Ladia Albertson-Junkans will run her first 100 miler at the 2019 Western States 100. In this interview, Ladia talks about how crewing and pacing friend Kaytlyn Gerbin at Western States has inspired her to try running the distance herself, her long history with running, and how she plans to carry the spirit of friend and runner Gabe Grunewald, who recently passed away, with her on her journey.
Ladia Albertson-Junkans Pre-2019 Western States 100 Mile Interview Transcript
iRunFar: Meghan Hicks of iRunFar and I’m here with Ladia Albertson-Junkans. It’s before the 2019 Western States 100. Good morning. How are you?
Ladia Albertson-Junkans: Good morning, Meghan. I’m great. Really happy to be here.
iRunFar: You are standing at the starting line of your very first 100-mile race. What’s going through your head?
Albertson-Junkans: Well honestly what’s going through my head is just thinking about my friend Gabe Grunewald, and how excited I am to run with her on Saturday, and it’ll be her first 100-mile race as well, and actually her first really big trail race. So I’m excited to spend that time with her, and with my team, all of whom are also just really big fans of Gabe and really excited to bring her energy to this amazing event.
iRunFar: So Gabe Grunewald just passed away from cancer 10 days ago or so?
Albertson-Junkans: It was June 11th.
iRunFar: So a couple weeks. And you were a good friend of her, and you sort of spent the last couple weeks of her life together.
Albertson-Junkans: Mm hmm.
iRunFar: So sort of the peak and taper part of your preparation for Western States was spending her last days and saying goodbye to her.
Albertson-Junkans: Yep. Yeah, it really was. I’m still happy with the mileage I got in, all things considered, but training certainly was not a priority. Getting out and running was definitely a priority. I think that’s a really important part of coping with life in general, but especially when life is a little bit harder, running is even more meaningful and I think can be a saving grace in those times. And especially for Gabe, running was really what she lived for and what she would fight for. Something that really made her feel alive, and was so important to her, and a big part of her foundation, the mission of her foundation is to promote physical activity among cancer patients and cancer survivors and that’s because she really understands the power of running when you have hard things going on in your life.
iRunFar: So running is part of our identities and it’s also ways that we, you know, cope and adapt to life. During this time, what vehicle has running been for you?
Albertson-Junkans: That’s a great question. It’s been a lot of things. I think for one thing it’s been a form of prayer for me. It’s been a way to hold Gabe and [her husband] Justin and their families in my heart, and it’s been a way to feel really close to them and to feel close to Gabe in particular. You know, her and I have shared so many miles over the last 15 years together, and that’s where our friendship really blossomed and where we really got to know each other on new levels and in intimate ways. And so running is extra special for that reason, but I also think it has become such an important part of coping, and almost therapeutic in a way. A release. Yeah.
iRunFar: You said a minute ago, and then you’ve also said on your social media in the last couple of weeks, that Western States is going to be kind of a celebration of life for you also. There’s this turning outward and taking things forward.
Albertson-Junkans: Yeah, definitely. I think running can be used for so many things all at the same time, so while it’s a way to cope and hopefully a way to start healing, it’s also a way to celebrate, and that’s something I’m really looking forward to on Saturday. I have the ability and the opportunity to pursue a 100-mile race, and that is incredible in so many ways, but especially just this gift that I have right now in my life to be able to run and do nothing but running for one entire day, hopefully not much longer than a day. [laughs]
iRunFar: “Let’s try to keep it under 24 hours, okay?”
Albertson-Junkans: Yeah, but it just feels like such a gift.
iRunFar: So let’s back up a teensy bit. I feel like I sort of know you as a runner. I’ve seen you race a couple times. But this is my first time interviewing you. You have a really fascinating history with running. Can you talk about your pre-ultrarunning running world?
Albertson-Junkans: Sure. Yeah. I started running in middle school essentially.
Albertson-Junkans: And then had some success in high school running in Minnesota.
iRunFar: I was going to say, you’re Minnesotan. Yeah, Minnesota!
