I could make a bunch of excuses for not publishing any interviews in the last 4 years, but I won’t waste your time – or mine. It is time to fire this thing back up, and what better way to do that than with Ladia Albertson-Junkans? In case you missed it, the Stillwater-native who now resides in Seattle, won the Chuckanut 50k in March and earned the right to represent the U.S. in Italy next month. Of course, I wasn’t the first to notice as Ladia received some nice press in each of the two leading trail running publications; Ultra Running and Trail Runner. Three words came to mind as I read Ladia’s responses to my questions; energy, spirit, and gratitude. Enjoy!
First off, congrats on winning the Chuckanut 50k – and more importantly – earning the right to represent the U.S. (again) in international competition. You’ve received some good press on trailrunnermag.com and ultrarunning.com and I don’t want to rehash those interviews. However, in one of them you mentioned that you had two goals for the race; 1) not to go out too fast and 2) to run your own race. Then it sounds like you pretty much ignored those goals, pushed the pace on the first climb and held on over the last 10K. Where does that confidence come from – especially considering this was your first trail race over 25K?
Thank you! You are right that I went out faster than I had planned. When I took the lead on the first climb, the effort level actually felt “right” to me. In that way, it felt true to my goal of running by feel as opposed to trying to mimic what the other women were doing. I wouldn’t say I felt confident that I could maintain that effort; in fact, I worried that I was making a rookie mistake by taking the lead so early in such a long race. But my desire to experiment -- to just see what would happen if I ran by feel every step of the way -- outweighed those doubts. So, from that point on, I decided to focus on the moment and take it one step at a time, rather than worry about whether I’d slow down, or bonk, or both.
The win at Chuckanut means you’ll be traveling to Badia Prataglia, Italy in June for the IAU World Trail Championships. That sounds sweet! Is there anything you learned at Chuckanut that you’ll try to apply in Italy?
I am so excited to race in Italy and be a part of Team USA! First and foremost, Chuckanut reminded me why I love to race; the energy, community, camaraderie, and enthusiasm at races is absolutely soul-quenching. Running through the aid stations at Chuckanut was a thrill I had never before experienced in racing. I wanted to hug and personally thank every spectator out there for their energy, enthusiasm, and encouragement. It ignited my heart in a way I could have never imagined. From a more process standpoint, I plan to add more variety to my fueling in Italy. At Chuckanut, I ate only one flavor of gel and drank only water. My stomach went very sour about half-way through and, as a result, I had a very hard time choking down any calories in the final third+ of the race. A friend suggested afterwards that I try mixing it up a bit more. I also want to get in a few more 20+ mile runs leading up to Italy. I could tell in the final third of the race that my legs and body (a-hem, stomach) just weren’t used to maintaining that kind of effort for that many hours. I managed to hang on those last 6 miles but I would like to finish stronger next time around.
You’ll also be running the Cranmore Mountain Race in North Conway, NH the week prior to the World Trail Championships. That is the U.S. Mountain Running Championships and serves as the selection race where you could represent the U.S. at the World Championships in Permana, Italy in July. Have you given much thought how you’ll approach those 2 weekends – specifically traveling, racing, recovering, and racing again?
As of a week ago, I truly thought I could make it all work. I’ve since decided, not without regret, to forgo the US Mountain Running Championships. While I’m bummed to miss out on such a great opportunity to race in Cranmore and try to earn a spot on the US team, I’ll now be able to return to a high school running camp I worked at back in college, which I’m very excited about.
In general, I try to run most days of the week, spend as much time as possible in the mountains on weekends (running and/or skiing), and anything else is just bonus. It’s unstructured because nothing is premeditated; it’s all by feel and one day at a time. It’s dedicated because I don’t only run when it’s convenient. I am very intentional about making time to run and adventure in the mountains, often finding creative ways to fit it in around my work schedule and the other ways I spend my time.
I actually think that this unstructured approach is a big reason why I’m able to compete at a high level right now. It’s what works best for me right now in my life, in the context of all the other ways I like to spend my time. By “works best” I mean that it maximizes my enjoyment (of running and of life) and minimizes burn-out, both of which ensure that I’m getting out often and eager to take on new challenges. I think I’m at a point, 15 years a runner, where consistency goes a long way. I don’t have to do anything fancy, I just have to do it -- get out the door, move, and repeat that most days of the week. The more I enjoy it, the more I’ll do it, and the more I do it, the better my fitness. For me, the biggest threat to consistency is exhaustion and mental or emotional fatigue. Having a flexible approach of running by feel, and taking things day-by-day, lets my body be my guide. If I’m totally fried after a long day (or week) at work, or if a happy hour or family event pops up, then maybe I won’t run that day. This doesn’t mean that I don’t ever force myself out the door -- I certainly do, and I see a lot of value in doing so. That 5 AM alarm in the middle of winter is one such example. It also doesn’t mean that I never run hard, or far, or hard and far. Part of what brings me so much joy is pushing myself on a run, setting a little challenge for myself like running up a hill X number of times or cruising along at Y effort until my mouth fills with iron. I also know that these harder efforts are important to building fitness that can bring me farther, higher, and deeper into the mountains on weekends, which is my biggest motivation right now. The difference is that these harder efforts are rarely, if ever, premeditated. Sometimes I might decide the night before, sometimes I’ll decide 10 minutes into an easy run, sometimes it’s socially motivated like popping into a workout with a friend. Even that early AM alarm isn’t binding; if I decide not to heed its call, then I’ll either have to figure out another time to squeeze it in, or accept the consequence of not being able to run that day (which is usually enough of a self-inflicted punishment to get me out of bed the next morning!). Between running most weekdays, and spending long days in the mountains on weekends, I’ve gained a lot of strength and fitness without much training specificity or structure. That strength and fitness has translated into some fast race efforts, and many cool mountain adventures, all of which has further reinforced that this style is not only fun but also beneficial to my running.
