WeRunFar Profile: Nancy Hobbs

An in-depth profile of trail runner Nancy Hobbs.

By on February 16, 2016 | Comments

Sometime in 1995, Nancy Hobbs sat in a meeting as a representative of a small running company based in Colorado. At the time, Nancy had been working at the company as the administrator in charge of bib numbers, timing, and public-relations issues. The meeting was a focus group, bringing together members of the running world: media personnel from publications like Runner’s World Magazine, tech gurus and sales reps from brands like Adidas, and race directors from all over the country.

“While we were meeting, we talked about an article that had come out in USA Today about trail running and the association they had quoted was the American Hiking Association,” she said. “We all agreed that our sport needed a voice.”

In a nutshell, she said, that voice became the American Trail Running Association. In 1996, the organization, nicknamed ATRA, took on a simple mission: to represent and promote trail running. Since then, Nancy’s aimed to make the organization a voice for both the trail running community and for her.

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Nancy racing in Bend, Oregon. Photo: Michael Scott

Nancy began running in a time where hiking and running were intermixed, and women were passed by men without acknowledgment. In the 1980s, women’s trail and ultrarunning was still a new thing, with the percentage of women racers well under 10 percent at big-name events. According to Nancy, the problem was not the lack of women, but more the lack of support for women by the men.

“We ran with men, we were mentored by men,” she said. “But, at the same time, in races, men would not always be supportive and would often pass us on the trail just to get in front and then make it difficult for us to pass them back.”

Though this situation may not be too, too common, women have mentioned in online messages and within the book Daughters of Distance by Vanessa Runs that there are some men who still use the phrase ‘getting chicked’ in a negative way.

“I think there are still men who don’t want to get chicked, but more importantly ‘people’ don’t want to lose to anyone, male or female,” she said. “It depends on how competitive someone is.”

The community we see now, the one where people are drawn in for the friendliness, support, helpfulness (the list goes on and on), was not the same one Nancy felt years ago. For one, Nancy believes that men are more supportive, and the negativity expressed when a woman passes a man is no longer felt. However, some women didn’t even support other women getting into the sport, she admitted. Was it more competitive? She cannot say, but Nancy says you can look around during races and see that is not the landscape anymore.

Nancy may have experienced the negativity, but never took it personally. She saw the lack of women and low levels of confidence as a major problem in the sport’s growth. A problem she set out to resolve.

Nancy was originally born in Bloomington, Indiana but traveled frequently as a child since her father was a professor of accounting and finance who taught in many different schools. She lived in Pennsylvania from the age of six to 18, then moved to New Zealand for nine months while her father was on sabbatical.

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Nancy working at the Pikes Peak Marathon and Ascent Expo. Photo: Robert Yerex

Now, at 55 years old, living in Colorado and traveling often for her job as the executive director of ATRA, she has visited over 30 countries, including many European destinations, Australia, and her favorite place to return to, New Zealand. She has spent time on the East Coast graduating from college with a degree in Sociology and returning to Pennsylvania for a Masters in Public Administration, but eventually fell in love with the Colorado Springs lifestyle.

Before running came into her life, the barely-five-foot tall, 100-pound college junior was invited to be the University of New Hampshire’s coxswain for the crew team. While dryland training with the team, her coach asked if she was interested in running a 10k race. “I said, ‘If I could do an eight-minute pace, then I’ll do it,’” she said. “I don’t remember the time, but it was under eight minutes!” Eight months later and still running, Nancy realized she was “bitten by the bug.” Her first marathon was in Denver in 1989, in which she ran seven minutes under her goal of four hours.

Since, she has run about six marathons. Her longest run ever has been 28 miles, a number she has no desire to increase. “I have crewed ultras but I am not 100 percent sure my body will allow me to run over a marathon, especially now,” she said. “I toyed with it, of course, but I really have not thought about it.”

Instead, Nancy sticks to shorter distances and every year makes it her goal to compete at the World Masters Mountain Running Championships. The race is usually between an eight and 10k and changes location every year. This year, it will be held in Italy and includes what Nancy specializes in, uphill terrain. “I ran 32 races in 2015 and hope to run at least that many in 2016,” she said. She has competed in this race for the last six years, coming in second place in 2015 after having a strong training year. “The girls in the race are super strong,” she said. “I knew I had to go out hard. It was good and I felt fulfilled. It’s nice when you put in the work and get the results you want.”

This year, her training will again focus on hills, and with her 13-month old puppy, Crimson, speedily running next to her, speed workouts will be taken care of. She strives to cover 35 to 40 miles a week, with speedwork twice a week and lots of massage and core sessions. She also pool runs often, admitting, “Yes, it is monotonous, but extremely beneficial.”

