Interview with Kim Nedeau

On September 11, 2016 aR's Kim Nedeau (Leverett, MA) competed in the 32nd World Mountain Running Championships in Sapareva Banya, Bulgaria. As the first American woman finisher she led her team to a bronze medal. This busy mother of two is an inspiration to so many New Englanders. We caught up to her recently to ask her a few questions about her trip and the race.

Q: Was this your first trip to Europe?

I travelled to Ireland twice in my early 20s. The first trip was two weeks of exploration and the second trip was to compete in a cross country race called Ras na hEireann, which I think was in Northern Ireland.

Q: What were your impressions of Bulgaria?

The people drive fast and pass often; there are stray dogs everywhere, and the structures are run down. They are also amazing urban gardeners. You got this sense that sustainable living is either important to them or perhaps that they have no choice but to live sustainably. Americans could certainly learn from their use of land. At opening ceremonies, they shared a unique tradition with the visiting countries. Two women dressed in traditional Bulgarian costumes passed around bread to be dipped in salt as a way to welcome us to their county. The bread was really sweet and yummy! It was clear that the event was incredibly important to their country. The organizers crossed every T and dotted every I. My daughter was most curious about the food. Most meals started with cucumber, tomato and cheese salad. The second course consisted of potatoes or rice and meat. Sometimes we were given dessert, like baklava, yogurt or fruit. For breakfast we chose from many different meats (my dad and I called them mystery meats), eggs, fruit, yogurt, toast, cucumber, tomatoes and feta cheese. They drink espresso coffee exclusively so I went way too many days without what I considered a good coffee! We were all so bleary-eyed in the morning that we gulped it down without much complaint.

Q: Did you find the time zone travel difficult to adjust to once you arrived in Bulgaria?

At first I did not find it difficult. I slept decently the first night for maybe five hours, which I thought was pretty good considering I was adjusting to a seven hour time difference. I definitely struggled after the first night. The hotel was noisy and I'm used to my quiet house in the woods. It was very college-like! Even when it was quiet, I could barely sleep. I spent many hours reading in the middle of the night until I would fall asleep with my book in my hand. Eating was off too because I would go to meals feeling very hungry but then get full quickly and feel starved an hour later. I couldn't quite get it right. Once I ran out of snacks that I brought, it was hard to get food between meals. I think this is all very typical for international racing! It is a good reminder that when we race, we need to be flexible because all of the details will not go as we hope.

Q: What was course like and how did it compare to the Loon Mountain Race?

The course was fantastic. It was approximately 4.5 miles with 2500 feet of climbing. It featured pavement, single track, and service road, which are all surfaces that I run on every week. The course started on the road, quickly entered narrow trails, opened up for short section through a field, funneled to a very narrow single track, opened up on the pavement and then changed to a long service road to the top of the mountain. The second half of the race was very much like Loon so I believe Loon was the perfect qualifier for the course in Bulgaria.

Q: Did you have any expectations or goals going into the race?

The team goal was above all personal goals. I wanted our group of four to be on that podium. On the other hand, to reach that goal, I needed to do my part and run my very best race for the team. Coach Chris Dunn and I talked about a top 20 finish in the individual race but I also had a secret goal of placing top ten. I was doing my best to count runners in front of me during the race.

Q: How did you manage to stay fit, healthy, and rested between the US Championships and the World Mountain Running Championships?

Luck! I'm 37 years old and can no longer get away with adding up my mileage and calling it a good training week. If I only complete my endurance work and neglect the smaller details, for me that is a lazy week of training. I think I stayed healthy and fit because I put so much value on the minutiae; the seemingly negligible strength/rehab exercises that don't make you sweat and don't elevate your heart rate. These exercises complete the picture for my training. The more I dedicate my time to them, the more I learn about my body. I start to notice inconsistencies when comparing the left and right sides of my body. I'll notice that my left ankle is restricted compared with my right etc. I then spend time researching how to increase mobility in my ankle. I'll try different exercises and then compare with my right ankle. If my mobility is improving, I know I have found the right rehab exercises for me. I have lacrosse balls and PVC pipes scattered around my house. I'll take a minute here and there to roll out my feet or roll my piriformis. I have an old hip injury that likes to tighten when I'm training hard. When it's feeling especially sticky, I'll add an every two-hour reminder in my phone to perform a hip mobility stretch. It's a calculated and mature approach but I'm in my last years of truly competitive running and want to make the most of it.

Q: How do you balance being a mother and an elite athlete?

It took a long time actually. I didn't attempt a return to competitive running until my kids were 5 and 7. When they were younger, I was happy to run 9 minute miles every night after the kids went to bed. My mom friend and I enjoyed the social time together. I think at that point I realized my training time needed to happen when they were asleep. My brain was too distracted by caring for them and I was very likely to bag a run if my kids were acting needy or if I were feeling tired. Once I switched over to early morning training time, and realized that this was the ideal hour for me, it opened up a whole new world. It was a slow process but eventually I woke up earlier and earlier to give myself more time. No one needed me before 7 AM so I could compartmentalize that part of my day and stay very focused on my training. On the weekends, I take a little more time during the day to get out on the trails in the daylight and run a bit longer. But my entire schedule is changing because for the first time, I have both kids in school!

