Female Athlete Friday: Morgan Mader
April 21st, 2023: Last weekend we spent some time volunteering at the Potawatomi Trail Races in Pekin, IL. These races are 10 mile loops on rugged trail and across streams with 1500 feet of climb per loop. Race distances included: 10 miles, 30 miles, 50 miles, 100 miles, 150 miles and 200 miles. We had the benefit of catching up with the first place female finisher in the 50 miler, Morgan Mader. She is your Friday Female Athlete and here is her story: Four years ago, in 2019, my husband ran a 50K Spartan obstacle course race. When he
finished, he looked at me and asked, “How can we run these trail races, but without the
obstacles?” I had no idea, as the longest foot race I knew of was the classic marathon, which
typically consists of 26.2 miles of road running. It didn’t take too much research after that to
uncover what we would learn as the wonderful world of ultrarunning.
I grew up as mostly a tomboy, loving the outdoors, participating in sports from basketball,
volleyball, swim team, to even dance and cheerleading. When I was introduced to weight lifting at the age of 17, it was love at first lift. My legs were sore for days, and I was hooked. Twenty years later, and I’m still lifting weights, a passion that has only made me a stronger ultrarunner.
My husband is what you would call a naturally gifted athlete. He’s a strong lifter, as much as he is now an incredibly strong runner. When we entered the sport of ultrarunning, I joined him as a show of team effort. Running was not a passion of mine. In fact, repetitious cardio was somewhat boring to me. I first had to get good at running, which to me meant logging miles after miles, slugging away at whatever pace I could manage, which was typically slow and often arduous at the time. The idea of taking on a race that was 31.2 miles in length was terrifying, and so, true to my character, I wanted to be over-prepared.
In 2019, I ran my first 50K at the Temptation 200 in central Illinois. A short five weeks later, I
tackled my first 50-mile race at the Farmdale Trail Run in the same area. Within another four
weeks we ran two more local Illinois 50Ks, The Run of the Dead, and the Paleozoic Trail Race.
While they were all successful finishes, my performance wasn’t stand-out. If anything, I was a
mid-to-far-back of the pack runner.
The 2019 season gave me a taste for challenging myself, and in 2020 I tried my legs at running a 100K race (62.4 miles) when we returned to the Temptation 200, which turned into another successful finish. Running those 12 extra miles above 50 was emotionally transcendent at the time. Both my husband and I were in love with the local Illinois race scene and wanted to know what more was out there.
My first experience with the annual Potawatomi Trail Run was in April of 2021. I ran a successful and, at the time, fastest 50-miler, finishing in 13 hours and 12 minutes. Nothing overly impressive, but then again nothing to snub your nose at. Potawatomi is one of the best races in Illinois, offering distances up to 200 miles. It quickly became a race we would continue to visit in seasons to come.
With my husband’s successes and exponential growth in the sport, we started to become a
stronger team. We had developed a system of registering for races together, in which I would run a shorter distance and subsequently crew for him after I was finished. Many people are often surprised by this, as it’s no easy or simple feat to run 50 miles and then turn around and crew for the next day or two. To me, it’s what I love to do. I can still enjoy the sport, the nature, the challenge, while also supporting my husband in achieving his goals. To me, that maximizes the experience. Plus, I never believed I would achieve anything of note while racing, as I was still a mediocre runner and satisfied with just finishing these extreme distances.
Our 2021 season was riddled with races, and I started to get better at the 50-mile distance. I ran another successful 100K at Illinois’ Cry Me A River, which is arguably the hardest race in Illinois, boasting over 23,000 feet of elevation gain over 100 miles of trail. There, I was able to podium as 2nd place female, which was pleasantly unexpected. A few short months later, I went for the 150K distance at our third visit to the Temptation 200, which is just about 93 miles of running,and won 1st place female for that distance. I was quickly learning that my willingness to push myself deeper and longer into the pain cave was paying off with some notable accomplishments, ones that I never anticipated.
Fast forward to July of 2022. My husband and I were signed up for another Cry Me A River race in Illinois. This time, I was a race-day sign up for the 100-mile distance, my first real attempt at triple digits. I don’t remember being afraid, I only remember knowing that I was ready. It was time to try and see what I was made of. After 35 hours of running, it turned out I was made of steel and I was able to podium as 2nd place female. I was a different woman after that race. If I could be fearless enough to dive head first into that experience, what other potential could I unlock?
