Training

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!

A Moving Target

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I realized it when I was carrying groceries in from the car; I was so weak that I was out of breath walking the five steps up to the house. Once I start running again, I need help, I thought, feeling one part relief, three parts disappointment. My bright flash of self-awareness came to me in August, but it was long overdue. I had lost all touch with what feeling good, sick, tired or healthy even felt like. Over the last year I had two states of being: can-run or can't-run. On the can-run days, I was a wild animal making up for all of the can't-run days. In August 2015 I was diagnosed with mono (Epstein Barr virus) and I haven't been the same since. I have had some decent results, a 50 mile win and a 50k podium, and some glorious weeks of running. But I haven't been able to sustain training for more than two months at a time. Viral relapses knock me down so hard that I have considered quitting running altogether, but the thought of not having an intense sport in my life keeps me coming back for more.

Finishing up my favorite road/trail/road combo run.

My training has always been intuitive and unrestrained. I have done my best to avoid scientific and analytical considerations. Not that I feel I can outsmart numbers, I just prefer a more natural approach to suffering for speed. My running has consisted of setting a goal peak mileage that crests three weeks before the race, then tapers off for the event. The content of those miles has been a mix of perceived low intensity with a mix of tempo and fartlek-style intervals. Running, trail running in particular, brings me to a primal place of survival. I get so energized by my runs that I loose track of what effort I am putting out and can't sense how much recovery I need following training sessions. Being forced to take breaks from running only perpetuates my excitement for pushing myself. This behavior is dangerous for someone recovering from a serious illness.

My post-mono running had become more of an expression of my moods and emotions than an organized effort to reach my running potential. Excited, frustrated, inspired, bored, pissed off, content - my running was a way to indulge all of my feelings. What I really needed was to separate running from my internal discourse, and the only way I could do that was to get some structure from an expert. I found my coach, David Roche, through Trail Runner Magazine, where he is a regular contributor. He is also an elite trail runner with incredible race results. I remember reading a column of his about running easy to increase aerobic strength. In that story he discussed how his wife had mono last year and he trained her past the infection and how she is faster than ever now. In my most recent episode of fatigue I had reached a new level of desperation and finally got over my commitment to my unstructured running style.

Resting and sleeping are now more important to me than my running schedule. This was one of the most difficult things for me to change.

I was excited when David told me that I would be actively recovering from my recent bout of malaise. My first assignment was to get a GPS watch with a heart rate monitor. I have an old Garmin that I used in races to know where I was on the course and how long I had been running. A new and improved watch was definitely in store to celebrate my adventure into structured training. I settled on the Suunto Ambit 3 Sapphire. When I started my new running program with David, I was healing a sprained pubis in addition to being recently very sick. I decided to stick to a flat, soft railroad corridor turned bike path a few miles from our house. On the first day I was supposed to run for 30 minutes at or below 135 heart beats per minute (bpm). While I trotted down the gravel path I got familiar with all of the data reading out on my watch. As I settled into a comfortable clip, I saw the bpm figure rising up to 150. What the fuck is this shit! I whispered loudly. I stopped in my tracks and waited for the number to fall back down to 130bpm then started running again. I knew that I would be starting easy, but this painfully slow pace made my entire body boil with frustration.

My pace quickened as the weeks rolled on and David raised my easy-effort heart rate threshold and started to add in intensity intervals. I was running real miles again - and my pelvis was healed so I was cleared to run on my beloved trails. But I still felt unsatisfied, like I wasn't working hard enough and I didn't feel my runs deep down inside. One night over dinner I told my husband, Jesse, that I wasn't excited by my new, responsible training. He looked me dead in the eyes, You want daily excitement? You're in the wrong sport. You know what's exciting? Doing more than two ultras a year. Being able to train for more than two months in a row. Not constantly being in physical therapy. You know what's exciting? Running down the last descent at mile 57 at Sean O'Brien [100k]. You're not even going to get to that race if you need excitement every day. You want excitement? Go get a mountain bike. Dammit, he was right. In my low times I had conjured healthy running into something it isn't - an action packed thrill. Sure, there's some of that, but there are a lot of days where it's just calm running. A peaceful process that I need to accept in order to get to the exciting stuff.

On the trail in "my park" - Blue Mound State Park

As I continue my training plan, a loud conversation is constantly rolling in my head: have discipline, commit to the process, embrace the grind, stronger each day, zero limits. All of the inspirational endurance phrases that I had come to think of as fuel for pushing super hard are just as meaningful for grinding out the boring, unremarkable days. Each week that passes that I am healthy and injury free are like winning little races. My instinctual running style and disregard for pain will bode well for me when I put my training to the test in real races. If I can be honest with myself about my limitations in training I should be able to keep building my strength without making detours for illness. Now I have goals that aren't just about my next race, I have goals that are about being healthy this week, being fast 10 years from now, and all of the moving targets in between.

I am so happy to begin my new approach to running during such a beautiful time of 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

Leave It Behind

So you like feeling as though you're being hunted down? Does primal fear excite you? My heart rate quickened as I flashed back to my last good race: in the lead, alone at mile 4o-something, running up a craggy, exposed assent, out of water, temps pushing 90, trying to reach the aid station at the top of the mountain, feeling deeply afraid of being caught from behind, and in desperate pursuit of the male racers ahead of me. Yes, I suppose it does, I retorted. The naturopathic doctor looked concerned. And you compete in these races for over 9 hours sometimes? That's a long time for your adrenal system to be sustaining your state of survival. You know, I think you have too much yang. I darted my eyes toward him. He was right - and all along I thought I had too much yin. You are compulsive with your athletic training. You have a strong drive for competition. This is hard on your adrenal system following an illness like you had. As I sat across the desk from my new health practitioner, I was amazed by how he could tie aspects of my character to my current state of health. Sean O'Brien 50 mile. I won the race half on athleticism, half adrenaline. It was a great race but an important lesson that I can push my body beyond it's breaking point. I'm still not sure if that is a strength or weakness.

After being diagnosed with mono last August, I just haven't been the same. For at least a week each month I have deep earaches, sensitivity to noise and light, inability to get warm, fevers and intense physical fatigue. Worse, I pick up any virus that I come into contact with. On hard days, I can't wait for the day to end so I can go to bed. I do have stretches of great energy and normalcy but some days I am a shell of my former self. My patience for this pattern of malaise has worn thin. Two weeks ago when a strong headache was brewing and my temperature crept up to 101° I lost my temper. I stormed away from Jesse in a fit of frustration and I slammed the bedroom door. What the fuck! Why do I even bother [running]?! I'm not racing again for like half a year. Truly, my fear was not missing my next race, it was never returning to the spontaneous, energetic person I was before I got sick.

I had a strong 50-mile race in February and decided to follow it up with a 100k in April. I dropped out of the 100k and came home burned out and injured. I realized that I wasn't healthy yet so I should focus on my health instead of racing. We were approaching the finishing stages of our new house on a gorgeous chunk of land just a few minutes from the farm. This new house is the culmination of a 7-year search for the right space for our family - a big enough house close to the farm, with some acres and a stream. Entering this new part of my life healthy, felt symbolic to me. I decided that transitioning into a new home was a good cause for declaring war on my mysterious inability to be healthy.

I still run - and get quality miles. I have have a really fun time taking running selfies with my friends.

