Ford Smith: Eighteen and Ultrarunning
[Editor’s Note: This article was written by 18-year-old ultrarunner and winner of last weekend’s 2015 Black Canyon 100k, Ford Smith.]
To be quite honest, anyone who finds ultrarunning is damn lucky. Being able to push farther than society tells us we can is one of the most rewarding things I’ve found in my short 18 years. My personal story of how I got lucky is something I am proud of. I used to be fat–like 200 pounds as a 14 year old fat–and I knew that the path I was going down was no bueno. I had been told by my parents countless times to lose weight, but it just never happened. Unfortunately, fad diets do not work. (What a bummer!)
Well, to make a long story short, I moved to Utah for a year. The self-esteem killer that is body fat motivated me to do something about my condition, so I started running. And the wildest thing happened, I liked it! I gradually grew my mileage, and remember the first time I ran five miles. I called my mom to brag about what I had just done and explained that I had run “five WHOLE miles.”
I fancied the trails, so I signed up for my first trail half marathon. The week of the race I was anxious, but determined nonetheless. The first race went really well, as I came in second out of about 70 runners. From there I was hooked and there was no turning back. Five milers turned to seven. Seven milers turned to 10. Within two months of that half marathon, I had signed up for a 50-mile race. Ignorance is bliss.
I live in Texas, and as such I am lucky to be a part of the running community of the Lone Star State. Don’t get me wrong, I ain’t no flatlander and am moving to Colorado ASAP (in August, actually), but I am a proud member of the Texas trail running community. The most established races are put on by Tejas Trails, an unbelievable series of events that Texans are blessed to have. Race-director extraordinaire Joe Prusaitis is the man, and someone whose friendship and guidance I treasure. As a nine-time Hardrock finisher, Joe is no rookie to tough races, and tries to make the courses as tough as possible in every race he directs (except Rocky Raccoon, because flat hundred milers are easy, duh). But in all seriousness, races like Bandera and Nueces are races that should be on out-of-staters bucket lists.
Southern hospitality extends to the trail scene, and all the people you meet are very nice. Sometimes it’s weird for me to be hanging around people twice or three times my age, but everybody welcomes me with open arms. Going back to the mantra, I’m pretty damn lucky for that. At first I thought people would not really accept me for being so young and that I had to pay some sort of theoretical ‘dues’ in order to gain older runners’ respect, but that is just not true. Some of the most meaningful relationships I have are with older runners.
The distances ultrarunners are able to cover amaze non-runners, and this is even more apparent in my friends that I go to school with. I am lucky to have a great group of friends at Austin High School. I am a part of a friend group of about 10 to 12 guys who are very tight knit. Interestingly, in my immediate group of friends, running is an understandable pursuit to about half, and to the other half it’s my weird, little obsession. To be honest, I side with the half that thinks ultrarunning is weird, because in reality it kind of is. Hold on now, before everyone throws tomatoes and rotting fruit at me, let me explain that ultrarunning is the coolest, most badass thing on the planet. But from my friends’ perspective, it’s kind of a weird thing to be doing. Running long distances through the woods, essentially naked, is not what most high schoolers are doing. Maybe that will change with time, but to be honest I don’t really care because it’s what I love to do. Anyway, I am a normal high school kid. My social life is very normal and I enjoy things outside of running. A lot of people assume that I spend my entire time running and that’s just not true.
I love competition! Seriously, put me in a mile race or a 100-mile race and I’ll bring my all. I like to run off the front, and try to drop other runners as soon as I can. Facetiously, I’d rather get it over with sooner than later. My competitive drive leads me to train hard, which leads to racing hard, which has led to some success in ultras. My first breakout race was the 2014 Bandera 100k, where I came in fifth overall in a pretty competitive field. The attention I received was a mix of unexpected, rewarding, and just plain cool. I made it on an iRunFar tweet, got an interview with UltraRunnerPodcast, and was even mentioned in Competitor Magazine all for one result I would deem as cute. Yes, cute, that’s what it was. If a 35 year old had run in my place with the same time, then nobody would be the wiser. The result was only interesting because I was 17, something I was damn lucky about. Because of my young age, I have had a fair amount of attention. My goal for 2015 is to stop running cute results and start kicking some ass. I have built a good foundation winning my last four ultras. I even ran a time of 5:48 for 50 miles recently, so I’m trying hard to leave the term ‘cute’ in the past.
I, as humbly as can be expressed, am pretty excited for my future. I genuinely think that the sky is the limit! If I can run a 5:48 50 miler today, then what can I run two years from now? How about four? These are questions that make the hair stand up on my back. Recently, to maximize my development as an athlete, I decided to be under the guidance of coach Jason Koop. I really trust what he’s doing, because he is as experienced and good as they come! Jason’s workouts are tough, and honestly not for the faint of heart. The last couple weeks felt like I was training for a 5k not a 100k, but I know that the end results are worth the hard work. Being self coached for the last year or so has been quite the trip, but I am happy that I have somebody else painting the big picture for me because my perspective isn’t that big. Going forward, I want to keep running hard. I know that someday I’m going to win big-name races, and be able to go against the best in the world. I think I’m going to be sponsored by Nike, Salomon, AND The North Face at the same time! The key is just to think big, put in the work, and stay humble. If I can stay true to those things, then I am going to be fine.
A common question I get is, “Is it safe for you to run that far?” Short answer: Yes. Long answer: Yes. Guys, I am fine. I am an adult, and can make decisions for myself. I truly think that in the long term I am not going to hurt my bones, or burn through my muscles. My reasoning is based off the countless doctors I have seen over the years and other examples of ultrarunners who started very young. My goal is to run into my nineties, because I figure that if I run until I’m 90 then I can get fat for 10 years and live to 100. Living the dream! But in reality I can’t, barring major injury, foresee my life without running long. I just love it too much! A rumor around the track in Austin is that I am going to burn out eventually, and to all of y’all, time will tell. I am very inspired by runners like Roy Pirrung and Meghan Arbogast. I know that if I am smart about running, I will be okay!
I am not 21 so legally I cannot drink. Doesn’t mean when I go down to Mexico I don’t enjoy a brew or two, but when I am not running the Ultra Caballo Blanco, I am not enjoying a beer at the finish line. This does not mean that I am any less fun post-race or that I am a little kid. It just means that I can’t be a part of the beer-drinking niche in the ultrarunning world yet. So pull up a chair by me post-race, and I’ll sip on some Ultragen while you drink your favorite post-race beer and we can both share our stories of the trail.