This post is prompted by Trail Runner Magazine‘s Blog Symposium. A few months ago, the Trail Runner editors began asking bloggers to write on specific topics to provoke a dialogue in the sport’s community. The editors then promote their favorite posts in an article on their site. This month’s topic is, “Tell about someone awesome you’ve met through trail running.”
A lot of runners think Ann Trason is more than awesome. She’s often described as “legendary” because of her unparalleled accomplishments at the peak of her running career: Fourteen wins at the Western States 100 between 1989 – 2003, including a course record (17:37) that stood unbroken until just last year; course records that still stand at the Leadville 100, Vermont 100, Dick Collins Firetrails 50 and American River 50; scores of wins at ultras between 1985 to 2004.
But I think she’s awesome for what she’s doing now, and for how she has mentored trail runners like me.
Ann is coming back to running at age 52 after a long hiatus, “not to race, to run,” she tells me. “I missed it so much.”
We got to know each other more than 15 years ago, and then she faded from the scene, mainly because she was injured and got serious about cycling. I lost touch with her, but then a mutual friend got us back in touch this spring.
Over the past several months, she started running again and working with young runners. Her favorite activity these days is volunteering to coach tweens and teens at track at a Berkeley middle school. She’s also crewing and coaching some ultrarunning friends, and she offered to pace me for some miles at the Marin Ultra Challenge 50-miler June 22 and to help me prepare for my first 100M this fall. In the not-too-distant future, she plans to start coaching clients to help runners of all levels discover trail running, improve their endurance and achieve their goals.
Imagine if you were a beginning climber learning the ropes at a climbing gym and happened to meet Ueli Steck, or if you were swimming laps at the Y and the guy in the next lane introduced himself as Michael Phelps. You could tell by looking at them that they are amazing athletes, but you have no clue about just how amazing. Then Ueli invites you on a climb or Michael gives you tips on your stroke, and the more you learn about them, the more it dawns on you that they are truly phenomenal and you are ridiculously lucky to train in their shadow and hear their advice.
That’s how it was for me when I met Ann in the mid-1990s, one year after I took up running and did my first marathon at age 25. I began to notice Ann running around our neighborhood on the way to a trailhead—we lived one block apart in the town of Kensington, just north of Berkeley—and we’d say hi in passing. I was captivated by her efficient stride, her lean body, her tomboy look, and the fact that she seemed to run every day and at all times of the day.
Until I learned about Ann, I thought that the farthest anyone ever ran was 20 miles on a training run, and then on the big day of a marathon they somehow found the will to go an extra 6.2. A friend who knew more about running told me that Ann was the Western States champ. I didn’t know what that meant until he explained. The more I researched and contemplated it, the more in awe of Ann I became. I’m sure my jaw dropped when I thumbed through a 1996 issue of Runner’s World and read that this woman who lived around the corner, Ann Trason, was “without a doubt, the greatest woman ultrarunner in the world.”
I wanted to find out more about Ann and her sport, so I got her talking one day when she was out walking her dogs, and she invited me on a run. We hit the trails in North Berkeley’s Tilden Park, and she graciously ran my pace. I was nervous and self-conscious about my flushed cheeks and heaving breaths, but she put me at ease and ran slowly enough that I could carry on a conversation. She was so nice and self-deprecating, more interested in talking about my running and encouraging me than talking about herself and her races.
She mentioned that she ran all the way from Tilden to Lake Chabot, about a marathon distance away, and back, all on trail through the East Bay Area’s regional park system. That blew my mind—and inspired me. I couldn’t get my head around running 100 miles, but I could look on a map and picture running the route she described. She opened up the possibility to me of running far and solo on the trail, and was the first person to tell me I should run a 50K.
A while later, I asked if I could profile her for a local publication, and she reluctantly agreed. I got her to sit still and talk about herself—two things she doesn’t like to do. At one point, while telling stories about her races, she rolled her eyes and said, “I can’t believe this isn’t boring you to death.” I wanted to shout, Are you kidding me? I was hanging on to every word. (Here’s a PDF of that article that was published in January of 1998, and a PDF of an interview I did with her for Trail Runner a decade later.)
Some years went by, I had two babies, and we moved away from Kensington to a place near Oakland, so I rarely saw Ann anymore. But then in 2006 I found out that she was the race director for the Golden Hills Trail Marathon (the companion race to the better-known Dick Collins Firetrails 50), which followed the route she told me about years earlier—from Tilden to Lake Chabot. Knowing that she would be at the finish line inspired me to sign up and push hard.
She gave me a big hug when I crossed the finish in 4:03 and told me she thought I could break 4 hours on that course. If Ann says I can, maybe I really can. I felt so enthralled after running that event that I signed up for it again the following year. Wanting to be like Ann and meet her expectations of me, I trained hard to break 4 hours and ended up winning and setting a course record in 3:49.
I thought about Ann again last Sunday as I sat in my car, stomach tight with nerves, before the start of a half marathon trail race. I had an inordinate amount of fear and ego wrapped up in that event, since I won it six years ago—but then, in 2011, I ran it 10 minutes slower. I didn’t want to discover I was even slower this year, and I didn’t want to get beaten by several younger, faster women. Then it hit me how incredibly insecure and petty I was being. Like a cloud lifting, I realized I should follow Ann’s example: I should run it to enjoy everything about the experience, to do my best on this given day and to stop measuring myself against the past. And in that instant, I gained a deeper appreciation for Ann’s courage to come back to running when she carries the burden of her reputation as a champion and other people’s expectations. She’s coming to terms with being slower and not judging herself in relation to her earlier records. She’s embracing the trail, feeling gratitude for being able to run at all, reconnecting with old friends and rekindling a pure love of running.
She’s also getting ready to do something I think is awesome: crewing and pacing Christina Williams when Christina makes her first attempt at Western States on June 29. Christina is the daughter of Dan Williams; Dan is a longtime friend of Ann’s and is one of a handful of people to earn the “2000 Mile” Western States buckle for running it 20 times. Ann used to babysit Christina, and Christina, who’s now 29, grew up crewing for her dad and watching Ann race.
“Ann has always been a hero to me,” Christina said the other night when we went out on a nighttime training run.
I feel the same way.