Barbara Powell is a middle child — born seventh of 12 brothers and sisters. Growing up, she was “allowed” to run track and cross country because that was the activity choice of the rest of her siblings; any other extracurricular sport was off the table. So run she did.
“My household had no TV or computer,” Powell, 34, recalls of her childhood on a piece of farmland in Western Massachusetts. “We grew up very connected with each other and spent so much time playing outside. I’m grateful for that.”
When she was about 10, Powell — wearing hand-me-down shoes a size too big — set out on her first run with her dad. She remembers the crunch of her feet against the ground, the reflection of the sunlit trees, the smell of hot pine, and the conversations with her dad. “I fell deeply in love with running that day and have not shaken it since,” she says.
Little did Powell know that those first steps on the pavement would lead her to later pursue ultrarunning — and one day train for a 100-mile race in the mountains of Colorado.
Growing Her Foundation
In her mid 20s, Powell moved from the East Coast to the Midwest to pursue her master’s degree in integrative health and well-being at the Center for Spirituality and Healing at the University of Minnesota. She became board-certified in Integrative Health Coaching in 2019.
Upon graduation in 2020, Powell learned about Life Time Mind, a new-at-the-time holistic performance-coaching program for team members at Life Time. “It felt like one of those kismet moments. The position was a great fit from the beginning and I’m still doing that work,” she says.
“The coaching I do with people on a regular basis is similar to the coaching I’m constantly doing with myself,” Powell explains. “For example, there are times in the middle of a hard run when I may start to feel sorry for myself. In those moments I work to shift gears mentally to a place of gratitude. I remind myself, You are in this beautiful location with all these sensory experiences — and then my mindset shifts for the better.”
Training for and competing in races — 5Ks, half marathons, marathons, 50Ks, and 50-milers — were a regular part of Powell’s schedule in her 20s and early 30s. “I like to think the universe opens doors for us and we can either choose to walk through them or not,” she says. “Personally, I love walking through new doors — it gives me a chance to learn about who I am and grow in new ways. Running just happened to be my mode of transportation through those doors. My first half marathon, marathon, and ultrarace were all invitations I decided to say ‘yes’ to.”
Powell ran her marathon personal best at the Boston Marathon in 2016, crossing the finish line in 3 hours and 24 minutes. She placed third in her age group at the Birkie Marathon in 2021 — even though she accidentally took a wrong turn and ran 29 miles instead of 26.2. She likes to think of that as her first ultradistance race on accident.
In 2022, Powell ran her first 50-mile race, along with five 50K races. So far in 2023, she’s run the Prairie Spirit 50-miler (as well as other shorter races), placing first in her age group and second overall for women.
Connecting to a Cause
Through working at Life Time, Powell discovered the Life Time Foundation, the nonprofit that partners with schools and community organizations across the nation with the goal of improving youth health through nutrition and movement. (Read “A Q&A With the Life Time Foundation” to learn more.) She knew she wanted to be involved.
“Movement and nutrition were paramount in my childhood,” Powell says. “I had the privilege of having access to movement programs that were safe and provided me opportunity to develop and grow as a person. With nutrition, my dad had a huge garden, and so we always had nourishing food available and knew where our food came from.”
To support its mission, the Life Time Foundation partners with athletes who fundraise and then compete at iconic endurance events. Powell officially partnered with the organization in 2022 and set the goal of training for and completing the Leadville 100-mile race — her first-ever 100-miler — in August 2023. “The Life Time Foundation is an organization I can really get behind and use my love for running for impactful good,” says Powell. (You can view Powell’s athlete page to learn more about her fundraising efforts.)
The Leadville 100-mile is a feat: Runners start at 10,200 feet and travel through extreme Rocky Mountain terrain, climbing up to 12,600 feet. “I’ve matured and my running has evolved,” says Powell. “You move up in distance and you experience what it feels like to go farther and farther. Ultrarunning is intriguing to me. So much of it is an individual endeavor, and there’s a deep connection to nature and being outdoors. I’m really drawn to that lifestyle.”
