In 2020, when amputee ultra runner Jacky Hunt-Broersma saw that Alyssa Amos Clark had broken the record for running 95 marathons in as many days, she thought to herself, “Well, that would be interesting to try and do. Especially running on a prosthetic leg …”
Two years later, in late April, 46-year-old Hunt-Broersma broke the record, which could take up to a year for Guinness World Records to ratify, with 104 marathons in 104 days, including the Boston Marathon’s para-athletic race (which was Day 92).
Her original challenge was 100 in 100, but a British woman, Kate Jayden, set that record just days prior to Hunt-Broersma’s finish, so the challenge was extended to 102, and then she added two more days. For fun.
A South African who resides in Arizona with her husband and children, Hunt-Broersma lost her lower left leg to Ewing sarcoma, a rare form of cancer that affects tissue around the bones, in 2001.
As part of her challenge, she raised over $192,000 for Amputee Blade Runners, to help people access expensive prosthetics, but her primary ambition was simply a personal challenge, and to put in some “base miles” for a 240-mile ultra run in Utah later this year.
“Here in the States, running blades are really expensive and health insurance doesn’t cover it, they see it as a luxury. So I thought it would be a great way to raise money for charity and it would be a good way to give back,” Hunt-Broersma told ESPN.
“Running is something, even though I wasn’t doing it [before surgery], you kind of take for granted, because you could just put a pair of shoes on and go.”
Hunt-Broersma always lived a fit lifestyle but described herself as “a glass half full” in regard to her athletic capabilities: “I thought running ultras was crazy, if I’m totally honest. ‘Why would you do that?'”
But then, after her surgery, she found motivation from the stubborn place inside her, the same place that saw her fight cancer. She says amputees are often told by medical professionals about things they can no longer do, and it irritated her.
She said: “You kind of get put in this box of being disabled and it’s just really annoying and I’m super stubborn and like, ‘Well, no, I want to give running a go, I want to try it and just see.'”
She took the plunge and invested $10,000 in a running blade [because regular prosthetics are unsuitable] and she enjoyed “pushing boundaries and having fun with it.”
She found that after the surgery she struggled with body acceptance, and running gave her something to be proud of: “Running really changed my life and it gave me a more sense of acceptance of my body and just more … ‘I can do things, I can do hard things!’
“So I’m more proud of who I am and what my body looks like, and I’m so grateful for running because it definitely has changed my perception.”
And her body did change, though not in the way you’d imagine, because she was careful not to lose weight despite all the running she was doing.
The whole challenge involved 2,728 miles (4,390 kilometers), and an excess of 250,000 calories, but it didn’t mean Hunt-Broersma could eat what she wanted. There’s a lot of trial and error in the fuelling process for long-distance running, and it varies from person to person.
She quickly realised she had to fuel not only for recovery and load for the next day, but as she was running across lunch time most days, to ensure she ate enough overall.
“I actually gained weight, but it’s more muscle,” she said. “I’ve been very conscious not to lose weight, because I just felt like if I did, then that means I’m just not getting what I need to fuel every day.”
‘You make peace with the pain’
Hunt-Broersma is a coach by day, and reduced her commitments while taking on this challenge, which became somewhat of a full-time job.
Every day, she would get the same heavy-leg feeling runners know so well. Sometimes the fatigue would stick around for a few days, and others she would feel fresh again — in the same way all runners experience good days and bad days … just more frequently.
She explained: “You kind of get used to that feeling, it’s just become my new normal so you just get out of bed and it’s like, ‘Oh yeah my body’s feeling tired,’ but you keep moving and keep going.
“And you make peace with the pain, just because you have a target, so you just suck it up and you know what you just need to get on with it.
“The hardest thing was mentally, getting up in the morning. … But somehow you just kind of motivate yourself. You get out of bed and think, ‘I just actually want to do something else today, I didn’t actually want to run. I don’t know, just go to the store maybe, and just go walk around, I’d be quite happy to do that.’
“And then you think it’s like a job, and there’s days where you don’t want to go to your job, but you have to get paid in the end, and so that’s how I kind of had to try to focus on that. It’s forcing yourself to do it just because you know what the end target is.”
There were “ugly” points during the runs, too. She recalled one day, 15 miles in: “I just sat down and cried some really ugly tears, and I was like, ‘I can’t do this anymore, I’m done, I’m tired, my body is healing.’
“On those days part of you knows how disappointed you would be to give up and the other part, is like, ‘Just focus on getting to the next step.’ I focus on breaking it down. Get to the next mile and then before you know it you’re at the end and it’s like, ‘Oh I’ve done another marathon, there we go.’
“It has very much been a roller coaster, sometimes I’ve felt absolutely awful … and then other days I feel great. I don’t know why, I don’t know how I’m doing it, I thought I’m some kind of freak and let’s just get it done.”
But the motivation is always sadistically self-inflicted: “I hate quitting on anything so I’m just like, ‘No, you did this yourself, you need to just do it.’
“It just shows running is so much more mental than anything so if you can train your brain to keep pushing through then you’re OK … and the longer I’ve been going, the easier that has been and my body has adapted to the mileage.”
Other low moments included the tread on her prosthetic coming off in the final few days. A challenge so long throws up many unknowns, including how much load the prosthetic could take, and she had to phone her husband to bring some glue.
‘Every day is the same …’
At the end of every day, Hunt-Broersma would be pictured holding a sign up with her total count and post on social media where she built up a growing following. She was always smiling, with the relief that it was another day ticked off, focusing on one day at a time rather than the bigger picture.
“You know, it’s kind of like you’re sleepwalking a little bit. You know every day is the same, and you just feel like you just get out of bed, get dressed, eat your breakfast and then you get running again and it’s just it’s the weirdest sensation,” she said.
She had a third job to manage too. Parenting became a tag-team effort as her husband, who also does ultra races, prepared for his own 24-hour race.
The routine was: Get up, get ready, take her two children to school, run a marathon, and finish in time to pick them up or be there when they walked home, before an evening of the usual parenting tasks like homework, dinner, household chores.
There was no luxury of resting, massages, or putting her feet up for the evening: “I had to make do with what time I had, so it’s just literally just putting it in, some days I started a little later … we made it work somehow.”
Her routes varied. She usually prefers to run trails, but from a time perspective road running was quicker and easier to fit into the day. She was often joined by other people, which was a welcome distraction, with plenty more offering support via messages.
There was also the Arizona heat in the middle of the day to consider. And her stump, which would be aggravated and swollen by the constant hard impact of road running, attracted many questions from other amputees.
She threw in some treadmill days which has a softer impact, and some days she ran laps around a long gravel track near the school, so as to not stray too far from home. Her children would see her and prove to their peers she really was running every day.
She added: “They’d tell their friends at school, but their friends said, ‘No we don’t believe that, you’re lying,’ and my son the other day replied, ‘What did your mom do? My mom can run 100 marathons in 100 days.'”
The inspiration filters down and set a tone with the children for their ambitions.
“I’m hoping it will teach my kids that it’s like it’s good to push the limits and [they’ll] see that when they grow up,” she said.