From ultra late to ultra great: Genevieve Harrison needed to leave the organized endurance sports world before she could find her place in it
35-year-old Eagle runner notches UTMB Mont Blanc qualifier with Puerto Vallarta 100-mile win
EAGLE — Eagle trail-runner Genevieve Harrison’s life has kind of been one big ultra.
Fully immersed in the USA Triathlon world at 17, she dropped competitive sports altogether by 19. Harrison transferred schools, studied art history, got into sustainable farming, became a teacher, got married, and then, having doubled her time on the world – and brought two lives into it — became a professional athlete.
“I absolutely love it and I feel like I’m much more grounded as a 35-year-old as I was when I was 17 trying to compete on a world stage,” she said, blithely brushing over countless details surrounding her improbable, decade-plus-long gap between walking away from sport and then getting paid to do it.
Then again, perhaps the most poignant 100-mile finish-line epiphany is the introspective discovery of some specific, quiescent personal gift. For the 35-year-old breakout long-distance star – an oxymoron which betrays the thematic symbolism being hinted at — the detection of a dormant disposition for the ultra-running enterprise itself, not just as a convenient metaphor, was the salient realization.
“I guess in a nutshell, I started competitive sports at a really young age and wasn’t sure where it fit in my life,” Harrison summarized of her unlikely athletic Odyssey. “And I’ve kind of grown into looking at sport in a more mature light.”
Last month, Harrison led an American sweep of the Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc Puerto Vallarta 100-mile race in San Sebastián del Oeste, Jalisco, Mexico, finishing the brutal course — which ended up being closer to 115 miles — in 35 hours and 26 minutes. The win qualified her for the 2023 UTMB World Series Finals in Chaminox, France, widely considered to be the most prestigious ultra-trail race in the world.
American women, including Leadville resident Courtney Dauwalter (2019, 2021), have won the race’s last three iterations, and though her humility represses any lofty, result-based expectation, it’s fair to assume Harrison is a reasonable contender to extend the streak to four.
“I’m not really sure where I fit in,” she said modestly when asked how she stacks up against the world-class field awaiting her next summer. “I won’t know until I try.”
The latter mantra emblematizes a greater truth about Harrison’s late ascension to her sporting summit: the timing of one’s athletic pinnacle sometimes runs against the “conventional physiological progression” grain. And often, it involves taking a different trail altogether.
Harrison followed her parents into running at a young age, competing in high school track and cross-country before heading off to Westerville, Ohio to attend Otterbein University. She balanced running and classes with USA Triathlon competitions during her first year.
“It was a lot for a freshmen in college to try and organize; I was overwhelmed at the time,” she recalled. “I knew I was good at hurting in running, but I wasn’t sure that’s how I wanted to spend my university years.”
She quit organized sports and transferred to CSU, continuing her art history studies while traveling to work on farms.
“I was kind of surrounded by people who were interested in good-practice farming and just became very interested in where our food comes from,” she said. Her lifelong love of travel coincided with both her art history passion and her work with World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms (WWOOF), which she did in Italy and later Missouri and Colorado.
In 2014, she met her husband, Jon, who got the impression his future wife “had no interest in competition.” But August days spent at her parents’ new house, conveniently along the Leadville 100’s final two-miles, had already planted a seed. “I was always surrounded by this race,” she said. “So I was like, ‘I could try that.’
“As we pursued mountain peaks and long-distance adventure over the years, I think she realized that her previous training and racing experiences put her in a unique spot to be able to compete for podiums across an array of disciplines, whether it be uphill, downhill, short distance or long,” Jon said regarding Genevieve’s evolving relationship with sports.
“The most unique thing about ultra running is that the wisdom borne of failures and experiences can be the greatest asset,” he continued. “I think seeing so many successful “older” athletes gave her the courage to give it an honest effort.”
“Obviously, there’s a learning curve there,” Genevieve stated. That there was indeed.
