What does it really take to finish a race like the Leadville Trail 100? What about to not just finish, but make it on the podium? What kind of strength, training, grit, and determination goes into such an effort?
Life has an interesting way of helping us discover what we’re capable of.
In the midst of life-changing events, Genevieve Yeakel Harrison experienced the highs and lows of happiness and tragedy.
Along the way, she discovered a mantra to help her get through it.
It turned out to be the same mantra that helped her secure a second place finish at the Leadville Trail 100.
Genevieve Yeakel Harrison came into this year’s Leadville Trail 100 Run as an underdog, but only in the sense that she’s the hero you haven’t heard of yet.
This top contender is a walking lesson in the hard truth that hard work and recognition don’t always go hand in hand.
In an ideal world, dedication and performance alone would shine the spotlight on deserving athletes.
We want to believe that effort earns recognition right off the bat.
Behind these rose-colored glasses, the names of those steadfast athletes who show up for the challenge and come out on top would grace every headline.
Unfortunately, reality doesn’t often align with such linear expectations.
So many other factors, from social media savvy and brand connections to catching the right eyes and simply being in the right place at the right time, play into launching an athletic career.
The most important piece of the puzzle, though, is patience.
Now part of the On Running athlete team, Genevieve has been running competitively for the greater part of twenty years now, and has learned that there are certain lessons that only time can teach us.
She dove straight into those deep waters, tackling the Antelope Island 50 Miler as her first ultra in 2014 and wrestling with her first DNF at the Cloudsplitter 100 Miler later that same year.
In that sense, Genevieve passed the ultimate test that filters for champions in endurance racing.
Before taking her place on the podium at the Leadville 100 this past summer, Genevieve had actually toed the same start line on two other occasions already.
That worthy finish only puts the rest of her running career so far into even better perspective.
From that point on, the fire raged on with a quiet but determined glow.
Genevieve knew that she had found her most true self in ultrarunning, thanks to the meditative aspect of long trail hours that gave her a chance to untangle her mental knots.
The ultrarunning community also introduced her to a different kind of competition than she’d ever experienced in college racing or triathlon events.
In ultrarunning, there’s room for anyone that chooses to take on such an intense undertaking.
The compassion, camaraderie, and raw emotion that show up in ultrarunning environments had proved themselves truly unique in her eyes.
No matter what twists and turns her life might take, Genevieve knew that she’d always hold her place in that world.
As it happened, twists and turns came on faster than she may have expected.
Birth and death. Right after that 2017 Leadville finish, Genevieve found out that she and her husband Jon were expecting their first child in the same year that her mother passed away from cancer.
Those first moments with their daughter represented a bittersweet trade in losing something incredibly precious but gaining something equally significant on the other side.
Genevieve continued to run through this period of simultaneous tragedy and celebration, even into her second pregnancy not long after, because that time on her feet became even more valuable now that she dedicated so much of her remaining time to others.
She may not have had the energetic or emotional bandwidth to focus on big race goals for these few years, but the commitment she made with every step out the door mattered more than any bib number or PR.
Genevieve mentioned that she purposefully included each race that she did attempt during that time, no matter how seemingly insignificant or how well she performed, in her running resume because she knows that the effort it took to race at all throughout those early days of motherhood speaks volumes about her dedication to running and to herself.
Genevieve’s return to full training and racing epitomizes the phrase “step back to move forward”. The step back that she chose to take for the sake of her family and her sanity became one of the main reasons that she was able to make such a valiant comeback this year.
“The first couple times around, I didn’t understand the mental toughness that I had in me or that Leadville deserved,” Genevieve remembered. “Motherhood has made me stronger than any training I could have been doing during that time.”
This wasn’t necessarily because of motherhood itself, she explained, but because of everything that she learned about sacrifice and resilience.
Genevieve knew that she couldn’t point to the high physical training load that many of her peers had so meticulously accumulated while she was busy just squeezing in runs wherever possible, but she could rely on her own internal strengths and inspirations.
Rather than moving fast right out of the gate, she adopted a strategy rooted in patience.- the same method that had carried her through the chaos of her recent past.
“Attitude and effort” became her race mantra, a phrase that Genevieve had gleaned from Australian ultrarunner Lucy Bartholomew.
“In lockdown I listened to so many podcasts,” Lucy explained when I asked her about those words.
“As I was running along one day, not in my finest headspace, the guest on one podcast was saying, ‘Sometimes we need to adjust our attitudes to reflect that in our effort. After all, that’s all we can control.’”
“I remember thinking to myself, ‘Let’s be positive; slow down if you need to, speed up if you want to, but do not give up. Put in the effort and give yourself a shot.’”
“It turned out to be one of my best runs in 2020, and the best in over two years, simply because I focused on those two things. Simple, but effective.”
In that vein, focusing on those two things turned out to be exactly the kind of motivation that Genevieve needed.
“Attitude and effort’ put words to a sentiment that I’d been trying to phrase for a long time”, she remarked about her choice.
She’d scribbled her mantra in permanent marker down the side of her arm as a reminder to use her attitude to guide her effort.
Pacing Genevieve at the Leadville Trail 100
I had the honor of pacing Genevieve for a portion of the race. From the entire time between picking her up after Twin Lakes at mile 63 to pace her through to Outward Bound, and at every point from there through to the finish line that I caught a glimpse of her passing steadily by, I saw raw resolve written all over her face.
Over top of the huge range of emotions that she experienced along the rollercoaster ride from start to finish, that resolve stood strong.
“The most important difference between this and my previous attempts,” Genevieve believes, “was learning how to ride the wave. Continuing to show up requires knowing your strength as a person and valuing the time you are out there.”
In the wake of everything that she had discovered about herself and her drive over the years, the race became a gift in the same way that her daughter arrived at the heels of her mother’s passing: a rare ray of sunlight piercing through the gloom.
Genevieve’s biggest win that day in August may not have been the finish itself, but her capacity for finding celebration in the struggle.
What's your running mantra to go the distance? Tell us about it in the comments.