Ann Trason: The Pioneer Returns

[Author’s Note: This week, Ann Trason introduced the Overlook Endurance Runs, 100k, 50-mile, and 50k races on and very close to the revered Western States Trail. She also announced that she’s offering online running coaching. I caught wind of her intentions a couple months back, and became curious. THE Ann Trason, I thought? The Ann Trason who dominated ultrarunning for decades but who stopped racing in 2004 and slowly, surely, and completely dropped off the ultrarunning radar in the years after that? The Ann Trason who suddenly popped up at races around the West–volunteering, pacing, and running–this past summer? I decided, the backstory has to be good, and I want to write about it. The only problem was that, over the last decade, Ann’s turned down almost all interviews. I am grateful that she agreed to this one.]

It’s a chilly, sunny, winter morning, and the only place I can get cell service is the porch of my house. I’m bundled up but still a little shivery as I punch some numbers into my phone. I’m nervous as hell, which might also help explain why I’m shaky. It’s mid-morning, but I’ve been awake since the middle of the night, fiddling and worrying about this interview.

It’s not often that you get to interview your idol. Or that you’re about to finally speak with someone who has twice previously declined an interview with you. The numbers I’m punching into my phone belong to the best female ultrarunner of all time, Ann Trason. She may be our sport’s greatest female athlete, but she’s as shy as they get, at least in talking about herself. Ann will later tell me that she was perhaps more nervous for this interview than I was. “I drank 10 cups of coffee in preparation,” she says.

Ann Trason - 2013 Flagstaff 100

Ann running the 2013 Flagstaff to Grand Canyon Stagecoach Line 100 Mile. Photo: Kristin Wilson

Ann Trason ran her first ultramarathon in 1985, the American River 50 Mile. She won, though she tells me during our mid-January interview that this was despite the fact she didn’t know enough about running this sort of distance to even carry a water bottle. “Someone gave me one. It saved my race,” she explains, laughing. I laugh too, and think, Even the best of the best have the same, steep learning curve.

Her streak of ultrarunning brilliance would last for just shy of the next 20 years. During that time, she won the revered Western States 100 a ghastly 14 times, setting a course record that’s only been beat once, by Ellie Greenwood in 2012. In that time, she finished second overall twice and third overall another three times. In 1995, she was tied for the lead of the whole race with Tim Twietmeyer at mile 85; Tim surged and beat her by roughly five minutes.

During those two decades, she won almost every race she entered and set course records at most of them, too, including still-standing records at the American River 50 Mile, the Wasatch Front 100, and the Leadville 100. She remains the American road 100k record holder, a mark she set at 7:00:48 in 1995. And she won a damn near miraculous double–twice, in both 1996 and 1997–the Comrades Marathon and the Western States 100, which take place less than two weeks apart on different continents.

In doing all this, she forged a pathway for women in what was then an entirely male-dominated sport. “Most times I showed up at training runs, and I was the only woman. Other women would be there as crew and support to their husbands. I wanted them out on the trails with me!”

The Field of Dreams saying goes, “If you build it, he will come.” In ultrarunning’s case, maybe it’s more accurate to say, “If Ann builds it, the women will come.” Because that’s exactly what happened. Ann and a couple other women of her time acted as pioneers–that’s the word that Ann uses–carving a trail for women through a what was then a dude’s sport.

Ann gets nervous when people talk about her race wins, course records, and two-decade-long dominance. So nervous that, during our interview, she’s constantly deflecting questions or turning them around upon me. She says, “What races are on your calendar?” and “Listening to me talk about me must be so boring.” When we finish our interview, I will have to sit on the porch for a while to let the vibrations of our exchanged energy settle out. I wish Ann could understand how much our community values her.

Behind Ann and a couple pioneers like her came first just a few women, and later, some more. Presently, ultrarunning is still male-dominated, but not so ridiculously so as during the 1980s and ’90s. In comparison to 20 years ago, women are flocking into the sport like geese flying south for the winter.

