Dirty Kanza – Bike Race or Vision Quest?

I didn’t know what I was getting myself into for Dirty Kanza. I knew the race was on gravel roads – I had a gravel bike. I knew the race was 200 miles – I had done a 150 mile training ride. I knew the race had 11,000 feet of climbing – I had done that before in training. I knew how to eat and fuel well for long distances – I am a professional endurance athlete after all. My team at Skratch Labs had even put me through an accelerated bike program, teaching me about everything from saddle sore prevention to bike handling skills, drafting, and nutrition. I thought I was prepared, but honestly, Dirty Kanza was nothing I could have prepared for.

 

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I say this in the most positive way, because a 200-mile race isn’t just a race. It’s a journey. It’s a vision quest. It’s a deliberate decision to keep pushing into the unknown and finding out if you have what it takes to finish it, no matter what problems are thrown your way. I had an incredible team helping me along the way. Allen Lim, co-founder of Skratch Labs and Urielle Carlson, a nutritionist, helped me with all the fueling leading up to race day and during the big event. They made me a healthy dinner the night before and kept me going with rice cakes (from Allen’s “Feed Zone Portables”), Skratch Labs Energy Chews, Sports Hydration Mix, and Anytime Energy Bars. Throughout the entire 200 miles I consumed 4 packs of Energy Chews (all Matcha flavored!) 1 Anytime Bar, 9 rice cake portables and I drank 12 bottles (6 of which had Hydration Mix and the other 6 were just plain water).  All of this fuel kept me happy and smiling all day. I kept my energy even all day and didn’t suffer from any extreme energy bonk. I had fun out there, even though it was the most technical bike ride I have ever been on.

 

 

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Photo credit: Greg Erwin

 

Now, nutrition can easily get messed up in a race, you can easily fall behind or forget to fuel if you are in a low spot – but it was one of the few things I was actually prepared for in Dirty Kanza. I had practiced nutrition many times while running mountain races for hours on end, so I knew how to fuel, however I wasn’t prepared to fuel on such a technical course where I couldn’t take my hands off the bike – because I didn’t want to crash! So, I had to be strategic and take advantage of flat sections or aid stations to make sure I stayed on top of everything.

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Photo credit: Greg Erwin

 

That brings me to my next experience of Dirty Kanza, how extremely technical and steep it was! The gravel roads in Kansas are nothing like the ones I trained on in Colorado. In Kansas the roads are more like crushed rock than gravel. They are sharp rocks, sometimes pretty big rocks in fact. There were nice-looking sections of gravel roads, but when you were on them with your bike, even those sections were rough, so riders had to find their way to the side of the road where it was a bit smother and less chunky. There were also some extremely rugged and infrequently traveled tractor roads that we had to navigate, with deep ruts (about a foot deep), river crossings, holes, loose, squirrely gravel and more chunks of rock. There were mountain bikes and fat bikes doing this race too, and it seemed like everyone was getting flat tires. I had 38 mm tires on my bike and at times, I felt like they were too skinny. But, even with my limited bike handling experience, remember this was my very first bike race, and I had only been riding gravel for 2 months – somehow, I found a way to get through the technical terrain. I kept telling myself to ‘be loose’ to ‘relax’ and, most importantly I told myself to ‘keep breathing.’

 

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Photo credit: Greg Erwin

 

The most important part of this bike race for me was to have fun. I didn’t want to injure myself (that’s how I started riding in the first place) or to hate riding bikes at the end of the event. I wanted to enjoy it, to learn and to challenge myself in a new way. Dirty Kanza had an incredible community. In many ways, the gravel bike community reminded me of the ultra-running community. Everyone was so encouraging, helpful and excited for the event. The whole town of Emporia came out to support the event and every aid station or checkpoint I came through; the people were electric. It was impossible to quit when there was so much energy around me. I even got a flat tire during the race (again, the rocks were brutal) and I got the chance to change my first flat, ever – putting in a tire boot to repair the slash, then throwing in a tube to hold the pressure. It held too, for the remainder of the race.

