Last updated: 10-May-19
By Susie Chan
Jack Denness is the UK Godfather of desert running. He’s the ultra runner you have probably never heard of, a pioneer in the sport at a time when it was so underground, so niche, that soft flasks for race vests were a mere twinkle in the eye of sports companies.
Ultra Running has seen a huge rise in popularity in the last few years. With social media spreading images of people running in hostile environments and posting selfies with race buckles, it also now provides a good source of advice and race reports. Information about where, and more importantly how, you can run ultra marathons has never been easier.
I met 84-year-old Jack on a snowy winter day in his home in Rochester, Kent to find out his story. Achingly modest, he became known as “Desert Jack” to those around him. He decided to take up running at the age of 39 in a bid to help him give up smoking.
“I started with running a half marathon, and it went from there”. The single half marathon turned into several and then next came marathons. He started to travel to races abroad, and one day after completing the San Francisco marathon, he decided he wanted to visit the hottest place on earth – Death Valley. It just so happened that Jack Denness was about to come across the notoriously difficult Badwater 135.
“I saw a runner and a car, and wondered what’s going on here then?” Frequently billed as the toughest footrace, Badwater135 starts off 283ft below sea level in Badwater Basin Death Valley, snaking 100 miles through the parched desert landscape and ends up scaling the snow-tipped Mount Witney. Jack wanted to do it.
“It wasn’t easy, communication wasn’t what it is these days. I had to go and find a fax machine for my entry and hope they had received it”. In 1991 Jack toed the line with just 13 runners to start what was the race he became known for. He went on to finish the race, and then completed it a further 12 times, entering the “Badwater Hall of Fame”. He has finished numerous other ultra races, many in a desert environment.
After volunteering at Badwater with his wife in intervening years, in 2009 Jack returned to Death Valley completing the gruelling race at the age of 75, a record that still stands.
How did an Englishman from Kent prepare for such races I ask him: “I did 80 mile races along the South Downs, you used to get a Patch for them, not a medal”. He shows me his patch collection. This is back in the 1980’s when he found and ran ultra marathons before heel drop was even a discussion point and before gels and electrolytes were even a thing.
Jack shows me around his office which is a shrine to his running achievements. Photos, medals, caps, and awards all jostle for space on his shelves. Pride of place is his MBE which he received in recognition of the amount of money he has raised for charity by running – well over £100,000.
We sit and watch the short video of him being awarded the Honour at Buckingham Palace and Jack wipes away a little tear watching it. The word “Legend” and “Inspiring” is banded around so much these days, but Jack really personifies both of those words, so I tell him.
“Oh, I’m no legend” he replies, “But it’s a nice thought to think I’ve inspired people”
An Interview with Chris Kostman, Badwater Race Director chatting to Jack is available here.
All photos courtesy of the author.