california

I Feel So Far Away

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Staying Present While Running Toward the Sun

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Takeaways: What I learned in 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Trail Fever

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

With Jesse and Mischa after Dances with Dirt 50k

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

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

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

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.

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.