Farming

It's a Cold and It's an (Un)Broken Hallelujah

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I never dread winter, I actually look forward to it. After strong fall running, I picture myself thriving on a lighter farm schedule with a late winter race to keep me hungry. What I always come to realize is that my lighthearted attitude for training turns into a cerebral, existential march toward my running goals. In summer and fall I'm a frolicking doe, gladly rolling out of bed a 4am. In winter I'm a pensive snow tiger, questioning the meaning of my effort. After five winters of heavy training on the frozen roads and trails of Wisconsin I've developed some strategies to weather the most severe season. Winterize your wardrobe and fueling The most common winter running mistake is overdressing. Stepping out into frigid weather, I know I will be cold for at least 10 minutes but with aerobic activity I warm up quickly. Having on too many layers, or the wrong layers, will lead to over-sweating and subsequent chills. On cold days (under 5 degrees) I wear a base layer under loose running pants, two running shirts, a soft-shell jacket, headband, hat, Buff around my neck, socks and running mittens. On sub 0 degree days I will add a light vest under the jacket. On warmer days the layers are reduced. I wear trail shoes on roads with mixed levels of traction and only ever wear added traction on trails. In my experience, quality goes a long way with winter running gear. Being comfortable can make or break your level of enjoyment when it's freezing, so invest in a good pair of pants and coat. You don't need to wash them everyday and can wear them for years.

Staying hydrated and fueled is easier and harder. You do not lose as much fluid through sweating when it's cold but it's still important to manage hydration. On runs longer than 15 miles I bring a warmed up electrolyte drink in my water bottles and it stays in a drinkable state for up to 2 hours. TIP: unscrew bottle tops, do not try to drink out of the nozzles. For runs over 25 miles I work in a stop for water. Gels become hard to eat when they are frozen so store them close to your skin. I also run with for real foods like Honey Stinger Waffles and Energy Bars.

Cross training can add value Other than the occasional snowshoe run or hike, and ice skating with my kids, all I do is run. But snow sports are great and someday I plan to play one. As boring as it sounds, my personal approach to winter training is to put everything into running and not wear myself out with other endeavors. For runners who are just trying to maintain a base or are building up for spring and summer races, playing out in the snow is the best way to enjoy winter. Snow sports are a great way to build and retain fitness, give your mind a break from higher-volume running, and let your body heal from micro-injuries. Just be careful not to get a traumatic injury that will take you away from running!

Don't be snobby about running surface Even though I consider myself a trail runner at the core, I run most of my winter miles on the road. When trail conditions are good I will be out there as much as possible but I never compromise my ankle health just so I can tell myself that I am running trails as much as I do other times of the year. Winter roads are more challenging than dry roads. With varying degrees of traction, snow accumulation, and debris on the shoulder, I make it a game to hop around, keeping my agility sharp. My road-heavy training has not seemed to limit me in a race setting, though I do wonder how I would be different as a runner if I had dry trails to run year-round.

Something is better than nothing, except when it's not There are so many reasons not to run in the winter. It's dark, cold, and treacherous. With holiday parties and beers to be consumed, running can seem unimportant. But any amount of running is better than not running at all. Once you're out there it usually turns into a good run. If it doesn't, at least you gave it a shot and got your blood flowing. However, once the diehard mindset takes hold, it's important to stay honest with yourself about your health. With colds and flues going around in the dark months, most of us will get sick at least once. Running through a little cold won't kill you, but it can derail your training efforts. I have personally prolonged viruses but trying to push through. Just be smart.

Seek out warmth In the winter, I spend a lot of time in cold places. Although I work less on the farm, when I am there, I work in a cold office in the barn. I do farm chores to help out on my parent's hog and poultry farm and I am out in the cold running 6 days a week. Even through I dress right, the cold just wears me down. I have learned that being close to a direct heat source warms my body and spirit. I often eat dinner in front of our wood burning stove, with the door wide open so I can stare at the flames. I take a hot bath several times a week and a steamy shower on the other days - I actually bathe more in the winter than the summer. Adding in a hot yoga practice or finding a sauna can take the edge off of the season for runners and non-runners alike.

Be kind to yourself and others Winter running can be intense for a lot of us but ultimately it's a choice. When I truly do not want to run, I won't. It's hard to keep a relaxed grip on structured training but it's important to remember that running is for fun. In the winter I eat more chocolate, I let my house get messier, I burrow down inside my own mind and indulge my introverted side. I try to love myself more in the winter because winter is hard for me. This also means that we need to be kind to our friends and family who are supporting our running pursuits. We are choosing to take on our own challenges and it's easy to feel like a noble martyr of the Arctic Tundra but no one is making us run, so just be nice about it.

The reason winter is important to me is because my drive for running shifts from joyful autopilot to contemplative examination. I feel my runs more in the winter months and the entire process is more epic. In fair weather, one day bleeds in the next and I rarely ask myself if I like what I'm doing. Winter forces me to check in and make sure this is still a meaningful use of my time. Running holds me close and asks Do you still love me? My response is I will love you forever.