 

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I learned so much about bikes during the Dirty Kanza. But I also learned so much about myself. I was reminded of the power of the human spirit and the ability to surpass limits – limits you put on yourself, and those that can be overcome if you’re willing to try your best no matter the outcome. I learned to push outside my comfort zone and to keep showing up in uncomfortable situations and give it my best effort. There’s beauty in trying something new, something scary and something challenging. It’s through these opportunities when you figure out what you’re made of, and it’s one of the most satisfying experiences to finish something you didn’t know you could do. Dirty Kanza was my first bike race, and it was so much more than a race. It was an experience; one I hope to have many more of – through racing bikes, running or trying something new that challenges me, forcing me to bring out my best and to teach me what I’m capable of. I encourage you to search for those experiences that do the same.

 

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Photo credit: Greg Erwin

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Finding the Balance: An Ultra Runner on a Gravel Bike

Ultra running can be time consuming. It requires a lot of time to train in the mountains, a lot of time to recover, stretch, rest, eat . . . always eat. You can get caught in a cycle of doing too much or thinking you must train crazy hours on the trail to be successful in a race. While I agree, running is the most specific way to train for a running race, there is a point of  diminishing return, when there’s too much running and not enough recovery (or playfulness, in my opinion). I was definitely in danger of becoming consumed with only running, and stressing about needing to run and train all the time. But, that all change back in 2017 when I nearly died, falling off a cliff during a race, and was faced with the harsh reality of injury and that running might never happen again. It was during my recovery from those injuries that I discovered gravel bike riding.

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Photo: Emma Ziobrzynski

I started riding as a way to recover, as a way to explore the mountains, to get outside and to move my body. I didn’t ride very long or very far, I think I did a ride once that was 3 hours long—max. It was for the enjoyment. It helped me to fall in love again with being outside and to regain fitness and return to running. Once I started running and competing again, I still used cycling as a way to cross train. I found it beneficial to my running and overall strength. In fact, my coach Adam St. Pierre, encouraged me to keep riding my bike and saw it a fun addition to my training, my fitness with the added benefit of not get overly concerned about only running.

 

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I’m really thankful I had at least started to cycle when this winter, a slip on the ice and an ankle twist caused me to break my ankle. I was faced with another surgery, another recovery, and I had to cancel my early season running races.

Of course, I was devastated, having to move forward from another injury. The thought of having to start over again felt overwhelming. I turned to my team of physiotherapists at REVO Physiotherapy and Sports Performance, a group that’s put me back together so many times that they’ve basically become family. That’s when I met Joe Lewis, a retired professional cyclist, a coach at REVO and the founder of First Wheel Coaching. Along with my PT team, and coach Adam, Joe encouraged me to get on a bike as soon as possible so I could prevent further loss of fitness. So, as soon as my doctors cleared me for partial weight bearing, I brought my bike into the gym.

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Photo: Jenni Lewis

Joe helped me set it up on a trainer, and I started riding. At first, I rode with a normal shoe and a flat pedal for my injured leg. I couldn’t even push all the way through with that ankle, but eventually I progressed to being clipped in and started to push myself. Joe monitored my progress, provided modifications and helped me increase the quality of my workouts by raising my Functional Threshold Power (FTP—basically a metric in cycling measuring your threshold, or the amount of work you can do in an hour, all out).

 

I saw progress more quickly than I would’ve thought possible, and was relieved to feel like I wasn’t losing fitness during recovery. I was really starting to enjoy cycling and was learning a lot, not just about the sport, but also about myself as an athlete (see my other blog post, Getting Out of my Comfort Zone, and how I started from scratch with a new sport).

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Not long after being cleared to ride a bike outside, I got a call from my good friend Allen Lim over at Skratch Labs. He had an entry into a gravel bike race for me. And it wasn’t just any gravel bike race, it was THE gravel bike race: the Dirty Kanza, a 200-mile gravel grinding bike race. The idea of doing 200 miles on a bike, something I’ve never done before, really scared me. I didn’t know if I could even do it, especially coming off of an injury. But, that was the beauty of it; it was intimidating and challenging, but it motivated me. I told Allen I was in.

The next day, as I was sweating it out on the bike trainer, I told Joe about the race. He had a big grin on his face as he said, “Well, I guess we’ve got a lot of work to do.” He was all-in and ready to help me tackle my biggest challenge yet: racing the Dirty Kanza.

 

Joe wrote me a program prescribing different workouts and longer rides. Every Tuesday and Thursday, we’d meet up at the gym for cycling workouts, and Joe was there to push me and walk me through what would come next. I think during every cycling workout so far, I’ve looked at Joe with my wide eyes and said, “I don’t know if I can do this!” But, as usual, he just shakes his head and tells me, “You’re stronger than you think you are. You can definitely do this.”

