Beth McKenzie on Elite Trail Running and the Elephant in the Room

Beth McKenzie (née Gerdes) is a name that’s hard not to know in triathlon.

McKenzie was a top American professional triathlete* for many years, racking up multiple podium finishes and becoming one of the first long course pro women to have a baby and successfully return to Iron-distance racing (which she did just four months after the birth of her first daughter, Wynne, in 2014).

McKenzie and her husband Luke also founded popular triathlon, running and cycling apparel brand WYN Republic in 2017 all while juggling a now family of four.

And while many retired professional endurance athletes move towards more leisurely recreational activities and launching a coaching business, McKenzie hasn’t hung up her racing shoes just yet - instead choosing to remain among “the coached” in a budding elite trail running career.

After a slew of road racing wins and personal bests in the past few years, McKenzie made her way into the trail world and has achieved podium finishes at events such as the 2024 Tarawera Trail 100km race and most recently, winning Ultratrail Australia in the 100km distance.

We sat down with McKenzie to talk about everything from the elephant in the room (her doping sanction in 2016) to her newfound elite racing career in trail running to how she balances her love of competition with being a loving mom of two and a business owner.

The Elephant in the Room: Doping

McKenzie served a two-year doping ban for Ostarine, a performance enhancing substance, after testing positive for it in May 2016. McKenzie has always maintained her innocence and openness to speaking about the doping ban she served. McKenzie and other athletes are currently embroiled in a lawsuit with the salt pill manufacturer whose supplements are what McKenzie believes contained Ostarine.

While McKenzie’s two-year ban from 2016 to 2018 may be old news in the triathlon world, her rise to notability in trail running has reopened the discussion around McKenzie’s doping accusation - and reopened some mental wounds for McKenzie.

BM: After living through the trauma of my doping ban both internally and externally eight years ago, I've finally come to a place where it didn't impact my day-to-day life and I've truly risen above and beyond it and I am so proud of that because it did utterly destroy me. I trudged through it all and finally came mostly out the other side, very much in part due to the support of my peers.

I'm not coming to the trail world to hide. I fully believed I would be drug tested at the UTMB series (and treated every morsel and sip that went in my mouth and even night cream that went on my wrinkles for two months like it could be contaminated) because now I hugely struggle with the anxiety of the liminal state between drug testing and results. The whole reason I only had Coke and chips on course is because I'm deathly afraid of ingesting anything else that is not mine.

I am not existing to spite people or to come and win races that people don't want me winning, and that's the crux of what has been mulling through my mind. I only want to be at races where I am welcome. My worst nightmare is competing against a woman who believes I have cheated, or am cheating her out of a podium.

Navigating Elite Racing Post-Sanction

While McKenzie acknowledges she may always be tried in the court of public opinion when it comes to her doping sanction, this hasn’t stopped her from taking part in a new athletic community - trail running - where she feels welcomed and challenged by the ruggedness of the demands of each race course.

BM: The reality for me is that the fire to push my body and my edges and compete at a high level never stopped. However, my life just couldn’t sustain the 25-30hrs of training a week I needed (not even counting all the bike and swim prep and commute time) to race at the highest level in triathlon. As our business, WYN Republic, was growing and our two daughters were as well, triathlon just wasn’t a sustainable endeavor for me anymore.

It’s no secret that running was always my strength in triathlon, so after retiring from triathlon in 2020 (thanks, COVID), I hit the roads and trails on foot. I thought an Olympic Trials Qualification time for the marathon might be in reach, so I chased the elusive 2:36:59 for about 18 months. I got super close, running under 2:40 three times, including my closest 2:37:47 at CIM in 2022…but no cigar! At 43, I knew I had squeezed what I could out of my marathon training and probably wouldn’t get much faster, so I started exploring trails more.

Only my ex-husband will know this (shoutout to James!) but I was actually a “trail runner” before I ever tried a triathlon back in 2007. I raced the Xterra SoCal trail run series and a few other events and have always loved the dirt.

I’ve been racing “ultras” since 2021, but gradually dipped my toes into the more rugged and longer events. In 2021, I raced my first 50km, which was mostly on the road in a solid 3 hours and 18 minutes and loved the distance. I then raced a true trail 50k in March 2022.

In 2023 I watched some friends race the Tarawera 100km trail race in New Zealand and it was absolutely epic racing: beautiful scenery, true grit, high-level fast women… it captivated me! I decided to sign up for the 2024 Tarawera 100km and then there was no turning back! In 2024, I’ve completed my first two 100kms (Tarawera and UltraTrail Australia) and I’m definitely hooked. Though, at 44, I’m not sure how many more 100kms my body can take at that intensity. If I slow down, sure, but that’s not really me.