I'll Meet You There

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I unlaced my farm boots and put them under my desk in the office, which happens to be in an old dairy barn. I powered down my computer and shut the door. The farm crew was gone for the day and I knew that no one would barge in while I changed into my running clothes. I was getting set for a run-commute, which is a common way for runners fit more miles in on less time by running to and from work. But I wasn't running home, I was running to a pond that's about 9 miles away. With an easy effort this would take me about an hour and 15 minutes, which would time out perfectly to get some quality time in the water with the kids before dinner. Is it possible to manage a training schedule, work, and keep wild kids entertained? I have found that the only way to fit it all in on weekdays is to run part of the way or all the way to our midweek adventures. This is exactly what my husband, Jesse, and I have been doing the past few summers. It calls for a high amount of spontaneity and a willingness to hop out of a car on the side of a country road. Our system requires me to keep gear for running, swimming, and hiking in the trunk of the car at all times. There is often a collection of fishing poles and sports equipment so we can be ready for any situation that arises.

The weekday adventure seeking behavior was born from Jesse's philosophy on life that we shouldn't live for the weekends. Saturday and Sunday are great for longer outings but there is no reason to discriminate against Monday through Friday just because we work those days. A little insider fact: all the best trails and swimming spots are empty on weeknights. So why not have them all to yourself when the weather is equally nice and the kids are game for fun? To add another layer of complexity to our schedule, Jesse is a runner and plays in a summer soccer league. He usually gives me running priority but his Thursday night soccer game is non-negotiable.

Now that we are in the thick of summer, a few important guidelines have become clear on how to live our fullest life in our favorite season. Once you get used to always feeling slightly disorganized and throwing routines out the door, you can really jam a lot of quality into the week.

Don't unpack the car Well, clean out the dirty stuff but make sure you always keep the trunk stocked for unplanned fun. The key to fitting in runs along with fun outings is to be low-maintenance and spontaneous. But when your sports and activities require equipment and supplies, you just need to keep those items on hand. In our car you will always find a jumble of beach buckets, towels, fishing poles, running shoes, swimsuits, Clif Bars, water bottles, dry clothes, Organic Valley Organic Fuel and a running kit. Sometimes Jesse leaves his cleats and shinguards in the car all week which is actually a convenient place to store them.

Stick to familiar routes I'm all about new adventures but keeping my route simple on fun-commute days is key to being respectful of my husband and kids who are waiting for me to get to the fun. My trail routes are usually at the same state park and I know how long different combinations of trails will take for me to get to the lake. If I am feeling good I might repeat a few hills but I never experiment with new loops when the crew is waiting for me. For road commutes, planning a run is much more simple. With a mapping application and my estimated pace, I can nail down my ETA pretty accurately.

Swimming counts as bathing Showers and baths. Who needs them when you can rinse the sweat and dirt off in a lake, stream, or spring-fed pond? Sure, every few days a conventional shower is a good idea but I do not plan my day around bathing myself or my children. Not having a high-maintenance grooming routing goes without saying. Rinsing off the mud in fresh water (or a hose) saves so much unnecessary fussing over hygiene.

Graze all day In the summer I don't run before work because our day starts so early and I can never get to bed in time to get enough sleep. One of the hardest parts about running at the end of the day is going into the run with low energy. Some days, after the workday is done, all I want to do is go home, eat food and sit in silence. To keep my energy up all day I eat small meals in addition to lunch. I keep nuts, fruit, and Organic Valley Mighty Bars on hand to make sure my system never gets too low. Everyday I eat a mid-afternoon snack of almond butter, coconut oil, and banana. It isn't too filling and the combination is packed with healthy fats, protein and natural sugar to make sure I am ready to hit the ground running when my workday is done.

A family who plays together, stays together Sometimes our weeknight adventures get late and we forgo a home-cooked meal. I feel bad when we pull into the driveway with the kids asleep in their car seats and after eating a snacks for dinner. Jesse reminds me that our scrappy kids need to get down and dirty on a regular basis. He says that we eat plenty of amazing food most days and bedtime routines are over-rated. Right now the kids are 3 and 5 years old. Pretty soon they will have sports and activities of their own. But until then we will push them to be the wildest versions of themselves as often as possible.

Summer in Wisconsin is short and precious. The long days and hot weather beg for us to lap up every last drop of the season. It's also the busiest time of year on the farm so we need to be strategic about our free time. We focus on productive adventuring, packing as much fun into the summer as possible. There's always time for running, as long as you have a capable, adventurous partner who wants to make everyday the best day.

I Feel So Far Away

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Spring is the most overrated season. Those were my husband, Jesse's words, not mine, but I couldn't agree more. He made that profound statement as I sat on the floor in the mudroom lacing up my running shoes. Moments earlier I told Jesse that everything would be better if only it wasn't so windy and rainy. And why the hell was I being such a baby? I had just trained hard through the bitterness of December and January. I've always had high hopes for this hopeful season but spring just doesn't work out for me. Each year I have more maturity and self-awareness about the ebbs and flows of trying to push myself to new levels as a runner, but that doesn't take away the sting of setbacks. It's actually gotten harder for me to accept that taking downtime is the right thing to do.

I've had a good February race for the last 4 years - that's every single year that I have been a serious runner. I have a 50 mile win, marathon and 50k podium finishes and a top five finish in a Western States Golden Ticket 100k. Then I back up those strong results with absolute flops in the spring. I've DNF-ed (did not finish) twice and, will have DNS-ed (did not start) twice counting this year. Between February and May, I ride a super wild roller coaster of physical and emotional drama.

