Friday, 3 March 2017

Update - Grit and Grind Forward

The most cuddly volunteer stint
The last few months have been anything but boring, but not in ways I anticipated. After racing in Brussels, I took a few weeks rest, thoroughly enjoying the things that I choose to limit during hard training – staying up late, indulging in treats and adult beverages, hiking, rock climbing, and even going on a road trip through Iceland! I needed some time to recharge before returning to the rigid athlete lifestyle, and also found myself occupied with Olympic aftermath - speaking engagements, volunteering at events around the province, and a host of celebrations kept the games fresh in my mind and helped me to process the big summer I had just experienced.

We love Iceland!
I returned to training in October, renewed and ready to tackle new goals. Gaining fitness by the week, I was happy to be healthy and enjoying working out with my training partner/ Olympic teammate Maria Bernard and our fellow Fossils (the self-proclaimed group of “old” athletes who train alongside the University of Calgary Dino’s team). However, much like my Rio journey, the road to the London World Championships this summer is apparently also not to be without twists and turns…….DUN DUN DUNNNNN. I’ve been pegged as having some questionable luck as an athlete – let me remind you that I was once hit by a car while crossing the street(!!).  In unfortunately typical Jess-fashion, mild adversity struck once again.

Measuring my brainwaves
During a 200m interval at track practice, I came around the corner of the track and found someone absentmindedly standing in my lane with her back to me. Calling “track” to alert her as is protocol, we both moved in the same direction to get out of each other’s way. I crashed into her, whipping my head back and hitting it on the ground. Mild concussion, neck injury, or most likely a combo of both kept me out of training for the next few weeks as I nursed a persistent headache that worsened with exercise. Luckily, my hometown of Calgary is a mecca for winter sports (and therefore head injuries), so I was able to receive thorough care from doctors and therapists. My treatment ranged from “normal” modalities like rest and physio/chiro/massage to some pretty funky things like monitoring my brain waves, lidocaine injections in my neck, and IMS points in my JAW! I even went so far as to give up coffee for a few days to see if it would make a difference – it didn’t J

My symptoms have lessened in sort of a step-wise fashion, with big improvements followed by frustrating stagnation, but I’m really really close. Life is much more pleasant now that my nine-week long headache has faded away, and I’m back to full training. Since intensity would provoke symptoms, I’ve actually had a chance to do more base training than normal, and I’m looking forward to seeing how that translates to race performance. I actually did my first "faster" workout just this evening, and I was very pleased with how it went. Though I wasn’t able to race indoors as I’d originally planned, it’s safe to say that I’m now THOROUGHLY REFRESHED and chomping at the bit to get this season going!!

The day after my accident, I learned that my contract with Asics would not be renewed in 2017 due to “restructuring”. Though disappointed, I am very grateful for the support Asics Canada provided as I developed from a scrappy college runner into an Olympian. Asics was a tremendous help in allowing me to pursue my athletic goals during this time period, and for that I am thankful.

Between workouts and rehab, I’ve started a little online coaching business with my long-time friend, Faye Stenning. The two of us have run together since Jr. High School, though our athletic careers have since diverged as Faye is now a very elite Obstacle Course racer. You may recognize her starring on the NBC Spartan Race show or on the cover of Impact Magazine – this girl has found her niche and she’s killing it! One day in the fall while logging miles together, we stopped talking about boys, food, and our weekend plans for long enough to realize that the two of us together have a fairly unique skill set. Thus, Grit Coaching was born! Our athletes are runners and obstacle course racers from all over Canada and the USA who would like more structure in their training. Faye writes strength and obstacle-specific workouts while I cover the endurance portion of programs, and we work together to make sure that the programs are properly periodized and well-rounded. It’s been really fun piecing together the business, an endeavor I’ve never dabbled in before. Check out our website at ! There is also a blog section where we’re covering topics related to training, performance, and our own careers – happy for any suggestions.
I’m heading to Flagstaff for an altitude camp for most of April, and my first track race of the year will be the Payton Jordan 5000m on May 5 at Stanford. This will be my first attempt of the season at running under the World Championship standard of 15:22. Though my winter’s been a bit different than others training-wise, I’m feeling hopeful and confident that I will be ready for a great outdoor season. Or at least, I’ve put myself in the best possible position for thing to come together, and that’s all I can really do, eh?

