Keely Henninger is back at the 2023 Western States 100 after two prior finishes at the race, a top-10 finish and a DNF from injury. In the following interview, Keely talks about what feels different and the same about this year’s build-up, and why this is an event she’s drawn to keep returning to.
Keely Henninger Pre-2023 Western States 100 Interview Transcript
iRunFar: Meghan Hicks of iRunFar. I’m with Keely Henninger. It’s a couple of days before the 2023 Western States 100. Here we are again at Olympic Valley.
Keely Henninger: Yep. I’m so excited to be back this year.
iRunFar: This is your third Western States. Is it fair to say you’ve developed a relationship with the race?
Henninger: Absolutely, yeah. I feel like after last year’s race, and even after the year before that race, every single year I’ve wanted to come back. So it’s like, my first 100, I thought I would end and be like, never again. And I actually ended and was like, I’m for sure coming back. And that’s the first race of that distance of any magnitude where I actually wanted to do it again.
iRunFar: To recap, in 2021, you came for the first time, finished ninth.
iRunFar: You rode that F9 ticket back last year. It seemed like you came back more focused, more prepared, more ready to go. But you sprained an ankle, is that right?
Henninger: Yeah, at mile 10 I twisted an ankle.
iRunFar: It was mile 10!
Henninger: Yeah. So I twisted it at mile 10, and it felt okay. But then as I kept running on it, it slowly got a little bit more and more sore. And I was still able to run, so I was optimistic. I’m like, okay, when I get to Michigan Bluff, I’m going to tighten my shoe, and figure it out. And then going down into El Dorado Canyon like a mile from the bottom, on those like kind of technical, leaf-covered switchbacks, I sprained it again, like, really bad. And kind of fell off the trail. And then from that point on was just jarring pain on every single step, and it ended up tearing like the deltoid and spring ligaments, like the medial ligaments. Which I’ve sprained my ankle enough to know when it’s a sprain versus worse.
Henninger: And everyone was like, oh, it’s probably a sprain. It’s fine. And I was like, I can’t load it. In a sprain, you can normally load.
iRunFar: So you thought it might have been broken.
Henninger: I did. I was worried it was either a torn, or like maybe the talus got fractured or something like that. Because I think one thing that’s easy to forget in this sport is that running 40 miles on a sprained ankle is very not normal.
Henninger: And so who knows what that does. And then spraining it a second time, like, I don’t know what that did. And so it clearly put it over the edge. And yeah, hiking out of El Dorado Canyon, which is probably my favorite part of the course, was so sad.
Henninger: Because I was like, No, this is where I like to run! This part! And this part is fast hiking! And it’s just like, a shuffle walk up, so.
iRunFar: To get to your crew and drop from the race.
Henninger: Yeah, yep.
iRunFar: And so, you had to drop from the race last year, and you wanted back in, so to do that you went to Black Canyon [100k] in February. Yeah.
Henninger: Yeah. So, I chose Black Canyon so that I gave my ankle a ton of time to recover, because I actually had to do no running for over two months from this injury. I just wanted to buffer it as much as I could. And Black Canyon, I’d ran back in 2017, as a little baby runner, the 60k. And I had a great time there. But I knew that those trails were really fun. I love the desert. I knew it was good prep for States because it’s like fast, and hot, and you just kind of get to practice everything you want to do at States.
Henninger: I decided to go back to that one, and knew it was something that I just would have fun with. And yeah, it was a great day. It was super fun to just be back out there. And yeah, I actually ran through my like, 60k splits way faster than when I ran and won the 60k back in 2017!
iRunFar: You were a “baby runner!” [laughs]
Henninger: [laughs] Yeah. So pretty cool.
iRunFar: Things change. People evolve.
Henninger: Yeah, exactly. Oh my gosh, things I could tell my former self, that would be great.
iRunFar: I wish we could rewind and re-do things here and there. Like maybe that ankle roll in 2022, right?
iRunFar: So, I felt like last year you were fairly focused, like specifically preparing for this race. But it feels like at least from watching your socials that perhaps you’re even more focused this year. What do you think?
Henninger: I would say yes and no.
Henninger: I would say I’m more focused in the sense that I’ve learned even more from last year, of things to focus on.
Henninger: And so it’s really easy for me to try to perfect these things that I just kind of neglected last year. But I’d say I’m less focused from the sense that I’ve filled my calendar this year with a lot of other things. And having those other things that give you so much passion, and so much joy, I think, help you with your running, but also take some of the pressure off, which is really fun.
Henninger: And so while I’m taking it super seriously, and like studying the course and doing all of these things that maybe I didn’t do last year, or didn’t think were as important last year. I’m also keeping a level head by just filling time with these other things as well.
iRunFar: Yeah, sidenote, you’re getting married. Congratulations! And considering, yeah, another education venue?
Henninger: Yeah. So, I actually planned out my whole season banking on Black Canyon. [laughs]
iRunFar: This has to work!
Henninger: I was like, okay, I’m going to train hard for Black Canyon. And then after Black Canyon, I cut my mileage by 50% for six weeks, and studied so hard for the MCAT.
Henninger: Took the MCAT.
iRunFar: Passed it?
Henninger: Passed the MCAT, and then pivoted completely to training again. So it was, I think, a really good way for me to not overdo it. Because I think going from February 12 till June 24, that’s a really long stretch of training. And just knowing myself, and my eagerness for this race, it was good to have a little pause.
iRunFar: Force yourself to have a break.
iRunFar: Use your brain more, your body a little less.
iRunFar: You were just saying off-camera that you’re kind of a local. You’ve been living here for about two months. Is that right?