I was really hoping that this spring I could break the cycle by following up a late winter race with consistent training and a decent spring race. I felt recovered two weeks after my February 100k and I started to build on my speed and took my time layering on the volume. By mid-March I could feel that my body was slipping into the dreaded spring pit of despair. I got one cold after another, I became agitated by crummy weather, and I was increasingly stressed about my sleep. With a 5 year old who regularly stays up past 10pm and a 3 year old who doesn't sleep through the night, it's hard not to have a death grip on nighttime hours. The farm schedule shifted to start an hour earlier which meant waking up at 5:15am to get my run in before getting the kids to pre-school on days that we had evening commitments - which is a lot during the spring. With each internal moan and gripe I hated myself for not loving the process. I was supposed to thrive on the grind, not have foreboding feelings about my training.

A theory I have about my springtime melancholy is that I am withdrawing from our big winter vacation. For the past few years, we've spent the better part of February traveling around the American West, running, exploring, and soaking in sun, before the farming season kicks off. We build up to our trip from November to January and I never have a plan for how I am going to transition back into the rest of winter when I got home. Our vegetable farming life is really polarized - we work hard 9 months of the year then have absolute flexibility in the winter to travel in between our winter projects. It's a cold, jarring return to reality after we get home from our winter adventures, no matter how wonderful our trip was. I get let down every single year.

By the middle of April I knew I should withdraw from the 50mile race that was scheduled for May. My training wasn't coming together and new health issues were surfacing that made it clear that I was about to dig myself into to a deep hole that would take months to get out of. On a gorgeous Saturday afternoon, I ran up to the state park near our house. After a half mile on the trail I caught a rock with my toe and my body hurled forward, rolling my left foot under as I landed on the trail. My first response was to inspect the moss and rocks stuck into my palm. Blood dripped down to my elbow from two wounds on my right hand. I rocked back onto my feet and screamed FUCK! I knew I had done damage to my ankle - my bad ankle. The ankle that I had been trying to heal all winter. On a cold, windy day back in November as I was coming down from Clingman's Dome, the highest point in the Smokey Mountains, I suffered my first traumatic running injury, a second degree lateral sprain. At the time it felt like a rite of passage, but that fateful moment followed me all the way through my 100k race in February. My winter training was stunted by my fears of re-injury and a lot of focus in my race was directed towards not landing wrong on my left foot. As I sat on the side of the trail I asked myself what I was accomplishing if I continued training with a bum ankle and a weak system. I struggled through a few more days of regular runs before I decided a real break was in order. My coach agreed that working past my issues would only lead to burn out and he gave me the support I needed to tune out from running for a few weeks.

At the doctors office, I went through my list of current woes and told her that I hated feeling so high maintenance. You can't just wing this stuff. You're asking your body to do a lot for you. You should be MORE high maintenance. If you want to your body to preform on a high level, you need to make taking care of yourself a top priority. Your sleep, your nutrition, your stress levels, your well-being all needs to be a focus. She was so right. Just because I want to be able to train and race month after month doesn't mean my body will allow it if I am not healthy in every way. I have a disproportionate amount of motivation for my amount of natural patience. I need to use my obsessive discipline in all areas of my training, including self-care.

For me the hardest part about running isn't actually running, it's the suffering I go through when I'm not running. To commit myself to the schedule and process, I have to make space for the sport, and when it's gone I feel a dark void. I am trying to make the most of the down time by giving Jesse more space to work on projects, I go to yoga more, and I do extra fun stuff with the kids. But always in the back of my mind is that I am drifting farther and farther away from what I am working towards. My mom has been really supportive over the past few weeks as I rest my body. After we picked up some hogs from another farm, we stood under the blooming apple tree in the pigs pasture and talked about how we want our summers to be. I feel so far away. Far away from running how I want to run, I told her. How do you want to run? she asked. I just want to run wild and free on trails and not have to worry about being tired, or hurt, or sick. I don't want to wonder if I'm doing the right thing. She didn't even need to tie my thoughts together for me. I knew that stepping back from my training and dropping a race off my schedule was the only way to run how I want to run. I have hopes that 2018 will hold more continuity and I need to work toward consistent overall wellness to make that happen. And if it doesn't, a nice long recovery after my February adventures is just as well, because spring sucks.

Staying Present While Running Toward the Sun

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I've done it for the past 5 years. It just makes sense with the farm calendar. Training through winter months in Wisconsin for warmer weather races in the southwestern corner of the country is all I have every really known, actually. My family's farm is a large CSA (community supported agriculture) which produces 50 different kinds of vegetables that are distributed to families in the greater Madison WI area throughout the spring, summer, fall, and into early winter. The farm keeps us tied down late February through mid November. Our schedule lightens up dramatically for December, January, and February so this is when I we have time to travel. I race regionally for most of the year and choose one or two more competitive events to focus on during our farming off-season. My winter race this year was Sean O'Brien 100k which traverses the Santa Monica Mountains in Malibu CA. I have run Sean O'Brien events for the past 3 years. I raced the 50k and the 50mile, so I decided to give the 100k a shot for 2017. This would be one of the most competitive races I had ever competed in, so needed to work hard if I wanted to have a strong finish. Snow covered with sand. This was a typical winter running day for me. A strip sand for traction down the center line.

