In this series of articles, the American Trail Running Association recognizes and celebrates trail race volunteers and trail runners like Kathleen O’Neill who are inspiring everyday athletes committed to growing trail running in their community. “View from the Pack” is supported by ATRA corporate member RaidLight.
Nominator Ian Torrence writes, “Flagstaff’s Kathleen O’Neill comes to mind immediately when thinking about the ideal candidate for a View from the Pack. Kathleen has captained our Moqui Aid Station for the past six years at our Stagecoach 100 Mile event—a very remote, cold and lonely place. The aid station is open all night. She lines a quarter-mile of trail with luminaries to guide runners in and always has a warm camp fire waiting. Professionally, she splits her time in Flagstaff with Tuba City, AZ, (on the Navajo Reservation) where she works as a nurse.”
Meet Kathleen O’Neill
Hometown: New Milford, CT
Years running trails: 19
Miles per week running on trails: Varies from 20 miles per week to 30 miles per week
Approximate number of trail races run each year: 7 to 8
Longest trail race completed: 60K. This year I will be attempting my first 50 mile at Bryce Canyon, a second 50 mile at Run Rabbit Run, both of which I hope to prepare me to compete my first 100 mile run at Javelina Jundred this October. My eldest daughter lives in Newcastle, England and I have picked out my A race for 2020 when I visit her; the Skye Trail Ultra, Duntulm, Scotland (United Kingdom). I will be learning and practicing orienteering prior to the run, as compass navigation skills is recommended for this run.
What got you into trail running?
I began running trails when I was stationed in Tuba City, AZ. I am a Physical Therapist Commissioned Officer with the United States Public Health Service, and I have been with Indian Health Service since 2000 with assignments in Navajo Nation-Tuba City AZ, Dillingham, AK and Hopi-Polacca, AZ. I started running the trails around my house in Tuba City in 2000, and was quickly humbled by the desert sand.
In 2006, while living on the Hopi Reservation I found Northern Arizona Trails Runners Association (NATRA) while searching for runs in Northern Arizona. I signed myself and my 4 kids up for their summer trail series. Summer series runs, and joining NATRA for Saturday group runs in Flagstaff really opened my eyes to the endless trail opportunities in the Flagstaff Sedona area. My family and I were also able to participate in aid station support, trail building with Flagstaff biking organization, NATRA, USFS and the Arizona Trail Association.
In 2014, my wife Laura’s son Steven LaBranche ran the Zion 100 mile and we had the opportunity to crew him. He entered Zion 100 again in 2016, and we were better at crewing (didn’t miss him at the first stop) and I was able to pace him the last 20 miles without a repeat episode of muscle cramps that curtailed my pacing in 2014. Steven entered the grand slam in 2017, and we crewed him for the 3 ultras west of the Mississippi River; Western States, Leadville and Wasatch. Steven continues to run, and finished Ultra-Trail du Mont Blanc (UTMB) in 2018 and is signed up for Bigfoot 200 mile this summer. He also coaches high school running in Connecticut, and has online run/trail coaching and coaches me too!
What motivates you to keep running?
I have slowly worked up to ultras and competed in my first 50K in November of 2016, and got a DNF. The DNF was tough, but I put that behind me and later that year completed a 50K at Pass Mountain Trail training for ultras is really hard while working full time and living remote. I struggle with anxiety and it often sidetracks me from my weekly training but I am true to my weekend long runs in Flagstaff. Having training partners this past year has helped and we cheer each other during the week on Strava, and a few weekends a month we try to connect for a long run.
I love the trails, the beauty of the surroundings, the way in which the trail community gives back with maintenance of the trails before and after races. Trail running has helped me to remain fit, decrease stress and has enabled me to make many friends. Trail running has also helped me in the transition to empty nest mom. I have four grown children ages 22, 24, 26 and 28. My kids now tell me, they never know where I am on the weekend- but I laugh and tell them, trail running gives me something to obsess over, since I am not allowed to obsess over them anymore.
At the 2018 Whiskey Basin 57K in Prescott, Arizona, I met Michele from Goodyear, AZ, after twice calling her back to the trail when she went the wrong way. We started a conversation, and have been trail running partners ever since. She is 20 years my junior, but we get along great, and have a similar pace and outlook towards training and racing- have fun first- and Oreos are the best fuel!!! She is also the reason I have the courage and confidence to sign up for the two 50 mile runs, a 70K skyrace and the 100 mile run.
Have you witnessed any differences between trail running and road running?
With trail running, the last finisher is celebrated- and being a back of the pack runner, I have been close to last many times and had the honor of finishing last in October 2017, at the Soulstice Mountain Trail Run. There is no shame in finishing last, and I looked at the finishing times of the last runners for months before I got the courage to sign up for a 30K or greater trail run. I am hoping that my finishing times- at the back of the pack, will inspire others to give it a try just like I did.
Trail running is a sport where you can line up at the start with some of the best trail runners in the world. Does this intimidate you, foster a sense of inclusion, or fall somewhere in between?
I feel like there is inclusion in trail running. I was a veritable wall flower for the first couple of years while running trail. Living remote for the work week on the reservation, keeps me from connecting during the week with many local runners- but through meeting people at races, seeing their posts on Strava or social media, volunteering for race set up or manning an aid station- (earning race credits to support my running habit) I have been able to join groups for long weekend trail runs. I definitely love the fact that elite trail runners are comfortable saying, “Hi,” before races, posing for photo ops after races and cheering on other runners. Some races are loops were direction is changed when completing the loop, allowing you to see face to face, the leaders of the race. Many times, they will give you a, “Great job,” “Keep it up,” or a head nod if they are really grinding it out. I love when local elites call me by name! Makes you feel like part of the family.
What is your opinion of the camaraderie you’ve witnessed in trail racing?
I was pacing my family member Steven in a 100 mile race in 2014, and I was not prepared for the terrain of the race and developed bad muscle cramps. Steven went ahead, and I slowly climbed a steep hill, requiring many rest periods to settle the cramps. Many, many runners stopped their climb, and asked if I needed any help. I let them know I was a pacer, not a runner. Even though I was not a runner, they were willing to share their food, nutrition, etc. I wanted to hide in the rocks- but they saw me struggling and reached out to me and that alone was uplifting.
What advice would you give to a fellow runner who may be hesitant about entering a trail race?
I would encourage people to give trail running a try. Start with a 5K, 10K and move up. Your times will be slower than road running and definitely keep your eye on the trail, I have fallen many times.
People often reward themselves after a hard trail race. What is your post-race indulgence?
Chocolate milk is a great post-race indulgence for me. I do not typically have an appetite, but chocolate is divine.