Smart Athlete Podcast Ep. 116 - Sarah Lavender Smith - THE TRAIL RUNNER'S COMPANION GUIDE

I mean people come to this sport from all different avenues. I was a late bloomer. I was not very athletic in high school or college and I got into running in my mid 20s in graduate school.
Smart Athlete Podcast Ep. 116 - Sarah Lavender Smith - THE TRAIL RUNNER'S COMPANION GUIDE

SARAH: [00:00:00] I mean people come to this sport from all different avenues. I was a late bloomer. I was not very athletic in high school or college and I got into running in my mid 20s in graduate school. But I took my time. First, I did road running and I did 5K’s and 10K’s and marathons. And I switched over to trail and graduated to ultra in the early to mid 2000s. But it took me 20 years, from starting, getting into running in 1994 to 2014 to do my first 100-miler.

[Intro Music]

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JESSE: [00:01:24] Welcome to the Smart Athlete Podcast. I’m your host, Jesse Funk. My guest today is a woman after my own heart. She is the author of The Trail Runner’s Companion if you’re on the video version, you can see the book so you’re going to want to check that out. And we’re going to get deep into trail running, I’m sure. She’s an ultra runner herself, a professional ultra running coach. And if you don’t do ultras, I’m sure she can help you with that as well. But that is not where she stops. She does other things like freelance writing. She’s dedicated to nonprofit board service currently leading in a local nonprofit. She’s a mother of two and avid horsewoman. Welcome to the show, Sarah Lavender Smith.

SARAH: [00:02:00] Hi, Jesse. Thanks for having me. It’s great to be on.

JESSE: [00:02:04] Absolutely. Thanks for joining me. Before we get going, and so I don’t get it incorrect, because I think I remember. But you said, before we got going, you think it’s important because you had previously been a co-host of a podcast that we mentioned your age. So, I’ll let you tell us what it is and why you think that’s important.

SARAH: [00:02:23] Well, actually, my training is as a journalist. I went to graduate school in journalism and used to work as a newspaper reporter. So, we were always taught you should include a person’s age because it just tells you something about the person, but I’m on the older side. I’m 52 now and I think it’s important that people hear from older athletes and I really stress longevity in the sport. So, yeah, I’m an empty nester who’s raised two kids and now I’m over 50, 52 and I’m proud of it.

JESSE: [00:02:56] It seems like — What we were talking about before we were recording, I see people trying to get real ambitious about marathons in particular. Though, you probably see some people do this in the ultra world as well, really try to just zoom into let’s do 50 milers and let’s just crank it out and start doing these high mileage as fast as you can. I don’t know whether you watch South Park but there’s this episode where there are kids learning how to ski and there’s this instructor that is trying to teach them and he keeps talking about if you do this you’re going to have a bad time.

And that’s what comes into my head every time somebody is like I basically don’t run at all and I want to go run this very long distance race. I’m like if you do that you’re going to have a bad time. You’re setting yourself up for injury, for setback. And some people get away with it, and I think that’s part of the trouble, I guess, is that some people can do it. But in general, I think it’s ill-advised.

SARAH: [00:04:00] Yeah, some people do dive right into it. I mean people come to this sport from all different avenues. I was a late bloomer. I was not very athletic in high school or college and I got into running in my mid 20s in graduate school. But I took my time. First, I did road running and I did 5K’s and 10K’s and marathons. And I switched over to trail and graduated to ultra in the early to mid 2000s.

But it took me 20 years, from starting, getting into running in 1994 to 2014 to do my first 100-miler. And now so many people are getting into trail and ultra. They go from running a half marathon on dirt to planning a 100-miler four months later. And it’s doable, but I feel like what’s the rush? I mean success at ultra running depends so much on experience and on mental prep. Physical fitness alone won’t get you through 100 miles. So, taking your time with it and enjoying the journey and not being a rising star who flames out in 18 months, I think is a better way to go.

JESSE: [00:05:16] So, I don’t currently exist in the trail community. That’s not my current niche though, I’m starting to kind of look that direction. So, we’ll get more into that in a minute. But it at least from reading the book and my general, I don’t know, feeling about the community, the whole idea of just being performance-focused almost seems like antithesis to the ethos of trail running itself, right? Where it seems again, I’m kind of a little bit outside looking in, so please correct me. It seems as a little bit more enjoyment-focused, inwardly-focused, self-motivated, that kind of thing, versus I’m absolutely the winner or that kind of mentality.

SARAH: [00:06:06] Well, I don’t know. So, you’re bringing up an interesting point. So, historically, back in the days of the early 2000s pre-social media this ultra running community was much much smaller. There weren’t many, fewer ultras offered throughout the country and the world, and it was more of a fringe thing. And I mean, when I got into it, it was easy to get to know who’s who, but it’s taken off. Much as marathons boomed in the 90s, ultra running is going through a similar boom. And that has its pros and cons. I think more women are getting into the sport now just as they got more into marathoning.

