Running was always a source of joy for Michelle Jensen.
Each swift, steady step along the trail provided motivation for the next. But Jensen did not run with victory in mind. Victory was simply the outcome of joy expressed.
While she excelled in her own right as a nine-time All-American at Western State Colorado University in track, cross country and Nordic skiing, and later qualified for the Olympic Trials in the marathon, Jensen was equally skilled at bringing out the best in others.
Race organizers plan to honor Jensen at the 41st annual Race to Robie Creek on Saturday. The 13.1-mile half-marathon starts at noon at Fort Boise and finishes at Robie Creek campground. Jensen, a three-time Robie champion, passed away peacefully on Nov. 19, 2017, at her Boise home from lung cancer. She was 47.
“She had a subtle quietness, but also a real joy for the sport that she shared with everybody,” said Bob Rosso, owner of the Elephant’s Perch in Ketchum and former organizer for the Back Country Run.
“She’s not the person that would come through the finish line with her arms in the air and jumping up and down. She would just slip across in the clouds, just kind of drift right through.”
Running buddies, competitors and admirers alike say Jensen ran with ease, even when faced with steep challenges like Robie’s 2,072-foot ascent to Aldape Summit.
“She was an amazing runner, just a whole level above,” said Sherrie Haggett, a close friend and running partner. “Literally the only way I could run with Michelle, and granted I had a full-ride scholarship at Boise State, was to basically say, ‘Tell me your life story,’ and keep her talking so I could hang on tight. I was just so thrilled to be able to run with somebody who was making me a better runner.”
Jensen earned her master’s in sports physiology at Boise State and used that knowledge to help others reach their athletic goals. Married couple Paul and Jean Basom first met Jensen while she was a personal trainer at ParkCenter Club. The Basoms had made several unsuccessful attempts at qualifying for the Boston Marathon before turning to Jensen for help.
“After our first workout, I remember Michelle asking me how I felt, and when I said ‘fat and slow,’ she let out a good laugh,” Paul said. “I weighed 195 pounds then, but that was soon to change. I ran the Boston Marathon at 155 pounds. Running the Boston Marathon was certainly a high point in both (our) lives, and we were able to do this because of Michelle.”
Through running, Jensen formed life-long friendships.
“It was one of those things where Michelle and I could always pick up wherever we left off,” Theresa Ryden said. “It was one of those lovely friendships with an unending thread.”
Ryden, who considers herself a recreational runner, ran with Jensen for several years and was her training partner when Jensen won her final Race to Robie Creek in 2008.
“I’m older than her by five years, and after she won Robie, I said: ‘Michelle, I really think I’m just too slow for you. I just don’t know if I can keep running at this pace,’” Ryden said. “She said, ‘Yeah, it’s probably about time that I find someone faster to run with.’ But we could have those conversations because she was so soft-spoken. It wasn’t like it was a judgment. It was more like she recognized that no matter how much fun we were having, it was killing me and it wasn’t helping her.”
Even when cancer forced Jensen to transition from running to walking, Ryden saw no change in her friend’s approach to exercise — or life.
“She was really good about it. She was consistent,” Ryden said. “I think that’s probably what made her such a great athlete over such a long period of time is that she was consistent.
“... She would walk all the hills in our neighborhood, and it wouldn’t matter the weather or anything like that. She had the best attitude about the hand that she had been dealt. She was always really positive.”
Jensen’s love for running was surpassed only by the joy she found in her family. Jensen — then Chupurdia — married Eric Jensen on June 17, 1995. Together they had Eli (19), Eve (17) and Mae (11).
Many of Jensen’s most memorable traits — like her smile, drive and competitive spirit — are now reflected in her children. Eli is a freshman at Montana State and a member of the Bobcats’ ski team. Eve, a junior at Boise High, is one of the top cross country and distance runners in the state. And Mae is just beginning to explore the athletic gifts she inherited.
“Michelle wasn’t really concerned with herself and her accolades anymore as an elite athlete,” Haggett said. “She was very much just excited to cheer her kids on in a very graceful way.”
Jensen never pushed her children to follow in her footsteps, but in many ways they have.
Boise High assistant track and cross country coach Cori Mooney — a friend and competitor of Michelle’s — can’t help but notice Michelle’s likeness in Eve.
“For someone who was a friend of Michelle’s, coaching Eve now is so cool because of the similarities between them,” Mooney said. “It’s profound, really, how physically similar they are. Eve carries herself much like her mom; whether she tries to or not, it’s just in there. She’s fiercely competitive, but really humble, just like her mom.”