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Robyn Mildren, 50 Miles of Wisdom and Inspiration

“Our brain sends signals to our muscles to take us through the world.” – Robyn Mildren This is an opportunity to visit with Canadian, Robyn Mildren, who set the fastest time by a Canadian at the JFK 50 Mile.

Her time in the 2023 race was 6 hours, 27 minutes, and 58 seconds, securing her second place.

Mildren share her strategy and passion. A challenge will test her endurance and a sense of adventure.There are many messages buried in the paragraphs below which do not equate to speed. Let the words of Mildren be an inspiration.

 

What was your motivation for running the JFK 50 Mile?

 

Robyn MildrenCuriosity primarily motivated me. I think of my running career as a bit of an ongoing experiment (albeit poorly controlled and with an N = 1).

Essentially, you test things and find out. Many people far more experienced and smarter than me, especially my coach David Roche, thought that I would really excel at these longer distances.

So, we put it to the test. So far it seems that the more I move up distance, the stronger my performances and potential seem to be. I am really hoping that ends at 50miles!!!

 

 

What was your strategy coming into the race?

 

We really tried to take any pressure and expectations off going into the race. It was my first 50miler and only my second ultra ever.

I also felt like I was close to the edge in terms of the combined stress of training and work (i.e., my real job doing research in a Neuroscience and Neuroengineering lab at Johns Hopkins), especially with being away all week at the largest Neuroscience conference in the world leading into the race.

So, this experience had to be fun. There was no other way I could approach it. That does not mean it had to be easy.

There is a way of finding joy in working hard and getting through the dark moments as well.

But the strategy was to err on the side of leaving time on the table and enjoying it over racing hard from the gun and never wanting to run 50miles again.

I especially wanted to make sure I was truly loving running through the Appalachian Trail section and embracing the rocky/technical terrain over stressing about it. We wanted to be in a position coming off the AT section where I was the hunter and not the one being hunted. 

 

What was your progression into doing ultramarathons?

 

This could be a very long answer. My debut ultra was at the Squamish 50km recently in August, which also served as the Canadian National Championships for the trail ultra. To rewind a little, signing up for that race was purely aspirational.

At the time I registered, I could hardly jog coming off a minor Achilles surgery. I had run well on the road during my PhD when I was living in Vancouver, but struggled and hit rock bottom with running and health (those two things are inseparable) after I moved to Baltimore to start my Post-doc.

I knew I needed to make substantive changes to resuscitate my running career, something which I had managed to do once before after university. Back then, it involved backing off competitive running and diving into other sports like rock climbing, cycling, and some random fun intramural.

Now, switching to trails was a huge component of that change, it brought me out of comparing my splits on the track/road to my former self, and into an exciting new challenge of building hill strength, technical proficiency on trails, and durability over long distances. Ultras are more about you against the terrain rather than you against your watch or even the other competition.

I became a happier, healthier runner again training on the trails, and ended up winning Squamish 50k/Canadian Championships. 

To most people, this was a complete surprise, but I do not think it came out of nowhere (as if these performances ever do).

I feel like unknowingly my whole life has prepared me for ultras, from playing sports all day long as a kid to building the speed and strength on the road while dabbling in mountain running in Vancouver (I previously ran World Mountain Running Championships in Patagonia and Red Bull 400 World Championships in Austria). 

 

Did you learn anything about yourself that you did not know?

 

I learned I am much stronger and more resilient than I previously thought. I am still in awe of that performance when I look through my Strava file. I cannot believe my legs and mind were capable of that, it is as if I am looking at someone else’s activity.

A year ago, at this time I was barely walking after being in a boot for the third time that year. I cannot even describe how hard it got in the last 10 miles and I am so proud of how I pushed through, and also just how far I have come in the past year. 

 

What is the best way to approach the AT section of the course?

 

You can’t win the race on the AT section but you sure can lose it” – Ellie Greenwood’s advice to me going into the race!

Best approach, trust the expert! 

But I will not lie. At this point, I have dissected the race and realized a lot of the gap Jennifer put into me was on the AT. I mostly maintained on the canal section and gained on the road. There’s two ways to look at that: 1)

I was too conservative on the AT, and maybe if I ran it more aggressively I could have won, 2) I still ran the second fastest time on the AT behind one of the very best, and maybe if I really went for it I would have smashed my legs and faded later, or worse gotten hurt and not finished. We will never know. At the moment, I am content with how it played out for my first 50miler. In the future, I might be willing to take the risk.

