Allison Baca's road to recovery, adventures and joy
By Henry Howard
To say Allison’s Baca path to ultra running took some twists and turns would be an understatement.
Now stoked to represent Team USA on the world stage, Baca can look back and reflect on her circuitous route. After being active in all sports growing up, she competed on the University of Washington track and cross-country teams. Following a foray into triathlons, she found her true calling on trails.
“My college experience kind of ruined running for me,” she says. “I switched to triathlon and then cycling and then triathlon again. Because of my job, I ended up moving to a place in Arizona that didn't have a pool within two hours of driving. That meant no more triathlon for me. So I just started running.”
Arizona’s long dirt roads were her catalyst for running frequently, which led to signing up for a 50K. “I just wanted to see if I could even do that distance. It was super fun and I just fell in love with trail running and the low pressure.”
Disordered eating in college
That was a stark contrast to her college career.
Originally from New Jersey, Baca encountered injuries while playing high school soccer. She then joined the high school cross country and track teams, which put her on a path to collegiate running. The collegiate culture ushered in unreal expectations, poor diet and restricted eating.
“Oh, that's what I need to do in order to be on the top seven and race at NCAAs,” she thought. “I need to be doing the same thing as top athletes and not really thinking or even knowing how that would affect my body.”
She relates that experience to Lauren Fleshman’s new book, “Good for a Girl.”
“If you read that, it’s very similar to my college experience. On one hand I'm grateful that I had the opportunity to be a college athlete, but it felt kind of turn and burn for the athletes. And the coaches didn't necessarily care that much if you weren't on the top seven in cross country or qualifying for NCAAs and stuff like that.”
Baca experienced her own bout with disordered eating.
“I ended up being injured for most of college,” she recalls. “I had one good season in cross country my sophomore year when I was basically running 100 miles a week and not eating food.”
Baca felt dizzy walking to classes. She suffered a stress fracture and Achilles issues. And she was never able to replicate her sophomore season.
During her senior year, she left the team. “I didn't know why I was doing this. It's not fun. I was not progressing. It was a good decision for me ultimately, but it took so many years to actually recover from that experience.”
Longing for adventure
Fortunately, Baca was able to regain her physical fitness and mental wellbeing from that experience. She moved to Miami and latched on with the triathlon community. In the endurance sports world, she once again found athletes trading healthy eating for the possibility of a slightly faster race time.
“I was definitely still restricting what I was eating, and I felt like I needed to do that to be the best,” she says.
Upon her move to Arizona, she turned to the trails when the pools were a mirage.
“It was this idea that I could go explore all these cool new places that I didn't think was possible before,” she explains. “When I was living in Arizona, I would drive super early in the morning to go run in the Grand Canyon on the weekends sometimes. It was just the most amazing, coolest thing I had ever seen.”
As a competitive person, Baca embraced the challenges.
“It was so liberating, in a way to just go and have these long adventures and trust that my body could make it happen and carry me through the whole way,” she says. “In races, I want to push my body and I want to see how fast I can go and where is the wall — How close can I get? I just love testing myself in a way and going out at this pace and see if I can last for the whole race or what happens.”
‘Eat enough always’
For an athlete with a history of disordered eating, there is perhaps no better coaches than David and Megan Roche (for full disclosure, David is my coach, too) who implore athletes to “eat enough always.” To them, scales should be junked while junk food is fine for consumption.
After her first ultra in Arizona about four years ago, Baca reached out to Roche for coaching.
“I don't know what I'm doing,” she remembers thinking. “I'm probably going to run myself into the ground without any guidance. I read David's book and then listened to a bunch of podcasts. I really liked their philosophy and that was just what I needed.”
The Roches’ philosophy served as the framework for a healthy eating approach.
“They definitely helped so much,” she says. “And I actually feel like pregnancy helped me a ton as well, because I was forced to gain weight because you're growing a small human. It was really difficult for me because it was scary to see my body change and get bigger.”
Then Baca fully embraced eating whatever she craved.
“The whole journey of pregnancy and having a baby is ultimately what ended up snapping me out of restricting my eating.”
Now with a toddler, Baca continues her whatever goes eating philosophy. Ice cream for second breakfast? Definitely.
Listening frequently to the Roches’ podcast, it serves as a constant reminder to always fuel.
“You cannot restrict ever,” she says. “Now I'm just so prepared if I drive 20 minutes to go run somewhere, I bring my protein shake. I need this and this and this, and I'm just so prepared because I don't want to fall back into those habits ever.”
A bond between a coach and athlete is special. For Baca, Roche is a “life coach” as well.
“He is just wonderful,” she gushes. “I feel like I can share everything with him. He never judges me, and he always has good advice. I'm just so grateful to have them in my life. David's so much more than just a coach. He's just a life coach too, and a really good friend. That’s not what I had in college.”
But it’s not just the nutrition and mental wellbeing that makes the Roches successful.
They advise athletes to prioritize easy running, at whatever pace. “Some days I go do my easy run and I'm doing an 11 minute pace. It's wonderful and I love it, and he doesn't judge me for that. Whereas in college, our easy runs would actually be races against our teammates, and we'd be running 6:30 pace over trails. It's such a huge dichotomy versus what my previous strictly running training had looked like.”
Climbing out of a hole
Baca has much to be thankful for. A supportive coach. Her health, thanks to proper eating choices. The ability to run competitively. And, most importantly, a loving family.
