Champion ultra runner has come a long way since her first 50-miler, which was full of snow and thorny bushes. Now, she finds peace of mind during long trail runs.
By Henry Howard
Jen Edwards first ran cross-country in high school “to stay in shape for basketball.” But she found out that she really liked running and wound up running in all three seasons — cross country, indoor track and outdoor track — while attending high school in Ohio.
After moving on to Kenyon College (Ohio), she continued to run cross-country and track. Then, at the encouragement of a friend, Edwards decided to move up from the 5Ks and 10Ks to a full marathon.
Since her friend was from Minnesota, they ran Grandma’s Marathon in Duluth between her sophomore and junior years. “It hurt like heck but it was really fun,” Edwards chuckles.
And like many runners, shortly after the race, she was thinking about the next one.
For the Love of the Run
Next stop: Boston
Since she qualified for the Boston Marathon during her first race, her second marathon was the 100th edition of the famous race in April 1996.
“It kind of took off from there,” she says. “I started doing marathons in the summer months during college and law school.” But then life took over. After getting married and having kids, she scaled back her running.
Eventually her family moved to Washington state, where she became re-energized as a runner in 2010. The running passion returned with a twist. “I thought I should run. I should run on the trails,” she says.
But not just any trail race. Edwards set her sights on Cascade Crest, the premier 100-miler in Washington state. “I thought I should do it, but figured I should start trail running before I sign up for a 100,” she says with a laugh. “If you don’t have something you are aiming for on the horizon, it’s too easy to put it off. Instead of saying, ‘I’ll do it one of these years,’ I signed up for it in February of 2011 even though I had not run on the trails before.“
While Edwards had completed road marathons, she had not finished 26.2 on the trails. So she did her first marathon trail race in Olympia in March 2011, starting out thinking, “Well, I’ll just gut it out and see what happens.”
It was a snowy and muddy race. “Let’s just say I didn’t have a great time,” Edwards says. “It was slippery and muddy. And there were these really thorny brushes that grow around here. I was digging thorns out of my hands for two weeks. But it wasn’t enough to beat me down. I ran another 50-miler in April of 2011 and boy did that hurt.”
Edwards did a 50-miler four weeks before Cascade Crest and felt much better about herself, the fueling, etc., until she got to the night before the race. “I remember sitting in the hotel room the night before never having feeling so scared. I was thinking about what I was going to do the next day. I didn’t sleep at all. I was that excited/scared. I don’t know what’s going to happen or how much it is going to hurt. But I am going to get there.
“And I did. … And it hurt.”
“These ultras are no joke.”
She still does a lot of road running but enjoys the trails and the camaraderie with trail running. “One thing about me is that I am very persistent and don’t give up. I love a challenge. It was like, ‘Hey, you know you’re not very good at this but you should keep at it.’ It’s fun and good for you. I’m never the best at anything that I do but I never give up.“
That’s a philosophy that drives her through the tough times during an ultra.
“It’s not always the person who is fastest who wins the race, it’s the one who’s out there every day knocking away at it. That’s what I am a persistent little bugger.”
She wanted to see whether she could do a 100-miler as a test of the mind. “The mind has these limits — you could never do that or you shouldn’t try that. But the most that I don’t think I can do something, gives me more reason to try and do it. I‘m always amazed at what my body can do. If the mind can quiet, the body is capable of doing whatever your mind doesn’t think it can do.”
As Edwards crossed the 100-mile finish line in August 2011, she was hooked. “When you get there — finish a race that’s further than you’ve done before, even if you are a 5K runner who’s never done a marathon — you are going further, faster, longer than ever before, it’s kind of scary. But when you get done on the course, you get stripped raw of all barriers. That’s when as a person you truly shine through. And I truly love that person.”
Now, she has completed 30 ultras, including 10 100-milers since 2011. In March of this year, she won the Umstead 100 in North Carolina.
With all of her accolades perhaps most impressive is this statistic: Zero. That’s the number of DNFs (Did Not Finishes) she’s had going all the way back to middle school.
The toughest test was perhaps last August at the Fat Dog 100. Edwards was battling terrible interior pain on her shin. Her physical therapist said the 120-mile race wouldn’t cause any serious damage, so off she went.
“The shin hurt for 105 miles. The very first step, it hurt,” she recalls. “My shin was really hurting. I was afraid of tripping over a rock or something during the nighttime. But it got to the point where it didn’t hurt any worse. If it did, I would have pulled out. If it would have meant a serious injury, I would have pulled out. It’s not worth it. No race is. You have to listen to and respect your body.”
Toward the end of the race, the pain went away. Edwards turned to her pacer and said, “Don’t say anything to jinx this, but my shin has given up the struggle.”
68,000 miles and counting
Since Edwards started logging miles in 1990, she has accumulated 68,000 running miles. “I remember a conversation with my mom when she said, ‘I don’t know if you’ll ever get to 10,000 (miles) when I was in high school. And every time I hit a new 10,000 mark, I send her a message and say, ‘Another 10 in the books.’” She’s really supportive about that.”
Edwards, who just turned age 40, isn’t slowing down. “I have no intention of stopping. 100,000 will be on my radar before long.”
She has several more ultras lined up for this year — because, of course, she does. But it’s not the competition that drives her, it’s the pleasure of the run.
“I really run for me,” she says. “If I never raced again, I would be fine with it. Running is so much a part of me and what I use to make myself to feel whole again. Sometimes I need that run to complete me. I can’t imagine life without it.”
Hometown: Originally from Granville, Ohio, now I live in Olympia Washington. Moved to Washington in 2010.
Number of years running: I’ve been running since 1989.
How many miles a week do you typically run: I typically run 80-100 miles a week.
Point of pride: That I’ve never dropped out of a race. I’ve been racing since 1989 and have never DNF’d.
Favorite race distance: I love to run the 100 mile. But I reserve the chance to love something longer!
Favorite pre-race or training food/drink: I eat tortillas with peanut butter or Nutella before races and drink Nuun.
Favorite or inspirational song to run to: I change my playlist for each race… but the Beastie Boys are always on it!
Favorite or inspirational mantra/phrase: Phrase – “believe and achieve”
Where can other runners connect or follow you: I have a blog: ultrarunnerjen.blogspot.com and am on Twitter and Instagram as @runveggiejen