Penelope Freedman is most comfortable at high altitudes. Born in South Africa, she spent her teenage years in New Zealand as a competitive snowboarder.
“As a child, I was always hiking and camping,” says Freedman. “I’ve always had this huge passion for being outdoors and for moving. I think you just develop this kind of appreciation for the mountains as well as the humble awareness of how small you are in this world.”
Snowboarding was Freedman’s first love until an MCL injury derailed her. She began running as a way to get back in shape.
“I didn’t really want to do any road running because I love being in the mountains,” she says. “So I started trail running and fell in love with it. It was another way for me to compete in a mountain sport.”
Fast forward five years, and now Freedman is one of the best trail and mountain runners in the country. She still snowboards, but these days, it’s just for fun.
Under her coach Darren De Reuck – husband of famous Olympic runner Colleen De Reuck – Penelope has had no trouble ramping up from competitive snowboarding to elite running. In 2015, Freedman was third at the XTERRA Trail Run World Championships behind Kimber Mattox and Polina Carlson. In 2016, she was fourth at the XTERRA Trail Run National Championship in Utah, and this year, she hopes to improve her performance at both events.
So far, 2017 has been a great year for Freedman and she is injury free. She was seventh at the Barr Mountain Trail Race on Pikes Peak, first at the Mountain Madness Half Marathon, second at Hahn's Peak Hill Climb, first at Spring Creek Trail Run, first at the Aspen Backcountry Half, and first at the Continental Divide Trail Run.
It isn’t rare for Freedman to run 18 miles on the trails or climb 3000 feet on an eight-mile run. De Reuck has her do three or four long runs a week at 7:30 or 7:45 pace on the trails. She also does two speed workouts a week, cross trains, works with a strength coach, and does a lot of hiking and backpacking. But for Freedman, these miles aren’t just workouts – they are a way to connect with something more meaningful.
“Running is a way for me to clear my mind,” says Freedman. “And that helps me become a better person. When you spend a lot of time with yourself, you think not just of yourself but of other people too. Then you can begin to build a relationship to the world and how you relate to everyone else in the world. I think a lot of us don't ever take the time to just slow down and spend time with ourselves, you know?”
Even though Freedman thinks of running as her time to “slow down,” she is anything but slow. She admits that part of the solace she experiences from running comes from pushing herself to the physical brink of what she can handle.
In addition to her running and strength workouts, Freedman has a raw, vegan, specialty food and catering company called Kenchuto Bliss. She also coaches local Steamboat Springs triathletes and bartends on weekends, which can make it difficult to wake up the next day for early morning workouts.
“That’s the hardest,” says Freedman. “When I’m on my feet all night and then I have to get up when I’m still really tired and worn out.”
But Freedman retained the toughness she honed as a competitive snowboarder, and which she needs to endure the pain and fear all elite athletes face.
“The hardest thing for me are the track workouts,” says Freedman. “You get on the track and the coach has this extremely lengthy workout and you are doing it by yourself. So it’s up to you to hit the times for the intervals and give yourself the exact, to-the-second recovery between. For me, that’s honestly even harder than the racing.”
For Freedman, racing is pure fun.
“Yes, I’m pushing myself hard in a race, but that’s the easy part. Getting there is the difficult part. You have to have the mental strength and toughness to believe you can do anything and block out the voices in your head that say you are too tired or you can’t.”
This fall, Freedman will compete in the XTERRA Trail Run National Championship as well as the XTERRA Trail Run World Championship in December. Next year, she hopes to make the US Mountain Running Team.
“I want to see how I do in some of the bigger races this year. I would love to go to the Olympic Marathon Trials, but that would require taking my training to a whole new level. And I wouldn’t be able to do as much stuff in the mountains, and I’m not sure I want to give that up. So much of what I love about running is the beauty of being in the mountains.”