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Ultra Athlete, Orthodox: Hutterite Woman Skis Winter Ultra Race 

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The first time I saw Hannah Hofer, her long blue dress was nearly touching the snow. I was a few yards behind, envious of her swiftness on skis and grace as I trudged along, pushing and post-holing with my bike in Canada’s Actif Epica 130-kilometer ultra race.

Hannah is a Hutterite and was dressed in traditional attire as we raced side by side across the frozen wilderness.

People of the Hutterite faith are from a communal branch of the Anabaptists who trace their religion to the same 16th century roots as the Amish and Mennonites. They live in groups on hundreds of scattered colonies (known as bruderhöfe) throughout the prairies of northwestern North America.

(See more photos of Hannah on page 2 of this post.)

Historically, people of the Hutterite faith have had a limited amount of leisure time, spending most of their days farming, raising livestock and manufacturing goods. While this still often rings true today, times are changing among certain colonies and many Hutterites now participate in various sports including — as is turns out — endurance racing.

Hannah Hofer making her way across the frozen prairie in the Actif Epica race. Photo by Kyle Thomas

It was last month at the Actif Epica ultra race where I met Hofer. She lives in Saint Agathe, Manitoba. She is a part of the Crystal Spring Hutterite Community and was racing the event as part of a three-person team.

(See our initial coverage, “12 Lessons Learned: Riding My First Winter Ultra Bike Race”.)

“In my (limited) experience, Hutterites are no strangers to hard work, but tend not to participate in organized competitions. Not sure if there are faith/lifestyle reasons for the latter, or if it’s driven by the somewhat isolated nature of rural colony living,” said Ian Hall, one of the Actif Epica race directors.

We met up with Hannah after the race to find out more about how she got involved in the race and endurance activities in general. —Amy Oberbroeckling

Racers taking off from the start early in the morning. Photo by Kyle Thomas

GJ: What do you do when not participating in endurance sports?
Hannah: I’m a massage therapist and a piano teacher.

Is this your first winter marathon?
Yes, I decided to join the Actif Epica Ultra-marathon as part of a relay team because I love winter sports. I cross-country ski, snowshoe and play hockey all winter. I went with the relay because previously my longest summer run was a 10K.

Does your faith play a role in your endurance sports?
While I do live in a Christian-based community, I think sport is generally more character-based than faith-based. Anybody who is interested in staying fit and healthy is able to participate in a variety of activities.  

With respect to your traditional attire, what gear did you wear for the event?
It was a real challenge figuring out what layers would work since I had never skied long distance in such extreme weather conditions before. Race morning I decided on a poly-blend base layer top and bottom. On top of that I wore another warmer layer and then a pair of wind-proof ski pants with a jacket. I was over-dressed because the temperature was warmer than I anticipated.  I almost had to stop and remove a layer around mile 2 because I was really over-heated, but then when I took off my gloves, I was OK.

Hannah Hoefer and another racer working hard in the snow. Photo by Kyle Thomas

What was the most challenging part of the race?
The gravel roads rubbed all the wax off my skis. Next time I would use non-wax skis. I was basically slipping and sliding along so I decided to run the last 2 miles, which was difficult because I was carrying water.

My inexperience and pre-race nerves got to me and I made the #1 race day mistake. “Never do anything you haven’t done in training!” I train using only water, but for some strange reason I filled both my bottles with sports drink. From start to finish I had to force myself to take a sip every 20 minutes. My body wasn’t used to all the sugar and my legs weren’t moving like they should have.  Toward the end I gagged at the mere thought of drinking the overly sweet concoction.

What was the most rewarding part?
Knowing that we completed an ultra-marathon as a team, especially knowing we could have said to heck with it after our third member got injured. The ending was amazing. The three of us met up at the finish line and came in together. It was the completion of an incredible day. Seeing the other participants come in added to this as well, even if we only experienced a small portion of what they had done that day. I got a little glimpse of how truly resilient human beings can be. At every checkpoint racers came in all cheerful and happy even though they’d been through cold, wind and deep snow and had been pushing their minds and bodies almost to the breaking point the last 8-12 hours. Racers did get more quiet and subdued toward the end, but they still seemed to be having fun.  
Are you planning on racing Actif Epica again?
I would love to try running it, but first I need to get more miles under my belt. Ultra-marathons have me intrigued!

—Editor Amy Oberbroeckling raced her bike in the Actif Epica. Read her story here.

See more photos of Hannah on page 2 of this post…

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