But the humility that used to rule the sport, I mean, when I got into ultras again before social media and people would share their race reports via email saying you don’t have to read this if you don’t want to but this was my experience. Now with Instagram and everything, everyone’s all about trying to get sponsorships and it’s very show-offy in my view and they’re big personalities in the sport. And I mean this week, we’re recording this two days before both UTMB and Leadville 100 happen. And those are very, very performance-oriented and very high stakes. So, it’s not a little fringe sport in any way anymore. And also the way that corporate, big names like Ironman and Spartan and everything are gobbling up what used to be homegrown races, it’s fundamentally changing.

I mean it’s still a very friendly sport, and absolutely, it can and should be a personal journey, especially for mid-packers. You don’t have to be super competitive to get into it, you can find your space. And as a coach, I always encourage my clients to compete with their watch and with their inner-self. You are just out there to do your best. And my view on competition competition is you make friends mentally with the runners around you, and you’re all in it together and you help your competitors, your friends carry you along at least the first three quarters of the race and then you can try to drop them. But yeah, I have always found a strong sense of community in this sport, which I really value. And I hope some of the humility still persists. I kind of question whether it will.

JESSE: [00:08:45] Yeah, I kind of had a similar conversation with a number of people. We talked about Ironman definitely has become so much more than like a fringe sport that just a few weirdos are out doing. And I say that lovingly. I don’t say that in a mean way. I wish I could remember who it was, I feel like it was a gentleman on the podcast talking about off-road triathlon. Gosh, I can’t remember his name right now.

But talking about a similar kind of vibe to the races. That they’re smaller, a little more community-focused, that kind of thing. And then it’s starting to grow and it becomes a little bit more competitive, and I’ll say diluted in some sense, just because you get such a broader mixture of personalities, the more and more people that you have there. And I think I wonder, and maybe it’s simply a matter of romanticizing the situation. But it’s like I wonder, is it good to always grow a sport? Is it gatekeeping to not grow the sport, you know, the different — [crosstalk]

SARAH: [00:09:59] One point I want to make is ultra races, especially in mountainous terrain, they will always be smaller and friendlier, because the size of races will always be smaller. I mean, I just did a 100-miler three weeks ago that had its permit capped at 150 participants. So, UTMB can be happening in Europe with several thousands of runners is still the exception rather than the norm. I mean, most trail and ultra races are going to be smaller because the physical terrain of the trail and the permitting process limits participants. And I think that’s a good thing. It makes it harder to get into popular races. And that’s why we’ve seen a growth of the lottery process to get into more popular races. But the market responds and a lot of new races and new race directors have come up.

I definitely support the growth of the sport because it supports health and wellness. I mean, what a wonderful thing for people to find a way beyond hiking, to get out in nature. And that appreciation of nature and being out in a more natural environment, hopefully, will inspire people to take care of their natural environment. So, yeah, I mean, I think growth is a good thing. And we’ve seen a growth in races that are offered. I think it’s a very healthy sport generally. So, in general, I think it’s a good thing, for sure. I hope that it doesn’t become so high-profile and profit-oriented, that all the bad things started to creep in such as, namely doping, and the other things that come with higher stakes sports.

JESSE: [00:12:00] Yeah. You touched on this a little bit about being out in nature, kind of being more mindful of wanting to care for the terrain and surroundings. I remember before we got going, I mentioned to you in one of the running videos I did for the YouTube channel. And at the time, I couldn’t think of what it was, but I just did a video on, does running in nature make you happy. And so I want to touch on that with you and get your opinion on that. But it seems like that kind of, I’ll call it a mindfulness aspect of the sport, kind of bridges all those things together, where you’re out in nature and experiencing it.

But then also, you affect it in part by being out there. And then also just through your everyday consumption or lack of consumption of products and choices and what you make, and if you work with nonprofits like you do. Although, I don’t know what the nonprofits you work with do. But they all seem to kind of blend together, at least in my theoretical situation here. So, I’d like your, I guess, opinion on does running in nature makes you happier versus all road races? And does the mindfulness come naturally as a rhythm of being out for so long? Or is it something you have to actually work on?

SARAH: [00:13:32] Well, I don’t want to in any way discourage people from road running. I mean, running is running. And most trail runners do a mix of pavement and dirt. And it’s interesting. So, I relocated here to southwest Colorado, and I’m in this blissful beautiful mountain environment. And our house is at 9,000 feet. So, I’m pretty altitude adapted. But before that, I spent the past 25 years in the East Bay Area, in a very urban environment, and I’m missing it.

Like I used to, at least once a week, run around Oakland’s Lake Merritt, which is a paved flat path. It’s vibrant. I mean, you have city noises, you have more cultural and racial diversity there than I’ll ever see here in southwest Colorado. You’re dodging homeless people. And I love that. I’m feeling nostalgic for that. So, you can run in a very urban environment and still be very happy and very mindful and take in all that’s happening around you.

What I think is beneficial about running in a more natural environment rather than just sticking to roads, well, one, I think it’s healthier insofar as generally speaking, a natural trail environment is going to have a lot more variety, and challenge you in different ways. Because of the hill profile, unless you’re in Kansas, you’re going to have a hill profile that’s very variable. You’re going to have rocks and roots and different natural obstacles. And your pace is going to vary. I mean, when I was a dedicated marathoner, road marathoner, and I was so precise about my pace work so that I just knew intuitively without looking at my watch what a 7:30 mile felt like versus a 7:45 mile. You’re very, very pace-oriented.

