A Conversation with Ultra Marathon Runner Krissy Moehl
By Editor Brett Rawson
Growing up, I disliked both the idea and the activity of running. I only ran out of desperation — away from bullies, on fumes, or after the ice cream truck for a bubble play. But seven years ago, I fell into running: I tore my ACL during a mid-adult indoor soccer match, had an Achilles tendon screwed into my leg bones, and met my physical therapist, who happened to be a running coach. “What kind of exercises do you do?” he asked on day one. I listed a few sports, and he smiled. “So what kind of exercises do you do?” I repeated my answers, and he set down his clipboard. A few foam rollers later, I understood with aching clarity that I would be starting from scratch (or stretch, really). Three years later and with only eight toenails intact, I was dropped off at the Canadian Border with two friends and three strangers at eight in the morning, and we ran 35 miles back to our campground.
I thank and blame a guy with a goatee, Tom Frizelle, for introducing me to the trails and trees, but he’s also how I came to sit in an auditorium and listen to Krissy Moehl speak about learning on the run. Krissy has competed in more than 100 ultra marathons, and won 55 of them. She first took the world by surprise when, fresh into the sport, she placed first at the 2009 Ultra-Trail du Mont Blanc, which is a 100-mile race that crosses into three countries. Krissy has been an elite athlete for 16 years and started out with the likes of Scott Jurek, author of Eat and Run. But while Krissy has been the Race Director of Chuckanut, an ultra in Fairhaven, WA for 14 years, that’s one of the only things she repeats; she herself hardly ever runs a race twice. And these days, she’s been more into FKTs, or fastest known times. Last year, she set the record running around Lake Tahoe: 170 miles in 47 hours and 29 minutes. She didn’t do it alone, but she also wouldn’t want to — for Krissy, running is about the competition, the crew, and the community.
When we first connected with Krissy, she was training for a 100K race, and one that brought her some doubt. But she was also on the verge of a book tour for her new book, Running Your First Ultra, so for this side conversation, we decided to combine all of these elements: her thoughts on running, but also her thoughts while running the 100K Quicksilver. You’ll see three italicized bits, which are Krissy’s thoughts on the run, labeled pre-race, race day, and post-race. Intermixed, you’ll find us switchbacking throughout her history, approach, and perspective on what it means to run, and to be a runner. Enjoy, and get moving.
PRE-RACE, FAIRHAVEN, WA: This race holds a lot of doubt for me. I have stated out loud to myself and to friends: 100K is a long way! Months since my last long run — the Tahoe Rim Trail FKT in September — I am wondering if my training is enough, if my body will hold up, and how long it will take me. The mind is the strongest piece in an ultra race. Racing frequently maintains or builds your confidence in being able to accomplish the distance. Infrequent racing can allow doubt to sneak in. But I know, after 16 years of running these long races, that I mentally can push myself to nearly any finish line — barring major injury — it is just how much is it going to hurt.
What I am more aware of now, as I pack my bags to head to California, is that in doing so, what long term damage am I capable of? How long will it take me to recover? I want to avoid a long break after. I love to train, and I try to maintain fitness to be able to race, recover, and continue training. My goal is to be fit enough to comfortably endure the long distance — I am somewhat doubting that I have been able to train enough to comfortably finish this 100K race.
THE SEVENTH WAVE: You’ve run in every single climate, weather system, and time of year. Is there a certain kind of weather that, when you see it forming outside, you immediately put your shoes on and get out there right now?
KRISSY MOEHL: It is the weather right now in Fairhaven, Washington: It’s 70 degrees and a little humid, ensuring that you will be sweating within ten minutes of being out there. And in one hour, I will be. There is enough of a breeze and plenty of trees to keep you cool. So far, spring in Fairhaven is my ideal running climate. I have a pretty “Pacific Northwest” view from my home. I look west over the sound, meaning the sunsets are best from my deck, and I couldn’t be more thankful. I am two blocks away from the starting line to Chuckanut 50K, the first 50K I ran 16 years ago, and the race I’ve now directed for 14 years. I’ve moved 11 times in the last 11 years, so to actually put roots down and call a place home— I love it.