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I’d end the day smiling, tired and proud to have another hard day of cycling under my belt. With his help, I learned how to train for two sports at once. This was important because I wanted to get back to running as well, so Adam and Joe worked together to help me increase my running volume as I was coming back from my ankle injury, while training for the bike race. It was a lot of work, but the process has been so much fun.

 

My cycling ability has improved an incredible amount while working with Joe. He made training as a cyclist accessible, pushed me harder than I thought I could go and helped renew my optimism for my future as an athlete by optimizing my recovery. Even more than that, he’s given me a new excitement for cycling. So much so that I even signed up for another gravel bike race—a stage race! Who knows, maybe I’ll end up balancing racing on my gravel bike and ultra running in my future seasons.

With Dirty Kanza and my stage race still ahead of me, I look back on this process and appreciate how far I’ve come. Cycling is more than just a means to an end or a bridge to recovery. It’s a challenge in and of itself, and one that I’m enjoying and embracing fully. But, most importantly, it has led me to a new community, one that’s always there to help me up when I’m down and willing to create new paths to success and recovery.

 

If you’re looking to get into cycling and don’t know where to start, or you want to learn how to race or use riding for recovery, look up Joe and First Wheel Coaching. Not only has he changed my perspective and helped me to get back to doing what I love, he’s also helped me uncover a new love for cycling that I’ll carry with me throughout my athletic career.

Getting out of my Comfort Zone: Starting from Scratch

As a professional athlete. I know how to work hard, how to push and to squeeze out that very last drop. But what happens when motivation, fitness and determination isn’t the limiting factor? But instead, a lack of knowledge, practice and experience?

Well, this is what I’m encountering as I’m beginning to explore gravel bike riding and racing. I’m Starting from scratch.

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Photo: Emma Ziobrzynski

 

Think it would be easy to just hop on a bike and go? Yea, I thought this was the case too, but apparently it’s a bit more complicated than that. After a near fatal fall in 2017 during a race in 2017, I decided to get a gravel bike in 2018 as a means to get outside while I was learning to walk and run again. But honestly, I wouldn’t go for very long on a bike, because I didn’t know where to go, it was uncomfortable and once I started running again, that took precedent. It wasn’t until this winter, after breaking my ankle, that I decided to give cycling a serious try. I had to scratch my early season races and focus on getting better. I couldn’t fully weight bear for 2 months, so I decided to get on a bike.

 

One of the first things I learned as a newbie cyclist was that your butt isn’t supposed to hurt. Yea, I spent hours riding a bike with my ass literally killing me . . . maybe that’s why I didn’t like cycling very much the first go around. I thought that this was the status quo, this was normal, that my sit bone nerves apparently had to die before I was able to bear sitting on my bike seat for more than 2 hours. I remember taking my good friend Liz, a professional mountain biker, aside, commending her on the strength of her hiney (and her lady parts) and asking when my butt would behave. She laughed and said, ‘oh Hill, you need a new saddle . . . and a bike fit.’

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Photo: Josh Uhl

 

Now that my butt was more comfy, riding became way more enjoyable, but there was still the dilemma of technique. Cycling is the exact opposite of running. It involves concentric muscle contractions versus more eccentric and spring loading for running. My muscles weren’t used to this type of movement and coordination, neither was my brain. It was a bit frustrating at first because my heart rate wouldn’t get as high before my legs started to fatigue. I had to learn and practice this motion and movement. Some things I did to combat this was just practice riding. I also did high intensity workouts on a bike trainer so I could elevate my heart rate and get in a good cross training workout. I was amazed by how quickly my body reacted and adapted.

 

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Photo: Emma Ziobrzynski

 

But, I still wasn’t quite there. Sure, gravel bike riding is fun, and it suits my craving for going far, uphill, and with little traffic, but there’s the whole other aspect about bike handling skills and communication. Apparently there’s this whole language to cycling that I had no idea about. When I’d go on rides, the people in front of me would point at things on the ground, use hand gestures behind them, tap their butt as they rode by, telling me to ‘hop on.’ I was a bit confused. If I did that during my group trail run, I would be yelling ‘ROCK’ and pointing at debris every 2 seconds. Also, drafting, where you literally let someone block the wind for you and pull you along. If I did that running, I would either trip or get elbowed in the boob for running too close.

