After a quiet 2019 in racing, Keely Henninger is fresh, fit, and eager to run the 2019 The North Face 50 Mile Championships. In this interview, Keely talks about her early year injury and what she learned about whole-person health from it, why she’s decided to run the TNF 50 again after previous success here, how her year in training has gone since getting healthy, and if she plans to ‘go for it’ at this race.
iRunFar: Meghan Hicks of iRunFar. I’m with Keely Henninger. It’s a couple of days before the 2019 The North Face Endurance Challenge 50-Mile Championships. You just arrived in San Francisco. Hey.
Keely Henninger: Yes, I literally just got in. It was quite the drive, but happy to be here.
iRunFar: I hit you up like the moment you arrived.
Henninger: Yep. Wouldn’t want to be with anyone else.
iRunFar: Aw, what a compliment. Alright, so it’s November. It’s coming on the end of 2019. It has been a quiet year for you racing-wise, but a pretty momentous year for you health-wise.
Henninger: Yeah, I’d say so. I’d say I got injured pretty badly in March and it was definitely a blessing in disguise looking back. I learned a lot about myself and kind of reprioritized a lot of things in my life that allowed me to find not only a happiness that I never had before, but just really be able to focus on what makes me happy and what really works for me. And, so yeah, I’ve been able to start training again and feel really great, but mainly I’m just really grateful to be able to be healthy and running and doing what I really love. And yeah, I think it will translate well to be able to have fun out there on Saturday.
iRunFar: If I could ask you a few specifics about your injury. We covered it on iRunFar a little bit.
Henninger: Oh, yeah.
iRunFar: In one of our Running on Science science columns. Tracy Høeg wrote about bone stress injuries, including your case in it. It was a pelvic stress fracture?
Henninger: It was in the sacrum, so in the back of the pelvis, but yes. Pretty much same thing.
iRunFar: And you in that article and talking were pretty open about some of your bloodwork was off, some of your eating habits that you just knew different lifestyle things weren’t going the right way for you, so you decided to actively make choices to change that stuff.
Henninger: Yeah, I’d say it’s always, hindsight’s always 20/20, so I’d say now I’m like, holy cow what was I doing to myself. But I think it’s really important to realize that as an athlete, or an endurance athlete, or whatever it is you do, you really need to treat your body well and that can be in the form of training stress that’s bad for it, or work stress or life stress, so to treat it all you have to take into account all those things and I just wasn’t. And I just kind of was ignoring obvious things, so I really just started to focus on what is really important to me, what makes me really happy, and how can I make sure that I’m giving my body exactly what it needs, and making sure I can recover. And that translates into my running and my athletics, but also really into my relationships, my friendships, my career, and so it’s like, it’s definitely a little bit of a wakeup call. But it’s been really great journey and I know, just taking to my coach, David [Roche] is really excited for me as well, just in terms of like life happiness, so it’s kind of awesome to be honest. But it’s only a little bit of running is making it awesome. I’d say the whole picture is really great.
iRunFar: So when exactly do you feel like you had transitioned from an injured athlete to one who could do some training again?
Henninger: Yeah, so I’d say I started training hardcore in June, so it was about three months, which was kind of crazy, but I think the really telling thing about that three month period was in the first month, I didn’t care I didn’t run.
Henninger: Which blows my mind.
iRunFar: Do you mean like you were okay with running less?
Henninger: With doing nothing. Yeah. When I first got injured I think it was just a very tell-tale sign that my body was mad was I didn’t care that I didn’t run at all.
iRunFar: You were happy for time off.
Henninger: Yeah. I was secretly happy for it. And so I think that in itself was very important to realize, but then in June like I had been running on an AlterG for the end of May, and, then, kind of transitioned to real running in June, and, yeah, I got a good two-and-a-half-month training block in for CCC with a little practice race in the Wallowas in Oregon, and I definitely felt like I was getting my mojo back, but was still going into PT every week like “Ah, I think I rebroke it.” Or like, “I don’t feel great.” And just kind of ups and downs.
iRunFar: Tell me I’m okay!
