Laura Haefeli (pictured above far left) will forever be an inspirational figure in the history of U.S. mountain running. She represented the United States at the World Mountain Running Trophy race from 2004 to 2008 and her impressive trail running career has since earned her a place in the Colorado Running Hall of Fame.
Her top result in international competition came in 2007 when she finished 3rd at the World Mountain Running Trophy race and led the U.S. Women’s Mountain Running Team to a gold medal. She was also a member of the first ever gold medal winning U.S. women’s team at the 2006 World Mountain Running Trophy. Despite such success, her competitive trail running career almost never came to be.
Summer Biathlon and Olympic Dreams
Haefeli has always been an impressive athlete. She began running in high school and found quick success. She earned a scholarship at the University of Dayton, Ohio, where she participated in NCAA Division 1 Cross Country. After graduating in 1990, she applied her running talent to the “niche” sport of Summer Biathlon which she would pursue at the highest level for the next fourteen years.
As the name suggests, Summer (running) Biathlon* is the off-snow version of the established Winter Olympic sport that involves cross country skiing and target shooting. In one version of summer version of biathlon, cross country skiing is replaced with cross country running. Haefeli describes the sport in more detail,
“The Summer Biathlon uses the same low velocity 22 caliber rifles and targets as the Winter Biathlon, which has been an Olympic sport since 1960. It’s the same concept but more practical because more people can participate. Everyone can run, but not everyone can ski. You can practice Summer Biathlon almost anywhere you can put up a shooting range. For the Winter Biathlon, you have to be in a specific cross country ski venue already set up for the sport such as what exists in Lake Placid, (NY) Winter Park (CO), or Soldier Hollow (UT).”
Haefeli traveled internationally to compete in Summer Biathlon, which was her first informal introduction to mountain running. In contrast to Summer Biathlon competitions in the United States, where most running took place on flat shooting range trails, European courses were often held on hilly ski resort trails in the mountains.
“The European courses were my real first taste of mountain running. They were no joke! I was familiar with running hills from my past cross country racing, but the hills in these courses were something I’d never experienced. It was difficult to slow my breathing and heart rate down to be able to shoot!”
Haefeli had dreams to make the inaugural U.S. Olympic Team in the Summer Biathlon, which unfortunately did not come to be. The sport of Summer Biathlon applied to be accepted in the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta, but was denied. It’s popularity began to fade and now in 2021 very few athletes participate in the running version of the sport. Haefeli’s athletic dreams were crushed as she watched the sport she dedicated her life to for fourteen years fade from the world and her life.
“We thought it was going to be accepted into the Olympics in 1996. We had major sponsors including Adidas, Marlin Firearms, and Federal Ammunition. We had it approved in all 50 states and traveled across the country giving clinics to increase awareness of the sport. Sometimes I think about what I could have done with my running in those fourteen years, but overall I don’t regret it.”
Trail Running and Honey
Haefeli retired from Summer Biathlon in 2003 and was ready to put aside her athletic career to focus on building her family, and family business, Haefeli Honey, a 5th generation honey farm currently situated in the 1,500-person mountain town of Del Norte, Colorado.
“In 2003, I thought I was retiring from sports. My kids were three, five and seven and we had just moved our beekeeping business from Monte Vista to where it is now in Del Norte, Colorado.”
Haefeli married into what was once one of the largest honey production businesses in the country. In 1903, Edward Haefeli arrived in the San Luis Valley of Colorado from Switzerland, where his father had worked as a beekeeper. The Haefeli bee operation currently farms raw honey from over 4,000 beehives, producing over 550 barrels of honey a year.
Haefeli works the farm’s store front in Del Norte that sells their signature High Altitude Clover Homey, special creamed honeys, high-quality beeswax, candles, ornaments and other specialty honey products. Haefeli expresses her love for honey,
“I eat honey everyday. It’s the first thing in my coffee in the morning! It’s pure energy. In the mornings it gives you energy but if you take it before bed it will help you sleep.” She goes on to explain the difference between the honey you may find in the grocery store and the kind of raw honey they produce at their farm.
“Much of the honey you find in the grocery store is superheated. It may come from China or Argentina, which means it only has to be 51% honey for them to call it honey. This is one reason many people are amazed the first time they try our honey.”
While beekeeping had become (and still is) a major part of Haefeli’s life, she couldn’t leave the athletic path for long. In 2004, she ran her first real mountain race and never looked back. Her first race was the 2004 Mount Washington Road Race, which served as a selection race for the US Mountain Running Team. She placed fourth and qualified for the team.
“This was my first uphill race. A friend had convinced me to sign up for the race and at that point in my life I didn’t know anything about the trail and mountain running community. It was the start of a whole new chapter.”
Haefeli continued to find success in mountain running. She qualified for the US Mountain Running Teams from 2004 to 2008 and achieved one of her best performances at the 2007 World Mountain Running Trophy where she placed third. This was the first individual medal for a U.S. woman at an event which became the World Mountain Running Championships in 2009.
Living in the small, remote mountain town of Del Norte, Haefeli’s training was more solitary than most elite mountain runners. “Almost all of my training was alone and I didn’t race much.” said Haefeli. One exception was her weekly training runs with running legend, Chuck Smead, who lived in the area. Smead, runner-up at the 1980 Chicago Marathon and two-time winner of the Pikes Peak Marathon and Pikes Peak Ascent was the best mentor Haefeli could have asked as she continued to develop her mountain running skills. “Chuck was a huge influence in my running career. He gave me the confidence I needed to start training seriously after ending my biathlon career. He saw in me the running talent that I didn’t see back then. He convinced me I could make the US Mountain Running Team.”
Smead also helped Haefeli learn how to run the kind of uphills she would encounter in mountain races. “Chuck taught me how to slow down on hills. I was used to fast, cross country style hills and I didn’t understand the concept of pacing for longer climbs. He taught me little tricks like leaning into the hill and how to use different power hiking techniques.”
Master’s Success and Coaching
Still today, Haefeli has continued to find success in the masters’ category of running. She bested Joan Benoit Sameulson’s master’s record at the 7.6 mile all uphill Mount Washington Road Race and placed third at the 2017 Broken Arrow Skyrace Vertical Kilometer. Unfortunately in recent years, she has also been plagued with injuries.
“Through 2015 I was doing well, then I kept experiencing injuries including a nagging plantar fasciitis. I still have aspirations to chase new age-group records such as the one at Mount Washington.” Although she is currently running just thirty miles per week (as compared to the seventy or eighty she used to run), she still manages to find effective ways to stay fast. “You can do a lot on lower mileage if they’re not wasted miles. I’ve always believed in a quality over quantity approach. Learn how to push yourself when you need to go hard and go easy when you need to go easy.”
Haefeli has also found new meaning in her running through coaching track and cross country at the local high school in Del Norte. She was awarded the High School Cross Country Coach of the Year San Luis Valley in 2004, 2010, and 2015 and has now been a coach for eighteen years. Haefeli describes what coaching means to her,
“I always thought there was more of a purpose to running than my personal running journey and trying to win races. It makes me feel good to inspire others to run and to be a part of that person’s life. I’ve always wanted to help people through it.”
Learn more about Haefeli Honey and shop on their online store at https://www.haefelihoney.com.
* The International Biathlon Union (IBU) hosted a summer biathlon world championship with running from 1996 until 2009. The summer biathlon world championship on roller-skis was contested from 2006 until 2018.