Henninger: Yeah, yeah. I came out very early May. I got engaged in Napa on our way down, and then have done here ever since living between Tahoe City and now Olympic Valley. And just exploring the course, exploring the trails around here. And just feeling like a local. The community around here is amazing. I totally get the Tahoe vibe.
Henninger: If I could choose to live here full time, I think I would definitely. It would be high on my list.
iRunFar: You’ve seen this area fully change from winter to spring. And I don’t know if we could call this early summer at this point here.
Henninger: Still spring.
iRunFar: What’s it been like to watch that happen?
Henninger: I never knew how fast snow melted.
Henninger: But the first place I stayed in Tahoe City, the loop that I normally would walk my dogs on had five feet of snow.
Henninger: Fully. The full loop. And within two weeks it was gone.
Henninger: And so just seeing it all melt and like looking up every day at the mountain, and seeing how much that has melted. It’s been really, really cool to witness. And the course has even changed from last year, because of the fires even. So there’s this whole new dimension to the whole course. Like you’ve seen these changing seasons. You’ve seen Auburn with green instead of brown.
iRunFar: It’s going to be beautiful there!
Henninger: It’s just been really cool to be here, and see all of the changing seasons and just everything that’s different. So.
iRunFar: You said before that you have spent some time thinking about and focusing on the stuff that you, for this race, that you didn’t focus on or give attention to last year. What’s an example of that?
Henninger: Yeah, I’d say the biggest one I’ve been working on is my mindset. Which maybe sounds cliche, but I’d say it’s probably the most important part of running one of these races. Is you need to be really dialed into what’s good for you. And I think last year, I let that get away from me a little bit. I think I went in with really good training, but I think I kind of started racing another race, and not my own race. Because I wasn’t as confident in my own race that I needed to be. And I think, you know, from that injury, that really made me look in the mirror and figure out some more problems, right. And kind of have hard discussions with myself. And then going into Black Canyon, I was working a lot with my therapist to just really trust my training. And there were a couple of times at Black Canyon where I didn’t, and it resulted in a fall or a twisted ankle.
iRunFar: Oh, is that right? Where you where yourself get a little,
Henninger: I let myself get too caught up into someone else’s race, where I would catch someone and think I needed to pass them right away. Or, I would like think Oh man, I’m not running fast enough. I need to speed up right now. And those two times, I did something really silly. And then the two times where I was like, Oh man, I just don’t know if this fast enough. I would round a corner and be right with the leaders. And so, I was like, I need to trust what I’m doing is enough. And finally, by 60k, I was fully on board with that. And that was the first race where I’ve ever felt that way, where I was getting passed, and passing, and being passed, and passing, for the next 20 miles.
iRunFar: All the way.
Henninger: And I didn’t care. And it was crazy. It was so much fun. But to have that sense of confidence in your own running to know that like, Okay, right now, if they’re passing me, I’m not going to go with them, is really fun and really powerful. And will be so important for States because it’s stacked, and there’s going to be people jockeying the whole time.
iRunFar: How do you, I mean, so it’s a number of the women who were in the race last year are not back, but a number of the women who did finish in the top 10 are. But then there’s this densely packed group of people who won Golden Tickets, and a couple who got really lucky in the lottery. The competition in the women’s race is just so rapidly escalating. What are you envisioning that we’re going to see there on Saturday?
Henninger: [laughs] First of all, the women’s field in general and trail running is so exciting, right? Because it’s just growing so fast. And to think that we haven’t even reached the ceiling of our potential is really cool, because we’re only going to grow as more people get into sport and push us, right? And so yeah, I think we’re going to see a lot of that on Saturday. I think it’s going to be like, a relatively fast year. But I still do think it’s going to favor the strategic-minded, and the people who are taking care of themselves. But I wouldn’t be shocked, and I keep telling people this, if we were racing at mile 90.
Henninger: And you were worrying about people ahead and behind you.
iRunFar: But it’s not done yet.
Henninger: Like It’s not done yet at all.
Henninger: I could see that happening. And that is really exciting to me.
iRunFar: Last question for you. You don’t need to give away your whole race plan, but if you could just take us for a minute to a perfect moment, or a perfect hour, or a perfect feeling on Saturday, paint that picture for us.
Henninger: Yeah, I would say my whole mantra for this race is just being very calm and staying very steady. And not trying to run outside of my comfort zone. Staying really calm, especially when you’re in that first 50k section, where we don’t know what we’re getting into.
iRunFar: Going to be an adventure.
Henninger: Yeah, it’s going to be an adventure. And just having the flexibility of the mind to be okay with that. And not checking your watch, checking where you are. Just going, rolling with the punches for that first 50k. And knowing if you do actually roll with them, and treat yourself well, and get there feeling good, then you can race the last 100k. And the last 100k is where you get to show your strength and run really smooth, and run all of the best sections of the course. Not that the top 50k is not the best, but you know.
Henninger: It’s like the beginning of the race. So, it’s always a little slower.
Henninger: And you get to be a little more sendy and run on those nice smooth singletracks towards the end. So yeah.
iRunFar: Staying calm.
Henninger: Staying calm. That’s it. Yeah.
iRunFar: Well, best of luck to you on Saturday. Enjoy the trip.
Henninger: Yeah. Oh, it’ll be a blast.