FE contributor Jennifer Kurtz on racing marathon XC as a PhD candidate.

With Jennifer Kurtz, PhD(c), CISSN, CSCS, EP-C

US Marathon XC Nationals - September 23, 2023

5th Place
Time - 4:12:56
Lap 1 - 1:57:25
Lap 2 - 2:15:30


Like with many of the pro and Life Time athletes, FE contributor and well-credentialed endurance expert Jennifer Kurtz’s calendar was pretty packed in September, when marathon XC Nats were held. But while the likes of Alexis Skarda and Hannah Otto – first and third, respectively – were juggling other races, Jennifer found herself doing PhD candidate things: defending and revising a dissertation about exercise physiology and nutrition while also balancing a training schedule to prepare for her season goals.

Jennifer is also working on a future series of blogs about nutrition specifically for female endurance athletes – a field that has suffered a paucity of attention, as most research has historically defaulted to male subjects – but in the meantime, she agreed to fill us in on her approach to and experience at US marathon XC nationals, where she placed 5th in her age group.

Racing and real life

Jennifer’s plight is a familiar one to many of us: balancing a non-pro life with elite endurance ambitions. “I trained quite a bit for the race,” she told us, while acknowledging the time restrictions that a PhD candidacy places on her. “I tried to ride at least one hour every day with 1-2 days of threshold training throughout the week.” Unsurprisingly, those threshold days were typically longer rides, which meant weekends.

“My plan going into the race was to stay calm, relaxed, and to make sure my hydration and nutrition was on point and what I practiced,” she said – with an emphasis on the R word. “That was the biggest thing – to stay relaxed – because it would keep me in control and focused on my goals.”

High-heat beatdown

Perhaps the most critical of those goals was, of course, staying hydrated in Alabama’s hot, humid September conditions. Though she had done some training in higher temperatures, she admits that she wasn’t quite acclimated to the 85-degree heat on race day. Hence the hydration focus.

“My goal was to drink every 15 to 20 minutes,” she explained; “however, it was extremely challenging to stick to my hydration plan with all of the tight/windy/ technical turns and challenging competition. I had to push at such high intensity the entire time – and the heat was not helping. Maintaining optimal electrolyte balance was challenging for this race.”

Ultimately, she was able to prevent cramping throughout the race, but hydration was still an issue. “I did struggle to maintain hydration in the hotter weather and humidity, so that is something I need to work on for future high-temperature races,” she noted, referring again to the hands-on-bars nature of the course and the pace she was maintaining to stay competitive.

“When I finally experienced the ‘dehydration goosebumps’ – that was definitely a dark moment. I ended up just dumping water on myself, which seemed to help,” she said, reassuring all amateur physiologists and recreational nutritionists that sometimes the simple solutions can help, after all.

As a marathon event, the race also required a big sacrifice at the altar of carbs, and Jennifer came prepared, pushing her carb totals to 80 g/hour with a combination of gels and EFS hydration mix – the latter of which she also credits with helping her stay calm, relaxed, and in control.

In addition to being beaten up by the high heat, Jennifer’s one regret is bike choice. “I used a Trek fuel EX8,” she said, explaining that the 66-degree head tube and 5in suspension were maybe a little too slack and squishy for the race. “I had no mechanical issues, but in the future, using a lighter, faster XC bike would be better for this type of flat course.”

Why we do it

In the end, even CAT 1 racers like Jennifer aren’t in it for prize purses and public accolades, as nice as those things can be. Training, competing, improving – it’s all about proving it to ourselves and enjoying the atmosphere of competition and support that endurance athletics provides.

“The highlight of the race was having great support and prayers from my family and friends, especially since this was my first national championship race,” she told us.

“Honestly, I did not go into the race having expectations for a high placing. I just wanted to race to the best of my ability, trust my training, and – as I stressed before – stay relaxed. It was quite a surprise when I passed through the finish line hearing that I’d taken fifth place. I had extremely tough competition, and all the girls my age group did really well. It was a gift to be able to race with them.”

To read more from Jennifer, check out her blogs on carbs, protein, hydration, and additional nutrients that research shows can improve endurance performance.

October 26, 2023 — First Endurance
Tags: inspiration

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