There was a time when Jens Brabbit’s life was all about, well, time.
The time, down to hundredths of a second, it would take the teenage phenom to finish a Junior Cup cycling race along the narrow, winding roads of various European countries.
The time he would finish a 10k (6.2 miles) or 20k (12.4 miles) cross country ski race at regional, then national competitions while a standout skier at NCAA Division III Gustavus Adolphus College, all while competing against mostly Division I scholarship skiers.
That time, while extremely interesting and eventful, is part of the 33-year-old La Crescent man’s past at this point in, well, time. This is not to say the Winona native isn’t still fast — he definitely is — but it’s not as important to him as it once was.
Time changes things.
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So when I sat down with Brabbit last week with the intent of finding out more about his speed training, or what makes this guy the premier cross country skier, as well as runner, in the La Crosse area — and beyond — I didn’t expect this elite American Birkebeiner skier to have changed his priorities.
Well, at least to have adjusted them. But he has, and his reasons are admirable, his vision insightful.
“I think people think I am all about times and stuff. I just like the process and if the results come with the process, great. I don’t really think about the results much anymore,” said Brabbit, an almost annual top-100 finisher over the past decade in a Birkie field which typically features more than 3,000 competitors.
“Does it matter at the end of the day if I am eighth in the Birkie or 23rd? No one cares except me.
“People that are in the silent sports community around here, I don’t want this to come across as arrogant, but they know what they do and are fine with that. It is kind of like I don’t go out and say, ‘I do the Birkie; look at me.’ I like being the underground guy a little bit.”
Brabbit’s life now consists of raising a growing family of two-plus kids with his wife, Katherine, and working as vice-president at MGI Data Center, where he “buys and sells data center infrastructure.”
Oh, there is some serious running with the cross country ski season having come and gone. There’s some highly competitive races coming up, including the Chicago Marathon this fall.
“I’m running every morning now. I am just starting to get back into it. Right now I am running about 45-50 miles a week, and then full-marathon prep, I will probably get to like 85-ish range,” said Brabbit, who is coming off a winter where he would ski 50-60 miles per week.
“Before we had kids, I would train after work, and then I guess life evolved. Now I get one hour in the morning. My window to train is like 5:30 in the morning for an hour. And if I miss it, I don’t overthink it, I just move on to the next day.”
With Katherine, who works at United National Foods Incorporated, able to work mostly from home, it allows Brabbit an hour to himself each daybreak. Once he’s back from training, he helps with sons, Bjorn, 5, and Aksel, 3, in the morning routine. Soon, as in the end of May, the Brabbits will add a little girl to their family.
Yes, with time comes even more changes.
Training in the darkness of early morning, Brabbit says, allows him to balance family, work and his love for endurance sports.
“It is just like, prioritizing. I don’t overthink it now. I am never training after work. That is like a terrible balance for life. If I miss a day, I don’t overthink it, just move on,” Brabbit said.
“A lot of times, people will go out with their friends and drink and go out and have dinner and stuff. My social time is at 5:30 a.m. I train for an hour with some buddies every day. I ran for like nine miles this morning with my buddies. I don’t even think of it as working out. I think of it as my social time with life.”
There has indeed been a transformation of Jens Brabbit. This is the same person who started cycling at 12 with his mother, then developed so rapidly by age 16 he was spending six-week stints in Belgium where he was invited to train with the U.S. National Team.
“I was doing like races in Spain, Germany and Belgium. I was kind of like a deer in the headlights there,” Brabbit said. “It was a good life experience, more valuable than high school in that sense.
“Basically, it was like six weeks when I was junior in high school and a six-week stint when I was senior in high school. I was never a mainstream sport kind of guy, so it was like it kind of felt right for me, I guess.”
It got his competitive juices flowing, and kept alive his dream of someday competing in the world’s premier cycling event, the Tour de France. One of the reasons (in addition to academics) why Brabbit turned down ski scholarships to attend Gustavus Adolphus (in St. Peter, Minn.) was that he could still be a competitive cyclist and cross-country skier at the same time.
“I was still racing bikes fairly serious while at Gustavus, like Pro 1, which is like pro/amateur in our world, so I would be doing big stage races in Uptown (Minneapolis) in front of 20,000 fans,” Brabbit said.
But again, over time (there it is again), his priorities changed.
“As the skiing started getting more and more important to me, I started to turn the dial on that a bit more. I think the writing was on the wall in the sense that cycling was like, I guess, like my time had come and gone in cycling. I could still do it for fun, but I am not going to race in the Tour de France,” Brabbit said.
“There is that harsh reality, you know, that in road cycling, it can be a cut-throat sport.”
When Brabbit’s dialed in, there is little that can stop him. That’s why he earned back-to-back trips to the National Collegiate Men’s Skiing Championships as a junior and as a senior. One of just a handful of Division III skiers racing against mainly Division I competition, he did well, too.
With only 39 skiers earning a spot in the national championships, Brabbit was 34th in the 10k and 39th in the 20k as a junior, then 36th in the 10k and 34th in the 20k as a senior.
“I just kind of kept getting into skiing. That was pretty important to me.
My junior year, I was like Division I first-team All-Region. I broke two poles and still made the podium in a race. I was in really good shape that year,” Brabbit said. “I think I could have won that one (without broken poles). There was like Europeans and stuff, guys on full scholarship.”
That explains, at least to me, why Brabbit has been able to compete with the world’s best skiers in the Birkebeiner. His best Birkie finish, 25th, came in 2021 when he stopped the clock at 2:07:39. He was 36th in 2020 (2:09:07) and has eight finishes in 2 hours, 37 minutes or less.
So a slight eye roll would have been in order when I mentioned his effort of 348th (3:00:16) in 2022, but Brabbit just smiled when talking about this year’s Birkie.
“This year, I didn’t actually have a good race. I skied a bad last 20k.
“This is my 10th time this year. Two years ago, I knew it was good because a couple of guys in front of me were just off their Olympic career,” Brabbit said. “I was catching them on the lake, I am like, ‘I am on a good one today.’ That year I was (surrounded by Europeans); this year I wasn’t.”
Besides, Brabbit was more interested in talking about people who comprise the long-running La Crosse group named EMAG (Early Morning Aerobic Group) than he was about his incredible 10-year Birkie run.
“One of the big things I have always enjoyed is there are some pretty successful guys who do these things (endurance sports). And, when I was in my early 20s, some of the older guys, they have had success in life,” Brabbit said.
“Where else do you get, like essentially a built-in mentor for three or four hours on a bike and just talk, pick their brain about life, about business. I have always enjoyed that. And with EMAG, the wisdom and knowledge with those guys, that is a pretty special group.”
Wisdom, knowledge, incredible drive and a successful work-life balance, Brabbit says, is what he respects about EMAG members, and endurance athletes in general.
“There is a humility and a modesty about silent sports people. I feel like that is one of the traits about these guys that I have always admired is their humility, their modesty. It is a quality that is very endearing. It is a good quality that they teach you,” Brabbit said.
“I like seeing people come into the silent sports now and kind of being a mentor. Like people were to me, in skiing, in business. I like being a mentor on more than just skiing now.”
ANY IDEAS? I’m always open for ideas, as the outdoor community is full of interesting people who do fascinating things. I just need help finding them. It can be someone who is into canoeing, trapping, hunting, fishing, skiing or runs ultramarathons. If you know of someone, send me a note at firstname.lastname@example.org
Jeff Brown, a former longtime sports editor for the Tribune, is a freelance outdoors writer. Send him story ideas at email@example.com