This interview was originally published in USATF Track Coach 2020 – Issue 233, the official technical publication of USA Track & Field. Track Coach and Editor Russ Ebbets interviewed Nancy Hobbs about mountain, ultra and trail (MUT) running.
Nancy, what is your current position within USA Track & Field?
Chairperson of the USATF Mountain Ultra Trail (MUT) Council.
Can you briefly describe what differentiates mountain from ultra from trail running?
I’ll start with the easy one; ultra is anything over 26.2 miles. Focusing on mountain and trail secondarily and defining these two disciplines is a bit of a tougher nut to crack. While mountain running is typically defined by surface (non-paved), and elevation gain, a mountain run can be on a road/paved surface if it has significant elevation gain. Trail running is defined by anything off-road (non-paved) and can also be defined with elevation gain and also loss. Keep in mind that many trail and mountain races, although primarily “non-paved,” may have segments of paved surface getting to and from the trail, or to spread athletes out as they make their way to the trail. Also, there can be segments in trail races where pavement (even cobblestones, brick, sidewalk, steps), is present—especially in ultras on the international level— if the event goes through villages, or towns on paved terrain getting to and from an aid station, or to and from a trail connection. The surface of a trail can be anything from single track to double track, dirt, grass, rocky terrain, sand, gravel, and more. There can also be natural obstacles such as downed trees on a trail, rocky outcroppings, exposed or covered tree branches and roots, etc. The difficulty of a trail race or mountain race is often categorized by cumulative elevation gain, surface, altitude at which the event is held, and weather conditions.
Is there much crossover between the disciplines? Or does one tend to specialize in mountain v. trail, for example?
Yes, absolutely. Many athletes come to trail from a track (steeple is a good entry into the sport due to the constant gear changes and obstacles), cross country, mountain biking, or ski mountaineering background. And likewise trail runners often cross-train or cross over to the aforementioned.
What about “seasons?” Are there set times of the year when one discipline is conducted or are events held throughout the year?
Throughout the year, but many trail, mountain and ultrarunners cross-train in the winter months on snowy trails possibly snowshoeing, skiing, or ski mountaineering.
How did you get started in mountain, trail or ultrarunning?
My career in the sport has included trail running since the 80s. I was involved in race management which included some events on trail starting in the mid-80s. Internationally, in 1995, I wondered why we didn’t have a women’s team at the World Mountain Running Trophy (now the World Mountain Running Championships). Long story short, I cobbled a team together and we competed in our first international mountain championships in Edinburgh, Scotland. That was the start of the women’s team and led to my involvement on a broader level both domestically and internationally especially on the administrative side (although I have been competing on the trails and in the mountains as well, though not at an elite level).
From a historical standpoint, when did MUT get established within USATF?
In the late 90s. What is now a council, first started as a sport committee, but always under the long distance running (LDR) umbrella. We have tried to increase the association involvement over the years. It was a slow start, but each year we have more and more associations including trail, mountain, or ultra running in their portfolio. We have grown nationally with championships and also have seen an increase in association and regional championships. Our budget went from a mere $750 to over $90,000 in 2020. It has been a long process…and we still have a long way to go, but we have done a lot with a small group of very dedicated and passionate individuals.
What are some of the current marquee events? What type of numbers do they draw?
There are both national and world championships and encompass elites, to mid-packers, and those going after age-group recognition. There are also World Masters Mountain Running Championships held annually for any athletes 35- 79. The event typically is held in European mountain towns, or over the fells in the United Kingdom.
As many as 1,000 masters athletes have participated and run and scored with their 5-year age group. There is also team competition within the nations and athletes do not have to be nominated by their federation, or run a selection race…all are welcome and the event fields elites to weekend warriors.
On the other end of the spectrum, there is the U18 International Mountain Running Youth Cup (pictured below) for athletes ages 16-17 in the year of competition. Typically 15-18 teams participate in this international event pitting nations against one another over a 4-6-kilometer course. The World Mountain Running Championships has both a classic distance (typically 8K for juniors age 16-19 in the year of competition; and 12K for seniors) and long distance (typically 36- 42K). The Trail World Championships have been alternating between 50K one year and 85K the next, but the schedule is changing on the international level.
In both the mountain championships and trail championships 30-45 countries participate. The teams for these international world championships (U18; mountain; trail) are decided by the national athletic federations. Due to limitations on trails, the numbers are often restricted in domestic and international trail and mountain running events. Having said that, there are mountain and trail races that draw in the thousands (a few domestically, most international).
Eating on the run can be its own art form. What are some of the most common foods ingested? What makes for a good foodstuff on the run? What are some no-no’s?
