Beware: Jessica Stenson is back and better than before

The battle to represent Australia in Tokyo was already fierce between the nation’s top female marathoners. With the postponement of the Olympics, a dark horse has entered the mix, and every day she’s getting stronger. Myles Gough looks at the much anticipated return of Jessica (Trengove) Stenson to the roads.

Fear is an emotion that rarely manifests in Jessica Stenson (née Trengove) during a race. But when the 33-year-old recalls the marathon at the Gold Coast Commonwealth Games in 2018, a vivid memory of fear resurfaces. 

Never had the Australian athlete been pushed to such physical extremes while running; never had a race forced her into something akin to survival mode. This was uncharted territory. 

“It was scary,” she tells RunCreature, “because I went into the race with so much motivation and excitement.”  

When Stenson reflects on this marathon — run in near 30 degree Celsius heat and oppressive humidity — she doesn’t set the scene in sunny Queensland. She instead goes back to 2014; back to her first Commonwealth Games experience in a drizzly, grey-skied Glasgow. In her mind, these two championship races are linked. 

“As the race [in Glasgow] unfolded, I started to realise that a medal may be possible,” she remembers. “I worked my way into fifth, and then fourth. When I got into that third spot it was just a dream come true — a dream I didn’t even know I had.” 

Jessica Stenson races at the Glasgow Commonwealth Games in 2014.
Jessica Stenson (née Trengove) racing at her first Commonwealth Games in Glasgow.

“It instantly brought me to tears,” recalls Stenson’s younger brother, Jack Trengove. A professional AFL player with the Melbourne Football Club at the time, Jack had travelled to Scotland mid-season to watch the race. “I couldn’t have been prouder at that moment.”   

It was emotional, and unforgettable: the pride of representing her country, the podium finish, draping the Australian flag over her shoulders, the post-race celebrations with her team and family.

Stenson wanted to recapture that glory and remembers quickly setting her sights on the Gold Coast. “Knowing there was going to be a Commonwealth Games on home soil in 2018; that really fuelled my fire for the next four years.” 

But four years is a long time. Ups and downs are inevitable, and for Stenson, the intervening period had tribulations before triumph.

In 2016, she suffered a metatarsal stress fracture in her left foot, which hindered her preparation for the Rio Olympics. While a gutsy effort saw her finish 21st, she wasn’t at her best. 

By 2017, however, she was fully recovered, more resilient, and rounding back into world-class form. She finished 10th at the London Marathon in April, running a personal best time of 2:27.01. And later that year, in August, she represented Australia at the World Championships and finished 9th in the marathon. 

“Going into 2018, I was doing my best quality sessions, but also my highest volume,” recalls Stenson, who was typically running about 200 km per week. “My preparation for the Commonwealth Games went about as smoothly as I could have imagined.”

Her final race before the games was a half marathon in Marugame, Japan in February. She blitzed the course for a personal best of 1:10.59. 

By April, Stenson was in the best shape of her life. 

Survival mode and sheer determination

A distressing scene lingers from the 2018 Commonwealth Games: Scottish marathoner Callum Hawkins, heat-exhausted and collapsed on the bitumen. He’d been leading the men’s race at 40km, but the scorching heat had dangerously sapped every ounce of energy from his body. 

On that sweltering April day, in a field of 25 men, eight withdrew. It was in these conditions that Stenson and her female competitors toed the line. 

“I always have my athlete’s well-being at heart, first and foremost. But that was a day where I had some concerns about putting Jess on the start line,” recalls her long-time coach, Adam Didyk, who was at the Gold Coast on race day working with the national team. “I wasn’t sure what the conditions might do to these athletes.”  

At the outset, the women took a tactical approach, running at a relatively conservative pace. They went through the first 10 km in 37:29 (or roughly 3:45/km). But Stenson was eager to test — and showcase — her fitness. She could see and hear her friends and family on the side lines. They were cheering rabidly, wearing unmissable Aussie-green t-shirts with Team Trengove emblazoned in gold lettering on the front.  

“I was just itching to get the pace going,” she tells RunCreature. 

When the lead pack hit that 10 km mark, she did just that.

“I was feeling quite comfortable with the temperature at that time and so I just ran free and enjoyed the crowds.” 

