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What Makes Ultrarunning Friendships Click
Plus, a two-year anniversary and retrospective
This is a milestone post—the two-year anniversary of this newsletter! Thank you for being here. I’ll share some thoughts below on this publication’s growth and direction, including highlights from the reader survey. But you’re probably here for stories and advice, so let’s start with a scene from last weekend.
Ultrarunning friends get me
I spent last weekend immersed in conversations while traversing a couple of high-altitude trails that connect to Silverton to the Hardrock 100 course, because I joined some 25 women who took part in a first-ever women’s running camp co-organized by Hardrock and The North Face.
My Instagram post summarizes why the weekend of bonding and mentorship felt extra special and useful (click through to read the caption and view all the photos). After the runs, we gathered to talk about why women are chronically underrepresented in tough 100-mile mountain races such as Hardrock or UTMB, what we can do to support them, and what Hardrock might consider doing to grow our numbers.
When I found myself daydreaming on the drive home about the experience, however, I didn’t dwell on the peculiarities of Hardrock and its lottery system. I actually felt more at peace, and less disturbed, by the possibility that I may never gain a spot through the longshot lottery before my ability to run 100s fades due to my bad knee or other factors. Instead, I replayed the miles on the trails talking intimately with new friends, the art of conversation kindled by device-free running in the wilderness.
Robin, a woman my age from Tennessee, and I had barely met, yet our talk quickly turned to hot flashes and our adult-aged kids. Sarah Keyes, a pro-level sponsored runner and nurse, and I also shared miles in which the conversation suddenly turned private and personal, about careers and relationships, as if we were old friends reuniting instead of having known each other for merely 20 minutes.
My mind also flipped back to a table at Avalanche Brewery on Saturday night, where I sat drinking a pint of IPA surrounded by a few old and new runner friends.
On one level, my contentment in these scenes had simply to do with being in unpretentious Silverton, which is about 1 hour, 45 minutes by highway from Telluride, or about an hour via the high-clearance mining road from Ophir. It’s a smaller, rougher, more isolated, and less affluent version of my town, reminding me of Telluride in the 1970s and ’80s, before its side streets got paved and its empty lots filled with designer boutiques. Mostly, however, I felt a sense of belonging and appreciation for the fellowship created by arduous and beautiful shared trail runs.
On my left at the half-empty brewery, drinking a whiskey mule from a copper mug, sat Amanda Grimes, a Silverton local, her cheeks framed by blond hair and slightly flushed from our laughter as we reminisced about our first meeting in 2014. I had walked into the women’s locker room in the Silverton gym, having spent some 16 hours pacing Betsy Nye on the Hardrock 100 course, and found Amanda sprawled in dirt-caked running clothes on the bathroom floor near a shower, nearly comatose, as if she intended to take a shower but didn’t quite make it. She had just finished her first Hardrock DFL (dead f’ing last), in 47 hours, 50 minutes with 10 minutes to spare before cutoff, and she looked as if she’d been hit by a car.
As I recall, we chatted about her race and my pacing gig—me sitting on a bench offering help, her lying down and saying she’d be OK—as if this state of being were normal. I also recall wanting to be like her, fully depleted, a legit Hardrocker. That was the year I ran my first 100 and belatedly mustered the courage and confidence to train for a Hardrock-qualifying 100 in 2015.
Three years later, she showed up at my book-signing event in Steamboat Springs. In the years that followed, we leapfrogged while running the Silverton Alpine Loop in a race; I served her food and draped a blanket around her shoulders at Hardrock’s Animus Forks aid station; and just two weeks ago, she cheered me on while I ran Run Rabbit Run 100 and she managed an aid station there.
Months and years pass, then we meet on the trail or at a bar, and conversation flows unfiltered, the mutual devotion to ultrarunning and this mountain life making us click and get one another in a way rarely duplicated in other facets of my life.
