An Interview with Anna Frost
Anna Frost packed in her bags in 2005, left her beloved New Zealand and hopped on a plane for Europe. The year previous, at the World Mountain Running Championships in Italy, she had what many call an epiphany: this was where she belonged, adventuring and traveling amongst the mountain runners and racers of this world.
Eight years and countless victories and course records later the adventure – and the learning that comes with it – continues. I caught up with “Frosty” for a little chin-wag as she has a little downtime back in New Zealand before another full-tilt season.
iRunFar: Anna, let’s start at the beginning. What’s your earliest memory of being a kid in New Zealand? What was life like for the young Frosty growing up. Did your tenacious side reveal itself early in your life?
Anna Frost: I think the old photos say it all about my kid life. We were very active… camping, walking, fishing, climbing trees and of course traveling to Papua New Guinea, Australia, and the United Kingdom.
iRF: You have mentioned that your main activity when you were growing up was field hockey right? This is obviously a team sport while your running career is almost primarily a solo pursuit. Despite this, has there been anything that you took from those early years playing hockey that has served you well in running?
Frost: Yeah hockey. Hockey taught me a lot. How to train, work, play, communicate and travel with groups; how to push through the pain of the ball indented into your shin or eyebrow; how politics work (or don’t work) in sport. I also gained strength, speed, agility and endurance during all those years running up and down the field. And all of that I use today, because I don’t feel running is a solo pursuit. In every race I am surrounded by like-minded people. We are all there together… we are going to run the same way (as long as we don’t get lost), with different aims and reasons, but with the same passion. Running. I am incredibly lucky to have my Salomon family there to share the tears, blood, smiles, hard work and celebrations with.
iRF: Your love of mountain running came later, but did you experience the New Zealand mountains much as a kid or teenager? Camping trips, tramping with friends or family? Was there a fascination there from the beginning?
Frost: Yes, my family loved going away in our old blue Bedford bus to mountains and lakes which I loved. The schools in New Zealand are also very proactive in the outdoors so we would go away on camps every year where we would do three-to-five-day hikes (tramps as we call it in New Zealand), kayaking, mountain biking, horse riding, rafting, climbing and more.
iRF: Sounds lovely! So moving on, Anna, you start university in 2000. What were you studying? In other words, what did you want be when you grew up?
Frost: I studied physical education, getting a bachelor of physical education majoring in sports and exercise science and professional studies. I then did a post-graduate diploma of secondary teaching. I didn’t really know what I wanted to be or do… but I knew I loved sports so that was the answer. I love teaching, too. I find it extremely rewarding and fun being able to play sports all day.
But actually when I was a little girl I wanted to own a pig farm. I liked pigs so I wanted to bring them all to my farm so I could save them all from being eaten.
iRF: Haha. So there’s a chance in the future that there will be a New Zealand 100-miler organised and sponsored by Frosty’s pig farm?
Frost: Yes, for sure. You have to find and save a wild pig from the native bush and carry it to the finish. And if you win you get to keep the biggest one found. And I’ll keep the rest at my farm.
iRF: Great concept, I’m in! So it is at uni’ that your focus shifted to training and competing in some running events; steeplechase, cross-country and also triathlon. Tell us a little bit more about the very beginning of your running life. You were obviously pretty good, even then?
Frost: I started running at school, in cross country, track (1500 meters to the 3k) and a few small triathlons just for fun and, to be honest, to get out of the classroom more often. When I went to uni’, I was running more on the track, road (10k to half marathons) and continued with triathlon.
I also tried some trail races in the area and really loved the elements that the mountains threw at me. I remember falling over in a big muddy puddle face-first and cutting my shin quite badly. I was winded and struggling to get up… then two guys just ran past, grabbed an arm each, pulled me to my feet, and told me to get going! That was it. The elements were there to test; it was all part of the game. I loved it! I giggled the whole way to the finish! I sometimes won, I was often on the podium but I was never disappointed. I just loved to compete and challenge myself.
iRF: Fantastic, so you qualified for the 2004 World Mountain Running Championships in Sauze d’Oulx, Italy with a fourth place at the 2004 New Zealand Mountain Running Championships but you must have been training in the hills before that event? When did you start actually running in the mountains?