TSW: You were in Colorado before this. What took you there?
KM: I have a great group of friends in Boulder, so that was a fun in, but the biggest reason I moved is that I’d always lived in Washington. I travelled around the world and experienced a lot of different climates, but I hadn’t uprooted and lived someplace else, and I figured if Boulder, Colorado, couldn’t convince me that Washington isn’t the best place to live, then where else could? Now I find myself back in the PNW and loving it.
I feel home is what you’re familiar with. I grew up near Fairhaven— my parents are twenty minutes south in the home I grew up in. I know the green, I know the trees, I know how to dress for the climate, and I know the people. Even though I don’t know people personally, I know the people. If you are out in the rain walking your dog in a flannel shirt, I get you.
TSW: What does the Chuckanut Race look like these days? How has it changed since the first time you toed the line?
KM: It started in 1993 with Doug McKeever and Richard West. They led the charge for 10 years. Doug has been a huge part of the race every year since I took over in 2003. He marks the course. He’s always been a sounding board for me if something comes up— dealing with the city, department, water jugs, or whatever— he’s a good resource for me up here 14 years later, and still really involved.
The race started with 80 people and now I cap it at 350 or 400. The results used to be Doug sitting in the back of his truck with a clipboard wrapped up in his sleeping bag, but now we have chip timing by BuDu Racing, food donated by the local Book Fare Cafe, a 30-by-30 foot tent, port-a-potties, and this year, I think we had twelve 10-by-10 sponsor tents set up in a corral, which created this really cool hangout vibe. They created a circle that surrounded the finish line that encouraged interaction and easy access to watch the finishers. Meanwhile, there were all of these cool brands to go talk to. It amazes me every year.
Each year, I try to stand up on the hill and take the same photo various times throughout the day, because it just blows my mind that it goes from this vacant parking lot to this full fledged finish line with all these things happening. It’s four or five months of planning and it all comes together on one day, and 14 years later it still blows my mind that it all works.
Every year is a little different. This year, the owner of a new brewery in town, Wander, was running in the race, and he wanted to host the post race party at his establishment. To have somebody in the community say hey, let’s bring your people to my people, we totally jumped on it.
We had a major windstorm the weekend before the race, we had four different groups— Parks and Rec, Larrabee State Park, myself and the coRD, and local mountain bike group— rallied to clear the impassable trails. There was so much blowdown to deal with, so we executed on a plan— the runners ran in, used hand-saws to cut out as many trees as possible, and then reported back the locations of the bigger trees that we couldn’t move. Hours later the park rangers would hike in with chainsaws. It was awesome and felt like a huge community effort to ensure that the 24th running of the Chuckanut 50K could happen.
So the week had already been kind of crazy with the added trail work, and we kept the momentum going when Chad, the Wander Brewing contact, decided we should add a raffle to the post party. Done! We put together six swag bags— each valued over 250 to 300 dollars per— and we sold tickets for 3 to $5 and ended up raising $1,212 dollars for the local chapter of Girls on the Run.
TSW: That’s incredible. And this is something you talk and write a lot about— the running community. We might go for a run or race, but we always come back and together as community.
KM: Definitely. It’s sustainable that way. I was always a team sports person growing up, so having a running crew is kind of my way of continuing that vibe, if that makes sense. Part of running is so solo— you have to do all those miles by yourself— but if you can create that team aspect, it speaks to my soul.
TSW: And for some runs, you need other people, right? I’m thinking of your 170-mile run around Lake Tahoe. How many people did you have in that crew?
KM: Twelve people.
TSW: There’s no way one person could do that, right?
KM: Well, there’s different ways of looking at it. There are definitely people wanting to do those kinds of adventures for what the solo aspect brings— like what comes up for you and how do you deal with. And I kind of get it, but I don’t choose it. There are a few races I’ve done internationally that I’ve had be solo, like traveling to Japan or France, where I couldn’t afford to have a crew. You go to a different place when you’re solo like that. But I just enjoy it so much more when it’s shared.