After explaining my endurance pursuits and pattern of viral infections, my naturopathic doctor determined that my body was so depleted by the Epstein-Barr (mono) virus, that I wasn't able to recover properly after stressful events. All stress is created equal to our bodies - work, kids, lack of sleep, sports, building a new house. Even though I like most of the stress in my life, my body can't recover quickly enough, and I become symptomatic. When I am worn down, my body skips the tired phase and goes straight to sick. I feel this is why ultrarunning is a natural sport for me - I don't have a strong internal gauge of fatigue. I suppose it's good in the short term but it could be my ultimate undoing. In a race setting, this results in over reaching for me. I race beyond my training, resulting in exhausted systems. I didn't realize that there is a such thing as racing too hard. I thought my body would only go as hard and fast as I was capable of - little did I know that I was draining the vitality from my body in ultramararthon races.

I left my first appointment with a short list of supplements and activities that would work to heal my fragile body. More importantly, my practitioner told me that healing was a process that may take months and that I should think of it as a lifestyle change. I could still run, and even race, but my life would need to look different if I really wanted to get better. By addressing the stresses in my life I could save up my adrenaline for races. I can't not be responsible to the farm, I can't not take care of my wild toddlers, and I can't not be accountable for all of my commitments - but I can change the amount of intensity I use to go through my day. My doctor reassured me that if I could chill out in general, that I would have enough reserves to sacrifice myself to a race. I am drawn to running because it makes me feel wild and vulnerable. Overcoming my imaginary danger empowers me as an animal in nature. I learned that it can still be healthy to race with all my heart, as long as the rest of my life is balanced and healthy.

Our new home on our new land.

Endurance running can be a real two-faced bastard. The billowing, lofty highs of solid training and strong races contrasted with the devastation of injury and burnout is enough to make even the heartiest runner wallow in self-pity. Every serious runner has a personal story about a bad season or hard year. I now feel like I'm passing through a rite of passage. Transitioning from a carefree, blissful runner into a wiser, smarter version of myself who knows frustration and loss. In the scheme of the world I know that my woes are trivial. I remind myself of this on a daily basis. So much so that going through this roller coaster of illness and injury has made me a more grateful person on every level.

As I lay in bed the first night in our new house, I listened to all of the sounds of our valley - the crickets, the rushing of the stream, even a howling pack of coyotes. This was it, my new home - the project I had planned and plotted for years. I asked myself what I felt and, the answer was content - which is a hard emotion for me to reach. I have fleeting moments of it, mostly I chase it through the forest, over rocks and roots, trying to grab a hold of it for long enough to ask why I am I so restless?. In our new house, I realized that I may not be recovered from my illness but I can leave behind the desperation of needing to be well every day and fast in every race. Now it's a matter of setting small, actionable goals on my way back to my pre-Epstein-Barr body. I will emerge faster, wiser and with more gratitude for each run.

Feeling healthy and ready to leave it all behind.

FOMO and the Quest for Longevity

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In the sport of ultrarunning, many of the great races take a very deliberate effort to gain entry. There are lotteries, qualifying races, waiting lists, and lightning fast sell-out times. My most recent race, Gorge Waterfalls 100k, is the latter category. This race is sought after for it's stunning course which traverses mossy old growth forests in Oregon's Columbia River Gorge featuring, as the name would suggest, several on-course waterfalls and river crossings. It's also a highly competitive race that qualifies the top two men and women for Western States 100 Mile, arguably the most competitive 100mile American race, drawing an elite group of athletes. Coordinating my ultramarathon schedule takes a lot of forethought and chance, especially when balancing the demands of the farm and my family while accounting for potential injury and illness. Back in October, when I was in a mononucleosis-induced stupor, I had a beautiful fantasy of racing Gorge 100k. I was long overdue for a visit to my brother and his family, who live south of Portland, so I would make a great weekend out of this event. My husband, Jesse, warned me that I needed to sign up the day registration opened if I wanted to race. The excitement of not knowing if I would be healthy yet, made the decision even more intoxicating. I knew it was a gamble but I just wanted to be out there, healthy, trying really hard for the sport that I love.

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Following a win in February at Sean O'Brien 50mile, I took a week off before I began training. After a few long runs I started to develop a burning pain in my right Achilles area. Both my chiropractor and physical therapist confirmed that poor pelvic alignment was skewing my running mechanics causing several points of concern on the entire right side of my body, from my neck down to the joint of my big toe. A lack of core strength combined with carrying children on my left hip while cocking my right hip out had perpetuated these imbalances. Training on the country roads around my house also contributed to my misalignment - the road peaks in the middle and drops down into the shoulders so one leg is always reaching farther to strike the ground. I stopped running on the road and only ran trails for the month leading up to Gorge. My training volume was low but I was still feeling hopeful that I was at least maintaining my fitness.

The week before the race our entire house was infected with the flu. I knew there was a strong chance that I wouldn't even toe the starting line if I had a fever. Combined with my injury, running the race sick seemed irresponsible and destined for failure. But something inside was aching with curiosity - what if the race actually worked out for me? And by working out, I had a specific goal in mind. I wanted to finish in the top 10 ten females with a sub-13 hour finishing time. The Gorge elevation profile is slightly less vertical than Sean O'Brien 50mile, mile for mile, and the Gorge 100k competition was far greater than SOB 50mile. Based on my SOB 50mile time in February, and compared to the previous years Gorge 100k times, this should have been feasible if I could hold my mechanics together.

The coiled energy before the start.

Once I was on the way to the airport I felt determined to start the race. During my travel day from Madison WI to Portland, I checked the weather forecast obsessively, trolled social media channels for nuggets of chatter about the race, and planned out every detail of my life until the race morning. My mom and I previewed a few miles of the course the day before the event and I was buzzing with anticipation to to sink my teeth into the race the next morning.

This was the first ultramarathon I had ever raced that I slept in a bed without at least one of my kids, so I woke up feeling super rested. Predawn race starts have a special electricity - the headlamps, steamy breath, bright colored running gear with light-catching reflectors - it all makes me so belligerent with excitement that I want to jump up and down. I huddled my forearms to my chest and trembled inside as the race director gave his pre-race announcements. Then we were off! The leaders went out fast and I trotted along about a third of the way from the front.

Ultrarunning must seem like the world's most boring sport to outsiders. Running for hours and hours and hours. But there is quite a bit of risk taking and calculation to be made. For me, I decided to be conservative in the first quarter of the race and assess my body before developing my race strategy to meet my goal. I was feeling solid at mile 17 so I began to move a little faster. The course has 12,000 feet of elevation gain in the form of several medium climbs and descents so I knew I needed to keep myself in check in the fast sections if I was going to stay strong for the duration.

Feeling great around mile 9.

The course is an out and back so we ran 31 miles away from the race start and then turned around and ran back. I love out and back courses for strategic reasons. It puts you face to face with everyone on the course which is a great way to know where you stand in the race while scoping out the second half of the course. It is also cool to see the fastest runners in their zone of awesomeness. As I approached the 50k turnaround point, I counted 10 women - which meant my goal of top 10 was possible. I made quick work of the aid station and set back out to start chipping away at my position.

