Vanessa Runs Interview/ The Summit Seeker Review
Ultrarunners are a rare and endlessly fascinating breed of runner. Not content with roads, unsatisfied by the constraints of a normal marathon, ultrarunners take to the trails to push their bodies to limits beyond the limits most people think they have. An ultra is normally characterized by a running event whose distance exceeds the normal marathon of 26.2mi. A short ultra might be 50k (31mi). An average one- 100mi. But unlike a normal marathon, run on the road, ultras take runners up, over, around, and through nature. Not only is the distance daunting, but when running on trails athletes have to cope with drastic elevation changes (for example, the Hawaii HURT 100 includes 24,500ft of cumulative elevation gain and 24,500 ft of elevation loss over its 5 laps), unpredictable weather making already high-skill ground even more treacherous, and wildlife, on top of being focused on nutrition, staying on the trail, and making checkpoints on time. A 100 can take as long as 36 hours so expect to be running those same tricky, root-riddled trails at night with only a headlamp and a hand light as your guide as well.
Vanessa Runs has written a book called The Summit Seeker about her journey into this world that is in turns inspiring, heartbreaking, and life-affirming. She tracks her life through her running, digging into her past to find out why she runs, what makes her push so hard, and what that says about her. Pulling no punches, Vanessa attacks her story honestly, with the same intensity she uses mountain goating up the Grand Canyon. You’ll read about her early childhood and her emotional honesty will have you feeling as close as you’ve ever felt to a writer. You’ll cheer her through her first runs, and the way she writes about how it feels will make you want to put in a bookmark and get on your shoes. When she decides to leave all that that is safe and familiar to buy an RV and become a running nomad you’ll wonder where she gets the strength and courage. You’ll struggle up slippery trails alongside her boyfriend and her dog and you’ll confront a mountain lion after hours of hard running.
There is a joy in Vanessa’s writing. A pureness of spirit that embodies what the philosophy of a runner should be. When Vanessa writes about those who finish Dead Last and the respect she has for them, you’ll understand what it is to be a true athlete, and how that can and should translate into all facets of life.
This is not a book for only ultrarunners. In Vanessa’s words, “It’s a book with broader appeal that non-runners, road runners, marathon runners, or 5K finishers can all appreciate. I say it’s about ultras, but really it’s about life, transformation, and renewal.”
She agreed to exchange emails with me so we could delve deeper into how she thinks about running, her motivations for writing the book, what running goals she has, what it’s like living in an RV, and the mindset of someone who looks at 100 miles as journey to be undertaken and enjoyed.
The Summit Seeker is available on amazon.com in kindle and paperback.
Dirtbag- Your book, The Summit Seeker, is a very personal story. You are extremely open and honest with the reader. While writing it where there times when you thought you were being too vulnerable, exposing too much of yourself? Where there things that were in the book that you eventually decided to take out for personal reasons?
Vanessa- Actually the opposite was true. I worried I had shared too little. There were so many stories I left out that had a powerful effect on my upbringing, but didn’t directly relate to running. I wanted to maintain the running thread because I feel I’m still too young to write a true autobiography. In many ways, I’m only just now starting to live on my terms. But out of all my current life experiences, I shared less than 10 percent in the book, and I worried I had done some injustice to my memoirs. I’m very eager in many ways to share the “other” stories, and I suspect that some of them will bleed through into my other books. Vulnerability and exposing too much are things I no longer fear.
Dirtbag- How do you train? Do you follow a specific plan or do you run how you feel each day?
V- I don’t do well with plans. I did follow a plan for my first 50K, but even then I ran a marathon the day after my first ultra (not in the plan!). My running career pretty much consists of doing all the wrong things with great success. I jumped from running 50Ks to running a 100-miler. I had run four 100-milers before I ever ran a 50-mile race. Once I had a couple of 100s under my belt, I wasn’t eager to adopt a plan. If I ever want to drastically improve my times, maybe then I will consider “training”. At this point, I know I can finish a 100 with the base that I have, and I’m content with that. I love running, but I don’t like being told what to do.
Dirtbag- In the book you talk about your heritage making it easier for you to run in the heat. Are you going to be searching out more challenging cold-weather races? Is it about the level of difficulty of not only the distance, but the environment? Are you conquering the trail or becoming part of it?
V- I don’t really think of cold weather as challenging. I did run through several Canadian winters, so I’m not worried about cold or snow. I just prefer the heat. I seek out challenges more in terms of terrain, elevation, and distance. Weather does play a significant role when a storm hits, but so far that has only happened to me on training runs.