Ultrarunning has an amnesiatic effect. Why does the epicness of the races and glory of strong training surface in my memory and the struggles get suppressed? Every winter I tell myself how hard it is to get deep into training while managing the uncooperative weather, risks of winter viruses, shorter days, and challenges of managing little kids. Yet when the farming season tappers off I'm salivating at the thought of grinding it out through the icy landscape of the Wisconsin winter. I developed an actionable plan to stay focused and happy during frozen training months because, after all, running isn't my entire life, it's just one of the many awesome things I have going.

Don't be snobby about running surfaces This winter was particularly brutal. I usually run trails year round. The state park up the road from our house has 10 hilly miles of mountain bike trails that get beautifully groomed by fat bikes in the winter. Trail running was not an option for me early in the season because I sprained my ankle on the Appalachian Trail in November and re-injury was too big of a risk. By the time I had strength and stability back, our winter had hit a disappointing freezing and thawing pattern that turned the trails into pure ice. Running on the road is a reality most cold-weather trail runners contend with. It's a great way to keep your training going in between periods of poor trail conditions. I, however, didn't run more than 5 miles of trails in December and January. Every single run I did was on the road except for two. The conditions of the road were often snowy or icy as well. I decided that this was better than only running on dry pavement because the mixed textures kept my core engaged and my footwork nimble.

Sean O'Brien 100k sunrise. 5th female overall. With 13,000+ ft of elevation gain and miles and miles of mud, I am happy with how my winter training panned out for this awesome event.

Compartmentalize the training My work schedule is relaxed in the winter, but I am also home with the kids a lot more. I did my best to create firm divisions between my running, recovery, work, and time with my kids. An unstructured day can get really sloppy and have huge chunks of wasted time, so I tried to plan a schedule the day before that included a run, an outing with the kids, time in the office, and specific time for stretching and strength exercises. There were days when these areas bled into each other and that felt stressful, so I worked hard to avoid them. To compliment my running, I joined a yoga studio with hot classes and childcare. This was a great way for me to clear my head, get warm, and work on my body while giving the kids a new, fun place to play.

Embrace the suck Unless injured or sick, I run 6 days a week. Gearing up for my target race, we had days on end when temperatures didn't creep over 5 degrees. Running in snow, on ice, leaning into polar vortex winds, and dodging snowplows excited me in a gnarly, wild way because the conditions made me feel like I was toughening up for the 100k on the horizon. From past experience, I knew that winter training would be hard and I needed to find joy in the challenges otherwise it would take too much happiness from other areas of life. It's amazing how a positive mindset can change the entire experience.

Ice, snow, and biting cold don't give me race specific training but they do empower me mentally.

Be resilient in the face of adversity In mid January I set out on the longest run in my training block for my target race. We were in our second week of single digit temperatures and I had 26 miles on my schedule. 5 miles into the run I went to take a swig of my electrolyte concoction and was met with a frozen waterbottle nozzle. I screwed off the top and sucked down a few mouthfuls of slush. All of my liquid was frozen solid by mile 10. I finished the run desperately thirsty but exhilarated by pushing through the setback. In running there are many variables we can control but twice as many that we can't - trail conditions, training weather, struggles with work or family. The single most important aspect I can control is my attitude toward the process. Making a conscious decision to laugh instead of whine this winter kept my stress levels low which is the most important part of staying healthy.

Prioritize sleep and nutrition This is ALWAYS important no matter what time of year, but it feels extra critical in the winter. Cold weather running burns more energy and is harder my body. Lack of sun takes a toll on my emotional health but when I buffer myself with a lot of sleep and restful activities (reading, yoga, writing, cooking) I feel much more stable and grounded. I spend a lot of time in the kitchen in the winter cooking hearty meals for me and my family. Keeping a lot of meat, vegetables, and healthy grains in my diet helps me recover from my runs faster and ward of evil viruses that have plagued me in the past. I'm a local food advocate and encourage everyone to eat food that is grown close to home but I believe there is nothing wrong with buying foods produced in far away places if we cannot grow them here. We buy a lot of oranges, avocados, and bananas and these fruits are a big part of my diet. This year I started drinking green tea every single day and I will continue this until I die. Green tea is such a powerful antioxidant which is important for controlling inflammation in athletes (and everyone).

Second breakfast. Post run meals are so important for recovery and health.

Ultimately, my training wasn't ideal - the best way to train is to replicate race conditions. But I did the most with the situation I had on hand. The Sean O'Brien 100k was extremely muddy from the huge amount of rain California has been pummeled with this winter. Part of the course was re-routed because the trail conditions were so bad. I feel that the challenges of my winter training prepared me well for smiling through the exhausting mud and rolling with the punches. With my survival strategies in place, I can stay happy and strong while working hard towards my winter races. Ice, snow and subzero temperatures aren't going to hold me back. Our wild, little farm family will be taking western running adventures forever.

