You might expect that last year’s XTERRA Oak Mountain 20K champ, Jennifer McGranahan, is feeling the pressure to repeat her performance this year. Perhaps she’s been tailoring her training plan to peak on May 19th in Pelham, closely following a coach’s advice, or paying strict attention to her diet.
Nothing could be further from the truth. Half the time, McGranahan doesn’t even wear a watch when she hits the trails.
“I run to have an experience, “ said McGranahan, 39, who runs almost exclusively on the trails at the University of West Florida, where she teaches exercise physiology. “When I get out on the trails, I find my rhythm. I feel at home. I think it’s just our natural way of being, of wanting to be explorers.”
McGranahan also loves the challenge of the trails, whether it’s the promise of adventure or another hill to charge up.
“The trails force you to live in the moment – you are just right there, and you can’t daydream. You’re watching the roots and the branches and the rocks. Yesterday on my run, all of a sudden I was like, is that a king snake or a coral snake? Then I told myself I wasn’t going to wait around to figure it out. You have to be quick out there.”
Hitting the dirt also provides this busy, single mom with a chance to recharge and be her best self for her five-year old daughter, Isabel, whom she credits for keeping her balanced.
“No matter what level I’m at in my fitness, I have the tendency to want to go into overdrive, but my daughter keeps me level headed and having fun.”
As a teenager, McGranahan was rewarded for going into overdrive. A standout runner at Pensacola High School, she attended the University of Florida on a cross-country and indoor and outdoor track scholarship. While there, she was an All-SEC and All-Regional cross-country runner. Running always brought McGranahan joy, but in college, it also brought the pressure of living up to her reputation and holding onto her scholarship in a competitive Division I program.
“I used to feel that I was always under the clock. I had a coach who was telling me what to do and the workout was what I had to do. I did everything to a T and went overboard. I lost sight of the fact that running was sport and it was supposed to be fun. I had to learn that lesson the hard way.”
The lesson was a painful one and McGranahan admits that she is still humbled by it. It began her junior year when she became injured and had to stop running.
“I remember thinking I would never have a problem, but I got injured and then developed a very bad eating disorder. I struggled with it and didn’t tell anyone.”
Her injury started a vicious cycle of trying to regain fitness after getting healthy, doing too much too soon, and getting injured again. As a result, her performance suffered, and she was no longer the standout runner she was used to being. After graduation, McGranahan moved to Colorado Springs for a fresh start.
“I thought I was going to Colorado Springs to get away, but my eating disorder came with me. I felt like a prisoner in my body. I said to my twin sister, if I could get over this thing, I feel like I could do anything in my life. I could do anything. Because that’s how much I felt that I was in a prison.”
Slowly, McGranahan learned to let go of the grip she was holding on life and dropped her rigid expectations of herself. She kept hiking and running on the trails in Colorado and began to trust in herself and her own experiences.
“I don’t know how to say it, how I got through it. But I’ve overcome it. I’ve learned to listen to my body and respect it. And that’s why I keep heading out on the trails. I think that’s why I have so much joy for running now, because I’ve been to the depths. It’s not about getting faster now, it’s about continuing the joy.”
The final step in the process for McGranahan was passing on her hard-earned wisdom through coaching. As an assistant coach at Virginia Tech, McGranahan kept her ear to the ground, and was quick to notice an athlete who might be falling through the cracks.
“I looked for the kids who were struggling,” she remembers. “I felt that was my call to duty. I took injured runners under my wing because sometimes when there’s that break with the team, it can be isolating for kids. When you’re alone and hurt it’s hard to see the light at the end of the tunnel. I reminded them that they weren’t broken, that you’re always going to be learning lessons in life and it’s not always the accolades that teach you.”
McGranahan used a combination of her own experience and her expertise in exercise physiology to problem solve with her athletes, whether it was to develop a training plan, find effective cross-training while they were injured, or sharing comeback stories of other athletes. She admits that she loved the mental aspect of being a good coach and the psychology of success.
“To be a good coach you have to get outside of yourself. You have to begin to wonder what builds a champion. What makes someone tick?”
For a long time, McGranahan was busy with teaching, coaching, and her young daughter. She wasn’t racing and just hit the dirt with her sisters for fun and as a way to clear her head.
But this January, she joined a group of trail runners who triggered her competitive spirit.
“There were two runners there and they were pushing the pace,” said McGranahan. “They ran me into the ground, but it got the ball rolling. I felt kind of quick and was so engaged out there on the trails. I realized I wanted to run a race again, especially on the trails.”
Knowing a little something about comebacks, McGranahan signed up for XTERRA Oak Mountain again this year.
“That’s why I love XTERRA,” she said with a laugh. “They find the athlete in everyone.”
Rather than be worried about her performance or whether she can meet the expectations and win a second time in a row, McGranahan is focused more on the process. She wants to maintain a quick turnover on the rooty course, use the smooth trails to her advantage, and stay relaxed on the first lap. But even more than her race strategy, she’s focused on the experience that running and racing on the trails gives her, which is both joy and gratitude.
“We’ve all been on the earth long enough to have ups and downs and I think trail running is a metaphor for life. Life has its twists and turns. I know it’s a cliché to say that kind of thing, but the trails teach you to get back up, to keep moving forward, and to be resilient. And the next thing you know, you are strong. You get pretty darn strong.”