Jessica Stenson: 5 lessons from an Olympic marathoner

One of Australia's most accomplished female marathoners has returned to racing post-childbirth and is targeting an Olympic qualifier. She shares some of her wisdom about marathons, motherhood and recovery.
Jessica Stenson is back

We recently spoke with two-time Australian Olympian Jessica (Trengove) Stenson for one of our first features at RunCreature.

Stenson’s is one of the country’s most accomplished female distance runners, and the story looks at her career-to-date, her return to running post-pregnancy and childbirth, and her future goals.

In our interview, Stenson re-lived some of her toughest and most rewarding marathons. We also talked about her training, the process of returning to running, and about how her priorities have dramatically shifted since welcoming her son into the world in late-2019. 

Motherhood may have changed her perspective on running, but it certainly hasn’t dulled her ambition. Stenson plans to once again don the Green-and-Gold, in some capacity, and she hasn’t ruled out the 2021 Tokyo Olympics.

In her final marathon before pregnancy (Toronto, 2018) she ran a personal best 2:25:59. Had it come during the Olympic qualification period, it would have been the second fastest Australian time (as of publication).

The postponement of the Olympics due to coronavirus actually helped Stenson’s cause, giving her an extra year to return to form.   

Stenson had so many great stories, and loads of insightful wisdom to share during our interview. She’s achieved so much and yet, at age 32, so much of her story is unwritten.

The next chapter is destined to be exciting. Until then, here are 5 things we learned from Olympian and two-time Commonwealth Games bronze medallist Jessica Stenson.    

1. Keep running in perspective and know your priorities

Jessica Stenson says she used to get pretty consumed by her running. 

After getting back into the sport, in her university days, it became a fundamental part of her identity. Largely, because she was pretty damn talented. 

Over her career, Stenson has won big races domestically. These include Sydney’s City2Surf, the Adelaide City-Bay Fun Run, and the Melbourne half and full marathons. She’s also represented Australia more than half-a-dozen times at the Olympics, Commonwealth Games, and World Championships. 

When it comes to the pantheon of Australia’s greatest and most accomplished female marathoners, Stenson is surely in the discussion. 

But reaching that status can take a toll.

Perfect timing for a break

Between 2012 and 2018, Stenson ran a total of 11 marathons, and says she hardly backed-off training.

“I felt like I was pretty mentally and physically exhausted at the end of 2018. It just seemed so fitting, after achieving a PB and a really positive experience [at the Toronto Waterfront Marathon] that it was time to try and start a family,” she told RunCreature

In November 2019, Stenson and her husband Dylan had a son named Billy.

“It’s incredible,” says Stenson. “It really is the most positive, life-changing experience. And happiness beyond what we could have even expected. It kind of feels like it completes us and gives us a different perspective.” 

It has certainly changed the way she relates to her sport: “For me, I guess, running has always been important. But at times I’ve probably let it consume me.”

Being a mum comes first

“And now, being a mum, running really is there to complement other aspects of my life. Being a mum, and a positive family member is number one, and running should always complement that.” 

Stenson is no less competitive or driven. She wants to make her third Olympic team, but she now has to do it as a running mum. That, in part, means being more organised and efficient with how and when she trains. 

That may sound tough, but Stenson is taking an optimistic stance: “There’s a bit less pressure… and it makes you feel a little bit freer when you’re out there.” 

“It’s exciting…like starting with a blank canvas again and everything you do is the new you. It’s exciting seeing what your body is capable of… I’m really looking forward to sharing the running journey with Billy.”

*Shortly after I interviewed Jessica Stenson my wife gave birth to our first child. As such, this notion that babies (instantly) change your world  and cause a dramatic re-think of priorities, really hit home. 

2. Minimising pressure can help performance

Easier said than done, right? 

We all put pressure on ourselves before a big race. We’ve done the training, and we want to make sure we get the most out of ourselves.

When Jessica Stenson says she had “no expectations” or felt “no pressure” I take it with a grain of salt. She’s an elite athlete and pressure, in some form, is part of the job description. 

What I take it to mean is that, in some races, she feels less pressure. And the expectations she sets are less demanding.  

In these instances, Stenson has very often come through and surprised herself with a massive result.

This was the case when she won her first Commonwealth Games bronze medal in Glasgow in 2014. Stenson was coming off a foot injury, which altered her normal preparation.

Going into the race, she just wanted to stay in the mix. But as the race unfolded, she started to realise that a medal was in reach.

Open-minded approach 

“I worked my way into fifth, and then fourth, and then when I got into that third spot it was just a dream come true — a dream that I didn’t even know I had, really. I had gone into the race so open minded, and with no expectations, so crossing that finish line, I was very emotional and just so excited.”  

The second example was her most recent marathon in Toronto in 2018.

It had already been a career year for Stenson. She had won her second Commonwealth Games bronze medal — on home soil. And she had set a personal best at the Gold Coast Marathon. 

She travelled to Europe with her partner afterwards, planning on holidaying. But then she got an unexpected invite to race in the elite field at Toronto.

She accepted, but her training didn’t go very well. She was in an unfamiliar environment, and away from her coach and team in Adelaide. On the advice of her now-husband, she took a more relaxed approach in the build, with more rest days.    