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Photo: Emma Ziobrzynski

 

Also, gravel can be rutted, loose and rocky; I had to learn how to handle my bike in these conditions. So, that meant lots of practice riding in different terrain and going to the Valmont Bike Park to do the pump tracks.

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Photo: Emma Ziobrzynski

But, the more I ride the better I’m getting and the more fun I’m having. I’m amazed by how far I can go on a bike in one day. It’s completely different to running in that way, and that one of the parts about cycling I like the most – the exploration aspect of it. Also, the culture of linking up towns for snacks and coffee breaks is my favorite! Cycling is much different that running because I can eat easier on a bike than I can running. I can eat more real food (Skratch Labs rice cakes and energy bars) and not get sick to my stomach. Usually for running I have to stick to the Skratch Labs Fruit Drops and Skratch Lab Hydration drink mix to avoid stomach issues, but for long bike rides, the more I fuel the more I can go. It’s quite wonderful.

 

To top it all off, I’m tackling my first gravel bike race, The Dirty Kanza 200, June 1st. And, of course, this race is a BIG DEAL! It’s become the premiere gravel bike race in the country with pros showing up and it’s gaining lots of attention in the cycling world. So what am I doing at this race? Good question. Even though I’m completely out of my comfort zone and have only been riding gravel for 2 months, I’m having a lot of fun in the process. It’s not easy to be out of my comfort zone every single day, trying my best at something that doesn’t come naturally or easily. It’s hard. It’s scary. It’s frustrating. And, it’s worth it. To become a well-rounded athlete. To learn new things, to grow and be humble throughout the process. These are the most important lessons I’m learning. To have fun, enjoy the process, and to NEVER go on a bike ride without chamois cream.

Check out more details about “Operation make Hillary Allen a cyclist” in Episode 1 of Starting from Skratch.

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Photo: Emma Ziobrzynski

 

 

 

 

 

Power Your Own Adventure

This post is sponsored by the Colorado Department of Transportation’s Bustang initiative.

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Photo by Josh Uhl

 

Traffic drives me crazy. Literally. It’s one of those things that I will avoid at all costs. I rearrange my schedule, I ride my bike to appointments, I carpool, I even get up before sunrise to be the first one at the trailhead. But, sometimes getting in a car and being stuck in traffic is inevitable.

I’m a Colorado native, so I’ve been witness to the incredible growth of the Front Range the past decade. As someone who dislikes the extra bustling on the roads but loves to recreate outdoors and in the mountains – which I totally need a car to get to – I’ve had to get creative to avoid those traffic jams, while still getting to the places I enjoy most.

So, I got really excited when I learned about CDOT’s Bustang lines. It’s a bus service that commutes along the front range of I-25 and the I-70 mountain corridors and links major transit systems together. Right now they’re even providing extra routes to DTC from I-25 to help with commuter traffic from all the construction.

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As a professional endurance athlete, I train in the mountains. I live in Boulder, CO, so the foothills are accessible from my doorstep, and for those trips I like to get to where I’m going by using the power of my body. Whether that means riding my bike to a trailhead or starting a run from my house instead of at the proper trailhead, I like to power my own adventures. But, let’s be honest, to have access to the bigger mountains, I can’t always ride my bike there, I need a car. Driving, however, takes time and energy, especially with all the new traffic on the roads. This is where Bustang comes in –  I was intrigued by the opportunities for adventures without the headache of traffic and driving.

 

I wanted to try out Bustang and see how reliable and easy it could be. There’s a lot of  route/trip options Ride Bustang offers, but I decided to take the South Line to Colorado Springs, one of my favorite places to trail run. But, once I got there, I didn’t want to be limited without a car, so I decided to bring my bike along on.

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Riding to Denver on the bike path from Boulder

For this adventure I wanted the theme to be as ‘self-propelled’ as possible. I also had some company along the way too, because adventures are so much better with a partner! From Boulder, I wanted to ride my bike to Union Station in Denver to catch the bus. So, we packed up our bikes with a few changes of clothes, lots of warm layers, an assortment of food and running shoes.

