Keira Henninger is a veteran race director who has paved the way for premiere trail running and ultrarunning races in her home state of California and influenced races nationwide over the past decade. Beyond developing and managing events, she is a nutrition coach and she hosts a local trail running team, dubbed the Dirt Divas and Dudes. She’s retired from competitive racing, which she pursued for nearly a decade—that said, she’s nowhere close to slowing down.
“I’m running now more than ever. I’m really focused on getting in super good shape with intense core workouts, and other training I’ve never done before, in my house. I feel so good,” says Henninger, who is registered for the 2021 Western States 100. She’s also running her own fat-ass 100 miler in December, with the support of a few friends and her husband, Jesse Haynes, who is likewise an ultrarunner. She runs five days weekly including several 18- to 28-mile runs.
Today, Henninger and Haynes live in Ladera Ranch, a community at the foothills of Saddleback Mountain, which is formed by the two highest peaks in the Santa Ana Mountains. Among which, the tallest point is Santiago Peak, at 5,687 feet high. Running is Henninger’s “daily church session. It’s the way I find strength and inspiration to get through and enjoy life. I spend more time now out running on trails than I think I ever have,” says the 44 year old. Ever since she found trail running 15 years ago, she’s been passionately “obsessed.”
Henninger grew up in Temecula, California, where she played outside for endless hours in the rural countryside. She had two siblings: a younger brother Sean and older sister Kendra. In junior-high school, she ran a super-fast mile in physical-education class, which she loved. She asked permission to join the boy’s cross-country team for seventh and eighth grade. No other girls had piqued an interest, so an all-female team didn’t yet exist. “It was an escape for me. My home life wasn’t good. I had a very abusive, tormented childhood. I had a really bad stepdad and really good mom. Running was a way for me to not be at home,” says Henninger. Her running escapism and passion continued in high school. She ran cross country but not in a committed way—she was also really passionate about snowboarding.
At 19 years old, Henninger gave birth to her son, Tyler, now 24, and started running a couple days a week with a baby jogger to get in shape. “He would sleep, and I could run for hours. It became such a saving grace for me. I discovered longer-distance running because of running with that jogger,” she says. She was a freshman in college and juggled her pregnancy and early motherhood with earning her undergraduate degree in leadership at California State University, Fullerton. When Tyler was a bit older, and in school longer, Henninger loved going on 10- to 12-mile runs on pavement. A friend of hers was training for a marathon and invited her to join. She registered for the inaugural 2004 OC Marathon in Orange County. “It was super hard, felt like it took forever, and was awesome—then I got the real bug. I decided to do another marathon,” she says. She’d moved to Laguna Niguel and started running trails near her house. She worked nights as a waitress while completing her master’s degree in organizational leadership at University of California, Irvine, all the while raising Tyler. On weekends, he’d stay with his dad, and Henninger had time to run long distances. She regularly ran 100-mile weeks. Eventually, she met ultrarunner Michelle Barton, who was “so full of life,” on the trails. Barton told her about the upcoming 2006 San Juan Trail 50k in San Juan Capistrano. Henninger had run a couple of marathons, signed up, and placed third female overall.
“The race had a mail-in entry form that I dropped off at the Fleet Feet running store with an entry-fee check. Two weeks later, I got a letter back from the race director confirming I was in the race. I’d run on local trails near my house but nothing technical or in the mountains. The race had 6,000 feet of climbing—it was so hard and really, really hot. I never looked back after finishing that 50k. I had this massive passion to be outside and the competitiveness happened by accident,” says Henninger.
Over the next two years, she progressed with racing and 2008 “was a game changer for me,” she says. Indeed, the year brought a number of ultramarathon podium finishes. Throughout that same time period, she started to volunteer at races. In 2007, she’d helped out at the Leona Divide 50 Mile. The following year, Henninger became the volunteer coordinator. When the race wrapped up, then race director Glenda Kimmerly told Henninger she was thinking about retiring the race. “I said, ‘Glenda, you can’t do that. Leona Divide has been around for a long time,’” says Henninger. So she shadowed Kimmerly the following year, and after that Henninger stepped into the position as a race director.
