It’s time for ultra talk… with Gwen Kelly-Kohnke!

We’re doing something new this year! We’re featuring some interviews/blogs with folks about their first ultra experience. This round is Gwen Kelly-Kohnke! Gwen did her first 50K at Fire Tower and also volunteers at the event. Take a read over her experiences learning to thrive at long distances!

How did you get introduced to trail running?

My first answer to this question is usually that I learned about trail running while in college. My Senior year at Gustavus Adolphus College, a tornado hit the school during spring break. It destroyed many buildings, including the gymnastics gym. I had just aged out of my sport, we had just finished the season at Nationals. Gymnastics was a sport that I loved, but being a gymnast has a time limit. Normally the gymnasts get a precious 2-3 months of post season playing in the gym with no pressure…the months that every senior treasures. It is one more chance to enjoy the sport before the world of gymnastics decides you are too old to continue. Without a gym, I needed something to do for exercise. I started running.

I had some friends who were on the cross-country team. I’m sure they thought it hilarious that a gymnast was trying to learn how to run. When I think of that now, I can only imagine how much I was entertaining them. I survived the 5 mile loop as I trailed behind them. It was a cross country team staple. So…they said it would be more fun if I joined them for a run at Seven Mile Creek…a single track unpaved trail. It was more fun. I didn’t keep up on either of those runs, but I had learned a lot about running from them. After that, I ran in St. Peter, MN…on the trails and the gravel roads of an amazing small town. I ran in a town that pulled itself up by the bootstraps and rebuilt after the wreckage of a tornado. I found it exciting to exercise with no goals and no worries about getting better. I never knew how far I ran or how long…I didn’t care. I would just go out, run until I didn’t want to anymore, go home, and be happy!

I ran without any goals for a very long time. Eventually I started a family. I started to miss having physical goals. I was missing the satisfaction of seeing improvement in a sport, after working so hard to accomplish something. I decided to make running my sport, set some goals, and get healthy. I started running races.

In some respects I was introduced to trail running as a kid. I was on the trail before I could walk. I probably took many naps in a backpack and can remember sleeping in the bottom of a canoe. As a parent now, I truly appreciate the effort it must have taken to get us all as a family, out on the trails.

I grew up camping, skiing, and hiking in the Boundary Waters, on the Gunflint Trail, and other similar places. We hiked the Superior Hiking Trail when it was just bits and pieces. I remember my dad talking about how someday the SHT will go across the entire Northshore of Minnesota. The trail would sometimes just end and then we would head back out. When I was really small, maybe about four years old, I remember countless times being picked up, brushed off, and told something like “Don’t run on the trails, it isn’t safe.” My parents weren’t wrong. As we got older, my siblings and I were allowed to hike ahead of my parents a bit. I would sneak in a few steps of running here and there. I remember playing our version of the floor is lava on the trail. Rocks, roots, and trees are safe, dirt is lava…let’s see who can get the farthest down the trail without falling in. Sometimes we were even running around playing tag. I hold close to my heart the feeling of my four-year-old self ignoring my parents’ advice, and the freedom of my Grade School self, sneaking in a run ahead of my parents while on a hike. It is one of the reasons I love to run. I hope every runner can find that runner child within themselves that is overflowing with joy about breaking the rules of the trail and feeling the freedom of a secret run.

When did you hear about ultras and what was it that made you decide you wanted to do one?

I first heard a tiny bit about ultra-running in Chiropractic school. I also heard a bit about ultras in my Chiropractic sports seminars. My first real introduction to Ultras, however, happened when I met Mike Barton. Mike has introduced many people to the world of ultra-running. I’m honored to be included in those numbers. Mike, had introduced me to UMTR (Upper Midwest Trail Runners) and TRECs (Trail Runners of Elm Creek), as well as sharing his own wisdom of the trail. I was just at the point in my running, where I was starting to wonder how far I could go. Could I run a marathon? Then all of a sudden, I am hearing about a whole community of runners going much farther than a marathon, and…it was on unpaved trail. Long runs on the kind of trail my inner child loves, was too hard to pass up. I wasn’t sure I could run a marathon, or ever imagine running an ultra. My gymnastics self, had to give me a pep talk. Never say never! Never say I can’t! You never know what you might accomplish if you just try! So, I took the knowledge from Mike and my chiropractic profession. I leaned into the support and group knowledge from UMTR and TRECs. I woke up my inner gymnast, who is now my inner running cheerleader. I grabbed my courage, my self-confidence, and my crazy, and I dove off the Ultra cliff and into the best running community out there.

I guess the reasons I chose to do ultras are many. Three of my top reasons would be joy of running, freedom of running, and the community of people…the friends I make on the trails.

What type of training plan did you follow for your first ultra? Did you like the plan or would you do something different next time? 

Training plans are a funny thing.  It is as if they are a living entity. They need to constantly morph to fit the current circumstances at every moment of training. Anything I say about training now, I will probably disagree with later. That is the nature of sports, always chasing an improved way of doing things. 