RACE DAY, SANTA FE, CALIFORNIA: I wake up three minutes before my 2:50 a.m. alarm calm and excited. I quietly ready myself, so as not to wake Bree, my hostess for the weekend. Staying in her home gives me some home-away-from-home conveniences like toasting two English muffins on the stove, smearing Trail Butter on them and boiling water for mate. The 40-minute drive in the dark allows me to consume my calories and shift my mind into race mode. Thankful for technology, I follow Google maps from the city to the hills because I don’t know where I’m going. I can’t see the terrain just yet, but the profile of the race tells me the hills are out there.
Standing in the port-a-potty line, I am recognized. “Don’t the elites have a special place to use the bathroom?” someone asks. This is what I love most about our sport. We all start together, and well, do other things together, too. I said something to this effect. But there is no room for segregation in such a welcoming community.
Lining up, I see only a couple of familiar faces — including fellow Patagonia athlete Paul Terranova. We hadn’t seen each other in a couple of years, but it felt like it’d only been a month. I have to say I love that about our sport and the community. We share hugs during the race announcement as last-minute course changes are being shared — the most significant being that the parks department rerouted the rock scramble that the race is known for. Fortunately, there was another option that the course director remarked at 11 p.m. the night before the race.
I hear the sound, followed by the starting beeps of a couple hundred watches. Running off the line and up the first steady climb, my mind and body slip into a familiar zone. During the first out-and-back, I look for any females ahead of me. None. The second out-and-back, I count 27 men ahead of me. The competitive nature seeps through my skin with the sweat, even though it hadn’t been accessed in months. I watch my time to see if Megan’s 10:18 course record would be within my grasp. I run in stride with others to keep myself motivated. Push the pace to keep up. I listen to music until my earbuds died — time for a new pair — and focus on what I needed to do to keep moving forward. At the halfway point I check again to see my time at 5:18. I will have to negative split to be close to Megan’s CR — I’ll try, but deep down I know my training wasn’t quite there, yet.
I find where Beast Mode starts. It’s about an hour after my longest training run. My longest training run was 7 hours, 35 miles. 8 hours and about 42 miles in, I feel the choice come up. Is my body just sore, or are there injuries? Thankfully, it is just soreness, achy hips and quads reaching that tender point. It is about 25 degrees hotter than I trained for and time to make a decision. Will I be reduced to a walk or push through. I start running again. This is Beast Mode.
I find the smile that pushes me forward. I fuel well and find the will to push just beyond what my training prepared me for. I keep cool and breathe. I utilize and enjoy the helpful, cheerful aid stations. I set mini goals along the way. Around Mile 48, Bree, my hostess and now pacer, shares her company to help me through the end.
With a few miles to go we are laughing and singing songs to each other and before we know it, the sounds of the finish line are within earshot. She tells me to finish strong, her personal tag line, and we pick up our turn over to crest the final hill to cross under the finish arch. She is the first to give me a hug, followed closely by the running club president. Their hugs hold me up before I take a moment to place my hands on my knees for a breather. That was definitely longer and hotter than I was prepared for. I will be sore for a couple of days, but it all feels good to reconnect with that racing vibe.
TSW: You’ve run thousands of miles and in so many races, does it get difficult to remember them all?
KM: I’m really bad with stats. I think it’s really funny because when I first got into this sport, I remember people telling me, Oh, I think I’ve run that race, and I remember saying, How can you not remember if you’ve run an ultra race? I was 22 at the time, and these were the biggest things I’d done in my life. Of course I knew what races I’d done. But now, 16 years in, I’m like, What year did I run that in, or, did I run that race? It’s funny to have that aged perspective — I thought I would never forget any race I ever did, and now I am one of those people. Fortunately, I learned from them and continue to track all of my races in a Word Document. Remember: I started racing ultras before UltraSignUp existed.