All that goes out the window when you’re in the mountains. I mean, I might get my pace under nine minutes per mile when I’m running down a rocky slope. But on flats and up hills, I’m going to be down-shifting to hiking. My pace will go as slow as 20 minutes a mile if it’s a lot of hiking up a spryfield. So, it creates more intuitive running and more adaptability and flexibility. And as you might have read in my book, one of my favorite pieces of advice is you just take what the trail gives you. And that means you just run the best you can or hike, if you have to hike, with whatever stretch of trail happens to be in front of you, whether it’s sand, or rock or mud, or whatever, or snow, you get it all.

And so that kind of variety makes me very happy. And yes, then being out in nature, just the peacefulness. I mean, I only use my phone for safety and I do listen to some audiobooks or podcasts while I run. But mostly, I’m very unplugged and focused on my surroundings. And I do my best thinking. I mean, I come back home, and I feel so much more productive because I’ve worked out things mentally during my run.

JESSE: [00:17:10] You know, I do that as well. So, I backed off a little bit in telling people not to, like take music out and whatever. But I was a big advocate for a long time, like don’t take your music, just because I think there’s so much benefit from not having the extra layer of input into your brain when you’re out and doing things and able to spend time with yourself. But back up a little bit, you talking about take the trail as it is, I don’t think that’s exactly what you said.

SARAH: [00:17:47] Take what the trail gives you.

JESSE: [00:17:48] Take what the trail gives you. So, recently, it just worked out well, I didn’t plan it this way. I just had my first cross country race back this last weekend, and I remember how much I miss it. So, I thought about that as I was reading through the book again. And then when I got to that section reminded me a couple years ago, I flew out to Colorado Springs to do the incline. And it just happened to be that, like the weather had been great. And then the day before I got out there is snow. So, then it was 30 degrees, it’s snowy. So, I was like, okay. I have been training and I wanted to see how fast could I do it.

SARAH: [00:18:30] And sorry to interrupt, but you should explain what you’re talking about, what the Manitou incline is for people who don’t know.

JESSE: [00:18:38] Okay. So, for the listener, the band to incline is an old, I’ll call it like a cart line that was for mining, I believe. Now it’s been decommissioned. It is a trail that is just shy of a mile. I think it’s around .93, something like that. And it climbs 2,000 feet in that time. So, the average gradient is 40%. [crosstalk] And yeah, there’s railroad ties, at certain sections, there’s grates to allow water to pass underneath so it doesn’t wash off the trail, that kind of stuff.

And so at the time, I was like well, Joseph Gray has the verifiable fastest known time, like high 17s or something like that. I’m like I’m definitely not going to be that fast. But could I do mid 20s, could I do any faster than that? So, it’s a little tough in that I live in a low altitude environment. I don’t have hills to train on, but we did our best to train for it. I think I ended up like 30:30 or something like that with the snow.

But with the saying, it reminded me not so much of the ascent as the descent down the backside of the trail to get back because it was like, at least that day, there were patches of slushy snow, it’s trying to melt. There’s rocks and tons of switchbacks and just not something that I go with in my everyday life. But I had my spikes with me, which are the best because I don’t have trail shoes, and just used those and got down the best I could. It was not fast coming down.

But that’s exactly what I thought. I was just like, I’d already done the hard work getting up as best I could. And then it was simply a matter of descend, however you’re able to without trying to twist an ankle going fast for no reason. Anyway, so yeah, once I hit that part of the book, I can’t remember what chapter that was. That’s what that reminded me of. So, I just wanted to share that anecdote with you, I guess.

SARAH: [00:20:55] Thanks. Well, I’ve only done the Manitou Incline once. It was when I was with Jason Coops Ultra Running Camp, and we did that crazy incline in the middle of a long run on a hot day. So, we ran like eight miles through the mountains to get to the base of it. We went up it, and then we did another. I mean, our total that day was 22 or something. So, it was tough. Actually, and I remember, it was Memorial weekend, and I was so inspired by all that average-looking people with their families, with their kids out there. They did not look athletic and they’re carrying gallon water jugs, but they were determined to get to the top and it was really neat to witness.

JESSE: [00:21:40] Yeah. My wife has a couple of sisters that live in Colorado Springs, one of them does the incline semi-regularly. And yeah, it’s just, as far as I understand, and actually, my college coach is from Manitou. His parents live on the street where the incline is, which is how I learned about it and ended up going out there. It’s like a ritual for a lot of the people that live around there. Like, I’m going to do it once a week, or some of them once a day. It’s just this thing that people go out and do like any other trail, except it’s this extreme ascent, and then you get this beautiful view at the top. I hope you guys stopped at the top and had a chance to look out and it wasn’t just, let’s continue on.

SARAH: [00:22:28] Yeah, we did.

JESSE: [00:22:29] Yeah, that’s good. So, you obviously made the transition from road to trail. As I was getting prepared to talk to you, for some reason, Google started giving me all these articles on trail running. So, I saw the national championship for the 10K kind of distance was this last weekend. And then I’m like, oh, maybe I should start doing that. So, how do you make the transition? Or is there a transition from road to trail? And then like, in my particular case, or for people that don’t live at altitude and are going to be going to races that are typically going to have some altitude to them; how do you deal with that situation?

