When Kara Goucher (formerly Kara Ggas-Wheeler), lined up for the 2000 NCAA cross country championships in Ames, Iowa, it was so cold that when the starter yelled across the start line for the teams to line up, the words froze, and it was not until the following spring that the race command “Runners to your marks” rang out after they thawed out.
Perhaps my memory is exaggerating conditions a bit, but it was really cold that Midwestern morning, with some of the runners from warmer climes huddled beneath blankets under a shelter trying to keep warm. They did not look happy.
Then there was the nonplussed Goucher, calmly going through her warmup. She had on a black turtleneck and a cap and had a laser focus, seemingly oblivious to the weather. She won by a solid margin, leading the CU women to their first NCAA team title. Fast forward to the 2018 NCAA cross country championships, and there was the Buffs’ Dani Jones winning the individual title and leading the CU women to another team championship.
The conditions? Yup, you got it. Midwestern cold, in Wisconsin, with snow on the ground.
As Goucher explained in an email last week, training in difficult conditions can lead to being able to handle obstacles as they arise, on the course and off it. In her case, growing up in Minnesota “absolutely” helped her develop the resilience that helped her win NCAAs and led her to become one of the best U.S. long-distance runners ever.
Recalling the near-zero conditions that Iowa morning, Goucher said her now husband Adam Goucher, himself an NCAA cross country champion “and my family literally told me that morning that I needed to go back to my roots!”
Those roots go deep into the Minnesota soil, where Goucher grew up before coming to Boulder for school. She was not fazed by the stress of racing in the cold, as she had learned to run in it during her prep career. It is not just Goucher who is Minnesota-tough. Most recently, there is former CU All American Joe Klecker, another Minnesota native who raced the Olympic Trials 10,000 meters on Friday.
Another is Scott Jurek, the Boulder author and ultrarunning legend, who says that “weather does factor in. Training through Minnesota winters will harden the body, mind and soul.”
Or as the German philosopher Fredrich Nietzsche put it, “Praise be what hardens us.” While we all might wish for an easy life, paradoxically, it is the difficult conditions that develop us. What I gleaned from Goucher, Jurek, Nietzsche, as well as writers such as Stanford University psychologist Kelly McConigal, author of “The Upside of Stress,” is that rather than trying to avoid stress, we can learn to adapt to the “slings and arrows” that accompany everyday living. McConigal urges us to embrace stress and to look at it as a positive.
What? We want stress? Yes, says Goucher, because there is something important that happens to us when we go through difficult conditions. “I believe living in Minnesota makes us tough! We learn early on how to deal with bad weather and conditions in racing and in life. To survive the long winters you have to be tough, and in running, you have to be really intrinsically motivated to get out the door when it’s minus 10 degrees outside.”
That leads to what is called the training effect; when we stress the body, it overcompensates, allowing us to recover to a higher, stronger level. The key to training is to get that balance right. Train too much and you won’t recover fully while risking injury and illness. Train too little, and you will not improve.
Jurek, a seven-time winner of Western States 100-mile Endurance Run and a focus of the book “Born to Run,” added, “Having all these Minnesotan legends to look up to like Gary Bjorkland, Steve Plasencia, Barney Klecker (father of Joe Klecker), Kara Goucher, Carrie Tollefson, Dick Beardsley develops a competitive environment.”
Bjorklund was a 1976 Olympic 10,000 meter runner and part of Boulder’s running history; he lived in former CU coach Jerry Quiller’s mobile home with a bunch of other elite runners in the days before money came into running. Another tough Minnesota runner is Boulder’s Jay Johnson, the 1987 World Mountain Running Champion, and one of the toughest Minnesota natives I know is polar explorer Will Steger, who will be in Boulder on Saturday for the Boulder International Film Festival’s showing of “After Antarctica”.
And so as we face the start of what looks to be another hot summer, with temperatures in Boulder nearing 100 degrees, take a cue from the Minnesota winters; look at training in these stressful times as a challenge. It means getting up early and running at 6 or 7 a.m. and not waiting until midday to run. You might also modify your workout.
Perhaps Goucher put the benefits of running through difficult conditions best, when she said, “Because we have such hard winters, we appreciate life and training when the weather is nice. It makes us able to handle whatever is thrown at us and enjoy the process along the way.”
Niwot Mile and Pearl Street Miles
The Niwot Mile is set for July 4. Organizer Henry Guzman promises that it will be a fast course (runboulderevents.com), starting at Niwot High School and finishing at Niwot market. Registration for the iconic Aug. 14 Pearl Street Mile has opened at teamboco.com. It is the 2021 USATF Colorado Championships … the Boulder Road Runners awarded $500 Olympic Trials scholarships to four runners competing in this week’s trials: Steve Goodwin, Frank Lara, Nell Rojas and Carrie Verdon.
Follow Michael Sandrock in Instagram: @MikeSandrock.