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Nancy hanging out at home in Colorado. Photo courtesy of Nancy Hobbs.

Nancy is among the speedy masters women, a group that has risen to the top of the sport after years of battling to be acknowledged and accepted as athletes. For the last 17 years, Nancy has been the chairperson of USATF’s Mountain/Ultra/Trail Sport Council and has been on the World Mountain Running Association (WRMA) Council for the last 16 years. During her time with the USATF, Nancy helped form the women’s U.S. Mountain Running Team. “When we started the program, there were only a few of us–women–but I just happened to be one of the outspoken women of the time and ready to take on a challenge,” she said.

Nancy said she stepped up and began dipping her toes in the political waters. Though tiny, Nancy said she could be forceful when expressing her goals. “I have never been one to let my size limit my ability to get noticed,” she said. “I say what I feel, but have learned to fight battles worth fighting. I truly believe that when you are passionate about something and stand by your beliefs and messages, you can make great strides.”

I asked Nancy what it’s going to take to make more progress with women’s trail running. Women just being present, she said, is a way to help advance the sport. Being the voice needed in the boards, the committees, the meetings. Being the one to lead the running group on the weekend and invite new members.

Nancy’s goal has always been to draw more attention to the sport of trail running, and with that, helping more and more women feel comfortable on the trails. Thanks, in part, to her, women’s trail running continues to progress.

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Nancy competing in the 2015 World Masters Mountain Running Championships. Photo: Nancy Hobbs

The first women appearing in the sport were running great performances, she said. Women such as Ann Trason and Danielle Ballengee stood out as marquee names, but their results were often overlooked unless mind-blowingly stellar. She remembered how women were never “invited” to European races as the men were, and claiming any sort of race coverage was rare. “Performances came and went unnoticed, and every once in awhile an outstanding achievement did get coverage,” she said. “But you have to remember, social media was absolutely nonexistent and there were not as many trail and mountain races.”

The shift came when more opportunities were present for both men and women. More trail races began popping up and companies began acknowledging women’s bodies and preferences toward gear. Because social media and photos of women’s running groups were still unavailable to introduce more women to the sport, Nancy said the number of women just reaching out to others was a bigger help than it seemed like. That fashion changed, getting rid of the unisex clothes and allowing women runners to “run like girls” and still look like girls, she said, was a huge thing. “It was no longer an all-boys network welcoming a few ‘tomboys’ into the sport, and girls could get dirty, get bruises, could have mud on their legs, and could look good and powerful and strong while doing it,” she said.

Representing powerful women is a knack of hers, especially since she considers herself within the category. As a very driven and competitive person and athlete, Nancy is constantly on the go, whether for work-related events or trying out snowshoe racing for the first time, which she was doing the weekend I called her. (A spur-of-the-moment thing she found challenging and fun, and of course, it involved being on top of a mountain.)

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Nancy with her puppy, Crimson. Photo courtesy of Nancy Hobbs.

Whether she is running, skiing, or even just managing everyday activities, with her, and what spawned the nickname, The GU-tarian, is the constant presence of a GU energy gel. When running the Pikes Peak Marathon in both 1993 and again in 2005, she had problems eating due to stomach issues. As a matter of fact, during any run or race, the attempt at eating anything never went well, she said. Then, about 10 years ago, she discovered it: GU. “GU was the thing,” she explained. “I’ll pull one out on the plane or when I get hungry during a board meeting.” After a short pause she exclaimed, “I had one today while in the car!”

She has even admitted her obsession to GU Director of Research and Product Development, Magda Boulet, telling her how she uses the gel packets not just for training, but within her daily routine. A GU obsession? Sounds great, as I think about how Salted Caramel GU is a huge motivator in my own races. Yet, Nancy prefers just two flavors: Vanilla Bean and Tastefully Nude. “These are my staples,” she said. “I always have some about me.” The mix of carbs and sugars propel Nancy during a day of meetings, phone calls, and travel for her roles in ATRA, USATF, and WRMA.

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A little more than halfway in the Run for Rwanda race in 2013. Photo courtesy of Nancy Hobbs.

Within these roles, she was never driven by the prospect of having a job, but as a way to fulfill her desire to volunteer and help out the sport and community she loved. “I have always been a hard worker, an overachiever, a multitasker,” she said. “I see a need, and my passion is to help others. Running has been a key focus of my life from avocation to vocation, and has been the biggest influence in my life beyond family and friends,” she said.

