Catching Up With Keely Henninger

It’s been a long COVID-19 pandemic for everyone, Keely Henninger included. In this video interview, we catch up with Keely about her win at the 2021 Peterson Ridge Rumble last weekend, finding her “why” for running during the COVID-19 pandemic, and how she’s training toward her debut 100 miler at the 2021 Western States 100.

[Editor’s Note: The Catching Up With interview series continues on, in a different form! Each week, we’ll aim to interview someone who raced the week prior. Think of these interviews as like our pre-race and post-race interviews at the races we cover in person—only virtual for now.]

Catching Up With Keely Henninger Interview Transcript

iRunFar: Meghan Hicks of iRunFar, I’m with Keely Henninger for our debut interview in our Catching Up With video interview series. I’m in Moab, Utah, and you are in Bend, Oregon. Last weekend you won the Peterson Ridge Rumble, which was your first post-pandemic run?

Henninger: It was the first race in over a year and a half, which is just crazy. It was really good to think about racing again and get into that mindset, and actually have to test yourself both physically and mentally.

iRunFar: I want to ask you about that race, but some stuff has happened since the last time iRunFar interviewed you. Was your last race the 2019 The North Face 50 Mile Championships? Did you race at all as the pandemic was getting going? 

Henninger: Nope, The North Face 2019 was my last race up until Peterson.

iRunFar: Okay. And so what was the pandemic world like for you?

Henninger: It was really tough, and I don’t think I’m alone in saying that. The first three or four months, it was all over the place, you were just up and down. I would go from not wanting to train at all to completely overtraining, and then kind of breaking myself trying to find this balance of what makes me happy. And then, what is beneficial for training, and how can you train through this new world? It just took some adapting, and a lot more learning that I thought I’d already done enough of. It ended up being a blessing, again being able to sit with your thoughts and really just train because you want to because you don’t have any races was kind of fun.

iRunFar: I feel like that’s going to be one of those hindsight is 20/20 conversation pieces of running post-pandemic is us having that perspective of the very intrinsic, “Why?”

Henninger: It really lets you boil down why you’re racing and why you do it. It doesn’t let you get caught up in all of the external gratification because there’s actually none. If you’re not doing it for the right reasons, it ends up being super not gratifying. So it’s just this whirlwind of just not a sustainable training pattern. The pandemic lets you recenter on why you run, and really figure out what suits you the best without all of these external accolades or races to really test your fitness.

iRunFar: Everybody’s worlds in the pandemic were different. Unless you’re an essential worker, we were all work-from-home. You had some unique time, you were able to go to new geography during the pandemic.

Henninger: I got really lucky with my job at Nike. It turned remote, but because I work with research subjects it wasn’t fully remote, so I still would have to go back about every month to collect data and work with subjects. It let me work from Park City, Utah for about four months, which I fell in love with, and I’m just trying to figure out ways to get back there. Then I went back to Portland for a little bit, and now I’m in Bend. I have been going back and forth for a couple of months as well. It’s been fun to be able to explore different areas and just see the things you really like about places, as well as the things you maybe don’t want to do, or like to live in.

iRunFar: Park City is pretty cool, Bryon Powell and I lived there for a couple of years. The trails are in your backyard, literally you can get on a trail moments from wherever you live.

Henninger: It was next level, and then pair that with the mountain biking is amazing, the little town is so walkable that you feel like you’re in just this little mountain training mecca. You don’t really have to go anywhere else because you can get to 10,000 feet out your door and be in the middle of the Wasatch Mountains.

iRunFar: When Bryon and I lived there it was about a decade ago and hashtags were just becoming a thing on social media. People would say in Park City, “#EveryonesAnOlympian.” Which is literally true.

Henninger: That’s how I found out about the place. I’d gone to Park City with Bowerman [Track Club] and my friend Colleen who was their physiotherapist and that’s the first time I’d been there. I left being like, “I need to come back here.” Then a month later I moved there for four months.

iRunFar: That’s amazing. Your name is on the entry list for the Western States 100. Correct me if I’m wrong, because you’ve been around the sport for so long that I forget, is this your first 100 miler?

Henninger: Yeah. Back in 2018, I won the Lake Sonoma 50 Mile and ended up deferring my Western States Golden Ticket. At that point I’d only been in the sport for three years with a year or two of that being completely unaware of how to train. I felt like my body wasn’t ready for that 100-mile distance yet. And Western is such a magical race that I don’t want to go in it not there for the right reasons and not feeling physically ready. I decided not to do it then. And so now basically pre-pandemic 2020 I was slated to run it and I was actually really excited for it, and then obviously that didn’t happen. So it got deferred to this year.

