The Mystery of a Mountain Trail - Women Who Run
Last year, I stumbled upon a photograph of a woman running along a rocky edge. Her skin was stained with mud. Her red pony tail whipped back in the wind. The Rockies rolled and peaked in the background. Her smile was big and bright, but it was the kind of smile that doesn’t hide the grit. The woman seemed to be running for the joy and for the pain.
Last summer, Ashley Sarauer stared death in the face, taking on the Canadian Death Race, one of the world’s toughest ultra marathons set in the Canadian Rockies. The 125 kilometre course starts and finishes on a 4200-foot plateau, passing over three mountain summits, and crossing the confluence of the Smoky and Sulphur Rivers. What kind of mental and physical stamina — pure grit — would it take to summon the strength to run such a wild path? And why would she, or anyone for that matter, do it?
Awestruck, I recently reached out to Ashley. She’s not only an ultra marathoner, but currently finishing her Master’s degree in Environmental and Natural Resource Economics at the University of Alberta, blending her love for running the wilderness trails with important academic research on greenhouse gas emissions.
In this conversation with OFF GRID, Ashley takes us back onto the trails of the Canadian Death Race, opens up about what it’s like to be a female ultra marathoner, reflects on the limits of physical and mental “edges”, and shares about the pure joy of trail running.
There’s running. Then there’s trail running. How are they different for you?
Ashley: Road runners often are focused on a time, distance, or very objective goal – whereas trail runners tend to view distance as ‘rough estimates’. We go by the flow of experience. In road running, the road is often predictable: flat, easy to see ahead, with few surprises that would affect your pace and time. But trails are always varied, with curves, bends, snowfall, rain, mud, mountain bikers, dogs, and birds that distract and pull the attention. No day out on the trails is the same. One day I will stop to observe a red-breasted nuthatch, and the next I am flying down the hills without a single pause because the trails are so muddy I’d otherwise lose traction.
For me, trail running embodies a sense of curiosity and resiliency to the unexpected, the mystery of the trail.
In 2018, you ran the Canadian Death Race. Death race. That gives me shivers! How did you psyche yourself up to make that decision?
Ashley: From the perspective of psyching myself up, I found very personal reasons. Throughout certain points of hurt and adversity in my teens, I felt left in a realm of trying to prove to myself that I could achieve anything I put my mind to. When I was seventeen, I went hiking with my family and climbed my first mountain, Mount Hamel, which is one of the mountains you summit during the Death Race.
Running and mountains just somehow felt like two intrinsic activities that I was interested in – they pulled me in and I listened.
In the summer of 2017, I was dating a man whose parents were running the Death Race together. They had tried, over four years, to solo the race together, but never finished. I was inspired by their bravery to tackle something they could fail at. It planted a seed that only grew stronger as I gained more confidence in my abilities. It also became a personal mission to challenge myself, to ask myself, what are my limits as an individual? Am I defined by the struggle I have faced in the past? Or do I have so much brightness in me that I really haven’t even scratched the surface of my potential yet? Sometimes you have wake up calls that you really aren’t living out the absolute best version of yourself.
How did you prepare for the Death Race?
Ashley: Not too long after I had solidified my intentions to run the Death Race, and began gearing up for the training, James, my current boyfriend, entered my life. Big goals are nurtured by having others believe in you. With his experience running ultramarathons, James encouraged me to build my own running program. A passion for an activity morphs into your identity when you invest enough time into it. The prep for the Death Race was actually really simple. It was a gradual, consistent training which incorporated a running schedule, a strength training schedule and a sprinkle of cross-training: yoga, hiking, biking and general activity.
Where you invest your time, I believe you invest your heart – which is the root of being psyched up!
Take us onto the trail with you. What was running the Death Race really like?
Ashley: The race was incredible: grinding, intense, up-lifting, crushingly challenging, and joyful. I experienced tears of happiness and grimaces of pain. I felt hugely uncertain whether or not I would be able to complete the race, especially on my first try.
James was my crew and it was a huge bonding time for us. He sat at the aid stations in the cold for hours and waited for me to come into the final aid station at around 1 to 2 AM. He taped up my knees when they started hurting. He gave me the biggest hugs and just offered such an immense amount of support. We laughed a lot. I learned that people get you through the race, they lift up your spirits. There were so many small moments of connecting with others on the trails – little conversations and connections. So many people went out of their way to put a smile on my face. It was truly a unique and kind group of people that I met on the trails. Finishing was good, but also anti-climactic. I realized it was more about the journey. It was magical and thrilling. It expanded my perspective.