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Our packed up bikes

 

The ride to Denver from Boulder is a continuous bike path, and then there was less than a quarter mile of actual road to reach Union Station. I already had our Bustang tickets downloaded on my phone with the Just Ride Bustang app, so I just scanned the tickets, loaded the bikes on the rack and we were ready to go. The bus ride to Colorado Springs, even in rush hour traffic, was less than 2 hours. I was already impressed.

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Once we got there, since I had my bike, transportation was simple. Our Airbnb was a short ride from downtown Colorado Springs, same with all the restaurants. So, it was pretty straightforward to get around with my bike and Google maps.

The next day was when the real fun began! I had mapped out a route to ride my bike from downtown Colorado Springs, up a gravel dirt road, to the trailhead of Mount Rosa. The peak itself, which is visible from the city, sits at 11,533 feet, but since the gravel road dead-ends at the trailhead (around 9,500 feet) we planned to lock up the bikes and go by foot from the trailhead to the top of Mount Rosa.

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I wasn’t sure of the road or trail conditions, but I was pretty certain there would be some snow and ice up high – again, it was December. But, I read the road was maintained, so we thought we’d give it a try. We packed up the bikes with extra water, extra warm clothes, and lots of food – it was going to be an all-day adventure.

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Photo by Josh Uhl

Going south from downtown, we headed to Cheyenne Mountain State park to find Old Stage Road. This road climbs 22 miles and 5,000 feet of steep terrain before reaching the trailhead for Mount Rosa. What’s incredible is that this road leads all the way to the summit of a neighboring peak, Mount Almagre too – and Almagre sits at 12,367 feet! As the road reached more of a plateau, it got rather snowy and icy, which made for some interesting bike riding.

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The road got fairly rough and really icy around 9,000 feet, so we found a good spot to hide the bikes, switched into running shoes and started running toward the trailhead for Mount Rosa. Once there, it was all snowy trail to the summit. Even for December, the weather was clear and the sun was out, although it was 30 degrees.

After returning to the bikes, it was time for a chilly descent back into town – and lots of food!

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photo by Josh Uhl

The next morning we reversed the trip home, catching Bustang back to Union Station and then riding my bike back to Boulder. It was such an incredible trip and not having to sit in traffic or deal with the headache of driving made the trip even better! CDOT really has provided a reliable and fast alternative for commuting along the Front Range and it’s a resource I plan to use again. I’m already planning my next adventure, this time heading west! Where would you want to take the ‘Stang?

 

What’s Nutrition Got to do with it?

No matter how you slice it, training won’t add up unless you’re refilling your tank – and not with just anything – with quality fuel.

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When I speak about nutrition, most athletes focus in on racing. They think about gels and the number of calories they should be consuming to maintain a race effort. Of course, this is an important part of nutrition, but it’s not the whole picture. I think more holistically, not only about my needs during my training, but about my day-in, day-out habits of fueling pre run, post run and everything in between.

I, personally abide by a plant-based diet. Even with all the traveling I do, it’s really quite simple to stick to. Skratch Labs products play a key role in supporting this lifestyle and my training. Now, if you’re curious about this plant-based diet, the science supporting it and specifics of meeting your body’s requirements, I encourage you to check out Thought for Food Lifestyle for great information and resources surrounding the powerful world of plants. Then start doing some research on your own! But for now, I’ll take you back to the task at hand, and tell you my general routine for fueling pre run and post run during a big week of training.

The big take away – eat often, eat sufficiently and (for me at least) eat all the plants you can!

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I recently completed a 105 mile route through the alps, over 4 days. Some know about this course, it follows the race course of the famous Ultra Trail Du Mont Blanc ultra marathon over 3 countries and around the Mont Blanc massif. It’s a gnarly course, with 33,000 ft of positive elevation gain. The average finish time is about 40 hours. To complete this thing, not only did I have to eat properly during my runs, to maintain energy, but I also had to eat properly, before and especially after, to recover adequately.

 

First of all, consuming sufficient calories and quality calories is the first step. During a run I aim for 200 calories per hour, strictly from a carbohydrate source. I use Skratch Labs drink mix and Skratch Labs Sport Energy Chews (the new matcha flavor is my FAV!) during my runs. I also like to bring along fruit for an extra crunch and treat for the summits. Typically, I start fueling in the second hour of my run, only because I started my days with a good breakfast (oatmeal, fruit and nuts), that would tide me over the first hour. Then, it’s a matter of staying on top of the fueling throughout the duration of my runs, which were typically 6-7 hours each day for this route. I’ve found that if I fuel well during my run, I’m more likely to recovery more quickly, physically feel better (less sore, achy, etc.) and to run better the next day. This also includes hydration! Skratch Labs drink mix is the perfect balance for full hydration – not only replenishing my water loss, but also my salt loss. I’ve had a sweat test to determine exactly how much salt i’m losing per hour – so I know exactly how much drink mix I need to replenish it. Science is pretty neat!