But around the midway-point, that comfort began to melt under the blazing sun. At the 25 km mark, Stenson and three other athletes made the turnaround to head north, back towards the finishing zone. She remembers the headwind feeling stronger than expected. She needed to tuck in behind her rivals. 

“I just sort of lost my rhythm,” she recalls. From there, it got worse. At the 30 km mark, she was beginning to feel sick. Shortly afterwards, she missed a crucial gel. And by kilometre 37, she says she felt like she was running on an empty tank. No fuel; only fumes, and sheer determination.

“I started to get worried. I’d put so much time and energy into this preparation, and so many people had supported me along the way — my coach, my team members, my family… I wanted to desperately produce a result that we’d all be proud of, but suddenly, I just didn’t know if my mental toughness would be enough.” 

In those final few kilometres, Stenson went into survival mode, and began focusing on the fundamentals.

“I just thought about those simple instructions: one foot in front of the other,” she says. “I tried to visualise my training partner, Max Stevens, ahead of me to my left. I just thought, ‘I’ve got to keep on his right shoulder’.” 

The cheers that spurred her early in the race were now more feverish than ever. Her fans, in their bright green shirts, were draped over the metal barricade hollering encouragement. Her brother, Jack, was among them. But their voices might well have been non-existent. 

“Usually I can acknowledge people,” Stenson says, “but I was just in a trance. I couldn’t see or hear much of anything at all.” 

Jack remembers that final stretch: “She was wheezing and really struggling. It was like, ‘Far out, I hope she gets to the finish line’. It looked very painful. I was sweating just sitting there in that heat.” 

Her brother’s concern was warranted: “That’s the closest I’ve come to not finishing a race,” Stenson now admits.

“But the fact that I was on home soil, with Australians all around me, helped me draw the most out of myself both mentally and physically.” 

As she ran, she fixed her stare on the back of teammate Lisa Weightman, refusing to avert her gaze. Step after agonising step. “I was waiting for her to turn right, because I knew that was the finishing chute. But it just seemed to be taking forever.” 

Finally, it happened. Weightman vanished temporarily from view, Stenson followed. She turned right, and she could see the end, just 200 metres away.    

When she crossed the line, she was nauseous, depleted, on the verge of collapsing, and she needed help from onsite medics. But she’d done it. She’d finished the race, clocking in at 2:34.09. In the process, she’d won her second Commonwealth Games bronze medal.    

Jessica Stenson racing at the Gold Coast Commonwealth Games in 2018.
An exhausted but jubilant Jessica Stenson crosses the marathon finish line at the Gold Coast Commonwealth Games in 2018.

Jessica Stenson keeps a career year alive

Stenson describes the 2018 Commonwealth Games marathon as her toughest. It was also one of her most satisfying races, and she says she was “ecstatic” with the result.

However, she wasn’t content.

“I didn’t feel like I got to fully reap the rewards of my preparation in that race… I had this inner desire to see what time I might be able to run with my fitness.” 

Didyk proposed the idea of running the Gold Coast marathon in early July, just 10 weeks later. Billed as Australia’s fastest marathon, the Gold Label event often attracts a strong international field.

In addition, the race organisers had put up a tantalising A$40,000 bonus for the first Australian female to run under 2:28.00 (and the first Aussie male to run sub 2:10.00).

After two-weeks of mandatory recovery, Stenson got back into marathon training-mode and geared-up to race again.

It wasn’t a tale of two cities; but of two marathons in one city. Unlike the Commonwealth Games, this was not a tactical race. “This was a ‘go hard from the gun and hold on’ type of race,” remembers Stenson. 

It wasn’t sweltering, but the humidity was still a factor, recalls Didyk. He was biking the course and handing out drinks to his athlete. Stenson had gone out with the leaders at 2:25 pace, but smartly backed-off around halfway. 

“It was the right adjustment,” Didyk tells RunCreature. “That’s one of her strengths. Jess has a really good read on her body and knows what she can manage… she also makes the right decisions in races to modify the approach, if required, to make sure she still gets the best result out of herself.”

On that day, the result was a 2:26.31 personal best. It was good for second place in the women’s race and the $40,000 bonus. Stenson had also proven something exceptional to herself: at her fittest she was a 2:26 marathoner. And, at that point in time, she was the sixth fastest Australian woman over the distance. 

Jessica Stenson celebrates with family after her bronze medal.
Jessica Stenson celebrates with her family after her bronze medal at the Gold Coast Commonwealth Games in 2018.

