The Work Behind the Body
When I showed up for this feature’s photo shoot at Spire Climbing Center in Bozeman, it was eight in the morning and I was dragging some serious ass. I met Blair on the fitness floor with my coffee mug in hand and eyes barely open. She greeted me with her brilliant smile. Turns out she had already climbed and worked out, and here she was, beaming and ready for more sports action.
I told her that I wished they sold Blair in a Bottle. I imagine it would be like the shots of Five-Hour Energy available at gas stations, where you down its contents and suddenly sky’s the limit. You could run a marathon. You could wrestle a moose and probably win. You could skip through the Sahara Desert, naked and fist pumping the whole way.
Blair is just one of those people who ooze contagious energy. Her profession as a fitness coach fits her perfectly, as does her last name—Speed—and her long, red hair. She’s a woman on fire, unapologetic in the way she owns her body.
Throughout the shoot we talked about her journey to becoming the strong, (I mean, like, whoa strong), and confident lady she is today. As you’ll read below, she struggled with a myriad of injuries and illnesses last year that derailed her health. Like so many of us, she has also struggled with body image issues.
The journey we discussed, in short, is one we’re all on: cultivating self-love through a healthy relationship with our bodies and our mind. That relationship looks different for everyone, but for Blair it involved learning to find “beauty in what you can do, but also…in the person you intrinsically are,” as she writes in the interview.
Blair lives as a powerhouse of crass wit and hard-earned wisdom. She can bust out push-ups—the real hard ones, where your elbows follow the sides of your body—like an Army Seal. She can run up a mountain and deadlift an obese man, all within the same one-hour span.
More than anything, she can explode the limits you may be putting on your own self-image and possibilities, and she can do so with making you laugh (while peeing your pants just a little). They may not sell bottles of Blair yet, but this interview is as good as a shot of her Ginger rage spirit.
Meet Blair Speed
ultra runner, coach, & photographer
Kelsey: What sports do you enjoy?
Blaire: I’ve been competitively running for twenty years. Now, I also enjoy climbing (rock + ice), skiing (downhill + xc), weightlifting and yoga. I delved into ultra distance/mountain running a number of years ago and found a home and strength that I hadn't known before. I had been uncomfortable racing in front of people in track and cross country.
Ultra running gave me the space to be on my own. And in the space it gave me out on the trails, I found a lot more space within myself.
K: How often do you workout? What do those workouts usually involve?
B: At this point, through consistency and years of a strong base, I enjoy moving about twice a day. I'll partner a mountain run with gentle yoga or a strength training day with climbing. My muscular endurance (think vert) or speed workouts stand alone on their own day, as does my long run. I also make myself take a full rest day.
I run about 4 days a week, climb 2-3 days, and get a vast amount of my strength training through Kristin Jordan's classes at Mountain Yoga. I like to do a few pushups every day and a few PT maintenance and strength moves each day to stay healthy.
K: How often would you say you get “out” to enjoy your sports?
B: Every day, whether it's a big mountain day, a climbing date, a neighborhood dog-walk or time in the yoga studio.
I think it's important to put some time in for yourself each day, with whatever passion you have, and movement is my passion.
We can all get overwhelmed or think we have to fit in an hour long session for it to be worth our time or energy but the truth is if you sneak in 15 minutes each day, that adds 1.5 hours of your joy each week, 6 hours each month. Time always adds up.
K: What are some of your favorite places to go?
B: There is something sweet and special about The Bozeman Classic: Baldy. I'm currently having a love affair with him? her? I'm not entered in nearly as many races this year. I got real sick last fall during an ultra race and it's been a journey to get well again. So I haven't raced as much this year but I'm still having fun.
Right now I'm trying my damnedest to best Pat Callis's fastest Baldy time ever. I'm having a blast on the journey and I send him a summit picture every time. I'm currently 8 minutes off his time and I'm terrified he'll go up and beat it if I actually get it.
