Danni steps up to 105km trail run feat

CALM BEFORE THE STORM: Millicent runners Brad Tilley, Danni Vanderheul and Adrian Bellin at the Heysen 105 start line.

By Brett Kennedy

MILLICENT mother-of-two Dannielle Vanderheul still recalls just a few short years ago struggling to complete a 5km run without stopping multiple times to rest.

Those first steps back into running seem lightyears away from the strong-willed and fit 29 year old Vanderheul has become, recording a top ten finish at Saturday’s Heysen 105km trail race.

In an outstanding test of physical endurance and mental fortitude, Vanderheul was the ninth woman to cross the finish line, stopping the clock at 13 hours and 12 minutes.

It followed a gruelling day crossing undulating farm paddocks, long forest tracks and steep, treacherous trail, starting near Victor Harbour and finishing at Jupiter Creek in the Adelaide Hills.

Vanderheul – a former cross country competitor in her schooling years – did not face the challenge alone, joined by experienced endurance runner and colleague Brad Tilley, who took on the Heysen 105 for the fourth time.

In fact, reflecting on her journey into long distance running, Vanderheul blames Tilley for being a “bad influence”.

However, Vanderheul also credits her mentor with being a key part of Saturday’s success as he drew on his personal experience to help her complete her first 100km race.

“I was hoping to stay under the 13-hour mark and Brad and I had worked out a time plan for the day,” Vanderheul said.

“He just looked back on what he had done and he just seems to know everyone’s strengths and weaknesses more than they do,” she said.

Lining up at the start line in a year full of race cancellations due to COVID-19, adrenaline ran high for Vanderheul.

However, her running experience – and Tilley at her side – helped maintain her focus and allowed her to cover the 105km distance, which included more than 2500 metres of elevation gain.

“It was a struggle because I am usually a faster runner,” Vanderheul said of the early kilometres.

“The adrenaline just gets you at the start and I just want to go.

“I knew we just had to completely slow the pace down and one of the hardest parts of the day was keeping that consistent pace.”

A previous finisher of the event’s 60km race, Vanderheul knew what to expect across the back half of the race but her sub-13-hour time goal weighed on her mind.

“I was just looking at the watch all day and a few times I could see that time was getting away from us,” she said.

“At the same time I could see so many people struggling and I just didn’t want to set my expectations too high once that goal seemed out of reach.”

It wasn’t until several hours after the race finish and some well-earned replacement calories that Vanderheul became aware of her top 10 finish.

“I was elated, it was shocking,” she said.

It was reward for effort for Vanderheul, whose children Harvey and Lilly were only too happy to welcome a new shiny medal into the household.

It was not the first time Vanderheul’s daily step count exceeded 100,000, having joined several of her Millicent Runners group peers in a 100km training run around the Mount Burr forest area in June.

It was a big jump from her previous best distance but that leap of faith was not out of character for Vanderheul.

She still recalls besting her previously longest run of 15km with the “crazy decision” to run from Millicent to Mount Gambier, covering 58kms on the day.

“I had plenty of support people who had a lot more knowledge than I did letting me know what to do and what to expect,” she said.

“You can be exposed to it and told but there’s no actual way to know how you will go until you do it yourself.”

It is that same pursuit of accomplishment and willing her body and mind to go further that has motivated Vanderheul to contest the 100km distance.

There is even talk of hanging up the netball shoes and focusing all her attention on endurance events, with the South Australia Five Series – five trail ultramarathons each 50km or more in distance, including Mount Gambier’s 56km Tower Trail Run.

In the short-term, the looming Naracoorte MegaFest Trail Run is on Vanderheul’s radar, having won the inaugural 22km event last year.

“I would like to defend the title but obviously with the 105 just gone I can’t set the expectations too high,” she said.

Luckily for Vanderheul she will not be preparing alone with plenty of friends and training partners to choose from.

They include fellow 105km finishers Tilley and Adrian Bellin, 60km finisher Vicki Noll and 37km finishers Jami Walker, Demi Verbena and Clint Gallio – the latter placing third in his trail race debut.

“(The Millicent Runners group) has complete different levels of running and we all just seem to band together,” Vanderheul said.

“We all want to see people succeed and that has helped get everyone to Heysen and seen them achieve their goals.”

Encouraging others across the Limestone Coast to take up running, Vanderheul said a 100km run was achievable for anyone willing to put in the time.

“You just need to start small and work your way up,” she said.

“Your mind will give up before your body does.”

Among the other Limestone Coast runners taking part in the event were Mount Gambier’s Kathy Thurlings, Kyle Summers (105km) and Helen Heaver (60km), while Ben Wood, Matt Drew, Luke Crossling, Paul Schroder (105km), Charlie Legoe, Mark Edwards (60km), Craig Brewin, Sile Legoe, Jess Edwards and Mel Bill (37km) represented Naracoorte.