An unexpected trip to Toronto

Shortly after the race, Stenson and her partner Dylan — a nationally competitive 800-metre runner — travelled to Europe for a much needed vacation. Or at least, that was the plan: rest, relaxation, and a bit of travel. 

That plan got side-tracked, however, by an unexpected invitation to race in the elite field of the Toronto Waterfront Marathon in October 2018. 

After some initial hesitation Stenson accepted. But finding the motivation to train was difficult. A dedicated group runner, Stenson missed her Team Tempo squad in South Australia; she was also running in new environments (often along forest trails in the Netherlands, where her and Dylan were staying) and she says her GPS was inconsistent, making it difficult to analyse workouts and be confident she was hitting key benchmarks. 

It was Dylan who kept her on track. “He kept encouraging me, and telling me I could run a personal best… Dylan said the more relaxed approach would serve me well, and he also encouraged me to listen to my body and take rest days.” 

It was sage advice. She had nothing to lose, or prove, in Toronto. It had already been a career year. She entered the race with no pressure. 

The temperature was barely above freezing when the race began. It was a shock to the system, but Stenson eventually ditched her gloves, and grew increasingly comfortable running in the cold, along the shoreline of Lake Ontario. She also had a fan club in attendance: Dylan, and several Canadian relatives, some of whom had flown across the country. 

When it was all said and done, Stenson surprised herself and finished with yet another personal best: 2:25.59. It was good for 4th place in the Gold Label event. 

Didyk, who had been present for all 11 of Stenson’s previous marathons, was watching this one via live stream from Adelaide.

“I think it was about 2 am in Australia when she finished and I couldn’t sleep for another two hours afterwards because I was so excited for her,” he recalls. “Her execution was flawless.”   

“That’s probably the strongest I’ve ever felt in a marathon,” Stenson says.

“Having finished feeling quite strong, in an attacking mode rather than just hanging on; it’s left me feeling excited about what else I might be able to do when the time’s right… There’s a carrot dangling there for me now.”

A childhood rich with sport

Stenson traces her running roots back to her hometown of Naracoorte, South Australia. It’s a small town of fewer than 6000 people, located 330 km southeast of Adelaide, near the Victorian border. Her primary school held the area cross country meets, and in those races, she was always near the front of the pack. 

But running was just one of many sporting interests. Stenson and her siblings, Jack and Abbie Trengove, regularly proved their prowess on various courts, fields, tracks — and even in the swimming pool. 

“Our childhood involved a helluva lot of sport,” recalls Jack. “I guess that’s the beautiful thing about growing up in the country; you’re really encouraged to get out and be active, and fill spots for different teams.” 

“Every spare moment that we had, Jess, Abbie and I were outside creating little games and being active,” says Jack. “That was virtually my whole childhood. I loved every second of it. We literally tried every sport.” 

In addition to running, Stenson was a basketball, tennis and netball player, and her focus was primarily on the latter while in high school in Adelaide.

It wasn’t until she was studying for her Bachelor of Physiotherapy at the University of South Australia, that she decided to prioritise running over her other sports. “I had a desire to discover my potential,” she says.

“At first it was for fun,” recalls Jack. “But once she started training and taking it seriously she just kept getting better.” 

In 2008, at age 21, she began working with Didyk. This wasn’t initially a choice she made. Didyk, a former 1500-metre runner who retired after an Achilles injury, took over as the coach of the Adelaide-based squad she was training with. It was a squad that included his now-wife, and mainly 800 and 1500-metre runners.

“Jess wasn’t the top athlete in the squad by any means,” recalls Didyk. “From what I could see, she didn’t quite have the speed [of a 1500-metre runner], and in the reps she would get destroyed by some of the other girls. But I noticed that she found the longer running really easy and comfortable.”

“I got a fairly good idea, quite quickly, that her attributes were geared more toward the aerobic end,” says Didyk.  

The new coach convinced Stenson to focus on longer distances. Not long afterwards, Stenson began making a name for herself on the national scene. In 2010, she won Adelaide’s City-Bay Fun Run and the Australian Cross Country Championships in Queensland. The following year she took home honours at the Melbourne Half Marathon and the City2Surf in Sydney. 