Ann says she’d prefer if the focus about her was on this, instead of on her wins and records. “Really, I was just doing what other women weren’t yet doing. That’s all,” she says.

But there is just no denying her legendary status. The trail Ann built for women to follow has been almost entirely insurmountable. There’s no woman whose results compare to the breadth and depth of Ann’s. Our community has ruminated about Ellie Greenwood as a possible modern iteration of Ann, a woman with enough talent and drive to truly push boundaries. But as awesome as Ellie is, she’s only been at ultrarunning for a couple years. Does she have 20 years worth of equitable dominance? Only time will tell.

I can’t imagine there is one ultrarunner who, after looking at her race results, would say that Ann is not a legend. She was. She is. She will always be. I don’t recommend calling her one, though. I learn this the hard way. During our interview, I ask her what she thinks of being considered a legend by so many members of our community, from those who were running ultras back when she was to all the newbies just arriving to our sport. My question is met by silence, so much of it that I think my shoddy cell service has given out.

“Ann?” I ask. “Are you there?”

When she chooses to speak, it is through quiet sobs and a flood of emotion, “That’s touching. It really is. But I just don’t see myself like that. I don’t. I’m just a woman who ran a lot.”

At the end of 2004, Ann stopped racing ultramarathons. But she was still a part of the ultra community. She was the race director of the Dick Collins Firetrails 50 until 2010 and an occasional volunteer at other races in the San Francisco Bay Area, her home. To say that Ann RD-ed Firetrails 50 is to say that the race operated under Ann’s very loving ship. Attendees of Ann’s race have said they felt Ann’s care right down to details like the aid-station cookies and soups which were all homemade, by her. Yes, all of them.

“It was like putting on a big party for your friends. Dick Collins was a mentor of mine and when he passed away, the race was passed on to me. He really took me under his wing. He wasn’t a top ultrarunner but he symbolized what ultrarunning was to me.” She remembers, “He taught me the most about attitude. He and I ran this 24-hour race and it was pouring rain. I probably wouldn’t have started, except that Dick told me, ‘Come on. Why are you complaining? It’s just rain.’ And so we ran and we had the best time. I was just jumping in the puddles. I loved it. Because of my relationship with Dick, I took directing his race to heart. That’s why my kitchen looked like a hurricane for two months every year.”

After 2010, she gave up that race directorship–passed it on–and then largely disappeared from the community, a ghost vanished to everyone but her closest, California friends. Why did she disappear and where did she go?

It seems that years of injuries finally got the best of her. Says Ann, “Well, since 1995, I had problems. Most people don’t know that, that year, I had a partial tear of my ACL that became a full tear. I ran Comrades and States all those years with an ACL tear. Can you believe it?” Later on in our conversation, Ann adds, “My mother says I’m either all in or all out with something. And she’s right.” When Ann couldn’t run much because of residual issues related to those old injuries, she dropped off the face of the ultrarunning planet.

Instead of ultrarunning, Ann went full bore with road biking, “I rode my bike for 10 years. For my 50th birthday, I rode across America in a tour. I wanted to try something new, that I knew would be hard for me. I wanted to get really out of my comfort zone.”

Ann’s time away from ultrarunning must have also been a protective instinct of sorts. So strong was that instinct that she shied away from almost any ultrarunning-related attention. Like I mentioned before, Ann had declined a couple of interviews with me, and I know other writers were also turned away. One time, she declined by saying the following in an email, “I am just not interested sorry. Not running and it is hard to talk about it. I hope you understand.”

Times have now changed, again. The Legend, er, Pioneer, er bad arse runs again. From an outside observer’s perspective, Ann’s return seems to have begun with her participation the 2013 Western States 100 Veterans’ Panel, which you can watch here. Skip to 8:30 in if you’d like to see the audience give Ann an appropriate greeting after her extended absence. What’s harder to discern in the video is Ann’s response. About that rousing round of applause, Ann tells me, “I cried–well, I cry at everything–I never understood how many people wanted me around. It felt amazing.”