Her first two Leadville 100 attempts were DNF’s. “I had no idea what I was doing,” she said. In 2017, she crossed the line in 28 hours, 48 minutes. That night, she discovered she was about eight weeks pregnant.
“I knew after finishing, and then knowing I had been pregnant… and then after having kids,” Harrison chronicled, skipping the four years between her 2017 finish and her 2021 attempt.
“…I knew that I had more in me to give the race.”
She “organized her approach” for the 2021 edition, shaving almost seven hours off her previous best (22:06:59) to finish second overall to her now frequent training partner, 23-year-old Annie Hughes of Leadville.
“I had no idea that was going to happen,” Harrison reflected. Even then, however, she knew the accomplishment had created an unexpected, alternative life-route option. “It was kind of just one of those things in life where I was like, ‘well, I guess I’ll go down this road.”
She met and forged a relationship with On Running’s trail team manager at the race and later applied to be on the newly-formed team. “And the rest is history,” she said of her young pro career.
“On is such a great company to run for and my team is amazing.” Harrison said of the Boulder-based group, for which Allie McLaughlin won a title at the inaugural Trail World Championships in Thailand this month. Two weeks ago, Harrison joined the group for a mini-training camp in Boulder, where athletes met with company representatives to talk about product development.
“It’s exciting being a part of a company that wants their athletes to be a part of the product and understanding what the athlete needs,” Harrison said, clearly joyful to be striving for elite performance again, albeit at — and on — a different stage.
“After Leadville, I knew there was some talent and I knew I needed to either embrace the talent and run with it or not,” she said. “So, after Leadville, I decided to go for it.”
In other words, 17 years after pulling out of professional endurance sport, she jumped back in with both feet. Then, true to the parallel turns taken in long-distance races and the race of life, Harrison hadn’t hardly lifted the pen from her first contract’s dotted line when the running gods sidelined her with every athletes’ worst nightmare: injury.
In the morning, if Genevieve isn’t around, Jon often hears one of the kids inquire, “Mama’s running on the mountain?” In the day-to-day training grind, the couples’ kids enjoy racing their mom from the pleasant views of the bike trailer.
“We both are able to find some sincere selflessness in encouraging one another to pursue our mountain objectives,” Jon stated regarding his and Genevieve’s system for success. “I think that symbiosis makes us a heck of a team.”
Admittedly, some of the sacrifices aren’t so bad.
“Fortunately, mountain-ultra running tends to take place in beautiful venues,” he continued. “Visiting new places for training runs and competitions is a blast for our family; new playgrounds to explore, families with kids to play with, campgrounds to explore. The two and four year olds are at their best when they’re outside all day, playing in the dirt and, sleeping in a tent. Honestly, I’m at my best as a parent in the same situations.”
“I have a really supportive family and I’m really grateful for that,” Genevieve replied when asked how it is even possible to juggle 70-80-mile weeks with being a wife and mother of a four and two-year-old. “My kids are young, so I can kind of bring them with me wherever I go and I can stroller run with them all the time.”
The family backbone enabled her to place last winter’s stress fracture — and the 10 weeks off from running which ensued — in its proper perspective.
“Number one, I’m just so lucky to be given this opportunity to do something I love for my work. Stress fractures and injuries are part of the sport,” she said.
“I just tried to take the knowledge that I had – yes, I did something to my leg and I need to fix it – and learn how to overcome and get stronger and be more durable as time goes on. I really tried to keep that mentality during the winter.”
She skied some and focused on core strength and injury prevention even more. In the end, the injury’s mental valley provided a very specific training ground beneficial for 100-mile racing.
“Knowing that so much of the battle in ultra is mental; (it) was just a practice in mental strength and not getting too caught up in the noise of it all,” she said. “Tuning out the noise” is a theme her and her coach, legendary Olympic trials steeplechaser-turned-ultra runner Addie Bracy, lean into often.