Frost: Well, I have lived in Dunedin since I was a little girl. It is just hills. Everywhere you go, you have to go up and down. I live at the top of a big hill. All the runs are on hills, so with the combination of hockey and all the other sports I played at school and uni’ like rowing, touch rugby, triathlon, cross-country skiing and squash, I was naturally strong.
iRF: Your trip to Italy was the real beginning of your love affair with, not just mountain running, but also traveling and the whole mountain culture, right? What is it you felt, what got into your blood that had such a profound effect?
Frost: I had found a passion… I don’t know what that feeling is… happiness, freedom, contentment, peace, joy, a feeling of belonging. I wanted to be there and explore, and I could see that there was a way to do that through mountain running and the people involved.
iRF: So going back to New Zealand after the Italy trip then, was it full-on ‘time to start saving for traveling’ until you hit the road the following year?
Frost: I went back to teaching sports/PE and outdoor education for a six-month period to save some money and as soon as soon as school was out, I was jet-setting back to Europe with no real plan just my backpack, tent, stove, summer dress and running shoes.
iRF: Did you learn much from the World Mountain Running Championships as far as your own running and competing was concerned, racing in that international environment?
Frost: To be honest, I was a little bit blown away. I learned that there was a wonderful group of people involved. I saw magnificent landscapes. I felt the excitement, nerves and adrenaline that a race like this creates. And I loved it all. I wanted to see it again to learn more. And I am still learning every day.
iRF: So 2005, you pack up and head off traveling, racing in Europe and then becoming involved with adventure racing in the UK for Inov-8. It must have been a pretty exciting time?
Frost: It was incredible. I packed my tent and stove and just went. And when I found somewhere nice I stopped. I walked and ran and raced when I came across races. When I moved to the UK, I began doing more adventure racing with the Inov-8 team. It was really fun and another way to explore your own limits and then jump right through them. There was a lot of screaming, cuts and bruises throughout those adventures across Europe.
iRF: And what was that brought you to the UK in the first place, certainly not the weather? And how did you become involved with Inov-8?
Frost: I came to Wales to work with a New Zealand company called Full On. It was working with teenagers from America to motivate, challenge and broaden their horizons. It was a huge learning curve for me too, about who I was and where I wanted to go. I loved the mountains of North Wales; they are extreme, they are rough, they are dangerous and they are luring. I met an incredible bunch of people who remain extremely special to me and so it was easy to stay.
Inov-8 approached me after the World Mountain Running Championships in 2004. They were looking for a female to sponsor and I loved the confidence and support that their shoes gave me, so I signed up. From the fell-running scene we also did adventure racing, which I love and had an extremely fun time adventuring the UK and Europe with the teams.
iRF: Your nomadic lifestyle has pretty much continued since then, a pretty consistent eight years of travel, racing and all the learning that comes from such a way of life. I have to ask, you must be pretty good at packing at this stage?
Frost: Oh my gosh, yes! A 10o-liter/23-kilo duffel bag, one hand luggage and I’m good to go!
iRF: But seriously, you seem quite philosophical about learning from not only the successes but also the failures, injuries and bad times too. It seems to have served you well on your journey so far. Do you think you have changed much since you first hit the trails on that trip to Italy? If you had the chance to meet the younger Frosty, what advice, if any, would you give her?
Frost: I have certainly developed, changed, learned and experienced a lot since then. My goals and races have changed, but I continue to learn and challenge myself. I don’t think I could have given myself any advice because 1. I don’t know if I would have listened, and 2. I think it is a learning game. You have to learn from mistakes, from the steps backward. However, I do believe that we need to share and talk about our issues. There are a lot of people out there willing to help and share but for some reason, especially women, feel like they are on their own.
iRF: We can talk a little more about that later, but I’d like to talk a little about racing. Your development seems to have followed a very organic course. Your early mountain running was mostly uphill short course. You then moved onto marathon-distance sky running races, then your first ultra – The North Face Endurance Challenge 50 in San Fran which you won – and a few more 50-milers in 2011 and 2012. It seems like your development has been a process of osmosis, just soaking up the mountain-running culture and finding new challenges, would that be about right? Or did you have a secret master plan?
Frost: Yes you are right, it has just developed through interest, support and being intrigued to go further, for new challenges. I never thought I would be doing ultra races, but I have loved the learning and the places they have taken me and the people I have met along the way.
iRF: So the next logical (or illogical) step would be a 100-miler? You didn’t get a Hardrock 100 place but any other 100-milers that you have your eye on for 2013?
