How does a DNF taste? Sweeter than you'd expect. Meet Vanessa, our next Inspiring Human. This Christchurch based trail runner has a huge heart, for running, for empowering others and supporting them to acheive their goals.
Vanessa is nearly always found in or around the Port Hills. As a child her Mum and Grandad took her and her siblings (Daniel, twin sister Monika and younger sister Natasha) on Sunday afternoon walks around Rapaki and Bridle Path. She has fond memories of drinking raro and eating apples before scampering back down the hill to have afternoon tea with her Dad and Grandmother. Her Dad was a wheelchair user so most of these outdoor adventures were with her Mum and Grandad.
It was her Grandad who got her started in running. She was about 9 or 10 at the time he turned 65 and decided he wanted to do a half marathon. Together the accomplished the City 2 Surf and Air-to Square events.
Vanessa has strong memories of watching the first ever Women's Marathon at the Olympics in Los Angeles totally in awe of these incredible athletes. At the time she didn't realise long distance running was such a revolutionary thing for women to do: running was something her and her Grandad enjoyed together.
As a many teens experience, running gave way to other passions like drama, dancing and violin. She became the first person in her family to go to University and she got a degree in English and History, and she topped off with a Teaching Degree. She met her husband Mike and the day after her 22nd birthday, they were married. They opened a tackle shop in central Christchurch called Mike's Fishing and life was moving forward.
In her first year of teaching, Vanessa suffered a prolapsed disc in her back. This led her to believe that walking was probably all she would be able to do. Not letting this keep her from the Port Hills, she and her friend Jude would go early Sunday mornings and powerwalk the hills. Jude showed her new trails, while they supported each other through tough times. This really cemented her emotional attachment to the Port Hills as a place of healing and happiness. They used to see people running to the top and say they were crazy!
In 2011, with the global financial crisis, Mike being unwell and the Christchurch Earthquakes, it was time to close down their hunting and fishing store. Vanessa was working in a fixed term, part-time teaching position and with the term ending, pressures increased. She did what she needed to do to support her family and ended up waitressing at a local pub to help make ends meet. Something she hadn't done for 20 years, but something she is truly grateful for in her family's time of need.
Life has a funny way of surprising and delighting us. Just one day before the new school year in 2012, Vanessa had an interview at Mairehau High School, with thanks to Jude who recommended her. She's been there ever since. She loves the diversity and inclusion of the school. Vanessa feels passionately about using teaching to improve the future life outcomes for other human beings, and teenagers are wonderful and wonderous humans. She's passionate about being present, walking alongside these students as they negotiate puberty and blossom into mature, thoughtful and caring young adults. As an English teacher, she's helping to pass along life skills like resilence, self-belief, tenacity and confidence.
It was this same year that she started at Mairehau, all those years of walking in the hills had her saying yes to being the tail end charlie for a new school running group. Wanting to keep her fitness up, but having a young family and working full time meant she didn't have lots of time to spend out exercising. She started jogging again in order to get around the block in time. It started out by walking 2km down to the park, running one side, walking the next, then walking home. All those good memories of running came flooding back and she remembered how much she loved to run. With Mike's support, she's be out the door when she could.
One year later she ran the Christchurch Half Marathon and hasn't stopped running since.
Running has also connected Vanessa to other running communities. She's a regular at the Christchurch Hagley parkrun, a free timed 5km event that happens every Saturday morning. She's now a Race Director for the Hagley event and loves seeing people turn up consistenly and try this event. Here she's met some of the most generous, humble and outstanding people who have become some of her very best friends and family in the running community.
After meeting Robyn Perkins, about three years back into her running life, Vanessa heard about the Achilles Group. Their mission is to provide New Zealanders with disabilities the opportunity to participate alongside able-bodied athletes in local, national and international events. The Chrischurch Chapter were in need of more guide runners for people with visual impairments, and along Vanessa went. There she met Mike Assmussen and his guide Simon. They got along well, and were soon doing interval sessions with Vanessa and training for Mike's first half marathon really began.
"Guiding adds a whole new dimension to my running and increases your mental toughness. You have to be completely aware of your surrounds at all times, looking for hazards and checking your athlete is safe and well, even when you are exhausted yourself. It’s a partnership based on communication and mutual trust. My athlete trusts me to problem solve for them on the course. In this context, lack of sight can be overcome with another pair of eyes, just as sore feet can be overcome with an orthotic. Guiding reminds me that everyone has problems they have to overcome to complete an event. Running is a great equaliser"
Before joining Achilles, Vanessa spent most her runs alone. And now days with a really supportive group around her and Mike, known as Da Boyz, she's rarely alone. They're always game for a run, no matter the conditions. They're her running family who embody the ethos that life is without limits and that there is no problem that can't be figured out or laughed at.
Through running Vanessa met Jamie Hawker who invited her along on Porthills Club runs and is responsible for her decision to try ultra running. He's the Race Director for Crater Rim Ultra. After a run together up Rapaki, where he spoke so enthusastically about it, Vanessa asked him if he thought she could do it. And well, the answer was yes. So she was in. That year the Achilles Chapter decided to volunteer as marshalls for the event and so she got to see all her friends along the way cheering her on. 50km took her 10 hours and came in last. This event will be in her heart forever.
So how about that DNF we mentioned? Eight weeks out from the Northburn 100miler 2021 event (161km with 10,000m of elevation) Vanessa had a grade two tear in her ankle, with an estimated 6 week recovery time. It was time to rally the team and all her running knowledge just to get to the start line. This meant heaps of physio, exercise, rest, eating well, aqua jogging and walking. No-one gave up. They all just focused on one thing at a time in a logical order which meant she arrived in full colour at the start line.
Things started to go pear shaped when large blisters appeared on the balls of her feet. So at 50km, she pulled the pin. In her own words, while she didn't make the 100 miles, it was "glorious trying. There's something to be said for failing with enthusaism. After all, that's how you learn". She'll be back in 2022 to give it another crack.
Balancing work, family and training is a real juggle. Her teenage children say that they like her being out of the house, but they also get sick of roast chicken and still want an adult around during term time. Vanessa's husband Mike is supportive, but you won't catch him out on the trails with her. Together between the four of them they work as a team to make it all happen.
This year Vanessa is taking leave to complete her Masters in Education after winning a Teach NZ Study Award. She'll be specialising in adolescent literacy. Which let's be honest, is a whole different type of challenge in iteself. With no other races entered for this year, she'll be focused on running with Mike and Da Boyz, being home for her family and maybe giving the garden some TLC. Achilles is still planning to attend the 2022 New York Marathon, so there's always something to train for.
Vanessa inspires others simply by giving them space to see their own light. Through teaching and running, she gives her time, energy and enthusiasm to everything she does. Thank you Vanessa for sharing your story with our readers.
Do what gives you joy. Whatever you choose to do, do it with enthusiasm and passion, even if you think you're not good at it, yet. How do you run an marathon? One step at a time. How do you reach your goal? See previous sentence.
If you want to connect with Vanessa, you can find her on Instagram here