Around mile 34 I felt a familiar pain in my big toe joint and Achilles. I carried on hoping it would loosen up with more running - famous last thoughts before blowing up. In mile 36 I took one step on my left leg and with the subsequent right step, my right groin muscle was gone. It is a painless but uncanny sensation that I have a hard time describing. Over my next few strides I could feel my quad and glute compensate for the muscular void. I thought Ok, I can run like this, I am more than halfway through the course. But as the miles dragged on, other areas of my leg began degrading: a stinging pinch in the back of my pelvis, shards of glass in my knee, inability to roll off of my big toe joint. All of this was causing an obvious change in my gate which I knew was the sign that it was time to throw in the towel to prevent further damage.

For me there is acceptable pain in running like toe nail issues, blisters, chaffing, cramping, scratches, cuts, nausea/vomiting, and general exhaustion. Then there is unproductive stubbornness that hinders future running. It took me about a dozen miles to answer a simple question: what do I want from ultrarunning? I want to be competitive on a high level, I want to race and train in beautiful places, I want to meet amazing people, I want to keep doing this sport that connects me so deeply and wildly to myself and nature, but most of all, I want to do this sport forever. One of my favorite things about running is that it transcends age. I want to be a tenacious old woman finishing 100mile races. I realized that running couldn't be any of these things if I didn't know when I've had enough and I will never get better at running if I am chronically sick and injured.

I called Jesse about 3 miles from the 49mile aid station where I dropped out. I sobbed into the phone, stammering about how terrible this was and I was so sorry I left him at home with the kids for the race that shouldn't have happened in the first place. So what was likely going to happen, did. But now you got inside the 100k distance and you will take this experience into your next race. He was right. I don't regret starting the race because I learned so much about myself and got to meet a lot of cool people on the course. One of the guys I talked with when I was trying to make my decision said, Sadly, you learn more from your bad races than you do from your good ones. My mom and brother picked me up at the aid station and I cried some more. Not only for the abandonment of the race but also because I was completely exhausted by the pain I had been running through. I had a desperate fear of missing out on this race and I am glad for it. My curiosity compelled me to start and my focus on the future told me to stop when there was nothing left to be gained.

With my mom and nieces at my brothers house in Corvallis. The support of my family was so important.

 

Band of Gypsies

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I smashed the rest of my peanut butter toast into my mouth as I the headed into the bedroom to start dressing the sleeping children. It was 4:45am and I had one hour to be at the starting line of the Sean O'Brien 50mile. Before our crew piled into the car, Paavo (4) and Mischa (2), would both demand Chocolate Clif bars and milk, despite our best attempts to keep them asleep. Attending to the kids' needs both tempered and contributed to the nervousness swelling up inside me. It was 34° when we arrived at Malibu Creek State Park. Jesse carried the kids a quarter mile to the starting line so I could keep my puffy coat on until the last minute. He never wants me to loose energy before the race by carrying children or shivering. Running in the lead.

Our voyage to the starting line of SOB started 9 days earlier. For the 3rd year, we packed up the car and drove our brood across the American west for running, racing, and wild adventures in the sun. Our western expeditions last about 2.5 weeks and we spend time in Colorado, Arizona, California, and Utah. We tent camp, rent rustic cabins, stay with friends, and take up residence in hotels. Over the years, our travels have gotten easier in some ways and harder in others. The constant is that it takes an incredible amount of energy and dedication from Jesse and I to cooperate in supporting each others racing needs while keeping the kids safe and entertained. Paavo and Mischa are gregarious adventure-seekers who are sometimes difficult to keep close by. Getting from Wisconsin to California with these two rascals was not an ideal way to prepare for my first ultra in half a year.

Once I was in the SOB course, thoughts of the kids spun in and out of my head - were they going to watch me finish?, would Mischa get a nap?, I hope they were having fun at the zoo. The night before the race I told Jesse that I would text him when I was coming through the mile 36 aid station to tell him how I was doing with time - At Kanen, out front (meaning that I was at the Kanen aid station and I was winning). Then again after the last aid station I texted 6.5 miles to finish (this was his cue to drive to the finishing area). The logistical challenge going into this race was that I had no idea how fast I could run it. The course had much more vertical gain than anything I had ever done (11,000 feet) and I was coming off of a terrible stretch of illness that took me away from an entire season of racing. Going in, I had no time goal and I was so scared of not being able to finish. I decided to set aside trivial matters like fear and pain to focus instead on efficiency. When I came into the finishing chute with Paavo running behind me, all of the challenges of healing from my viral infections evaporated. Winning was icing on the cake.

Paavo sleeping in the back of the truck on a futon in the early morning hours of my first 50 mile

It must seem like running ultras with little kids in tow is a hassle - but it's all I know. I ran my first ultra, a local 50k, 8 months after Mischa, my second baby, was born. Looking back, that race was extra challenging because of nursing logistics. Anyone who has breastfed a baby can imagine that running for 5+ hours without nursing can be messy and painful. Or my first 50 mile, The North Face Endurance Challenge Wisconsin, when Jesse decided that he and the kids would crew for me. It was adorable to come into each aid station with Jesse saying things like there's only a few girls ahead of you, are you eating enough?, do you want your lip stuff?. Paavo would cheer and run with me as I set out back onto the trail and poor Mischa was in tears, every time. That race took me 9 hours and 2 minutes to finish. Jesse and the kids met me at every station and were waiting for me when I finished. What a long day with a 3 year old and 10 month old! My family no longer crews for me but they are always there to see me finish. Paavo loves to chase me and Jesse through the chute and when he sees us coming he is filled with so much pride and excitement for his parents. I hope that our racing inspires the kids to try really hard for a sport they care about.

Lunch at Canyonlands National Park.

The hardest part of racing away from home with kids is recovery. When we are out of town we are away from all of our regular support systems (grandparents, babysitters, familiar favorite place to play). When Jesse or I are out on the race course all day, the other parent has to work extra hard to fill the day with fun activities. Then when the race is over both of us are exhausted. It feels selfish to ask for more alone time to recover. Starting about two hours after I finish a race, every system in my body needs something. My eyes are dry, my skin is chaffed and burned, I'm dehydrated and nauseous, I have hot flashes and cold sweats, my toe nails are throbbing, my muscles fill with stiffness, and I am sensitive to loud noises and bright lights. The worst though, is the mental and emotional instability I feel. After focusing for so many hours, I have drained hormones and chemicals from my brain causing me to feel fragile. When I close my eyes all I can see is the trail ahead of me. It takes me 36 hours to restore my systems - going through this with Paavo and Mischa is super challenging.

Shortly after winning Sean O'Brien 50 mile - dreading the exhausting recovery ahead. Toddlers and recovery are like water and oil.

As farmers, we have a lot of flexible time in the winter but are very tied down 9 months of the year. We make the most of our lifestyle by racing close to home during the spring, summer and fall then choosing destination races in the farming off-season. Bringing the kids along allows us to travel for long stretches and we get to explore amazing places together. Paavo and Mischa are scrappy farm kids who thrive when playing with dirt, rocks, trees, and water. Our road trips are as much for their well-being as they are for our racing pursuits.

Finding rocks to throw off the cliffs in Moab

This year we rounded out our trip with Jesse's race, Red Hot 55k, in Moab, UT. This a point-to-point course which means it starts and ends in two different places. Spectators take a shuttle bus to the finish line which is perched on a canyon wall offering plenty of rock climbing and rock throwing opportunities for the kids. I was recovered from SOB and had plenty of energy to scamper around with the kids while still keeping an eye out for Jesse coming in. Paavo was off playing with some other kids when I spotted Jesse. I yelled Here comes Daddy! Paavo leaped off of his rock and came running through the scratchy vegetation just in time to follow his dad through the finish.