These accomplishments were a tell-tale sign, at least in Didyk’s mind, that his athlete’s destiny was to run the marathon. He encouraged a somewhat reluctant Stenson to make that her new focus. She trusted her coach, and accepted the challenge. 

In 2012, she debuted at the Nagoya Women’s Marathon in Japan, and crossed the line in an astonishing 2.31.02. It was the fastest ever marathon debut by an Australian woman, and an automatic qualification for the London Olympics later that year.

Stenson had found her calling. The trajectory of her career was being mapped.  

Jessica Stenson ran her debut marathon in Japan.
Jessica Stenson finishes her debut marathon in Nagoya, Japan in 2012. It was the fastest marathon debut by an Australian woman and earned her a spot at the London Olympics.

Guided by the greats

One of Adam Didyk’s strengths as a coach is his willingness to lean on more experienced mentors. Didyk suspected Jessica Stenson was a marathoner, but when the former middle-distance runner began coaching, he had little understanding of how to tailor a marathon training program. He also wasn’t sure if Stenson, at age 24, was ready to conquer the distance. In order to make the best decision, Didyk consulted widely with Australian Olympians and marathon greats, including Chris Wardlaw (2:11.55 PB in 1979), Steve Monaghetti (2:08.16 in 1990, and second fastest Australian time) and his former coach Shaun Creighton (2:10.22 in 1997).

“Adam was talking about Jess’s progression for Rio, and I think they’d almost given up on the idea of moving to the marathon before London,” Creighton tells RunCreature. “I said to Adam, ‘It seems to me that for Jess there are two elements: clearly the road seems to be her best surface, and she also seems to be an aerobic animal who performs best over longer distances.’

“The conventional wisdom suggests you should wait until you’re a bit older. But if you look at some of Australia’s best marathon runners — Deek, Mona and Lisa Ondieki — they all moved to the marathon very early and had long professional careers,” says Creighton. “So I said to Adam, ‘If you’re going to be a marathon runner, which I think Jess is, go straight for it. Have a crack for London 2012 and strike while the iron is hot.”

Didyk remembers Wardlaw offering a similar piece of wisdom: You don’t get to choose when the Olympics are. The implication: sometimes you have to move the launch-date forward. These conversations affirmed for Didyk that running Nagoya in early 2012 was the right call. Based on Creighton’s advice, he tweaked the program to extend Stenson’s long run from 2 hours, to 2 hours and 30 minutes, and they began their build. The next affirmation came when she blazed across the line with an Olympic qualifier. “True to Jess’s form, whenever she lines up she makes the most of it,” Didyk tells RunCreature. “It was amazing to see her execute the race the way she did.”

A firm believer that coaches need to support one another, Didyk knows his willingness to ask for guidance has been critical to his athlete’s success — and their relationship. “I don’t think I’d still be coaching Jess if I took the stance, ‘No no, I know what to do, I know what’s best,’ and not lean on the people and the resources I had around me to make sure it worked well for her.”

From marathons to motherhood

The proverbial carrot that appeared after Toronto is still dangling, temptingly, because Stenson has yet to race another marathon. That’s because — in early 2019 — she and Dylan decided to start a family. 

To some, it might seem odd, or even risky, to take a break from your craft at the height of your powers. For women in all walks of life, in all professions, having children means a forced hiatus. The very real threat of missed opportunities and delayed or unfulfilled career progression must be carefully weighed-up and navigated. 

For Stenson, falling pregnant in 2019 would mean a considerable layoff from the sport she loved. There was also a strong likelihood it would cost her an opportunity to make her third Olympic team. 

Nevertheless, Stenson says the break was perfectly timed — and much needed. 

Over a six-year period, from Nagoya in 2012 to Toronto in 2018, Stenson cemented herself as one of Australia’s greatest female marathoners. She was a two-time Olympian (London and Rio), a two-time bronze medallist at the Commonwealth Games, a two-time representative at the World Championships (Moscow and London), and a representative at the World Cross Country Championships. She also had top 10 finishes in several big city marathons, including a win at Melbourne in 2015. 

“I really hadn’t backed off training a whole lot since my first marathon in 2012, so the timing [of the pregnancy] was perfect,” she tells RunCreature.

“In order to be the best marathon runner I could be, and to fulfil my potential, I saw the need for a rest period. I view this as a positive for the long run.” 