The Takeaways: What I learned in 2016

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As I come into the new year, I find myself reflecting on my accomplishments, challenges and lessons from the year I left behind. 2016 was a very high/low year for me. We built a new house, I had some strong race finishes, we took two awesome road trips, and I made a bunch of new friends. But, I also had some really low points in my struggle to be healthy. I wasn't able to race much and enjoying the beauty of my life was not always easy. Last year was filled with ups and downs that have shaped who I am as a runner and who I strive to be as a person. Here are my 2016 lessons in no particular order: Stress is stress My body doesn't differentiate the source. Stress is one big mass of energy that needs to be doled out in strategic ways to stay healthy and become a stronger runner. I am 33 years old and I am just realizing this for the first time. Busy season on the farm, wild kids, poor sleep, too many commitments, and running are some of my stressors. When I first started running ultramarathons in 2014, I had a 2 year old and a 7 month old. I was burning the candle at both ends with intense enthusiasm. As the months rolled on I found myself living on adrenaline to accomplish all of my goals. I finally ran myself into the ground in the summer of 2015 when I was diagnosed with mono (Epstein Barr virus) and I have been fighting to find an equilibrium ever since. Fitness is a matter of putting microstresses on your body and then healing and adapting. If I want my body to benefit from the stress of my training, I need to minimize the other stimuli. It doesn't mean that I can quit taking care of my kids or stop working, but I do have control over how I react when life gets real and can choose to remove myself from situations that will bring me unnecessary stress.

On the deck of our new house with Mischa. Now we live only a mile from Blue Mound State Park with has great trails!

Time management is an art We all spend our time on things that are important to us. The most common question I get from people when the topic of running comes up is How do you find the time? Running is a very efficient endurance sport, in terms of time spent in training - especially if you don't care about bathing on a daily basis. I am currently in a flexible time of the vegetable farming year. However, in the summer months, it takes a lot of organization and discipline to fit in two running schedules (mine and my husband, Jesse's) along with the farm and the kids. I have learned that if I do less, time is easier to manage. To help me prioritize, I wrote a list of my most important things: family, the farm, running, food, a peaceful home, creative projects, community involvement. There are a lot of other things I like doing but only if I have extra time. I have strategically separated myself from most popular entertainment which makes my time so much more manageable. Anyways, I don't want Netflix cluttering my life when I can't even keep up with my laundry!

I MUST eat food - a lot. To stay healthy as a runner, food and sleep are critical.

I am only as healthy as my nutrition You would think that a vegetable farmer who has a freezers full of beef and pork would have no problem with proper nutrition, but this is not always the case for me. I eat amazing, beautiful, colorful meals but I have been known to skip breakfast, forego eating after a challenging run, or do fasted long runs (gasp!!). This year my body shut down on me for being such a dumbass. Running is a high impact sport that takes a huge amount of energy. Even if I were able to run on empty, I wouldn't be able to train on the level that will get me faster results. I used to think that endurance running was a purely natural pursuit, I suppose I still do in many ways. But I need to treat my body like an extra special machine if I want to keep getting stronger. Here are my rules: always have a big breakfast (bread, nut butter, jelly, coffee), green tea every day, no running on a full or empty stomach, always eat protein after a run (Organic Valley Chocolate Organic Fuel is my favorite - and Organic Valley is my sponsor!), eat colorful fruits and vegetables, eat meat multiple times per week (preferably our meat), never go to bed feeling too full (it makes for poor sleep). With high quality nutrition I can conquer my dreams!

Sleep: at least 8 hours - otherwise no point training hard Some people need more sleep than others. I fall into the category of people who don't need much sleep to feel rested. For years I stretched my days out late into the night. My kids naturally stay up late and I would stay up even later trying to get the alone time that I wanted. Since I have been recovering from mono, I have lost about 20% of my weekly productivity because I am committing much more of my time to sleep. I have learned that I don't get tired, I get sick. My immune system becomes weak when I am sleep deprived. Since I have made it a point to get more rest, I have been sick a fraction of the time. And it is also improving my training capacity. I am not always able to get as much sleep as I should, but my efforts are going a long way. What a great time investment.

First female overall and 5th overall at Sean O'Brien 50 mile. This was my biggest running achievement of 2016!

Embrace the process I'm just a farm mom with a huge amount of stoke and determination for exploring my running limits over long distances. Up until this year I have not been terribly interested in anatomy or physiology - I just want to run! After several weeks off from illness and injury I have realized that I will keep repeating the same mistakes if I ignore the sources of what ails me. So, I have turned my attention to learning more about how and why I get injured and what I can do to stay healthy. Running, by nature, is a slow process that is wrought with setbacks and disappointment. If I can't accept that, I should just quit right now. Learning to roll with the punches will make me a happier runner who can withstand the game for the long haul. Patience, persistence, determination, and listening to my body are what will bring me closer to my true potential.

See the truth I started analyzing my running with a GPS watch in August. Up until then I just estimated my weekly mileage by having a rough idea of the distance of the routes I was running. I had no idea how much vertical gain I was getting, what effort I was putting out or how many hours I was on my feet running. My only confirmed metrics were race results. This is crazy talk now that I know the power of the tools that are available to me. I used to run with an older Garmin during races to know what mile I was in and what time the clock was at. Now that I am fully tethered to the analytical world I wish I could look back and see my past figures. Was I getting more or less miles/vertical/time than I thought? I joined Strava in October and I love the data analysis plus the community support is awesome. Knowing exactly what I am doing in training makes me a more self aware runner.

Blue Mound State Park in November. The beauty of the trail is at the center of my desire to run.