TSW: What do you think goes into that — the number of runs you’ve done, or because so much goes into the training that it’s not just a single race but a long process that blends into other experiences?
KM: Not remembering how many races I’ve done? I think it is a combination of all what you said. And, I think that long distance running kills brain cells. It takes a while, but you definitely build them back up. It just takes a couple days. I call it the Ultra Hangover. I don’t drink a lot, so that’s kind of my version of hangover I guess.
TSW: Going back to what you said about the team sports — which did you do?
KM: I was in basketball, soccer and volleyball, and I ran track. Prior to organized sports, my mom had us in everything growing up, from horseback riding to ballet to jazz and gymnastics, bowling— I definitely was exposed to a lot of different movement activities. I call myself a runner, but really I just like to move.
TSW: You mentioned once that you came into ultra running as a runner, but that first crew you ran with, many of them had come into running as mountaineers. How different is that from today’s running demographics?
KM: I remember in that interview, I was speaking mostly to two groups — runners vs. mountain people. I felt like when I came into the sport, there were a lot of mountain people, like climbers and alpinists, who were trying to figure out quicker ways to move through the mountains, so they came to running with great mountain experience. So they were very well versed in their gear, weather, terrain, what to expect, things going sideways, that whole bit. Where I was — and I am — a runner, but learned all those important elements to being in the mountains from those people rather than having my own mountaineering-type experiences, which I’ve added since, but that wasn’t how I got into it.
As a race director, I feel like I’m watching that happen in the sport, where more and more runners are coming in and that was the point I was trying to make in the interview, is that there are not as many mountain people to teach the runners. The whole safety aspect of what it is to move in the mountains, and we’re learning, but I feel like it is a harder learning curve if you don’t have someone saying, You should throw that extra jacket in there, whereas a runner might say, No, that’s extra weight, leave it behind. Those couple of ounces can make or break your day in the mountains.
TSW: What were some of lessons you learned in those early days?
KM: Definitely awareness of your surroundings. Watching clouds, checking the weather map before you leave, and carrying more than you think you’ll need. There’s definitely people that vary on that last point. People would joke with me, saying I was carrying the kitchen sink, because my running pack was always so full, but I feel like I learned it was better to have it and not want it than want it and not have it. Always have an extra bar stored somewhere deep in your pack that you just know is always there, even if you don’t intend on eating it. It might be a gift for someone else.
Even more recently, and I learned it back then, but I’ve been more diligent about bringing a first aid kit for the what-if cases. I took the WFR (Wilderness First Responder) training course two years ago and that was eye-opening and helpful to learn key medical treatments that can come in handy in the back country. Carrying first aid is not just for myself, or the group I’m running with, but for the distances I am able to cover. I might run into someone who needs help and it will take a lot longer, or may not even be possible, for an actual medical person get there.
TSW: Speaking of surroundings, one of the things you mentioned in the book is about getting lost. Have there been times you’ve had to use the methods of sketching your initials into the ground, circling around, and finding your way out?
KM: Thankfully no, not to that extreme. I’ve definitely been disoriented, and had to climb up to a peak and get my bearings, but not that completely — circle, come back, are these my footsteps? — fortunately no.
TSW: But even having to go up to a top of a peak to get your bearings, to the average person could be a real cause for panic.
KM: I think the global travel and being in different places to experience running has added an understanding or feeling that I’m not necessarily lost, but I just need to figure it out. I leave the hotel door and go for a run on the streets and I’m lost because I don’t know my surroundings, but you take it in as you’re going and you figure it out. So, this is hilarious, and could be foreshadowing, but tomorrow, I’m getting dropped off at the south end of Blanchard mountain and I’m hoping to make my way between Blanchard and Chuckanut and back home. The connecting route is is this dirt road that I’ve only run once. I figure I need to get in 30 miles, so that’s a good way to do it — to not necessarily know where you’re at.
