Pain, joy and connection: Grit on the trails with Andy Cochrane

I was grumpy. Thankfully, so was Magda. Suffering is always better with company. Forty-some miles into our dawn-to-dusk jaunt from South Lake Tahoe to Truckee, I was out of water, nearly out of Cheetos, and staring uphill at another 2,000 foot climb. 

To be clear, I love running. I especially love running up hills. But at that moment, everything sucked.

With nothing to do but commiserate about our leg pain and remaining snacks, I asked Magda “why do you run so much?” As an elite ultra racer, she’s spent the last twenty years on podiums around the world. Which also means she’s also spent the last twenty years skipping boozy brunches for Saturday long runs, not snoozing her alarm for tempo workouts, and lacing up her shoes twice a day to stay in ridiculously good shape. 

So, naturally, I wanted her secrets. With twenty miles to go, I had the time to find out. 

“That’s a loaded question, but first and foremost I love training.” If anyone else had said this to me I would have called bullshit, but I knew it was true. Even on long runs she rarely stops smiling. 

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“Maybe the biggest thing is that I use running as an example to my son Owen. He sees me train every day, he sees the passion I pour into it and the sacrifices I make, and he sees how sometimes it all pays off. He sees me enjoy the process. He sees me push through low points. He sees me fail and get up to try over and over again. And now Owen is discovering running for himself.”

Slogging up that hill, I started to wonder what motivated others. Magda’s answer was perfect for her, but probably not fit for everyone. Sometimes questions like this fade as quickly as the endorphin highs that spawn them, but this one was different. So I spent the last month running over 300 miles of trails, asking my closest companions why they love to run.

“What a tricky question. I often ask myself this and even though I’ve spent countless hours putting one foot in front of the other I still don’t have a concrete answer,” said Rebecca, next in line for questioning.

“Every day I run it looks a little different. Sometimes I run to feel connected with others, sometimes I run to have time with my own thoughts. Sometimes I run to feel fast, but more recently I run to just move through space at whatever pace my body allows. Running has given me a multitude of things: strength, speed, confidence, friends, lots of rolled ankles, and knowledge of every chafing spot you can imagine. But, most importantly, running has given me the opportunity to grow into this person I didn’t know was inside me, thanks to the help of the people I have shared happy, and sometimes grumpy, miles with.”

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Her response resonated with me. Every once in a while running gives me an answer that I probably wouldn’t find otherwise. I stewed on the question during a week of solo runs, then woke up early on Saturday for another full day in the mountains with friends. I followed Sam up our first big climb, both of us wrangling as much oxygen as we could out of the thin air. Cresting over the top, I stopped to take a pull of water and then put him on the spot, asking him why he said yes to this adventure.

Still out of breath, Sam was brief “I used to combat mood disorders. Running has given me the tools to bring myself from the darkness. It’s a natural medicine. There is nothing like the feeling of flying through the mountains. It was an easy yes.” Close behind us I heard Reed reach the summit and without pause turned to ask him the same thing.

“I wasn’t cut out for football as a middle schooler, so I joined the cross country team. It was an arbitrary move, but it became a part of my DNA. When I was younger it was about trying to be as fast as possible, always thinking about splits and personal records. After high school I felt burned out and gave up running for a number of years, but not long into true adulthood I rediscovered it as a way to cope with everyday stresses and anxieties. Over time running began to feel like less of a chore and more of a form of sustained meditation and clarity, something to look forward to. Now it’s a way to connect with friends and community, to spend long days exploring, to get to that odd convergence of joy and transcendent pain, and a way to burn an absolute ton of calories and make up for it in beer and pizza.”

I spent the rest of our run–nearly twenty five miles–thinking about the odd overlap between joy and pain, and of course what kind of pizza I would order when we finished. We wandered up and down valleys, took breaks to jump in alpine lakes, and eventually found our way back to the trailhead by mid-afternoon. The pizza that followed was delicious, but somehow, I remember being less happy in the restaurant than I was three hours earlier, begging my legs for a few more miles. 

A week later, still on my hunt for answers, I ran the Teton Crest Trail with friends and used it as a platform to get real. “I guess it started in elementary school. I heard they gave out popsicles at the end of practice so I signed up,” joked Sam, in her typical unfiltered manner. 

“I love that there is no ceiling, no known limits. All you need is a pair of shoes and the drive for a good challenge. I used to be incredibly shy and timid and running helped me change that. Whether in a competition, a hard workout, or a long suffer fest in the mountains like this, there’s nothing better than getting through it and feeling like you truly accomplished something. Plus, numb legs, salt covered skin, and a full heart. That’s how the best friendships are formed.”