Thanks for reading! -Jess 

Monday, 14 November 2016

Olympics Recap

Wow. I have *almost* no words for the last few months, but let’s be real – I wasn't built with a mute button! As you know, I competed in my first Olympics in the 5000m this summer. Writing this still makes me shake because at times I just can’t believe it happened! To describe my entire Olympic experience would take a full novel or feature-length film, but I’ll give you a feel for some of the feelings and memories.
It was all a blur - the best blur

Olympic Trials, Edmonton
1.       The Olympics are both overwhelming and underwhelming. Overwhelming because everything is just so big and exciting and going on all the time – my FOMO was out in full course. Underwhelming because at the end of the day, the main event is still just a race – still 12.5 laps for me, still freaking hard! I felt the most grounded was when I was training or racing, because a track is a track anywhere in the world and running was the most familiar thing I could experience. 

2.       Attitude is everything, and it’s fluid. After the Olympics, I returned home to Calgary for a few days and continued to train as I was entered in the Brussels Diamond League 5000m. My bumpy road to Rio prevented me from running many races this season, and  I wanted to test myself in one more high-quality 5000m. Plus - my Olympic race was disappointing, and I was eager for redemption. I was emotionally exhausted, and my workouts post-Rio were mediocre at best, atrocious at worst. Still, I traveled to Brussels hoping that my knowledge of exercise physiology wouldn't let me down and that my fitness had not in fact completely dissipated, as it felt. Upon arrival in this quirky European city, I immediately underwent an almost out-of-body attitude shift, and was filled with gratitude and excitement. Running in DL meets while spending a week in Europe is literally a dream come true, and I was so so lucky to be there! I realized that there was truly no “worst case scenario”, and suddenly powered by gratitude and confidence ran one of the most enjoyable races of my life, finishing in 15:07 which is only a second off of my PB. I was really proud to be able to show my true fitness and end the tumultuous season on a high note.

Opening Ceremonies night at training camp in Juiz de Fora
3.       It isn’t over till its over. In spite of running a qualifying time the year before, there were many times over the past year where I wasn’t sure if I would be in Rio. Just as I would get a solid training block in and return to form, I’d endure some sort of injury requiring anywhere from a week to a month off. To say this was no fun would be a slight understatement, and probably why I avoided blogging for the better part of the year – writing down adversity makes it more "real". The relentless support of my coach, teammates, and family kept me going when my self belief wavered, and for that I’m grateful. I saw many athletes go through similar struggles, and I’ll never know why the odds were in my favour and I was able to be fit at the right place at the right time, but I'm sure happy it worked out.

The mighty UCAC track club
4.  People are incredibly kind. I’ve never doubted that, but the outpouring of messages, cards, and well wishes will stick with me for the rest of my life.  I am still dumbfounded at the number of people who told me they woke up to watch my race, which was at 6:30AM Calgary time (hellooo….beauty sleep!). Amazing sponsors (Asics Canada, Stoked Oats, Ultima, Elevate Me) and therapists (Movement Sports Therapy, Complete Chiro and Sport Therapy, Marcin, Robyn) generously ensured I was as prepared as possible. As well, I will forever be indebted to the U of C Dino’s crew who paced me and Maria through some make-or-break workouts. Scott, Mike, Doug, and the rest of you – thank you so much for volunteering your time and putting yourself through a respectable amount of pain to help us prepare better. Of course, the biggest thank you goes to my coach Mike Van Tighem, who bore a huge amount of my stress pre-games, and has been the most selfless, generous constant through this adventure. 