Standing at the Edge of Time

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Endurance running is a game of planning and execution. Much of the strategy comes in the weeks and months leading up to the race event. Once in the game, the runner uses the fitness gained during the training period to get their strongest result. But what if planning isn't possible? For me, I have been trying to get into a solid training block while balancing a frustrating illness. With a challenging race just a month and a half out, my strategic plan changes every week. Sean O'Brien 100k course map and elevation profile

On February 6th I'm racing the Sean O'Brien 100k in Calabasas, CA. This race dwarfs anything I have ever done in distance, vertical gain/loss and depth of the competitive field. We will be climbing and descending 14,000 feet over 62 miles - and by we I mean me and a stacked field of experienced ultrarunners, many of whom live and race in mountains. Last February, shortly after coming off of injury, I raced the Sean O'Brien 50k event and took 3rd place in the female division. But that podium-finishing performance was a bloodbath of a race for me. Doubling that distance on my level of training seems almost impossible.

I am on my 5th month of Epstein Barr virus (EBV) related illness. This virus that causes mono, has turned out to be far more mysterious and complex than I initially thought. I have gone for weeks thinking that I am fully recovered only to be knocked back with a period of aches, fatigue, cold/hot spells, and general hopelessness.

Western medicine offers not treatment for EBV other than rest and a healthy diet so I am trying to heal myself through natural remedies. My army in the war against the virus. Most of the remedies taste pretty bad which makes me feel like they are working.

At the end of November, during a recent bout of sickness, my frustration reached fever pitch. Late one gloomy afternoon, Jesse came home from the farm to find me dressed for a run. Are you feeling better? he asked. No, I feel like absolute shit. But I'm running. Fuck it, I'm running. I left the house full of determination to hammer out some miles in the damp wind. When I got home I felt energized, alert, and my body aches were gone. At that moment I decided my new plan was not to back off of running when sick, but to lean into the illness, doing what makes me happy. After months of logging my symptoms, I was convinced that running does not make me worse. That day I decided that my intentions for the race were to show up, learn what it feels like to run 62 miles, and take some lessons from the race. Finishing near the front at Sean O'Brien is out of the question at this point.

Training has been decent considering my unstable health. My mileage volume is almost where it was going into my most recent ultramarathon in July (Dances with Dirt 50 Mile). I really should be logging 25% or 30% more miles a week than I am, and I should be doing much more hill training. With each passing day, I am running out of time to get this built into my training plan. Preparing for an ultramarthon is all about managing the stress on your body by challenging your system at a sustainable rate that allows adaptation instead of over-training. In the middle of January, I will need to stop building training volume, and start tapering off for the race. I am filled with so much doubt for even completing the course. But I have never felt ready for any of my races - and I've had good results despite that. The only race I felt confident going into, I ended up dropping out of (Ice Age 50 mile). Maybe self doubt and humility are a practical defense mechanism to protect ourselves against disappointment.

So with that doubt I decided to conjure up some courage. I went on a long trail run this past weekend - the farthest I have gone on the trail since August. I didn't feel overly thirsty, hungry, or tired in the hours following the run which is a good indicator if I am pushing myself too hard. The next day I barely felt the effects of the miles - also a good way to gauge how the run challenged my body. I still have a little time to put my weekly mileage together with some long runs, and continued hill training to add up to an acceptable level of training for the 100k race.

Devils lake run

The weather in southern Wisconsin has been so mild that I have lucked out with good trail conditions. I can get real miles on in between my sicknesses. I now have a finishing time goal for Sean O'Brien 100k - it feels good to go into the event with a focus beyond just completing it. When I registered for this race back in October, it was little more than a feverish dream. Now that the race date is closing in, I am eager to be somewhere deep into the course, lost in the wilderness of my mind. I have 6 weeks to get my body ready for the tough 62 mile race and I am sure my strategy will continue to evolve.

Like a Fox into the Night

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Daylight savings time is an unfortunate reality that most runners have to contend with. The majority of us have jobs, families, classes, or other projects that structure our days, forcing us to make shifts in our running routines. My husband and I have two running schedules to juggle with our two kids, the farm, and other commitments we squeeze into a 24 hour period. One of us can run in the morning, but on weekdays, one of us will inevitably run at night. When we lost an hour of daylight last week I felt cheated. But that's because I assumed it meant that boring road runs would replace my trail time. Jonnah night run

I have been sick on and off for the past few months. Mono for two months followed by a storm of unexplained malaise and one virus after another. Since the middle of August, I have counted one 6-day period where I have not been sick - that's the longest stretch. My immune system is so fragile that any little bug I encounter wreaks havoc on my body and spirit. My attitude toward my health swings between deliriously positive to paranoid fear of a mono relapse. Why do my ears ache? I think my throat is sore!, Oh no, my neck is stiff! The unpredictability of my health has prevented me from resuming a structured training schedule. I miss the rigor of running 50+ miles a week, however, what is more important to me, is getting at the primal essence of trail running. Being an animal running through nature is the most real aspect to me. When I am in a race this is heightened - I actually feel like I am being hunted down by the racers behind me. My training prepares me to survive.

I have a little experience running in the dark on trails. Once at an ultra that started before dawn, a few times I have finished trail runs as it was getting dark, and in Boulder CO with a local guide. But overall, running trails in the dark is an underdeveloped discipline of mine that needs work. If I plan on competing in 100 mile races, I will be running through the night.

About to run in two hours of darkness at The North Face Endurance Challenge 50 mile

A few nights ago I made the 10 minute drive to Blue Mound State Park in the pitch black of the moonless night. Even getting out of the car was spooky. On this unseasonably warm 65 degree November night, I left the car wearing a running top, shorts and my headlamp. Trails in the dark are lonely and frightening - at first. The misty rain made the trails slick as I moved through the velvety air. I know the trails at Blue Mounds by heart but this felt so much more exciting. The night is more potent. The night is when running feels the most dramatic and wild. Which is exactly what I had been longing for.

Before heading up the Weeping Rocks trail, the beam of my headlamp illuminated 8 green eyes staring at me head on. Panic stabbed me in the heart. Were they four coyotes? Vampires? Chupacabras? None of the above - they were a startled family of deer bedding down for the night in a cozy pile of oak leaves. Imagine the confusion they must have felt when a cyclopes came thundering through the woods towards them. On the Overload trail, I whipped my head around when I heard a crashing in the trees above me. I made eye contact with a great horned owl before he spread his wings and pumped them with deep whooshing sounds as he took flight.

Nothing but darkness

There was other wildlife on the trail - some mice, a frog, and a bunny darted across my path. The forest was teeming with life and I was part of it. This was far more activity than I see during daytime runs. I felt afraid going into the dark woods but I soon realized that the only thing that could hurt me was my own imagination. Southern Wisconsin is a safe zone of man-hunting predators. There have been sightings of bears, cougars, and wolves but they are very infrequent, I'm willing to take my chances. There are always scary people to consider but I honestly feel safer from them on the trail than the road.

