Eagle River Spartan athlete fulfills promise to late brother by competing at World Championships

Wednesday, November 6, 2019 - 10:22
  • Jen Hufford takes advantages of Alaskas rugged terrain to train for Spartans 24-hour Ultra events. Here, she is in Girdwood, climbing Mount Alyeska during the Cirque Series. (Photo provided by Jen Hufford)
  • Mark Hufford, during one of his training rides. Her brother died in 2011, and Hufford said she races to honor his memory. (Photo provided by Jen Hufford)
  • Hufford grew up figure skating and competing in all levels of competition. I grew up in the MAC center, she said. She still laces up her skates occasionally and has fun, as shown here, at Westchester Lagoon. (Photo provided by Jen Hufford)

Jen Hufford hadn’t slept for two days after an exhausting flight from Anchorage to London to Scandinavia, but as she settled into her hotel in Are, Sweden, earlier this week, her excitement still bubbled over. On Friday, the 35-year-old Eagle River sports trainer and athlete with an impressive competitive resume will toe the line with an elite group of competitors from around the world vying for the title of World Spartan Ultra champion. Considered the granddaddy of Spartan Races, the Ultra challenges competitors to complete as many laps of a five-mile course filled with 30 to 35 obstacles as possible in a 24-hour period. For every failed obstacle, the racer must complete 30 burpees, to be completed at the end of each round. The racer with the most accumulated miles wins.

“The race venue is looking to have a high in the 20s (Fahrenheit) and a low near 10 with snow, as well as only about six hours of current daylight in a 24-hour period,” Hufford said of the expected weather conditions high in the mountains of northeast Sweden. “The entire race will be performed under headlamps.”

In other words, it’s a brutal race that tests not only physical strength, but mental fortitude. That’s a skill Hufford appears to cultivate every day. Spurred by the toughness of her late brother Mark — who was paralyzed in 1995 after falling from a treestand, yet went on to become a decorated hand cyclist — she reminds herself every day how lucky she is to have her health. She said Mark is her motivation to race.

“Shortly before he passed in 2011, we had made a promise to each other that we were going to make it at a ‘world level’ in our sports (his wish for himself was the Kona Iron Man),” Hufford said of her brother, who died before attaining that goal. “With his passing, it led me on the hunt to keep that promise to him. We trained a lot together in the gym, and athletics was what I would consider our brother-sister bond.”

Hufford has been an athlete all her life. Growing up in Eagle River, she began figure skating at the age of 2 and by 24 had competed at multiple levels.

“After my competition days were over in skating, I went more into coaching, and I was looking for that next ‘it’ factor,” she said.

She adventured into bodybuilding, but didn’t think it would suit her long term, and she tried running, but that didn’t suit her, either.

“I ran multiple marathons, untrained, just to see if I could conquer the distance but realized running on pavement, for lack of a better term, sucks.”

A few years ago she landed on Spartan racing. The obstacle-course format has been growing in popularity worldwide as athletes embrace the whole-body fitness demanded of the sport. Spartan competitors run, climb, carry, crawl and burpee their way through courses littered with obstacles. There are giant wooden walls to climb, barbed-wire fields to negotiate, sand-filled bags to haul up hills — even fire pits to run through or over. Each obstacle requires a specific skill, and if a competitor fails at the challenge, he or she must perform burpees to make up for the loss. This cruel jumping-and-pushup combo exercise is a time-consuming, energy-sapping task, and Spartan athletes try to avoid them at all costs.

Tom Deakins is transitioning from ultra sports to bodybuilding. Like Hufford, he thrives by challenging himself physically and mentally, so he sought her opinion as he went from a mostly aerobic training schedule to one that involves plenty of time in the gym. She is coaching him in nutrition and fitness, and he said he is seeing the results.

“People like Jen, they pick a goal and they conquer it,” he said. “She’s raising money to help athletes like her brother, athletes with mobility issues. And that’s where the mental toughness comes in. Jen is using her brother to mentally push through one of the toughest races ever.”

This summer, Deakins said, Hufford prepped for her Hawaii Spartan race by entering the

Mayor’s Marathon, but with a twist.

“Every mile, she dropped and did 100 burpees,” he said. “She would just incorporate these into the regular race, stopping every mile to perform burpees.

“… she is a crazy athlete who I have a crazy respect for.”

Kim Randolph said it’s Hufford’s can-do attitude that will get her to the finish line in Sweden. After all, it’s what helped her complete her first-ever 26.2-miler, the Berlin Marathon, in September.

“Jen was my trainer when I was training for the marathon,” Randolph said. “She’s infectious — she has so much positivity in her, and she said ‘at Mile 20, you’ll want to quit, but just put one foot in front of the other.’ I thought of that so much during the race. And I did it.”

As Spartan Ultra race day approaches, Hufford said she’s ready; and her strategy is similar to what she told Randolph: “Just keep going.”

“At this point my training is done, the time has been put in, and I need to trust the process,” she said. “Mileage will be what mileage will be, but tenacity and heart is what makes a true champion. I preach this everyday to my clients — to never give up and to keep pushing through. I want to show them that I practice what I preach and no matter the obstacle, you can overcome it. My brother would have never quit, and his heart will be with me the entire race.”

Melissa DeVaughn is an Eagle River freelance writer and the former editor of the Alaska Star. She works as the head track coach at Chugiak High.

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