Coach Mike and the Fossils

      The Olympics is just one big summer camp for adults. OK – enough with the sentimental stuff, here's what you are actually curious about!. Yes, there was a FREE McDonalds, and often the line was hours long. No, I didn’t see many mosquitoes and I really wasn’t too worried. Yes, Rio is absolutely beautiful. No, I never felt unsafe. Sadly I am not BFFs with Bolt or Phelps, but I did get to spend a lot of time with our Canadian superstars like Brianne Thiesen and Melissa Bishop, and I can assure you that they are just as awesome as they seem in Nike ads. The parties were big but the team Canada cheer squads at the track every night were even bigger.  I certainly wouldn’t turn down another chance to go! ;)

Since coming home, I’ve decompressed by living as a “normal” person for a bit – hiking, vacationing, and catching up with friends.  However, the itch to get training  is strong, and I’m happy to be slowly getting back to doing what I love – running more than any sane person should!! I'll leave you with a few more pictures - thanks for following! 
Enjoying my backyard with the Sunday Scree Club
Monkeying around
Putting two feet in front of another

Halloween fun
Wouldn't recommend drafting us

Gold Medal Plates!

Wednesday, 13 January 2016

Oh My Goodness Its 2016!

Happy New Year everyone!

Since my last post, time has both crawled and moved so fast that I've caught myself several times forgetting to breath!

When I got hurt in June, people told me that I'd learn something from my injury and come back stronger than ever. While appreciating their good intentions, most of the time I found myself resisting the urge to roll my eyes while cracking a half-hearted smile. No one will argue with the fact that injuries are NOT ideal, and I was feeling especially lost given that I drew so much of my confidence from the consistent training I'd strung together.

Rocking out with Spartan racing extraordinaire Faye Stenning
Well. I did learn something. A few things actually! The first two take-aways came pretty quickly: First, that I really really really enjoy running and second, that I'm a tummy weight gainer.

As foreshadowed, some slightly deeper lessons eventually surfaced.

I learned that the passionate energy can be transferred - I poured myself into my Master's work and successfully defended my thesis, which kept my mind off my inability to do what I love. I also learned that balance takes discipline - at first I didn't know how to relax without the structure of training for a specific race, so I took the opportunity to visit friends and complete a once-in-a-lifetime academic course in Toronto.

I learned that some days I'm going to feel defeated, but that's normal. No one training session was going to make or break me - the accumulation of work over time is what matters. Our physiologist Trent Stellingwerf referred me to a study showing that, in simple terms, you don't need that many hard sessions to maintain VO2max (a marker of aerobic fitness), which was nice to remember on the grind days. ( see

Jess Squared hits the pool in Vancouver
I learned to keep perspective and draw strength from others -having a five month injury the year before the Olympics is TERRIFYING, but other athletes have come off similar injury timelines and gone on to do great things. It gives me comfort to think that there is no reason I should be different - it's just running after all! If you need a daily dose of inspiration, google Melissa Bishop or Emily Infeld - two rockstars who dealt with some heavy injuries this year and ended up having fairy tale seasons.

I learned that people are kind. They say that you are only as good as your last race, and my last race wasn't very impressive, but I learned that we aren't defined  by the length of time it takes to run a 5km. I was was humbled and flattered by the thoughts and support I received from friends new and old through messages, rides to appointments, company cross training, or just being an ear while I vented. Thank you!

VO2 testing at PISE
Lastly, I learned that there is more than one way to skin a cat. Months of cross training had kept me fit, but when I finally returned to running, I felt like a fish out of water! Actually, after all my water running, that's essentially what I'd become. I was awkward, flailing, and gasping for air running paces that used to be reserved for cooldown jogs. I basically felt like a slug.

But you know what? I'm also stronger than I've ever been. I did fitness testing in December, and somehow my VO2max has never been higher, even without much running. I've clawed my way back into shape and my times during interval sessions are the same as they were this time last year. That means....maybe...just's all going to be ok!

I'm not in the clear yet - I've had a bunch of niggles during my comeback, reminding me that I'm anything but invincible and that I better stick to my physio exercise regime for goodness sake! Still, I'm moving forward and even have a race planned - a 3000m in New York on Feb 6th. Not a clue how it will go, but it sure beats sweating up a storm on the stationary bike or floundering in the pool, and for that I am grateful!