(Kelsey’s note: Pat Callis, for those who don’t live in Bozeman, is a local legend. He continues to climb and run strong at the age of 79.)
K: How does strength training translate to your sports and lifestyle?
B: I started to focus on strength training about six years ago. It has helped me change interactions I have with myself: "I'm scared to try that" to "Oh, I'll (expletive) do that." Sometimes we get caught up in our instant-reactions, and they become habits so we believe them to be truths.
But habits can be changed and they're only truths if they're what we tell ourselves. Although challenging, I have enjoyed working on building an internal strength to change those 'insta-reactions' and doubts.
These interactions and strengths carried over to my running. Mountain running became much more accessible, I went from a bottom of the pack flat-lander runner with no mountain running experience to top ten placements in all my races and ultras for almost five years.
But these strengths infiltrated in unexpected ways in my daily interactions with myself too, and with my love, my family, friends, my work. It has carried over into everything.
Strength training is also where I got to expand mental practices I used during training or competing. I began to more actively use mantras or the great game of "Pretend" while training. This can be a truly powerful training/racing technique.
For example, I'd pretend my friend and training partner, Allison McGree, was with me on certain challenging training days - even when she wasn't. I would pretend she was just in front of me, pushing me to go faster because I still wanted to be held to the highest possible standard.
Or, I'd pretend a Giant (someone who came before me, that I look up to) was there coaching me. I'm a Ginger so I've always had a relationship with Rage in my life, so it's not too surprising I'd pretend Mark Twight was coaching me. Then, instead of existing in a certain type of training environment, I was creating my own. This positive training carried over to my racing.
K: Tell us about your work as a coach. What do you typically focus on with your clients?
B: Most of my athletes are focused on a specific mountain objective. Every single athlete I have the opportunity to coach has a unique and specific training schedule and we work week to week or even day to day if we're getting close to race day or overcoming an injury, as each of us responds differently to certain stimuli and I want their feedback each week on how they feel.
The truth is, I've had coaches who have wanted to hold power over me before, so I have no patience for that type of interaction. My greatest goal coaching each athlete is for them to see they have always held all of their own power.
We also each have a different amount of life stress on any given day. I try to help every athlete balance the ebb of real life along with their training because it's part of the journey as well and often it's one of the more challenging puzzle pieces. Of course, in Bozeman, Montana the greatest challenge for a lot of us is committing to a rest day.
Drive, determination, commitment, heart and an intense passion for exploration are all abundant in our incredibly special community. Walk down Main Street and you could pass a handful of 5.14 climbers, top ultra runners in the world, world class alpinists or the quiet crusher you live next door to who has 100 Instagram followers because their journey is quiet and personal and they don't feel the need to spray.
I ran my fastest 5K ever a couple years ago here and the only woman to beat me was 11 years old. This place breeds badasses. This energy is stunning and we all feel it and we all benefit from it circling around us.
But it is incredibly important and vital for longevity and realizing your highest potential to take a break and let your body heal. We get stronger when we let our bodies marinate in the strength we've been building through recovery.
I want to help my athletes train hard and enjoy recovery. One of my favorite aspects of coaching is the mental and heart side of goals, races, objectives. I think the goal is important, but the true gift is the journey along the way that subtly changes us day after day.
When we build gratitude and give ourselves something challenging to think about throughout training, it changes us: it's more than just running fast or going far. It's how we want to interact with ourselves, with one another, and with the gift of space we've been given on this planet.
K: Do men and women pursue strength training differently? Should they?
B: Honestly, I wouldn't differentiate strength training via sex. I would differentiate every. single. person. and every single goal he or she decides to pursue. Every race, mountain, or objective requires a different specificity - muscular leg endurance, finesse, heavy load training, speed. Every person is unique and every goal is completely unique and that's how each person should be trained.
K: How does coaching affect your personal growth as an athlete and person?
B: Coaching is incredibly impactful in my own life. Every single athlete takes me on a journey that I wouldn't be able to go on without them.
