On occasion here at We Run and Ride, we profile an interesting athlete. Over the eight-plus years this blog has existed, we’ve interviewed dozens of people from local heroes to world class athletes and even world champions such as Craig Virgin and Emma Coburn.
Today’s profile on Karah Osterberg is special because she’s not only a talented athlete who has qualified for the Kona World Triathlon Championships, she’s also a champion for the foster and rescue dogs she and her husband Sean take into their home.
We talked a bit and Karah provided some interesting perspectives on her life as an athlete, a data analytics professor at Northern Illinois University and her commitment to finding safe and loving homes for dogs that get a rough start in life.
And how has this year’s crazy stuff with the Coronavirus affected you?
Luckily, I have a treadmill at home, bike trainer, weights, etc. I definitely missed swimming a ton until I recently could get in lakes and start swimming again. During the 2.5 months or so without gyms being open, I spent a ton of time focusing on run and bike workouts. I also have a strength coach who made me some videos to help me keep in shape for when I went back to swimming and those majorly helped!
In terms of racing, it pushed back a lot of races to the fall which I am hoping those happen! It also postponed me going to Kona until October 2021.
In terms of work, I’m lucky because I already taught half of my classes online BEFORE Covid hit. So transitioning for me was easy and I will be teaching online through the fall semester.
Were you in school athletics? If not, how did you get started?
In grade school I did a lot of gymnastics and volleyball. Once I hit middle school, that transitioned to track and volleyball. In track, I was actually a pretty decent short distance runner (200,400) and did high jump and was the best girl on the team for that (oddly since I’m short).
I then went to high school and did swim team year round. I swam varsity all 4 years and focused on short distance events. Ironically, I would cry my way out of swimming the 500 yard swim in high school, yet now am completely fine swimming the 2.4 mile (4200 yard) long Ironman swim. I sometimes wonder how much of a better distance swimmer I would be if I had accepted that back in high school!
What aspect of triathlon first attracted you…swim, bike, run?
Actually it was kind of all three. With swimming being my background, I don’t think I would have ever thought about triathlon if I hadn’t swam. When I went away to college, I had spent 4 years swimming competitively in high school year round, sometimes swimming 3-4 hours a day.
It mentally wore me out and I decided I didn’t want to keep swimming in college. However, after going away to college and enjoying the free time I had, I started to miss swimming after a few months but didn’t want to go back to swimming constantly. I decided I’d swim a few days, run a few days, started biking and lifting some.
After a few years, I realized I was basically training for a triathlon and decided to sign up for a local super sprint triathlon, which I won 1st overall female and 2nd overall with the guys. After that, I thought triathlon might be a good sport for me, went all in and purchased a triathlon bike, and did 10+ races the next year. Ever since then, I’ve done 10-15 triathlons a year including 12 Ironmans and 10 half Ironmans!
What were a few earlier experiences from which you learned?
I realize now that at first, I really had no idea what I was doing. I ended up running too much or trying to run too fast and ran into a few issues with my IT band. I also refused to take days off thinking I’d lose fitness (sometimes I even did this when sick).
I realize now that triathlon is a lot of easy training with SOME harder stuff and that days off are necessary sometimes. I’d say I just took everything way overboard. I still look back at that as a lesson though. When other people were drinking their college years away, I was getting up at 5 to be in a pool. It taught me a lot of discipline that helped me get my job as a professor and have success in triathlon!
How has having a coach accelerated some of that learning?
In 2014, I did Ironman Louisville the year it had a 105-110 degree heat index. It was my 3rd Ironman (3 years in a row at Louisville). The first year, I just wanted to finish. The second year, I ran a lot more of the marathon and dropped a few hours off my time.
In 2014, I bought a house and moved out. That kind of led to me easing up on the training. Oh, it’s fine if I cut this 80 mile ride to 60 today or this 20 mile run to 10. That led to me feeling like death in that Ironman and walking half of the marathon (combination of bad training and bad nutrition).
I ended up totally losing motivation after that Ironman and ironically ended up meeting Steve (Brandes, her current coach) at Lifetime. I showed him the training I was doing, and he said why are you doing this? He completely changed it.
In 2015, I remember thinking wow this training is different…harder swim sets, harder intervals, but a lot of easy stuff too. I did everything he told me to do (and still do almost 6 years into our coaching relationship). I did Ironman Arizona in 2015 and ended up going 11:12, 6th in my age group, and ran a sub 4 marathon. It was the first time I thought I might have potential to go to Kona.
By 2017, I won an Ironman swim for my age group and got on an Ironman podium! Since then, Steve has taught me so much about what my body responds to, nutrition for different environments, my mindset, etc. And during these 6 years of coaching, he has set up workouts that have kept me almost 100% injury free! He’s coached me through 9 of my 12 Ironman finishes. Truly I couldn’t do it without him!
Do you have any funny ‘mistakes’ to share; flat tires, forgotten water bottles, dropped nutrition?
Luckily, I have a list I print off to pack with and mark each thing off as I go so I have been pretty lucky in this situation for the most part. One time I went to a sprint triathlon and got there and realized my shoes didn’t have any inserts in them. That was a fun 5k. I’ve also almost hit a cow, a turkey, a deer, a snake, etc. while riding or racing….always an adventure out there!
What is your training load on a typical weekly basis?
