Trail Chat with Debbie Gibson

Debbie racing the Bootlegger 50k. Photo: Kristen Wilson Photography
Debbie Gibson, age 51, is not only a very talented trail runner who specializes in ultrarunning but she is also a very kind, humble and thoughtful person with a friendly smile. In 2015, she spent over 6 months not running a step on crutches and yet through her hard work, determination and believing in herself, she persevered both mentally and physically to place 3rd overall at Le Grizz and then in November she finished Rio Del Lago 100 mile race in California. Read about how Debbie overcame this injury, how she trains at a high level as a masters runner and mother; and how trail running transformed her life.


Please tell the readers a little about yourself:  

I was born in Missoula, but being an Air Force brat, I traveled a little during my childhood, including Taiwan and Israel. I graduated high school in Oklahoma and always had the desire to return to the mountains, so it didn’t take me long to make it back. I have been married for 25 years, and have two beautiful daughters. I received my BA from Carroll College, and eventually finished my MPH at U of M. I am currently the microbiology and molecular laboratory manager at the Montana Public Health Laboratory where I have been for over 17 years.

I ran a little in high school, but never pursued running as a lifestyle until I turned 40. At that time (2004), my husband was deployed to Iraq and I had 2 year-old and 4 year-old daughters. Running became my quiet time. I ran my first marathon and was addicted. In 2009, I found my true passion, trail running, and have not looked back since.

I have been very fortunate to have had some good races early on which fueled my energy, but I have to say that anyone out there willing to give trail running a chance will not be disappointed. It is not about how well you do…it is all about the feeling of accomplishment and challenging yourself…a personal goal that allows you to realize you can do more than you know.
Debbie (on right) at the Blue Mountain 30k. Photo: Vo von Sehlen
How did you become a trail runner and what do you love most about being a trail runner?

I first started running trails with the Helena Ultra Runners League (HURL) in 2008. I thought it might help my marathon training, and also thought it might be nice to join a running group for some of my long runs. I remember being asked, “Why people run roads when Helena has such a great trail system?” I thought about that statement a lot. I had always been somewhat hesitant to run trails alone, mainly for fear of getting lost -- yes, I am navigationally challenged, so here was my chance to try it out -- and that is all it took to get me hooked. What a great and inspiring group of runners… not only did they get me hooked on the trails, but they also got me hooked on running Ultras which has become my true passion.

There is something about trail runners in general that is just so welcoming. We are all out there for the same reason…the love of running and the love of nature. It is hard to explain, but I have a true sense of solitude when I am running in the mountains, almost spiritual… a sense of freedom and lightheartedness that allows me to get away from the stresses of life. It is part of who I am. That feeling, along with the people I have met on the trails, and my co-trail runners and our adventure runs, is what I love most. Plus, it only costs a good pair of shoes ;)
Elkhorn Trail. Photo: Steve Engebrecht (RD of HURL Elkhorn Ultras)
In 2015, you were injured on crutches and did not run for over 6 months and yet you placed 3rd overall female at Le Grizz and then finished a 100 mile race in November which is an amazing achievement and so inspiring. What words of advice do you have for those who are also struggling with injuries?

I had a big injury in November 2014, which I now basically blame on overtraining. I had been racing quite a bit and packing on the miles, and really was not paying enough attention to giving my body the recovery it needed. My plan was to finish my year with a 100-miler in Arizona, and although I did make it to the start, I ended up dropping a little over ½ way through…I had fallen a couple of times and just felt heavy-legged and out of it. Turns out I had a hairline fracture in the neck of my femur, leaving me on crutches, with no weight bearing exercise for a couple of months, and no running for basically 6 months. What a mental blow! The hardest part is I did not really even feel this injury coming on.