“Something that we have noticed with Genevieve’s approach to racing and competing is the more she focuses on herself and just the kind of experience she wants to have on race day and the less we focus on external pressure or the competition, the better the races go,” Bracy said. A calm demeanor isn’t Genevieve’s only talent, though.
“She has many strengths but Genevieve has an insane ability to just grind,” Bracy continued. “It seems like the harder the circumstances, the more she is just able to focus in.”
Once able to run, she slowly rebuilt her weekly volume through winter and spring. In March, she placed fourth in the Marin Ultra 50k, a distance admittedly laced with a love-hate relationship. “Those are just brutal marathons,” Harrison laughed. A month later, she placed second overall at the Zion Ultra Marathon 100-miler.
“That gave me a lot of confidence, knowing I have the base-work to do these ultra runs with or without a lot of training involved,” she said, quickly revealing that subtle — but hard to supress — competitive spirit in her next sentence:
“That being said, I could do really well with training involved.”
From there, she raced a shorter Cirque Series race in Brighton and the Speedgoat 50k, a race won by her coach, Bracy. Despite those confidence-building results, the lead-up to UTMB Puerto Vallarta was marred somewhat by a DNF at the Run Rabbit 100 in mid-September, where a slightly under the weather Harrison pulled out at mile 30.
“Those are really good lessons to learn,” she said, gleaning what she could from the tune-up setback. “Not finishing is really hard, but I think when you become a more mature runner, you learn when you can and can’t push.”
For her coach, there was a layer of excitement hidden underneath Harrison’s full expression of fitness postponement.
“We knew she had a lot of really solid training in her that hadn’t been tapped into yet,” Bracy said.
Harrison went to Mexico with two goals for the Puerto Vallarta event: get a ticket to UTMB Mont Blanc (which required a top-3 finish) and “finish with a smile.”
“Coming off the DNF, I was just trying to remember what I loved about running,” she said.
Puerto Vallarta victory
UTMB Puerto Vallarta’s virgin “Wixárika” 100-mile course, which appeared “fairly simple” on paper, turned out to be just the opposite.
“It was one of the hardest courses I’ve ever experienced in my life. The terrain was just a beast,” she said of the 115-mile inland-to-coast route containing 22,000 feet of vertical. “You could not move fast on this terrain. The jungle does not let up.”
With Jon on ‘kid-duty’ Genevieve’s was crew-less, an extremely atypical approach to the 100-mile distance. She had one ‘drop bag’ with extra clothes, shoes and food at mile 52, a resupply which would have to get her through the next 64 miles.
“I think I was even more nervous about that than she was,” Bracy said, referring to a pre-race chat she had with her athlete.
“Not to mention all the challenges that come with a first year race and one that goes through the whole night. She was just approaching every challenge as “part of it” and I walked away from that call knowing for certain that she was going to have a good day out there.”
Harrison had company for much of the race, running alongside three male competitors for over 90 miles.
“That’s just unheard of,” she said of her Columbian, Italian and Coloradan comrades. “It was pretty special to share the experience with them.” As the conversations hovered between kids, jobs and the “absolutely crazy” trail they were on, American Cat Bradley snuck up and challenged Harrison around mile 80. The 2017 Western States champion presented the Eagle runner with yet another mental juncture.
“When she caught up to me it was like, either I let this affect my mind or I put the pedal to the metal and run well for the next 30 miles and have a chance at winning,” Harrison said. “I was able to tell myself that it’s ok to hurt, I just need to keep going and try my best ….but that was definitely a hard moment.”
Harrison crossed first. Forty-five minutes later, John Novak, 57, also of Eagle, finished (36:11). Bradley wound up second (36:45) for the women and another American, Kertu Palo, was third (40:39).
“I can’t wait to feel what it’s like to toe the line in Chamonix at UTMB Mont Blanc next August,” Harrison posted on social media. “I’m so pleased to have earned a spot.”
