This weekend, Keely Henninger returns to the Lake Sonoma 50 Mile after three years away and she returns as a much different runner. In our first interview with her, Keely talks about how she got into ultrarunning, when she learned to suffer, how that changed her running, and what she thinks about her run at the Chuckanut 50k last month.
Keely Henninger Pre-2018 Lake Sonoma 50 Mile Interview Transcript
iRunFar: Bryon Powell of iRunFar here with Keely Henninger before the 2018 Lake Sonoma 50 Mile. How are you, Keely?
Keely Henninger: I’m doing great, thanks. How about yourself?
iRunFar: I’m doing alright. You just got down here last night, but this is not your first time here at Lake Sonoma.
Henninger: No, it’s not.
iRunFar: You were here at 2015 and had an interesting go at it.
Henninger: Yes, it was very interesting. I actually fell, dislocated my shoulder, popped it back in, and ran until about mile 40-ish and kind of overdosed on Advil. They pulled me and boated me across. Now I’ll be running with random people across the world and sometimes they’ll be like, “Oh, I ran Sonoma the year the girl was boated.” I’m like, “That was me.” Pretty sad, but…
iRunFar: When did you, in the race, dislocate your shoulder?
Henninger: Basically right after the turnaround when you get back on the singletrack. It was right there. I was just totally not paying attention and just fell and dislocated it. It popped back in fairly easily. I used to dislocate it a lot during basketball, so I’d re-popped it in before, but it’s still really awfully painful. So I don’t know how Kilian [Jornet] did Hardrock. That was really impressive because it throws your whole mechanics off because you’re holding it on your chest. Yeah, it wasn’t the greatest, but it was definitely me being clumsy.
iRunFar: But you are back.
Henninger: I’m back for a little redemption here.
iRunFar: What are you… 25?
iRunFar: But you’ve been doing ultras for awhile?
Henninger: I ran my first one at 21.
iRunFar: How did you get into ultras?
Henninger: One year I did the 50-mile relay in Penn State when I went to school there. I finished and I felt awful, and I just wanted to do the whole thing instead. So I just on a whim started training and did that the next fall.
iRunFar: You were still in college?
Henninger: Yeah, still in college at Penn State. So instead of partying with my friends on the weekend, I ran with all the old men in the forest on the weekends, so really cool. Then I ran that the fall of my senior year and fell in love with the sport. I started running more and training and trying to know what to do and run a little smarter than previously. So, yeah, I’ve been running since then, but I actually never ran in college or high school really, so I think it’s been a long journey for me trying to not jump the gun of all the years most runners put in before they start competing. I was always trying to jump that period of running, and I think I’ve finally run enough that my legs and everything are used to it.
iRunFar: You did basketball beforehand? Did you play other sports growing up?
Henninger: I played basketball and soccer all through middle school and high school, so I still ran a fair amount and was always competitive and loved sports, but I never ran really.
iRunFar: Did that competitiveness trick carry over to ultrarunning right away?
Henninger: No, definitely not. I actually hated the competitiveness of it. When I actually did do a couple short races, I ran them slower than my 50-mile pace. My mentality wasn’t there. I liked being out in the forest and exploring but competitiveness-wise, I didn’t know how to compete as an individual rather than a team. So I just would run, and if I felt crappy I’d just slow down. So that gets you so far if you’re in shape, but it doesn’t get you much further than that. It’s been a long learning experience.
iRunFar: When did that change? It’s obviously changed a little bit.
Henninger: I’d actually say it definitely changed over the past couple years, but I’d say the most defining moment for me was [IAU Trail] World [Championship]s last summer where I probably had the worst race of my life. I basically walked 40k and was cramping and felt like I wanted to drop the entire time. It was miserable. But running for your country and running with those amazing athletes and human beings, and even if you’re having an awful day, still pushing through and making yourself do something you’ve never done really changes your outlook. You realize it’s actually cool to push, and you can do way more than you think you can. So then, after that, I think I’ve embraced the suffer a little bit more and really enjoy pushing myself and pushing through those things where normally I’d back off or slow down.
iRunFar: So back when you were running eighth or ninth at The North Face 50, you were just cruising?
Henninger: Honestly, I’d have to agree with you. It sounds really weird, but I never really knew how to push. I would just kind of cruise and just run below a potential that I knew I could and just stay there.
iRunFar: In your comfort zone. You were in shape and you were fit, so you could run fast, but you weren’t…
Henninger: Yeah, and I never had the nutrition dialed, and I didn’t quite have the training dialed. It was always kind of hit or miss. I could either have a pretty good race or a pretty bad race.
iRunFar: Of late, they’ve been mostly pretty good races.
