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A Curve Ball Before Western States: Penelope Allen

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Toeing the start line at an ultra, I often look around and don’t see a lot of faces like mine. While I may be a couple dozen years younger than most ultrarunners, and more of my friends are training for cross-country races or track meets rather than a 100k, there’s no question that I feel more at home on the trail. This is the first in a series of articles that will focus on the next generation of ultrarunners.

Recently, I interviewed Penelope Allen who is a rising senior at Montana State University. At 21 years old, Penelope was the youngest entrant in Western States this year, until a stress fracture stopped her from making the trip to Olympic Valley.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

How did you get into running and then make the leap into ultrarunning?

I was a super competitive gymnast growing up. From the age of six, I was training 20 to 30 hours a week, all the way through my freshman year of high school. At the end of my freshman year, I quit gymnastics.

In gymnastics, everything had to be so perfect. Someone’s judging you all the time, and in running, there was something so freeing about whoever crosses the finish line first wins. My sophomore, junior and senior year, I ran cross country and track. I loved it, but I knew I wasn’t really gonna do it in college. Freshman and sophomore year [of college], I skied a bunch, fished a bunch and enjoyed Montana. Then, one of my friends dared me to sign up for a 30k. I loved it, then signed up for a 50k and found my sport. I was really good at it for not training that much, and then I was like, why not just try 100 [miles]? I could take a year and train and be more ready on paper, but mentally you’re never gonna feel like you’re ready to run 100 miles. So, I ran Oregon Cascades 100 and it was awesome — could not have gone smoother.

Is anyone in your family a runner?

My mom ran 50ks. She was really good at it when she was my age, but she never told me until I ran my first one. She was like, “You know, I used to do this too.” She’s been getting back into the trail stuff too, so it’s been fun to train with her a little bit.

You got into Western States via your uncle’s raffle ticket after he didn’t complete a qualifier. How did you balance training for States with a college schedule?

I really like having structure in my life. All my classes were done around 3 p.m., and then my brain would be so dead it’d be the perfect time for me to go out and run. It was just part of my life, and it honestly worked super well. My roommates are all great runners and I’ve been slowly convincing them to sign up for some more long trail stuff, but training is very much solo, which isn’t bad.

Photo courtesy Penelope Allen

When you got injured, what was the process of learning of about your stress fracture? What’s next?

We had a really light snow year this year, so usually I would do a little bit more cross-country skiing or cross training in the winter. I was consistently getting 70 to 80-mile weeks, which for me was way more than I have ever done, and the majority of that was on the road. Around March, I started to notice that I was recovering badly and always tired, and right around the same time, I noticed pinching in my hip.

Eventually I got an MRI and [my femur] turned out to be broken. That was six weeks non-weight-bearing, and then I started walking a little bit more, biking and cross training. I felt great, went back for an MRI, and it was still broken. That was [the end of May]. It’s been a rough couple of weeks, because I had in my mind, even if I’m under trained, just get to the start line healthy and I’ll finish Western States.

Next, my idea is to transition more into 50ks and 100ks, because I have some speed right now. I’m going to run Fat Dog 100k at the beginning of August, so that should be a good transition back into racing. Then, my roommates and I are going to run a race in Grand Targhee, and I’ll run The Rut 50k and another 50k in Moab in the fall.

At MSU, you’re a mechanical engineering major. It’s no secret engineers make up a disproportionate amount of the ultrarunning population. Do you see a connection between the two in your life?

I actually want to do product design, so I’m thinking about going to art school after undergrad or getting some sort of design-focused degree. What I love about trail running is how free it is. I can get “type A”, and anytime there’s a workout block and I have very specific things that I need to be hitting, I can get very obsessive. Same with school and engineering—I get very obsessive and precise with things, and I think that trail running is a way for me to just let go and get outside.

Let’s talk about being a young ultrarunner. What’s it like to be in a sport where the average racer is over twice your age and you’re often the youngest in a race?

It’s just cool. I feel like I’m surrounded by people my age all day, every day, and it’s really cool to have a hobby or sport with a completely different demographic. It makes talking to people during races really interesting because they have completely different lives. And everyone in the community is just so awesome and easy to talk to, so it makes me feel kind of unique. It’s fun being the odd one out. I like that.

Let’s finish up with some rapid-fire questions:

Favorite race? Oregon Cascades

Favorite pre-race meal? Toast with peanut butter, banana and honey

Favorite race fuel? Maple syrup

Favorite music to run to? I like club music. I like to feel like I’m at the bar on a Friday night, but I’m on the run.

Finally, favorite weather for a run? 60 and sunny