I grew up in a household of incredible athletes and coaches, and my best friend and next door neighbor growing up was Ashley Arnold. Ashley decided to 'try out' running in High School, she set every school record possible and won states.
When she decided to race 100 Mile Endurance Races she won the Leadville 100 and I was fortunate enough to crew her there and witness her journey. She has always been a staunch proponent for the limitlessness that lives within each of us. This has always impacted me and inspired me.
This limitlessness carried over into my own races. I would love to keep racing ultras, 50Ks, 50 Milers, and I really want to experience a 100 Mile Race. But I have developed a benign tumor in my knee and a handful of other concerns. I'm not sure how much my knee can handle at this point.
When I was first confronted with these 'limitations' I was sad. But, through coaching, I have realized there is another level of limitlessness within me. I have the ability to help other people reach their goals and discover the internal strength they have always held.
That limitlessness is still there but in a form I hadn't witnessed before — it is through helping other people experience theirs. I am excited for the chance and opportunity to go for each goal and each objective my athletes go on. They might not always know it, but they're taking me out there too, and for that I am incredibly grateful.
K: You’re also a talented photographer. Do you feel art and fitness relate? Why or why not?
B: I once overhead a great conversation between two artists, Stacy and RC Townsend, where they discussed the importance of empathy in art. If you are able to feel what someone else is feeling in a particular moment you are witness to hidden and stunning moments.
I didn't realize that these moments weren't always seen by others until I started to take pictures and those images spoke to others. Each of us has a unique lens to the world and if you're able to share that lens, it can be powerful.
Athletics and fitness are similar to art if you slow down and watch someone else. You will feel their fears and doubts. You'll see people expand in ways they didn't think were possible, sometimes through failures, sometimes through successes.
You will see the heartache of failure, because if you're really expanding, if you're really trying hard, you're bound to fail. You should fail. It means you're really putting yourself out there. But, of course, I don't think failure is something to fear: I think it can be a great gift.
In athletics, you’ll witness resilience in failure and triumph of pure self. You'll see people change and evolve in ways they didn't think they could. But these hidden moments aren't always broadcasted; people speak in many more ways than words, so look closely. You can see these moments on any given training day, race, mountain peak, climbing wall, and to me, that is art or maybe empathy.
K: What does beautiful mean to you?
B: I have been following along with the "Behind the Body" series and agree entirely with what's been said before me: Beauty is kindness. Beauty is strength. Beauty is empowerment. Beauty is encouragement. So what I'll add to this conversation is my own entanglement of beauty and defiance.
There will be people throughout our lives who tell us what beautiful is—I’m about to do it right now—but the most important part of beauty is that you define it for yourself. We're taught words that have been defined by someone else and asked to describe ourselves and our lens to the world with these words (i.e. the word “beautiful”). If you don't sit and define them for yourself, you'll be describing someone else's world.
We have the power to define the words we use in our lives and then we'll be speaking our own truth, that authenticity will speak to others.
Now I'm gonna have to take you back to the Fifth Grade to best explain this journey of beauty and defiance, as the two have always been intertwined in my own life.
I have always felt my most beautiful when I am brazen and standing tall.
I moved to suburbia Florida from rural Kentucky halfway through the Fifth Grade and my world was rocked. Hard. I went from being a pretty average kid who was always picked first for kickball to a wildly uncool tomboy lacking a Vera Bradly backpack. I arrived on my third day at a new school as the weird new kid that wore a nice Goodwill vest my Mom had picked out—I was not rocking pre-hole jeans from Abercrombie and Fitch.
And it was the worst day of the year: Picture Day. The Florida PTA Moms were mortified when I walked into picture day with my wild red hair eschewed after a ravenous game of kickball (obviously more important than Picture Day). A hoard of them bee-lined for my ginger hair and fussed over me in line for pictures, enacting their own Extreme Makeover, in front of all these kids I was suppose to make friends with.