Going into my first Ultra (Fire Tower Trail Races 50K), I had a marathon plan that I knew worked for me. I knew that running back-to-back long runs would be helpful. I also wanted to practice for longer distances by getting used to back-to-back long runs. I took the marathon plan that had worked well for me, and messed it up a bit. I added a few more weekly miles to support the 2 long runs. I started working up to a 5-10 mile (1-2 hour) long run the day before or after the marathon training plan’s long run. I knew this strategy worked for other runners, and it was a plan that made me feel confident. It is not the only way to train for an ultra, but I had to pick something. I did like this plan. I felt ready when I hit the start line. Like with any plan, I had made adjustments as needed to stay healthy. Extra rest now means not having to take weeks off to rehab an injury later.  Now I would say that there are plenty of better ways to train for an ultra trail race than to use a marathon training plan. Now I would say it is possible to train without a plan.

After my first ultra, I decided to start training with a coach. I help runners all the time in my career, but when applying what I know to myself, it is too easy to lose confidence in what I am doing. Am I pushing hard enough, am I pushing too hard…those questions are hard to answer when you are coaching yourself. Having a coach isn’t necessary, but finding a good coach can be a game changer. It can transform your running life! I never would have thought I could love running more, but my coach has added to the enjoyment I find in running. I have someone to chat with when making the decisions about when to back off and when to push myself harder. With a coach I do some workouts I might have otherwise skipped in order to run more easy miles. I do love a challenging workout, so now those are on my schedule. Coaches are in the business of changing your life, not just improving your performance. Thanks, Coach Jeff Miller!

What was the hardest part about training for an ultra distance?

The hardest part…that’s difficult to pinpoint. I feel like the hardest part of training for my first ultra (or any ultra) is in my mind. I expected the hardest part of training to be consistency. I was wonderfully surprised to find that the daily running was easy. I love running and didn’t have any desire to skip workouts. Keeping an eye on all the games your mind can play during training, that can be annoying. The solution isn’t too difficult though. Grab all of your favorite affirmations, jokes, distraction techniques, songs you like to play in your head, and any other mental games you find helpful, and keep them close at hand. When you start to doubt anything, pull out the games that keep your mind where it needs to be. You need to find a way to stop the madness, get grounded in your why, and lean into some mental relaxation. 

I think doubts are a natural part of any sport, but in running it seems maybe a little easier to focus on them if you aren’t paying attention. Catching my mind each and every time I would veer off course, that was maybe the hardest thing.  You can’t get to the start line and finish a race, if you have let your mind convince you that you can’t do this.  Sometimes the doubts and questions we have are important to pay attention to for a moment.  If they aren’t important questions, then let them go.  Mental training is hard. 

When you did your first 50K what went right, and what do you want to do better next time?

Any first ultra race is going to have things that go well and things that go wrong. Things that went right? In two words, I finished! I picked the perfect race to try for my first ultra.  As I have been a back of the pack runner, cut off time is an important consideration.  Fire Tower Trail Races 50K has an unbelievably generous cut off time. I knew things could go horribly wrong, and I would have time to fix it. Not having the stress of racing cut off times made my experience nothing but a joy. I had packed a wide variety of foods, fuels, and drinks.  This was helpful when I started to learn that my taste buds could refuse certain flavors.  I had taken walk breaks often, to simulate the hills I had been hiking in practice. That seemed to be a huge help.  While running the race I realized that I had chosen a race close enough to home that people I knew were volunteering. I also realized that all of the volunteers at this race were very ultra savvy, they were unbelievably helpful, and good at cheering as well.  This race only had one major climb…the fire tower (amazing view by the way).  All of these things put together, made this an ideal first ultra race.  

On race day, I made it to the fire tower, did the climb, enjoyed the view, and got back to running.  So far so good.  I was having a good race, no real issues.  About half a mile or so after the fire tower my muscles started to cramp up.  This slowed me down for the rest of the race. I was able to continue because I knew I had plenty of time to hike it out.  I think that the lack of experience on flat terrain, having stairs in practice that were too easy, and not varying my pace enough, were main causes of the muscle cramps.  I had hit the nutrition part of my race like a pro.  I was eating and drinking well, I had enough electrolytes. But just in case, I started eating differently to try to help with the muscle spasms. I focused on salty foods a bit more. Mmmmm pickles and potato chips! By resting up a bit, not letting my super slow hiking pace get me down, by continuing to fuel well, I eventually was able to get the muscles to let up a bit…as long as I didn’t step “wrong”.  And before I knew it, I was back to enjoying the race again.  

Next time I run the Fire Tower 50K, I would focus on deep or more challenging stairs in practice, especially in the middle of a long run. Is there a way I could get a ladder climb into my long run? Climbing a ladder would have been harder than climbing the fire tower. I would run a bit more on flat gravel trails, and I would vary my pace more on race day. In the end I’m proud I finished!  It was the perfect race for me to learn how to run (and not run) an ultra. 

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