Thanks for reading, cheers!

Saturday, 8 August 2015


If you recall the Grade 6 Greek mythology unit, you may remember that Achilles was a Trojan war hero who’s biggest claim to fame was being completely invincible, except for a teeny tiny spot on the back of his heel. He met his ultimate demise when he was shot in the tendon with an arrow, and from then on the “Achilles heel” has been a metaphor for one’s greatest weakness.

In my case, my Achilles heel is….my Achilles. Anyone who’s known me for a while will surely remember my horrible 2011, where I was desperately trying to rehab an injured Achilles for an entire year. Needless to say, this is not my favourite tendon.

Fun times on the Alter G!
I haven’t had Achilles trouble for years, but unfortunately during a very low key workout just before nationals, my “good” Achilles pulled up a bit, and I went home limping. No big deal, I thought…..but when I showed up at nationals all taped up, I was advised that running was an unnecessary risk and I was permitted a medical exemption. It's not too fun turning down running a national championship, but we decided that this was the safest thing to do. I returned home to deal with my injury, and ended up water running, biking, and using the alter-g anti-gravity treadmill lots and lots in preparation for the Pan Am games. I began land running about five days before my race, and managed to complete a few decent workouts while getting my “running” legs back just in the nick of time. My first workout I was content to manage running 3:12/km pace without hurting my tendon more, and only two days later I could comfortably run 3:03/km pace again – pretty cool how only a few days makes a big difference. With the amount of cross training I was doing, I have no doubt that I didn’t lose fitness, but it inevitably takes time to remind your body how to run! Still, I was well aware that my Pan Am prep was anything but orthodox. 

Lining up for my Pan Am race, I was very unsure of what was to come during the next 16 minutes – would I be able to pull it off and win a medal? Would I hurt my Achilles much more by running the race? Or was I being a baby? Were my two land workouts a reflection of my fitness, or were they giving me a false sense of confidence? How much would my racing flats (rather than spikes) slow me down? It is extremely disappointing and a bit embarrassing to enter a race as the top seed by 15 seconds and finish 7th in front of friends and family who took time out of their days to watch, and I'm beyond grateful for their unconditional support. I wish that these weren’t the cards I was dealt, but a huge part of sport is being able to perform when it counts, and July 21 2015 just wasn’t that day for me.

O'Connell/Comeau fam jam out in full force!
By finishing 7th, I had adequately “proved fitness” to remain on the World Championships team, but I’ve since had to withdraw. After my race, I had an ultrasound on my achilles which showed some tendon damage – nothing overly serious but serious enough that it would likely get worse if I continued training. Even if I was healthy enough to race at worlds, I wouldn’t be ready to perform at my best – gaining little from the experience. Two physios, two doctors, three coaches, and a physiologist all advised that it would be in my best interest to recover and build for Rio next year, and the risk of continuing to train and race this year simply isn’t worth it. Logically I understood, but making this decision was pretty heart-wrenching. I mean, this is what I train for! Still, my gut feeling is telling me that this is the best choice, and as someone who is free of allergies and food intolerances, I gotta trust the gut!

Evening Cheering Squad
Other than this major bummer, Pan Ams were an absolute blast! Team Canada totally kicked ass with amazing performances across the board and it was inspiring to watch so many athletes totally execute. There are way too many to list, but I think everyone was smiling when Alex and Melissa won medals after rough starts to the season, Catherine and Rachel showed nothing but poise during the marathon, and our 1500m runners were so so so competitive all around. Having family and friends experience all of this with me was indescribable.  A picture is worth a thousand words, so I’ll save you the eye strain – check out these highlights!:

Closing ceremonies, dressed to the nines!
Our favourite moose

I have the best friends! Reunited at last
My #1 Coach!!

What’s up now? I’m back in Calgary working on my thesis (typical) and taking my end of season break – no training at all, enjoying life as a regular person for a bit. Of course, I'm also rehabbing my achilles aggressively and trying to determine what caused this injury, ideally to avoid it ever happening again! 

