5 Questions with Melissa Penwell

Published on May 08, 2017


Updated May 15, 2017: Holy moly, this is great news! Melissa Penwell rocked the Gold Rush 50k (roughly 31 miles), finishing first place for women and third place overall. Penwell scored a lovely pickaxe trophy and a blazing finishing time of 3:50:50.

Melissa Penwell is a legal secretary working in Placer County’s District Attorney’s Office. During her off time, Melissa can be found training as a competitive runner anywhere between the valley and Sierra.

Penwell, who recently finished her first 50-mile trail race, shares how she manages her full-time job, rigorous training schedule and how Placer County’s diverse landscape fits perfectly into her fast-moving lifestyle.

You just finished your first ultra run, the American River 50 Mile Endurance Run, which finishes in Auburn. Tell us about the experience.

I have been wanting to tackle the 50-mile distance for a while now, and I decided this was going to be the year. I was nervous because I had never run longer than a 50K before (about 31 miles), so I did not know what to expect or how my body would react. The race ended up going very well and it actually went by very quickly…or at least as quickly as running for almost 8 hours continuously can go. Leading up to the race, I was very dedicated with my training, so I learned really to trust in my preparation and not second guess myself. I have a lot of friends who run ultras and I have paced people during their 100-mile races (running shorter lengths of a race at a specific pace so racers can gauge their own speed), so I know what human body is capable of, but it was different to experience it for myself. I learned that I am capable of running this distance, and that it is a more feasible task that I had originally thought. I definitely see myself doing another in the future!

Training for marathons and ultras takes a lot of time, dedication and discipline. How do you manage to work full-time and fit it all in?

Training for long-distance races is definitely time consuming. In order to fit it all in, I do a lot of early morning runs, at 5 a.m. or 5:30 a.m. This allows me to have evenings to spend with my husband and get chores and errands done. Then there is usually one weekday when I do a “double-day” and run again in the afternoon. I also make sure to take advantage of my lunch breaks during the workweek. I try to go to the gym three times a week to lift weights, since I believe that it is a very important component of being a good runner. Sometimes I have to rearrange my week to fit things in, so being flexible is important. Unless I am sick, I will never skip a run; training to be a competitive runner means you have to make running a priority!

What kind of encouragement do you have for someone who says they don’t have any time for physical fitness?

I think that no matter how busy you are, everyone can find time to work out. Sometimes people think that they need to set aside a large chunk of time for a work out, but they should keep in mind that something is better than nothing. Even if you only have 20 minutes, you can go for a walk, run a couple miles, do a high-intensity interval workout, do a yoga routine, or do a body strength workout. I love running because it doesn’t any special equipment or prep; I can just lace up my shoes and run from wherever I am. Take advantage of your lunch break, workout while watching TV, cut out that 30 minutes you spend scrolling through Instagram, prep your food on the weekend so you don’t have to worry about meals during the week. If you make physical fitness a priority, you can find the time!

How does Placer County fit into your running? What do you like about it?

Placer County is a wonderful place to live for runners because it has so much to offer. I live in Rocklin, and when I want a flat, fast run, there are plenty of great bike trails in the area for some good road training. However, I can get on the highway and zip up to Auburn to do hilly, trail runs whenever I want, as well. I absolutely love running in Auburn and Foresthill because the trails are very accessible and the views of the canyon and the river are spectacular. If I want to get in some training at elevation, I can head over to the Tahoe area. One of the first long trail runs I did was Sugar Bowl to Squaw ski resort, and that sure was a good workout! I truly feel lucky to live in such a beautiful area, where I can run such scenic routes on a regular basis. Auburn was deemed the “Endurance Capital of the World” and there are so many great running, biking, triathlon and horse races in the area, that welcome both beginners and experienced athletes. There is definitely something for everyone and if you love being outdoors, Placer County is a fantastic place to live.

The thought of running or working out can seem daunting, especially in those early morning hours or after a long day’s work. What motivates you to tie-up your laces and get out the door?

The thought of getting up at 4 a.m. to run can seem very daunting. People often tell me that they could never do it, but I think they have just never tried it, or don’t have a support group. Honestly, if I were doing my morning runs alone, I would probably hit snooze much more often and call it an “afternoon run” day. I have found many great running groups and training partners, and we keep each other accountable. If you want to work out before work, I strongly suggest finding a group or workout partner. Knowing someone is waiting for you makes it much easier to get out of bed. I also know from experience that the hardest part is simply getting out the door. Sometimes I have to drag myself out of bed, but I know that once I am out there, I will enjoy it. There have been many days when I did not want to run at all, either before or after work, but I have never regretted it once I was out the door and running. Ultimately what motivates me to get out the door is the fact that I practice a sport that I truly love, so it rarely feels like a chore. I am a big advocate for running, but acknowledge that it is not for everyone. If you find an activity that you love and stick with it, then working out won’t feel daunting, or like a burden at all!