While Alicia Shay is a name familiar with track and road-running fans, it’s also a name we’re about to mighty familiar with in trail and ultrarunning. She’s easily got the fastest shorter-distance PRs among the women, with a 15:25 for 5,000 meters and 32:19 for 10,000 meters, both of which she set roughly a decade ago. In the following interview, Alicia talks about her conversion to trail running, what she appreciates most about our sport, and her approach to her first 50 miler at The North Face Endurance Challenge 50 Mile Championships this weekend.
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Alicia Shay Pre-2014 TNF EC 50 Mile Interview Transcript
iRunFar: Meghan Hicks of iRunFar, and I’m here with Alicia Shay in her first interview with us ahead of the 2014 The North Face Endurance Challenge 50 Mile Championships. Good night. Good evening. How’s it going?
Alicia Shay: Good. I’m doing really well. I’m excited to be out here and just kind of test the waters at something a little bit new and start the process of training for ultras.
iRunFar: This is about to be your first 50 miler. Fifty miles is a long way.
Shay: It’s a long way.
iRunFar: It’s a long way in a car. I know people joke about that, but it’s a long way.
Shay: It is, especially coming from a background where a marathon seems like the pinnacle of your career. When you get older, you run marathons. To me, that was kind of the stopping point of a running career. Now, it’s really strange to think about running twice that distance and competing for that long.
iRunFar: Yeah. Well, you are pretty fresh into the world trail running and even fresher into the world of ultrarunning. You have a couple ultras under your belt, but you come to us from, first the track world, and then road running. Is that a fair assessment?
iRunFar: You have some serious leg speed. There are a couple of girls in this race who’ve got really fast road marathon times, but you have super-fast shorter-distance times. I mean, 15:25 for 5k? There are a lot of dudes who would like to have that PR.
Shay: Yeah, it’s a different sport, though. I think on the men’s side, we can see that a lot of guys who have that leg speed are doing well at the longer distances, but I feel like you have to kind of get the formula right so you can bring out that… your talent in that area and have it translate to these longer races.
iRunFar: It’s a science experiment of one. It’s a science experiment within a fairly niche community where there aren’t a lot of other science experiments to go off of, right?
Shay: Exactly, yes.
iRunFar: Coming into a race of this distance and of this magnitude given that you really come from a fast, shorter-distance background, how do you wrap your head around it? How do you say, “On Saturday, I’m running 50 miles?”
Shay: I think, for me, mentally the best thing I’ve been able to do is do things in training that are tangible and kind of simulate some of the same feelings I might have while I’m out there. So, doing longer long runs and just being on my feet for that long gives me a lot of confidence. When I think of doing a 50-mile race, I think of the intensity of a 10k, competing really hard from the gun, and I can’t even fathom that. When I break it down, Well, you’re just out there doing a really long run, and at some point you turn it on and you start competing. So in training, just doing that where I’m out there and I can simulate the feeling of, Okay, I’m four hours into a run and this is what it feels like. Okay, at least there’s less uncharted territory going into the race, if that makes sense.
iRunFar: What are a couple examples of confidence-building and mind-building workouts you’ve done. Obviously every workout is a physical-building workout, but what things do you do that have given you confidence in Saturday?
Shay: I would say the two things that give me the most confidence is running with guys in Flagstaff. 1. It’s hard for me to keep up with them, so it pushes me. 2. We have a lot of guys in town who have a lot of experience. I’m just kind of always gleaning things off of what they say or how they train or what they do when they’re out there on the trails, even watching their footwork or their mechanics. That’s helped me a lot. I haven’t felt like I could safely do really long, long runs, so what I’ve done is…
iRunFar: Safety from a health perspective to avoid injury?