Frost: I am really just stuck on the Hardrock 100, but I know to qualify I am going to have to do a 100-miler. I am thinking about Diagonale des Fous – La Reunion for this year, and then that might get me into the Hardrock 100… at least to the lottery. I also like the look of the Wasatch 100 in Utah so maybe that will be 2014.
iRF: Who is your dream support team for your first 100-miler? Who would you most like to have running beside you for the final 20 or 30 miles?
Frost: Wow, that is a tough one. I still find it hard imagining even myself at the final 20 or 30 miles of a 100-miler. I have got so many wonderful running buddies… I would love to have them all there. I don’t think I would mind who it was. As I know they would all want me to get there as much I wanted to get there.
iRF: You joined the Salomon team in 2009 and have become an integral part of their International Trail Running Team. You affectionately call them your ‘meandering family.’ How did you first get involved with them?
Frost: A very good friend of mine was the team manager for the Salomon UK team. And when he told me they had a spot to go to the Everest Marathon, I said I was in. I raced for the UK team for two years and then I left the UK to tour with the ‘meandering family.’ I could not have done what I have done and been where I have been without all of the support and encouragement I have been given from them over the last four years.
iRF: Can you tell us a little more about the Everest Marathon? You went there when you heard they had a spot on the team and then you go and win it and smash the women’s course record, a record that still stands. There must be some good race and trip memories there?
Frost: It was a heartwarming place, a place that I will go back to time and time again. The people have so much love and kindness to share when they have so little else. The huge mountains make you feel tiny. They remind you that you are tiny, that Mother Nature is inspiring. She is creative. She is more than any human can ever be. The villages are filled with life. Chickens, dogs, children playing and laughing, cooking on the street, jewelery bazars, coloured prayer flags leading the way. Yaks and their shepherds, dust, bright flowers, strong rivers, rickety old bridges. Huge mountain passes (5200 meters altitude), snow and sunshine. It is incredible.
The race was tough. Tough to breathe in the thin air, tough to run over the technical terrain. And tough with a sprained ankle only 8k into the race. I decided to continue. I didn’t want to get a yak ride out. In the final 10k, I realised that if I only just kept upright and kept on running at my pace I would break the record. And just then a yak butted me to the ground. With blood, tears, dust and snot all over my face and hands I shuffled on to the finish. It was extremely empowering passing the women’s refuge. They were so proud of my effort. I was the first non-Nepalese and fifth overall. I was ecstatic. The ankle was pretty much buggered. It was huge and black and I could no longer stand on it. But the chocolate cake and coffee was always going to help with that.
iRF: Speaking of Salomon, this summer you spent quite a bit of time around Annecy and the Salomon headquarters, working on amsecret project. Can you reveal anything about the project? Can I make a few guesses and you can tell me if I am warm or cold?
Frost: I was helping the Salomon apparel department to develop the women’s range. I like to be involved with the R&D [research and development], because I like to design and feel feminine when I run… I’m not sure when we will get the see the results… But when we do it will be a treat for all the girls out there!
iRF: I want to talk to you about Transvulcania. I think your ‘race report’ was one of the best things I read on trail running last year. It comes across less like a report on the race and more like a description of an intimate relationship. Seems like you didn’t just train for that race, more like you lived and breathed the trails. Tell us about your time on La Palma.
Frost: It was incredible. I felt at home. I spent six weeks living on that island. I ran on the trails, swam in the seas, shared energy and pain, blood and beauty with nearly every inch of the mountain. Everything worked for me on the day. It wasn’t physical and it wasn’t mental. It was emotional. I felt so in touch with the race, that I didn’t have to think about the pain in my legs, I just knew I would get there along with the mountain spirit. It was a very cool feeling.
iRF: Very cool indeed, so will you be back this May or need I even ask? What other races have you planned for 2013?
Frost: Yes I’ll definitely be back. Maybe for three weeks prior this year. Apart from that this is my initial race calendar:
- March: Salomon and international friends road trip in New Zealand
- March: Tarawera 100k, New Zealand
- April: Salomon Advanced Week, Utah
- May: Transvulcania, Canary Islands
- May: Zegama Marathon, Spain
- June: Trail du Colorado, La Reunion
- June: Mont-Blanc Marathon, France
- July: Ice Trail Tarentaise, France
- July: Speedgoat 50k, Utah (?)