Run for running sake I could say that my racing season was a flop or I could see it as a great year. I had a 50 mile win in February, a 50k podium in July, and two top 5 sub-ultra distance trail race finishes in June then October. On the other hand, I DNF-ed (did not finish) a 100k in April and DNS-ed (did not start) two 50 mile races in May and September. There was a handful of other races that I never registered for but intended to run. But here I am, healthy and ready to race into 2017. What is racing if I can't run? What is the point of running if I'm not happy? If I hadn't sat out much of my year, I would never have been able to feel the joy of running the way I am now. I will always want to test myself in a race setting but most of running is made up of the vastness of the hours in between. Podium finishes are great but not the only measure of success. Being out on my trails, exploring new ones, the colors of the trees and sky, splashing through mud and bounding off of rocks - these are the things that bring me pure happiness. In running we spend so much time alone, so our solitude needs to add value to our lives, not take it away.

Jesse, Paavo and Mischa in Moab at Red Hot 55k. We drove from WI to CA in February and explored awesome races and trails along the way. Including the kids in these adventures is the best part.

Seek the help of a professional In August I almost quit running. I lay in bed one night and asked Jesse if he thought I should just give it up. I had been in a downward spiral for a few weeks - extreme body weakness, shortness of breath, vertigo, sensitivity to noise and light, and confusion. My mono symptoms were coming back as strong as the initial infection. I couldn't run let alone be an adult. Jesse told me no. You are a good runner, naturally. With no running background and with no formal training you have gotten solid results. Just focus on getting better then we will make a plan. It would be stupid for you quit now. Plus you love it...that's the most import part. With that, I decided that I needed a professional coach. I reached out to David Roche and he offered to train me back to health and beyond. David is an elite trail runner with amazing results and an infectious zeal and humor for running. He told me that results don't matter, it's about how much fun I'm having. This shift in my mind away from results-driven motivation to pure love of the sport has been one of my biggest takeaways. Being part of his team, Some Work, All Play, initially was a last resort, but now it feels like the best decision I have made other than to start running in the first place. My training is purposeful and never comes before health. Running injured or sick is a thing of the past. It takes an objective expert to pull me back when I need a break and to lay out a challenging plan for me to rise up toward my potential.

Running is pursuit that never ends. I'll never be at my peak - there will always be improvements and margins to investigate. That's why I love running as a sport and as a lifestyle. For this year I am going to see how hard I can push myself in training and what that brings on the race course. I learned a lot from my ups and downs - there's no point in celebrating what I got right if I'm not going to continue to build on those achievements and there is no such thing as a mistake if the experience makes me a stronger, wiser person. 2017 might just be my best year yet!

Deep in training for Sean O'Brien 100k coming up on February 4, my first race of the year!

Trail Fever

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I spread my fingers wide to let the full force of the warm summer air strike my hand as we drove down the highway. The bright sun made me narrow my gaze behind my sunglasses while I watched the farm fields and hedge rows speed past my view. I glanced back and saw that my 2 year old had fallen asleep in her car seat. Lovely, when we get home I'll take advantage of Mischa's nap and get out for an hour on the trail, I thought to myself. Wait, what? I said out loud. My husband, Jesse, turned his head away from the road to look at me, I didn't say anything. I furrowed my brow. Did I race today? I asked. Yeah, you just did a 50k. You need to eat something. We had raced that day. Jesse and I ran a local 50k, Dances with Dirt, at Devil's Lake State Park, a half hour from our house. This race series holds a special place in my heart. The 2014 50k was my first ultramarathon and the 2015 50mile was the first race I had ever won. This year's 50k landed on a cool July day, relatively speaking - the previous two years had been ghastly hot and humid. It was my first time racing anything shorter than 50 miles and longer than 12 miles in over a year and half. I was really unsure what I could do with those 31 miles.

Getting solid miles on my favorite trails at Blue Mound State Park

The weeks leading up to the race I was on my first good stretch of training in 10 months. The second half of last year and the first half of this year had been riddled with injuries and serious illness. A mononucleosis infection that started in August plagued my entire fall and kept me fragile and weak up until June. I forced my way through a training block in December and January while suffering from chronic sinus issues, hip and foot injuries, and regular flareups of my mono symptoms. Those training efforts were rewarded with a win at Sean O'Brien 50mile in the Santa Monica Mountains, but the work leading up to that race was stressful and exhausting for me. Following a DNF at Gorge Waterfalls 100k in April, I decided to take a real break from running and pay full attention to my health. As I eased back in a month later, I noticed myself feeling amazing and more on fire than I had felt in almost a year.

My training was in full bloom by the middle of June. I couldn't get enough. I lapped up the miles like a thirsty puppy. This was the most low-maintenance, spontaneous version of my running self I had ever known. My behavior bordered on reckless - adding miles and hill-repeats onto already long runs, skimping on sleep, forgetting to do my daily physical therapy exercises. This was the running I had been searching for all year. When my Dance with Dirt 50k taper week rolled around I didn't want it, I felt like I was just getting started. I even considered training right up to the race and using it as training for a 50 mile in September. Ultimately, I decided that if I was going to go out to the race, I might as well try for a podium position.