I’ve been thinking a lot about “edges” lately. Physical and mental limits. What are the challenges and rewards of pushing yourself up against those edges?
Ashley: The race is all mental. You are pushing yourself pass your physical edges, but it is ultimately a conversation in your own mind, the whole time. If you think you can’t, you won’t. It takes mental effort to continue. Your body can push through so much more than you think. The reward is that you feel strong, in the deepest sense, to push pass mental edges. The challenge of holding yourself to a higher mental standard, once you know that you are capable of it, begs the question: to what extent are pushing mental limits sustainable for a human? I still don’t have the answer to that.
What is it like to be a woman running the trails, or running the Death Race? Would you say that running has empowered you as a woman?
Ashley: Absolutely. From a physical and mental standpoint, I think there is a lot of pressure to conform to a culture of dieting and restriction so as to take up less space in the world as a woman. Counter to beliefs about running, when I started running and training intensely I actually put on more muscle mass and gained weight. I have never felt stronger in my life. I want to promote a healthy, athletic body composition for other woman struggling with body image.
I am a woman who has bruises on her thick, tree trunk runner’s legs. I’ve lost my toenails from the long-distance races I’ve competed in. I see myself as fierce and strong, and I embrace my body so much more because of what it can do from an athletic standpoint, rather than an aesthetic one.
This confidence flows into other aspects of my life whether that be furthering my leadership skills, reaching out to new friend groups, or advancing my career. I believe that athleticism and leaning into challenge can help us cultivate a balanced relationship with ourselves – particularly for women.
I feel proud to live in a generation where women can interact with the wilderness without being looked down upon. I could see how fifty years ago, overly muddy, cold, dark, wild, or dangerous activities could be viewed as ‘not appropriate for women’. I love that I can choose how I spend my time and be myself, in my all my tomboyish and feminine ways. Overall, I love that I have the freedom to run 125 kilometers in the mountains, in the dark, completely alone.
Tell me more about your research on sustainability at the University of Alberta…
Ashley: My Master’s research in Environmental and Natural Resource Economics explores the relationship between economic growth and the environment through the lens of GHG (greenhouse gas) emissions. It specifically analyzes the role that innovation (measured through research and development expenditures) has on reducing emissions in Canada. It questions the extent and rate that our research efforts are contributing to meaningful environmental change.
Do you see a connection between trail running and your academic work?
Ashley: Trail running has taught me to live more simply, and to follow a genuine environmental ethic because I am experiencing it, whereas academia can, at times, feel action-less. Trail running makes me feel like a conscious member of society. I love that my career will involve aiming for solutions to greenhouse gas emissions, but sometimes I feel that being outside, rather than sitting in a large air-conditioned room with a bunch of overhead lights, brings me closer to nature and the impetus to do more for the planet. I love that trail running encourages me to do more action and less “thinking about action”. My research on GHG emissions is important, but in my humble opinion, I feel that sometimes we tend to make the answers to environmental questions more complicated than they need to be. My thoughts can perhaps be better articulated through one of favourite poems:
The Tables Turned
(By William Wordsworth)
Up! up! my Friend, and quit your books;
Or surely you'll grow double:
Up! up! my Friend, and clear your looks;
Why all this toil and trouble?
The sun above the mountain's head,
A freshening lustre mellow
Through all the long green fields has spread,
His first sweet evening yellow.
Books! 'tis a dull and endless strife:
Come, hear the woodland linnet,
How sweet his music! on my life,
There's more of wisdom in it.
And hark! how blithe the throstle sings!
He, too, is no mean preacher:
Come forth into the light of things,
Let Nature be your teacher.
She has a world of ready wealth,
Our minds and hearts to bless—
Spontaneous wisdom breathed by health,
Truth breathed by cheerfulness.
One impulse from a vernal wood
May teach you more of man,
Of moral evil and of good,
Than all the sages can.
Sweet is the lore which Nature brings;
Our meddling intellect
Mis-shapes the beauteous forms of things:—
We murder to dissect.
Enough of Science and of Art;
Close up those barren leaves;
Come forth, and bring with you a heart
That watches and receives.
Follow Ashley’s adventures in environmentalism and athleticism - @ashsarauer