As an overachiever, Nancy, of course, has her eyes set on big things for 2016. Her resolutions for ATRA include gaining more visibility at events, such as Western States and outdoor-retail shows and conventions. She plans on expanding the accumulated 400 memberships, which inducts members into a group where they receive magazine subscriptions, discounts on races, and chances to win free race entries. There are individual, club, and corporate memberships including running groups and race directors. The most popular feature of the organization’s website is calendar which points out over 6,000 race dates. In the future, she wants to partner and support more races, attract more memberships, and navigate the changing world of the sport.

A few weeks ago she attended a meeting with the United States Anti-Doping Agency to talk about the issue. “It is a big thing now that we have never had before,” she said. “Also, there is more money in the sport, more participation, and a lot is related to the growth of the sport. It is all positive, but with that comes more responsibility and sustainability. We will continue to grow and evolve, which will result in different ways of interpreting what’s important.”

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Nancy with the U.S. Mountain Running Team in Italy. Photo courtesy of Nancy Hobbs.

In terms of support for women’s running, Nancy believes that improvements have been made and are still being made every day. Yet, equalization among women and men and among elites and the midpack is still an issue to be addressed. Nancy, again ignoring her small stature and embracing her outgoing personality, demands that everyone needs to make a noise. Nancy wants people to step up and ask, “What can I do? How can I help? What solutions or ideas do I have? What can I realistically accomplish? Who do I need to talk to? Where do I voice my concerns?” She says, “Talking about it, complaining about it without providing solutions or really getting involved is a dead end.” Nancy wants voice and action accompanying each other.

Nancy also believes that knowing the history of the sport is the key, and is something that hinders some women from taking on the task. “Women don’t know the trials before them and look at what they personally see as an affront in an instant because, in their minds, there is inequality and there is not enough being done to address their needs,” she said. It is a big topic, Nancy said. Equality stretches from prize money to recognition of top runners from first place to 10th in both genders.

“First there needs to be a discussion about where women feel inequality and we can go from there,” she said. But where to start? Women should be on boards and decision-making bodies, she said. If women want to see changes, they need to identify the solutions, find out who to talk to, and decide which battles to fight for.

And, historically speaking, women should know when events occurred, such as Ann Trason’s achievements. Who holds the world’s fastest 100-mile time for women? When? What course? Who won the female 2015 IAU 50k World Championships? Who else ran? And, in the future? Who will be toeing the line for this Western States? Will you be able to accurately guess the top-10 female finishers in the iRunFar prediction contest?

“Women should know the growth of the sport, where did opportunities start for women, what are the advancements, what are the barriers still?” she added. It is one thing to be involved in the movement of the sport, she exclaimed, but another to be a lifelong devotee and be able to back up claims. Is there a right answer to what needs to be done? Probably not, but keeping updated, through blogs, social media, running magazines, and even watching race coverage online or up close are all ways women can develop their knowledge of the sport.

Nancy epitomizes what it means to be a lifelong devotee of running, not just physically moving her own legs through the trails, but by working within the sport’s politics.

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Running the XTERRA Colorado Trail Run Series. Photo courtesy of Nancy Hobbs.

Nancy stays busy, throwing herself in 100 percent, no matter the project. One example is partnering with Adam Chase again in publishing another set of Ultimate Guide to Trail Running books. Chase functions as the President of ATRA. The first book he and Nancy co-wrote was published in 2001, and the future plan is to publish another series of ultimate guides for specific cities. The first one will be out in May, called The Ultimate Guide to Trail Running: Boulder, Colorado. It will include the best trails in the Boulder and Denver areas. From there, they will focus on Seattle, Portland, Oregon, San Francisco, and trails within the New England area. “It is a pretty aggressive schedule,” she said. “It is great to continue working with Adam in this role.”

Adding the book publications to the list of her responsibilities, it does not seem like there is much time for anything else. Sure, popping open gel packets saves the time spent on cooking, but what about free time? “I love doing crossword puzzles, especially the Sunday NY Times and LA Times editions, and I am always working on a jigsaw puzzle, the 2,000 piece puzzles,” she said. When not using her brain, she keeps up with Days of Our Lives, the soap-opera drama she has been a junkie to since 1973. But, she admits once more, she is an overachiever type, however, her “work” is not really working. It is still giving back to the community.

“I love giving back and I always have high hopes for others,” she said.

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Nancy with her mother. Photo courtesy of Nancy Hobbs.

Jessica Campbell
Jessica Campbell began her iRunFar career as an intern. A former 'swammer,' Jessica turned her passion of endurance sports to marathon and ultrarunning. She lives on the shores of Lake Michigan and works as a journalist for a small-town Indiana newspaper.