Albertson-Junkans: Woohoo! Go Minnesota! And then I ran at the University of Minnesota for the Gophers in cross country, indoor, and outdoor track. I definitely had more success in cross country and I enjoyed cross country the most, which I guess now is not all that surprising.
iRunFar: Not surprising that you’re right here.
Albertson-Junkans: Yep. And then after college I took a little bit of time to just step away from rigorous training and competition, but I found my way back to it and I ran for a little bit with a post-collegiate professional group out of Minnesota called Team USA Minnesota, which is a group that Gabe had run with for a very long time, and she was actually the one who really encouraged me to apply to be a part of that team, and just keep pursuing my running at that level, and that was a great experience. It was a little too intense for me while also holding down a full-time job and I was traveling every couple of weekends to go to these national-level competitions, and it just got to be a little bit too much for me.
Albertson-Junkans: And so after that I needed to step away again from the rigor of training and competing and I found myself more and more being drawn to the trails and in particular to the mountains, so I was really looking for every opportunity to get to the mountains. It was often Colorado, because I was still living in Minnesota at the time, and that’s a pretty cheap flight from Minneapolis to Denver. And yeah I was just like, as many weekends as I could get out there. And at one point I found a race in Denver, and I did that, and then I was like well that was really fun.
iRunFar: “I think I’ll do that again.”
Albertson-Junkans: Exactly. And then I found one in Washington where my sister was living at the time, so it was a good way to get out to see her, and then also do another trail race. One thing really just led to the next and eventually my husband, now husband, boyfriend at the time, we just decided to make a move out to western Washington, try something new, experience what it’s like living closer to mountains, and we both had family out there so it made sense. We made that move and it really, from there it was all trail running all the time.
iRunFar: I was going to say, you’re in the heart of the Cascade Mountains.
Albertson-Junkans: We are.
iRunFar: And there’s much more accessible trail running than….
iRunFar: …It’s way more appropriate to be a trail runner.
Albertson-Junkans: Exactly. Yep. And then of course we started meeting people like Kaytlyn and Ely Gerbin, and you can’t help but get enthusiastic about ultrarunning when you’re with them, and then again one thing led to the next and all of a sudden I was running around two volcanoes in one weekend with Kaytlyn and some of our other friends Alex and Marissa. I ran 75 miles in two days which I had never even come close to that in two days, and maybe in like a good year in college I had run 75 miles in one week for training, but I hadn’t done anything close to that for a long time and it just really opened up the possibilities. Oh, if I can do that, it seems like the sky’s the limit.
iRunFar: “Surely, I can do 100 miles.”
Albertson-Junkans: Surely, I can run up to the top of that thing.
iRunFar: And keep going.
Albertson-Junkans: For you know, a couple hundred more.
iRunFar: A little bit further. Okay so let’s talk about the journey to 100 miles. When did you get in your head that you wanted to run 100 miles in Western States?
Albertson-Junkans: That’s a very good question and I’m going to…
iRunFar: “I don’t know.”
Albertson-Junkans: Well I’m going to back it up to two years ago. I crewed and paced my good friend Kaytlyn Gerbin back in 2017. She was obviously fourth place, and then last year she ended up second. Just phenomenal runner, so much fun to be a part of her team. She’s just like a great person and has such great energy and everybody wants to be a part of Team Gerbin. So I felt very privileged that I could be a part of that team. And just being at this event and feeling the magic, and it really changed my perspective on ultrarunning, in that I saw for the first time what a team sport ultrarunning really was. To get one person from point A to point B over 100 miles as quickly as they can takes so much teamwork, and I just loved that. And I loved the energy of this event and just the camaraderie and the community. So last year was the first time I thought to myself, If I can get myself to Western States, and I can bring a team of people with me and share this experience with them, and pay forward the gift that Kaytlyn has given me the past two years to be a part of this, then I want to be able to do that. And so it really was Western States last year that I put it in my head, Let’s try to get a Golden Ticket. Because at that point I didn’t have any of the required races to enter the lottery.
iRunFar: Got it.
