Keira Henninger, 38, is not your typical ultra-runner, or someone who runs races longer than a marathon. Growing up with two abusive parents, she escaped the violence in California’s San Mateo foothills, where she found peace in the wilderness. At 18 she left home and was a single mom a year later. Knowing education was key, she eventually secured a degree in nutrition and entered a marriage that was convenient, but never quite right.
Henninger's athletic background included a little high school cross-country running and pushing her son's stroller around town. But after building up endurance she gave her first ultra-run a whirl in 2006 and got hooked. Two years later she won the California's Old Goats 50 mile, followed by the AC 100 in 2010 and again in 2012.
"Running gave me purpose. It led me to everything I do professionally in my life today, and has helped define me as an accomplished athlete and business woman," says Henninger, who now directs eight ultra/trail races in Southern California, including the Mt. Baldy Race to the Top. "It has given me more than I could ever sum up in words."
Sponsored by Patagonia and Ultraspire, Henninger also manages the new Dirt Divas women's running team. She says it's an exciting time for ultra-running, as the sport continues to grow a rapid pace. We caught up with Henninger to talk about the overcoming her past—and what the future might hold.
Having overcoming an abusive childhood, what advice do you have for other people for whom sports may seem like a frivolous activity while deep in an unhealthy relationship?
There is nothing more important than loving yourself. Running will only nurture and build that love. From that love will come confidence, security, and many moments alone on the trails with your thoughts. If you are going through a tough spot, or your life is in bad ways, start running on trails. Keep running. Spending hours out in the wilderness and in the beauty of the trails will only bring good energy to yourself.
How did you build up the physical and mental endurance to tackle that first running race—and why an ultra?
When I was a young girl I used hiking and playing outside all day in the wilderness as an escape from the severe abuse that was taking place at home. From that skill I developed a deep desire to be outside all day, but also a tolerance for the endurance of being in the wilderness for hours and hours. Running an ultra was almost natural for me. It just felt normal, and what I was meant to do. What I was born to do. I consider it a gift, and every time I find myself on a trail it's never forgotten.
How does running and introducing people to trail running and the outdoors help you be a better parent and person overall?
When my son was growing up my huge love for the trails and outdoors translated all the time to my parenting. One of the top things I did with my son during his childhood was take long hikes on trails all over Southern California. My vast knowledge of beautiful trails and routes gave us awesome places to hike together. To this day we still hike together, and he loves trail running and hiking, and he is 18. Trail running has also helped me to be a more down-to-earth person in general. It keeps me disciplined and focused on what's really important in life. It's free and so fun to do!
What are a couple of tips for someone interested in starting to trail run who may not have much of a running background?
I think it's very important to join a trail running group in your local area. Surround yourself with other like-minded individuals with similar interests, and then work together towards the same goal. If you can find a group with some sort of structure and a coaching program than that's even better. You can never put a price on your happiness and the rewards you will get from running. Going for a run clears your mind, but running an ultra will clear your soul. It's life changing—and addicting! Another tip is to find other trail runners on social media and follow them. Twitter is a really great way to get in touch with runners in your area and some people even do tweet ups to meet on the trails.
In many ways, directing a race is harder than running one! What interested you most about crossing over to managing races and what does that piece bring to your life?
I started managing races because I was upset with how poorly they were being produced and managed. It actually came from a deep desire to just produce top-notch races. My extensive background in leadership education came into great use. It's definitely a hard job, but so fulfilling. I can’t even begin to explain how rewarding it is to put finisher medals on each runner's neck as they cross the finish line of my races.
As a nutritionist, what are some of the best tricks you've learned for staying ultra-healthy as an endurance athlete?
One of the best things I have learned is to cut out all processed food. Eating real food is key to staying healthy. If it has a single preservative or anything fake it does not go in my body.
Over the years, what lesson do you hope your journey to a healthy body and emotional state has taught your son?
To always love and take care of yourself. If you have those two things at the top of your list, then life will flow back to you in a positive way. Taking care of your health and exercising are excellent ways to lead a powerful and blessed life. Good breeds good. It's a wonderful step in a positive direction in life and from all of that, more good will come. It teaches discipline and self-respect, and those are two qualities that you can’t put a price on.
What is it specifically about running outside on trails that is so meaningful to you?
I get to see places and beauty that most will never see in there lifetime. More people can tell you what the inside of their local pub or restaurant looks like better than their local trails in the neighborhood. I know every trail within a 100-mile radius of my house. I have seen more miles of wilderness and beauty than 95 percent of the population will ever see. I am so blessed and thankful for that. In the end we all leave this planet. I just feel like I will be leaving with a whole lot more, and I am so full of gratitude for that.
At the dawn of a new year, what is your top resolution or goal for 2015?
To never stop! That means to never give up and not let anything stop me. I have so many big goals and so many big dreams. I only expect the things I want and I don’t expect the things I don’t want. I visualize it, see it a hundred times over, and then do what ever it takes to make it happen.
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