TSW: I find what you said earlier fascinating about how a person comes in to ultra running — as a runner, mountaineer, or other. I came to it by accident, literally. I tore my ACL during a pointless indoor soccer match, and my physical therapist just happened to be a running coach. And it was around this time that I met Tom Frizelle, who we both know. He’s the one who got me into trail running, all the Rainshadow Running races, and really, the one who altered my notion of what it means to run, to race, and to rest. There is the competition, but more so the community around that competition.
KM: Did you find that when you found the trail side of the running community, that it spoke to you more than the road running?
TSW: Definitely. And it’s funny — on my first trail run ever, which was with Tom at the Redmond Watershed, I remember we were stretching in the parking lot when he said, You’re probably going to run a lot faster than me. I just started laughing. I thought, how’s that possible? Tom is 6 foot strong, had a great goatee —
KM: Cause that’ll make you faster —
TSW: Right? There was no way, I thought, I could out-pace his wild beard. But when we started out, my first thought was, Man, this is a slow pace. But then six miles later, it felt like scorpions were attacking my calves, which is right around when I realized there were a lot of things I hadn’t considered — the elevation we would encounter, the importance of easing a body into motion, and the element of pacing. It was so much different than what I was used to — when I would, begrudgingly, “go for a run,” which meant a three-mile slog around an over-crowded lake until total exhaustion. The soil was so much softer, and not just for the knee.
KM: You mentioned an overcrowded lake. Are you talking about Green Lake? Immediately, that popped into my mind.
TSW: Yes. I lived near there for a few years.
KM: It’s so cool we have the Tom connection.
TSW: Right? That all of this came from your TEDx Talk at Overlake in 2011, which is where I was working and where I met Tom.
KM: TEDx was such a significant moment in my life; I’ll never forget that experience. Tom was the one who put my name in as a possible speaker. I had never met him prior to that, so I am ever grateful for that leap of faith.
TSW: I think you mentioned during the talk that your heart was beating pretty fast.
KM: The best follow-up to that day is the conversation I had with the sound guy afterwards. There is a community created around these TEDx talks, and while I was walking around I asked the guy with the massive headset hanging from his neck how his day went. He immediately recognized me and said, “Oh my gosh, I had to turn the volume down on your microphone.” He said my heart was beating so loud and so strong, he couldn’t hear me talking. I was mortified in a way. Fortunately he clarified that he was the only one that could hear my pounding heart, not the entire TEDx community and YouTube watchers. The fact that he could hear my heat racing was pretty amazing.
TSW: Right, you weren’t racing, but your heart was.
KM: Exactly. I remember sitting down next to my Mom after it was over and I said I feel like I just ran a 10K. She said, You don’t do that. And I said, Exactly.
TSW: On training runs, how much do you care about your speed? Do you always run with a watch, run at a specific pace, or do you just run however fast you’re feeling that day? And has that changed over the years?
KM: I typically run on feel, but that has morphed over the years. There are times when I am diligent about keeping a running log, scheduling workouts and making sure I hit goal mileages each week. Then there are months where I just do what feels right. That might be a 15-mile trail run or a 1-hour swim in the local pool. Right now I am enjoying building a schedule, including weekly workouts and shooting for goal mileages.
TSW: A few days ago, I asked you by email to choose a run that is timely for some reason— you’ve been talking or thinking about it lately— for us to talk about today. What run did you choose?
KM: I had to give it some thought because there are so many. I made the comment earlier that there aren’t that many races that I repeat, but one of my first 50-mile races, which was the second one I ever did, was the Mount Masochist 50-miler down in Virginia.
David Horton was the race director, but it is now directed by Clark Zealand. David Horton did it for 25 years. I think Masochist is probably one of the 50 milers I’ve done the most, which I think is ironic because it is in the furthest corner of the states from where I live. But I ran it 10 years apart, and I remember John Medinger making a social media comment that that hasn’t happened often — where somebody runs and wins a race and then ten years later they go and run and win it again.