SARAH: [00:23:20] Okay. Well, let me take your first question first. Simply just go run a trail, and if it’s only five miles or so or under an hour, you don’t need really any special preparation. You don’t need trail shoes, just go out and enjoy it. But generally speaking, I mean, my advice for anyone who’s less familiar with trail running and only has been doing road, is to take more of everything. You need more time, because it’s going to be slower, you need more fluids or calories. You need more patients. And so it’s really a mental and logistical adjustment to make peace with being slower because the variability of the terrain and the hills will slow you down.

I can tell you a funny story about one of my first memorable runs. I was three months postpartum with my first baby. And my husband and I, it was our anniversary. This was 1998. So, I had been running for a few years, but I’d been pregnant and had my first baby when I was 29. And my husband and I had our anniversary and I was like we’re going to leave our baby with the babysitter for the first time ever. We’re going to go do this trail I’d always wanted to run. And it was the French trail in Redwood park in Oakland. And this is just a classic beautiful Redwood trail I’d heard so much about. And I was so nervous about leaving our baby for the first time.

But we were leaving her with really good friends of ours who also had a baby. And I left a bottle of breastmilk. So, I’m like, okay, we’re good for about we’ve got like an hour and a half. And I’d estimated the time it would take us with the mileage based on my knowledge of road running. And I felt like the worst mother. We get out, this trail is so crazy slow and so challenging. And I immediately lose cell service. And it’s back in the mid 90s, when cell service wasn’t great. So, I’m just like crying. And like I am the worst mother and it took, we were like an hour late picking up our new baby. And I was just like, that was my introduction to my first memorable trail run. So, don’t do that.

But when you’re transitioning to trail running, I mean, I wrote a whole book about it. So, my book goes into a lot of the mental and logistical preparation you need to be safe and to enjoy it. One of the guys I quote early in the book is a top runner, both road and trail runner basically just says a lot of it’s about just chilling out and relaxing into the run and also taking care of yourself along the way. So, to give another example, to understand the difference in time and the endurance needs.

My first trail marathon was a real eye-opener because when I was at my peak in my 30s, I was getting my road marathon times down to the mid to low three hours, so I was doing fairly well with road marathon. And I entered a trail marathon in the San Francisco suburbs on a mountain called Mount Diablo, which goes from about 500 feet up to 3,500 feet. So, it’s a 3,000 foot climb, and we looped around and did two summits.

So, I had no idea what I was in for and I didn’t carry enough water. I only had one little goo gel. And I didn’t realize how much hiking would be involved. And it was this transformative, exciting adventure. But the upshot was, my time for that marathon, it’s in the book. I think it was like 5:20 something and I almost won. [crosstalk] I showed the difference in — [crosstalk]

JESSE: [00:27:24] You were the first up, right?

SARAH: [00:27:26] I ended up being second female. I got passed toward the end.

JESSE: [00:27:30] At the first summit, you were the first or something?

SARAH: [00:27:32] Yeah, yeah, yeah. But I mean, if you look at the elevation profile change between like the little boston marathon and then this double summit up this mountain. But the point is, it took me well over five hours to go 26 miles, which was unthinkably slow to me, but I actually did really well. And so that just gives you an idea. If you’re a three and a half hour road marathoner, then a tough trail marathon may take you five to six hours. And so you just have to build up to that greater endurance of time on your feet and take care of your systems along the way.

Hydration and fueling becomes so much more important to manage as well as body temperature, thermoregulation, whether to avoid getting too hot or in the mountains too cold. That’s really essential for staying out there safely and getting to the finish. And it becomes even, once you get to 50Ks to 100 milers, then it — I just did a race that took me over 33 hours with no sleep. Actually, it’s not true. I took my first trailside nap. I passed out for 10 minutes in the middle of the night. So, things get more interesting the longer you’re out there for sure.

JESSE: [00:28:51] That’s something I wondered about because I think, I don’t think I’m mixing this up, but I think you’d said from the race you just did, the winning woman was like 24-25 hours, 25. And so I’m just like, it seems like there’s probably no sleeping in that time. But then if you’re taking a nap, are setting an alarm or are you just hoping to wake up?

SARAH: [00:29:17] No, no, no. And then I should still answer your question about altitude adaptation. So, the race I did, for our listeners, this was July 30th and 31st in central Colorado called the High Lonesome 100. And it’s quite tough. It’s not the toughest, but it is tough enough to be a Hard Rock qualifier, which means it’s a qualifying race to apply to be in the Hard Rock 100 which is really a big deal in Colorado.

It had about 23,500 feet of elevation gain. It got up to 13,000 feet. A lot of the race was above 12,000 feet. It was a tough race for sure. So, no, normally, you should not take naps. I’ve done a lot of 100 milers and you get incredibly sleepy in the middle of the night especially if it’s at high altitude because you’re oxygen deprived or if it’s in really cold temperatures. But you just power through the night and don’t sleep.