The Differences Between Triathlon and Trail Running

BM: I’ve found the trail running and triathlon communities very similar in their overall passion and love of sport and how it brings us together. There is a huge collective ‘WE’ and ‘in it together-ness’ at all triathlons and trail runs and that is my favorite part. I will say that trail runners are, generally, much more chill and low key. The preening that happens at triathlons among age groupers doesn’t really exist - at least from what I’ve seen - in trail. ‘Dig Me’ beach would never be a thing in trail, lol.

the leadup and win at UltraTrail Australia 100km

BM: For my first 100km in February at Tarawera, the build was shaky and very basic. I had a hamstring injury in early December which stopped my running for a few weeks. After that, I built up volume and did some hills, but nothing fancy and no speed work. Just easy running. But Tarawera still went well (I placed second) because I had years of running and base fitness.

After Tarawera, I knew there was “time on the table” if I could just incorporate a bit more specific work and some speed work into my training. I’m coached by Meg Roche (who, along with her husband David are THE coaches in trail running. Lucky me, I’ve followed them for 15 years, so they took me in despite their overflowing coaching load!). Anyway, Meg’s plan was amazing and we executed a pretty flawless 10-week training block with everything (volume, tempo, hills etc) and I knew I was as fit as I could possibly be leading into UltraTrail Australia. I rarely get to say that, as things never go to plan, so I know how special that lead-up was and was confident in my fitness.

Lucy Bartholomew, who came in second in the 100km distance at UltraTrail Australia, is a legend in trail running and has won UltraTrail Australia a few times. I knew that with her grit and experience, I could never count her out. I built up my lead in the opening 50km which played to my strengths (running and flowy terrain), but the back half definitely played to hers (experience, technical, etc) . From 65-75km, I actually lost about six minutes to Lucy and had that trend continued, she would have caught me by the finish. At the 78km aid station, I really took my time to regroup. From 78-86 km there was a long dirt road downhill which I knew I could smash (along with my quads, RIP quads), so I did just that and regained my momentum.

By the time we reached the 100km finish, I had extended my original lead, so that aid station was really a turnaround point for me. Never underestimate the power of taking a breather, regrouping, and getting your sh*t together!

On the Titles of Mom, Business Owner, and Elite Athlete

BM: I think with savvy coaching, run training for ultras is possible, even with a very busy work and family schedule. During the week, we never do super long runs, but double up on run sessions about twice per week. On weekends though, it does take a little extra time as we need to drive quite a bit to get trails with enough elevation change to train with specificity. I’ll always have that “pro athlete” mentality and I know that sometimes you need to invest in yourself to get the best out of yourself. So, we will hire a babysitter or the girls will spend Saturday morning at grandma’s so that I can get my training in.

I’m so fortunate that my work is in endurance sports apparel, because even training is product testing, right? (And, I’d be remiss if I didn’t say: go buy WYN Active for all your running needs - I ran 100km with no chafing and I’m here to tell about it, lol!) …But really, I work a ton, including early mornings and weekends, but that also allows me to be flexible when I need to be. I am able to train and recover in pockets throughout the day, while others are reserved for deep work and it all works. My cup is overflowing in the best possible way.

Especially for the moms, there is so much value in showing your children that you can do hard things, and that in turn, they can do hard things. I want my girls growing up thinking that reaching for the stars and having crazy goals is normal, because it should be.

The products that contributed to “no chafing” over 100km

BM: My motto is ‘sponsor yourself! I make promoting my brand WYN Republic front and center because I truly love and believe in all of our gear. Our run stuff is amazing and I love getting to show that to the trail world. I raced in a lightweight thermal base layer and my favorite “PR shorts” from WYN and my kit was perfect. Other than that, I have supporting friends at Pillar Performance (love the triple Magnesium!), AG1, and Precision Hydration and I’m so grateful for their help in keeping me healthy and fueled. The PF90 gels are a game-changer for ultra racing (Ironman included) as they are so easy to get down and contain so many carbs!

Where in the world is Beth heading next?

BM: The first half of the year has been an amazing and fulfilling run focus for me, but now it’s work-focus time (it’s always family-focus time). I don’t have any races planned but am open to suggestions!

We have tons of travel for WYN triathlon events coming up including several Ironmans, Challenge Roth, and all three Ironman World Championship events (Nice, Kona, Taupo)…so if anyone wants to go on a rugged run off the beaten path with me at any of those - hit me up!

Photos: 1 - Tim Bardsley-Smith
2, 3 - Korupt Vision