To have that much time in between is kind of cool, but those two reasons — thinking about who I was at the first one and who I was ten years later, and how people viewed me — there were a lot of labels attached, especially to that first one, because I was the Montrail girl. New to the sport and representing one of the only footwear brands that supported trail running at the time, I talked to nearly all of the racers about our shoes. I coordinated sponsorship for athletes and races, so got to know a large part of the small community really quickly. Also, as a newbie, young (23-year-old) female in a sport mostly dominated by men in their 40s, I stood out. I remember David Horton called me Sissy Girl, one of the volunteers called me Sandbagger. Who is this girl, they said, and tried placing all of these identifiers on me. But then having ten years in the sport, they figured out who this girl was.
On the starting line of that first Masochist, that was a lot of what came up in my head — it took me a while to stay in the present and create who Krissy was— not just the Montrail girl— in the sport, if that makes sense.
TSW: Definitely. When you first heard those labels, how did it affect you?
KM: I remember it being a lot of fun at first because I was just let in to the family. I felt like no matter where I travelled as the Montrail girl, I was brought into this family, which is why I asked you that question about the connection and community in trail-running earlier — because I felt that way in all corners of the world.
So I really didn’t mind the labels of just being the Ultra-Trail du Mont Blanc girl or whatever. But I do remember feeling a little bit like, but wait, I have a name, I’m not just the Montrail Girl, there’s this other person here that likes to run but she also likes to cook and craft, has adventures with friends and appreciates yoga, climbing and all forms of movement. I guess it’s kind of an identity thing— running was one piece of me— but there was all of these other aspects I wanted to be able to share with people.
TSW: And how about the running experience itself — from the first time to the second time ten years later?
KM: I was much more confident. The first time I went in there, I really had no idea what it meant to run 50 miles. The first I had done, my knee had given out and I had to walk the last 12 miles of the race, so I didn’t know if I could finish The Masochist 50 miles. When I ended up winning, that volunteer said, You sandbagger, I said, No really, I just didn’t know. So my confidence wasn’t there.
The second time, I was much more well-trained and ready to go, but then I fell in my house and my knee swelled up to three times the normal size just three days before the race. I almost didn’t get on the plane but David Horton talked me into it. He told me to come down and if my knee is OK, to run, but if not, to just hang out with him all day. It sounded like a good option to me, so I went. The swelling ended up going down and I was able to run. But it kind of made me check my confidence, which was a good thing. I know that’s what my TEDx Talk is about: over-confidence is not necessary a good thing.
TSW: And what about knowing — you were saying how you had no idea before the run, and that the more you do it the more you know, but you continue to do this: go toward runs you don’t know and specifically seek out these unknowns.
KM: Totally, and I think that’s why this sport is so sustainable for me sixteen years. That curiosity of unknown and the parallel it draws for life. Just when I think I have figured it out — whether it’s life, races, or anything else — I’ll just be cruising along and things are going well when life will go flip, knock me down, spin me around 180 degrees, and say, nope, try another point of view. Life is always showing me a different direction, and I think ultra running does that, too.
I think, Yeah I can run 100 miles, and then I get sideways rain or food poisoning. It is as though the race is saying, But you don’t know how to do it this way. I love that. Even though it’s hard and character building, and sometimes I feel like I have plenty of character, I really do appreciate it. I’ve learned that if you’re not building character, you’re dying, and I’d rather be on the other side of that.
TSW: Also by email, I asked you to think about a lesson you’ve learned in running that you’ve applied to life, as well as a lesson in life you’ve applied to running?
KM: One from running, instantly, was patience. I am not known as a patient person, but if you watch how I race, I am always at the back of the pack at the beginning and I work my way up, listening to my body, and the patience pays off. The longer the race, the better I do. So that’s definitely a lesson from running — I have to remind myself in life to take a breath, be patient, and let things play out. That’s not my normal instinct or response to situations: I am usually trying to get in there, figure things out, and make it happen.
But I could not answer the other question. Is it just that I identify so much as a runner? I don’t know. Sitting here listening to you asking the question, I was thinking that maybe it would just come to me. But nope.