But this was the first time I was, and it was maybe around 04:00 AM, and it was very cold and I couldn’t keep my eyes open. Maybe it has to do with age, I don’t know. But at this point in the race, I had what’s called a pacer which is someone who accompanies you and it was my good friend. And I knew enough because I’m a napper. Like if I’m tired when I’m driving I can pull over at the side of the road and close my eyes for 10 minutes and so effective and then I wake up. so, I told my pacer, I said Claire, I’m just going to lie down. I said I don’t want to wait till the end stations to try and nap because the lights and noise will wake me up.

So, I took out my emergency bivvy that we have to carry which is like a space blanket and I used my down puffy which we also had to carry because it was so cold out, I used it as a pillow. And I closed my eyes and I passed out for 10 minutes. It was magic. And then I’m like okay, let’s go. So, it was a calculated strategic decision like it’s worth it to pass out for 10 minutes in a mini nap because I knew I would feel better. And again, this comes with experience. Like, understanding this and doing well ultras, you have to know your body and have been in these kind of mountainous environments before, so that worked for me. But yeah, generally unless you’re graduating to the crazy 200 milers, you don’t sleep midway.

But you asked about altitude adaptations. [crosstalk] So, I have clients back in California at sea level who trained for some tough Colorado races. And the best, like I don’t advocate getting a hypoxic tent over your bed or anything like that. That’s expensive and more trouble than it’s worth. Basically, what you need to do is be as cardiovascularly fit as possible. Because what you have to understand is when you’re in the mountains, you’re asking your working muscles to make do with less oxygen flowing to them. So, you basically have to adapt your body to be as fit as possible so it can handle getting less oxygen. So, one way to do that is just do more speed work, do more high-intensity hill work, anything that raises your breathing up to the point of being an intense effort, you know, boost your cardiovascular fitness.

So, that means, even though on the day of your ultramarathon, you’re going to be going a slow and steady tortoise pace, you still want to have done that speed work in your training cycle so that your heart and lungs are ready to work hard in the thin air. And then I’m a believer in heat training. Because if you think about running and really hot temperatures it’s similar to altitude insofar as you’re working muscles are getting less oxygen because some of the blood carrying oxygen is being diverted to the surface of your skin to perspire and cool your body off. So, your body is more stressed and your blood flow is working harder to cool your body off in heat and therefore, it is again, adapting to that stress of running with less oxygen flowing to your working muscles. ‘

So, my clients in California did a lot of heat training this summer before running in the tougher mountains. And then you just try to make the most of what you have around you. If you have any mountain environments or if you can take a long day trip to — You know, I have a client in Missouri who’s trading for mountainous race. And she just budgets three day weekends to come to Colorado to train, which is expensive and time-consuming.

But it helps. So, that’s my advice but yeah, it’s tough. You can’t just come to the high altitude a week before the race and hope to get adaptation, it really takes months. And so you know I’m grateful I sleep at 9,000 feet and do my runs at treeline a lot. But it never gets easy. Even though I live here and I run up to 11,500 feet, which is treeline a lot, anything over 12,000, that will never be easy. It’s still really tough.

JESSE: [00:35:07] I don’t think I’m misremembering this, you talked about heat adaptation. I think it was when I was talking to Scott Johnston, who’s the author of Training for the Uphill Athlete, co-author. I talked to him back on episode 60. Which if you’re watching the video, that’s what I was trying to figure out was at what episode that was. So, I think he talked about just, you get more benefit conditioning-wise, not just heat conditioning, being able to deal with the heat, but overall fitness improves. So, even if you go back to say, a comfortable temperature, like 60s and 70s, that heat acclamation, I can’t remember why, but it seems like it has some kind of efficacy in making you perform better at optimal temperatures as well. So, I always think about that. [crosstalk]

SARAH: [00:36:05] Yeah, I mean, because you’re — A couple things have happened, you’ve become more fit cardiovascularly. But you’ve also become more comfortable with being uncomfortable. I’ve done several desert races in triple digit heat. And you want to have some hot runs leading up to that, just so you get used to it. I mean, you just have to again, get comfortable with being uncomfortable and relax and do it and remind yourself like you have to slow your pace and manage your fluids and your thermoregulation a lot more carefully. So, you need that training before, first.

I last was in a hot running environment back in May when I went down to Arizona, and I paced and crude a friend for part of the crazy Cocona 250 which was an inaugural endurance event, point to point in Arizona that went from, I believe Black Canyon, Arizona, north to Flagstaff. And the afternoons of — I mean, this is a race that took people five days, and they definitely slept during part of it. But the afternoon temperatures in the high 90s to even 100, it was just brutal. And safety becomes a real issue there, like you have to take care of yourself.

JESSE: [00:37:37] I mean, when you’re dealing with all the different temperature changes day, night, are you carrying three, four outfits with you?

SARAH: [00:37:50] I am. Yes. So, the race I just did three weeks ago is a perfect example because you have to prepare for both the hottest temperatures and the coldest. Because at nighttime above 12,000 feet, and it was raining and we had really strong weather, the temperatures are dipping down into the 30s. And in past years, it’s even snowed. But then on day two, the last 25 miles of the race are below treeline in a canyon, and it can get really hot.

