Things typically get exciting late at the Western States 100, and it was then in 2013 that Abby McQueeney Penamonte raced into the top 10. I remember following online when it happened and my Facebook blew up with excitement. Our circles overlapped then, and still do.
“I didn’t comprehend how prestigious the race was, but yeah, it was a breakthrough race. It gave me confidence and made me hungry for the next three,” McQueeney Penamonte recalled. Ten weeks later she’d also finished the 2013 Vermont 100 Mile, the Leadville Trail 100 Mile, and the Wasatch Front 100 Mile. She was eighth, seventh, and fourth in those races and won the Grand Slam of Ultrarunning that year. That turned out to be a walk-off grand slam for McQueeney Penamonte. She hasn’t raced an ultramarathon since.
“Everything happens for a reason,” McQueeney Penamonte voiced, more than once during our chat. She’s speaking over top of coffee-shop background music. I hold my ear closer to the phone.
“I think it was a combination of my training, maybe nutrition, and burnout. It was probably years in the making,” she said, still questioning what happened next. “I wouldn’t take it back. I’ve got great memories from all four 100 milers, but Vermont was the hardest. I wasn’t recovered, it was only three weeks after Western States, and it was hot.” She takes a quick pause and then digs in a little more, “I think long-distance running is not great for the body, long-term. When you’re doing it though, you think everything is the best. I was very low carbohydrate and high fat [with my diet], and that works for some duration of time, but being female, it’s not great long-term.”
We’d talked through some of this years earlier, but McQueeney Penamonte repeats the sequence. “I felt good all summer. When I finished the Grand Slam in September, I didn’t give myself enough recovery time and I went right back into training. I got into the Hardrock 100 that next year,” she said. I nod, knowing what a Hardrock entry means.
McQueeney Penamonte shrugs before describing the symptoms she experienced. “A lot of fatigue issues, insomnia. I wasn’t sleeping, I was wired all the time. Thyroid issues, blood-sugar issues,” she recited. “Stepping away from running works until it doesn’t. I would go out and run and felt terrible. I felt bad emotionally. So I got involved in strength training to support my hormones. I’d never done it. I worked at a gym for five or six years, but never really lifted a weight. I tried CrossFit but wasn’t enjoying it and gravitated to heavy lifting—powerlifting,” she said.
In competition, powerlifting is about the one-repetition maximum lift from the bench press, deadlift, and squat, and McQueeney Penamonte competed as early as 2016. “You get three attempts at each lift, and you’re competing with other women in the same weight class. I got second in my first meet—that was a smaller one—but then at the 2018 USA Powerlifting National Championships there were over 100 women. That was in Spokane, Washington.” She reached bests of 190 pounds for the bench press, 290 pounds for squat, and deadlifted 325 pounds. She set a Colorado state record in the bench press.
Asked why noncompetitive lifting in the gym wasn’t enough, she answered, “It’s that competitive part of my DNA, something to work toward. Like with running, I took it to the extreme. ‘How strong can I be?’ Both running and powerlifting are a journey and the training can be super rewarding, but there was something else too. And a powerlifting meet is such a fun environment, it’s like running, a really supportive community.”
“Coming out of running, my body changed a lot. I was gaining weight. I had self-image issues, you’re not seeing yourself as a runner. I was eating less when I ran and had to introduce more food and carbohydrates to support my lifting, energy, and mood,” she said of the physical and mental transition.
McQueeney Penamonte was spending two to three hours each day in the gym, but things changed again.
“In May of 2019, I injured my back in practice. I don’t know, it wasn’t too much weight, my back just got tweaked and it didn’t get better. I figured something was pushing me away from competition, to get away from the extremes,” McQueeney Penamonte shared. “It’s been almost two years and I’ll have some really good months, but others it might be hard to pick up a Kleenex. When I messed up my back, it gave me some perspective. I want to be able to tie my own shoes and put on my own pants. There’s this man in our neighborhood, he’s 95 and walks every day. I want to be like him.”
When the global COVID-19 pandemic hit and gyms closed, McQueeney Penamonte, a registered dietitian at a national big-box gym, was furloughed from her leadership position. She later had the chance to go back to work at a reduced title and with significantly lower pay, but she wanted something better. “I needed to figure out my life. I wanted to continue being a registered dietitian, but not in a hospital. God was pushing me. I’d been there for 12 years. Go be your own boss,” she said of the path to her now private practice.
“It’s great, I love it. People say I should have done this to begin with, but I didn’t have the knowledge or experience years ago. Some of it’s just life timing. I’m working more than before, but it’s so worth it,” McQueeney Penamonte, now 38 years old, cheered. “We tend to coach people that we attract, people with similar stories. I work with quite a few ultrarunners, people that might be overtraining. Generally females, maybe eating less but not getting results and need help restoring hormones.”
And the professional and athletic independence has given way to some new passions too. “Hiking. In the spring and summer we’ve got a couple of backcountry goals,” McQueeney Penamonte said of plans with her husband, Jason Rae, and dog, Molly. “We’ve been doing 14ers. Molly, she’s done 12. Hiking and backpacking, it’s an awesome way to see the world, Colorado especially. It’s fun, it’s just a different perspective. I want to go to the San Juan Mountains, I haven’t done a whole lot there. Our birthdays are in July four days apart, so we usually do some epic backpacking then.” Epic, but not extreme.
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