For Ann, the re-entry process back into the ultra community was a gradual one. A while before that veteran’s panel, Ann started coaching middle-school track and cross country. “Those kids are honestly my inspiration.” Ann says that during the first week she was working with them, she injured her Achilles by sprinting around with them too much. “They made running so fun. They made me want to run again.” It took three months for her Achilles to heal, but gradually her running re-started.

Some time after that, Ann says she called up her old Wednesday night trail running group, a small and pretty private group of close friends which runs in the Marin Headlands area, and asked them if she could return. She says she was intimidated, “We used to run so hard and so fast, and now I am slow.” Of course her old running crew opened their arms to her.

I ask Ann why she’s re-involved herself with ultrarunning. “When I was riding my bike, I missed the social aspect of trail running, of running down the trail in this line and talking with people. In biking, there are pace lines, but you can’t really talk in them. It’s just so different. I missed the social-ness! My heart wasn’t into biking the same way that it is into running.”

After the veterans’ panel last year, Ann crewed and paced Christina Williams, a now-30-year-old woman who Ann used to babysit. After handing Christina off to her next pacer at the Rucky Chucky River Crossing at States, Ann was supposed to pace another friend, Steve Holman, to the finish. When Ann received word that Steve had dropped, she went on the hunt for someone else to pace. She found a stranger and paced him to the finish line.

Ann Trason - Young Christina Williams

Ann and Christina after Western States in the early ’90s. Photo courtesy of Ann Trason.

 

Ann Trason - Christina Williams - 2013 Western States 100

Ann and Christina before the 2013 WS100. Photo courtesy of Ann Trason.

Her participation in the ultra community has escalated from there. At the end of August last year, Ann ran the Idaho Mountain Trail Ultra Festival 100 Mile. It took her 33-plus hours. About that race, summarizes Ann, “I was in the worst shape of my life, coming back into running. But I had the best time! I never really thought I would finish a 100 again.”

About two months later in October, Ann says that race director Ian Torrence talked her into running the inaugural Flagstaff to Grand Canyon Stagecoach Line 100 Mile. “I made all the same rookie mistakes I used to. I’d forgotten how to do everything,” says the now-53-year-old. “I had really great people helping me but I was fighting those cutoffs! I barely made them.”

Ann Trason - Flagstaff 100

Ann at the Flagstaff to Grand Canyon Stagecoach Line 100 Mile. Photo courtesy of Ann Trason.

And she’s already registered for at least one race in 2014, the River of No Return 100k in Idaho.

There’s more on Ann’s plate, too, than just running. In addition to coaching middle-school running, she’s starting her own, online running coaching business. And she’s getting back in the business of race directing with the inaugural Overlook Endurance Runs, which will take place on and around the Western States Trail next September.

“I love the Western States Trail, love it. Look, I’m not a Zen master when I run, but there’s something special about that trail. Can trails be your friends? It’s a friend to me. I am excited I can help people run on it. It’s so hard to get into the Western States 100, but that doesn’t mean people shouldn’t be able to run on the trail itself.”

Ann continues, “I’m so excited about coaching and race directing. I feel like this is my place now, to help people with their running. I feel like this is my way of contributing to a community that has been such a friend to me.”

Ann Trason - Trail Work Devils Thumb 2013

Ann doing trail work on the Western States Trail after the American Fire in 2013. Photo courtesy of Ann Trason.

In her descriptions of directing the Firetrails 50, Ann describes how she let the details–of making all the food for hundreds of runners, and more–consume her. I joke with her, asking her if the same thing will happen with the Overlook Endurance Runs. She deadpans her response, “I’ll probably make the soup. But I’ve learned, there’s a reason for Costco.”

She continues, “I’m a detail-oriented person. I thrive on details. Putting together the courses was like eating candy. Getting to know and working with the agencies approving our permits is even fun. I’m honestly having a blast putting these races together.”