I was embarrassed and I felt small and poor and I hated the attention. I raged. As I walked up to the multi-colored backdrop I discovered that girls were suppose to hold a teddy bear and boys were suppose to hold a football. I raged harder.
Who were they to tell that certain people had to hold teddy bears and certain people had to hold footballs? I was shy and mute as a child but when I sat down I reached for the football and locked eyes with the PTA Moms and grinned. A 5th Grade middle finger. In my memory, their jaws hit the f’in floor, but I'm biased.
Did I feel beautiful in that school picture? Honestly, no. Afterwards I was pretty mortified that I would draw that much attention to myself and the Florida kids sure as shit weren't impressed. But that defiance, even as a child has always impacted how I have held myself. How I have interacted with the world. And that defiance to not be told what is beautiful or what I 'should' do has alway impacted how tall I stand.
I find people who are defiantly themselves in spite of the opinions flung their way stunningly beautiful.
K: How has/have your sport(s) shaped your body image and your relationship to your body in general?
B: I have used my physical ability to help give me strength and confidence; this has helped me be more compassionate to my body and proud of what it can do. There was a training week a couple of years ago where I back squatted almost 300lbs, ran a 19 minute 5K, and cleaned 90kg within a few days of each other. This was only several months after placing at my first 50 mile race.
I channeled this physical strength into an appreciation for the specific shape my body was taking on. That pride in what I could do helped give me confidence in my body and that was wildly impactful.
But in the same breath, I would also recommend moving past just the physical appreciations. See, back to that defiance and beauty thing - I have learned I am capable of destroying myself to prove someone wrong and I no longer want to destroy myself.
Last fall I ran a tough Ultra Race and I didn't realize that I was already incredibly ill at the start of the race. I ended up having a severe and rare bacterial infection in my intestines, a benign tumor, bone spur, and several other issues that I didn't know about.
After the race, I couldn't get out of my bed for several weeks. My organs were on the verge of shutdown and my knee would completely give out on me and I would collapse. I was just sad. At that point, I had to reevaluate my relationship with strength and beauty.
I had to learn to forgive myself for being such a physical person.
Because after throwing up the entirety of a 34 mile mountain race with no food consumed, stumbling in the last few miles as my organs swelled, I still looked back to make sure no man or woman were going to pass me—I still had that complete determination to podium. But, that race, that podium came at an incredible cost. I don't want to destroy myself to prove my strength and it took me a loooooong time to forgive myself for getting to that point.
So although I will work incredibly hard the entirety of my life to be my strongest person, a day will come when I am no longer able to run and if I don't find myself beautiful or strong then, what a waste and what a sadness I would be giving myself.
So I’ve learned to find strength in beauty in what you can do but also find it just in the person you intrinsically are—that is to be truly celebrated.
K: What advice would you give women and/or fellow athletes in general to better enjoy their unique bodies?
B: I’ll tell you about my "Shirtless Year" in case it speaks to you.
When I was 29 years old I decided to have a New Year's Resolution. I hadn't had a NY resolution in yeeears. I made the resolution to "be shirtless more often,” which is an absolutely silly and ridiculous resolution. But the undertones were self compassion and empowerment.
I didn't want to turn 30 and be embarrassed by my own unique body, or covering up because I feared what someone else might think or say to me. I was sick of repeating negative internal words. This is when I was training for that first 50 Mile Race and continuing to weight train.
I wouldn't take my shirt off—but why? Because my stomach might hang over my shorts when I sat down? Because I wasn't the leanest runner out there? Because I was rocking the pale ginger stomach? Bullshit.
I was sick of that self negativity, so I took my shirt off and trained hard, moving and contorting in my own bodily and personal way. I found a vastness of self appreciation that I hadn't had before and it was empowering.
So, if you're looking for a mid-year resolution, I'd advice on taking off your shirt and standing tall.
Thank you, Blair, for sharing your spirit on this feature of The Work Behind the Body series. And thanks to all your adventure buddies for donating photos.