Now I’ve got this other year under my running belt, even though it was no racing, right? But now it feels like I’ve been running a pretty long time and I’m just really excited to try a race. I mean, the race itself is just like the most contagious community is around it, and every time I’ve gone, it’s just been so fun. Me personally, I really love the California-type terrain and the runnable trails. I think the course itself will suit me really well also. I’m just super excited for the challenge, and the opportunity, and seeing all my friends.

iRunFar: You’ve done a couple pretty long races. Bridging the gap from say CCC to Western States is not a huge amount of time, time-wise. We’ve had a gap in racing time, but you have all this experience with that 50-mile-type distance. Where’s your mindset in terms of, “Yeah, 100 miles.”

Henninger: Going into Peterson this last weekend, I thought 36 miles felt long, so 100 miles feels super long. A couple of years off of racing is probably going to work to my advantage and disadvantage. The advantage being my runner amnesia is even stronger, I don’t remember how horrible I felt at the end of Lavaredo Ultra Trail 120k, or after 100ks, so that’s going to be to my advantage. Another thing to my advantage is over the year I’ve become way more humbled by the sport, and way more appreciative of the distance and the challenge. Going into the race, I’m not going to force it, and I’m going to just pay homage to the race and really respect the distance instead of try to crush 100 miles without really knowing what that even entails.

The disadvantage is just remembering how to fuel for that long of an endeavor and remembering what it feels like to be running on legs after six or seven hours and trying to push to 18 or 19 hours. That’ll just be interesting. I do recall that Lavaredo felt miserable at the end, and that was only 15 hours, so we’ll see.

iRunFar: Thanks for reminding me and everybody else about Lavaredo, because that that’s a real long sub-100-mile beast. You said before we started with this interview that you were planning to go back to Park City, hoping to do some Western States training there. It’s a higher altitude than what you have at home, and also drier, hotter, dustier trails. More Sierra Nevada-like in my mind.

Henninger: The goal would be to hopefully get six to eight weeks of training in Park City before Western, so hoping to figure out a way to get there relatively soon. It mimics Western States’s trails pretty well, you’re getting way more altitude than any place that I can be an Oregon. And all the trails are pretty runnable as we talked before. There’s not a ton of hiking trails, it’s more like you can run all the way up to the peak, which is pretty indicative of Western. A lot of the Western trails are—you’re running even though it’s 100 miles, they’re faster trails.

iRunFar: I have to ask this. There are a lot of Pacific Northwest women who’ve really ripped it up at Western States. And for me with the Pacific Northwest, I think of cooler, more humid, definitely lower altitude. What’s the secret sauce for the Pacific Northwest women in Western?

Henninger: For me, the [Columbia River] Gorge and everything surrounding Portland, Oregon, you get a lot of climbing and it’s all runnable. And so you’re just constantly getting a ton of climbing, having to run it, having to run the downhills really hard, it’s pretty fast. It just bodes well for conditioning the quads for all the downhill pounding at Western, and then conditioning your aerobic capacity for the uphills. The Pacific Northwest is really good for just running really long days in the mountains. Especially in Portland, we don’t really have to stop running during the winter, and so we get a little leg up in terms of starting our training earlier because we don’t get snow. You can be running pretty serious runs starting as early as you want.

iRunFar: That’s a really good point about early season running. Also, it seems like people who come from wet climates are just hardier humans. They don’t feel pain or hardship as much as us dry-climate folks.

Henninger: That’s a very funny point because I think I’ve gotten soft since moving to different drier climates.

iRunFar: “Oh, there’s a cloud.”

Henninger: Now it will be raining in Portland and I’m like, “No, I don’t want to go running in this.”

iRunFar: That’s really funny. Well, this is my first interview in this format in over a year, so thanks for making this so enjoyable. I look forward to watching on social media your training lead-up to Western States. And at this point Western States is looking like iRunFar’s first live coverage in something like 16 months.

Henninger: Oh, that’s so cool.

iRunFar: So we are about as stoked is as you can be about doing live race coverage, and we’ll look forward to chasing you around the Sierra Nevada in a couple months.

Henninger: I look forward to it. I can’t wait to see you guys back out there on course, it’ll feel kind of normal.

iRunFar: There’ll be some weird masks and some awkward extra distance when we’re doing our interviews in person, but it is what it is, right? Thanks Keely. Thank you so much.

Meghan Hicks

is the Managing Editor of iRunFar and the author of 'Where the Road Ends: A Guide to Trail Running.' The converted road runner finished her first trail ultramarathon in 2006 and loves using running to visit the world's wildest places.