Last year at the XTERRA Trail Run National Championship, Penelope Freedman finished fourth. She ran the tough course at the Snowbasin Resort in Utah at a 7:50 pace, which is no joke when you are 7300 feet up in the mountains.
This year, she is coming back, not just to run, but to see what she is capable of. Since last year, Freedman has changed a lot about her training. Last year, she focused on speed and intensity, and this year, she is focusing on running longer and higher up. Currently, her mileage is close to 80 miles a week and she’s doing much of it at high altitude.
Freedman has also been working on mental toughness, which is both the sturdy backbone and the fragile keystone of endurance sports. What’s most impressive is that she has accomplished both of these tough tasks because of obstacles, not in spite of them.
This winter, Freedman, a former competitive snowboarder, suffered a pretty severe concussion while on her board. “I had a great winter snowboarding,” said Freedman, “But towards the end of the season, I got a really severe concussion and had 10 stitches on the side of my head. I was in bad shape.”
As a former elite snowboarder, Freedman has had concussions before and was familiar with the uncomfortable aftermath, which often means a few months of fatigue, lethargy, and depression. “It’s all part of the game,” said the optimistic Freedman. “And I’m feeling way better now. I’ve gotten really strong.”
Part of this strength was a dedication to mental fortitude. “Both snowboarding and trail running are about overcoming fear,” said Freedman. “Sometimes those fears are about injuries and sometimes those fears are about not believing in yourself or about not believing you can push yourself hard enough, or maybe the fear that you aren’t as good as everyone else. Sometimes it’s the fear of the unknown, of wondering if you have the fortitude to push forward when things don’t seem to be going well.”
All trail runs have unknowns, but the XTERRA Trail Run National Championship has more than most. First of all, there is the fact that you never know who will be at the start line of a national championship race. Second, there is the altitude - when it’s tough to breathe, it’s easy to panic and want to quit. Finally, there is the course itself with its two and a half mile climb up Sardine Peak and the subsequent downhill. Both are during the last half of the race, and while the downhill sounds nice in theory, running downhill on tired legs makes it easy to fall.
Like most of what she does, Penelope is approaching the race on Sunday with a simple and no-nonsense approach.
“I’m trying to have faith in the work I already put in,” she said. “And I’m starting to realize that I’m actually stronger than I think I am. I worked on that a lot. This summer I’ve been pushing myself and not stopping at the point that I think is enough. I’ve been doing a lot of back to back racing and then doing a really hard 20 mile run in the mountains, trying to overcome that thing in my head that says, ‘Oh, I just raced yesterday and I’m tired,’ or ‘I have done so much, I should rest.’ Pushing past those mental barriers is something I’m really trying to work on for myself.”
Freedman has also been challenging herself physically with races near her home in Steamboat Springs. In one race, she climbed to the top of Hahn’s Peak.
“In that race, you climb 3000 feet in three miles. I fell coming down and at the finish, I was really bloody with gravel and stone in my knees. That race was really fun,” said Freedman with complete sincerity.
There is no doubt that Freedman is both mentally and physically strong and ready for the challenge of the XTERRA Trail Run National Championship. The race will take place Sunday, September 16th at Snowbasin Resort in Utah.
“The XTERRA Trail Run National Championship has been my focus for a while,” said Freedman. “I hope to do really well.”
Her goals for the race are to stay true to herself by finding her place in the pack and maintaining her own pace.
“I’m not going to compare myself to anyone else out there. I’m not going to get caught up if others are going out too fast or too slow. I’m going to do what I feel is right at a pace I can sustain while feeling strong.”
As Freedman has learned, if you can go into a race with this attitude, then you’ve already won.