Everyone’s tummy is different, but, rule of thumb hydration, electrolytes, easily digested calories. On shorter runs, say those under one hour, hydration is probably the main consideration so as to not get “dehydrated,” and to also have a quicker recovery. On longer runs, other nutrition will be added from solid foods to gels and bars, again, depending on what the stomach can handle. Oftentimes, bland foods like boiled potatoes, crackers, and bagels are good—I call it the “white” food group. Adding things like citrus, acidic foods, and colorful foods often lead to GI distress. But again, everyone copes differently with food. Sometimes also flavor fatigue sets in if one focuses on say one flavor of gel for an ultra. Mixing it up seems to work well for many people. Again, recovery being a key ingredient in any training. This means hydrating, fueling, rest, stretching, and core work.
How much calculation goes into the amount of food eaten during a race? What metric is used—calories/hour, calories in the food, ease of digestion or are the runners finely tuned enough to “know” when to eat and when to stop?
I’m not a nutritionist and would rather defer to one for this question. I will say that everyone is different and one needs to fine tune their nutrition training just like they do their physical and mental training. It all comes together for a great balance. One of the key takeaways is to not wait until you are thirsty to drink, or hungry, to eat. If this depletion happens, it is often too late in the run or race to play catch-up.
What about pre-race meals? Carbo loading has come back into favor, but that fuel can only last so long in a four to five hour (or longer) race.
Everyone is different, again, I’m not a nutritionist. I would say avoiding alcohol or caffeine pre-race makes good sense as these can be diuretics, but again, each athlete has to know their body and what is best for their engine.
Are heart rate monitors allowed during the race? What about other electronic monitors that can give individual feedback? (altimeters, GPS, wrist phones allowing communication with one’s base, etc.)
Yes, but in USATF national championships, runners must adhere to the rules and regulations governing the discipline.
Support crews are no doubt critical. What and who make up the support crews for a runner in a MUT race? Are they different for the different disciplines? What would be some of the job descriptions?
Oftentimes it is friends or family members who serve as aid station crews and typically for ultra distance events. Having said this, sometimes aid stations are very remote so participants in races can check in drop bags either the evening before a race, or in the morning of a race depending on logistics. Being prepared with hydration and fuel and apparel (i.e., be prepared for the weather as it is and what it may become) is an individual responsibility as well as reading the course map in advance and having a pretty good idea of what is entailed in the course—terrain, distance, elevation, tree cover, exposed areas, etc.
A support crew can include those who help with fuel resupply, massage, helpers to change out shoes and socks, and tracking where the athlete is in relation to the field. As well, mental support in terms of motivation and communication is crucial for long distance efforts.
Some support crews also include “pacers” or “mules” who can join a racer after a certain distance (in a 100 miler, this could be at 50 miles) and help pace the athlete as well as carry fuel and hydration and even extra apparel. There are rules in national championships at ultra-distance prohibiting “pacers” and “mules.” There are safety runners allowed in events, but there are rules surrounding how far the “safety runner” must be from the participant.
Are the rules different for support crews for the different courses (I’m thinking here point-to-point v. loop courses). Who makes the rules for this support—does it come from the USATF Rulebook or are there international rules from World Athletics?
On the national level, it is pretty much specific and directed by the event. Internationally, a different story. The aid stations are very restrictive to key race personnel supporting from the national federations—typically only one or two people per nation. There are also rules when an athlete can have aid. Not on the open course, but within (usually) 100 meters before and aid station and after an aid station.
What is the controversy for a trail runner using hiking poles?
Not really a controversy, each individual event/race director must make a determination as the rules allow for the sticks in trail and some mountain races (although poles have not been allowed at mountain classic distance events). Some of the considerations for a race director may include: are there areas of the course or times during a race where hiking poles/sticks are not allowed; if a runner starts with poles, must he/she carry them the entire way; if one picks up poles at an aid station, must they be carried to the next aid station? Collapsible poles may be the best alternative and, in some trail races there is mandatory gear required by each competitor like headlamp, safety blanket, jacket and wind pants with taped seams, first aid kit, cell phone, and yes, even poles.
Chronic overuse injuries must be rampant. What are some of the injuries frequently seen? Are there any tricks or prevention or care of these injuries?