Shay: Yeah, I don’t want to get injured again. I want to race. What I’ve done is I’ve just taken what might be… say, I decide on a weekend 45 miles, and I’m going to break that up into two days and do a back-to-back long run so that I’m going into the second long run with loaded legs and try to run faster on that second long run. That’s kind of been my staple confidence building workout—the back-to-back long runs. Then we have such a great tool in Flagstaff with the Grand Canyon. Getting in there and descending down to the canyon and having to climb out, it just really wears you out in a way that’s hard to do on regular rolling trails. That makes me feel really good. I can feel myself getting stronger and stronger and having those adaptations.
iRunFar: The world of trail running is just not even the same species as road running and track. Is that why you decided to experiment with this type of running is because it’s so different from your history?
Shay: I think it’s just I gravitated more towards trail and mountain running because I had such a long period of time where running was kind of taken away from me and I just physically could not run even 30 minutes. As I kind of slowly healed over the years and got a lot of medical attention, once I was stepping back into running, I just really felt like an ownership over, like, This is mine; I’m going to make it how I want to. I’m going to make this in a way that brings me joy and satisfaction and just pulls the best part of “Alicia” out. No longer was it going to a track and banging out repeats by myself running in circles. It was being in the places that inspire me like the mountains and on the trails and with my friends that were gravitating towards trail and mountain running. I just found that with my personality, I just needed something that was, I use the word “raw,” I don’t know how else to explain it—just me out there in the mountains inspired by what I was doing. Yeah, I had this moment of like, I should be doing this. I should be doing what all my old friends were doing, what my old sponsorships were, where my talent lies. But then my heart was telling me, Nah, I want to be out on the trails. I want to do it my way this time around.
iRunFar: It’s interesting because you went to Flagstaff originally to train with a bunch of fast road and track runners. Maybe it’s, in part, the natural environment of Flagstaff that drew you off the track.
Shay: Absolutely. I think that that’s very true. I started finding a lot of peace in the mountains. The peaks around Flagstaff and the red rocks around Sedona right south of Flagstaff and the Grand Canyon… yeah, I just kind of naturally gravitated towards that terrain just for my own emotional healing. I’d gone through a really hard time in my life and being outside in the woods was like therapy time for me. Then all of a sudden that started to mesh together with my physical abilities to run and it’s a beautiful thing for me. I’m really grateful that I kind of found my niche. I had people that encouraged me to kind of fit into that. They could see that from the outside.
iRunFar: I think what I hear you saying is that, in addition to it being the natural world around Flagstaff, it’s the community, too.
Shay: Absolutely. We have an incredible running community in Flagstaff that I even hesitate to say the words “running community.” They’re just people who run, but they’re my family. We’ve been through a lot together. I always refer to people like Rob Krar or Mike Smith or some other people around town, like those are my brothers. They’ve just really carried me through a lot. I think they’d probably rejoice in me being back to running as much as I do. I’ve seen them through their struggles, so it’s a beautiful thing when you can find friends and community like that. We’re just even more lucky that that happens to be within the running world as well.
iRunFar: When I think about The North Face Endurance Challenge races every year, it’s kind of become a bit of a trail running family reunion here, too. You get the same people coming back and big social gatherings and people who rent houses and rent out whole floors of hotels. Is it going to be a good experience? Is it going to be kind of fun to delve into that and be a part of that?
Shay: Oh, yeah, absolutely. I like it. I like that it’s… I think probably everyone is coming here wanting to give it their best and they trained seriously and specifically for this race, but there’s also kind of like a feeling of it’s the end of the year, it’s the last race, and it’s time to celebrate these accomplishments.
iRunFar: Can we please just get to the finish line?
Shay: Yeah, exactly. It’s a really unique way for this to be my first longer ultra race. I like the vibe that I feel. I think probably a lot of people run better when there’s a little bit of a lightness and celebration to what you’re doing. After all, I coach and I have a lot of athletes that get really stressed about the key race that they’re focusing on. I always tell them, “This is your reward for all your hard work. Why are you stressed?” As a musician, you practice and practice and then you go out on stage and you perform. When you go out and race, you get to show off what you’ve been working so hard for. So I like to think that this is maybe an opportunity like that. This is a year’s worth of work that people get to go out and showcase what they have and have a fun time with it.
iRunFar: Good luck to you in your personal celebration out there. We look forward to seeing you.
Shay: Thank you. Absolutely.