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Alli laughed, then agreed with Sam “Running has shown me that I am capable of digging deeper than I ever thought possible, that I am capable of giving more than I think I have. Running has taught be to believe that anything is possible. There’s almost childlike wonder in this ability to be fiercely optimistic. I wouldn’t call it “fun” exactly, but sharing big days running in the mountains with friends certainly forges bonds that are some blend of suffering and joy.”

The consensus continued to build as Dani chimed in “I also run to connect. I run to connect with myself. As an extreme extrovert I often find the only time I enjoy being alone is when I’m running. It is a time for me to reflect and untangle the web of thoughts and feelings in my mind. But I also run to connect with others. Sharing a long day on the trail is a rewarding experience. Between the conversations and long stretches of silence, I’ve found some of my most profound connections while running.”

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Stephanie’s answer–completely uninformed about the response Dani gave second earlier–was eerily similar. “Simply put, I run for connection. Running connects me to the things that enable me to live fully. I run because getting outside, moving my body, chatting with friends, and letting my mind wonder is what connects me to myself: nature, the great spirit, my humans, and my living, breathing, functioning body.”

After a pause, she continued “I have learned a lot about where my mind can go while running. I have peeled off a trail to sit and cry. I have found that discipline and commitment to running has made me a better teacher, wife, friend, sister, daughter. I know how to stay calm in the face of challenge. I also know that I am freaking capable of anything. Running connects me to my being and I am stronger for it.”

Running is a little different for everyone, but almost always simple. It comes with the freedom to move, look, listen, and breathe without the complexities of the rest of our lives. That space allows us to find and connect with things we might not otherwise.

Shop HOKA trail running shoes here.

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Respecting the race: How 5 time finisher Kaci Lickteig approaches Western States

HOKA ONE ONE Athlete Kaci Lickteig is no stranger to The Western States ® 100-Mile Endurance Run. Having run the race every year since 2014 and won it in 2016, she now returns for her sixth race from Squaw Valley to Auburn. The course is everything she enjoys about trail running and the 2016 Western States Champion hasn’t lost any love for the race.

After a 10th place finish at UTMB last fall and a win at the 2019 Black Canyon 100K, she is looking forward to another opportunity to challenge herself. We sat down with Kaci to discover what drives her to compete year after year.

Photo credit: Chris Perlberg
Photo credit: Chris Perlberg

HOKA: What do you love about Western States?

Lickteig: That’s hard to answer because I love everything about it. I love the people whom I’ve come to know since my first experience in 2014. I love the community and atmosphere surrounding the race throughout the week leading up to the race. Everyone walking around seems so starry-eyed, excited, and grateful to be there. Seeing the veterans, the first-time runners, and all the legends that have made Western States what it is today. When you set foot on the Auburn track and hear your name being announced over the loudspeaker, that is the best feeling in the world, regardless of your placing. That is why I keep coming back.

HOKA: Your consistency in training volume and comeback after races on Strava is impressive; how do you do it?

Lickteig: The key is consistency. I’ve been running for about 16 years and the key to my health is being consistent and listening to my body. I know to keep 80% of my runs very easy and 20% at a higher effort, depending on my training cycle. I’ve also learned to take recovery days when needed and I never push myself out the door if I know I will not enjoy the run at all or if it risks injury. And I just love running! It is part of my life and I joke about being married to it!

HOKA: What motivates you the most to run through the harsh winter months?

Lickteig: I can’t see myself not running. It really is something I look forward to doing and when I miss a few days I feel like part of me is missing. I enjoy, as silly as that sounds, embracing the elements and getting out the door. I need fresh air, to feel my body move, and to get the rush of endorphins running through my body.

HOKA: What gives you confidence before big races?

Lickteig: What gives me confidence is feeling both physically and mentally fit. When my body feels strong and has no lingering niggles and I know I put in all the work possible I feel mentally ready to take on the race. I want to be at the start line knowing I did everything right in training to make me capable of being my best.

HOKA: 100 miles is a long way, what do you focus on while you’re out on the course?

Lickteig: What I focus on during a 100 miles is not focusing on 100 miles. I break the race up into aid station to aid station – that way, it doesn’t seem so overwhelming. I look forward to when I get to see my crew, the next section of trail that I will run, and then when I get to pick up my pacer. I like to focus on the scenery and embrace the moment that I am in. It makes the time fly by and soon enough the finish will be there.