The issues seen by road runners, from IT band strain to lumbar issues and plantar fascia, may all be potential injuries of overuse, or improper balance, favoring one muscle when another is weak, etc. For trail running, add in issues related to falls, ankle or knee sprains and various other “tweaks.” One of the items I think is great for trail and mountain runners on challenging terrain or gnarly downhills is to wear gloves. It is very challenging to pick out rocks and gravel embedded in one’s hands after a fall. Gloves don’t weigh much and have protected many a hand or finger from dangerous tumbles. Trail and mountain runners should incorporate strength training, flexibility exercises, balance exercises and core work into their regimen.
MUT is very international with worldwide competitions. What are some of the countries that have embraced this discipline and excelled at it? What are some of the international events that have become “destination” events that a MUT runner would like to compete in at least once in his/her career? (I’m thinking Comrades Marathon in South Africa and the like).
Italians are amazing technical trail runners and speed demons on the downhill. Likewise for France and many other European countries to include Norway (amazing climbers), and the UK (amazing downhillers). Germans and Austrians are also traditionally very good climbers. UTMB is a favorite and bucket list for many as are the many races in the point system to gain access to the crown jewel. The point system set up by the International Trail Running Association (ITRA) includes races all over the world. Skyrunning events are also very popular internationally and are often on runner bucket lists as well. There are so many iconic events internationally complete with history, flair, and scenery to inspire.
Who governs the world championships? Is it World Athletics or some other entity?
World Athletics—both the International Association of Ultrarunners (IAU) and the World Mountain Running Association (WMRA) under the umbrella as patronized events—via the WMRA for mountain and to a lesser extent trails which is presently via the IAU with technical partner in ITRA. But logistics and governance is evolving with the growth and breadth of the discipline. Skyrunning is governed internationally by the The International Climbing and Mountaineering Federation (UIAA).
Long distance endurance racing has a storied history in the United States from the 100-mile races in the old Madison Square Garden to the runs across America during the Depression. How much of that history is generally known or talked about with the competitors of the MUT disciplines?
Some people know the history very well, others not so much. It is great when books or articles come out in the press to celebrate the history.
Are there any mythic figures from the sport’s past? Or is there much discussion about events like the Bunion Derby from the Depression era?
People seem to be very interested in the present following stars like Courtney Dauwalter, Kilian Jornet and Jim Walmsley among the list. But, there are certainly iconic figures who have paved the trail, so to speak and continue as mentors in the sport. Individuals like Pablo Vigil, Jay Johnson, Matt Carpenter, Dave Dunham, Anita Ortiz, Ann Trason, Magdalena Boulet among them.
MUT competitions seem to be a natural for the movies and books that can romanticize the subject of running, internal struggles, overcoming obstacles, etc. Is there a short list of movies or books that you have enjoyed?
I love the Salomon videos and many brands are doing some great video coverage and with the Trail Running Film Festival, more and more short and longer-format films are coming out about events, athletes, and FKTs (Fastest Known Times).
People like these and there are quite a few. Part of it is the challenge aspect, for sure. Virtual now is rather popular. Motivation comes from comparing performances and Strava has had a lot to do with this (and other GPS tracking devices and activity tracking platforms as well).
Ted Corbitt has to be one of the early legends of the sport. He was from New York City and I remember reading that he routinely ran around Manhattan Island two times in one day. Are there any other early men of women who produced outstanding or legendary performances?
Matt Carpenter’s Leadville record and his Pikes Peak record are amazing. Kim Dobson’s Pikes Peak ascent impressive. There are many outstanding performances in Ann Trason’s historic career, and more recently Jim Walmsley.
Who are some of the current stars in the different disciplines?
As mentioned above Walmsley, Dauwalter, Joseph Gray, Max King, I could list quite a few here! The website iRunFar does an excellent job of showcasing performances. A great resource to follow the sport and its athletes is the American Trail Running Association (ATRA). Magazines focused on our sport include Trail Runner magazine and UltraRunning magazine. To check out a comprehensive calendar of events, visit ATRA’s website with more than 8,000 events dating back to 1996 and also UltraSignUp.
Recovery—what are some of the recovery strategies runner’s use? How often can a runner race a 50-miler or 100-miler in a year or career for that matter?
Recovery is critical to long-term enjoyment of our sport. This includes rest, time off, and/or cross training. Strength and balance, core and flexibility should all be facets of an athlete’s recovery plan. There are quite a few great tools athletes can use to “self-massage” from foam rollers, slant boards, rapid recovery boots, balance boards among them. As well, having a goto massage therapist and physical therapist on speed dial is a good idea! Some athletes do stepping stone races throughout the year leading up to a goal race. Other athletes peak more than once in a year as they focus on certain key races. Using the one-day-per-mile-raced in a recovery plan is a good general rule of thumb, but I haven’t seen too many athletes incorporate this strategy.