In her return to running, Ann says she worries about disappointing people. Her thoughts on this come out like a passionate speech on speed and aging and women in ultrarunning:

“I’m not fast anymore. I have this hitch in my step. I might always. I’ve lost a ton of my muscle. I just don’t want to compete. I don’t have that competitive side in me anymore. Like my mom says, I’m off or on. The competition button is just off now. Will people be disappointed if I’m not the same Ann as I used to be? If I don’t win races? I don’t want them to be. It kills me to think I might disappoint people. There are so many women in their fifties who are running fast. They are strong. They are beautiful. I admire them, look up to them. I feel proud that I’m in the same age bracket as them. But I don’t want to be them. I want to just run. I love how it makes me feel. I just want to be a part of the community as much as I can.”

Before I spoke with Ann, I would have described her return to ultrarunning by saying something like, “Ann’s back.” But now that I’ve gotten to know her just a little, learned a smidge of her story, I’m more inclined to say that she never left. It seems like Ann’s relationship with the ultrarunning community is like an ultra itself.

Sometimes, in a really long ultra, we’ve got to take a long break. We’re talking a nap on a cot, an hour in the chair, four pukes in the woods, some period of time where we sit things out and let our bodies and minds undergo a system re-set. After that, we get up and go again. Our speed after that reset might be the same or even faster than when we started. But more often than not, it’s a slower, more leisurely form of forward progress.

That’s the metaphor my mind now settles on for Ann. She hung out in an aid station for a while, and now she’s back on course. Ann, long may you run (at whatever pace you wish).

Ann Trason - 2013 IMTUF finish

Ann after finishing the IMTUF 100 in 2013. Photo: Tony Salazar of Tempus Photo Design

[Editor’s Note: This is the latest edition of iRunFar’s On Adventure article series, a play on words from the climbing phrase ‘on belay.’ On Adventure strives to document the raddest adventures of sport and life undertaken by trail and ultrarunners.]

Meghan Hicks

is iRunFar.com's Senior Editor, the author of 'Where the Road Ends: A Guide to Trail Running,' and a Contributing Editor at Trail Runner magazine. The converted road runner finished her first ultramarathon in 2006 and loves using running to visit the world's wildest places. For more information on Meghan and her adventures, please visit her personal website.

There are 44 comments

  1. stayvertical

    There are 3 pictures from the world of running that I love most. They capture the moment where the champion's heart shines brightest.

    1. Roger Bannister breaking the 4 minute mile.
    2. Rod Dixon winning the 1983 New York Marathon.
    3 And this one of the best ultrarunner there has ever been: http://stayvertical928.blogspot.com/2013/09/imtuf

    We love you in Idaho, Ann. Come back and see us.

    jer

  2. kjz

    I love this, Meghan. I've looked up to Ann and her focus and intensity and performances as long as I've known about ultras… (late 90's) and It's wonderful getting a peak into her story. She worked an aid station at one of the Quad Dipseas I've done and I had to stop myself from fan-girling right there in the middle of the race. Thanks for volunteering, Ann, on so many levels… for so many years! :)

  3. scottemills51

    Meghan, Truly a great article that captures the essence of Ann's character and all she's contributed to our sport. Thanks for sharing.

  4. Shelby_

    This was one of my favorite IRF articles ever. So happy that Ann is back and just running for the love of it. Isn't that why all of us run these crazy ultras? She's an inspiration whether she's competing at the front or not.

    Put those fears of disappointing anyone to bed, Ann. You're gonna get a big group hug everywhere you show up.

  5. fromsofatoultra

    This is why I love this sport. Simply awesome. And stick me down for the 100k in 2015 if the lottery gods dont go my way again in December!

  6. markymoro

    Ann demonstrates that humility and gratitude are elements of grace. Lovely interview and lovingly written article. Thank you, both.

  7. debbieloomis

    I really enjoyed this article. As a 50 something woman who does not run ultra's but enjoys the sport I find it refreshing that someone is able to return to something she loves for the love of running and for the social aspects of the sport. That is something I have noticed at races is that it does not matter if you are first or last but the interaction between the runners as well as crew, spectators etc. is amazing. Thanks for a great article!

