Dennene Huntley (BComm’00) is an unstoppable force: A military veteran who served in Afghanistan. General Manager of two Edmonton-based companies. A survivor who’s surmounted incredible obstacles. A mentor who inspires everyone she meets. And a Team Canada ultrarunner about to compete in the 24-Hour World Championships.

What it takes to become extraordinary

Working hard and smart—and a lot of training—have gotten Dennene Huntley to special places.

By Michelle MacAdam | spring 2015

Since your first half-marathon in 2003, you’ve run marathons, 100Ks, 125Ks and 24-hour races, landing on many podiums. How has running enhanced your life? 

Oh my. I’ve seen the world and met so many of my close friends through running. People say I’m humble to the point that I don’t realize the positive influence I have on others, just by doing what I love to do…but running has made me confident. I’ve always been a mentally tough person, but running has made me extremely mentally tough. 

What mileage do you run?

It all depends where I am in my training. Next week I’ll run 150K, the following week 140-150L and after that I’ll be tapering for the World Championships.

Distance running hurts. How do you develop that capacity to handle the suffering and keep pushing through it? 

Most people don’t go from the couch to a 100-miler. As you build, you push the limits of what pain is. Remember your first 32K? My first back-to-back long-run weekend felt the way that first 32K did. As you do more, it doesn’t feel hard anymore. At a 100K, you feel that same pain you did at your first marathon. I actually use a marathon as a good tempo training run. People ask me to run with them, so I’ll plan it to fall when I’m supposed to do a 40-50K. I use 50K and 50-mile races in training because they’re a good test.

Do you train for one race at a time or maintain a general level of fitness and then ramp it up for a big race?

 I’d say my minimum base would be 70k a week and in a training cycle I go up from there. 

Do you listen to music when you’re training?

Music makes me happy! The songs I listen to depend on what type of run I’m doing: tempo, speed work, a long run. One app I use is Rock my Run. It’s got everything. Just hit a playlist and away you go. 

You’ve faced some incredible challenges. In 2011 you did the Goofy, where you run the Disney half-marathon on the Saturday and the full marathon on the Sunday. You’d pulled a muscle towards the end, so when you got home you saw a doctor. Then what happened?

The doctor listened to my heart and said, I think you might have a heart murmur, and I want you to go to the Pembroke Hospital and get it checked. It turned out I didn’t have a heart murmur, I had a hole in my heart. At that point I’d already been to the 100K World Championships, raced the Canadian Death Race three times and podiumed each time... all with a 14mm hole in my heart.

It must have felt like the end of the world. How’d you get through it? 

It didn’t feel like the end of the world, but I did wonder what it meant going forward. My cardiologist said I was an anomaly—most adults with arital septal defect have a hard time going up the stairs, and I ran 100Ks for Canada. I asked how long I’d be out—he said up to a maximum of six months. It was less than that. There were actually a lot of benefits. Now I have the proper oxygenated blood running throughout my body. The military explains how you’ll feel at elevation, and I’d always felt that to the max, but not anymore. 

Four months out from heart surgery, on blood thinners, you ran in the hottest Boston marathon on record. You did not finish (DNF). Seasoned distance runners have all had that first DNF and it’s devastating. How was it for you? 

Well, it was bad...it was my first DNF. Under normal circumstances, I’d have been running. Just before the halfway mark I got the biggest goosebumps in the world, it was about 30 degrees Celsius and I felt like I was drunk with the world coming at me. I could’ve fallen and smashed my head. Did I get upset? Of course. But within the next day or two, I said, ‘I need to come back’. A friend was about to run the Toronto Marathon in three weeks and said, ‘You need to come with me.’ And I said, ‘You know what, I do.’ I needed to see if I could still do this. I went with no time goal and didn’t tell anybody I was doing it, other than my sister and my boyfriend at the time. I ended up running a 3:26 and had a blast. 

You’ll soon be representing Canada at the World Championships in Turino, Italy. What’s most exhilarating about that? 

Representing my country is so wonderful. I used to wear a uniform and I’ve hung that up, now I’m representing my country through athleticism. Most countries absolutely love Canadians, we get some of the loudest cheers. It’s so exciting running with the world’s best and seeing what I can do to push myself. It’s all day and all night; you don’t hit one or two walls, you hit six, seven, eight…you lose count. What’s exhilarating is having a low, getting through that and then going on a high again, thinking: I just overcame that! 

How did your time at Saint Mary’s prepare you for what was to come? 

At Saint Mary’s, I worked 30 hours a week and studied full-time. I put myself through university. That organization and determination that I had, I apply to my work life. Saint Mary’s is a great school—I was lucky to have an amazing education. If it weren’t for the professors who saw potential in me and pushed me in my third and fourth years, I might not be where I am today. They realized that if I applied myself and was challenged, I’d go places. As I often say, good things come to those who work hard and smart. 

 

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