To say Jennifer Payne, 31, loves spending time outdoors would be putting it lightly. When the ultrarunner wound up working behind a desk at home during graduate school, she was drawn to an activity she bonded over with her mother as a child. “I procrastinated so much. I was spending like six to eight hours a day outside gardening,” she says. Jennifer relished the public policy work she was doing. However, she knew a career that made it possible for her to spend time in nature, be physically active, and garden or farm was key to her happiness. 

Charting Her Path

In 2016, the mission to find a job that allowed her to do all the above led Jennifer to Memphis Tilth, a nonprofit aimed at creating a fair, eco-friendly, and economically sustainable local food system. During her three years there, she strengthened her skills and engaged with the community. 

She continued to hone her knowledge after transitioning to Green Girl Produce. While at the hydroponic vertical farm, Jennifer did more than learn about alternative growing methods—she ended up running the operation. The experience gave her insight into the business side of farming but left her yearning to be outside again. That’s when the folks at Alpha Omega Veterans Services (AOVS) came calling.

Sharing the Joys of Farming

Today, as Garden Program Manager, Jennifer works with Chris Peterson, Cash Hewlette, Faron Levesque, and multiple veterans to keep the charity’s roughly 2-acre farm at its Ball Road facility functioning. 

The Urban Farm & Garden program allows veterans served by AOVS to do paid work on the farm or simply experience its therapeutic effects from afar. “They are able, if they’re interested in being involved with the farm, to do that in any way they’d like,” says Jennifer. One former service member cares for chickens, while a group of veterans who call themselves “Farm Ambassadors” pot plants in the greenhouse, create bouquets to sell at the Cooper-Young Community Farmers Market, and more. 

The focus is mainly on growing seasonal vegetables, which are given to AOVS residents and sold to chefs, restaurants, and farmers market shoppers. “The interaction is really fun to watch because whether or not a veteran wants to work on the farm, they can see produce. Just getting to watch your food be grown or to know where your food comes from, I think, makes you value that and appreciate that a lot,” Jennifer says. 

Running Strong

The respect Jennifer has for freshly grown fare is multifold. As a farmer, knowing all that goes into its production is one thing, but as an athlete, understanding how it can impact your performance and health is another. “Running definitely taught me a lot about what I put in my body and how it affects me,” she says. “It’s been a really cool experience to fine-tune what I eat and drink to feel a certain way.” Naturally, you’ll find her meals full of veggies with some meat included. 

A whole-food focused approach to eating isn’t the only reason Jennifer has been able to tackle half marathons, marathons, and 50Ks. She credits her current success to her running coach, Holly Hensarling of Can’t Stop Endurance. And while running isn’t new to Jennifer—she started in high school—working with a coach is something she began doing only two-and-a-half years ago. Though Jennifer was able to cover longer and longer distances alone, incurring multiple stress fractures made her realize she wasn’t training safe or smart. “I needed someone to tell me ‘no’ and to slow down because I tend to get a bit excited,” she says. Working with Holly has helped her run injury-free ever since and was a major factor in finishing her first 50K on cloud nine in 2019. 

Jennifer is quick to tell everyone to shush the voice inside their heads that says regular people don’t have coaches. “I recommend one no matter what based on my experience. Having someone to ask, ‘Is it normal to feel this way after this workout?’ or ‘Can we adjust plans because I’m gonna go on vacation?’ and not feeling like I need to make up for lost time or work super hard to do something else is great peace of mind,” she says.

Most recently, Holly helped Jennifer prepare for her longest race ever—Three Days of Syllamo, which included a 50K on day one, a 50-miler on day two, and a 20K on day three. The challenge that comes with the unpredictability of long runs and a race so extreme is something Jennifer looked forward to. 

Staying Focused 

The discipline running requires is another aspect she thrives on. “I have to say no to some things, and I have to do other things if I want to run well. I’m enjoying learning how to do that,” she says. The fact that running allows her to spend even more time outside and to explore her surroundings, whether familiar or new, is also a perk. Locally, you’ll find her on the trails at Shelby Farms Park and Meeman-Shelby Forest State Park, and along the Wolf River Trails. 

As far as her advice for aspiring ultrarunners goes, her first tidbit is to get a quality pair of shoes. Then, remember that anything is possible if you consistently take small steps toward your goal. 

By Alexandra McCray

Photo by Tindall Stephens