Henninger: Yeah, I’d say they’re going pretty well.
iRunFar: Your Chuckanut 50k I’d say is maybe your best race to date.
Henninger: Yeah, that was a good race. That was fun. That course is obviously beautiful up there. Krissy [Moehl] is amazing and all the race directors and people up there just make it such a cool environment that it’s hard not to run with a smile on your face the whole time. Training for that race, I really was focused on the different aspects that course has. That really helped me during the race to instead of slowing down on one of the climbs, I know I’ve done this in my training. I know I can do this. There’s no reason to slow down.
iRunFar: Then the same thing when you get to the bike path.
Henninger: Yes, that was actually my favorite part of the whole race. I just need to run a really fast six miles at the end. That’s it. Yeah, I just think that race is super fun. It’s really fun to push yourself. I luckily ran into two guys I knew on the towpath at the end, and they were struggling pretty bad. I just made them run on my shoulder. “We’re going to hammer this, and you’re going to stay with me, and that’s what we’re doing.” That was pretty fun.
iRunFar: You ended up running in with the second-fastest women’s time in Chuckanut history with a lot of people who’ve done it for decades. Does that feel pretty good?
Henninger: Yes, that was pretty cool. I was actually gunning for the course record which is very stout.
iRunFar: Jodee Adams-Moore.
Henninger: Yeah, I was still very happy with my time.
iRunFar: Ellie Greenwood is no slouch.
Henninger: No, Ellie is incredible.
iRunFar: Does that give you some confidence coming into this one?
Henninger: Sure, it definitely does, but like anything, any race is so different in this sport, that you can’t come in over-confident or anything like that. I’m just happy to be here. I’m excited to be in the community again. I love Skip [Brand] and John [Medinger]. They’ve such a good character. Obviously I have a little bit of redemption for myself here, so I’m just looking forward to having fun on the trails and seeing everyone I know who is running this because the community is most of the reason why I do it.
iRunFar: Keep the rubber side down on the trail?
Henninger: Yes, not falling would be great. After every race my mom texts me and says, “Did you fall?” As of late, I’ve been saying, “No,” which is awesome. Yeah, so that would be good.
iRunFar: Do you have your eye on heading to Western States if you run well enough here, or is that not in your plan?
Henninger: As of now I’m running Lavaredo Ultra Trail, and that’s on the same weekend. Personally, I think because I’ve just maybe in the last year found my running to take off a little bit, I’m not in a rush to run 100 miles. I don’t think I’ll run Western, but I really just wanted to run this race with the competition and community and everything like that. I do want to run Western one day, and I want to do it to the best of my ability, and I don’t think I’m there yet. It’s such good race that it deserves all my respect. Until I’m ready to give it my full attention, I’m not going to race Western.
iRunFar: Lavaredo seems like a pretty amazing experience in and of itself.
Henninger: Yeah, and honestly, it’s so much outside of my comfort zone again where it’s seven hours of night running in the Dolomites, it seemed really cool. Right now I just want to race races that make me really stoked. I think that’s where you’re going to run your best races even if it might not be where your forte is.
iRunFar: Your job involves running a little bit?
Henninger: It did. Actually, I just got a new job. It still does involve running but not for me per se. I actually work in the biomechanics research lab at Nike. I do research on runners and mechanics and stuff like that.
iRunFar: Do you ever find that being in that world professionally can add to or take away from your own running personally?
Henninger: I’d say it adds to it now because it’s a very fulfilling job because I get to use my brain and tackle all these problems for runners and every sort of athletes. It actually keeps my mind more stimulated during the day so that I can almost focus better on running whereas my previous role was more gadget focused and I worked on more digital running things, so I’d actually have to go run and test them. That actually was not as great for my running.
iRunFar: It was more wearing?
Henninger: Yeah, because they were never hard miles but it was still junk miles that maybe you were not thrilled about, so maybe the negativity could accumulate over time.
iRunFar: Have you learned anything interesting from your research now that you might bring into your own running?
Henninger: I definitely think about my research topics whenever I’m running, so whether it’s looking at mechanics of different parts of the body whenever I’m running I think about those. Then you get to see a lot of cool innovations and just how different things can help you when you’re running. I definitely work more on my form now because I get to see how it can help you and how some of the better runners run. I think being able to be around all these really incredible athletes and seeing them run their easy runs at a seven-minute pace and they run the marathon at a 4:30 pace, Okay, I can run at a nine-minute pace today. Who cares? I think it’s brought me down a bit that on easy days it’s totally cool to shuffle really slow and hammer hard days. Yeah, I think you can take a lot away from working at a company like Nike. It’s pretty cool.
iRunFar: Thank you, Keely. Good luck this weekend!
Henninger: Thank you.