The big take away here is – eat and drink during your run! It has long term benefits and aids in overall recovery!

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Now onto post run. I kick off recovery with a recovery drink. Most athletes have great success with Skratch Labs Sport Recovery Drink Mix, but because I don’t consume diary, I have my own recovery drink (generally a smoothie with the Skratch Labs Wellness Hydration mix mixed in to get some extra electrolytes, almond or oat milk, plenty of fruit and some nut butter). It’s the best post run treat you could ask for. Not only does it satiate me until I can start refueling with real food, it has a good balance of carbohydrate, fat and protein to start the refueling process.

Then, once I’m ready for a meal, I make sure I consume whole foods, as many plants as possible, and again, make sure I get in fat, protein and filling foods to make sure my body replenishes all that it lost during the day. Then, lots of water! Even in France, Italy and Switzerland, there was no shortage of plants, so there was nothing lacking in the fat, protein or carb department.

After the food is taken care of, many athletes like to stretch or foam roll for extra help with their recovery. I’m a big fan of stretching and light muscle activation (if I feel I need it), but the most important for me is a good night sleep – as many hours as I can. Sleep, combined with all that good food, helps me to best prepare for the next day of training – oh, and some comfy slippers. Then it’s time to rinse and repeat the process of fueling and refueling.

 

How I love the simplicity of training life:  Run. Eat. Sleep. Repeat.

 

I am better than a result

I am better than a result. I have inherent worth. There is no such thing as good enough because I am innately good.

Despite the challenges of my injuries, I am certain that my best physical and mental days are ahead – that being the best athlete I can ever be is only possible because of the challenges I face now.

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These are the mantras I repeat, daily. My days are not always perfect, and there are times I question if I’m moving in the ‘right’ direction or forward at all. I face some sort of doubt and fear, every day. It’s an active choice to acknowledge them, confront them and lean into them.

Especially as I return to running, I am still holding onto many doubts surrounding my body, its capabilities and abilities to sustain the activities I want to do.

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Photo: Running in the Dolomites

This past week I faced some huge fears. I planned to complete a route I had always dreamed of completing – the HardRock 100-mile course. A group of good friends planned the adventure, aiming to complete the course in 3 days, averaging about 30 miles per day, with 10,000 feet of positive elevation gain, traversing the San Juan Mountains in Southern Colorado. I knew this undertaking would test me physically, but more so mentally. I was excited, yet anxious. Fearful of the technical terrain and its impact on my (still) recovering injuries.

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As I look back on the hours spent in the mountains, I’m in awe of our bodies and their resilience. I’m also in awe of the human spirit, how energy can ebb and flow. Entering this softrock endeavor, I was certain I would be the weakest one. But, each person in the group had their low moments and high moments, including myself. We supported each other – encouraging and supporting during the low moments, and doing the same when energy and motivation returned.

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Photo: SoftRock Day #2, on top of Handies Peak

I learned that energy is not constant, and no matter how well-trained an athlete is, there is also doubt and insecurities to face. It was empowering to see every single person confront these fears head on. One practice that helped me to confront my fears/insecurities and to keep pushing forward, was to say – out loud – three things I am grateful for, and one reason why I am great. My good friend, Lucy Bartholomew, had the idea. The only rule – we couldn’t repeat the same three things twice and we had to come up with a new reason we were great each day as well. It was a humbling practice and gave me strength to look for the positive, instead of focusing on my doubts of completing the route.

Filling my head with positive thoughts, even when I hurt, lacked energy, or was lagging behind on a downhill, wouldn’t allow room for negative thoughts or doubts in my head. It’s a daily practice I’m going to incorporate into my routine.

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Photo: Ice Lake

Upon writing this piece, I thought I was going to focus on the feelings of each day, and the pride of finishing such an epic course, just shy of a year from my accident. But now, I’m hoping to use it as a benchmark in my mental training, to remember it’s possible to accomplish the impossible if you’re willing to try and challenge doubt. Positivity and gratitude can alter your course, if you allow a little light to shine through.

