sean o'brien 50 mile

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

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.