Thanks to my family, friends, coach Mike Van Tighem and UCAC track, Athletics Canada, CSI Calgary, and support from Asics Canada, Ultima Replenish,  Elevate Me, and new sponsor Solo Bar for all of the help this season. Though it ended on an unfortunate note, I'm still strides ahead of last year and am so excited to get back at 'er.

Thanks for reading and enjoy your summer!

Tuesday, 9 June 2015

Spring Adventures

Its my favourite time of the year – spring track season! Nothing gets me more excited than training outside in the sunshine, refuelling with some froyo, and being reunited with friends at the first few races of the year. It’s spring track, baby!

I opened my season at the Payton Jordan Invitational in Palo Alto, California. This track meet is infamous for its low key atmosphere and blazing times. Everyone who races here has one objective in mind : to run fast. A large Canadian contingency descended on Palo Alto from Flagstaff, excited to see how our training over the past few weeks at altitude would pay off. For most, this was the first “real” race of the season. Apparently the altitude camp worked! One by one Canadians posted astonishingly fast times, setting National records, world qualifiers, and massive personal bests – the evening was electric with each awesome performance fuelling others.
Don't let our pretty in pink fool you 

 I was pretty nervous for my 5000m race, not because I didn’t think I was fit, I did, but I didn’t want to squander a great opportunity. After hearing how fantastic my fellow Canuck friends were doing, I had a sneaking suspicion that I’d have a good night, and luckily I was right! My race had a deep field of ladies and two pacers, so I decided to tuck into the back of the lead pack and move up whenever I could. I ran 72.x seconds per lap over and over, slowly passing racers as they tired. By the final lap, only two Africans were ahead of me, but they were far far ahead (fast ladies!!). In the homestretch an American, Nicole Tully, sprinted past me and I ended up finishing 4th in a personal best time of 15:06.44 which I was thrilled with! This time is under IAAF standard, meaning that I am likely qualified for the Pan Am games and World Championships later this summer.

After the race and month away at camp, I headed home to rejoin my club for some training. Calgary air has never felt so oxygenated!!  I thought I’d be home for a while, but a while ended up only being three weeks.

While in Flagstaff, I received an email inviting me to participate in the Austria Women’s Run 5km road race in Vienna. This is one of the largest Women-only runs in the world, with      33 000 participants as well as an international elite section. It’s pretty awesome that Vienna has made running a 5km so trendy – the race even offers free interval training sessions in the weeks prior and over 200 people routinely show up. Wicked!! Initially I declined as it’s a bit of a trek to get to Vienna, but my coach and I formulated a plan to run this race as well as a few others overseas. Because I’ve already run under IAAF standard, I can use my next few races to gain experience without the pressure having to run a certain time, and tackling the European track circuit seemed like a great way to achieve this.
It was non-alocholic

I arrived in Vienna and was greeted by the race director at the airport with flowers in hand. I spent the next few days exploring the city, running in the Praterstad (the Central Park of Vienna), and hanging out with the other elite ladies from Austria, Portugal, Sweden, Italy, and Kenya. In spite of its unfathomable number of participants, this is easily one of the best organized races I’ve ever attended, and I left feeling like a superstar! I was happy to win with a new 5km road personal best of 15:32, and fulfilled a lifelong desire of sipping from a massive beer mug. It was an honour to take part and I’m so grateful for the experience – thanks Österreichischer Frauenlauf!! 

Working out in Loerrach, Germany

Up next, I’m jumping in with the sharks and running my Diamond League race – the Oslo Bislett Games 5000m! The Diamond League is the highest level of annual track and field meets around the world and I’m excited to line up beside some really really fast ladies. This is also the 50th anniversary of the Bislett games, and 65 world records have been set it Bislett Stadium. So much history to soak up! After that, I’m headed to Rabat, Morocco for a 3000m and yet another change of scenery before heading home. Let the adventure roll on!

I got to spend a week with my former WVU teammate Ahna Lewis in Germany between races!

