A Balancing Act: A Conversation with Taylor Nowlin

A profile of American ultrarunner, Taylor Nowlin.

By on October 19, 2023 | Comments

While for many, competing at the highest level in 50-kilometer to 100-mile trail races doesn’t sound like something that can be done alongside working 12-hour shifts as an intensive care nurse, Taylor Nowlin has mastered the art of moonlighting. After her second consecutive top-10 finish at the Western States 100, I caught up with her to find out what drives her, and how she manages to balance two such demanding careers simultaneously.

Taylor Nowlin grew up outside Portland, Oregon. The child of running parents, she was influenced from a young age to partake in the sport, and has been running since middle school. She had an active childhood, and said: “We did a lot of backpacking and snowshoeing as kids so I think I just naturally gravitated toward running. But I was also super into soccer. So, I would always be bouncing between the two.”

In college, Nowlin took up steeplechasing, which she competed at for five years, saying: “I loved that, it broke up the monotony of running in circles around the track. I love the obstacle course aspect of it.”

Taylor Nowlin - Steeple chasing in college

Taylor Nowlin (center) steeplechasing during college. All photos courtesy of Taylor Nowlin unless otherwise noted.

After college, she moved to Crested Butte, Colorado, where she first became aware of trail running as a competitive discipline. She also took inspiration from a well-known Crested Butte resident at the time, saying: “Stevie Kremer lived there, and I did a couple of local races and I saw her at them. She was an amazing ski mountaineer and runner, and I think she was the first person I really idolized in the trail running world.”

Once Nowlin had gotten a taste for trail running and become embedded in the community, she started to push out the distances. In 2016, she took on her first ultra, the Golden Gate Dirty 30 Mile, placing third. She ran a handful more ultras that year, but was also drawn to more technical running and, the following year, took on the U.S. Skyrunner Series, and won.

By 2017, while Nowlin had built up to the 100k distance, placing third at Sean O’Brien 100k, she hadn’t yet considered going further — when she accidentally secured a Golden Ticket to the Western States 100 through a second-place finish at the 2018 Lake Sonoma 50 Mile. The now two-time Western States 100 finisher laughed, and said, “At the time I had zero intention of running 100 miles ever. That just seemed like a really long way to go.” Nowlin turned down the ticket at that time, but continued to grow in confidence in the 50k to 100k distance range.

Taylor Nowlin - 2018 Lake Sonoma 50 Mile

Taylor Nowlin climbing her way to second place in the 2018 Lake Sonoma 50 Mile. Photo: iRunFar/Bryon Powell

In 2018, she moved to Flagstaff, Arizona, to study nursing at Northern Arizona University. In this popular trail running hub, Nowlin found herself right at home, and fate (or forest fires) led to her setting a fastest known time (FKT) on one of the most iconic routes in the world — the Grand Canyon Rim-to-Rim-to-Rim — breaking a record set by Sweden’s Ida Nilsson just one week prior.

Nowlin said: “I was actually training for The North Face 50 Mile Championships and just focusing on that, but then the year that I was planning on doing it, California had really bad fires. So, I needed something else to do with all that fitness, so that was when I ended up doing the Rim-to-Rim-to-Rim FKT. Other people obviously had the same idea!”

Having qualified as a nurse just at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, Nowlin took up work in an intensive care unit, at the same time as being signed to adidas Terrex as a sponsored athlete. “So, it was my first year as a nurse, my first year with adidas, and a pandemic, all at the same time.” Said Nowlin, who to this day juggles her blossoming running career alongside full time work as a nurse. In the early days, the COVID-19 race cancellations were a blessing in disguise for Nowlin, who said:

“I basically took a year off running. I trained a little bit but nothing serious. And then the year after that, I started bringing competitive running back into the picture. And I think that [time away from racing] really helped me balance the two. It made it a little more gradual.”

Still being self-coached, Nowlin struggled initially with balancing her training in a reasonable way alongside the physical and mental demands of her work, saying: “I was definitely adjusting to the new schedule. Nursing was 12-hour shift work and I, at the time, was working days and nights alternating, which is so hard on the sleep schedule. I was training in a way that didn’t really take that into account.”

In later years, as she has gained experience and also started working with a coach, Nowlin has adapted by scaling back the volume of her running, and factoring in 12-hour days on her feet as part of her training. She said, “Some days [alongside working a long shift] I will do a short easy run, like two or three miles max. Some days I’ll lift, or just do some yoga in the morning. A lot of the days I just don’t work out at all. It kind of took a coach telling me to feel ok with doing that.”

Taylor Nowlin - training at home in Spokane

Nowlin training in Spokane, Washington, which she now calls home.

By 2021, Nowlin was very much in her comfort zone at shorter ultras, placing second in the Speedgoat 50k that year, as well as top 10 in the OCC — but a curiosity was growing for longer distances. She said: “I have a lot of adidas teammates who are into these longer distances. I just wanted to see how I would handle it and how it would feel. So, it was mostly curiosity. And I think I was just ready to try something new and challenge myself in that way.”