Moving to the Mountains
Training for Leadville has been a primary focus for Powell — so much so that she packed up her 2001 Subaru Forester and drove just under 1,000 miles to move from her home in Minneapolis, Minn., to Alma, Colo., for the five months leading up to race day. She chose Alma so she could consistently train at a high altitude (the town sits at 10,361 feet and her chosen home in it sits at 11,000 feet).
Powell also hired a coach, Greg, who creates her training schedule and with whom she connects over text and phone calls, and through the Final Surge app. “You have to respect the distance. You have to respect the mountains. And you have to respect the terrain,” says Powell. “I am challenged to put my ego aside and prepare well for this.”
Reflecting on her time living in Colorado — and since regularly running at elevations of 9,000 to 10,000 feet — Powell says it’s been a time of learning and acclimation. “My body is learning to breathe right and my heart is getting used to pumping this hard,” she says. “My body needs to move differently in this altitude.”
As part of her training program, Powell is focusing on mileage increases. “I have building blocks where I’ll run 30 miles on a Saturday and 20 miles on a Sunday,” she explains. “Those back-to-back long runs help increase my mileage and endurance.”
Some weeks Powell runs a total of 80 miles, while other weeks she backs off and runs closer to 20 miles to recover. She also signed up for a few “test races,” including the Leadville Marathon and the Silver Rush 50. “Every run has a purpose,” she says. “Some are at an easier pace to keep my engine running without risking injury, and others practice distance or pacing.”
In addition to running, Powell strength trains one to two times a week, focusing on movements like squats, deadlifts, lunges, and shrugs, and strengthening her core and back. She also includes intentional recovery efforts.
“I benefit from hard-training efforts when I recover well,” she says. “I’ve been religious about getting seven to nine hours of sleep each night. I journal in the morning to work through my emotions. I foam roll and do yoga. I’ve had reiki and massage work done. And I also allow myself time to not think about training — and instead get lost in a book or go to a brewery for live music.”
Along with the physical challenge, Powell is also embracing the mental test of ultrarunning. “Running gives us this platform to listen to our bodies to determine what we need if we’re going to move forward, especially when we’re at 20 miles, 30 miles, and so on,” she says. “Our bodies are going to request things from us, and we have to be diligent enough to listen and respond in wise ways.”
Powell says that her training rarely feels like a hassle because of her passion for it. “I love running,” she says. “It fits into my day. It’s part of who I am. Even on days when I’m tired and maybe don’t feel like running, I go because I know in my heart that I won’t regret it.”
The 2023 Leadville 100-mile race is on August 19 and Powell will continue training up through race day. “I’m excited to have some really important people in my life be present there to support me,” she says. “I do have goals in terms of finish time, but my training will show if those goals are realistic. I just want to be able to finish my first-ever 100 with gratitude.”
No matter how she performs though, Powell knows that running has already given her something greater than any finish time ever could. “The sport has taught me patience, courage, and how to access joy. It’s assisted me through my biggest life challenges and helped me build resiliency. It’s given me the best friendships. It’s not an exaggeration to say that I would not be who I am today without running.”
Powell’s 5 Tips for Going After a Big Training Goal
1. Be true to you. Each person has their own unique set of values. Ask yourself, “Does this goal resonate with what’s important to me?” Stay aligned to who you are and what you want.
2. Respect — and love! — the process to get there. You experience more moments as part of the training than you do during the big day itself. The journey matters.
3. Your goal is what you’re doing, not who you are. Your identity and worth are not dependent on this goal.
4. Prepare for bumps and bruises. Life doesn’t always go according to plan, and goals can get sidelined. Show up for yourself in those moments with care. And hold close the people you have in your corner to support you.
Enjoy yourself! It’s a privilege to pursue a big training goal. Even in the toughest moments, there is always something to smile about. Notice as many joys as you can.
Get more advice from Powell: “5 Ways to Train Like an Athlete”