“When it’s your destiny, it’s your destiny. If you’re meant to do it, nothing will stand in the way of that. Glenda gave me this race that had been in the sport for forever. Back in the day, there weren’t many amazing races in SoCal, and I was determined to change that. We were this area that was overlooked. I wanted to create a bunch of races down here and the best races that could possibly be put on. With excellent course markings. A race-day shirt, including women-specific cuts. A beautiful finisher medal. Plenty of volunteers. And an awesome finish-line feast,” says Henninger. She did.
An incredible amount of work went into securing permits to start more races. Over a 10-month period, she worked with the Los Angeles City Council to land approval for the Griffith Park Trail Half Marathon, the first race to be approved in the park’s history. That event expanded to include 50k, marathon, 30k, and 10k distances. Then, she sought permission to organize trail races 40 miles west in Malibu with the Ray Miller 50/50 and Paramount Ranch Trail Runs, followed by the Sean O’Brien Trail Races and Samo 100 Mile, the latter debuting in 2021. “The Malibu sector has been so incredibly to work with. Craig Sap[, superintendent of California State Parks’ Angeles District], is an avid hiker and has always been so supportive. From the very beginning, he said yes and gave me a chance,” says Henninger, who works with the life guards and fire department including annual meetings to go over the race-safety plans. Some events overlap with private land within the National Park Service jurisdiction, so she needed federal permission, too. At the time, she was one of the only professional race directors in the industry who was female, but it didn’t affect her experience.
“I never thought I couldn’t be a race director, as a woman. Maybe it would be different in another state, but in Southern California, I’ve only felt support. In Griffith Park, in the heart of Los Angeles, I met with City Council members, who were all men in suits, and they were really supportive. I never felt being a woman was hindering me,” she says.
However, her pitches for trail and ultra races absolutely turned heads. “Especially with ultras, people would say, ‘You want a race where people run 50 miles?!’ So, teaching and explaining how that type of event would be supported was a long process that didn’t happen overnight. All the races I built came from me pounding pavement and doors would be shut. There were many times in so many places where I wanted to put on races in certain parks and they shut the door on me. It’s so hard to get permit approval in SoCal compared to Northern California, where there’s a trail race every weekend—otherwise, I’d have 20 more races,” she says. Though, she’s grateful for the permits she has, which came to include the Monrovia Canyon Trail Runs and Running Is Not Closed Trail Series.
By the end of 2012, the 36 year old was invited to join the ultrarunning team at Patagonia. Five years later, she started to have life stressors on top of her rigorous racing schedule, and a deep fatigue set in. She had trouble finishing races and often faced a DNF. It took two years to identify that she had Epstein-barr virus, which had most likely been dormant in her liver since childhood and was then activated under the output load.
One of Henninger’s other biggest passions is cooking and eating healthy. Her annual “Keira Henninger Trail Running Nutrition Retreats” for women always sell out. The four-day retreats are affordable ($600 to $700) and held in amazing destinations. “I reserve a huge house with five or six bedrooms. I’ll take 12 to 15 ladies. We stay in the house, I cook all the meals, and take them on guided, long trail runs. The retreats are awesome,” Henninger says. Beyond those events, she leads Dirt Divas and Dudes, a 75-person trail running team (all ages, all genders) with spring/summer and fall/winter seasons. She works with the squad on how to fuel for long runs, clean eating, and nutrition. The members can choose to follow one of four different monthly training plans, provided by Henninger: beginner, intermediate, intermediate/advanced, and advanced. And the group meets up once per month to run together.
When COVID-19 hit, she started hosting weekly virtual calls with recipe demonstrations rather than meeting in-person for runs. “I wanted to give as much as I could to them. In a way, COVID-19 changed our group in so many positive ways. We started last April and went through Zoom calls. We became so close over Zoom. We went through COVID-19 together,” she says.
At the moment, Henninger radiates strength and positivity. She says, “I’m very focused on staying hopeful and being prepared for when the races do return. I’ve had this down time in my life and will for a few more months. There are no races that will be permitted in 2020 in California. I’m preparing for 2021. I’m full of gratitude for what I do have and not getting caught up in what I’ve lost, because I know it will come back. That’s where my mind is mentally and with my career and race directing. I’m being patient, giving a lot to my trail team, and focusing on what I can do right now.”
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