With this in mind, she set about pursuing another Golden Ticket for the Western States 100, starting with the Canyons 100k in 2021, where she finished eighth. Early the following year, she targeted the Bandera 100k, but it was not meant to be. She said: “I got a really bad stomach bug but decided to start anyway, which maybe with hindsight was not the wisest choice.” She didn’t finish that day, but was ready to go again the following month at the Black Canyon 100k, where fourth place on the day was enough to secure her Golden Ticket.

In preparation for her 100-mile debut, Nowlin’s simple strategy was to run as many miles as her busy schedule allowed. She said, “I didn’t really do a lot of speedwork, just focused solely on volume. And I’m happy with how it turned out. I remember feeling like I had a lot of endurance, but maybe I wasn’t as fast as I used to be with that style of training.” Nowlin stormed her debut, finishing in seventh place in a time of 18 hours, 46 minutes — earning her automatic qualification to the following year’s race.

But she wasn’t done yet for 2022, and had another big goal for the end of the summer — the 100k CCC. She found the recovery from her first 100 miler to be somewhat harder than expected, saying: “At that point having never done another 100 miler, I honestly expected to be able to take a week off after the Western States 100 and then jump back into my training where I left off — and to be able to create an epic, more mountain-specific build between that and CCC. It was quite shocking for me to find out that I was not feeling ready or capable.” She shifted her focus to recovery, incorporating more easy runs and hiking into her training throughout the summer, and only truly felt recovered when she arrived in Chamonix, France, in late August.

Taylor Nowlin - Chamonix August 2022

A training run in Chamonix, France, before the 2022 CCC.

The 2022 CCC women’s race was exceptionally competitive, and Nowlin found herself having to adjust expectations mid-race. She recalls: “I had memorized some of Abby Hall’s splits from the year prior when she absolutely crushed it. I roughly knew based on the shape I was in, and how she had run that race, that I would be roughly there in that ballpark. I had assumed too that if I could run something close to that time that I could maybe get on the podium. I remember coming into Champex-Lac [halfway], and I was running a little bit ahead of her splits. I was shocked when I learned the position I was actually in. I think I was still somewhere in the teens.”

She continued, “I remember having to reset my expectations. Because for me, I was running a great race, but compared to the field I wasn’t in podium contention. That was an interesting mental hurdle to get over.” Nowlin crept up the field in the second half, ultimately finishing ninth, and said: “I think it was a good run, I’m still really proud of it.”

When the calendar flipped to 2023, Nowlin’s attention was again turned to the Western States 100. This year, with a little more confidence in her ability to cover the distance, and the help of a coach, her training looked very different to the previous year. She said, “I ran a lot less miles, but I had a lot more intensity in my training. I was much happier also in my personal life, because I had more free time to do things that weren’t running.” The new approach worked well, and Nowlin finished in sixth place, taking more than an hour off of her previous finishing time.

Taylor Nowlin - 2023 Western States finish line

Taylor Nowlin is greeted by her husband, Chris, at the finish line of the 2023 Western States 100.

Although it hadn’t been part of her original plan, when after the Western States 100 Nowlin had an opportunity to race UTMB, she found it too tempting to turn down, saying: “I just figured I’d give it a shot.” She found herself to be not sufficiently recovered though and didn’t finish, saying, “I think I was still pretty physically fatigued and also maybe emotionally not ready to show up again and dig deep. I think for something like UTMB that event deserves a lot more respect than I could maybe give it.”

Looking forward, although having proven that competitive 100-mile racing is something well within her scope of talent, Nowlin feels more drawn to shorter distance ultras. She said: “I’m definitely interested in dropping back down in distance, to somewhere between the 50k and 100k distance, and focusing on that. I think this year especially, working with a coach who really values more speedwork, I remembered how much I enjoy feeling fast and getting some more leg turnover.”

In terms of her dual career, she has no intention of sacrificing one for the other, and said: “I feel pretty strongly that I don’t want to run full time. I get a lot of satisfaction out of my work as a nurse. It brings me so much fulfillment in life. I’m always trying to find the perfect balance between the two and I think there’s a lot to be said for taking longer periods off from nursing so I can focus on running, but I don’t want to give it up.” She also has longer terms plans to advance her career by studying anesthesia.

So, while her running career continues to go from strength to strength, it will still only make up one side of Taylor Nowlin’s rich life story.

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Sarah Brady

Sarah Brady is Managing Editor at iRunFar. She’s been working in an editorial capacity for ten years and has been a trail runner for almost as long. Aside from iRunFar, she’s worked as an editor for various educational publishers and written race previews for Apex Running, UK, and RAW Ultra, Ireland. Based in Belfast, Ireland, Sarah is an avid mountain runner and ultrarunner and competes at distances from under 10k to over 100k. When not running, she enjoys reading, socializing, and hanging out with her dog, Angie, and cat, Judy.