Jenna Challenor back on Comrades Marathon start line with ‘grateful heart’

Jenna Challenor earned her fourth place in the 2022 Comrades Marathon via an unconventional way of crossing the finish line, she crawled

Jenna Challenor earned her fourth place in the 2022 Comrades Marathon via an unconventional way of crossing the finish line, she crawled

Published Jun 8, 2024


Jenna Challenor would have called you a liar had you told her at the beginning of the year that she would be toeing the Comrades Marathon start line on Sunday. Such had been her ill health in the past 18 months that the two-time gold medalist thought she could never run again.

But, thanks to the power of her positive mind and the incredible all-round support structure that she enjoys, the runner whose dramatic finish in the 2022 race endeared her to the running community will be racing on Sunday.

“I have decided to be brave and stand on that line with so much gratitude in my heart, just for the fact that I’ve come such a long way. I have got my health back and I just want to celebrate health and the love of running again,” the cheer in her voice is unmistakable as she reveals a decision she took just last week.

The discerning Comrades Marathon fan would know that the Durbanite missed out on last year’s race after earning an impressive fourth place in 2022 through crawling her way over the finish line after her legs gave up on her a few hundred metres out. They would have seen too that something was wrong with Challenor’s hand – tied up with some plaster - when she worked as a television analyst for the 2023 edition of the race.


Athlete Jenna Challenor during the Comrades Marathon. Picture supplied.


It was something else

She reveals that when she slipped and fell inside the Moses Mabhida Stadium tunnel, got up only for her legs to let her down again on the grass forcing her into that infamous crawl over the line it was not from the effects of the notoriously rough route down from Pietermaritzburg to Durban.

Challenor had not been fully fit for that race, but she did not know exactly what it was – the 42-year-old even thinking ‘I was ageing’ when she found herself having to train less than she normally would. It turned out she was suffering the after effects of the long-Covid that she’d experienced prior to the 2022 race, a fact revealed after numerous visits to doctors, neurologists and medical professors who eventually diagnosed her with having glandular fever as Coxsackie B virus.

The period after the 2022 Comrades was a nightmare for the mother of three who found it so hard to run that she thought her career was over.

“I did not feel great. I just wanted to sleep. Something was not right. I could not function after a 10k run. Everything ached. I had spitting headaches. I could not lift my head. I felt chronically exhausted. It felt like I could never run again.”

For someone so active, competitive and generally lively – it was as though darkness had descended upon Challenor and the one carrying the matches had dropped it in the tunnel.

Her husband Brett recalls her wife sleeping as though dead –‘and Jenna is normally a very light sleeper that just walking into the room she would hear me. But this time, I could have bounced up and down the bed and she would have continued sleeping’.

She had ‘memory loss’ episodes and was just downright not functional and when she would get better and even managed to run a little, she would relapse and get even worse.

“Everything was foggy sometimes. It was brain fog. I could not read Teo’s (her youngest of three daughters) notices from school and I told the same stories over and over. For a good part of the 18 months, I wondered if it was worth living because it seemed like no life. The experience gave me newfound respect for people who live sick.”


Athlete Jenna Challenor (2R) with her family. Picture supplied.


Puma to the rescue

A professional runner, she tried to find a club after her previous one Murray & Roberts closed down but was told she had not been active and competitive in a long time and thus not worth signing up.

Unmarketable as she thought she was at the time, Challenor was pleasantly surprised to have Puma call her up and offer her an ambassadorial role.

“Honestly, that was the first positive thing that I’d had in a long time, unbelievable even. And I had to ask them ‘are you sure you want me? I am at rock bottom’. They said, ‘we want you for you, not you the good runner, but you for you’. Wow, this brand wants to back me even when I am at rock bottom of my career. Jeez, if they want to take me up being where I was, I felt me go with this brand and grow with them.”

Encouraged by the new partnership, Challenor saw light at the end of the tunnel and with the support of her family and her medical people she found the courage to believe she could return to competitive running.

Slowly but surely, she recovered her strength and though she missed out on her initial intended Comrades qualifier ager suffering a calf injury just when she thought she was regaining some race fitness, she eventually got to doing it at the Harry Gwala Marathon. And there she again got some positive energy that helped infuse her with further desire to run Comrades.

“That was another thing that uplifted me. I wanted to go to a marathon where everyone did not know me. I planned to sneak in and run anonymously. But everyone was so kind, so happy to see me running again and asking to take photos with me while sharing running stories. It reminded me of why I love running, how it is about all of us being on a personal journey.”

Her qualifier secured, Challenor got to training, although not as she normally would – fearful that she might just push herself too much and compromise her immune system and get back to being sick again.

She took a long time before making the final decision to line up at Comrades for only her third race, having made her debut back in 2019 when she finished sixth.

“My family and my medical team that fought and did so much to get me where I am now, I owed it to them to be on that start line. And no matter what happens I want to praise them for all the support they got me to be there. For me not to stand on the start line would be so disappointing. I need to be brave now and go run.

“I’d lost that love of running for a long period because I’d been so sick that every time, I’ve tried to run it hurt me so much that it became really scary to run. Now I’ve found that love and it honestly feels like something magical. It is so hard to explain such a magical feeling. It makes me so happy and so alive. I did not know if I’ve done enough or if I will be able to get to the finish or it will compromise my health, but I’ve decided to be brave and stand on that line just celebrate finding that love of running again. And I am going to be on that start line with a very grateful heart."