HOKA: What lessons did you learn from your previous adventures at Western?

Lickteig: I’ve learned to respect the race, the distance, and the terrain. The quad punishment from the downhills made me suffer during my first experience. The next year I was more patient and had a better day. Then everything seemed to click in 2016 and I was able to have the best day ever. In 2017 I had too much emotion going into the race with my grandma fighting cancer, and when you have those kinds of feelings going into a big race it can lead to a massive blow up. Then in 2018, I had only 3-4 months worth of training for the race due to breaking my pelvis in October of 2017. So each year has given me a different experience and they have changed my life for the better.

HOKA: How will that knowledge affect the way you approach this year?

Lickteig: I will approach this year with the same respect and patience as I did in the past. I know how the course flows and what I need to do to make sure I run my own race. I am really looking forward to this year and what kind of day and story I will have from it.

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HOKA: You seem to have Western States dialed. What advice would you have for someone trying to complete their first Western States Endurance Run?

Lickteig: I would recommend staying patient early in the high country and not overloading your quads and legs too early. You want to be able to come into Foresthill able to run. Then once you get across the river and up to Green Gate you will want to keep moving forward because that section can feel very long if you have to walk. There are only a few big climbs left so this is where you can make up the time you saved back in the high country.

Once you hit No Hands Bridge, give it one last push up to Robie Point and know there is still a good climb up to the final mile sign…then it’s relatively all downhill from there! Follow those red footprints closely and make sure you don’t make a wrong turn as you head towards the Auburn Track, where your friends, fans, and buckle are waiting for your arrival!

HOKA: What model of HOKA will you be racing in?

Lickteig: My favorite HOKA for the trails is the Torrent. I love the fit and feel of this shoe. The Torrent is lightweight and has adequate traction for the trails. I have used these shoes in snow, mud, dirt, and rocks and they make me feel confident in their ability to grip the trail when I am running.

HOKA: What do you look forward to when it’s all over?

Lickteig: I look forward to sitting down, going back to the hotel for a nice shower and sleeping. Then waking up to go out and cheer on the people coming in at the Golden Hour, the last hour of the race. For me, knowing people are giving it their absolute all to get under 30 hours and seeing how hard they are still pushing is so inspiring to me. I love to help bring them in with encouraging words and if possible to trot beside them as they make their way to the track. That is probably one of my most favorite moments of the race.

After a solid block of training, Kaci is ready to toe the line. Follow the HOKA Instagram Story and Twitter for updates on Kaci’s 100-mile race this Saturday, June 29th.

Want to hit the trails like Kaci? Check out the HOKA Torrent.

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HOKA Athlete Joe Gray’s 5 tips for beginner trail runners

HOKA Athlete Joe Gray is a natural on the trails. Joe was raised in the Pacific Northwest and now splits his time between Colorado Springs, CO and Tacoma, WA to experience varied terrain for his training. In 2016, he won the World Mountain Running Championship and hasn’t slowed down since. He is the first athlete to win the North American, Central American and Caribbean Championships in both Cross Country and Mountain Running.
Although Joe may be one of the strongest trail runners in the world, he has a humble perspective when it comes to just getting started. Here are Joe’s best tips for beginner trail runners:
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1. Enjoy the process. Every day doesn’t need to be a gut-busting effort. It’s important to enjoy the beauty you cross paths with daily.

2. Progress slowly. Don’t jump into terrain far too technical for your level of skills or comfort zone. It’s not worth the risk or injuries that could ensue.

3. Love your playgrounds and take care of them. I always recommend that people volunteer to clean up the trails they use regularly. Keeping your area clean gives you a more defined connection to the trail world and helps develop a greater respect for the outdoors.

4. Don’t be too prideful. When it comes to rough days where you don’t feel great, don’t be hesitant to change up your routine. Sometimes it’s best to change your routine in order to enjoy the process rather than regret a pride-based decision and lose joy within the sport.

5. Be aware of your surroundings and be prepared. It doesn’t hurt to check out weather in the area you plan to run. Make sure to always pack fuel for the run and also make sure you are properly clothed for the climate. If you don’t have the gear necessary, wait until you do and try for a future date.