International athletes out for dinner before the race

Friday, 1 May 2015

Living the High Life

For the last few years, April has meant chocolate binges, the eventual melting of the central Alberta tundra, and intense pangs of jealousy as the entire Canadian distance running contingency posts gorgeous photos of training runs and exploration in Arizona on all avenues of social media. You see, it’s very in vogue to go to Flagstaff, AZ for an altitude camp for a few weeks in the spring, and this year I finally got to join in on the fun!

Flagstaff is situated at an elevation of 7000ft which is no joke. For reference, the elevation of Banff is a modest 4800ft. There are a few cities in America that are that sky-high, but Flagstaff is unique in that the town of Sedona is only 45 minutes away and much lower, meaning that we can live up high but travel down for a few of our more intense workouts, making them better quality. Many endurance athletes capitalize on this situation, and it wasn’t uncommon to be sharing the track with athletes from Australia, New Zealand, Kenya, Sweden, Germany, and all over the USA. 

Why do we bother going to altitude? By purposefully being out of breath for 3.5 weeks, we get some physiological adaptations that can’t be gained at sea level. Initially after coming down, our blood volumes should expand, giving a temporary performance boost. Altitude also causes a natural increase in the production of EPO – a hormone responsible for red blood cell production. Since it takes time for red blood cells to be produced, our red blood cell concentrations should be boosted a few weeks from now. In theory, both of those adaptations will make us into superhumans for the upcoming season!

Lanni Marchant and I "twinning" - not planned!
That said, adaptation to altitude is very individual, and it was pretty neat to experience it first-hand. Because the air pressure is so low at altitude, it’s impossible to consume the same amount of oxygen as at sea level which makes activity way more strenuous.  The first week up here was kept pretty easy training wise – my workouts were short with lots of rest, and my easy runs were much, much slower than normal. I paid careful attention to my heart rate during my training runs to monitor my effort after hearing horror stories of athletes accidentally over-training and returning home totally fried. In my second and third weeks, we increased the intensity of my workouts as I became more acclimatized, though my paces and rests were still adjusted, and I took more rest days than normal because it takes much longer to recover at 7000ft – better safe than sorry! I even swapped a few easy runs for hikes at the local ski resort which was great fun. Every morning I measured my resting heart rate, heart rate variability, hydration levels, weight, and some blood parameters for a more objective look at how I was adapting. I was blown away by how hard runs felt some days and how easy they felt on others – everything is exaggerated up here! I personally found easy runs quite do-able, but was seriously sucking wind on shorter, more anaerobic intervals.

Ginger Spice and the Blind Left Turns 
Social media didn’t inflate my expectations – the camp itself was a blast. Flagstaff is a quirky little town with miles upon miles of dirt trails, a distance runner’s paradise! About 25 Canadian athletes from several different training groups were all staying within a 5 minute walk of each other, so hardly any runs, meals, or adventures were endured alone. When not training or recovering, most of our time was spent listening to Geoff Harris, Kate Van Buskirk, and Jason Dunkerly jamming  (they created a band of course!), playing charades, convincing people to drive us to local coffee shops, and completing puzzles while watching entire movie trilogies.

Team Photo!
I was fortunate to have my coach, Mike Van Tighem, up for a good part of the camp, always offering a piece of wisdom or corny joke. Mike came as part of a coach apprenticeship program to learn more about planning and monitoring training at altitude, and it was great having him there.  A huge thanks goes out to the Athletics Canada staff for providing a well-organized month with excellent physio, massage, sports psych, photography, and sports science.

Up next for me is the Payton Jordan Invite track meet at Stanford University. Without fail, some of the fastest annual distance times are run at this meet. It is especially crucial this year as many athletes are striving to run Pan Am, World Championship, and Olympic qualifying standards. I’ll be running the 5000m and can’t wait to take advantage of a deep field, perfect weather conditions, and the early adaptations that should come from depriving myself of oxygen for the last three weeks!

Thanks for reading! Check out some of my favourite pictures from the last month!

Grand Canyon with Casey Atkins - major bucket list checkmark!

Workouts getting wild in iconic Buffalo Park

Downtown Flagstaff
Post-workout selfie!

Can you spot me?