  8. jasonhynd

    A fantastic article! I think anyone from the slowest to the fastest has to admire and look up to what she's done. No doubt Ann has faults, but the human spirit she showed and is still showing shines brightly… that's why she has so many fans!
    Of course, people are curious to see if she would be fast again, but I'm just as inspired if not more so to see that she's coming back well below her previous level of ability, but happy to run and finish hard runs as a mid or even back of the packer. We just want her to be a part of the community… just her being there makes it a better place for all of us!

  9. trailriddle

    Who among would deny her nobility? Who wouldn't defend her honour? Thank you Meghan, for letting the Sovereign speak her truth. To that I'll always be true. Diu currere, long may you run.

  10. @ultrarunnergirl

    Wonderful. Fascinating. Touching. All cliched words but I have no other to describe your writing here, Meghan.

    Ghastly! What a great adjective. I never knew it was a synonym for shocking.

    I also am filled with joy that Ann wants to run ultras again even though she's no longer fast. I'm not sure there's anything more sad than former fast runners who can't enjoy their sport anymore if they're not at their peak.

  11. Frank

    Great article Meghan. I chatted with Ann at Stagecoach and I can honestly say I fervently disagree with Ann’s statement about not being the same Ann. According to her, she may not be as fast, she may have a hitch in her step, she may have lost muscle, but I can tell you her heart is fully and unmistakably an integral part of all that is long distance trail running. She is fantastically inspiring and I was in utter awe of her cool, focused and very humble demeanor.

  12. @cherkolicious

    Great article Megan. Thank you and to Ann! Sometimes the pioneers, the trailblazers, don't realize how big of waves they're making when they're in the process of making them. Ann is an inspiration to every single female ultra-runner out there. We're lucky to have her and glad she's resurfacing!

  13. trailrunners

    If Ann reads this article and the comments, I just want to say that I have even MORE respect and admiration for you that you're just running because you love to run. People will be overjoyed to share the trail with you, even more so being able to run with and alongside you for a period. There will be no disappointment in our community to see you running along with us, only joy that you're there! I really hope to see you on the trail Ann and share it with you for a bit! I've always thought you were great and now I think you're even GREATER! Happy Trails!

  14. nrmrvrk

    Absolutely fantastic article. You’ve really captured the emotion that Ann apparently exudes. (I never knew) Reading this makes me admire Ann even more, which is apparently possible. Great writeup Meghan, a very touching article.

  15. trailfiend

    What a great partnership, Ann to tell her story and Meghan to capture it for us. Tough runner, beautiful storytelling, exemplary – thank you.

  16. BreatheThinAir

    This is fantastic! Beautiful writing Meghan and thank you for opening up like this, Ann! It's good to have you "back" :)

  17. Sarah

    I'm so glad Ann is back on the scene and sharing her stories. She has always inspired me with her strength and humility. I think she'll be a great coach to beginners and top-level ultrarunners alike. Thanks, Meghan!

  18. abqandrea

    Thank you Meghan. Ann was at the tip of everyone's tongue when I started ultras in 1997. I had the luck to see her in 1998 at Leadville, in that sub-24 hour finish at Wasatch, and then breaking several world records on the track at Across the Years that same winter. And then . . . I talked with her at Stagecoach last fall. It was everything you describe – she's emotional, passionate, and terrified of people hating her. Her "past life" reputation of being hard on pacers and crew really seems to affect her now. I told her I started ultras in the late 90s and she was one of the names you just knew and that all of us were glad she was out running again, and she choked up and said, "I can't believe anyone cares about me at all. This is so nice…. I don't deserve this." It was shocking to me to see her so visibly emotional but honestly wonderful, too. Thanks, again.

  19. KurtDecker

    Wow that was great. I have always said that in my mind Ann was not just the best female ultra runner ever but one of the best regardless male or female ever!!! In 2003 it was a dream come true to met her after I finished the WS100 and it's something I will never forget. Welcome back to the true Queen of our sport!!