It wasn’t too terribly hot when we ran it, but I had to prepare. So, yeah, you make use of drop bags and you have nighttime gear. So, at the mile 50 aid station where I have my crew and my husband, they put a beach towel around me for modesty and I stripped down my shorts and I put on leggings for warmth. I put on an extra layer, I shove my down puffy into my pack. You know, I swapped out my sun hat for a wool beanie. So, yeah.

And then I had packed a drop bag at mile 75 that had a fresh pair of shorts and a T-shirt so I could take off my nighttime hot clothes or warm clothes and be ready for running in warm weather on day two. I mean, you never know what to expect. And then the kicker was, we got caught in an extreme storm in the last five miles and it was the first time ever. Because here in Colorado, I mean it’s crazy. It can be beautiful hot and sunny blue sky until noon, and then the clouds gather and you get extreme high altitude weather, which is what happened. And it was such a deluge with so much electricity. I mean there was thunder and lightning right overhead that the race director actually made the difficult decision to put the race on hold.

So, he called his communications teams at the aid stations and had runners held at the aid stations. And we all had to stop for about 25 minutes until the storm blew out because that’s how dangerous and extreme it was. So, that was quite something. My pacer and I were running through ankle high water. I could barely see because the water was coming down so much. And I was so depleted, I was exhausted. It was mile 99 and thunder, like rifle shots, was ringing out overhead, and there was flashes of lightning. And flash flooding. It was crazy. It was biblical.

And this vehicle pulls — I was like, I gotta get to the finish. And this vehicle pulls up at my side and the window goes down, it’s the race director, he’s like, “Get in.” “No, I got to finish.” He’s like, “No, get in.” And he was rounding up all the runners in the last stretch to make sure we were safe. So, that’s the crazy stuff that happens in the mountains. That’s what makes it an adventure. And so then we had to get out completely cold and stiff legged. He’s like, “Okay. Let’s start running again.” That’s where you have to keep a sense of humor too. But it was memorable. What can you say? And we survived. So, it was very exciting.

JESSE: [00:41:08] As I was reading about that, I was like it plays out, at least in my head, that — you were there, so maybe even more so. It plays out to me almost like an action movie where the race director’s going, like trying to save everybody. He’s the hero, and I don’t know what kind of vehicle it was. I pictured [crosstalk] like a Jeep or a Humvee or something, but something big.

SARAH: [00:41:33] He was on his phone talking to aid station coordinators, and his medical directors were freaking out because all of the aid stations are made of pop up tents with metal frames. And so runners were huddling under metal frames with lightning, potentially hitting that. So, it was a dicey situation, but I really respected how he handled it. He put the safety of the runners and volunteers first. And we all now are running with the terrible incident in China in our minds of the ultra that happened where all the runners got killed in extreme weather a couple months ago.

JESSE: [00:42:11] I had no doubt about that.

SARAH: [00:42:13] Oh, it was international news. [crosstalk]

JESSE: [00:42:17] I live in a bubble, so that’s probably —

SARAH: [00:42:18] Yeah, yeah. No. There was an ultramarathon in China, and absolutely extreme snowy, crazy weather. And you tend to think that it’s the slower mid to the back of the packers who are going to suffer. But actually, the elite level runners who were in the lead were several of them were the ones who died from hypothermia. And so ultra marathons, especially the extra long ones in the mountains, are taking extra precautions now. So, that’s why we had to carry in our pack for night, we had to carry pants, we had to carry certain types of jackets, emergency bivvys, everything to prevent that kind of scenario.

So, it can turn dangerous. And so people always ask aren’t you scared to be running in the trails, by yourself as if I’m going to be attacked by either wild animals or bad people. And like, you have to understand weather, the number one safety hazard is weather, extreme weather. And then secondly is tripping and falling and either hurting your ankle or hitting your head. So, safety precautions for thermoregulation, and knowing wilderness first aid are really really important.

JESSE: [00:43:42] Which brings me perfectly, I wanted to ask you about the safety chapter. Because she was talking about running into wild animals, which in your case, your story is your husband — [crosstalk] Right. Not necessarily, well, I guess we don’t really know whether they’re wild animals or whether they’re somebody’s, probably somebody’s. But obviously, there’s safety considerations. You got to bring first aid and I think you were talking about having a puncture wound on your ankle that you had to treat yourself to be able to get back down off of the trail. So, it doesn’t come without hazards. So, the question is, obviously, you continue to do it, but given that there are hazards, why?

SARAH: [00:44:32] Why would it — [crosstalk]

JESSE: [00:44:34] Why would you continue if you get chased by dogs and you puncture your ankle, and you potentially get struck by lightning in a thunderstorm?

SARAH: [00:44:42] I’m glad you brought up my book because one thing I tried to do with my book is use storytelling at the start of each chapter before the practical advice. And so yeah, I basically in that chapter, I lay out how my husband and I made a series of mistakes — [crosstalk] Yeah, I kind of unpacked all the stupid things we did when we were traveling in Argentina, and it could have ended really really badly. And so it’s important to understand the things we did wrong.

