Shelley Cook had a banner year in 2013. After starting the year with a first place finish in her age group at the S-NO-W Fun Run, Cook went on to have 12 more first place age group finishes and six overall first place finishes in distances ranging from a 5K at the North Shore Cupid’s Love Dash to 100 miles at the Kettle Moraine 100.
Cook began running in 1998 to lose weight but discovered that the sport provided much more than a way to cultivate a healthier lifestyle.
“I quickly found that I enjoyed the competitive aspect of running and racing,” Cook says. “It wasn’t so much competing against others, but more just seeing how far I could push myself and find out what my potential was.”
After years as a road runner and marathoner, Cook decided to tackle her first ultra, the 2009 Lakefront 50K, three weeks after finishing seventh in the WhistleStop Marathon in Ashland, Wis. She won the race, but the sense of community she found in ultra running had a far greater impact on her than her victory.
“What I really took away from that day was the feeling of togetherness that you feel during an ultra,” Cook says. “That feeling is what drew me to ultras and what keeps me running them.”
Ultra running presents an entirely different challenge than most races both from a terrain and strategy standpoint. Cook runs most of her ultra races on trails and therefore seeks out trails for her long runs, which she often completes back-to-back on weekends. The most important thing in ultra running, Cook says, is the amount of time spent on your feet.
“Pace is almost irrelevant in an ultra,” she says. “One mile you might be running a blazing eight minute pace, and the next could be a 15 minute mile. I really run these races based on feel, listening to my body, trying to conserve energy.”
Though physical training is crucial, Cook has also found that other ultra runners can be another important resource in training.
“One really great thing about ultra runners is that they share what they know,” Cook says. “Almost everything I know I learned from a fellow runner.”
In the coming year, Cook hopes to challenge herself more than ever before. In particular, she would like to finish in the top three at the Ice Age 50 in May. Doing so would earn her an automatic entry into the Western States 100, which she first ran after being chosen through the lottery in 2011.
“It was a daunting challenge,” Cook says. “I didn’t finish, but I consider [Western States] to be one of my biggest accomplishments. It was so hard and so scary. Coming from flat Illinois and trying to run in the Sierra Nevadas and making it 78 miles was a huge accomplishment for me.”
Events like Western States and other ultras may be an enormous challenge, but Cook hopes that by taking on these tough races, she sets a positive example for her nine-year-old daughter Miina.
“I am not one to sugar coat things and make life seem pretty and easy,” Cook says. “Life isn’t perfect and easy. There is going to be a lot of adversity, a lot of mountains and you won’t always succeed. It’s my hope that by setting a positive example for her, and by setting ‘almost impossible, but if you work really hard you can do it’ type goals, she will grow into a strong, independent woman. … On the same note, she will also get to see what happens when even if you give everything you’ve got, and you fall short of that goal, she will see that life goes on, and will see it with grace, because when you put everything you have into something, there simply isn’t failure involved.”
Cook is also particularly grateful to Jenny Spangler and the Jenny Spangler Racing Team, the Lake Forest/Lake Bluff Running Club, The MUDD Runners and New Leaf Ultra Runs for the support she’s received throughout her journey.
“I truly believe the reason why I do so well is because I have so many people that believe in me and support me,” she says. “I am so humbled and grateful for the amount of support I get from fellow runners, my family and friends. The ultra community is very special to me, and I am so honored to be a part of it.”