Making friends over PB&J wraps: Life on the Trails
With 20 years of trail running experience, Sarah Lavender Smith has a unique perspective on one of the fastest-growing sports in the world
Welcome to Running Sucks, a newsletter where I speak to interesting people who are expanding running culture. Subscribe for free to receive a new story in your inbox every week.
At the tail-end of 2023, a former interviewee (I think positively) referred to me as an “archivist of running culture,” and it made me think about what we’re doing here. While this publication is ostensibly a newsletter, it’s also a blog - a weblog. I am logging, and archiving; a freelance digital librarian of sorts.
Last week, I got a notification from the domain registrar that runningsucks101.com was about to renew. I’m not even a year into this process, but I’ve dived headfirst into the running writers ecosystem in that time. There’s so much more freedom and variety here than in traditional media, and I love it.
There are many, many great running writers (or archivists, or librarians) to be discovered, of course, but Sarah Lavender Smith has really stood out to me over the past 9 months.
We often write (or have written) about similar topics but from diametrically opposite perspectives. Sarah is a mountain trail ultrarunner who writes more personally, while I like to run for 30-45 minutes on city streets, and use writing about other, more interesting people as a mirror for my views.
Sarah started running while studying journalism at grad school. She wasn’t a high school athlete and had recently stopped smoking. Not particularly healthy at the time, and not coming from an active family, seeing a couple of friends run the Napa Marathon in spring ‘94 was the catalyst for a new life.
“The first Monday of March 1994 (the very next day), I went out and deliberately ran three miles. Once in high school I had run six laps of track, which is a mile and a half, so I knew I could go a mile and a half and then at least walk home, and I just ran the three miles. I was totally hooked.”
She trained herself to run a marathon a year later and broke the four-hour goal she set herself, and she’s never looked back. Running has been an integral part of her life ever since.
Now based in Telluride, Colorado, around the turn of the century she lived in San Francisco’s East Bay - a place Sarah fondly remembers as an early “nexus for trail and ultra running.” She was soon drawn in. It followed that she took her journalism background headfirst towards this new, niche sport.
Sarah soon became a journalist for Trail Runner magazine in 2008, among others. She launched her business specializing in coaching road runners to becoming trail and ultra runners in 2014. That increased profile led to her writing a book: The Trail Runner's Companion: A Step-by-Step Guide to Trail Running and Racing, from 5Ks to Ultras.
Featuring storytelling of the culture and ethos and profiles of trail running’s main characters to add color to the comprehensive, essential how-to-ultra info, the book sits pretty over six years later with a 4.6 rating on Amazon.
What has changed since then?
“The sport is getting more international and more professional, younger and faster. Now, a lot of collegiate cross country runners are jumping into 50ks or to sub-ultra mountain races, and are really dominating at these trail races. The elites are getting faster and there are a lot of people who are doing really well for a couple years, then they disappear.”
“I would say that the culture of humility that used to characterize the sport has kind of gone away. I still think every runner can find his or her own niche in the sport and find community, but I hope that people who love trail running, continue to love trail running, and that they continue to want to steward the environment as part of the sport.”
For you, what is ultra running culture?
“I think community is overused as a marketing tool by people who are trying to make money. There are a lot of people saying, ‘Join our community,’ but it's for a monthly fee and you're going to get hit with a lot of products.”
“That's not the community I'm looking for. The nice thing about racing ultras is they tend to be at conversational pace - not like a road marathon where you're not going to waste energy talking. When you’re midway through an ultra, it’s incredible how people become uninhibited and unfiltered, and the art of conversation is rekindled. You share that experience and that builds a genuine bond.”
Sarah on her love for trails and ultras
Sarah speaks of the solitary, self-sufficient experience of traversing the wilderness. She talks of the contrast of the precision of road running, compared to the unpredictability of mountains, desert, and coastal terrain.
“It tends to be slower and more intuitive, and I love that the sport rewards a stronger body type. I think this is especially important for women. If you look at elite road racers, they tend to have a much thinner body type, whereas trail and ultra running rewards a stronger, curvier body type.”
“It also rewards the mental side of running much more than the physical side. It takes so much planning for logistics to do well at ultra distances: how you're going to execute the race, how you're going to refuel and hydrate along the way, when you’re tripping and falling. Those different factors don't come into play in a 5k to half marathon.”
Sarah’s favorite food for the trails
“I used to have an iron stomach and suck down gels and sugary stuff like a marathoner. Now, because of the carbohydrate, salt, and fat content, it’s tortillas - they're soft and easy to chew. So, anything I can wrap in a tortilla, whether it's peanut butter and jelly, or avocado and turkey.”
“The thing about ultra training is that not many of us have the time to go out on a training run for more than four to six hours. Spending half the day is a big chunk of time, so it's hard to simulate the gut issues you might experience after 12 hours.”
How to adapt your gut?
Head out for your long run at 1pm, so you’re digesting lunch
Continue your run in the afternoon sun until dinner
While I resisted Sarah’s efforts to get me to join her on a 50-miler, she consistently puts forward compelling reasons for the trail running community being one of the most rewarding aspects of running.
With Allie Bailey speaking last week of the ability to use running longer distances to test yourself mentally and use those lessons in non-running moments of your life, maybe I’ll be joining them on the trails before long.
How about you?
Ways to make (ultra)running suck less covered today
Plan for the unplanned
Appreciate the environment
Rekindle the art of conversation
Figure out how to run on a full stomach
Let your trail friends become your best friends
Running Sucks Haiku of the Week
Making friends along the way
Friends… and sandwiches
I do love both friends and sandwiches, but until my familial time constraints ease up (more on that in a future edition), I’m sticking to running in my immediate neighborhood.
WIN - Congratulations to Sarah for winning this week’s $50 Janji gift card - the first upgraded subscriber to win, but surely not the last. Click here to enter. 17 entries last week.
UPGRADE FOR FREE - If you refer 2 subscribers, you get a month of 3 bonus entries a week to the competition. It’s that simple! Just text/email the link to an article (This one? Your favorite one? You choose.) to a friend and tell them to subscribe.
PODCAST - If you’re a listener, rather than a reader, find Running Sucks articles wherever you find podcasts. Here’s the Spotify link. Apologies for sounding a little bunged up this week - I have a very annoying cold!
IG - Follow me on Instagram for more 10/10 content
Subscribe or upgrade for more great stuff like this in your inbox every week.