To my right, drinking a dark brown stout, sat Howie Stern, another Silverton local, his hair having grayed since we met in 2011. We connected that summer 12 years ago during Hardrock while hiking out of the Telluride Town Park aid station around mile 77. I was pacing my friend Garett Graubins, and Howie was pacing his friend Billy Simpson. Garett, to his credit, mentored and encouraged my ultrarunning, as did several other guys in those earlier days of the then-fringe, male-dominated sport. I wouldn’t be the trail runner I am today without guys like Garett making me feel welcome and supported when I ran with them.
Howie and I somehow lapsed into laughing about a decade-old bizarre chapter in the Bay Area ultrarunning scene involving a crazy, potentially criminal race director. Then we discussed his photography—he’s now a sought-after photographer for marquee ultras and trail-running brands around the globe—and how his career was just getting started when he photographed me in 2016 to illustrate my book. As with Amanda, we kept crossing paths over the years, never hanging out for any extended period or getting to know each other very deeply, yet connected in an authentic, easygoing way because of shared experiences and acquaintances in this niche.
I put ultrarunning friends in a different category than regular friends I’ve made through my neighborhood, my kids’ schools, or work or volunteer service. Those other friends and I might get to know each other’s backgrounds—where we’re from, how many siblings we have, even our work or love dramas—and we might remember birthdays and exchange holiday cards. By contrast, I often don’t know these kinds of details of ultrarunning friends’ lives.
And yet, I feel more at ease with fellow ultrarunners with whom I share a trail than any other group of people. It’s probably because I’m my most comfortable and confident out there on the trail. It’s my space, my thing. In so many other areas in life—from the stressed-out, competitive newsrooms where I first practiced journalism, to the myriad social galas or back-to-school nights I attended with my husband—I felt insecure about my capabilities, overly concerned about what others think of me, secondary to my husband and his career success, or diminished as a stay-at-home mom even though I always worked at least part time or freelanced.
When I’m at races and organized group runs, however, I am wholly myself and admired for being a longtime ultrarunner and writer in the sport. It’s as if my legs’ ability to run over mountains, and my passion to keep doing it and share stories about it, gave me the voice, credibility, and confidence to be my most gregarious, happy, strong, and individual self.
Across the table from Howie and me sat two younger women in their 30s, the next generation coming up in this sport, each expressing so much potential and eagerness. One, a bleached blond named Mika, already has made a name for herself as a multiple winner at 200-mile ultras. Her friend Jovonna, who’s Black and an ecologist, runs 50Ks and summits 14ers. Jovonna wore knee-high compression socks with funky designs and superhero logos that reflected her fun personality. They drove from the Denver area together to get a taste of the Hardrock course and, like the rest of us, to network. And maybe to escape their regular lives.
Looking at them, I wanted to say, bravo for being here! Keep at it! Make time for it! Don’t ever let anyone suggest that your passion for running is selfish or pointless. Don’t ever give it up for work or family; keep fitting it in. Don’t ever think that by the time you turn 40 or 50, your best running days are behind you. You’ll meet the best, strangest people along the way. You’ll do your best thinking and get your best ideas out on the trail. You’ll do more than you ever thought possible on the way to finishing an ultra or summiting a peak. You’ll grow and become better and braver with each passing year—each decade—doing this. You’ll find your best self, and perhaps your best friends, out on the trails. I’m so happy to meet you. I’m so glad you’re here.
It's weird but wonderful that running and networking with runners can make me feel so enthusiastic and full of life. But I hope and think it’s fairly typical, and that many of you experience a similar thing.
I’ve written before (see this post) about the power and joy of attending a retreat or camp. My friend Cristal Hibbard, who just paced me at Run Rabbit Run 100, is hosting and coaching a four-day trail-running camp in Sedona starting October 12, with a couple of spots still open, check it out.
And if ever you’re in southwest Colorado, feel free to reach out to me for a run.
Two years in the Substackverse
Two years ago this week, I launched this newsletter titled “Colorado Mountain Running & Living” with the tagline, “personal essays with practical advice about trail running, mountain living, and midlife grit.” Since then, I’ve published 146 posts (112 free to all subscribers, plus 34 bonus posts for paid subscribers).
I didn’t quite reach my goal of getting to 2000 subscribers by Year 2, but close!
