Warrior II Pose: Stand in Mountain Pose. Breathe in. On the exhale, step back until your feet are about four feet apart. Turn your back foot so it’s at a 45-degree angle from your front foot. Bend your front leg until your knee makes a 90-degree angle, or as close to it as you can. Straighten or nearly straighten your back leg. Raise your arms parallel to the floor with your palms facing down. Drop your shoulders from your ears. Take a deep breath and reflect.
Jenny Nichols takes this time to ask herself: Do I feel tight? Where do I need to focus on today? How are my hips and shoulders?
“Yoga is knowing yourself and your body,” Jenny said. “It is a self-awareness, like ultrarunning.”
In a race, the similar thoughts of self-awareness flow in: Do I need sugar? Salt? How are my legs feeling today? Ummm, where is the finish line?
In Jenny’s world, the two go hand-in-hand. They make up a “complex dualism,” where running flourishes when yoga thrives. It is a balance years of dedication, strength, and the ability to admit defeat have created.
For Jenny, the blonde 37-year-old mother, wife, and entrepreneur, that balance has leveled her into the badass ultrarunner/yogini she is today–strong accent and all.
Jenny mothers two boys while living in the Bristol, Virginia and Tennessee region with her husband. The town is situated in the area bordered by the two states, where some businesses claim the Tennessee address and others have the Virginia one, and everyone is voiced with the Southern-mixed-with-Eastern drawled-out dialect.
Jenny claims that the accent can be hard to take sometimes, and as kid she was embarrassed by it. But now she says is another thing that makes her, her.
“I once went to Louisiana and their accent is crazy strong, but they are all proud of their heritage,” she said. “I said to myself, Man, if they can be proud then I can be. People like me, if they don’t like the accent then they don’t have to talk to me. I have embraced it.”
She was born and raised in the Bristol, Virginia area, attended the University of Virginia for political science, and at age 27 decided to have her first son Jack and stay at home, eventually leading to starting her own business.
She began running high-school cross country and track and field, but was so embarrassed at her race during the freshman year regional meet when her coach came up to her and asked, “Do you really want to improve?”
“I was working so hard and not having any results,” she said of her freshman-year training. During the off-season she began lifting weights, running, and working out with the high-school girls’ basketball team.
“Something clicked in my head,” she said. “It was a long summer of hard work and persistence.”
These two traits came back a few years later when she found herself at 185 pounds and pregnant with her first son.
“I had never done a marathon before,” she said. After Jack’s birth she was ready to take on another challenge. “I found shoes, looked up a race in Runner’s World Magazine, and went and did it.”
She finished the Louisville Marathon in 2005 in 4 hours and 23 minutes. Not very fast, she said, but a huge accomplishment.
It was her next-door neighbor, Beth Minnick, who exposed her to the world of ultrarunning.
“She ran the Boston Marathon and then got into ultrarunning. I thought she had lost her mind,” Jenny said. “Trails? Snakes? Bears?”
Around two years later, her brother Todd died, plunging Jenny into a traumatic whirlwind. It was the last month of her second pregnancy.
When she was cleared to run three months after her son’s birth, whom she named after her late brother, she met up with Beth, this time the concept of trail running didn’t seem so bizarre.
“Beth called me to run 17 miles,” she said of that first trail run.
“Yeah, I can do that,” she responded.
A few hours later: “It kicked my ass.”
With no gels, Jenny bonked hard in road shoes as she trekked through the wandering Virginia trails.
“I had an amazing time,” she exclaimed. “It was the peace I needed. The medicine I needed.”
Ultrarunning became a way to escape and just let it all out.
“I could be angry, cry, I could think about my brother,” she said. “It was a different community. It accepted who I was without any competition.”
“I finally found my people, my tribe,” she told me.
She and Beth continue to run together as a part of their founded club, Happy Trails. The club began with 10 people, its members discussing the next day’s route through Facebook posts. Now, she said, it is over 300 people and up to 20 runners will show up for a long run.
“It is not affiliated with the Virginia Happy Trails Running Club, but is modeled after that,” she said. Jenny is friends with Sophie Speidel, claiming it was mentor Sophie who took her under her wing when she first began racing. The two meet together every year to trek with the other members of the Dirty Moms group, which escapes annually to the Appalachian Trail for crazy adventures.
Jenny’s running escalated quickly, consuming the body of the woman entering into races nearly every month for the next few years.
The endless miles were taking a toll on her fatiguing muscles and mind.
In 2011, Jenny started her yoga journey to combat what racing so many ultras a year was doing on her body.
Each pose added to the balance of her new training program, working through running and actively recovering with yoga.
“It is important for longevity,” she said. “I first used yoga as recovery from long races like Hellgate 100k. Instead of stiffening on the couch, I was moving and flowing.”
Today, after four years of yoga practice and teaching, the benefits of the movement surpass simple stretching.
“I can focus better and am just mentally stronger,” she said. “My breathing is better, I have enhanced creativity, and am better at being present in the moment.”
Trail running and yoga go together, she explained.
The trails provide the cardio outlet and spiritual “church-time,” while yoga softens the rugged runner into toning those trail-built muscles through body-trusting poses and flow.
The balance between the strong, masculine side of ultrarunning combined with the softer, feminine side of yoga inspired her to start a small business, Mountain PrimaDonna LLC, a homemade jewelry and accessories business.
She first started making her own jewelry through metal-working in college. Several years ago, she worked at an independent sporting-goods store in Virginia called Mountain Sports Ltd. where she picked up the skills needed to run her own business.
In 2014, she started an Etsy site and fields requests of different projects daily. Her work combines the masculine and feminine of yoga, running, metalworking, and jewelry making. Jenny even provided the awards for the VHTRC Women’s Half Marathon.
