Natalie Sims

Tuesday, August 23, 2011


A Climber’s Quest to Track Down the Joy of Trail Running.

By Whitney Boland

Rule #1: Running should feel natural, and you must stay in the moment.

The server turns on the TV at the bar as Natalie Sims walks through the front glass doors. She is sleek and cut, her curly dirty-blonde hair pulled back.  She sits down with me at the table and says,  “It’s so hot.”

We’re at a restaurant called Taco Mamacita in the heart of Chattanooga, TN. The sandstone here is bullet hard, but I wasn’t meeting Natalie to talk about climbing. There’s also tons of trailheads – numbering in the 50s – within 15 miles of Chattanooga that create a web of massive link-up potential. I am smack dab in the middle of a trail running motherland and one of the fastest growing trail running scenes in the country with Rock/Creek races, the Dirty Spokes Series and XTERRA trail races popping up all over the place.

Still, I’m no more a runner than Tiger Woods is an NBA basketball player. I understand climbing – the body English of vertical miles. It feels natural, unlike the suffering of running. And never mind ultra running.  But even since I watched my brother run cross-country in high school, my good friend Corrie go out for a light eight mile jog or some unnamed runner bounce happily through the woods, I wanted something they had.

The server approaches our table and Natalie orders a beer. I motion for two, then cut to the chase.

“So what’s the deal with ultras?”

She laughs. “Well, you don’t start there. It’s a process.”

She leans back as the server drops off two beers.

“It’s about the distance,” she says.

“But what do you think about,” I ask. “While you’re out there for that long.”

She pauses. “Running, I guess. You have to stay in the moment.”

The first 100-miler she ran was in 2009, the Tahoe Rim Trail 100. She’d been running for years, completed a stack of 50-milers and trained for a full year prior to the race.

The Tahoe Rim course is very different than the Chattanooga landscape made of dense forests and rooted paths. Instead, it traverses the length of Lake Tahoe through high elevation alpine forests, dirt roads and expansive vistas of the Carson Spur of the Sierras. Just to give you an idea of what the terrain has to offer, the race’s motto is “A glimpse of Heaven, a Taste of Hell.”

The year before Natalie ran it, a 37-year-old woman named Nikki Kimball set the course record by running it in just over 20 hours. That’s a hell of a time, but at that moment Natalie was just focused on loosening up her legs. Other runner, with ipods in their hands and headphones stuffed in their ears, shuffled in next to her. The gun shattered the morning silence at Spooner Lake State Park as the chill of early morning, at 7,000 feet, still hung in the air.

She passed aspen groves at Marlette Trail, made the climb before Red House and clocked in at the 50-mile mark feeling strong.

She continued into the second half. Her husband, Matt, joined in as a pacer to help keep her stay on track when exhaustion hit in the backcountry. Natalie focused. Aid station to aid station. She kept numbers and miles mentally logged as the visual diagrams of home courses.

“But the miles were taking longer,” she said. Somewhere before her second stop at the Diamond Peak Lodge aid station, she started to count. As she approached 75 miles she looked down the trail at its twisted future tunneling deep into the horizon.

“I had 25 miles.” She says. “That’s all I could think about.”

She calculated the time in her head.  In a normal marathon, she could run 26.2 miles in four hours. But at her pace, it would take her at least another six hours. Or more.

Natalie leans forward in her chair.

“When you’re out there, you don’t want to think about the entire big picture,” she says. “The last thing you want to do is think about how much you have left.”

It was mile 75. Natalie had started calculating.

“You can't say, ‘I can run a marathon in 4 hours’ and put the pressure on yourself to run a 25-mile segment in a 100-mile race in 4 hours,” she tells me. “It just doesn't work that way.”

During the next mile her legs throbbed and fatigue set in. She had one headlamp around her waist, and one on her heard. She tried to focus on as far as her eyes could see. She chewed gum. But she couldn’t get the distance out of her head, or the slower pace.

Soon at mile 76, she still had four miles to go until the next aid station, and twenty miles after that. She knew what she had to do.

“I dropped out of the race,” Natalie says. She takes a sip of her beer and a group of road bikers walk into Taco Mamacita. They head straight to the bar behind her. “Then, I went home.”

Natalie returned to Chattanooga. From her home on Signal she could run by the sandstone cliff lines or skirt the exposed belly of the Cumberland Plateau. She set out on the trails when she felt like it.

During the winter, when the rare flakes of snow in Tennessee hugged the ground for their momentary breath of life, Natalie remembers running over the serene white expanse and taking in what she saw as one ever-changing landscape.

“It felt so natural,” she says.

Behind us, the men at the bar began cheering at the TV as the mess of Tour de France cyclist pedaled hard.  

“I think I didn’t see the first one so much as a failure,” she says. “It was the farthest I’d ever run at that point.”

She’d run 76 miles during that race. 76 miles in a row.

She signed up to try the same race the following year.

“Why’d you even want to run 100-miler again?” I asked “Or 100 miles at all.”

Natalie shrugged. “I didn’t know if I could.”

Natalie stood at the start line with the other runners, just like the year before, when gun went off.  But this time she owned the course finishing sixth place in 29:24:34.

With one 100 miler complete why not another? Natalie signed up for the 2011 Angeles Crest 100-miler.

The course is one of the ten most difficult ultramarathons in the United States and within the first four miles runners make a 3,000-foot climb.

Natalie toed in at the line with 123 other runners. Only 71 would later cross the finish line.

“I was spent by mile 30,” she says, “and my legs had never felt so hammered by mile 50.”

Normally, it’s not until mile 70 when she starts thinking about the difficulty, but she was already struggling.  

“So,” she says, “I crawled inside my little pain cave early.”

We finished off the last sip of our beer as behind us the men at the bar stand. They cheer and point at the TV and slosh their glasses around as the camera pans away from the tightly formed peloton to focus on the jagged mountain climb that the unified mass of bodies was approaching.

Natalie Sims is a La Sportiva athlete. She finished third in women’s at the 2011 Angeles Crest 100 with a time of 28:31:39. She was wearing the La Sportiva Crosslite 2.0 during the race.

Whitney Boland, also a La Sportiva athlete, is a writer and climber living in Chattanooga, Tenn.


Natalie shifted in her seat and considered my question. Natalie face melted into a smile when I asked to describe her running in one word.  Her curly blonde hair was pulled back and she wore a tank top and TK. 

Natural, she said. It just feels natural.

For the effort, that she’d just described in training for a 100 miler, dropping out then completing it, the mental tax that such a feat will take, or the shear commitment to get up every morning and erasing the memory of all the effort or failures or Tks that came before and just focusing on the one thing she knew felt true. It felt natural.



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