Racing fantasies swirl into my head a dozen times a day. I have two big races looming in the not too distant future - 100k's in February and April. To be competitive in the events, I need to get better very soon. My weekly miles haven't been greater than 30 in almost three months and they should be over 70 miles. Running as a wild animal through the forest in the dark is what I've got right now....the rest will fall into place with time.

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.

 

My Favorite Mistake

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I've always been drawn to stories of plague. Through the sadness and fight for survival, the characters always realize what really matters in their life. The fragility of humankind in the hands of nature is strangely comforting at times when my own world feels all too heavy. Thankfully, I have never even been close to experiencing serious illness, but I have been sick. Viruses stop us on our tracks, steal our momentum, and make us change up our plans.

My story of fragility started months ago, but I will begin with when I first learned about it. We took off Thursday afternoon before Labor Day to head up to a friend's cabin in Northern Wisconsin. On Friday morning the doctor called to tell me that I have mono and that I have had it since June. This serious virus that causes extreme exhaustion and flu-like symptoms can disappear and re-surface again if the patient is stressing their immune system. The fatigue can last for months. My world had been feeling heavy for a while, so an explanation was welcomed, but the diagnosis was devastating.

My summer had started out with injury, then turned into racing success. After recovering from SI issues in May, I kicked off June with a 2nd place 20k finish. Then I jumped into moderate training for a 50 mile race in July. In the back of my mind I was planning to win the 50 mile but didn't want to set myself up for disappointment if it didn't work out - I had dropped out of my previous 50 for the injury. In the Dances with Dirt 50 mile, I took 1st in the female division and 4th overall. I had no problems during the race and recovered really fast. In retrospect, I could have raced a lot harder. I took a week off, then needed to decide what kind of training and racing I wanted to do for the fall season.

Jesse, my husband/coach, and I decided that it was time to see how I could build on my Dances with Dirt win. I dove into a new training schedule that included back-to-back long runs on Saturday and Sunday (+/-12mile then 20+mile), several moderate paced 5-10 mile runs, and some speed workouts. I was averaging 60 miles a week - almost all on trail. After the long Sunday runs I was usually so wrecked that I had trouble sleeping or eating. I thought that the super humid weather and the new rigor of my training was just taking a little more out of me than normal. I started eating more carefully and getting to bed earlier. But as August went on I felt like I was using more and more energy just to get through my week. The kids felt harder to handle and managing the house became really challenging. Feeding the pigs and cows was such a struggle that I stopped doing it and moving stacks of vegetables took a lot of effort. This was hard for me because I have always thrived on a full schedule and have taken energy from balancing all of the things I feel passionate about.

August 28 after a 6 mile run.

Toward the end of August, I couldn't even carry Mischa (21 months) up the stairs without being winded and I needed to sit down while getting dressed. Somehow I ran about 20 miles that last weekend When I finished my 12 mile run, I was shivering. My biggest fear in the decline of energy and running performance was Over Training Syndrome - a condition that afflicts endurance athletes. There is a little research on OTS, but plenty of anecdotal stories to scare me, it has been receiving a lot of press lately. If I was suffering from OTS, I was worried about my chance of competing on a high level in ultrarunning, because my training was not very intense or prolonged compared to elite runners. It would mean that I just wasn't cut out for the sport.

I went to the doctor last week to plead for an answer that could bring me back to my former, vibrant self. I had an achy neck and back, inability to stand for more than a few minutes, a terrible headache, nausea, and chills. We talked through every possibility from iron deficiency to pregnancy. I gave so much blood that I didn't think I could make the 30 minute drive home. Two days later, I paced back and forth in the bedroom of the up-north cabin listening to the doctor list off all of the things that weren't wrong with me. But, you did test positive for mono. I'm really sorry. I pealed the phone off of my clammy cheek and sat on the bed. Denial, anger, frustration, and sadness passed through me on rapid fire causing my heart to flutter. When I put the phone back to my ear she continued on to tell me that I have had the virus at least since June. I had visited the clinic earlier in the summer to ask about painful lymph nodes in my groin and gave blood samples. Mono wasn't tested for at that time so I carried on without recovery. My recent bout of illness was my body's response to the stress of running. My current instructions are to rest for at least two weeks then return slowly to my activities. If I come back too fast, my body can't heal.

Jesse took my picture shortly after I learned my racing season was over.

Ultimately, I think this missed diagnosis in June was actually a good thing. If I had known I was sick, I would have taken several weeks off of running and probably not competed in Dances with Dirt. If I had taken time off or not raced, I would be done with the sickness by now but I would not have the same confidence I found over the summer. Also, knowing that I can be competitive and train really hard while my body is battling mono is awesome. What is important now is to actually let my immune system rest and fight off the virus so I can continue my training as a strong, healthy athlete.

Getting sick is such a waste of time. But I need to be open minded and flexible because this will not be the last setback I experience. I am missing a 3 day trail race this weekend that I have really been looking forward to, Rock Cut HOBO Triple Crown: 10k, 25k, 50k. I still plan to race The North Face Endurance Challenge Wisconsin 50 mile on October 3, but I have adjusted my expectations. I had two other 50 milers on my schedule for October then December - the December one is still possibility. In addition to going for podium finishes at races, I had speed goals set for myself that will likely have to wait until I'm healthy. Setbacks happens for a reason and I will try to enjoy the down time. My family has rallied around me to help me get through this stretch of illness. Ultrarunning is just a sport and it's going to be there next year.

Well Honey, You're Our Leading Woman

I shot the mile 37 aid station volunteer a wily smile. I threw back my second cup of Mountain Dew and wanted more. I took the 2 liter from her hands and tipped it up to the sky. The plastic sides buckled under the pressure of my swallows. She leaned in close to me and said, Well Honey, you're our leading woman, now go catch those guys ahead of you. I had a several mile margin on the other females in the race so there was no fear of not winning my division. But I could possibly catch a man. Soaking wet with sweat and water in the finishing area.

I trotted out of the aid station and into the prairie section of the race, Dances with Dirt 50 Mile. I was on my second lap of the course and knew how hard this six mile exposed portion would be. The prairie radiated heat off of tall grass and the dirt was loose and sandy. After I zigzagged over rolling hills through the prairie for a few miles, I stopped and put my hands on my knees. I felt a wave of dread roll through my body - I was winning but far from finishing. As I stood up I tilted my head back and squinted at the sun. Tears and sweat streamed off of my face and into my hair. I still had 11 miles to go and it was only getting hotter. I dumped the rest of my water bottle over the nape of my neck. The cool water stung as it mixed with salt and flowed through my top, over my stomach, into my shorts and down my legs, burning all of the raw, chafed spots along the way. I took a deep breath in through my nose and blew it out through my mouth. Ok, Jonnah, just do your plan.

So what was my plan? To win - I had reduced this 50 mile course to that. A few weeks before the race Jesse and I were driving back from the field after turning off an irrigation system. He glanced over at me and smiled. What? I said as we bounced over the rutted out farm road. Oh, nothing. Well, I have a goal for you. I think you could win the whole race. He meant an overall win - including the men's division. Why would you say that to me? You know that's impossible. I'm not even sure if I can finish. While I ended up finishing way behind the winning man, Jesse's wild goal, as unlikely as it was, stuck with me. I'm not sure if this was intentional but by putting me up to that feat, I decided that I would at least win the women's division - as long as my injury stayed at bay. Leading up to the race I didn't know if I would finish because I was still recovering from an injury that had caused me to drop from my previous 50 mile race. Back in January when I was planning out my race year, I was going to compete in the Dances with Dirt 50k event, not the 50 mile, but when I dropped out of Ice Age 50 Mile in May, I knew that I needed a redeeming race to reassure myself that I could be competitive in the 50 mile event.

devils lake

So there I was at Dances with Dirt 50 Mile leading the women's division by several miles. I had nothing left to do but race the clock for a strong finish time, and possibly catch some of the guys ahead of me. I was in a great position and was able to put myself there because my training was so specific to this race and the conditions I might face.