When it comes to the trails, Joe stays prepared with the HOKA EVO Jawz.
“I love the lightweight feel of the shoe along with the natural flex. The flexibility allows for a smooth ride. When dealing with really lush, soft terrain, it has the perfect traction to help power through!”
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Running for freedom: How Samantha Chan discovered her wings

HOKA Athlete Samantha Chan is an up and coming star in the Chinese trail running scene. A former flight attendant, Samantha remains modest about her accomplishments and the enviable impression she has made after switching from the track to the trails. She dominates 100km races in China and has even placed 13th at UTMB’s TDS, a 145km race through the Alps starting in Chamonix.

Samantha says she loves relaxation time and that running has helped her enjoy more of her favorite indulgent foods like french fries and fried chicken. But, her relatable attitude is a stark contrast to her tenacious approach on race day, where Samantha often pushes her limits to the point of tears.

“Ultra races are very painful,” she says, “Every time I sign up, I ask myself why I do it. Why I’m suffering on a cold mountain in the middle of the night, but I keep signing up.”

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Ultrarunning hurts, but Samantha’s past reveals her reasons for racing.

“I grew up in a housing estate in Hong Kong,” she says, “We had six people living there, and it was only 300 square feet. I slept with my grandma on the sofa in the living room, and I didn’t have much space of my own.”

For Samantha, running was what made her feel free. As a high school track athlete, Samantha discovered open space, the ability to stretch her legs to carry her wherever she desired and the catharsis of a good sweat.

“When I use up all my energy and feel tired, I feel alive. It burns through all of my negative emotions,” she says. After finding that the confines of her cramped home could not limit her, Samantha embraced pushing other boundaries. As a child, Samantha would not let her family’s views keep her from doing what she loved.

“They think that girls should be quiet. That they shouldn’t do any sports. That they should stay home and do the housework. Ever since I started running, my parents yelled at me. But I just ignored them.”

Samantha continued running as she transitioned from school to work. Finally, a co-worker who noticed her commitment to running convinced her to participate in a group trail race called the Trailwalker 100km.

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Samantha rediscovered the thrill of exploration, this time covering new extremes of mileage and mountainous terrain. She was more hooked than ever.

“That’s why I’m so addicted to trail running,” she says,”When I train more and I race more, I can see more of the world by foot. When you get the ability to see the world through your fitness, you are just lucky.”

On top of that, her team won. This was the start of an impressive series of 100km race finishes for Samantha, including winning Kanas 100km in Xinjiang and placing ninth at The North Face 100 Hong Kong.

Since then, Samantha has found support as a female athlete through the trail running community. “They understand you, and you understand them,” she says. Samantha’s community motivates her to keep pushing forward and to inspire those around her to do the same. She empowers others to spread their wings, whether that’s going from 300 square feet of housing to 300km of trail or choosing to defy expectations.

Check out Samantha’s favorite shoe for the trails, the Speedgoat 3 Waterproof.

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Concrete to Cacti: Latoya Shauntay Snell’s first 100K

Almost sixteen months ago, I experienced a tumultuous low in my life.

I had a miscarriage with twins, contemplated quitting running and told a few of my loved ones that this would be my last season. I’d break the news to my once intimate following on Running Fat Chef that I was leaving this sport forever. However, those plans were disrupted by a heckling spectator at the 2017 NYC Marathon.

Although the brief altercation of being fat shamed was terrible, it was a life altering experience that forced me out of my self-defeatist comfort zone. Sharing this terrible experience made me viral overnight to a community who didn’t know I existed. Before I knew it, I became an accidental activist for the body positivity moment and one of the many voices for the back of the pack runners — I never looked back.

Before this series of events, I had read a copy of my ultrarunning buddy’s book where she talked about her first 100K race and proclaimed it was a “party in the desert.” Despite loving her story, I came to my own definition of why people like her did it: insanity. I thought any person who was willing to sign up for a 100K has to be a borderline idiot.

Post NYC, my buddy jokingly pestered me about the 100K she had completed, the Javelina Jundred 100K. It is a race in Fountain Hills, Arizona with a multi-loop course and a generous 29-hour cut off designed to prevent delirious participants from feeling isolated.

This race started to sound desirable, and less than a few months later, I embarked on this crazy adventure. I used a regiment crafted by HOKA Athlete Megan Roche and started training in April.

When I arrived in Arizona, visiting the expo was electrifying. Unlike the road races that I’m used to, the Javelina Jundred expo was intimate but buzzing. I was greeted by five elite athletes, all of who participated in the festivities through running or volunteering on the course.