Stenson says she was hopeful she could have a positive result, but admits she “didn’t know what to expect”. 

“I just got out there and enjoyed it… and that’s probably the strongest I’ve ever felt in a marathon.” 

A surprise personal best

She ended up running a new personal best of 2:25.59 and finishing fourth in the Gold Label event.

“To run towards the finish line, and see I was onto a PB really surprised me, because… I hadn’t really been paying attention to the time,” Stenson told RunCreature. “Having finished feeling quite strong… it left me feeling excited about what else I might be able to do when the time’s right.” 

The lesson: if you can, go into races with an open-mind and don’t put too much pressure on yourself. A good tactic might be to have secondary and tertiary race goals. If the A time falls through, consider what you can still accomplish or salvage to be happy with your effort.   

*A disclaimer: When I put to Stenson’s coach that she performs well when there is less pressure, he quickly countered: “She also performs well when there’s lots of pressure.”  Fair point! Some people are just that good.

3. A marathon is a race, but also a shared journey 

This is such an important takeaway. The marathon is a gruelling, beast of an endeavour. And it’s certainly not for everyone. But for those who have run one, there’s a bond of sorts.  

That bond can form afterwards, when you’re physically spent but emotionally high, swapping stories with friends and competitors; and sometimes that bond can form mid-race. It can form between you and the pack you’re running in, or with the person who goes out of their way to urge you on, or (pre-coronavirus) share a water bottle or gel. 

As a distance runner, Jessica Stenson has competed from the 5000-metre up to the marathon. But it’s the latter that seems to have the greatest gravitational pull for her. It’s where she feels the greatest sense of accomplishment. 

And I love her rationale.

“You’re not only racing the people in the marathon, you’re all just trying to conquer the distance as well. That’s what’s really unique about it. You have this incredible sense of satisfaction just from finishing, which you don’t really get from other distances.” 

Everyone is doing battle

Yes, there’s a competitive aspect to marathon racing. But you’re not just racing other people, you’re collectively going into battle against a mutual foe: the event itself.

The marathon is as much a shared test of determination and willpower, as it is a race. It’s about pushing yourself beyond what you thought you were capable of achieving. 

Regardless of position or finishing time, everyone who crosses the line in a marathon has gone through a shared journey; everyone has experienced their own dose of pain and self-doubt, and jubilation. Everyone has had to find something within to conquer the distance. 

It’s always nice to hear a professional runner acknowledge and respect the relative efforts of the regular running class. This is a true testament to Stenson’s respect for the event, and her humility as an athlete. 

4. Sometimes a successful recovery means ditching your runner’s mentality

Any distance runner knows how frustrating it can be to take time off. We’re hardwired to want to run: whether for exercise, training, or simply to maintain our sanity. 

Running, as far as we’re concerned, is a fundamental part of a daily routine.

And the runner’s mentality is usually (and often stupidly) to stop at nothing. It’s to push through pain, no matter how debilitating. 

Jessica Stenson knows this mentality well.

But when it came to returning to running post-childbirth and C-section, Stenson needed to do something counter-intuitive: ditch that mentality. 

“The healing process was tougher than I imagined… I found it quite remarkable how painful the incision site was, but also how weak I was.” 

Don’t push through pain, respect it

“I felt like I had no muscular support [in my abdomen] when I’m so used to my core being my structure for everything I do with running…there was certainly a period there where I was struggling to sit up, let alone run a kilometre.” 

“The runners mentality is ‘work hard and you’ll get the results’ and you’re constantly trying to find ways to overcome discomfort and push yourself through pain. But this required a smart approach where it wasn’t about pushing through pain; it was about respecting pain and really listening to my body and following healing time frames.”

While Stenson was specifically talking about post-childbirth pain, there’s wisdom for anyone suffering from an injury setback. You have to respect the pain, get appropriate medical support and guidance, and follow healing time-frames.

5. Appreciate and empathise with your competitors

When I set this story up, I had a view of Jessica Stenson as a ‘dark horse’.

She was someone returning to the deep and immensely talented field of female marathoners in Australia.

And she was looking to earn one of three coveted spots for the Tokyo Olympics.

Make no mistake: Stenson wants to represent Australia. And the goal is Tokyo 2021. But during our interview, Stenson expressed empathy for the other female marathoners vying to make the national team. 

“I naturally felt disappointed for the girls who had their sights set on competing [at the Olympics] in early August, because I know how hard the likes of Sinead [Diver], Lisa [Weightman], Milly [Clark] and Ellie [Pashley] have worked.” 

“For them, having that opportunity on the horizon taken away, I know how difficult that would have been.”

Everyone will get a chance

Regardless of who makes the team, Stenson is staying optimistic — for herself and her Australian competitors.  

“There are a lot of Aussie national team opportunities out there… When it comes to the marathon, people tend to have their year when it’s all working out, then they might have a year where there are some challenges.

“It’s pretty up and down in our sport, so I think, as long as every girl is running strong at some point, we’ll all get our opportunity [to represent Australia].”  

To find out more about Jessica Stenson visit her website which has links to all her socials.

Check out more RunCreature interviews.

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