it happen. It’s good to be uncomfortable. Lean into it. One effort at a time. That’s when you will start to grow and surprise yourself. I started out thinking a 10k was the longest distance I would ever run. I thought half-marathoners were crazy. I slowly started adding miles and watching what my body was able to adapt to doing and mentally noting that I COULD DO IT! Fifty miles seemed so far out of reach until I broke it into small chunks. Believe you can do it! I believe you can. Train both your body and your mind. REST. SLEEP. Take care of yourself. No more of the negative self-talk. It doesn’t serve you. I believe that our mindset is a huge contributor to being able to tackle challenges. I will cheer for you! I would love to hear of any challenges women want to attempt so I can cheer them on and support them in it.
Becca is part of The Adrenalin Project – you can follow them on Instagram here.
Her fundraiser is now closed, but you can still donate directly to the Equal Justice Initiative here.
Here is Becca’s recommended reading to further educate yourself on racism in society:
- The New Jim Crow – Michelle Alexander
- How To Be An Antiracist – Ibram X. Kendi
- My Grandmother’s Hands – Resmaa Menakem
- White Fragility – Robin Diangelo
Check out her Instagram for more.