During the River Gorge 50k ultramarathon last spring, professional runner Keely Henninger ate 13 energy gels of 100 calories each during the race. For some runners, this is normal. But for female runners, that kind of caloric intake, even when the body needs it to perform at its highest level, is difficult to manage. This makes it nearly impossible to successfully train and compete. So why aren't we talking about it?
The goal of this piece was to flip the narrative in women’s running and normalize what putting yourself first can do for your body and your mental health. Balancing life with training, whether you’re an elite athlete or not, is much easier when you are actively paying attention to what you need to lead a balanced life. We followed Keely Henninger through one of her biggest races of the year not long after she made this discovery herself. Our goal was to help normalize what balance in life and sport CAN and should look like for female athletes and showcase how Keely found peace on her journey along the way.
Our secondary goal was to tell a story that subtly highlighted Altra Running's brand purpose of inviting runners to ditch their preconceived notions of what running is and help them discover what running can be. To abandon the idea that you can only be a runner if you do X, Y and Z, and to instead, tie it back to our brand motto “run without rules.”
When we decided to make this film, we thought we would be documenting a professional runner who managed to—after much trial and error—successfully navigate the pressures of a sport, simply by abandoning the unspoken rules written around professional running. We made a plan to follow Keely at the most coveted American trail running race of the year: Western States Endurance Race. This race was going to be a big moment for her—after years of working out the kinks of training, fueling, and balancing her day-to-day life, she was feeling prepared for the performance of a lifetime. But at mile 48 of the 100-mile race, Keely took a fall, tearing a few of the medial tendons in her ankle which left her unable to complete the race. It was in this moment that we knew we had to pivot on the story plotline of the video. Rather than championing this race through Keely's performance, we championed it for what it was: a moment of vulnerability and failure to reach a goal she spent countless hours pursuing. A journey through grief, disappointment, contemplation and what she needed in order to get back up and refocus and rebuild. Something she wouldn't have been able to do prior to understanding herself in relation to and outside of being a professional runner.
This pivot in storytelling added two extra days to our film schedule, which allowed us to showcase Keely's life outside of running—the life she had worked hard to build in unison with the demands of her running career. This shift gave us an opportunity to unveil a more complete picture of the life Keely built for herself and focus on her as a whole human. In acknowledging the "rules" Keely forced herself to abandon, we were able to tell a story about the highs and lows of one woman's running career, and how, regardless of the results of any race, she will consistently come out on the other side stronger than she was prior to writing her own narrative.
This film did exactly as intended: it started a conversation. It allowed people to examine their own relationship with running, fueling, and identity, and most importantly, it united us in our own moments of grief, and it challenged our audience to rewrite their own narratives in their lives.
If we were able to help even ONE person with this piece, ONE runner who was struggling with their identity in relation to running, we would have been able to label this a success. However, we received an influx of messages from everyone from ex-elite athletes to new runners who were just starting their journey thanking us for sharing Keely's story on the Altra Running channels.
These are topics that, while heavily discussed, often don't get the attention they deserve. It's rare for elite runners to throw out the rules completely, carve their own path, and still come out ahead. They are rules for a reason. But at Altra, we believe that the rules are meant to be broken and that not all running journeys (even the elite ones) are linear.