A Climber’s Quest to Track Down the Joy of Trail Running.
By Whitney Boland
#1: Running should feel natural, and you must stay in the moment.
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.”
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.
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.
server approaches our table and Natalie orders a beer. I motion for two, then
cut to the chase.
what’s the deal with ultras?”
laughs. “Well, you don’t start there. It’s a process.”
leans back as the server drops off two beers.
about the distance,” she says.
what do you think about,” I ask. “While you’re out there for that long.”
pauses. “Running, I guess. You have to stay in the moment.”
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.
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.”
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.
passed aspen groves at Marlette Trail, made the climb before Red House and clocked
in at the 50-mile mark feeling strong.
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.
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.
had 25 miles.” She says. “That’s all I could think about.”
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.
leans forward in her chair.
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.”
was mile 75. Natalie had started calculating.
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.”
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.
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.
felt so natural,” she says.
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.”
run 76 miles during that race. 76 miles in a row.
signed up to try the same race the following year.
you even want to run 100-miler again?” I asked “Or 100 miles at all.”
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.
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.
toed in at the line with 123 other runners. Only 71 would later cross the
was spent by mile 30,” she says, “and my legs had never felt so hammered by
it’s not until mile 70 when she starts thinking about the difficulty, but she
was already struggling.
she says, “I crawled inside my little pain cave early.”
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.
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
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.