She and Dylan found out they were pregnant in March 2019, and got married a month later. Throughout the pregnancy, Stenson focused on staying active as best she could; cross training and walking to maintain her conditioning.

At no point did she doubt her ability to return: “I’m not sure why. There are lots of things that can go wrong,” she says. “But there have been a lot of women who have done it before me.”

“I certainly didn’t think that having a baby could stop me from being able to dream big and strive towards my best as an athlete.”

The plan was to give birth naturally and Stenson was “mentally ready to take on and experience that pain”; marathon training had helped in this regard, she says. But at 27 weeks, her baby moved into a breech position. The safest delivery option, her obstetrician told her, was a caesarean. 

There was some trepidation around having major abdominal surgery, but Stenson knew it was necessary. In November, she gave birth to a healthy baby boy named Billy. 

“It really is the most positive life-changing experience,” she says.

Getting to know Billy — and learning the ins and outs of being a parent — with Dylan, has been incredible, she says. “It’s a happiness beyond what we could have even expected. It kind of feels like it completes us.”  

Jessica Stenson with her husband Dylan and son Billy.
Dylan and Jessica Stenson with their son Billy following a race in South Australia in 2020.

The road to recovery means respecting pain

Returning to exercise, and running, however, was a challenge.

“The healing process was tougher than I imagined,” she recalls. “I found it quite remarkable how painful the incision site was, but also how weak I was. When Billy cried, I couldn’t turn to help him or sit up in bed for quite some weeks. I felt like I had no muscular support there, when my core has always been my structure for everything I do with running.” 

Being a marathoner may have helped her mentally prepare for the pregnancy journey, but to recover, Stenson needed to adopt a counter-intuitive mindset.

“The runner’s 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… it was about respecting pain and really listening to my body, and following healing time frames.” 

A physiotherapist, Stenson completed a professional development course on returning to exercise after pregnancy and childbirth, which helped her better understand some of the physiological stresses and issues that can arise. When she eventually returned to training, she did so cautiously, with the guidance of physiotherapists and women’s health professionals.

She was particularly conscious of the load she was putting on her body while breastfeeding, as evidence suggests this can lessen bone density and heighten the risk of stress fractures. In addition, Stenson now had to carefully coordinate her training schedule around Billy, and the demands of motherhood. 

To make it work, Stenson relied on goal-setting. Her typical approach: identify main, long-term goals, and then drill down — devise action plans and process goals to keep yourself accountable, and to achieve along the way. 

By the start of 2020, there was already an ambitious goal in place, and a target race on the calendar.

Stenson was plotting her comeback. 

Two elite athletes, a baby boy, and a business

Jessica Stenson might be the one with national teams to her name, but her husband Dylan — an engineer by profession — is no slouch when it comes to running. Dylan holds South Australian state titles in the 400, 800 and 1500-metre distances, and he ran qualifying times for the 2018 Commonwealth Games in the 800m, narrowly missing out on a selection. Undeterred, he has continued to compete at a high level, working with Melbourne-based coach Justin Rinaldi. In early 2020, before races were cancelled, the middle-distance runner clocked a blistering personal best of 1:46.64 in an 800m race in Canberra. “It was a huge accomplishment,” says Jessica.

Somewhat unsurprisingly, it was at a race — the 2014 City-Bay Fun Run in Adelaide — when this running power couple first locked-eyes. “We met at the after party and pretty much started dating straight away. We got chatting, enjoyed each other’s company, and we just went from there,” she recalls. While they compete in different events, and have vastly different training regimes, Jessica nevertheless says they “complement each other” as athletes. “Dylan sees my struggle with sometimes giving myself the opportunity to rest and absorb the training. So he keeps me constantly questioning whether I should perhaps take a recovery day… and that’s been really important through this phase of returning to running post-childbirth.”

As new parents, Jessica and Dylan are hoping they can instil in Billy a love for getting outdoors. “It doesn’t matter what he does, we just hope that he’ll enjoy being active in some way,” she says. In addition to being new parents, trying to juggle the demands of training like elite athletes, Jessica and Dylan are also entrepreneurs. In 2015, the couple — along with Jack Trengove — founded Rundies, an Adelaide-based apparel company that sells underwear designed specifically for runners, featuring antimicrobial bamboo fabric.

A ‘dark horse’ returns to racing

Making Tokyo would be a long shot. But why not have a crack? 