TSW: Well, it’s funny. I thought of the question on the run the other day, but then last night, I thought about how I would answer the question, and I couldn’t find an answer either. But then I started to think about what writing has taught me about running, and so maybe I asked slightly the wrong question. Perhaps I should have said, is there a lesson you have learned in a non-running aspect of life that you have applied to running?
KM: I guess in the sporting world there are lots of lessons to learn that run parallel in life. Earlier I talked about how important the team aspect of some of my youth sports remains in my adult running life. You could say that carrying that “working together to accomplish more” spirit from team sports to running is something I learned in life.
TSW: Your book seems to echo that lesson: patience. It outlines three routes to running ultra marathons, but what I love most is that it starts out asking the person questions. Part of me wanted to answer, I am ready for the 50-miler, so I should just flip to that page, but when I actually answered the questions, I said just kidding, and I started at the beginning. Sometimes, we want our bodies to be in certain places where we are not. This gets me to another question: your book is about learning how to start and run an ultra, but equally important, you seem to hint at the importance of learning how to stop.
KM: Or pause, even. My gut says maybe not stop. For reference, my brain goes to the winter coaching group I started here in Bellingham — I branched the Colorado-based Revolution Running to Bellingham. We started December 1st and they ran the Chuckanut 50K in March. It was their first ultra, and a lot of them had kids, they were doing long miles, and so we had a lot of pauses for each individual within the group. There were times when I cut their run short and said OK you’re going home, you were supposed to run four hours but this is two and you can’t stop coughing. I would run back down the trailhead with them and talk them into going home.
I think that’s where a coach is most effective. Most people who are going to hire a coach are already driven, so they think, how are they going to make me better? But as a coach, I think I am giving people accountability, as well as that confirmation that it’s okay to pause. Having the perspective to point out out how hard they’ve been working so they feel okay to take a break, or skip the second run of the day to get to bed, or have time with their family because they’re feeling stress from all the time away, or giving that OK that life still has to happen.
The main thing being, I’m going to make you work harder, but don’t rush. I even wrote on the running schedules, Don’t even think about running today. Do something completely different so your mind doesn’t think about tomorrow’s run or anything. It’s more of an affirmation — if coach says to do it, then I can.
TSW: And I imagine, too, that’s something people learn through the experience of running — if they don’t pause at some point, they are going to be forced to pause.
KM: Yes, that’s a harder lesson to learn.
TSW: Right, and you sort of slipped a sentence into the book, which I underlined and circled until I ran out of ink, but you said that you froze your corneas for 24 hours. Different than say, a stubbed toe, you froze your eyeballs for a whole day.
KM: I don’t always make the best decisions. That injury scared me the most of any, I would say. The thought of losing my vision for the rest of my life was terrifying, even after the fact.
TSW: So could you not see out of your one eye for 24 hours?
KM: Both eyes, actually. It was like wearing foggy glasses or goggles. I had light coming in, but just that fog that you can’t see beyond. I have 20/20 vision, so I had never experienced blurriness or visual impairment, so it was scary to not be able to see down the trail or identify anything.
TSW: Was that because of the temperature?
KM: And the wind. I didn’t have any eye protection and it was 14 degrees but single digits with the wind chill factor. We started running at midnight, so with the wind and the focus — all you have is your headlamp so your eyes are focusing on that one beam. I think the combination of all three things is just not good. And I wasn’t the only one who had it. There was a girl who had just had lasic surgery a couple months before and both of her eyes went within the first ten miles. She couldn’t see and had to pull out.
Mine started that morning after sunrise. My left eye went about halfway into the race and then my right eye went in the last 13 miles. Fortunately, somebody came out on the trail and I was able to follow her to the next aid station. After that there was only 6 miles remaining. I knew it was just a dirt hill road up and over down to the finish, so I just had to stay on the trail, and didn’t need my depth perception.
TSW: So that still sounds like a superpower to me: complete 13 more miles with frozen corneas. A sentence I certainly didn’t anticipate ever being able to say during an interview.