With the business, mothering, wife-ing, and her running and yoga, her typical day includes rising super early to get a headlamp run in before the boys wake up. After fixing breakfast and preparing lunches for the boys’ school days, Jenny spends the rest of her days working on orders and running back and forth to the post office. She’ll train clients at various times throughout the week at the yoga studio before picking the boys up from school for the night.
“I have to balance life in a way where my passions are not disruptive of everyone else,” she said. “It took me a while to get there, but life is short and we have to embrace the time we have.”
Her life is the metaphor of an ultra, she said.
“The 100 miler strips you raw till you’re whittled to nothing. It is the life, death, and rebirth journey.”
In her running she has experienced the lively aspects, such as winning the Grindstone 100 Mile in 2012.
Despite being laden with allergies and bronchitis leading up the race, resulting in not being able to train as she would have liked, and receiving a text from her worried parents warning her not to run, Jenny toed that start line in October, determined to run the race she spent $300 on.
“For whatever reason, everything came together,” she explained. “All the stars aligned and I felt good.”
Claiming she started off too fast with the top-three women, Jenny said she kept the pace up through the night, eventually passing all the women before ticking off many of the men.
“I really like night running, I am just so happy and carefree,” she said, adding in that she remained happy and carefree while ignoring the coughing and running nose.
At the turnaround marker, Sophie met her to pace, at which point the runner was pretty spent from running so hard for so long.
“She kept me eating, drinking, and moving,” she said, throwing the praise of her win to her fellow Dirty Mom.
“Jenny ran a flawless first hundred at Grindstone,” Speidel claimed. “She took it out steady but not too fast as she felt great for most of the race–until the quad-busting downhills in the last 15 miles. We just had a lot of fun running together on trails we knew well, so it felt like a faster training run for most of the race.”
To this day, though, Jenny said she has no idea how or why she ran so fast, but said it was a beautiful course for an amazing journey.
It was the race of a lifetime, but over the next three years Jenny had trouble keeping up with the stress of the multiple hats she was wearing. She was filled to the brim with more ultras, job demands, and yoga teaching. Her life was beginning to teeter-totter into the unbalanced, threatening to end some of her beloved passions. To save them, she needed to make a change.
From January 2015 until the beginning of 2016, Jenny has taken a sabbatical from running, finally acknowledging the overtraining and racing she was putting herself through.
“I had no enthusiasm,” she said. “I was getting injured frequently, I was tired and fatigued, and just couldn’t recover.”
Yoga, two boys, a rising business, ultrarunning.
“I had to realize I was only one person, that I couldn’t do it all,” she said. She took the time to build up her business and clientele and devote more time flowing into poses at the yoga studio.
But, instead of having a passion pass away, the year off allowed her to refocus and regain the energy she needed to rebirth of her running life again.
Now, Jenny feels back on track, this time knowing how to keep both sides of her teeter-totter level, knowing her limits.
With the help of Andy Jones-Wilkins coaching her to several ultras this year, Jenny has 2016 planned out for her rebirth into the running world. She was en route to running the Thomas Jefferson 100k on March 12, however a nagging runner’s-knee problem forced her to say no.
“I was stretching and foam rolling so much, and still literally dragging my leg behind me,” she said. “I probably could have ran and survived, but I decided not to do the race and take some time to heal.”
And heal is what she needed to get the bounce back to her step, she said.
Trying to catch her breath in early April after a beautiful 72-degree Fahrenheit run, Jenny said everything in her life–kids, running, yoga, and her business–were all doing really well.
Despite the small injury setback, Jenny has her eyes back on the training book, with the Greyson Highlands 50k race penned into her calendar for April 23rd. The Yeti 100 Mile Endurance Run is scheduled for September 30th.
Both races, she said enthusiastically, are located near her home, allowing her to finish the race and be back home within the hour of finishing.
“My goal is to finish every race I start and to be more present,” she said. “I want to be more present with my family, friends, and just in my world. Ultrarunning helps that, helps you be in that present moment in nature.”
Over the last year, Jenny has changed the way she looks at sponsorships, the way she thinks about others’ perceptions of her, even how she looks at why she has chosen her passions.
“As an ultrarunner baby, all I wanted was to be sponsored,” she said, and thanks to her Grindstone win both Salomon and GU picked her up as athlete to represent their companies. “But then I put so much pressure on myself, and when I was not running, I didn’t want to let people down, so I let it all go.” She’s now let go of that pressure, and feels free to run without any need to prove herself to others or her own self.
Slowing down and balancing her priorities has allowed her to question what her true motivations are for running, yoga, and her business, in addition to her unwavering duties of being a wife and mother.
“I want to be there with a pure heart, and run these races because I am happy and I enjoy it,” she said. “People will respect me whether I am fast or slow. Whether I am supermom or a yogini.”
Her realization speaks the truth, according to Speidel.
“I know I can speak for many of her female friends in the ultra world when I say we are in awe of her energy, drive, focus… but mostly her sincere desire to be authentic, real, and true to herself,” Speidel said. “She seems so happy and fulfilled with her life, and she is a great example of someone who found her callings, and wasn’t afraid to take risks to grow.”
It has been a learning process, one of balance, self-assessment, and reaching a new kind of maturity.
“I didn’t have all that at the beginning,” she admitted.
Now, she flows into Warrior II Pose, arms outstretched and chin lifted high. Her legs slightly quiver of fatigue from her morning run.
She has a long week of working and mothering, only taking breaks to skateboard down the street with her two boys.
In this pose, no one and nothing can touch or daunt her.
“This is my home base,” she explained. Breathe in. Exhale. “It is a very strong and powerful pose.”
For a very strong and powerful woman.