So, one of the main things we did wrong is not having communication and people wouldn’t have found us or you know. So, for that reason, I always think about what kind of breadcrumbs electronically or otherwise am I leaving so people know where to find me if they need to, and how — And so that can be, if I’m by myself, having a spot GPS tracker or having my phone, but phones are unreliable on the mountain. So, yeah, being careful. So, read that safety chapter for the checklist and just prepare for the unexpected.

But why do I do it? I really value, I mean, I value so much the experience of running, and I don’t want to always have to line up a friend or partner to be with me for safety sake. So, I want the freedom, the freedom to be able to run solo. And I just take all the precautions I can, and I want the freedom to be able to explore less populated areas. I mean, my daughter is now living in LA and she’s really getting into hiking which is wonderful. And so she’s doing these big hikes on the weekend and I’m telling her like oh you have to do this and this. And she’s like mom, you have no idea how crowded the trails are around here. I’m never going to be — Like, if something happened to her, there’s so many people on those LA area trails, someone can help her.

But where I am, I’m really out there solo, and I love it and I value it so much. And I value running with friends too. But again, it’s hard to line up having someone with you. So, I mean, the why, it’s not that I want to be alone or I want to be risky. That’s not it at all. It’s just I want to get my run in on these beautiful trails and so I do everything I can to stay safe with it.

JESSE: [00:47:21] Yeah. So, I don’t want to run you too down on time. I’m trying to give you a little bit of — [crosstalk]

SARAH: [00:47:28] I’m doing okay. I’m fine.

JESSE: [00:47:32] I don’t know, I think about the experience of running and how it plays a role in my life. And doing it on your own, having friends, it’s always nice to have somebody to go out with. But I don’t think, especially in your case, I mean, talking about the, just that, I’ll call it a short run, the 20-some-odd miles you did through Colorado Springs with the incline. You’re not always going to have a friend where you’re like, let’s go at this time and go run for the next five hours. It’s not always on everybody’s agenda. Though, maybe in Colorado it’s a little bit easier to find those kinds of friends than it is maybe for me here. But do you make any kind of prerogative of saying once a week or once a month I am going to go out with friends, or is it just like as long as I get my run in I’m good to go?

SARAH: [00:48:37] Oh, no. I do social runs. I run every Wednesday morning. I joined a local running group in town. And a lot of my runs are shorter too. It’s like being an ultra runner does not mean you have to log long miles every day. No, no, I love running with other people and introducing other people to the sport. But I also value my time alone too. I want to bring up something you touched on earlier about listening to podcasts or music and safety considerations. So, part of the reason I like to run alone is I’m really into audiobooks. And so a lot of my time on the trail is spent listening to good books. And I just want to give a tip about how to do that safely and what I’ve started to do.

So, when I’m out on the trail by myself, I am aware that I’m in mountain lion and bear habitat and I do want to keep my ears open and especially on single tracks where it’s like, single track trail that’s pretty overgrown, and I feel like I could actually have a wild animal encounter here. So, what I’ve started to do, is instead of having my air pods in my ear, is I stick my phone in my front hydration pocket and play the book, the sound of the book from the phone speaker out of my pocket.

So, what that is, is I would not do that with music. Like, I think it’s really obnoxious to other trail users to have to come across other people’s music playing loudly, like that really interrupts the trail experience. But having, basically a conversation coming out of my pocket of this podcast or audiobook, it’s a way for me to listen to it with my ears open and aware of my surroundings.

But it also serves as a warning to trail other trail users and big animals that there’s someone coming down the trail. And so I really — Maybe it’s a false sense of security, but that’s one little bit of thing I’ve developed over the past several years that I feel like is a good way to warn large animals away. I have seen bears run away from me because they don’t want human encounters either. So, that’s just a little tip I have. I used to sing out loud on the trail when I felt like I was in Cougar habitat. I’d be like, I’d start singing or saying, hey, bear here, I come bear just like alert big animals I’m coming down the tail. But that’s kind of silly. And so just having the audiobook playing in my pocket seems like a good work around that.

JESSE: [00:51:19] Yeah. As soon as you said you had in your pocket, I was like I think I know where you’re going. And I have a more mundane version of that as we have, not where I am right here because I’m now in the heart of the city. But several years ago, when I was doing more runs in a park, has a trail. It’s a paved trail, but then there’s lots of wildlife. So, it was not unusual to come across like a rattlesnake hanging out on the pavement of the trail sunning in the afternoon or deer especially.

And I never want to spook the deer because they often have babies with them. And I’m like, I don’t need a deer to charge at me. So, I would get in the habit of like if I saw one, trying to whistle or something to be like, I’m behind you. Please don’t freak out and charge at me. Even though the deer is not a predator, it’s not going to feel good if it runs into you and freaks out. So, I definitely have employed kind of similar strategy. And like you, I don’t know if it works or not.

SARAH: [00:52:24] I’ve had a lot of snake encounters. And I did almost one step on a rattler because I had air pods. And I thought like, what’s this static? What’s this noise? I thought something was wrong with my speakers. I was like, oh, no, there’s a snake right there rattling its tail and warning, and I was being stupid and had my earbuds in? So, yeah, live and learn.