I also think that having years of more structured running under my belt, e.g. in college and post-collegiately with Team USA Minnesota, has provided me with a fairly robust arsenal of potential workout ideas. So, on those days when I feel like running harder, I can rely on previous experience to decide what to do. That said, I don’t have the expertise, like a coach does, to decide what to do based on an intended physiological effect so it all still feels like one big experiment -- or, day-to-day experiment. In general, the harder efforts are more like a tempo run, or fartlek, or LT intervals, rather than more nuanced workouts that a coach might write.
I don’t get the sense that you run for accolades at all, but you’re quietly becoming one of the most successful Minnesota runners of all time. A quick look at your running resume shows; 2001 state x-c champ, 2x All-American at U of M, member of 4 Big Ten team championships (1 in x-c and 3 in track), and you’ve represented the U.S. in Scotland, Mexico, Bulgaria and this summer in Italy. You’ve even earned some hardware at international competitions along the way. Can you speak to your “career” and what’s been a driving force for you?
Aside from simply loving to run, I think the inspirations underlying my running have evolved over the years. In the past decade or so, the biggest driving force has been a desire to get the most out of life and good health by not only seizing every opportunity, but *making* opportunities for myself to live a life I love. Having lost both my dad and stepdad before they turned 50, and seeing my best friend Gabe Grunewald battle cancer 3 (now 4) times, I feel a real sense of urgency to make the most of each day and to never take my health for granted. To me, running feels like the most natural way to celebrate my health while also making the most of this talent, and passion, I have for it. I see every opportunity as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and that includes the opportunity to run on any given day -- whether it’s three miles along a highway or 30 miles on remote trail around a volcano.
Last fall your U of M cross-country team celebrated its 10 year anniversary of winning the Big Ten meet. In addition to you, the team’s top-5 was comprised of 3 women still running professionally; Heather Kampf (née Dorniden), Gabe Grunewald (née Anderson), and Jamie Cheever, plus Elizabeth Spehar (née Yetzer). Not to mention Coach Gary Wilson. First, can you believe that was 10 years ago? Second, what do you remember most from that season?
10 years ago?! Really?! (Checks what year it is) Oh. Three things I remember most about that season; LUDIFL (“Let us do it for Ladia”), our team huddle (i.e., sobfest) after hearing we had won by 1 point(!), and the end of season banquet when I tried to read my gratitude list to the team but started crying within the first 30 seconds.
I think I’ve interviewed more people from Stillwater than any other city – and there are still more on my list. Why do you think that city produces so much talent?
Scott Christensen. His legacy is movie material.
I truly think Scott is the driving force. It helps that Stillwater is beautiful, with great places to run that distract a young mind from the potential tedium of running. There are also hills, so you’re bound to get fit whether you’re trying to or not, as long as you put one foot in front of the other. But, most of all, there is a program that prides itself on putting in the work and getting the best out of itself; an opportunity to be a part of something much bigger than yourself. I can’t think of anyone during my time who didn’t want to do their best for Scott, including myself. There are many stories worth sharing about Scott but I’ll keep it to one. The summer going into my junior year, Scott came back from coaching a USA Team overseas at one of the world championships. He had brought back some team USA gear for his guys and he gave me a pair of the team-issued running shorts. It was the first time I realized that running extended far beyond high school -- that this was something I could do, at any level, for many, many years to come. To me, those shorts were proof that I was one of his runners (not just some girl who asked if she could run with the boys). Those shorts represented something tangible I could aspire to be, a runner for Team USA. I still have them to this day, and I’ve thought of them each of the three (soon to be four) times I’ve put on my own Team USA kit. None of the team shorts I’ve been given since will mean as much as those ones did at that time in my life.
What are your PRs?
Half Marathon 1:13:59
I’m not sure how meaningful trail PRs are since courses take all varieties, but I’ve run 2:10 for 25k and 4:17 for 50k.
What are your strengths? Weaknesses?
I like to think that joy and appreciation are two of my biggest strengths.
Do you have a favorite local or national or international race?
I love them all!
If you could run with any Minnesotan, past or present, who would it be?
Hands down, my BFF Gabe Grunewald! We’ve been running soulmates since the day we met, which was technically in our senior year at the Minnesota State High School Track and Field Championships when I was frantically running around the gymnasium asking if anyone had an extra pair of spikes I could borrow (because I had left mine at home -- on the day of finals). Gabe was the only person to offer me hers. They were a half size too big but the fact that she’d willingly lend her spikes to a total stranger says everything. This, and every moment of our friendship since, is what I’d call my fondest running memory(ies) -- and all the ones to come!
Finally, what do you know now that you wish you’d known when you first started running?
This isn’t just specific to running, but I wish I had known that life was only going to get better and better -- and that running, and the people it brought into my life, was going to be a big reason why.