- August: Telluride Mountain Run, Colorado
- August: TransRockies Run3
- August: Pikes Peak Ascent or Marathon, Colorado (?)
- September: UROC 100k, Colorado
- October: Diagonale de Fous, La Reunion (?)
- November: Stage race (?)
- December: TNFEC50, California or Kepler Challenge, New Zealand
iRF: Everyone agrees that the sport is going through a transition toward a more professional set-up. You are in the firing line so to speak. Is there a feeling amongst the athletes that things are changing? Have you noticed many changes?
Frost: Yes we can see and feel the changes. There is a huge growth in the sport which is great for our general health and well being. However, when a sport grows, so do the political aspects. It is going to be a battle throughout our sport to keep it pure and simple. To maintain our mountain running spirit. To keep the essence of our sport alive. And that is going to take everyone in the sport from runners to race organisers to sponsors to really understand what their aims are and make sure they are not distracted from what running is really about.
iRF: So you are the eternal nomad, but of all your travels, all the countries and mountain ranges you have seen, is there one place that you just thought ‘you know what, I could see myself settling here?’
Frost: New Zealand is always going to be my home, my roots. I would love to settle there, but there are so many beautiful places to adventure… So even if I do settle in New Zealand, I’m not sure it will be for long.
iRF: Of course, your life of running, racing and traveling hasn’t all been plain sailing and in 2011 and 2012 you succumbed to Female Athlete Triad, a hormonal imbalance that can result in various symptoms and problems, in your case stress fractures and bone pain. Was it case of just doing too much, Anna? What have you learned from it and how have you approached getting a more balanced body and, I guess, mind, too?
Frost: Yes, I think it was doing too much, too soon and not giving myself time to recover from one race to the next. I also got very fatigued physically and mentally from the constant travel and change. A good clean, green diet with lots of good fatty acids and less carbohydrates seems to help with my hormone balance and weight regulation. If I have these working well, then I tend not to get injured. I am also beginning to plan more time in one spot so I can find a little bit more routine. I realise that my life is not going to be balanced and I think that is an important thing to accept because then you don’t fight it trying to find it. I am happy like this.
iRF: But it must be hard to not race if you are feeling good, even if you know that it might affect you further down the line. How do you balance that?
Frost: It is hard to balance for sure. And I am not good at it at all. I do live an unbalanced life. I have accepted that and I am happy with my decision to live like that. I am learning ways to overcome the imbalances but when so many amazing opportunities are opened up in front of my eyes it is hard to say no. And this is when the body and mind can get worn out. The world is so big, there is so much to see and do, but we can’t do it all… Although sometimes I live like I am going to do it all!
iRF: So you are also quite active in raising awareness for other female athletes too, through your blog and iRunFar. Have you had a good response from that?
Frost: Yes, there are a lot of struggling women out there, and for some reason we are all quiet about it. I think from being open and honest many women have realised it is just one of those things and we should get sharing those issues with each other to help out. It is important for the younger generation of runners to have a support network from all the mistakes we have made and how we have overcome them.
iRF: You mentioned this earlier too, that it can be hard, especially for women, to talk and seek help. You yourself have been forthcoming about your own problems and have said that people are willing to support and help. So you think the culture is changing now, that it’s not so taboo anymore?
Frost: Women are definitely reaching out for more support which is fantastic. There is no reason for our issues to be taboo. There are many places to go (including my blog) where you can safely ask your questions and give your advice. More and more women are racing, competing and challenging themselves these days. We have to be more open and share, so that women don’t struggle with things that could be easy to avoid. Research will become more apparent; however, with women’s complex menstruation cycles, research can be difficult. But what we do know is women really can race hard and well. They sometimes just need some support! Ask for it girls!
iRF: You are back in New Zealand now, recharging for the season ahead. What are your goals for 2013? Have your sights set on the Skyrunning Ultra title that you narrowly missed in 2012?
Frost: New Zealand has been wonderful for some big regenerating breaths and some wonderful family-and-friend time. There are a lot of races I would like to do this year that I haven’t done already or that I want to improve my time on. I am not focusing on a series title, but if I manage to get through all the races needed for the series then that will be an added bonus. I am just grateful that I am running and I look forward to racing hard with all of the wonderful and dedicated racers out there!