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Jonnah Perkins on Balancing Trail Running, Motherhood, and Farmlife

By Jonnah Perkins, May 7, 2021

headshot (1)_optI often get asked for perspective on how running as a mother is different from running life without kids. The answer is, I really don’t know. I didn’t start running with any amount of seriousness until after my first child was born, and this may be where my burst of visceral energy came from. Giving birth and raising children has been the most invigorating, exhausting whirl of momentum I have yet to experience in my life. For me, running and motherhood have always been woven together in a wild tangle of passion, energy, and, at times, soul-sucking fatigue. 

womens health ebook banner1I married into one of the largest CSA (community-supported agriculture) farms in the Midwest. Three years ago, we transitioned our farm away from CSA and into organic seed potato production. But over a decade of my life was shaped by the rhythms of intensive vegetable farming. Now with a focus on potatoes, farm life moves at a more mellow pace, though we still keep a large garden and a few animals on the farm. With this lifestyle has come endless access to organic food: walk-in coolers filled dozens of varieties of vegetables and fruit, chest freezers of pastured meat, and a network of neighboring farms for bartering eggs, grains, and dairy. For years, I told myself that I could sustain any amount of training, physical labor, and motherly rigor, as long as I ate what the farm provided me. This has been mostly true, except there is always an upper limit. Always.

 

Overcoming years of override conditioning

Jonnah-02After running my first marathon, I remember sitting down to nurse my 10-month-old son with pure gratitude for what my body could do. And before my first 50-mile race, nursing my 9-month-old daughter in the back of our pickup truck before heading to the starting area, I felt sheer gratitude. But since those early brushes with the rapture of my simultaneous athleticism and mothering pride, I have found myself always reaching for the next thing, as so many athletes do. Big training led to regional podium finishes, which led to bigger races and opportunities to travel with teams and other athletes. And although I intellectually know when my body is "putting on the breaks," the exhilaration of Running Life and the prospect of bigger adventures create a mirage of energy, which can (and has) lead to system overload.

It took a list of soft tissue injuries, a stress fracture, and immune system vulnerability for me to understand that I need to put my body and health ahead of any athletic goal if I'm going to thrive in running and as a working mother. My official commitment to put health first has been bolstered by keeping track of my biomarkers through InsideTracker. Matching the dysregulation I feel in my body with concrete science is such an empowering affirmation after years of not knowing the source of my energetic misalignments.

 

My paradoxical approach to improving iron levels

Jonnah-03Like many women, I have an ongoing struggle to keep my iron levels in the optimal range. It was so interesting to learn from an InsideTracker blog that runners actually lose iron through their feet with every footstrike. Coupled with the fact that I am a menstruating woman, I have a high demand for dietary iron. In an attempt to boost my iron group, I turned to red meat for nourishment. As someone who has access to large amounts of grass-fed beef, pastured pork, and wild game, this seemed like a straightforward way to bring in the bioavailable iron that my body needs.

In my most recent InsideTracker panel, I was surprised to see that my LDL cholesterol was elevated, something that has never been on my health radar. Through my InsideTracker dietary recommendations, I have now replaced some of my meatier meals with plant-based iron sources, like beans and dark greens. To simultaneously support the improvement of ferritin and lowering of LDL, my breakfast now includes rolled oats with sesame seeds and dark chocolate. 

I have centered my life around agriculture and supporting a healthy food system. This has put me in a food-first mindset, but I have come to learn that supplementing with additional nutrients that I have a hard time optimizing is a powerful tool. I will be incorporating a daily iron supplement to get my ferritin levels up, per my InsideTracker recommendations.

 

Stress management as a lifestyle

As athletes, mothers, and humans in general know, stress is a nebulous concept. In our training we want to apply just the right amount of stress to create an adaptation stimulus. But if we tip over the edge, we can quickly dig a hole, especially while balancing the demands of kids. It took me about two years to exhaust myself to the point where I could no longer keep up with my life. I remember realizing that I needed a break from running when I had to sit down to dress myself, even standing up spiked my heart rate. My physician diagnosed me with mononucleosis, but as a mother of toddlers working to manage a family business, I had no opportunity for bed rest. With the new lexicon that COVID has given us, I now call the viral infection I experienced, longhauler-mono. Staying ahead on immune health and recovery is no longer optional. I will never be able to inconsequentially push myself into training that is too rigorous for my body and life. 

Comparing my perceived wellness against my InsideTracker biomarkers has been invaluable in tracking my attention to stress management. While I track my endurance training in miles and hours spent running, diagnostic feedback from my InsideTracker biomarker tests has been equally important. I look at cortisol, magnesium, and my testosterone:cortisol ratio. If these biomarkers are flagged as suboptimal (an indication of potential over-training), I know that I need to adjust my training and racing calendar.

I have developed routines for myself that keep me healthy and build boundaries into my work and running life:

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Unwinding core beliefs about productivity

Ultimately, as an athlete, mother, and small business owner, I need to remember that these pillars of my life come with built-in stress. I could even say they are stress-seeking choices. As my personal history and biomarkers have shown me, there is always an upper limit to how much pressure I can put on my body and my life. Racing and the grind of big training blocks pale in comparison to the rigor and sense of accomplishment of motherhood. If I want to have lofty, billowing running adventures in my life, I need to make space for health and recovery at the head of the metaphorical table.

 

A nourishing recipe I make from local ingredients

I created this recipe with my nutritional recommendations to support ferritin and lower LDL cholesterol. As a local, seasonal food advocate, everything in this soup is either from our farm or from neighboring farmers. While nutrition comes first, it is a fun challenge to see how many InsideTracker recommended foods can be sourced from your home region. You might meet some interesting folks while tracking down farmers who grow these foods close to home. Double the recipe and put some in the freezer for busy days.

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Instructions

In a large pot, heat cooking oil or butter on medium heat and add in the chopped onion. Cook until the onion is transparent. Add stock and water, bring to a simmer. Add in the cubed potatoes and beans. Cook until vegetables can be pierced with a fork. Blend the entire contents of the pot with an immersion blender or transfer to a food processor. Blend until smooth (I like my soup a little chunky). Transfer back into the pot if you used a food processor. Season with salt and pepper—this will depend on how salty your stock is. Garnish with yogurt, greens, cheese, bread, shredded vegetables and, kimchi. To celebrate spring, I harvested wild mustard greens, clover, and, dandelion. This soup is also delicious cold!

 


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Jonnah Perkins
Jonnah is a competitive ultradistance trail runner, writer, farmer, and mother based in southwest Wisconsin. She seeks out food at its source to fuel her adventures and feed her family. She travels around the country for training, racing, and exploring through food and running. Jonnah has learned that long-term performance comes from health.