“Trail Therapist” Sarah Strong’s 24-Hour RUFA Victory

Photo Above: Bobby Florio.

The fourth edition of the Running Up For Air (RUFA) Staunton trail running event was held Friday and Saturday February 25 and 26 at Staunton State Park, located 45 minutes from Denver, Colorado. This was the final event of 2022 in the Running Up For Air races, “an endurance mountain challenge that was created to raise money in support of the fight for improved air quality.”

In 2022, the series raised over $55,000. Learn more about RUFA, its mission and impact on creating climate activists in the trail running community in our article here.

The 2022 RUFA Staunton Rocks event offered three, six, twelve and twenty-four hour races. Participants completed a nine mile loop with 1,600 feet of elevation gain at altitudes between eight and nine thousand feet above sea level.

In the following article, I interview the overall winner of the twenty-four hour race, Sarah Strong, who completed an incredible ten loops. I speak with Strong about her race experience, discovering her athletic potential after becoming a mother, and her self-created occupation as a “trail therapist.”

Sarah Strong

Photo: Sarah Strong.

[TAYTE POLLMANN] Congratulations on your win. Why did you decide to sign up for this race?
[SARAH STRONG] I wanted something to work towards and I found this race. It seemed perfect. It’s local (I’m a mom so traveling to races can be challenging), and I liked the climate-change activism approach. I approach running with curiosity with what my limits are and what I’m capable of. Twenty-four hours seemed like a great way to explore that. I wanted to have a full day of running to discover my limits!

[TAYTE] Did the climate action initiatives of this race resonate with you? Was this a main reason for you to participate in the event?
[SARAH] It’s important as runners when we have a chance to engage in a race that has a civic duty angle. Anytime we can run for a good cause, that’s something we should do. We should be thinking, ‘can we do good and also run a race.’ Also, RUFA and Sufferbetter put on a great race and everyone was invested in my success and encouraged me to do another loop, so shoot out to them!

Sarah Strong

Photo: Sarah Strong.

[TAYTE] What is your background as a trail runner?
[SARAH] I have run the Bryce Canyon 100, Antelope Canyon 55K, and the Zion 50k in the Vacation Race Series as well as the Pikes Peak Ultra 50-miler. I got into trail running after I had kids as a way to meet other moms and have a social life outside of being a mother. This encouraged me to do weekend trips with my “trail sisters” and train together for races. I placed at a race and thought that if I took things a bit more seriously I could do well at this sport. In the last two years, I’ve been working with my coach, Zoe Rom, who has helped me tap into athletic potential that I didn’t know I had.

[TAYTE] You work as a licensed therapist with your own practice, Fireweed Counseling, and have combined your passion for being outdoors with therapy work in a practice called “trail therapy.” Could you describe in more detail what this is?
[SARAH] We do a typical therapy session as you would in an office (processing important events in a client’s life, learning coping skills, etc.) but we’re doing it outdoors on trails. We may go for a hike, run, or walk with their dog. Trail therapy provides all the same benefits of a traditional therapy session, but also the benefits of being in nature, moving your body and having a mind-body connection. We’re able to apply things like attention, presence and awareness easier in nature than by sitting in an office.

[TAYTE] Could you speak on the importance of mental health in the trail running community?
[SARAH] Trail running is a community with social support that allows us to support and connect with others and draw awareness to mental health. Sometimes people use running as their only coping skill to deal with life stresses. They use running to handle their stress and they don’t have any other skills for managing it. If they get injured they lose a part of their identity from running and also lose their one coping mechanism. That’s one area where trail running and mental health can be challenging. Running too much can also hinder stress management. We feel stressed and we may run and run, but running is also a stressor to our bodies. It releases stress hormones, so if we’re already stressed we could be exacerbating that stress. I’m a strong proponent of rest days once per week and focusing on eating, sleeping, mindfulness and taking care of your body to be a good runner.

Sarah Strong

Photo: Bobby Florio.

[TAYTE] What is one tip you have for a trail runner concerning mental health?
[SARAH] The biggest thing is to not keep things inside. Express yourself and talk to others. No matter what the struggle is, no one is alone. Talking about it and acknowledging it will help us heal.

[TAYTE] On your website, you also offer Race Performance Prep packages for runners. What was the inspiration behind this service?
[SARAH] Many folks struggle with the same things around races. I’d have similar conversations with clients who were having the same physiological symptoms and worries on race day. There are folks out there who don’t seek regular therapy sessions but may have hang ups around racing or could benefit from mental strategies around racing. That was the inspiration behind the Race Performance Preparation packages.

[TAYTE] Where should trail runners go if they are seeking help with their mental health?
[SARAH] I’m an ambassador with Bigger Than The Trail, a nonprofit that connects trail runners (as well as non runners) to therapy services via the online therapy platform Better Help. Many people struggle with mental health, including those of us in the trail running community, and why deal with these struggles alone? Bigger Than The Trail created a mission to help end the stigma and shine a light on mental health. We hope to bring conversation around mental health to the trail running community so you can feel more comfortable talking with running friends about this topic. We talk to each other all the time on group runs, so why not talk about these things that matter?

Sarah Strong

Photo: Sarah Strong.

See full race results from the 2022 RUFA Staunton Rocks races here.

View a list of all of the RUFA Series races.