Q: How much did you know about your competitors prior to the race?

Not very much. I knew who the very top women were but I didn't consider myself one them. In the race, I recognized some of the women around me as top finishers from previous years which was surreal.

Q: Did the team have a particular race strategy?

Ellen Miller, our team manager, emphasized the importance of every single point. The night before the race, we talked about never giving up, even if we weren't having our best race because it can often come down to a single point, passing one key person at the finish, or displacing a runner from another team. That turned out to be a very important pep talk because we beat Great Britain by just a single point. I was personally battling a runner from Great Britain and so were Ladia and Addie. We all beat who we were supposed to and found our spot on the podium because of a single point!

Q: Did you have a particular race strategy?

I was told by Coach Chris Dunn that the start is very aggressive and that I should plan to go out fast, ride the wave and then settle in. That was my strategy. The truth is, every day that I ran in Bulgaria, in a little ski village on the side of Rila Mountain at 4500 feet elevation, I was fighting feeling afraid. I came back to my room winded every day and wondered how I could compete in the most important race of my life when I was barely making it through my training runs! I am a huge believer in the power of positive thinking so I tried my best to push these thoughts aside. I kept reminding myself how grateful I was to be representing Team USA. I have also read an article that has always stayed with me about perception of pain and how our perception can hugely impact our performance positively or negatively. I knew that even though I was feeling winded and tired, if I perceived the discomfort more positively, I could literally change the result of my race. So, I woke up on the morning of the race after four nights of bad sleep and just picking up my water bottle felt like too much work. I had the same experience on my warm up, although it certainly helped to warm up with the other women and share a few laughs together pre-race. Laughing is such a healing balm! My mind wanted to focus on how tired, winded and shaky I felt but I fought it off with thoughts of perceiving my discomfort nonchalantly. Racing is hard mental work! This question was about race strategy and maybe I veered a little to the left but my point is that although race strategy is very much physical, it is also about having mental courage and preparedness.

Q: Was the start as fast and aggressive as it was expected to be?

Each team was allowed one runner in the front row and then we sort of had a single file line behind her. We naturally lined up in order of how we placed at the qualifier and gave Addie the front spot. I think USA lucked out because we were on the very right side of the road and the first turn was a left so once the gun went off, I snuck out even farther to the right and avoided the traffic. We were all watching our feet to make sure we didn't get tripped up.

Q: Were you in the Top 10 for the entire race?

No! I started fast but others started faster. I didn't feel I could start any faster than I did with a positive outcome. I was running in fourth place for the US team and thoughts of feeling winded and tired were trying so hard to creep into my mental space. If I allowed these thoughts to grow, I could have had a very different outcome. Instead, I used every opportunity to pass just one person. The single track was a traffic jam and many times we were forced to hike because we were stuck behind a line of runners. When we got out on the road, I really opened up my pace and then I could see that I was running in twelve and first American.

Q: What do you think about during the race?

I have already discussed how mental courage can have a powerful impact on a race result. When I am racing, I always want to remember how fortunate I am to use my body in such a powerful way and to remind myself that I am living my dream! It's no surprise that mantras are so important to me. I often use the mantra 'be joyful' because it is like saying, 'holy sh*t!, look what you are doing! Enjoy ever microsecond!' In this race, I also found myself repeating, 'find your rhythm,' because the terrain was so rocky and covered in large roots that it felt like every step knocked me off my pace. I imagined myself landing in just the right spot on the trail, and being light on my feet the way my dog runs. Mile four gained almost 1000 feet and the footing was so tough and Kim Dobson's amazing uphill strength popped into my head. Towards the end of the race, I was battling for top ten and there was no way I was giving up that spot without a fight so I dug as deep as I ever have, mentally and physically, to finish 9th.

Q: What emotions did you feel representing the USA on September 11th?

There are no words. It was all very emotional. I finished the race and collapsed on these mats that were set up for the runners. I was physically on empty but emotions were spilling over; there was no holding back. I finished the race and then immediately after, the rest of my team finished. I was so proud to be a member of this team. We were also lucky enough to watch Joe Gray win the senior men's race and lead the men to a gold team medal! The US men have never won gold at this event and it was incredibly meaningful that it happened on September 11.

Q: What did it feel like to stand atop the World Mountain Racing Championship podium with your teammates?

We are a team of rookies. Of the four of us, not a single one had ever qualified for World Mountain Running Championships. I had these feelings of insecurity - was this a weak year to qualify? I hope that does not come across as upsetting but I think it's human nature to question our capabilities. I knew that my teammates were all incredibly strong track and road runners. Addie Bracy has a 32:30 10k time (or something close to that)! As rookies, it felt incredible to prove how much we all belonged in that race. We all finished top 20 and then of course brought home the bronze!

Photos courtesy of Richard Bolt