Lumberjacks are real. And no, I’m not talking about Paul Bunyan or plaid-clad, tallboy-swillin’ hipsters (not that there is anything wrong with that). I’m talking about Madison, Wisconsin-based Shana Verstegen, the four-time log rolling and two-time boom running world champion. Lumberjack athletics is quite possibly the most badass sport you never knew existed. I talk to Shana about competition, eating like a lumberjack and the scariest thing she’s ever done, on or off the log.
I’m from Stillwater, Minnesota, a town literally built by lumberjacks and yet I never knew you could still be one.
Well technically, I’m not a lumberjack, I’m a lumberjack athlete. As an athlete, we mimic what the lumberjacks did over 100 years ago. So if you actually put me in the woods with an axe or a chainsaw, I probably wouldn’t be very useful.
How did you initially get into the sport?
There are lumberjack athlete programs all over the US and Canada. In Madison specifically, we’ve got a YMCA program. So when I was a kid taking swimming lessons at the YMCA, and I saw kids on the logs and I wanted to do it.
I was always afraid that if I got on the log, I’d “crotch” it or something.
Everyone things that log rolling is dangerous, but in fact, it’s one of the safest sports you can do. I have never seen anyone hit their head. You can sometimes bump your shin, but otherwise, if you fall off the log, you end up in the water. It’s also really low impact, because when you step on it, the log sinks into the water. We’ve had a lot of people with knee and leg injuries thrive in log rolling because it’s athletic without the impact.
You’re a four-time log rolling and two-time boom running world champion. How do you train for competition?
We train all year round. I spend most of the off-season strength training. Come spring, we start spending more time on the log… As the summer comes, I spend about an hour a day on the log, either by myself or with an opponent. I do a lot of running, hill sprints and stuff like that, but it gets more specific as we get into competition season.
Are you nervous before a competition? How do you get into the mindset?
They say there is sort of a bell curve for all sports. If you’re not nervous at all, you don’t perform well, but if you’re too nervous it’ll ruin your competition. It’s taken years to learn to manage that and I still don’t manage it all the time.
What helps you get in the zone?
If I help with the kids’ competition, which I love to do, it reminds me why I am there. It’s for fun. It’s not about winning. It’s about making friends and having fun. Doing that before I compete puts my head in the right place.
When I think about what a lumberjack might eat, visions of pancake stacks, bacon & eggs (and maybe a steak, too) populate my mind.
There’s definitely plenty of bacon and pancakes and ice cream during the off-season. But during the summer, especially for the log rolling and the boom running, you have to be light. I eat lots of lean meats, vegetables and whole grains. Right now, people are into this whole no-carb, low-carb, paleo thing, but as an athlete, you need to have those good carbohydrates in your body.
I certainly admire your physical strength, but I admire your emotional strength more. Your mother was diagnosed with Huntington’s Disease when you were a kid. You had a 50-50 chance of inheriting it, but decided to forgo testing until recently. How did not knowing your fate affect how you lived your life?
I’m quite certain that I’ve lived life to the fullest. But that’s also how my parents raised me. My parents always encouraged me to do other activities, to be involved, to help out with charities, try new things. I sometimes wonder if this wasn’t in my life, if I would be the same way. I don’t know. My mom started showing symptoms when she was around 30 years old, so… there was this ticking clock in the back of my mind that would say, ‘you’ve got until 30. What can you do?’
You recently took the test to find out if you had the disease. It came back negative. Are you glad you waited to find out?
Yes. Now knowing the results, it would have been nice to know earlier… In not knowing, I always had this hope I could hold on to. That’s why I was so hesitant to be tested, because I realized that it might be the end of my hope.
Did you and your husband get married before you knew?
Yes. Peter, he’s just one amazing man. We’ve been friends since we were kids and so he’s seen my mom through various stages of the disease. He’s seen what my dad has had to go through to take care of her. The commitment and the risk that he took is unbelievable. He knew going into this that he might only have a few good years before taking on that caregiver role. We talked about it many times and I gave him any outs, but he wouldn’t have it. I was so grateful for that. He’s a pretty special human being.
What’s your advice for someone deciding to get tested for a genetic disease?
It’s a personal decision and you can’t let anyone make it for you. Believe it or not, only about 10 percent of people living at risk for Huntington’s get the test. When somebody first hears about Huntington’s, they usually say, “If there is a test, why don’t you take it?” I even had someone tell me that it was not fair to them. But it’s such a personal decision. Right now, we are living in a time where there is nothing you can do to stop the disease. I want people to know that there isn’t a right or wrong answer to what they do. It’s their lives.
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