Albertson-Junkans: And so I figured out which Golden Ticket race to do, ended up being Bandera [100k] and hoped for the best. I ended up finishing second and ended up getting a golden ticket, and here I am.
iRunFar: And here you are.
Albertson-Junkans: And here I am.
iRunFar: So in order to be here and have that magic and pay it forward with your team, it means you had to leave Team Kaytlyn.
Albertson-Junkans: It does, yes.
iRunFar: And now you’re actually a parallel team.
Albertson-Junkans: Well I like to think of it as expanding Team Kaytlyn, for sure.
Albertson-Junkans: I mean, we are definitely on the same team, and we’ve talked a lot about how awesome it would be if we could run together for parts of it, and at the same time I’ve told her, I do not want to hold her back at all. I really, I honestly don’t have any expectations for this other than expect the unexpected and enjoy your time with Gabe, so I don’t know what that means for me in terms of my pacing, but if it happens that we are at the same place at the same time, I will be really stoked and so will she, and we would love to be able to run together for a little bit.
iRunFar: So talk about how you have to change your mindset for 100 miles. Because you’ve come–I asked the same question to Matt Daniels a couple minutes ago…
iRunFar: Because you come into this sport with, [the mentality that] you race from the gun, that things are over pretty quick. But this is a totally different kind of race, and your type of inherent and honed leg speed can be like a blessing and a curse at 100 miles.
iRunFar: So how do you do that mindset shift?
Albertson-Junkans: That’s another really great question, and I think for me it’s actually been kind of an organic process outside of even my own intention over the past probably two or so years. Certainly, I haven’t come close to running 100 miles, but I think even in my first 50k I learned really quickly the perils of using your leg speed too soon.
Albertson-Junkans: And so each 50k…
iRunFar: “The perils.” [laughs]
Albertson-Junkans: [laughs] Because they are. Each 50k after that, you know, it’s all about adapting on the fly and I think my body has just kind of learned with each new opportunity how to do that, and my mind has then followed. Or I don’t know which comes first. Maybe it’s happening simultaneously.
iRunFar: Yeah, yeah.
Albertson-Junkans: But I don’t think it’s been kind of this black and white shift necessarily as much as it’s just sort of happened over time, and also now that I’m spending longer days in the mountains either on trail, just training runs, or adventure days, I have naturally slowed myself down, and I think then that carries over into the racing too, where I just feel more at ease with that slower start, and not kind of the ingrained urgency that you have either on the track or in a six or eight kilometer cross-country race.
iRunFar: The race is over in a matter of minutes rather than hours.
Albertson-Junkans: Exactly. Yeah.
iRunFar: Just take me–last question–take me to what’s going to be in your head the last mile coming down from Robie Point, making the 300-meter lap on the track to the finish. Have you visualized that?
Albertson-Junkans: I have, and what will be at the top of my mind is Gabe and Justin, and just how much they’ve changed my life, and how I hope to do them proud in that last mile in particular, but every mile. And I’m so thankful two of my really good friends from Minnesota, Mal and Megan, are going to be out here cheering and they will for sure be with me that last mile, and then in addition to the rest of the Brave Like Gabe crew will be there. Really just try to take it all in and really celebrate every step, just like Gabe always did, and celebrate.
iRunFar: Well, best of luck to you on your journey.
Albertson-Junkans: Thank you very much.
iRunFar: May it be an incredible celebration.
Albertson-Junkans: I think it will be. For sure.
iRunFar: Even if there’s a little puking and a bit of walking.
Albertson-Junkans: Yep. That’s okay.
iRunFar: It’ll still be a celebration.
Albertson-Junkans: Exactly. I’ve been there. I can deal with that.
iRunFar: “I’ve puked before.”
Albertson-Junkans: Yeah. Lots of it.
iRunFar: Good luck to you.
Albertson-Junkans: Thank you so much, Meghan. Thank you.