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Photo: Silverton, CO after finishing the Hardrock 100 mile course.

Who I am – Without Running?

When did it become commonplace to define one’s life by a single subjective thing? When did we start whittling a person’s existence to a singularity; a career, a relationship or single attribute? Throughout evolution mammals never fixated on  one thing – if they had, they never would have survived. So why do we choose to judge, assume or react to ourselves and others based solely on one single attribute? Whether that be a physical characteristic, a personality trait or a job, modern society – enhanced by social media – encourages these snap judgements and generalizations.
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Photo Credit: Mike Thurk

I’ve certainly fell into this trap, especially when it comes to the activities I do. Since finding the sport, I have built a whole new life around running and the person I am as a runner. It’s an empowering community. To be surrounded by people who share your passions and can relate about gross toenails, ducking into the woods for a quick “break,” and especially those tiny moments where you feel so small, yet so connected to this vast universe. It’s addicting and can quickly become all you care about.

 

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Photo Credit: Greg Mionske

Recently, I’ve been forced to reevaluate this lifestyle. Now, the community and environment that has been a source of joy, belonging and acceptance has become painful. Running doesn’t come naturally to me now, it’s a battle of recovery, to regain strength so I can walk normally. Instead of finding solace in this community, connected and cemented in the life-centering activity of running, I find myself angry and consumed with grief. It has become isolating – a self inflicted ailment. Since I’m not running at the moment, I feel as though I have lost my identity, who I am. I’m lost in getting back to the “runner I was.” Trying desperately to prove to myself that this emptiness I feel can be fixed if I can just run again, if I could just walk down the street like a normal person, if I could just push through the pain of each step, if I could only go back in time and not step on that rock that cast me off the mountain side. If only . . . .

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Am I really that unbalanced? To be someone who defines their entire self-worth solely on one activity? Before my accident I would have defined myself as a balanced person. I have a Masters degree in Neuroscience and I teach Chemistry, Biology, and Physiology at a small college in Colorado. Anyone who knows me can see my extreme fascination and intrigue in the world around me, with science, especially with bugs, lizards and frogs. It’s been a passion of mine long before I became a runner and will likely continue to be something that captivates me long after I stop running competitively. I do have a life outside of running and I enjoy fostering those interests.

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Yet, I am still devastated by this state of injury I find myself in, and the halo of sadness that constantly surrounds me. So much so that it has begun to negatively affect my life outside of running, those interesting parts of me that have always been there. I’m realizing now that I have intertwined my identity with running. My injury is temporary, and as I continue to show signs of progress to regaining my strength and a sense of normalcy, this feeling of disconnection still persists. It can be dangerous, especially when ‘health’ and being ‘injury free’ seems to be the only cure – the promise of a wholly better self in all capacities, even those that weren’t directly injured in my accident. It is the utopian idea that once I can run again, all of my problems will disappear. But this is not true. Real life problems, the ones that running once helped alleviate, have a persistent nature and lay in wait for the next time I slow down or find myself injured again.

So I ask the question: who am I without running? Beyond my job, my hobbies, my relationships, what lays in wait there? I’ve struggled immensely since my injury and it’s forced me to take a deeper look and connect with who I am at my core – without the preconception of a job, activity or physical attribute interfering.

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Photo Credit: Greg Mionske

It’s a difficult question to ask, one I still struggle with. In fact, I’m still amid the process of introspection. It is the part of the injury recovery process that most people don’t get to see, and one we most often try to keep private, attempting to hide our struggle from others to save face. Why? I’m not sure I have those answers quite yet. I’m finding a sense of ease in the process but I still struggle. The biggest impact of this rebuilding process has been that I no longer look at myself through the lens of singularity. I can see a more complete and complex person beneath the brightly colored running shorts and shoes. One that enjoys being outside, with eyes glued to the ground in search of bugs, or frogs, simply because it makes me giggle and brings me joy. I want more of that complexity and diversity in my life. This injury and break from running has been immensely difficult but the blessing has been the lessons it has taught me about myself.

Of course, I’ll get back to running – it brings me so much joy to move in that way – but I’m no longer allowing my happiness to be fixed to that linear timeline. In the meantime, anyone want to go bug hunting?

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