Training on the trail: This was the first trail race where I had done almost all of my training on trail. I ran less often but the quality of my runs were much better than running on the road. For a month and a half I ran at Devil's Lake State Park, the location of the race, once or twice a week and I ran at Blue Mound State Park (just down the road from home) twice a week. I usually added in a 6-10 mile road run as well. My peak week was about 60 miles.

Cooling down after a long training run at Devil's Lake

In addition to having very relevant training, I also got super familiar with the course. I knew it well already, but learning how my body would hold up on challenging sections was very valuable. A lesson that I learned on a 23 mile training run was that my favorite descent, a 2 mile technical trail with a lot of opportunities to get air time, would destroy my quads. In the race we ran down and up this hill twice. On both descents, I fought back the urge to tear down the hill because I knew I could compromise my legs. It was a smart move, but I could have run faster on that hill, as well as others, and still had strength in my legs. Ultimately, I played it too safe, but during the race I knew that the only way I wouldn't win was if I was foolish with my pace.

Heat training and management: July in Wisconsin can be really hot and humid. I raced the Dances with Dirt 50k last year and was very lucky with the weather - it was overcast with a 75 degree high. Those mild conditions might be one of the reasons I was able to come in second female overall. For this year's race, I wanted to be super prepared.

I was sure to run on the hottest days, ideally during mid afternoon when the temperature was peaking and I was tired from the day. I knew that if I suffered in these grueling conditions prior to the race that I would have an advantage.

I spent 20 minutes twice a week in a sauna at the gym. Sauna heat is very dry and easy to relax in for a few minutes. But once I got over 10 minutes I was pretty miserable. Pushing your body to acclimatize to the stress of heat can be valuable in a race. I am a big believer in sauna heat training, but advise that anyone seeking the benefits to consult a physician prior to starting a program.

I run with an Ultimate Direction Jenny Running Pack to carry supplies that I need for most of the race. Jesse had the brilliant idea of leaving my pack at an aid station toward the end of the race to allow my body to cool more efficiently. At mile 37 I left my running pack in my drop bag and picked up my handheld water bottle. Taking off the pack, even though it's not heavy, made a huge difference in managing my body temperature.

Fueling my delicate system: I have always struggled with eating during distances over the marathon (26 miles). In my past races I've had such bad nausea that even keeping liquids down is challenging. I took time leading up to Dances with Dirt to figure out what works with my stomach. Ask any experienced ultrarunner what the key is to fueling and they will all have a different formula. For me I found that I need natural sugars anchored with whole foods topped off with plenty of coke or Mountain Dew; Gatorade is good too. I ate 1 Honeystinger gel every hour for the first five hours, a potato dipped in salt at every aid station, some fresh blueberries, a few handfuls of dried cranberries and two pieces of dried papaya. I'm not sure how much water I drank, but I know it was too much. I guzzled soda whenever I had a chance. I still have a lot to learn about what is perfect for my body, but at least I can get through a 50 mile race without needing to throw up.

Dances with Dirt course map

Learning to improvise: The Dances with Dirt 50 Mile and 50k courses were changed last minute due to miscommunication between the race organizers, Running Fit, and Devil's Head Resort. From what I understand, it was handled as well as possible by Running Fit. I had studied the course map and elevation table very closely and was concerned when I learned, at 5:20am race day, that my course had been changed. Less than 10 miles were affected but the new terrain was very different.

elevation profile

We skipped a climb at the beginning and a descent at the end, making the overall elevation gain lower. I imagined that this should make for an easier course, but the shady hills were replaced with burning hot, sandy prairie which really took a lot from me physically and mentally. This last minute change was a good exercise in improvising in a race setting. I am sure that I will encounter more uncertainties in future races.

Just over the finish line with Mischa, my 1.5 year old.

I was able to pass one man ahead of me at the finishing chute. He took a few seconds longer than I did to pickup his little girl. We both ran over the mat with our toddlers in our arms. I'm happy with my standing in the race, 1st female overall - 4th overall. I think that I was too conservative with my pace. I was afraid of running out of power so I held back knowing that I would win anyway. With every training run I do and each race I compete in, I learn more about my body and what I'm made of. I am looking forward to applying some of these lessons from Dances with Dirt to my next 50 mile - The North Face Endurance Challenge Wisconsin.

The Wound is Where the Light Enters You

I've always believed that the only path to being the strongest runner is through running. After a disappointing unfinished race last month, I have been reflecting on what this sport means to me and how I can be my best runner. While I have come up with more questions than answers, I feel that the meaning of all of this effort will continue to show itself to me in time. DI prerun

I threw myself into the ultrarunning world about a year ago and became fixated on running further and faster, with no thought to how I would feel about not meeting my goals. I rode the wave of strong race finishes all the way through this spring. Going into Ice Age 50 Mile I felt like nothing could go wrong and I should race as hard as I wanted to. My athletic image of myself was shattered when I decided to leave the race at mile 37 with debilitating hip and knee pain. I was so upset by how upset I was. Why did this sport mean so much to me?

Wearing my IT belt to stabilize my pelvis.

My reaction to the failed race was to see a full spectrum of practitioners and find a quick fix for my injury. I was treated by a chiropractor, alignment yoga specialist, sports medicine MD, and a physical therapist who performed an analysis of my running form. All of these experts helped me in different ways. The interesting overlap was that I needed to make permanent changes to my routine in addition to my short-term recovery plan. Some of my assignments were to sleep more, reduce stress in my life, wear a temporary brace to restrict the movement of my pelvis (IT belt), perform several pelvic and core stabilizing exercises and to STOP running. This was the real challenge - to stop running for two weeks. Unthinkable, unacceptable, inconceivable. But I did it! - well almost. I didn't run for 13 days. And when I came back, I did it slowly. First 4 miles, then 6, and up from there. Somewhere in this pause from running, I found a clarity that helped me loosen my grip on running. I learned that if took a more subtle approach to the sport, I wouldn't be hurt emotionally if races didn't turn out. And if I didn't have such a rigid expectation about my outcomes then maybe I would be injured less often.

Just across the finish line at Blue Mound 20k

A month after I dropped out of Ice Age, I took 2nd place at Blue Mound 20k. This race is not a distance that I feel is a focus of mine, but the event had huge personal importance to me. 4 years ago It was my first trail race and to place 2nd after hitting such a low point a few weeks earlier was pretty awesome. After that race I fell into a gentle training routine leading up to my next race in two weeks - Dances with Dirt 50 Mile. I'm a little worried about the race. Most of my team of experts has mixed reactions to my race plan. I have been strongly cautioned not to continue running if I am changing my stride or have significant pain. How would I feel if I dropped out of another ultramarathon? I don't know, but I'm willing to find out.

I hope that I can inspire my kids to try really hard for something they care about.