In April of this year, with my husband trying his legs at the 150-mile course record at
Potawatomi, I was registered for another 50-miler, a distance I now am intimately familiar with. Four years of racing under my belt, and I have never felt more prepared or in better shape for a race. I had recently overhauled my running form this winter, after suffering injury after injury over the last several seasons. I was tired of constantly managing setbacks, so I decided to evaluate my running form and go back to the drawing board only focusing on basics and working from there. It was a long eight months of focus and hard work, feeling like a beginner again, but I committed myself to it and had faith it would pay off.
At the starting line of Potawatomi this year, I took off like a rocket, knowing the first big downhill was single-file and wanting to lead the pack down it. After that, I eased up on the pace and started to find my stride. Runner after runner passed me, males and females alike, which isn’t unusual. It used to bother me, but now I enjoy seeing everyone and cheering them on.
Secretly, I know I’ll catch them later.
I’ve learned over the years my strength comes out later in the race, when I can still hold onto the same pace I started with after 30, 40, or 50 miles. I also know when and how to dig deep when the race gets hard. Sometimes it’s the weather, either being too hot, too cold, or too rainy. Sometimes it’s the terrain, when the hills get steep. You have to be willing to run the portions of the trail that others aren’t willing to run in order to win. This year, my goal was to run 50 miles in less than 12 hours, which is something I had never done.
I came to the race willing to lay it all out on the trail. I never run a race without the understanding that I gave it absolutely every ounce of strength, focus, and drive, because I never want to walk away thinking I could have tried harder. This sport is such an incomparable experience in human growth, pain, suffering, and transcendence. Races are often held in beautifully scenic areas, with a wide variety of weather and terrain conditions. It’s part sport, part outdoorsmanship. To be successful, you must train your body, but you must also train your mind and problem-solving skills.
After about 20 miles, I start passing other 50-mile runners. The last eight months of training and focus are starting to show, and my legs still feel great after 40 miles of hard running. I’m flying down a downhill and driving up an uphill when two other runners I pass say to each other, “That’s the first place female for the 50-miler.” I smile, tell them they both look great, and laugh as I yell, “Well, a lot can happen in twenty miles!” Which is true. I knew I was running well, but things could get sour fast if I didn’t stay focused on my nutrition and hydration.
In the final 10 miles, I made the decision to really go for it. One cannot achieve great things if
one is not willing to sacrifice comfort, safety, and what's familiar. I was in uncharted territory,
pushing myself harder than I ever had during a race. My legs started to ache, reminding me that I was running an ultra. The heat and the sun were in full blaze, making me work even harder for what I wanted to achieve. Two miles from the finish, I glanced at my watch and learned for the first time that I would not only accomplish my goal of finishing in less than 12 hours, I would crush it and finish in less than 11 hours! Those last stretches of trail were unforgettable. Running up to the finish, my name was announced over the speaker system and I learned that I had won 1st place female for the 50-mile distance. I threw my fist in the air, goosebumps riddling my body at this unexpected achievement.
I finished 6th overall out of about 63 total runners, the only female in the top ten for the 50-mile race. The sport of ultrarunning is truly the great equalizer between male and female athletes. The warm and jovial congratulations I received for the remainder of the weekend will never leave me, as the community of ultrarunners who come to Potawatomi are a consistently supportive and, dare I say, loving bunch of folks. I enjoyed a weekend of true celebration, as my husband subsequently won his 150-mile race and established a new course record. It was truly an enriching experience to walk away a champion in more ways than just one.
My story is not over. If anything, it has just begun. Proof that you can do absolutely anything you put your mind to, and more.
If you are interested in challenging yourself and unlocking more of your potential, feel free to
contact us for coaching guidance at firstname.lastname@example.org, or visit our site at
www.teamblackwell.com. Also, check out our organization through Instagram at
*Morgan Mader is not a sponsored athlete or associated with REGAIN Sports Drink (yet, LOL!). We just wish to share the amazing stories and accomplishments of female athletes.
**Do you have an amazing female athlete story to tell? Email us your athlete story to email@example.com