I like to think of myself as becoming part of the trail. I once wrote, “How can a mountain goat be afraid of the mountain? It is his home.” I want to run like the mountain goat.
Dirtbag- Is there fear when you’re running, not of failing but for your life? You talk about the encounter with a mountain lion out on the trails. Did the loss of Micah True shake you up on a personal level outside of losing a respected member of the running community? Could it happen to me-type questions.
V- Quite the opposite. It was sad to see Micah go, but my initial reaction was, “I hope that happens to me someday.” I want to die doing what I love, not laid up in a hospital somewhere. I live a wild life, so a death in the wild is fitting. To me a greater tragedy would be a slow and sedentary death. The goal is not to live longer, but to live better. I’m not afraid to die on a mountain, but I’m terrified of a life wasted in a cubicle.
Dirtbag- When you’re doing an ultra are you more concerned with racing or running?
V- It depends on the race. I’m not a lead runner, so I’m never racing to win, but sometimes I do want to race to beat a previous time, push my own limits, or beat one other runner in a friendly competition. Other events I’d rather pace with friends, chat with the volunteers, or fool around on the course. To me the beauty of running is that you don’t always have to run the same way or with the same goals.
Dirtbag- What is your dream race? There are ultraruns all over the world. Do you have a To Do list, and what is at the top?
V- I don’t have a specific dream race, but rather places I want to run. I’d love to run through Central and South America, and the PCT from Mexico to Canada. I want to run in Alaska this year—there are several races there, but the event itself is irrelevant. I just want to run long in Alaska, even if it’s just me in the mountains. If I had to choose one race I still haven’t gotten to, it would be the Copper Canyons Ultramarathon in Mexico because of its history and because all my friends are there every year. In second place would be Fuego y Agua, a 100K in Nicaragua.
Someday I’ll knock out San Diego 100, Hardrock 100, Angela’s Crest 100, and I’m registered for Zion 100 next month.
Dirtbag- Many ultrarunners say that completing the extreme distances those races require is more about mental toughness than physical. Do you agree? What do you think makes you so mentally tough? While deep in a race do you try to stay present or do you left your mind drift to a happy place?
V- I’m a firm believer in the power of mental toughness. It’s not so much that my suffering growing up made me mentally tough, but rather it put these races into perspective. No matter how low I feel during a race, it’s nothing compared to what I’ve already fought through. And nothing compared to what good people suffer everyday, with no buckle to show for it. With that perspective, I can count myself blessed and continue running.
Dirtbag- Do you believe anyone can do an ultra?
V- I believe anyone who wants to finish an ultra, can. But you have to want it.
Dirtbag- The ultrarunning community seems like a close knit one, is this true? Is it bigger than most people realize, are there more ultrarunners out there than the general running community realizes? Or is it very niche and small? And would you like to see it grow in popularity? On one hand, greater exposure possibly means better purses at races. On the other, it means more crowded trails.
V- It’s definitely growing, and that’s exciting to see. However, it’s still much smaller and close-knit than marathon running. I don’t think ultrarunning is for everyone, but I would love to see everybody try at least one ultra. The act of accomplishing something that seems so physically daunting is extremely rewarding.
I do want to see it grow in popularity, and I don’t think crowded trails will be an issue. The trails I love to run are the most remote and rugged ones I can find, and we mostly run during work hours. I don’t foresee any crowds at the top of a 14,000-foot mountain in the middle of a Tuesday, no matter how popular ultrarunning becomes. It’s a very, very big world with countless trails. When we do see congestion, it’s from mountain bikers and hikers. You only see swarms of ultrarunners at a race.
Many ultrarunners do not see race purses as a positive development in the sport, so there’s some debate on that. The concern is that the ultra will become too large-scale, and turn into a marathon spectacle with fiercer elite competition as opposed to the grass-roots community that it currently is. Today, a lead ultrarunner will stop to chat with you, help you, or even change your car tire.
Personally, I have a lot of hope for the future of the sport. I don’t think purses will damage it. For every race that introduces a purse, another one springs up that is more like a hippie party weekend than an athletic event. Ultimately, those are my type of races.
Dirtbag- Thinking about your choice to leave your job and your life behind and venture out into the unknown, most people would call that brave. Do you think you are being brave? Did you feel like you had a choice, or was this something you had to do?