Sports are so vain. They are our culturally acceptable way of flexing our egos, as if to shout hey everyone, I'm better than you! But they are also an important exercise in humility, not only by losing sometimes, but by pushing ourselves to the brink of our physical abilities and surviving to talk about it. My weekly routine now includes not only running but yoga, an earlier bedtime, self massage, heat training in a sauna, Pilates, and plenty of downtime without thinking about running. My life has so much balance and beauty with running. I can continue to push myself in this sport as long as I don't let it ruin my personal happiness.

The Strength of Home Field Advantage

Running fast is really hard. For me, it is much more challenging than running far. The shorter the race, the faster you run, the more it hurts. When I tell people I am running anything less than a marathon, their reaction is often to assume that it will be easy for me. On the contrary! I am suffering on a whole different level when I race shorter distances. Blue Mound Trail Race

In early May, I dropped out of the Ice Age 50 Mile due to an SI injury. I held on until mile 37, but ended up bowing out to avoid doing more damage. This uncompleted race gnawed at me for weeks. I decided that the only way to get over it was to get a strong finish in my next race. I only feel as good as my last race. But that didn't leave me with much time. There were 28 days in between Ice Age 50 and my next race, the Blue Mound 20k, on June 6. I rested for 13 of those days so that left me with about two weeks of actually running time.

After the 2012 9k - my very first trail race.

I have a history with the Blue Mound Trail Race. It was my very first trail race ever! Back in 2013 I ran the 9k. My first child, Paavo, was 6 months old and I wanted to get into marathons so I signed up for the Blue Mound race to start my training. I don't even remember what my time was - back then I didn't race to compete, I just wanted to run the course with a group. The following year I ran the longer distance, the 22k, while I was pregnant with my second child, Mischa. I had two marathons under my belt so it wasn't too big of a deal. In 2014 I ran the 19k when Mischa was 7 months old and I was the 4th place female. This was the race that built up my confidence enough to start trying hard. That next month I ran my first 50k and got 2nd place.

14 weeks pregnant with Mischa at the 2012 22k.

Blue Mound State Park is a 7 minute drive from our house so this is where I do most of my trail training. I have these trails memorized. I have run them in the dark, I hike them with my kids, I snowshoe them in the winter. Going into the race I decided I would place in the top three women. I needed to in order to feel better about dropping from Ice Age. But it wasn't going to be easy because half marathon-type distances are not a strength of mine and I had done absolutely no speed training.

I ran a grand total of 5 times following my SI injury in May. My longest run was 6 miles. If I wanted to try to lead the race, I needed strategy. There was no course I knew better than Blue Mounds. When I looked at the map of the race, my stomach sank because I knew how agonizing the hills and prairie would be for me. But I also knew where I could run fast and where I needed to hold back.

4th female in the 2014 19k.

In shorter races there is nowhere to hide. If you are trying to be competitive there is no time to stop and assess your situation. Longer distances break me down slowly but I have time to stop and think about how my body is managing the stress of the race. In one ultramarathon, I even slumped down against a boulder on a steep climb and wept into my salt-crusted elbow. No one was around to see me in this pathetic state because the racers were spread out over the 31 mile course. I feel periods of doubt in every race but in the shorter ones, even 30 seconds of hesitation could cost me a leading place.

I did not hesitate at Blue Mound. I actually lead the girls division for the first half mile, not really on purpose but because I needed to stay at the head of the pack to avoid getting stuck behind runners on the first single track section. Runners bottleneck when the trail narrows, and if you are behind someone going slow, you either need to request to pass or wait until the trail is no longer single file. Negotiating a pass wastes precious time when you could be marching ahead at your desired pace. It also uses bursts of speed to move past the person you are passing which is not a good use of energy.

Paavo ran with Jesse across the finish line. Jesse was 3rd in his age group!

About a third of the way through the race my body was begging me to slow down. This early in the race, the leading group of girls was running pretty closely together. One girl fell away on a hill climb and I didn't see here for the rest of the race. The racer who ended up in 4th was running really close on my heels. I wanted her to back off so I took a big risk by gunning it up one of the longest climbs of the race. This was just before the half way point and I never saw her again. Accelerating up that hill was risky because I didn't know how long I could hold onto the intensity of my pace or how my under-trained body would handle the next six miles. That move put me in 2nd place and I was a woman alone for the rest of the race - I never saw another female. My strategy was to put as much space between the girls behind me while hopefully closing the gap on the first place girl. My opponents might not have been too far behind but the visual barriers kept me hidden in the woods so they didn't have the immediate hope of catching me. One of my strategies was not to let anyone see me walk. I did all of my hiking in private, as to not let them see that I was struggling. Switching from a run to fast walk on hills saves precious energy while covering ground pretty quickly. But it is a telltale sign that a runner is concerned about energy.

Just across the finish line - 2nd female!

The second half started with a huge decent. I thundered through the prairie, into the cover of the trees and down to the bottom of the valley without looking back. I launched off of rocks and roots with pure muscle memory. I was alone in the forest I knew so well. Being alone in a race can be a misleading comfort, like no one will ever catch me. When I saw a flash of movement on a switch back or heard voices in the distance, my heart skipped a beat. I teetered between exhilarating speed and desperately fighting for breath. I stayed focused and was able to allude the 3rd and 4th place girls all the way to the finish.

My mom ran the 20k too. She has been an inspiration for my running efforts - she ran a marathon when she was pregnant with me!

The Blue Mound Trail Race is special to me because it is on my trails. I feel lucky to live so close to such a beautiful park with so many challenging running opportunities. Another advantage that I had that day was that my family was there. My mom and Jesse were in the race, my dad, my mother and father-in-law, and my kids all were there to see me finish. I actually thought about this a lot during the hard parts of the race. That is one of the components of home field advantage - having your fans there and not wanting to let them down. My experience on the Blue Mound trails got me 2nd place in a race that I wasn't sure I would even be ready to run. Well, I guess trying really hard was part of it too.

Fear of Abandonment

Race abandonment, DNF (Did Not Finish), dropping out. These are different ways of saying the same thing: not completing a race you started. This is is something I knew would happen to me eventually. If you run enough races and put yourself up to challenges, it won't always work out, no matter how hard you try or how much you plan ahead. But I never gave much thought to how I would feel about walking away from an event - if you don't believe in your race, why bother starting?

The week leading up to the Ice Age 50 Mile I had a dull ache on the lower right side of my back. I was familiar with this pain - I have struggled with sciatic issues since my first pregnancy. In the past, rest was the solution, so I didn't run for the 5 days before the race. Usually I would run 2-3 miles a few days the week prior to a competitive race, but opted to let my body try to mend.

Racers lined up just before 6am on May 9

This race was the first time my husband, Jesse, and I had ever run in the same race at the same time. We ran the first 9 mile loop together and my body felt great. Between miles 10 and 18 I was flying high. I passed 4 girls and cranked up my pace with very little effort. I knew the race would start to get hard for me around mile 35, so I held back my urge to let myself cover ground too fast. A bit before the mile 20 aid station, my right hip began to ache. The muscles in my groin felt weak and I noticed my quads working really hard. A sinking feeling of dread and doubt hit me like a ton of bricks - this was way to early in the race to feel muscle fatigue. I stopped at the 20 mile station to refill my water. When I started up again, splintering pain in right knee kept me from putting all my weight on that leg. Once I got my momentum going I was able run through it and the pain faded.