“It’s really easy to say that going in, and at mile 70 you start to feel differently.”
When confronted with the hypothetical — “If someone told you back then, when she first tried a 100-mile race, that Genevieve would eventually place second at Leadville 100 and win a UTMB qualifier, would you have believed them?” — Jon provided the only answer a husband should ever give to such a question.
“I definitely would’ve believed them,” he stated, basing his retroactive prognostications not solely on his wife’s elite aerobic engine, but her testimony of hard work and “capacity to overcome challenges in all aspects of life.” Both have led him to believe “she can do anything.”
“I’ve never met a woman like her,” he said.
“It seems like the harder the circumstances, the more she is just able to focus in. You can look at recaps and reflections from many of the athletes that just did this (UTMB Puerto Vallarta) 100-miler and many have suggested it was one of the hardest courses and conditions that they have ever confronted,” added Bracy.
“In talking to Genevieve, it just didn’t seem like that stuff bothered her and she kept charging without being phased much. Any athlete that can stay “in it” like she just did for over 30 hours is as tough as they come.”
Bracy plans to have her pupil spend time on more technical terrain to mimic the Mont Blanc course. Harrison plans to prioritize vert accumulation all winter and summer. Both know, however, that the physical training is basically a means to hone the mental game, often the crux of the sport’s competition.
“A lot of it will be more of the same, too, in terms of just continuing to get really good at managing herself and all of the factors that are constantly present but changing and shifting,” said Bracy. “She already proved she could do that at this last race and in a race like UTMB, that’s going to be the key. … UTMB inherently comes with a lot of noise and potential distractions and that’s something we will prepare really well for before she arrives in Chamonix.”
Bracy and Harrison aren’t pinpointing specific outcome goals at this point.
“I want to go in with a smart attitude,” Harrison said. “I think that there is a place and a time to have a goal that is an actual place or time, but I think for my first UTMB, it’s just to do the best I can do personally. To not compare my race to anybody else’s, but just to be out there and try to get to that finish line and get there as fast as I can.”
Bracy said a big emphasis of the buildup will also be “continuing to build (Harrison’s) confidence in her ability to compete with the best in the sport while also tuning out the noise and zeroing in on what she does best, which is grinding through the ‘hard.’”
It’s a comment that appropriately pivots one’s thoughts back to the metaphorical ultra Harrison’s life seems to embody, an idea extending even to the very process which gave her the most important people in her life.
“Honestly, being a parent and having gone through two pregnancies and raising two kids, I feel like that has prepared me in so many ways to become an ultra runner, because, being pregnant in and of itself is a huge ultra race,” she laughed. “I just feel like in comparison, these things are — not easy — but in comparison, they’re easy.”
One almost can sense a sentiment of universal application in her words. Along every persons’ struggling uphills and smooth descents, the unknown and unexpected manifests itself as glittering triumphs and devastating travails. Who hasn’t at some point sat at their own ‘mile-77 aid station,’ crippled by climate, exhaustion, inadequate clothing and a bloody knee, all of which plead, “quit, now.”
In a more literal sense, Harrison’s change of scenery, from running circles in the cutthroat collegiate track circuit to exploring mountains in the welcoming trail community, resulted in her reframing and reigniting — rather than abandoning — her competitive nature.
“Ultimately, I don’t think it’s UTMB or nothing,” she said. “I think it’s just following what inspires you and continuing to open up doors and follow the heart.”
Even though she now feels free to walk away at any moment — “these things are all important to me, but they’re not the most important things in the world,” she said, briefly interrupting her race report discuss seeing Jon and her kids cheering her at the finish — her competitive capital has never been more valuable.
Pondering next year’s UTMB Mont Blanc event, Bracy fittingly concluded, “One thing I know for sure is that she is as tough as they come.”
“…and I would never ever count her out.”
This story is from VailDaily.com.
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