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When race day arrived, I watched the 100 milers take off. They looked like moving Christmas lights scurrying around McDowell Mountain Regional Park. Before I knew it, I was at that same start line ready to take on 100K.

I’m used to watching people pass me on the course, but being a back-of-the-pack runner has its pressures. To some, if you’re not running fast enough, you are a glorified walker. At 5’3 and with a 240-pound muscular frame, the fact that I identify as a runner is comical to some. People like me are suggested to lose weight, scolded to move faster and accused of eating too much or lacking discipline. None of these factors stop me from running — in fact, they fuel me.

Such statements convinced me to use my first 22-mile loop as an ode to some of the worst things that I had read or heard directed to friends, family members, my social media followers and at times, myself. In so many ways, I thought that anger would push me through.

This perspective changed when I linked up with a fellow back-of-the-pack ultrarunner named Lisa. She showed me a personal note that she wrote to propel her throughout the course, which included a reminder to smile. Although Lisa didn’t know it, our conversations and breaks of silence replaced my angry intentions. Plenty of endurance athletes use these events to confront their personal demons. However, life handed me a smoother alternative option when I met Lisa.

My first loop gave me many first-time experiences. Ten minutes away from Coyote Camp, I saw what appeared to be a dog dart off in the distance. It was actually a coyote. Surprisingly, I wasn’t scared but fascinated. Reaching our first aid station, Lisa and I indulged in a shot of Fireball, a random shot of whiskey and a cup of IPA with HOKA Athlete Tim Tollefson. We saw runners who dressed in costumes prancing through the desert. Pumped with energy, we iced our bodies in preparation for the rapidly growing Arizona heat.

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Lisa and I parted, and the sun whipped my body into submission. The heat was growing more oppressive by the moment. Suddenly, it dawned on me that I had another 39 miles to go. I hit a wall, and my mind danced with the idea of giving up. I thought about the excuses that I could tell my friends and family members, but my heart didn’t feel right about it. When I left Rattlesnake Ranch, my silence became a burden, and I opted to play music from my phone.

Notifications started rushing in on my phone. I had decided to dedicate my second loop to slow runners and tears streamed down my face as I allowed hundreds of messages to fuel me. I shuffled my blistered feet through the sunset until I hit Jackass Junction.

Clearly “the party in the desert” wasn’t a joke; Jackass Junction could be heard from a quarter mile away. The lights were shining and people were dancing inside the tent. I sat down, and two volunteers came to my side offering two cheeseburgers and two cups of coffee.

A mile after leaving Jackass Junction, two hot dogs rushed past me, one of which was HOKA Athlete Tim Tollefson. He asked how I was feeling, and I assured him that I was doing okay. I trekked on through the night.

The stars spoke to me, and the shift in the temperature brought me to a calm. The loop-style course served me well as runners moving in both directions exchanged supportive messages. The ultra community is unique in that way. For the first time, I felt like I truly belonged with other runners.

Slightly after midnight, I finished loop two. My feet were inflamed, and a few suggested that I take a nap before heading back out to the course. I had hoped to finish the course before the 24-hour mark, but at that point, I just wanted to finish and push my body further than I ever had.

After a two-hour break, I received my final lap bracelet and headed back out on the course. My headlamp died. In complete darkness, I used my phone light to navigate through the trails. I told myself to remain calm.

Finally, I was greeted by the sunrise. The heat started to pick up, and I wanted this race to be over. I called my husband for words of encouragement. He reminded me that my last loop was for me — the woman who dropped out of high school because of seven missing gym credits.

As close as I was to the finish line, it still felt so far. After hearing a few conversations, I realized that I was the last 100K participant on the course. I chuckled to myself. “I’m going to be DFL.”

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With 2.75 miles remaining, I felt like I was walking on nails. I had an hour and a half left to make the cutoff, and I refused to be pulled off the course. I dug deep, pushed past the sound of my grunts and speed walked my way through.

I could hear music playing, and I thought it was my imagination playing tricks on me. As I arrived at Javelina Jeadquarters, the banners were still up, and I was amazed at how many people were still there to cheer me in. I was overwhelmed with emotions. Nobody cared that I was a plus-size athlete or that I was the last runner on the course. I was a 100K finisher.

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I love the sense of inclusion I felt in a sport where you don’t typically see bodies like mine. Even though a 100K still makes me nervous, I’m looking forward to a new goal: 100 miles. Perhaps being a “borderline” idiot isn’t such a bad thing after all.

Shop the shoe Latoya conquered her first 100K in, the Speedgoat 2.

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