What did you think about the level of the competition?

 

Absolutely loved it! It was so cool to see athletes there that I follow and admire from afar, and amazing to line up with and find out where I stand against some of the best on the day and those big names who have run JFK in the past.

 

At any point did you try to close in on the winner, or were you comfortable with your position?

 

Early on, 17mins into the race, people were screaming at me that first was within sight and to reel her in. I actually laughed and thought nigh I am good. We still have 6hrs of racing left, and I was focused on my own race. Early on during the canal section, she continued to put time into me even though I felt like I was running as fast as I could without imploding, and I found that a little demotivating tbh.

I was never complacent with my position but had no more to give. When the gap closed near the end, I did everything I could to speed up and catch her, including downing some extra gels and even shoveling some chips in my mouth to see if it had any reviving effect.

But 50miles simply had taken a toll on my legs. In the end, I gave it everything I had, and she was very strong, respectful. 

 

Were there any points on the course you questioned your ability to finish?

 

At the very last crewed aid station, I saw Marty and said to him, “this is so **cking hard.” Knowing how hard it was at that moment and how far I still had to go was one of the toughest points. The thought of dropping out did creep into my mind, but I kept it at bay.

 

What are some changes which you had to adjust in your life because of the sport?

 

The major change I have made in my life since beginning to train for ultras is making no excuses for poor fueling and treating my body with love. (I should note I needed to make these changes regardless of starting to train for ultras or not.)

We implemented fueling during training (minimum 200calories/hour for long runs), which went a long way as far as preventing breakdown.

This was a relatively easy adjustment to make, but I admit fueling the rest of my life has been more of an ongoing challenge.

We have this joke in the lab that we practice “inadvertent fasting” (a play on intermittent fasting) because the experiments take so long, which is probably okay for most normal people but pretty hard after putting in a decent number of miles in the morning.

I really appreciate that my coach David gives me constant nudges to enforce eating enough, because it does not come naturally to me, especially during my chaotic life right now. 

 

How much of what you do is mental?

 

That is a tricky question because you cannot really dissociate mentally from physical aspects. It is kind of closed loop system. Our brains send signals to our muscles to take us through the world, and we get a continuous flow of sensory stimulation back from our body and the physical world.

So, I am not sure if/where one ends, and the other begins.

 

How do you balance things in your life?

 

I know I have a finite amount of time, but an even more limited amount of time where I have the physical/emotional energy to be productive. One key I feel like I recently discovered was how to take advantage of how I naturally feel to maximize training and productivity, especially the ability to do deep work.

For example, early in the morning and after a nice easy run, I am able to do more hard work, like writing papers or scripts. I tend to crash a little in the afternoon and also after harder workouts/long runs, so I leave myself more mindless tasks for those periods (e.g., tedious lab work or data analysis).

This is not always possible, but when I can work at my own natural rhythm and give myself some grace when I feel exhausted rather than forcing everything all the time has let me be more productive and has also helped with recovery.

 

 

*To hear Mildren on a podcast, check out Women Run Canada: EP 47. Robyn Mildren (libsyn.com). To read more interviews by George Banker, check out his M:M Author Homepage.

 



Author

  • George Banker

    George Banker was the Operations Manager for the Army Ten-Miler (US Army / MDW), one of the largest 10-mile road race in the United States. From 2003 through 2023, his responsibilities included the operational planning, logistics, community outreach, design of the course, volunteer recruitment, and support to medical and police jurisdictions. Prior to joining the Army Ten-Miler, he worked 25 years at IBM serving in administration and management within the federal marketing environment in Bethesda, Maryland. He is retired from the U.S. Air Force (enlisted grade Technical Sergeant), where his experience included ground refueling supervisor and cryogenic fluids production supervisor. He received 14 military decorations including the Air Force Commendation Medal, Vietnam Service Medal, Republic of Vietnam Gallantry Cross with Palm, and Republic of Vietnam Campaign Medal (1969-1989). Since 1983, he has worked as a freelance photographer and journalist, contributor for the Runner’s Gazette, and He is the author of “The Marine Corps Marathon: A Running Tradition”. He is an avid runner, with 136 marathons completed.

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