This was Stenson’s attitude coming into 2020. She would race the Hamburg Marathon in April, just six months after giving birth.

“It took a lot, after giving birth to Billy in November [2019], to get physically and mentally ready for that race,” Stenson says. “In my mind, I really wanted to achieve the Olympic qualifying standard of 2:29.30.”

To position herself in the top 3 in Australia, and secure a spot on the Olympic team, however, Stenson would have needed to run faster than 2:26.21 to leapfrog fellow hopeful, Ellie Pashley. 

Australian women with Tokyo qualifiers

  1. Sinead Diver 2:24.11 (London, April 2019)
  2. Lisa Weightman 2:26.02 (Osaka, January 2020)
  3. Ellie Pashley 2:26.21 (Nagoya, March 2019)
  4. Milly Clark 2:28.08 (Gold Coast, July 2019)

“I probably didn’t feel I was quite ready to run that sort of time,” she admits. If she could run the qualifier, however, she could be ready as an alternate, if needed. That was the goal: “I wanted to put myself in the mix.” 

But then, the world as we knew it changed.

In early March, the Hamburg Marathon was postponed due to coronavirus. Initially, Stenson was panicking; she needed to find an alternate race to run her qualifier, or so she thought.

On March 24th, a much more significant announcement came from the International Olympic Committee: the Tokyo games would be postponed until July 2021. 

“It was a relief,” Stenson recalls. “I knew I was cutting it very fine with the time frame. I was looking forward to Hamburg, but I felt like a few more layers of training certainly would have helped my result.” 

With the unexpected gift of an extra year, those layers have begun building-up, and Stenson is poised to rediscover her pre-pregnancy form. Had her personal best time in Toronto (2:25.59) come during the qualifying period, it would have been the second fastest in Australia, behind only Sinead Diver.   

That gives Stenson confidence. So too does the fact that she seems to be getting faster: “I’ve been working on my 10k and 5k speed and I’ve seen some improvements there, and that excites me about what opportunities might be available to improve my time in the half and full marathon,” she says. “I think I’ve shown myself what I can do through high-volume training, but that’s been at the detriment of my ability to work on my economy and speed. Now I’ve had this period to work on that, I’m excited to boost the volume and see what’s possible.”  

Fans of the sport have already caught promising glimpses of this improvement in action. Stenson ran two cross country races in South Australia in June and July. She finished 2nd in the 4 km event, and 3rd in the 8 km distance. Then, on July 20th, racing in the new Asics Metaracer, she finished 2nd in the South Australian 10 km road championships, setting a personal best time of 32:40. 

Another key development is that Stenson has begun training with two high-performing female athletes: Izzi Batt-Doyle and Caitlin Adams — first and fourth in the aforementioned 10 km race, respectively.  

“This has changed the dynamic for Jess,” says Didyk.

“When she trained with guys, Jess used to accept that she might fall off the back; but with the girls, she grits her teeth and hangs on a little bit more in training.”  

Stenson racing x-country in South Australia.
Jessica Stenson (middle) races her new training partners Izzi Batt-Doyle (left) and Caitlin Adams at a South Australia Cross Country meet in 2020. (CREDIT: Athletics SA)

Getting marathon ready at the right time

These results, in shorter distances, have Stenson ratcheting-up her aspirations for longer races.

In late September, she had her first test over 21.1 km. Running as a race ambassador, Stenson took the victory in the Adelaide half marathon, notching a time of 1:12.20.

The steady progress has her feeling confident for her next marathon, whenever that might be: “I am excited to try and get — not just a qualifying time — but a strong time on the board to be competitive.” 

It was already a tight race to make the Australia’s female marathon team for Tokyo, with four qualified athletes vying for just three spots. When the qualification period resumes, Stenson will be the dark horse making a valiant chase. 

Still, she’s not getting ahead of herself: “I want to put myself in a position to run a personal best time. Where that places me in relation to the other girls really depends on where they’re at, and how they’ve been able to prepare. I’m optimistic that I’ll be able to be at my best. 

“Obviously I’d really love to represent Australia again, but I have to focus on my own improvement and see what that results in.”  

Didyk says he’s excited for 2021 and believes Stenson is “evolving into a better runner than she’s ever been”. 

