Amid farm buyouts by professional athletes, there are the performance athletes of the agriculture world — the livestock. High-producing dairy cattle, for example, require a diet that supplies the nutrients they need for high milk production. And dairy nutritionists are just the right folks for the job.
Cue Laurie Winkelman, a multi-generational dairy farmer and Vita Plus nutritionist. Winkelman is no stranger to the demands of agricultural life, and aside from helping dairy cattle perform at their highest, healthiest outputs and helping milk cows at her parent’s farm on the weekends, she also competes in hybrid-racing type fitness competitions.
Animal health is a family business, and fitness has been too. Winkelman’s sister works for Merck Animal Health as a pharmaceutical representative. Like any good sibling, the competition is healthy between the two sisters.
“Dairy judging initially sparked a little competitiveness in me, and then my sister started training for marathons,” Winkelman said. So, the race was on. “I did my first marathon when I was living in Ohio during grad school in 2004, and the Columbus Marathon in 2005.”
While Winkelman’s sister got her started in running, a competitive edge kept her going.
“I’m not a natural-born runner; I have to work hard to stay in shape,” she laughed.
After a seven-year break to kick off her professional career, Winkelman laced up her running shoes again in 2012 at the Cowtown Marathon in Fort Worth, Texas.
“It was the first time I ever qualified for the Boston Marathon. And I loved that my qualifying race was called the Cowtown Marathon,” Winkelman said. “It was sentimental because it was my first Boston qualifier, and it all just snowballed from there.”
Winkelman went on to run another 40-something marathons over the next decade, running international races in Dublin, Berlin, London, and Tokyo and even throwing her hat in the ring for a few ultramarathons during the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 when many other competitions were shut down.
“There’s so much in our life that we cannot control. In the dairy industry: milk prices, the weather, feed and ingredient prices, getting picked to judge a show. There are so many outside influences on results. So, in my fitness, health, and wellness journey, I’m in control,” she said. “I make the decision to get up and go for a run in the morning, and I decide how hard I want to work that day. Physical health and fitness is truly what you put into it.”
Along the way, Winkelman’s fierce nature has taught her a lesson or two about winning and about when to quit.
In her first 50-mile race, she went out to “just have fun.” She listened to advice and to her body and placed seventh. Then came the next race. She was hungry enough to really try this time.
At the halfway point, her body told her it was done, and she was forced to drop out. A “DNF” — the racing shorthand for did not finish — at the end of a 50-miler wasn’t what Winkelman was hoping for, of course, but she says it’s the only time she ever quit a race.
As for her diet: Frozen pizza and a lot of coffee have helped her keep going along the way.
“When you break it down, it’s 25 percent fat, 25 percent protein, and 50 percent carbs,” said Winkelman. All jokes aside, supplementing with plenty of dairy-based foods such as yogurt, cheese, and protein shakes made with whole milk, fruits, and nuts makes for a balanced diet.
Her running career took a hard but desirable turn while out for a run on a Saturday in an area in Wisconsin where she’d recently purchased a condo.
“I look up ahead, and I see this group of people running together, and I’m like, ‘Oh boy, I live near a running group!’” said Winkelman. “Then they all turned and went back the other way into a driveway.”
It wasn’t a local running group. It turned out that the driveway was the home to a local CrossFit-style gym — and, well, the stereotype is that most CrossFitters hate running. Winkelman decided to join the gym the following Tuesday, and she says, “I’ve been there every day since.”
That one run changed the trajectory of Winkelman’s athletic career — she’d found her people.
“I haven’t run a marathon since the Boston Marathon in 2022, breaking my 10-year streak. It’s kind of bittersweet,” said Winkelman, who has moved on to hybrid racing-style activities.
A whole new game, fitness racing, and CrossFit-style games have allowed Winkelman to expand her fitness resume with what she says is less risk of injury.
“When I walked into the door at CrossFit, I could hardly touch my toes,” she said.
