Guest interview by U.S. Junior Mountain Running Team leader Paul Kirsch. Paul is also founder of the Loon Mountain Race and lives in Madison, New Hampshire. Above photo: Joe Viger Photography.
The week before Lauren Gregory won the inaugural USATF Vertical Mountain Running Championships, Tabor (Scholl) Hemming made history by being the first former US Junior Mountain Running Team member to win a National Championship at the Whiteface Sky Race. Lauren then made history by becoming the youngest champion of an off-road USATF Championships at the Loon Mountain Race, winning the race at age 22, almost two minutes ahead of her nearest competitor.
Gregory is also a veteran of the Junior US Mountain Running Team. She won a bronze individual medal at the 2017 World Championships in Premana, Italy along the way to helping her team win a Silver Medal. Like Tabor, Lauren will be headed to Thailand in November to compete at the inaugural World Mountain & Trail Running Championships – Hemming in the Classic Mountain Race and Gregory in the Vertical Mountain Race.
Gregory and Hemming know each other well; they’ve been competing in Colorado races since they were pre-teens. They both made their mark on Colorado cross country and track in high school and went on to successful collegiate careers after their stints on the US Junior Mountain Running Team.
As the Juniors (now U20) Team Manager, my ultimate goal with younger runners who compete on both our Youth and U20 Mountain Running Teams is that they remember that experience and return to the sport of mountain running after college. Hemming and Gregory are both the poster children for this concept.
It was extra special for me to see Lauren Gregory return to mountain running at Loon. I founded the event back in 2006 and now I am part of the crew helping Tom Hooper and Six03 Endurance who direct the race. I checked in with Lauren this past week to get her perspective on Loon, mountain running and the collegiate experience.
[Paul Kirsch] Last week you came to the USATF Vertical Mountain Running Championships in Lincoln, New Hampshire to run your first ever US Mountain Running Championships. After 4 years of collegiate running, what was it like to be back at a mountain race?
[Lauren Gregory] It is a much welcome change of scenery for me. The mountains feel like home to me and always rejuvenate my love of running.
[Paul] What got you interested in coming to compete at the Loon Mountain Race?
[Lauren] Last summer I competed in a few trail races, the Kendall Mountain Run in Silverton and Grin and Bear It in Crested Butte, while out in Colorado for the summer. I had signed up for this very last minute as a fun excuse to explore different mountain ranges and meet trail people. This summer, I wanted to be more intentional in the races I run. I was recommended to run Loon mountain as it is a runnable course where my track training would hopefully carry over. I also came out with goals of making the team for Thailand.
[Paul] Did you get a chance to see the course before the race?
[Lauren] I ran up to about mile 3.5 two days before, the stretch after seemed very steep and I knew I needed to save my legs for the race, I was right. The gravel hill, ski hill descent, and upper walking boss were a fun surprise to me. I knew the course’s details by word of mouth so I had the layout of each section in my head beforehand but you really have to see it to believe it.
[Paul] Did you know anything about any of your competitors?
[Lauren] I did not but I knew this event brings in the best especially when there is a US team spot on the line.
[Paul] What was your race strategy going into the event? Were you able to execute it as planned?
[Lauren] I was recommended to keep it controlled the first half and enjoy running through the trees as the rest of the course only gets increasingly harder. I think I was able to execute how I wanted to but still have things I would do differently which excites me for next time.
[Paul] Tell us about the course; were there any surprises? How about the last half mile on the black diamond ski trail Upper Walking Boss. What was that like?
[Lauren] As I said before, I knew about the other sections but you truly have to experience it to get the full picture of the terrain and grade you are attempting to run. The last section felt like the last lap of a track race when your legs are completely gone but you have to keep moving. Except in this case, you’re basically crawling in slow motion. Despite the screaming legs, the beautiful wildflowers and wild strawberries were keeping me going.
[Paul] Your dad was at the race. How did that feel to have him there and when did you get to see him after the finish?
[Lauren] My dad did come out with me. I saw him at the top of the gravel road section and at the finish. It was nice to share the views with him and know that he was enjoying himself as much as I was.
[Paul] What’s it feel like to be the youngest ever USATF National Champion in Mountain Running?
[Lauren] I actually did not know that. I’m glad I was introduced to the sport young and hope that others are inspired to pursue other forms of racing and running.
[Paul] Your last big college season right before Loon was outdoor track. Did you do any specific mountain or trail training after track season ended to get you prepared for a mountain race?
[Lauren] I got to explore some trails in Fayetteville, where I go to school, that I do not usually run in season. I also obviously needed to incorporate some hill training into the two weeks leading up so I tried to focus on that and hope for the best.
[Paul] You are no stranger to racing in the mountains. You were the 2017 Junior Bronze Medalist at the World Mountain Running Championships in Premana, Italy. What was that like? Can you share the experience, as a young runner, what it was like to run a race in Italy and wear the USA Uniform?
[Lauren] Trail racing competitively has been my life goal since I fell in love with running in high school. To be able to experience it as a junior was so special for me and really reinforced my love of mountain running. The community and energy around that race was unlike anything I had ever experienced and it was unforgettable.
[Paul] A week before you won Loon, fellow Colorado resident, Tabor (Scholl) Hemming, also a previous Junior Mountain Running Team member, won the USATF Mountain Running Championships at Whiteface Mountain. Were you following that race and do you know Tabor from previous events in Colorado?
[Lauren] I was so happy to see Tabor crush that race and had been following her progression to mountain running since leaving college. I wish I could find a photo but we’ve known each other from competing at the USATF summer track meets in Colorado when I was only 10 or 11. I enjoyed crossing paths with her and her family again at NCAA meets.
[Paul] After the world championships in Premana, Italy did you feel like after that you would do more mountain races in the future?
[Lauren] Absolutely, like I said, this is my favorite form of running and something I have always wanted for my future in the sport. After that race, I knew I needed to keep pursuing my love of mountain running to whatever capacity I was able.
[Paul] How does it feel to know you are headed back to a mountain race in Italy?
[Lauren] I am so excited, my brother competed at this race on the Youth team in the fall of 2020 where he was 4th. I got a run down but I’m so stoked to experience it for myself.
[Paul] You have had a spectacular collegiate career at Arkansas. Was college and running Division I a big adjustment after high school? What has been the biggest challenge of collegiate running?
[Lauren] It was a bigger adjustment for me than I had expected. But through this, I learned so much about myself and am grateful to have eligibility as a 5th and 6th year to compete as a more experienced and well-rounded athlete. The biggest challenge for me was balancing my love of outdoor activities and recovering for the intense year-round training that collegiate running requires. This often led to stress injuries which fed into a battle with underfueling that took me years to figure out. All in all, very difficult times for me that I unfortunately had to experience to better understand my strength as a runner and person.
[Paul] What’s your best memory from college running so far?
[Lauren] Winning the NCAA cross country title with my team, and best friends, in 2019 was unforgettable.
[Paul] I am curious, what did your college teammates think about you coming to Loon? Had any of them ever heard of mountain running?
[Lauren] They all know me and support me in whatever crazy things I get myself into. I do not think anyone was surprised I was going all the way to New Hampshire to run uphill. They are fans of the sport and some follow or just listen to me go on about it on runs.
[Paul] What advice do you have for other collegiate or post-collegiate athletes curious about trying out the trail and mountain running scene?
[Lauren] I believe I said this in the video (embedded below) but, running is hard. No way to get around it, but at least mountain running provides beautiful views. The mountain running community is so welcoming and supportive so there is nothing to fear, everyone is just trying to get up the damn mountain. Just enter a race, smile, and enjoy the beauty of the sport and the nature around you.