JESSE: [00:52:47] Right. So, before we run out of time, so I’m asking everybody the same question this year, you listened to my episode with Jason, so you know the question I’ve been asking everybody this year: how do you stay motivated after failing to reach a goal?

SARAH: [00:53:02] How do I say — Oh, actually, I didn’t listen long enough to get that question. You’re catching me off guard. How do I stay motivated after — [crosstalk]

JESSE: [00:53:12] How do you stay motivated after failing to reach a goal? Yep.

SARAH: [00:53:16] Yeah. So, this has happened to me personally. And it happens to my clients. And I just take everything as a learning experience. And I mean, that’s what resiliency is all about. It’s about learning from failure. And then just really make peace with that disappointment, but channel it into determination. I’ve only had two DNFs in my life, and I’ve raced, I don’t know, over 100 races, many, many ultras. And back in 2018, I failed, I dropped out at around mile 60 of one of the hardest hundreds here in Colorado called the Ouray 100.

And it haunted me and it became a motivator. I mean, I’m not going to go back to that one race, but I’m going to learn from it. And I really thought about what led to that drop out. And that was a big factor in the two I did. I’ve done two hundreds this year, one in January and the one a few weeks ago. And I thought about that failure from 2018, and it totally motivated me and it helped me. I didn’t repeat that mistake. So, failure is a good thing as I tell my kids. It’s a learning experience and a motivator.

JESSE: [00:54:45] I asked that question because I think most of the people I speak with have plenty of experience failing. But I know that some people have trouble getting started because they don’t want to fail. And at least, personally, I’m like failing, it’s not the end of the world, like everybody fails. And the more you try, the more you’re going to fail. It just comes along naturally with success, like there they go hand in hand. So, I love hearing different approaches to it.

SARAH: [00:55:15] I would also ask if a new client came to me saying I want to have a coach because I am so upset about this race. I was really aiming for a PR and I missed it by 15 minutes, and I’m just so upset about it. And I would first question, was that time goal really realistic? Are you failing because you set an unrealistic goal? I believe goals should be aspirational, but achievable. And you should also have goals leading up to it or stepping stones along the way, process-oriented goals. So, sometimes we fail because we’ve set the bar unrealistically high. And it’s important, and I’ll just end by saying, as an aging athlete who has significantly slowed down for a few different factors.

I mean, I peaked in my 30s and early 40s. And now I’m 52 and I have to make peace with being a slower mid-packer now. And that means adjusting goals. It’s not about failing it’s just being realistic about where you are now in life. And sometimes I don’t want — I feel self-imposed pressure and nervousness about racing because I’m like, oh, I’m not going to do as — especially if it’s a race I’ve done before, and I did well, I’m like, there’s no way I can do as well as I did two years ago. And just like motivating yourself to just do the best you can on that given day, under the circumstances. Like, stop the comparisons with your earlier self or with other competitors, just do your best on that given day. But no, I think failure is, itself, a great motivator and a teacher.

JESSE: [00:57:15] Sarah, where can people get the book, see what you’re up to, get in touch with you, all that kind of stuff?

SARAH: [00:57:22] Okay. Well, thanks for asking. So, I want to get the book subtitle just so people — [crosstalk] understand. So, the book is called The Trail Runner’s Companion, and the subtitle is: A Step-by-Step Guide to Trail Running and Racing, from 5Ks to Ultras, a mouthful. [crosstalk] That kind of explains what the book is about. And it has funny stories in it or close to funny. I didn’t want it to be a boring how-to book. I wanted it to be a good read. But you can get it on Amazon. It’s at some independent bookstores, but mostly on Amazon. And I’m on Facebook, I’m on Instagram @SarahRunning.

And I have a blog called The Runner’s Trip, which blogging now seems like such a retro thing because everyone just puts several paragraphs under their Instagram posts and calls that a race report. But I’ve been blogging for well over a decade. I started as a travel blogger back in the days when I did significant travel, and I’ve had a running blog for over a decade so I still update it occasionally. But that’s called the runner’s trip. And then if people are interested in my coaching, just go to So, I have a website with my portfolio and my coaching info. That’s about it.

JESSE: [00:58:49] Yeah. So, if you’re interested in picking up the book, although it is a manual, it feels more like this conversation. Like, you’re sitting here with Sarah and she’s telling you stories, and then relating that to what you should be doing. It’s definitely not — This is the dictionary style trail runner’s companion.

SARAH: [00:59:08] And you will not find training plan grids in there. I’m not a believer in cookie cutter one size fits none, week by week training plans. What I do is I give advice on how you should structure your week based on your training level and your individual circumstances. But I believe that anyone who downloads a plan from the internet or just gets a training grid, you’re setting yourself up for injury, potentially. Or you’re either on any given day, whatever this generic plan prescribes, is going to be too easy or too hard for you. So, you really need to learn how to properly structure your own training weeks and your own training block. And so that’s what I try to help people do.

JESSE: [00:59:59] Sarah, thanks for hanging out with me today.

SARAH: [01:00:00] Yeah, it’s been great to talk. It’s been really fun. Yeah, thank you so much for having me on.

JESSE: [01:00:05] Absolutely.

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