“Ultimately, when she goes for it, she’ll run something ahead of 2:25.59, and hopefully something significantly ahead of that. I think she has a whole other level ahead of her in terms of what she can achieve.”

Long-time mentor and two-time Olympian, Shaun Creighton, is also confident Stenson can make the national team: “The great thing for Jess is that she doesn’t need to exceed what she’s previously done,” he says. “She knows how to run a marathon, she knows what she can do, she just needs to get back to where she was.” 

Stand-up sponsors stand-by expecting athletes

In May 2019, several high-profile American Olympians and former Nike athletes broke non-disclosure agreements with the company. They did this to reveal some of Nike’s problematic contract arrangements surrounding pregnancy and parental leave for professional female athletes. There were a number of claims, including that Nike had slashed pay for athletes during pregnancy. These revelations, published in the The New York Times, prompted a congressional inquiry and public outcry. In the months that followed, Nike amended its maternity policy,  guaranteeing full pay and bonuses for sponsored female athletes for 18 months around a pregnancy period (eight months before birth and 10 months afterwards). Other apparel companies have followed suit.

Watching from afar, Jessica Stenson now credits her sponsors — Asics Australia, Elastoplast ANZ, and Southside Suzuki in Adelaide — for their responses to the news of her pregnancy. “My sponsors have shown unconditional support and they embraced what I could offer throughout my pregnancy and as a new mum, despite being away from major competitions for a while. They celebrated the news with me, which affirmed their strong values and why I am proud to be associated with these companies.” With a popular Instagram account, boasting nearly 30,000 followers, Stenson was able to document her pregnancy and return-to-racing journey for fans, and continue giving her sponsors some exposure. She’ says she’s happy that apparel companies are beginning to be more proactive in supporting female athletes through pregnancy.

A future career as a running mum 

At just 32-years-old, Stenson is already one of Australia’s great marathon runners, and it’s quite possible some of her best years are still to come. 

She modestly deflects, however, when the topic of her legacy comes up. Stenson reveres Benita (Willis) Johnson, the Australian female marathon record holder, and has deep admiration for the late Kerryn (Hindmarsh) McCann, a two-time Commonwealth Games gold medallist. She also speaks glowingly of Diver and Weightman, who she says are “smashing barriers and perceptions… about when [athletes] can run PBs in their career”. 

“I feel fortunate to be running in an era when there are so many of Australia’s best runners of all time around the place to talk with and to learn from,” she says. “You can always see opportunities to improve and that’s what I see. The ladies around me inspire me.” 

While Didyk is certainly backing Stenson, he’s also excited about the depth of talent in Australian marathoning. 

“We both have so much respect for the girls who have currently got the qualifiers, and we still believe that all of them have the capacity to improve as well,” he says.

“There’s no reason that we can’t have girls going to the Olympics — a whole team — looking at top 8 and pushing towards medals. And if we’re not doing that then we’re selling ourselves short as a nation.”   

As an athlete, Stenson is not lacking for motivation, but becoming a mother is a profound life experience. For the once “all or nothing” runner it has caused a seismic shift in her priorities. 

“Running has always been important. At times I’ve probably let it consume me a little bit. Now, being a mum, and a positive family member, is number one. Running should always complement that.” 

This new approach has helped relieve some of the pressure she used to put on herself: “It makes you feel a little bit freer when you’re out there.” 

Her brother, Jack, sees this as a positive: “To be a professional athlete, you have to have an element of selfishness in how you train and prepare,” the former AFL player says. “But when you bring a human into the world your focus changes… Jessica’s mindset and outlook on life is a lot different this time around, and I have no doubt it will result in better performances because she’s more well-balanced and relaxed.” 

“It’s like starting with a blank canvas again and everything you do is the new you,” says Stenson. “To see what your body is capable of is exciting, and I’m really looking forward to sharing the next chapter of my running journey with Billy.” 

It’s a journey that will certainly get more exciting once marathon racing resumes. And whether it’s the Olympics, or a world major down the track, Stenson plans to continue getting better. 

Jack knows his sister is capable, and says that since becoming a mum she feels like she can “have a crack at anything”.

He adds a final thought: “Nothing really scares her.”

Want more? Check out the RunCreature interviews with Jessica Stenson and her coach Adam Didyk.

Myles Gough

Myles Gough

Remember to follow me on Strava and Instagram. Or message me if you have any questions or tips at myles@runcreature.com.

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