Pre-race excitement at Dances with Dirt. Photo: Kelly Tyrrell

At 5:30am on July 9, I toed the starting line at Dances with Dirt in the front row, next to Jesse. The fast guys formed a pack and ran ahead. I found myself leading the women with a few chattering girls voices behind me. Although being out front from the beginning was not my plan, the pace felt comfortable, so I decided to go with it. I climbed the first of 4 major hills alone and settled into a sustainable clip at the top of the bluff. The course brought me along the edge of the cliffs where the cool, morning breeze invigorated my entire body. I know these trails so well and was certain that if I held steady in my pace that I would have a strong finish. Several miles later I heard the jangling of a running pack and quick footsteps come up behind me. I waiting for a runner to pass but the breathing hovered inches from my back. We ran like this for miles and miles. I had a shadow that was very well matched with my fitness.

Other than a few surges in speed on my female competitors part, we ran in tandem for much of the race. I held my pace smooth and calm, minding my own abilities while reveling in the competitive spirit of the circumstances we found ourselves in. Coming up a long climb around mile 23, my foot failed to clear a root and my momentum threw my weight forward. When my body braced for impact, my muscles seized in cramps. The knuckles on my left hand, holding my handheld waterbottle, broke the fall on hard-packed dirt trail. My first recovery stride was met with a non-functioning leg. Every muscled in my right leg was locked, from my arch up to my groin. Same thing in the left - arch, calf, quad, hamstring, groin. Then my obliques cramped. I doubled over in pain wondering what had gone wrong. As I sat breathing deeply and massaging my legs, I felt the minutes ticking past. I had not replaced any salt except for a few drinks of Gatorade. The weather was so mild and the distance wasn't that far, that I didn't think I needed to eat any additional salt. In 50 mile events I eat potato chips at aid stations to replace what I have lost through sweat. In retrospect, I should have treated this distance the same.

At the mile 25 aid station I poured a mound of table salt into the palm of my hand and licked it clean. The salt made my mouth gush with saliva. I threw back a cup of Mountain Dew and marched off toward the last climb and final miles of the race. My muscles were firing properly and I was moving quickly but the first place female was nowhere to be found. In my final 2 miles I was really happy because the time I was shooting for was happening. I crossed the finish line at 4:57 in 2nd place - just at my sub 5hour goal! First place was 3 minutes ahead, which is about how much time I lost when I sat on the side of the trail. I was so relieved that my injuries didn't surface and that I had the strength to recover after I blew up. My biggest disappointment was that, because of the close competition, I wasn't able to slip into the familiar dreamlike trance I experience during ultra distance events. I usually spend a lot of races running alone. Time and space blend together into a beautiful tunnel of trees, rocks, and the trail ahead. I didn't reach this place at DWD50k but it was an important exercise in competitive clarity and focus.

With Jesse and Mischa after Dances with Dirt 50k

As I lay in bed trying to fall asleep that night, I could feel my muscles repairing - adapting to the stress I had put on them. All of the magic happening under the surface of my skin was intoxicating. I got out of bed and went downstairs to research other races to add to my schedule. In the morning I told Jesse that I wanted to go to Tennessee in October for some running adventures. I also asked him if he thought I could get away from the farm next summer to run the Tahoe Rim Trail 100. You're just coming back from a hard year. Focus on getting fast first, then let's talk about more destination races. Not the response I wanted. That day we ended up working on our plan for some running and racing in Colorado and Utah in November. Jesse talked me down from getting ahead of myself, reminding me that my major focus race is in February 2017, Sean O'Brien 100k, and not to waver from my goals at that event.

I still feel a compulsion to be out on the trail building strength and speed. I drew myself back this past week remembering that I am prone to over-training. I had a childhood friend visiting from MN where she and her husband are starting a farm. She came to work with us to get ideas for her own operation (check out her great blog - Little Big Sky). Her time here was refreshing and grounding and she gave me a great perspective on work, motherhood, and what it means to push hard towards your dreams. I finally feel like my health matches my motivation but I need to be mindful of not ruining what I have patiently waited for. The trails call on me to go farther and faster - I will use this drive to get stronger but need to keep a close eye on my trail fever.

At the farm with Jenny at the end of a long day

Trust Fall

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My evolving master plan Two years ago, when I was pregnant with my second baby, Mischa, I started keeping a journal, The Book of Things That Shall Come to Pass. Really it is just a stream of consciousness list of goals, plans, ideals and musings on how to achieve these things that shall come to pass. I have been sick with mono for the past two months - my illness has taken me away from so many things that are important to me. Through the boredom, guilt of being so unproductive and missing my former life, I found clarity in reading my journal and adding to it's pages.

At The North Face Endurance Challenge. The 50 mile race of this series was my most important ultramarathon of the year and I had to sit it out.

In the middle of September when I was deep in the worst part of my illness, Jesse came home at lunchtime to visit me. Waking up in the middle of the day put me into a confused panic. Why was I sleeping? Where were my kids? What was I supposed to be doing? He sat on the edge of the bed and listened to me cry about how pathetic my life had become. I couldn't even take care of my kids for a full day, I let my running fitness go, I lost contact with friends, I fell behind with my responsibilities on the farm, and I couldn't take care of our animals. Worse, I was selling their meat without being involved in their lives - just the separation I felt critical of in the meat industry. I had fallen so far from the balanced life I had worked hard to create. Just let it go, he said. It will all be there when you get better. The more you just let it all go now, the faster you can come back to it. Listen to your body and you will get better. Trust me.