This portion of the course was an out and back which means that I came face to face with the leaders of the race and got to see who was in front of me and just behind me. The 1st place man, Zach Bitter, said 3rd place is just up ahead - go get her! Other runners exchanged encouraging words with me, Lookin' Strong!, Nice Race!, Hey, Great Job! Courses with out and backs are great in my opinion. For strategic purposes, they take the mystery out of who is where in the race. On trails, its really hard to know who is up ahead or behind, so being able to see a line up of your competition is very helpful, or discouraging at times. An out and back is also a fun way to connect with the other people in the race. Oncoming traffic often passes on narrow, single-track trails so interaction is necessary. Everyone is always super nice and these brief encounters takes the monotony out of running for so long.

I carried on with hip and knee pain for 17 miles. I dreaded aid stations because if I slowed to a walk or stopped running, my right knee exploded into shards of glass. It wasn't the pain that scared me, it was knowing that I shouldn't be running. The fear of failure was much worse than any physical pain I was feeling.

Strong and steady around mile 9. Jesse is behind me anchoring me from being foolish with my pace.

At the mile 37 aid station I was still the 4th female. I made quick work of filling my water bottles, grabbed a few potato chips, and downed a cup of Mountain Dew. I hobbled toward the trail with my knee and hip screaming in protest. Just 13 miles to go - I run 13 miles all the time. I could make to the finish and possibly even get top 5. My running coach buddy, CJ Lafond (who ran this race as a training run for the Kettle 100 mile!), saw me as I made one last pause before limping onto the trail. Hey Jonnah, you alright? I explained to him that I couldn't really walk anymore but I couldn't leave the race. Sometimes you just have to swallow your pride and think about the rest of your racing season. He was right. There was no way to know how badly I was hurting myself and I could be compromising months of running and racing if I was running through that much pain. The energy of a race clouded my judgement and I really needed an experienced runner to help me make a sensible choice. Slightly pissed off at CJ for being right, I lumbered back to the aid station. I found the lady holding the clipboard.

I need to drop out, I said under my breath.

What was that, dear?

I'm DROPPING OUT! I can barely walk! I shouted at her. I wasn't yelling because I was angry at her, these were words that I could either whisper or scream, I couldn't speak them. Chunks of emotion swelled in my throat and I swallowed hard as she asked me questions. Do I need medical attention?, am I sure I want to do this?, should I just take a break for a while? I couldn't talk, so I just shook my head for yes or no.

Jesse about to finish his race!

Jesse was a ways behind me at this point in the race. He is a pretty fast marathon runner and decent at 50k but 50 miles is a tough distance for him. I wanted to talk to him so badly so I waited in the aid station for him to come through. The girls I was ahead of all came by, I got smiles and waves and Are you ok?s. When Jesse came into the station, I pressed my face against his sweaty neck and began sobbing in deep, quiet heaves. He reassured me that I am a good runner (way better than him - he said), that I made the right choice, and how proud he was of me for doing the smart thing. You have 3 more ultras this year plus your other races. You are just getting started in this sport.

At the finishing area my mom was there with my kids, Paavo (3.5 yrs) and Mischa (1.5 yrs). They came to watch me finish and I felt like I let my whole family down. I told them how I hurt my leg and I felt sad - that made sense to them. Over the course of the week, I visited my chiropractor, a sports medicine MD, and an amazing yoga therapist. They all agreed that my symptoms were textbook SI sprain. Additionally, I have a sprained pubis, the cartilage that joins the pubic bone. This is a joint that loosens during pregnancy and childbirth. The fact that I started running shortly after Mischa's birth may not have been a good thing. Anyhow, I will recover from my injuries and I will be back in the game within a few weeks.

Mischa and me on Mother's Day morning - the day after the race.

I know that I clearly made the right decision to end my race, but I feel a void where a strong finish was supposed to be. What I have realized is that a race is a culmination of training, so by not finishing, I have no closure or conclusion to the training period. A huge mass of tension builds inside of me in the weeks and months before an event. I use this tension to propel me through the race. When this part of the cycle is cut out, there is no release of that coiled tension.

To manage this unsatisfying outcome, I have decided to put the potential energy into my next races. By abandoning the Ice Age 50, I lost no fitness, in fact, I saved myself from more recovery time. I start running again next week. I will build slowly and pay attention to my body. Longevity is key in ultrarunning so patience, discipline, and commitment will be what brings me success this season and years to come.

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.

Shadows and Dust

This is the first spring in 4 years that I haven't been either pregnant or recently postpartum. When I made the decision not to have anymore children, I was really looking forward to this spring. I would carry the momentum of my strong racing year right into the next, without any interruptions for pregnancy or childbirth. My childbearing years were some of the most important years in my life and shaped who I am today, but now I get so see what kind of athlete I can become. Windy, open road

Back in December, Jesse and I registered for the Ice Age 50 Mile race on May 9th. This race is so popular that registration opens and closes in one day. This meant that we had to commit to our spring running plans half a year ahead. Signing up for this race was my way of finally acknowledging to myself that I was moving on from having a third baby and going straight into the next year of racing.

My three year old, Paavo, snapped my portrait after my run.

When we got back from an epic running trip through Arizona, southern California, and Utah in February, I was excited to be home and put some major miles on back in Wisconsin. But, before we were even unpacked, everyone in our family came down with the flu. This started a spiraling virus pattern that we are still battling. The weather was bitter cold through February, not to mention how grey and dark it was compared to our sun drenched trails out west. I grumbled as I layered on my running clothes and set out to run the snowy country roads around our house, every run was in the shadow of my beautiful vacation. The 20 mile radius around my house is set to the backdrop of rolling farm fields, grazing livestock, steep wooded ridges and valleys, and winding streams traversing the countryside. I know that I am lucky to live in this idyllic landscape, which only makes me feel guilty for wanting to be back in California.

Coming home from a 10 miler.

Finally daylight saving came a few weeks ago and I knew my running attitude would get better. Spring in Wisconsin can be very dramatic. One morning I wore long johns, overalls, and a puffy coat to work then ran in a t-shirt in the afternoon. Yes! Running would be awesome again and I was coming into spring in the best racing shape of my life. But as the snow melted, the roads were thick with salt and debris from the winter. The strong spring wind blasted salty dust into my eyes and passing cars and trucks left me in a swirl of sand and gravel.

I decided to hit the mountain bike trails at Blue Mound State Park to get off the road. Then Jesse informed me that they are closed in the spring until they dry out, which could be a while because the snow is packed down all winter by snowshoers. How did I not know this? Because I started trail running after my first child, Paavo, was born and was pregnant that following spring. I ran through most of my second pregnancy but my runs never amounted to more than 10 miles a week. It is so strange to me how unfamiliar I am with running during the season that I was looking forward to so much.

Smoke haze over the road from the controlled burn on the right of the road.

I am 48 days out from my next big race - Ice Age 50, the race that helped me move to the next chapter of my life. This is a critical time in my training and I will need to lay on serious miles over the next few weeks. One of the hardest things about running for me is not the running itself, but finding the time and inspiration to do the work. Running is about finding beauty in challenges, so I will let these long, windy roads be my test. I will rise above this awkward low point in the year to move out of the shadows and into the dust.