KM: It’s kind of funny to hear it. When I’m racing, there’s another level that comes out — there is technical terrain and obstacles that in training I refuse to do, but that all changes on race day. Something happens psychologically that gives me more confidence to do stuff I’m not comfortable normally.
TSW: And all the training led you to being able to do something you hadn’t done before, right?
KM: Oh for sure, yeah definitely. Being in some of those situations, knowing I can survive, the next time I show up, I know I can do them.
POST RACE: The race was a great rust buster as my Trail Sister Gina calls an early race in the season, or one after a long time not racing. Checking in with where the body and mind are. What is possible? How well did I trail? What can I improve upon? Do I still enjoy pushing my body? My mind? Where does it take me? And now, how long does it take to recover…longer than before! My training was motivated to not be sore after the race. I knew I was capable of mentally pushing past my physical training and I hoped I could train enough to prevent that and at worst prevent injury. I succeeded in preventing injury, but was definitely walking funny the next day and continue to feel the effects of the long, hard effort 2 weeks after.
TSW: Something that constantly impresses me about the trail running community, and this is similar to your cornea instance, is just how far the body can go. I often ran with Tom and two others — Denise and Kent Renno — and during the Deception Pass 25K and 50K, which was my first 25K, Denise stepped on a root or rock and snapped her ankle on Mile 1. I was a little ahead of them because they were doing the 50K, but Tom said to Denise, Alright, well, let’s get you back to the starting line and to the car. But Denise said, Hold up a second, I might be okay. She started walking a little bit, keeping her ankle tight, and then goes, You know what, I can do this, and she ran the remaining 49K on a cracked ankle. It sounds impossible, but when you listen closely, you hear something different.
KM: That was the biggest thing ultra running gave me — that ability to, and I’m constantly learning — but that ability to tune in and say, what do I need right now to keep me moving forward? And that translates to life — what do I need to get through this right now? Do I need to go for a run? That’s usually what I end up doing, but what is it that I need to do to move forward? Take another gel, take a deep breath, or tie my shoe just to force a break? Just tune in and the body will tell you.
TSW: Right, a sort of systems check.
KM: Yeah, exactly. Well another label that always comes up for runners that I wanted to address with this interview because I thought it was a really cool thing you’re putting together is a lot of times, especially the longer distances that you run, the question that I’ve heard is what are you running from? If somebody is going to go out to run 30 miles at a time for a training run, what are they running from?
There have definitely been times in my life when have been running from stress, just distracted myself by going for these long runs, but I have to say the majority — maybe 80% — I’m running toward answers. I feel like I can figure more out when I’m out there, and when I say this to other runners, I see this look, like they acknowledge me or relate to that comment, like yeah I’m not running from. That’s where I go to figure it out. It’s a label that gets thrown at the running community, whether you’re a marathoner or ultra marathoner. What’s so bad in life that you have to run that far?
TSW: Yeah, absolutely. The question seems to be split into two parts: first, wondering why someone is doing something; but second, why they themselves are not doing that something? That might explain why running that far feels like away for them, but toward for others.
KM: Right, trying to explain and understand all that. What I think is really cool about being a runner is if you identify yourself as a runner, you don’t need to put anything else in front of it — trail, road, or whatever. If you just identify as a runner, you automatically understand another runner. I write and try to explain what that is — what is it that happens in a runner’s mind that they just get another runner — what are those words? But I think it’s such a cool connection that the label runner has and what it ends up giving you.
For example, look at us, to just get on the phone having never met, but we have running in common, so there’s automatically an understanding between us because we’ve both gone out and shared in long runs. I’ve watched it out here — there’s this great paddling and climbing community, and when I listen to them talk to each other, I have a questioning look on my face. There is this jargon I just don’t get. The way the climbers are speaking, their bodies are always in motion, constantly pretending they’re grabbing for a hold, or paddlers always pulling their arms through the air. But I love that the label gives me that kind of connection — if you’re a runner, I get you.
TSW: Right, like it’s not that weird that my toenails fall off —
KM: Exactly, and frozen corneas —
TSW: Totally normal.