Henninger: So I’d say in general it was a really stressful training block, but I still was feeling really good, but I still was like, felt a little rushed. So going into CCC I kind of was like, this could go really well or this could really poorly, and it kind of went kind of poorly, but to be honest, not finishing that race was probably of one of the most mentally sound and happy decisions I ever made. And I don’t regret that, and I think it was a pretty big blessing for training after that and training for after that, so yeah. I’m pretty excited to be fully feeling normal. Had a good three months of training without any sort of hiccups. No false like, “Colleen, help me, I’m breaking” kind of calls to my PT, so it’s been pretty fun.
iRunFar: Yeah. Since turning things around from CCC, you probably only needed a short recovery since you didn’t get too far in that race, you’ve been able to do a fairly dedicated block of training for North Face. Did you put your nose to the grindstone for this race then?
Henninger: Yeah. I’d say from the time I was injured after taking a couple months not thinking of running, my goal was to be back for North Face. I wanted to go to Europ,e because I love that environment, so I signed up for CCC as well, because I had signed up for that before I was injured, so I decided to do it anyways but the real goal was always North Face just because I’ve been here twice. I love the atmosphere here. The trails are amazing. It’s just like a great time of year. The weather’s always beautiful, and the competition is amazing. So this was always the angle to get back for.
iRunFar: Well, you certainly transitioned well to the next part of the interview. You already answered my question of what brings you back, because you’ve been to this race a couple times before. You’ve had good races here before. What, I mean I guess you want a better race?
Henninger: So I’d say like yeah, I definitely had good success here. My first time here was especially successful, because I was pretty new to the sport and I think given my current fitness at the time it went phenomenally and really pretty well as planned. The second time around I’d say did not go as planned, and it was more like me being stupid during the race and not really eating, and just being a little bit over trained for it. All of it just kind of didn’t make my race perfect, or not even perfect, just kind of not great. In general, I think the races have been fine. It’s one of those races that I look back at and I think no, I really want to go back there and do the course justice, but also, I’m always drawn toward races that get a competitive ladies field, because it’s just so much fun. And so.
iRunFar: Being able to be surrounded by people the whole time.
Henninger: Totally. Be surrounded and like have people push you and like, the camaraderie but also the competition. We all love each other. I don’t even know some of them from meeting them in person but we all still interact. The community’s amazing. And it’s really fun to like respect all these other badass ladies but also to compete against them, because that’s why we do this sport.
iRunFar: That’s why you do it.
Henninger: Yeah. It’s fun to compete. It’s fun to throw the hammer down a little bit and push yourself and push others and see what happens. I’d say that’s why I’m back.
iRunFar: So in my opinion, the terrain of Northern California is fairly unique. This course, and Lake Sonoma [50 Mile] and things like it. Some steep ups and downs, nothing super continuous, not rhythmic but not technical. It’s a unique way to run in a race.
Henninger: Yeah. I agree and I’d say there’s a lot of similarities here that I can kind of mimic in the Northwest. And I think it’s just, they’re kind of races you can grasp. Once you find that mental, your mental audacity to push through pain, if you know the climb is going to take you 20 minutes, 30 minutes, you can kind of push through that. Because you know you’re going to recover on the other side, so I think for races like Sonoma, for North Face, even like Chuckanut in the middle section with a lot of climbs and descents, if you know they’re going to be short climbs, you can just push yourself and know you’ll recover on the descents. So yeah. I think this is a super unique course. I think it definitely beats you up on the downhills, so that will be fun as well but yeah. It’s definitely unique.
iRunFar: So an observation that I had so far in talking with other runners pre-race and listening to people talk is I’ve heard a few men talk about well, I’m going to take it easy and sit back and watch how it goes, and I’ve heard a few women say well, I’m going to race aggressively. I’m going to try and go off from the start and go for it.
Henninger: Mm hmm. Interesting.
iRunFar: It’s a little bit of a switch from what we typically see here. I just have to ask you, what do you think you’re going to do on Saturday?
Henninger: Yeah, that’s really exciting for me to hear that women are saying that, to be honest. Because I think that’s what’s lacking in our sport, is the confidence and not the shame to feel embarrassed to say stuff like that. That’s pretty awesome.
Henninger: That’s kind of showing a change in the sport, but, yeah, I think I won’t say I’m going to go out aggressively but I will go out what feels fast and easy to me. And so if that ends up being in the front right away, so be it. If it ends up being a little bit back from the front that’s okay. But I’m by no means going to start out too slow.
iRunFar: [laughs] I’m not not going to go aggressively.
iRunFar: That’s a great way to end this interview. Good luck to you on Saturday.
Henninger: Thank you.
iRunFar: We look forward to chasing you around the Marin Headlands.
Henninger: Yes. I look forward to seeing you guys out there.
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