Footwear—is there anything special about the footwear a MUT runner wears? Arch supports or is all this about personal choice?
With so many different options, it really comes down to personal choice in the fit, feel, and performance spectrum. Again, every athlete is different and one shoe may be better than another depending on pronation, supination, arch, width, imbalances, and more. Oftentimes lighter runners can get away with lighter footwear, but, depending on the terrain most visited, it may be worth investing in several different types of shoes. One for technical terrain that is more grippy and supportive, one for fast ascents that is lighter in weight, yet still grippy and supportive, one that is an all-around great shoe for getting to and from the trail in training that performs well on most surfaces. Shoes with a rock plate are preferred by some runners, others still like well-cushioned shoe for their ride over the rocks, stones, and tree roots. To consider: Grip, support, weight, cushion, stability.
Associative v. dissociative thought—running for long periods of time allows the mind to wander, called dissociative thought, possibly creating a trance-like state. Conversely associative thought is an awareness and regulation of one’s internal and external environment, as much as possible. Although polar opposites, both could be either positive or negative in terms of performance with one extreme allowing a runner to “run themselves into oblivion” and the other causing one to “think too much.” I see this dichotomy as a particular psychological challenge of the sport. Is this widely discussed? Are there adherents to one type of thought over the other?
I have heard of runners seeing hallucinations, or weird objects in their field of vision when they are very tired during a long run, or race, especially at night. I do think that anyone who spends a lot of time running has a variety of thoughts going through his/her head while doing the activity. It’s often a good time to ruminate over issues and consider solutions to problems I suppose, but it is very important to pay attention to the terrain underfoot. A wandering mind can often result in a lack of focus and an impending fall. One great thing about trail and mountain running is the places you can experience and the scenery and vistas you can enjoy all while getting quality time in the out-of-doors.
All sports generate inspirational stories of seemingly “average” people who have endured and overcome. But there also seems to be a never-ending group of cheaters. Of late several marathons (Derek Murphy’s Marathon Investigation technology) have “outed” numerous cheaters with irrefutable evidence documenting the cheating. What are some of the steps races take to identify the cheats?
At races, having a combination of video and course marshals is helpful, but this can’t be done on every step of a 100-mile race. GPS and live-time tracking applications are helpful not only in terms of safety, but also to insure that an athlete hasn’t strayed from the course.
What about drug use? I could see the abuse of pain killers and possibly blood doping but is there any psychoactive drug use? How strictly is all this monitored? What about things like caffeine?
This topic probably needs a separate article. There has been an increase over the years in the number of tests geared to trail and mountain runners and there have been positive cases in the discipline. Most testing has been done in competition, but is also very expensive and restrictive to most race budgets. Testing is typically performed at events on international circuits like the World Cup, or at a World Championships. The USATF Mountain Ultra Trail Council has been allotted a budget for some testing at its national championships, but only in the past two years. Out-of-competition testing has not been prevalent, again due to cost. Some athletes competing at the highest level internationally have been in the out-of-competition testing pool. Those who have won a world championship or those who excel or compete at more than one discipline like road, track, cross country could also get selected for the out-of-competition pool.
Closing statement—you can pose your own question and answer it or make a general statement of something I didn’t address?
We should always keep in mind how fortunate we are to have access to the trails we love. As such, we all need to consider maintenance—getting out with boots on the ground, or providing monetary support, or being on a parks and trails committee. Sustainability, climate action, and community should all be part of our vernacular. Many trails are being loved to death, so we all need to do our part to love our trails to health! Get involved in plogging…picking up trash while you are running. Contact land managers to report downed trees, or trail obstacles. Don’t run on trails when they are full of mud and debris from excessive rain, or snow melt. Obey “do not enter” signs at trail heads, or closures of trails due to animal migration, or erosion.
About Nancy Hobbs:
Nancy Hobbs has been running trails and directing running events since the mid-80s and her articles and photographs about the sport have been published in magazines including Runner’s World, Running Times, Trail Runner, and Ultrarunning magazine. Along with Adam W. Chase, Hobbs is the co-author of The Ultimate Guide to Trail Running; Best Trail Runs: Seattle; Best Trail Runs: Denver, Boulder, Colorado Springs; Best Trail Runs: Portland; Best Trail Runs: San Francisco. She is the founder and executive director of the American Trail Running Association, a council member of the World Mountain Running Association, and chairperson of the USATF Mountain Ultra Trail Council. She was inducted into the Colorado Running Hall of Fame in 2013. She lives in Colorado Springs, CO, but travels extensively nationally and worldwide to support and promote trail and mountain running.