Running during her first trimester was a “struggle.” She didn't get morning sickness, but would just randomly pass out. “So that was slightly terrifying when I was running,” she says, noting that her chief concerns were with her unborn child.
She was not able to run during the second trimester because it was too painful but restarted during the final one. In fact, she even ran the day labor was induced.
The pregnancy itself was challenging. In a poignant Instagram post, she wrote about the
“ever deepening hole of darkness.”
“It was so challenging,” she recalls. “I never thought I was going to be like that, not that that's bad in any way, just in my mind I was going to be a really chill mom.”
It was overwhelming, like it can be for new moms.
“I was just crying, just crying all the time for what felt like no reason,” she recalls. ”The nurses in the hospital asked me what was wrong. I didn't even know. I'm just crying. When they sent us home from the hospital, it was terrifying. I had never been around babies before, and suddenly a baby just felt so vulnerable.”
Baca felt like she was in a hole, “literally trying to claw myself out. I felt like the world kept going on without me. And now my only purpose was to keep a small human alive and feed a small human. No one in the world cared. It was really weird and really challenging.”
She credits her husband, Tony, for being “wonderful and helpful.” Through his support and her ability to start riding a bike again, Baca found her way out of the hole.
“Maybe it was just the endorphins or just being outside and getting fresh air. It just started pulling me out of that depression, I guess. I still struggle a lot with anxiety sometimes. I still definitely struggle with it, but not in that same magnitude, thank goodness.”
Baca has endured her own battle and offers encouragement to other moms who might face similar post-natal challenges.
“I feel like I could have reached out to people more when I was really struggling,” she admits. “I felt like I didn't want to reach out to any of my friends 'cause I was like, they're not parents. They're not going to understand. They're going to think I'm crazy 'cause I'm just crying. But my best friends tell me they would have been there for me.
“I would say reach out to people that you love, even if it feels so hard and they wouldn't understand. I do feel ultimately that also really helped me. I feel like finding some sort of community, even though it's probably the last thing you want to do, is helpful. Or just tell your spouse to please help me reach out to people. It's not completely on you.”
Now, 2-year-old Mateo is active and the family enjoys bike rides together. Looking ahead to Mother's Day, Baca has a different frame of mind from those challenging days recovering in the hospital.
“Oh my gosh. It's kind of crazy to believe that I'm a mom. Our son, Mateo, is truly just the greatest, most wonderful gift in my life. It's so cliche to say, but it's just truly this love that you can't even describe. He just somehow inspires me to be better and do better for him. It's just super meaningful to feel like I have this awesome family and support system and this child that just loves me unconditionally and likewise to him.”
On to the world championships
Her second place finish earlier this year at Lake Sonoma qualified Baca to represent Team USA on the 86K Long Trail Team at the world championships this summer.
She had attempted to qualify for the 50K team at the FOURmidable 50K in February. But she fell a little short, finishing in fourth place.
“After that race, I told David, ‘I'm never racing California again. I hate California. I never have good races there.’”
Upon his advice, Baca reconsidered and gave Lake Sonoma a shot. She entered with a mix of thoughts: she knew her training went well but knew the field was highly competitive.
“I need to be confident, and we will see what happens,” she remembers thinking. “Maybe it'll be great and I'll have a good day. You never really know what's going to happen in ultras. So on one hand I thought I could do well and I could get a spot depending on how the day went.”
Baca played it smart, running her own race, even when the leaders moved ahead around 10 miles in. “I just felt like they were running too fast for me, and I needed to back off a little bit, run my own pace.”
That approach worked as she started feeling better, moving up and passing people. Once she took over second place, she was running scared but determined.
“I told myself to just keep pushing, keep going,” she recalls. “I just got to run up every single hill. I cannot stop and walk. I can't hike. I just got to keep running and running, and I was just so dead at the finish line. It was amazing. It was so cool. And even if I was fourth or fifth or whatever, I truly gave everything on that day. I was super proud of that, regardless of whatever place I got, but turned out to be second, so woo-hoo!”
Baca is truly honored to be representing Team USA this summer.
“It's definitely been a goal of mine for years, since I've been running in general,” she says. “I'm just really pumped about the team that we have. I feel like we can really do something cool at the World Championships.”
The second World Mountain & Trail Running Championships (WMTRC) is scheduled for June 6-10, 2023 in Innsbruck-Stubai, Austria. This biennial event is organized by the World Mountain Running Association, the International Association of Ultrarunners and the International Trail Running Association (ITRA), with support from World Athletics.
Baca is focusing on what she can control.
“I feel like if we all go and just have fun and put ourselves out there, it could be a really good day,” she says. “Team USA did great last year in Thailand, so I feel like we have a pretty strong team again. I'm just so excited to go visit Austria and run this course. Looks incredible. So I'm honestly just so pumped. I cannot wait.”
Name: Allison Baca
Hometown: Colts Neck, N.J.
Number of years running: Many! Competitively 18
How many miles a week do you typically run: Anywhere from 40 to 80
Point of pride: "Hiking a 14er with my son and dog (Mount Princeton)."
Favorite race distance: 50K to 100K
Favorite pre-race or training food/drink: Pizza!
Favorite piece of gear: KidRunner running stroller
Who inspires you: "All of the high-performing mom athletes."
Favorite or inspirational song to run to: Would That I by Hozier.
Favorite or inspirational mantra/phrase: "None really — sorry!!"
Where can other runners connect or follow you:
• Instagram: @allisonlbaca
• Strava: Allison Baca