This varies a ton throughout the year. In the “off season” or building phase, I’d say I typically train about 10-12 hours a week. This is a lot more of the intensity workouts. During an Ironman build, I’d say I train 20-25 hours a week with a lot more emphasis on distance (while still including some intensity). I also am big into recovery and spend a lot of time on stretching, massage, PT work, etc.
How do you balance work/sport life?
I’m very, very lucky that I pretty much have the best boss in the world. I teach at NIU and he schedules all of my classes for two days a week, meaning I can do work from home on my own schedule the rest of the week. This works out really well for my personal life because I can train a lot during the day when people are at work and it allows me to have time at night to still spend with family.
What are some of your favorite pieces of equipment; bike, shoes, goggles, etc.
I am all about trying things on before ever buying them! So many people buy certain wetsuits because that’s what is considered the “best brand”. But if it doesn’t fit you right, is it really best for YOU? And every wetsuit I buy seems to be a different brand based on what fits me best at that time! And for swimming, I love TYR swimsuits and googles.
I’ve found I LOVE my Trek Speed Concept and my bike shop (Prairie Path Cycles) that takes care of it. They’ve really been key in all of my races because I’ve never ran into any major issues (knock on wood).
I am a huge fan of Saucony and Hoka running shoes. I actually alternate between them each run or based on the type of run because that helps prevent injury by working different muscles. I use a lot of Clif Bloks every year too.
Do you train mostly alone?
I do 99.9999% of my training alone. I found this is best because it’s easier to do the workouts I’m prescribed without trying to keep up with someone or wait for them. I also found it helps because sometimes I wake up, feel wiped, decide to take it easy and do a workout a little bit later in the day and that extra rest is so beneficial when I need it.
What are some of your goals?
I got into Kona based on legacy status and I would love to eventually get there by winning my age group at an Ironman. I truly think I’m capable of doing it….just haven’t put the perfect race together yet! I also eventually want to do a really crazy trail run like 100 miles or so!
On another love in your life, when did you begin fostering dogs?
I started fostering dogs in January of 2019. My mom was on Facebook and saw this super sad beagle looking for a foster home. As a huge beagle fan (already owned two of them at the time), I decided to foster her. Of course, she never left and is now part of the family and has come a long way from where she was back then!
What are some of the challenges/emotions you feel in that endeavor?
I love every single dog or puppy that comes to my house! Just in the past 12 months specifically, I’ve had 26 foster puppies so far. I really thrive off the craziness of having puppies here constantly.
Shelters are super stressful situations for dogs and puppies! Some of them sit in a corner shaking non-stop. It’s been shown dogs cortisol levels drop significantly just from going to a home for a weekend instead of being in a shelter. By giving them a place to go, they learn to socialize with people and other dogs and it makes them a much better dog in the future when they go to their forever home!
I will admit though, there are some that pull at your heart so much and it is really hard to part with them. I had the sweetest black lab mix puppy right after my dad died that I thought I would never be able to part with. BUT…I also know that if I allow a puppy to leave and find a home, it frees up space to save more.
I’ve had a few that really broke my heart and sometimes people question why I’d want to put myself through that! But when puppies are dropped in boxes on the side of the road, thrown out of cars with broken legs (the author’s dog Lucy…) scared to death from being mistreated, covered in fleas or ticks, or sick from lack of blood sugar, I would rather put myself through the pain of losing them (but also the happiness of helping them find a good home!) and allow them find a happy life and home, just like Lucy did!
Why do you like dogs so much?
Dogs are amazing! They’re way better than people, in my opinion (laugh). They love you unconditionally and truly just bring happiness everyday. It doesn’t matter how bad of a day you’re having, a dog NEVER makes the day worse! As an athlete, dogs are active animals that love to go for walks, be outside, or can lay with you when you’re tired.
I just have a massive space in my heart to save them and be around them. I truly can’t imagine a day where I’m not saving dogs now. The current foster puppy I have came here so timid and scared and I have watched her come out of her shell in only a week. It just makes me feel like I’m doing something really good for an animal that can’t tell you what they need…kind of like my purpose in life!
What are some good rescue organizations?
The organization I foster through is called Safe Haven Dog Rescue. They’re on Facebook and also on Petfinder! Also, Tails in Dekalb and Noah’s Ark in Rockford are two that I follow and respect!
A fun conversationalist
As a followup to our interview, my wife and I joined Karah on a training trip up to a local lake for open water swimming. On the way, Karah related that she and her husband Sean both sometimes work out of the home. That’s a convenience for the most part, but they’ve also learned to give each other the professional space needed to do their jobs.
She also related that her husband found it funny when after visiting a local Taco Bell, they found the order was all messed up. “For me, that’s a big problem with some of the dietary things I have to be careful about. That can endanger people.”
So she wrote a strong missive to Taco Bell, chastising them for the carelessness. “Now whenever I have a complaint, Sean says, ‘Don’t go all Taco Bell about this.”
That story illustrates the challenge of balancing so many things in life. Just when some things get under control, other weird stuff happens. That’s certainly the case in triathlon, in fostering dogs and in visiting fast food places where all the ingredients for joy or disaster can be found in one place.
And that’s life for Karah Osterberg. A bit of chaos and a bit of joy in every day. And she loves it that way, and she’s doggone good at it!
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