Now, she’s gotten stronger, improving her strength, fitness, and flexibility.
“I want to win, not at all costs; it has nothing to do with my competitors, but I want to be a better version of myself,” she says. “I really enjoy CrossFit because there’s so much that I’m bad at. That way, you can really get better and see improvement quickly.”
For most people, milking cows would be considered a work day, but for Winkelman, milking days are her break from weekday workouts. Each week day, Winkelman hits the roads, running about 30 to 35 miles per week. At night, she heads to the gym. Saturdays are reserved for a morning run or gym workout, and then it’s straight from the gym to her family’s milking parlor.
Even if the two seem like separate worlds, taking the dairy parlor back to the gym isn’t uncommon, so to speak. At the gym, Winkelman shares science-based information about the dairy and cattle industry.
“The athletic community has a bunch of polar opposites when it comes to what they think about food,” she said. “Part of the beauty of being in the U.S. is that you have a choice in what you eat.”
Whether it’s correcting misinformation on organic, grass-fed, or low-fat options, Winkelman is uniquely poised in fitness circles as both an agriculture producer and athlete.
“I’m not super fit, but I’m fit. So, people usually respect what I stick in my mouth. If I say I drink whole milk because my body needs fat, they listen,” she said.
And as for conversations about family-owned farms, that’s one of Winkelman’s favorite opportunities.
“In Wisconsin, there are a lot of large dairies. They’re family-owned farms too, and they’ve grown to support multiple generations,” she said. “And those big farms? They’re making a better life for their families.”
In her new competition setting, Winkelman’s time at the CrossFit gym pairs with her racing background for HYROX and DEKA competitions.
HYROX combines both running and functional workout stations, where participants run a kilometer, followed by one functional workout station, repeated eight times. Meanwhile, there are three types of DEKA competitions: DEKA FIT, which includes a 500-meter run before entering ten different fitness zones for a total of 5k of running, the DEKA Mile, where each competitor will run a mile in total and complete the ten fitness zones, and DEKA Strong, where there’s no running and the competitor completes the ten fitness zones straight through.
In November, Winkelman won her first HYROX contest in her division, qualifying for the world championships. During her second race, she competed after getting sick during her travel.
She still shined, qualifying for the Worlds a second time.
At the U.S. Championships, Winkelman was first in the open division and ran a personal record.
Not one to set low goals, she headed to England for the World Championships with a plan of placing in the top five. Falling shy of her initial goal, she placed 10th in her age group. Not bad for just starting the sport, but for Winkelman, it means that she left hungry to do better next time.
“I’m really liking the combined running and physical fitness activities,” Winkelman said. “Hybrid fitness racing is a little more accessible to people than CrossFit. It’s something most people can do and get better at.”
While HYROX requires more strength, DEKA requires that you bring some more speed to the running portion. Out of the DEKA competitions, the DEKA FIT is her favorite, allowing the runner a bit more time on the track. In her last DEKA competition, Winkelman placed second in the elite category.
Of course, athletics wasn’t the only twist in her life journey — Winkelman notes, of all things, that she was rejected by a cat rescue.
“I was like, ‘What?’ I’m 42, with a Ph.D., and I want a cat — I’m the perfect cat lady,’ ” she mused.
Rather than stewing on the decision, she realized that not having a feline at home left her better-suited to compete, and after all, she could fill the need for companionship with her gym family.
As for her gym, they’re a community that contributes to Winkelman’s mental health and wellness. If she misses a class — even to classify cows — the coach checks in on her. “They’ll do anything for you; they’re local and close,” she said. “I still run by myself, but they’re an important part of my life.”
She hopes to continue competing in both styles of fitness racing in the future. “I really wish I had found CrossFit earlier in life.”
Heidi Crnkovic, is the Associate Editor for AGDAILY. She is a New Mexico native with deep-seated roots in the Southwest and a passion for all things agriculture.