Catching Up With Janessa Taylor

Catching up with ultrarunner Janessa Taylor.

By on August 17, 2020 | Comments

Janessa Taylor answers on the first ring and I’m right away disappointed. She was born in West Virginia, raised in Tennessee, and uses the @SmokyMountainRunner Instagram handle, but any traces of a U.S. Southern accent are long gone. “If I stay long enough [back home], it comes back,” she cheers, but she’s lived in Oregon for the last 17 years. She and her three kids, two boys and one girl, live outside of Bend, Oregon, and they’re an outdoor-crazy bunch.

“I was just named high-school cross-country coach,” Taylor, age 42, glows. All of her kids ran cross country last year and as they enter seventh, ninth, and 12th grade, she expects them to again. “The season’s been pushed to the spring, March and April. I guess we’ll figure it out, but it can be cold, snowy.” The Cascade Mountains are right outside. I put her on the spot for her coaching philosophy, but it’s high school and Taylor wisely circles it around balance. “I’m about the whole-athlete thing. I want to help them succeed and find their way through running, I want to help guide that journey.” She’s been an online running coach and a personal trainer for several years, but this will be the first for the school team.

Janessa Taylor and her dog, Nahla. All photos courtesy of Janessa Taylor.

Taylor was a stay-at-home mom for much of her adult life and started race directing four years ago. She brought two races into the fold, a partner did the same, and they’ve grown their business Alpine Running to what would have been nine events in 2020. The COVID-19 pandemic has cut that to an anticipated four. One race is just across the Columbia River in Washington state, but the rest are trail ultramarathons in central and eastern Oregon. The Elkhorn Crest 53 Mile and first-year 50k happened on July 25. There was no pageantry at the start or the finish, aid stations were entirely changed, and spectators were not allowed, but the event still hit its 120-person cap. Taylor promised, “it’s eastern Oregon’s best-kept secret.” It’s eastern Oregon, but not what I think. There’s 11,000 feet of climbing on the route.

She laments that the first-year Old Cascadia 100 Mile race has been canceled, but the 50- and 20-mile races are still on for October, and Run the Rock, perhaps the group’s most popular race, is a go too. Four distances up to 50 miles at Smith Rock State Park are part of that contest in November.

Taylor went to college in Chattanooga, before Chattanooga became the popular outdoor destination that it is today, and she still has family in Knoxville, Tennessee. This part of Tennessee has gotten pretty famous too. “It’s so weird to grow up there,” she pauses, “it’s just Frozen Head,” she gasps, marveling at the destination that the nearby state park has become. Taylor combines trips home with races, and won the Chattanooga 50 Mile race earlier this year, took fourth on a challenging day at last year’s No Business 100 Mile in Kentucky, and won the 2018 Chattanooga 100 Mile, among other Southeast races. She had big plans for this year too, including the competitive Lake Sonoma 50 Mile. She’s put up some fast times over the years, running under seven hours for 50 trail miles and a 16:24 win at the 2014 Mountain Lakes 100 Mile. She skips over both of those though and calls out a 16:55 win at the 2015 Badger Mountain Challenge 100 Mile in Washington as a personal highlight. “I didn’t have a pacer or anything, and it was really hot that year,” she remembered. “Orcas Island 100 Mile too,” is a fond memory in part for its timing. That win indicated that she finally felt recovered from a torn meniscus that limited 2016, and caused a drop 70 miles into that year’s UTMB.

With her three kids.

Asked about her approach, she shoots straight. “I prefer to train, quite a bit. One hundred to 125 miles a week. From December of 2019 to June of 2020, I was really training,” she says, emphasizing ‘really.’ Races are gone for much of this year, but she’s holding on to 2021. “I’d really like to break 16 hours in a 100 miler, and not at a pancake-flat one. That’s a big goal for me, I was trying this year.” As for next, “I hope to RD less, so I can race more. I’m not getting any younger,” and she hints at a Western States 100 wish. Injury wrecked a previous attempt at the race. She definitely runs a lot, and her best training partner is her two-year-old golden doodle, Nahla. “She can go 25 to 30 miles, if it’s cold,” she brags of the fur baby.

Taylor’s kids are all strong skiers, snowboarders, and paddleboarders, in addition to running, but Taylor’s other outdoor pursuit is open-water swimming. I know about open-water swimming, but she lives in Central Oregon and I struggle with the image. “Oh yeah, it’s a whole thing. A lot of people swim way farther than me. There are nighttime swims with buoys and lights.” I push on the geography, thinking that that would limit such an activity, and she pushes back. “Any lake, the Deschutes River,” she says with a seriousness that has me even more confused. “I used to swim and bike more than I ran. I’d swim 2.5 to three miles every time I swam.” The summer water’s 50 to 60 degrees Fahrenheit, and so there’s of course a wet suit involved, but in Taylor’s case it doesn’t cover her feet or head. “I cannot stay warm,” she says, and I think of course, it’s swimming in Oregon, but decide to give up any understanding on what sounds like an extreme sport.

The Southern accent wasn’t there, but it was still a lot of fun learning about the @SmokyMountainRunner.

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Race directing the 2017 Elkhorn Crest 53 Mile. Photo: Kyle Meck

Justin Mock

Justin Mock is the This Week In Running columnist for iRunFar. He’s been writing about running for 10 years. Based in Europe, Justin has run as fast as 2:29 for a road marathon and finished as high as fourth in the Pikes Peak Marathon.