Sometimes injuries can take you through different stages…almost like some of the stages of grieving - maybe a little denial, anger, depression, and then finally acceptance. If nothing else, through the years I have learned that injury is just sometimes a way for your body to say enough is enough, and allows your body to heal and get even stronger. The hardest part to overcome is your mind set… the feeling that you are losing everything you have worked for so hard. Although not easy, you can look at it as a time to rejuvenate your body and strengthen yourself in other ways that might make you come back even stronger. Cross-training activities (as from Nicole) have always kept me going… and even though I am not running, I am getting good workouts that have been shown to benefit me in the long run. I have always come out of my injuries stronger than when I went into them. There is such a fine line between peaking for a race and injury. I came out of mine this year running well… I was even able to finish a 100 miler this November and felt good. Just know that there is light at the end of the tunnel, and understanding that your body needs the chance to recover.

I fortunately or unfortunately have the gift of high pain tolerance and fast recovery, which sounds great, but can make me more prone to injury. If nothing else, I have learned to listen to my body. It did not come easy, but the more I run, the better I get to know myself and what pains I should worry about and the ones I should not. Just know that time off, although mentally challenging, is not a bad thing and will not necessarily hurt your running in the least. We are all different… but just take time to really listen to your body. I feel privileged every day I am out there and healthy enough to run. There are so many others that do not have that opportunity.

You have become faster and stronger as you became older. How do you achieve this?

I have no idea, other than experience. We all need time to figure out what works for us as individuals. There is so much information out there and what I truly believe is you just need to develop a good foundation and find out what works for you. A good coach --Nicole ;) -- can help with that initial development. (editors note -I helped Debbie with her training for about 2 years from 2008 to 2010 and she has trained herself since then). It is a trial and error type of learning. I tend to run a lot on my own, so I get to know myself and my comfortable pace, but also run with others that push me a little and keep me going.
Training in the Spanish Peaks. Photo: Drew Walker
You work full time outside of the home, are a mother of 2 girls and your husband works out of town. How do you fit in the hours running needed for ultras?

As far as how I train, it can be pretty sporadic. With a 40+ hour job, two daughters, and a husband that works out of town, I try to run wherever I can fit it in. During the work week, I pretty much run over the lunch hour...sometimes speed and sometimes not...depends on how I feel and whether or not I am running by myself. I usually end up missing at least one day due to work, so I don't necessarily plan a day off unless my body lets me know I need it. But I always take at least one day off...

My weekends are where I train long. For both a 50 and a 100, I need to back-to-back long runs on Saturday and Sunday...I don't usually go by miles as much as hours. It really comes down to time on your feet. I probably average 65-70 miles per week and really don't train that much differently between a 50 and a 100. The furthest I ran before my 100 this year was Le Grizz 50M, but I tend to be able to run on less miles, where other people may need more. I am sure if I was planning on racing, more miles would be better.

What role do you think trail runners can play to help preserve the trails and the earth?

I think trails runners in general are very conscientious of helping preserve the trails and the earth. We seem to have a common appreciation for nature and the surroundings and feel fortunate that we are able to be out there running. Any day running on trails is a good day regardless.  Trash can be picked up, anything unusual can be reported, and helping with trail clearings and trail work days are just a few ways to give back.
Beautiful Elkhorn Trail. Photo: Steve Engebrecht

What trail runs would you suggest around the Helena region?

Helena has a great trail system. There are so many trails we can run right out of our front doors. I try to run every afternoon from work, either on the South Hills trails or Mount Helena Area. Just to name a few, the Prickly Pear Don’t Fence Me In trail runs , 5K, 10K, and 30K, provide a great preview of the Helena Trail System. The South Hills Annual Trail Series (SHATS) is also a local trail series that showcases many of our trails. We are also fortunate to have the Elkhorn Mountains nearby, which I could run in forever. The HURL Elkhorn 50k and 50M runs take place the first week of August and while tough, the scenic beauty will surely not disappoint... one of my favorites for sure. I feel very fortunate to live in such a great running community with access to so many varied trails and the chance to enjoy them.

Thank you Debbie for the insightful and inspiring interview. We wish you the best in life and running.

Nicole Hunt


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