  20. runlongkatie

    Thank you for this interview. Ann, you have nothing to prove. You have never and will never disappoint anyone. I have nothing but great respect and admiration for you. I'm so glad you can continue to enjoy running.

  21. Andy

    And this is the woman infamously referred to as "la bruja?!" Seems nothing could be further from the truth. Meghan, your profile portrays her beautifully as an athlete and woman of grace, humility, and generosity. As others have already said, thanks to both of you. Forget la bruja. Viva la reina!

  22. hightrails

    Ann has given to the community a very healthy influence and inspiration.She has shown to the people where a human being can reach with talent,patience and stamina to do something beyond…
    She is not so fast anymore.WHO CARES?She is back with her current speed,with the hitch in her step and whatever..She is back and this is the only thing that counts. She did what a real champion and a true ambassador of the sport would do.She came back for the love of it.
    I'm not a female but this woman have inspired me too,because in your face i saw an athlete capable to do almost anything she wanted due to the determination she had(s).
    Please.continue to give motivation no matter what.I wish healthy days on the trails.
    A fellow runner from Europe.
    Sorry for my poor English.

  23. Gzrrnnr

    Meghan – Great article! Well written and very perceptive.

    Ann – You are perhaps the best example of what ultra running was and should be. I remember seeing you at an aid station in the Quad Dipsea years ago, and even further back, winning the Sierra Nevada 50 miler. The best thing was even though you won, you hung around the finish and congratulated the rest of us when we finished, hours later. You were a class act then, and you are even classier now, whether it is finishing in the mid-pack, or even DNFing. Welcome back to the sport you never really left. Hope to see you out on the trails.
    Geezer Runner.

  24. Randi Young

    Wonderfully written. Thanks to Ann for sharing. I'm so happy that she is able to run again and is so generous in wanting to share with everyone – her love for the sport, the trails and most of all the camaraderie. Hope to cross trails with you one day soon, Ann!

    In 2012, at age 60, I returned to running after an 18 year hiatus (from racing). It is good to be home.

    Randi (Bromka) Young

  25. Mark Tanaka

    This is as beautiful and fitting a tribute and celebration of Ann's return to ultrarunning (as a runner) as I could imagine anyone could write. My eyes were tearing up. Thanks to you both for this read!

  26. orelando

    What an awesome article. Thank you for this. It's crazy to think that as a kid in South Africa in the 90s I used to sit the whole morning watching Comrades. I probably watched Ann in 96 and 97 without realising back then what a legend she is.

    This is my favourite part:

    'I’m just a woman who ran a lot.'

  27. Rachel Moraes

    I ran Ann Trason’s inaugural Overlook Endurance 50K on September 6th, 2014 and it kicked my butt. This was my 13th 50K and by far the most challenging. However, I would not have missed this race for anything. I do not know Ann personally, but I have had my hydration pack filled by her at an aid station at the WSER training runs and was in awe to be in the presence of a woman who has forged a path for women like me. I came into ultra running late in life (43) and know that I will never break any records except possibly my own and yet Ann’s humility and gratitude toward the sport of ultra running sets a tone that makes the desire to keep toeing the line deeper the more I run. Her inaugural Overlook Endurance race series was brutal in all distances, but to toe the line and run the Western States trails where so many legends such as Trason herself have run and conquered the canyons, the hills and the river, is an unparalleled experience. Despite having my butt kicked on Saturday, I will definitely be signing up again in 2015. Her race was organized from beginning to end and the “bling” is outstanding! Love my shirt, hat and glass! Thank you Ann for everything you have done for the ultra running community, for staying true to who you are and for giving us this opportunity. You did not disappoint. My only regret from Saturday, is that I did not try your famous soup. As I hobbled to my car at Overlook, I thought about going back and getting some but was too tired to go back. I’ll be back for some in 2015. Thank you Meghan for this wonderful interview.

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