V- I definitely had a choice, and this was a good one. I have been homeless before, not by choice, and compared to that this was the easiest, most secure, and most reasonable thing to do in the world.
I never considered myself to be brave, although most people do seem to worry about things I would never consider, so maybe my mind just works differently. In my mind, you do what you love and the rest will fall into place. It has always worked out that way for me, and I don’t question or fear the details. I know that no matter what we go through, it will never be as bad as what is already in my past. Perhaps it’s that perspective that makes me “brave”.
Dirtbag- What is your typical week in the van like? Do you do a lot of traveling or do you and Shaky mostly stay in one area?
V- It varies drastically. Sometimes we stay in an area for weeks, and sometimes we drive for days straight. That’s the beauty of our lifestyle—we’re free to follow our whims. Most days we end up at a trailhead. Here we spend the day running, doing yoga, reading, writing, and playing with the dog. In the evenings we usually seek out wifi if we’re not in the middle of nowhere.
Dirtbag- What is the hardest part of the nomadic life you’ve chosen for yourself?
V- It’s very challenging to convince people that it’s actually not very hard, and certainly attainable for anyone who wants to live this way. We are a very fearful and skittish species.
Dirtbag- Where are you answering these from? How long was your most recent run?
V- We’re driving to Papago Park, the meeting point for an Arizona group trail run. The run is this evening, but we thought we’d hang out at the park all day until it was time to run. We’ll do the usual there—play with the dog, practice some yoga, read, and write.
My last run was only 2 miles up a hill, and the one before that was 13 miles up to Tom’s Thumb in Scottsdale, Arizona. I try to train with as much “quality” miles as possible, so the tougher the climb, the better. I’d rather do 2 miles of strenuous climbing than 10 miles of easy, flat running.
Dirtbag- If you had to point to one or two athletes, ultrarunners or otherwise, who have most inspired you, who would they be? Why those people?
V- I didn’t come into running with any role models. When I started to run, I didn’t know any other runners. The ultrarunners I know now are people I met on the trail doing the same thing I’m doing, rather than people I admired from afar. So my heroes are the people who run by my side and buy into my crazy antics—my boyfriend Shacky and our awesome dog Ginger. There are many talented runners out there, but I mostly admire all the people who show up to run 100 miles with no chance of winning, fame, or glory. Just because the trails call to them.
Dirtbag- What was the goal when you sat down to write the book? Is there something you hope the reader comes away with?
V- Yes, I hope the reader is inspired to go after whatever it is he is truly passionate about it. I hope she starts to revolve her life around those passions. These days we’re pressured to seek balance and moderation, but sometimes a little obsession and specialization makes life much more enjoyable, and contributes to society on a greater level. What if Einstein had spent as much time on art as he did on science? What if DaVinci had tried running as much as he painted? The world would have lost the fruit of their passions. Always do what you love and the rest will follow.
Dirtbag- When you describe running in the book the reader gets a sense of joy. Has running always been a joyful experience for you or did it happen slowly over time as you felt yourself get stronger?
V- It started off as a form of stress relief, then transformed into a way to burn off anger. After that, it became a joyful experience and the joy hasn’t changed since then. It took about a year for running to become a true joy and celebration. But I needed it just as badly when I was angry and sad. I don’t think getting stronger is what made it joyful. There were just things in my life that I had to work though, and running gave me the courage to do that.
Dirtbag- What is the most joyful experience you’ve had running?
V- Running the Grand Canyon. The enormity of the rocks and the redness of the sand overwhelmed my senses. The Canyon makes you feel very, very, very small. And incredibly grateful.
Dirtbag- What’s next short term? Long term?
V- We’re headed to Utah next to run Zion 100, with a pit stop at the Grand Canyon for a Rim to Rim. After that we will start driving north, running our way up to Alaska, checking out British Colombia’s trails and Yukon’s mountains. We will be in Alaska for spring, summer, and fall. After that we will head over to Pennsylvania to visit a friend who has property there. We’ll be spending the winter with him and helping him tend to his farm, chickens, goats, and fish. After that we may be heading into Canada to wave hello to my family there. By then it will be 2014 and we’ll pick the next adventure: possibly a PCT thru-hike, or a run/drive across Canada, or even traveling through Central and South America.
Thank you again to Vanessa for taking the time to speak with me. The Summit Seeker is available at amazon.com in kindle and paperback. I strongly recommend it to athletes of all levels and persuasions.