Hailing from Robbinsdale, Minnesota, Leah Thorvilson leads a very active lifestyle. From her formative years running track and cross-country for the University of Arkansas at Little Rock to winning the first-ever Zwift Academy competition in 2016. As a massive advocate for Zpurs and our partner company, Neatcleats, we thought it was high-time we caught up with Leah to see how she’s getting on during the global health crisis.
To get the ball rolling, tell me a little about your upbringing and how you got into competitive sports, and what (or who) spurred you on to pursue it professionally?
Going through school, I ran track and competed on the dance team, which I always thought I would continue to do on into college, but that ended up not being the case. I was recruited to run track and cross country for the University of Arkansas at Little Rock (this is NOT the big Arkansas most are familiar with, which is in Fayetteville). I had never raced Cross Country before, and my longest track race was 800m before college, but throughout my collegiate career, I learned that I really loved the long training miles required for endurance events. I knew that post collegiately I wanted to try running a marathon, and this is where I ended up having the most success.
I don’t think I’m particularly fast, but I was always able to hold a moderately fast pace for a very long time. In my competitive running years, I finished over 40 races that were of a marathon distance or further, the most noteworthy being the US Olympic Trials marathon in 2012. I was nowhere close to making the team, but I was there!
I ran a lot of marathons, sometimes 8 or 9 a year, and eventually my body got a little mad about it. I ended up having four surgeries in 3 years. The first surgery was to repair a torn hamstring, and the latter three on the knee held me up while my bad hamstring leg was recuperating. The final surgery was an OATS procedure; a bone graft to the medial condyle of my right femur.
After that, I was required to take a full year with no high impact activity, which is is when I decided to start cycling. I bought my first serious bike in 2015, entered the Zwift Academy in 2016, and became a professional in what seemed like overnight. I don’t know that anything spurred me on to pursue it professionally; it just happened!
You were the first Zwift Academy Winner in 2016. How difficult was it, and how did it feel to win?
I imagine that when I die, winning Zwift Academy and riding for CANYON//SRAM will go down as the single most incredible thing I ever did. It would be such a great story to tell my grandkids, but I have no children, so I guess I will just have to tell it to someone else’s grandkids. I never in a million years expected to win. I started ZA as a personal challenge, and with each phase, I progressed through. I thought “well cool; maybe I can make it one step further”. I left a very good job at the University to move overseas and ride bikes at 38 years old. Seriously, it’s insane. I had no business racing in the pro peloton. I got better over time, but not good enough, and after my second year, I was not re-signed with the team.
Since riding with Canyon//SRAM, what have you been up to?
I have been back home in the states, working on contract jobs for Zwift and starting a coaching business (don’t start a business right before a pandemic hits, if you can help it!). I was fortunate to be given an opportunity in 2019 to race with a gravel team, even though I had never done any off-road riding. It was fun, but i’m a roadie at heart. I enjoy riding gravel but don’t think I enjoy racing it so much. I found teams to guest ride for in road races, and fortunately was able to secure a permanent spot on Femme Equipe for 2020, a domestic elite team.
We are still awaiting our first race as a full squad, but i’ve become super close with my teammates even in this strange interim, and know it will be a lot of fun to race with them, eventually. I’ve also been running again, although I seem to get little tweaks and wanna-be injuries more easily than I used to. I’m pretty content and accepting that running will be at a much slower pace, and racing will be limited. I also have an eRacing team, Turbo Squad, who I race with on Zwift. We are nine women from 5 different countries, each racing from our own home, which is pretty cool!
How are you spending your lockdown, and who with?
Well, when quarantine began, I was unemployed, so I was spending time doing all my regular run and ride training, but also got into a good core routine. I started practising meditation, read more books, wrote letters, and went for a lot of walks. I was literally never bored.
Fortunately, I now have more contract work, so my days are super full from start to finish. I miss the laid back nature of my unemployed days, but I sure don’t miss the financial stress, and Zwift has to be the greatest company in the world to work with. Outside of the people I run into randomly at the grocery store, I’ve only spent time with a few people; mostly my boyfriend and his daughter.
What does a typical day in lockdown involve for you?
Right now, I wake up about 05:00, do my morning journal, and ride the trainer for 2-3 hours because it’s still too dark to go out that early. I don’t care for riding in the dark.
I have a super quick shower/coffee/breakfast routine and then settle into work for the day. If work is finished at an early enough hour or sometimes by midday, I will squeak out a short run from home. Then I make dinner, maybe watch a bit of TV, read, meditate or go for a short walk. I try to be in bed early enough to do it all over again.
I’m very blessed to be able to work from home, so my day doesn’t look any different than it would out of quarantine, to be honest. The weekends when I would typically see a lot of friends on group rides or go to church are the days that feel the most different.
Like so many of us, Leah is missing more ‘normal’ rituals like going to see her friends. To not let this weigh her down, Leah explains that keeping a journal, meditation and exercise are helping to keep her spirits up. “Keeping my mind focused on positives makes all the difference in the world. I try to do little things to help others stay positive too, whenever I have the opportunity,” explains Leah.
“Zpurs is wonderful for travelling with because putting your running shoes into a suitcase or backpack where they can get smooshed is not good for the integrity of the shoe. It can bend the heel counter out of whack, which can be uncomfortable if it’s bent in a way that puts pressure on your ankles or collapses the support of the shoe.
Using Zpurs, you can keep your shoes neatly hung on the outside of your carry on or backpack and ensure they hold their form. Also, I am a very heavy sweater, and it’s never a pleasant experience to take cycling or running shoes out of a bag if they are put away wet. Being able to transport my shoes on Neatcleats or Zpurs is a much fresher option. Between myself and my boyfriend, we have more than ten pairs of running and cycling shoes in the garage. Neatcleats and Zpurs provide an organizational solution that is much better than heaps of shoes on the floor.” – Leah Thorvilson