I would like to preface this article by saying that this weekend was my birthday weekend. (shameless plug) I turned 23 on Friday, June 24th, the official start of the Death Race I’m not sure what that means, but I’ll just go with it. I received, for my special day, a special gift: a crush. You read correctly, Spartans. I have a crush. In the way that actors form actor crushes on talent (not actually the people who possess that talent), athletes form athlete crushes (I have this on good authority—Carrie Adams. Carrie, if I’m wrong, please omit this paragraph lest I sound ass-like). I am, in fact, an actress so I can pretend to have an athlete crush on her and hopefully it’ll be convincing. Tony-award winning perhaps… but really it’s just a crush-crush. Her name is Keira Henninger, and I hope to God that she understands my sense of humor.
I had the opportunity to speak with her this past weekend, while the Death Race was destroying knees. See what I did there? Synecdoche. The knees represent the whole person, or racer, if you will. Moving on. I am incredibly impressed by people who make it a point to push themselves, to do what most consider super human. So in the spirit of the Death Race, I interviewed Keira. She may not have run it, but this remarkable woman, athlete and mother still inspires those of us (me) who think they could only dream of accomplishing what she has in her fantastic life.
Keira runs ultras, but she doesn’t just run them, she destroys them. What’s more inspiring than what she accomplishes regularly is how she got to that point. Keira grew up with nature all around her. She played on trails outside, and ran track in junior high and high school. When she was 19, life threw her a curveball: she gave birth to a son, Tyler. To get rid of “the baby weight,” she started jogging. Jogging turned into marathons.
Keira recounted her first marathon in 2005 with equal parts pride and dread, “I ran a marathon, and it was my first marathon, and it took me 5 hours. It was so hard: one of the hardest things I’ve done to this day. And I remember when I finished. Two hours after I finished, I thought to myself, ‘Wow I can’t believe what I just did.’ I was blown away.”
Marathons then turned into ultras when Keira met ultra runner Michelle Barton (you may remember her from Carrie Adam’s post on June 14th “The Gold Standard Series: Ultra Chicked”). Michelle told her, “You should run trails, and you should run ultras!” The idea of running trails brought back the favorable parts of Keira’s rough childhood, and she was sold. She eased herself in by volunteering at races and familiarizing herself with the scene. She then dove in like the super-woman that we at Spartan Races know her to be. She wanted to compete, and by compete, I mean destroy her competitors, who happen to be predominantly men.
“Ultra is definitely male-dominated. It’s the only sport where [women] toe the line with the men, and [in which women] are in the results pools with the men.” This lack of differentiation consistently pushes Keira to perform better and to prove to herself and other women that there’s no reason to have separate standards.
She shared, “You’re running fifty miles on tough, technical trails, competing with men—men who get so much recognition in our sport. Michelle and I have this saying, ‘Ultra Running is for girls.’” That is a powerful saying, especially to me who finds ten miles to be doable, but wildly intimidating. When I asked her how she competes in this sport that favors men, she replied with a reassured coolness that I found inspiring, that “[she] runs with three of the fastest men in [her] sport in order to push [herself].” Though she admits that her training sessions with these beasts are “out of [her] comfort zone,” she explains that “you have to train with men; they don’t wait for you; there’s no mercy. It’s a whole different ball game.” This is the essence of Spartan Chicked, to train, to compete with and to beat men, while at the same time fostering the camaraderie that exists among athletes. Keira added, much to my delight, that “there are very few women that can do what [she] can do, and [she’s] proud of that.” I would be too.
I’m sure you understand my crush now. I want to be one of those women, and I want to inspire other women to find the courage in themselves to find their limits and recognize that they are much more impressive than “suffering through” a ten mile run after work. What Keira finds even more exhilarating than her accomplishments is when her son shows his pride in her.
“My son and I are very close,” she shares, and “he’s a phenomenal athlete. He’s my life.” While she runs with the men, she often ends up the hostess to her son’s friends. She shares with me through a refreshingly girlish grin, “My son says, ‘My mom not only runs, but she kicks the candy crap out of the most of the men she races.’ He says funny stuff like that.” What drives her is not only the competition but also that younger athlete that she hikes with and whom she adores. She does admit, however, that as soon as she “hits the trail [she’s] got to keep it moving.” Her son constantly reminds her that “not everything’s a competition. [There’s no] need to hike so fast.” While she races through the trails to train and on race day, her son helps her appreciate the slower days during which time she can appreciate the nature and the time with her family.
Keira’s ultra running career is not her only contribution to the sport. She’s also currently “a race director [who puts] on over 7 races, and [organizes] the biggest national ultra.” Ultra running in every capacity is her destiny, she claims. It has “changed her whole life, path, and direction.” And from my standpoint, she has become yet another incredible success story for which we aspiring athletes should all be grateful. When I asked her what advice she would have for women who want to become an athlete or resurrect an old athletic career, she graciously said, “Women are such strong people. [We deal with] all we deal with [in life], and still sell ourselves short. [Just consider your] hardships and [think,] ‘If I survived that, I can get through this. Nothing can be harder.’” She suggested that we use that attitude when we approach training and racing. “It’s a really hard job to be a woman,” she continues. “Think of what you do everyday,” and think of how much harder that is in comparison to getting on a trail and going for a run. She has an undeniable point. Though, I live in Brooklyn, NY, so I don’t have trails. I have streets that I get lost on and run faster through because I’m scared out of my mind…
Keira’s journey to becoming an ultra running champion and her contribution to the sport are awe-inspiring. The best birthday present I received that weekend was the understanding that normal women are anything but normal; our potential is almost limitless. Keira wasn’t some athletic prodigy-child. She was a normal girl who developed into one of the toughest women I’ve ever had the pleasure of speaking with. She recognizes her potential and pushes herself even beyond that.
After reading her story and advice, I would like to see women imagine what it would be like to chick muscly dudes, and then get off the couch and train for it. There’s no reason to underestimate ourselves; Keira has shown us that. After all, if we can have babies, we can run fifty miles, right? Do you think a man could give birth without crying about it for years?