I spent a lot of days laying in bed looking out the window at the sun filled trees, scheming and plotting my return to life. One day I pulled out my journal to add some goals for 2016 - Run a 100k race, Run a 100 mile race. Then I read my book from the beginning and laughed out loud at the childish whimsy of some of the things on my list and the comments I had written next them. I was also so proud of the goals I had met and what I had accomplished is such a short time. An excerpt from the second page of my book - comments added later are italicized:

  • Buy a house with enough land for 2 horses - in progress
  • Buy 2 horses - name them Scarto and Argento like from Gladiator
  • Run an ultra before Mischa's 1st birthday - completed 7.12.14, 2nd place
  • Win an ultra before Mischa's 2nd birthday - completed 7.11.15, 50miles
  • Grow my hair to my waist
  • Get a piano - piano located, need bigger house
  • Learn to play the piano
  • Qualify for the Boston Marathon - completed 10.26.14
  • Run a sub 3hr marathon
  • Teach Paavo and Mischa basic Spanish - in progress
  • Sew matching dresses for Mischa and me - purchased floral linen fabric 6.5.15

I am returning to running slowly. I have run a few short runs on the road and a few decent trail runs. My first time back on the trail was beautiful. The maple trees were dropping their helicopter seeds as I darted through the forest with the nimbleness of a deer. I took steady breaths through my nose as I plunged down steep sections of single track. Coming back up was a little harder but the burning in my lungs felt good. My passion for running is unflappable. I am more interested now than ever and my frustration and sadness have been channeled into a fierceness that I didn't have before.

Finally back on the trail and feeling grateful

The Book of Things That Shall Come to Pass has a lot of new entries and soon I will be able to write completed next to several of the milestones. Within the next few weeks we will begin construction on our new house. It will be big enough for a piano. There is more than enough land for two horses - though I'm not sure how soon that dream will come true. Paavo counts to 10 in Spanish and my hair is almost down to my waist. I registered for a 100k race in February in California. After I finish writing this I am going to go start sewing matching dresses for Mischa and me.

 

The Never Ending Story

I really like planning ahead. This is one of the reasons why ultrarunning is a good sport for me. I use a lot of my brain space to hash out what I will be doing weeks or months ahead of the current moment. I consider this aspect of my personality to be crucial to my success and happiness as a runner, business person, and mother. When I'm not in the thick of a busy racing period or it's low season on the farm, I'm scheming and laying out strategies for how to make the coming months filled with successful running. After a flurry of races in late winter, I had time to reflect on my goals for the upcoming racing season. Recovering after a run with Organic Valley Organic Fuel.

What I learned after a strong 50k finish back in February followed by a national snowshoe racing silver medal in March, was that if I didn't plan my training more thoughtfully, my body would break down. I was racing at speeds that were above my fitness level. My mental will was much stronger than my physical body and I was paying for it after I crossed the finish line. I had a fever, cold sweats, and vomiting after my 3rd place finish at Sean O'Brien 50k and couldn't walk right for over a week after Snowshoe Nationals. My body was under-trained and filled with small injuries.

Heading into the Ice Age 50 Mile race I decided to amp up my miles, do more cross training, and try to get more sleep. My new plan coincided with the start of our vegetable growing season, our beef marketing period and the arrival of our pigs. Running is very important to me but it is just a sport that I play. If I am smart about managing my time, I can make it all come together. With two running schedules to balance (one of us always stays with the kids), my husband I run whenever we can fit it in - in the dark, in the rain, hot, cold, tired, hungry, whatever - running in adverse conditions only make us stronger. Every day is a test of my physical strength and mental discipline.

Midway through a long weekend run. The hours and hours spent alone on these roads has hardened me up.

While I don't follow a formal training plan, I try to run several 4-10 mile runs during the week and back to back 10-20 mile runs on the weekend. Yesterday I ran 18 miles - today I ran 10. I have mixed feelings about all the hours I spend on the road. Lately, my brain has been slipping into a trance-like state for several miles at a time. I levitate off the road in a ghost dance of exhaustion. Maybe it's the boredom of running for so long or maybe it's the fatigue, but I fall into a lucid dream and wake up miles through my route. Training is not just about preparing my body for racing but bringing my mind to a place where I can find methods of coping with the mental stress of the race.

My next race is 3 weeks out and I feel myself searching for some relief from the hours spent running. This is fine timing because I will start tapering off my miles this week. I will stop trying to achieve more fitness and allow myself to recover and rest. I plan to run most days of the week, just not the longer distances.

After the race I will take a week off of running. I'll sleep and eat and get a massage. Then what? Back to training for my next race. Running is a game that doesn't end when the race is over. There is strategy in every decision I make throughout the day, everyday - how much I run, when I run, what I eat, how much I sleep, how far apart my races are. Every athlete is different so there isn't a formula for success, just observation and dedication to the process.

Sometimes I wonder if I will ever get tired of ultrarunning. It is such an intense sport. Being an individual event, all of the passion comes only from me, not from the energy and accountability of a team. Maybe that is what I love most about it - I can harness all of the power inside me to try to be a leader in the race and not count on anyone else for my success - or failure. As long as I am injury-free and have the support of my family, I can't imaging loosing my focus in this never ending story.