Many thanks to all of you who’ve shared my posts on social media or referred a friend to it. (You can earn a paid subscription if you refer it, and if three or more of your contacts subscribe. A paid subscription gives access to bonus posts, plus an invitation to the monthly online meetup where we chat about various topics related to running and wellness, and generally have fun getting to know one another.)
I thought the newsletter would focus more specifically on running and life in the San Juan Mountains, and I thought the readership would be mostly Coloradans. Amazingly, only 21 percent of readers come from Colorado. I have subscribers from every single state (this includes one lone subscriber in North Dakota, two in Arkansas), plus readers from 66 countries! (Who from Algeria, Morocco, Slovakia, Ukraine, and Indonesia are reading this? I have one subscriber from each of those countries.)
I believe the far-flung readership has mostly to do with the power of the Substack network referring readers of other newsletters to mine. I’m so glad I got off WordPress and onto Substack just as it was taking off. As this recent column highlights, we’re witnessing a renaissance of blogging, and readers and writers appreciate the ad-free Substack platform that celebrates long-form writing, gives writers control over their content, and doesn’t distract readers’ eyeballs with click-bait.
But I also think my newsletter gained traction because I give voice to older athletes. Without really planning it, many of my stories touch on aging and the challenges— from physiology to society—to remaining a dedicated runner after 50. Perhaps not surprisingly, many of this newsletter’s readers, and most of the paid subscribers who join our monthly Zoom session, are in their 50s or older.
I’m proud to spotlight us oldster long-distance runners, here and beyond. When I wrote a profile for Trail Runner this summer about the incredible 61-year-old ultrarunner Becky Bates, my 30-year-old editor wrote me, “Multiple times reading this, I thought, how have I not heard of this amazing woman before?!?” In my mind, I replied, “Well, thirtysomething editors and readers generally don’t care about the over-50 demographic.”
About a month ago, I launched a reader survey and collected scores of responses about what you all would like to read. The results proved hopelessly inconclusive, yet nonetheless interesting to me. For example, some of you don’t care to read about my horses, while others want to get to know my horses better. Some of you would like me to profile more runners, while others aren’t interested in learning about other runners.
The upshot is, I’ll keep writing about a mix of topics, following what my gut tells me is a good story—a “good story” involving some conflict or tension, change, humor, and originality.
Here’s a small sample of what some of you replied when asked why you subscribe (and this warms my heart big time):
You inspire me to keep running as I get older and not be afraid of doing longer distances.
Her writing is introspective. She lays it all out there with transparency and honesty. Her posts are informative and so well written that the reader can picture all her exciting experiences!
I get inspired and feel connected to a running community.
I came for the ultra content and stayed for the writing.
I enjoy experiencing ultrarunning in Colorado vicariously, and I'm contemplating trying an ultra trail run in the coming year.
I want to still be running trails when I'm in my 90s, and Sarah is showing me the way.
I live vicariously through your Western ultrarunning adventures.
I'm a newer ultrarunner, and you share valuable information on running. I also love Telluride, and your writing gives me ideas for when I visit!
And I greatly appreciated these two takeaway messages, and several more like them:
Just keep being you!
Please just keep writing about topics that interest you. If you are curious, so will we be.
If you’re newer to this newsletter, I invite you to explore some posts from these categories.
An animal story:
OK, now you’re drowning in links, but I gotta share one more. This is for any of you interested in golf. My 22-year-old son, Kyle, started his own Substack for a sportswriting class. He’s obsessed with golf and with following the pro players. I’m impressed by the passion and perspective he brings to his writing. I hope you’ll check out “Kyle’s Fairway Focus,” or share it with a golfing friend, and subscribe!
Thank you all so, so much for being more than an audience; you’ve made a community here. Feel free to introduce yourselves in the comments below—where you’re from, why you read this, and any running-related accomplishments or goals. Finally, congrats to readers Elisabeth Gaz and Emilie Goldman for being the two survey respondents I chose at random to get a prize from the semi-rad.com store.
Colorado Mountain Running & Living is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.