Catching Up with Ultra Legend Ann Trason
Saturday, January 10th, 2009
“I just wish I could go out and run every day. I think I took it for granted. I knew I’d slow down and get older, but I didn’t know there’d be a cliff.”
- Ann Trason
Last fall, I interviewed Ann Trason for a Trail Runner article about the race she and husband Carl Andersen co-direct, The Dick Collins Firetrails 50. Due to space limitations, the magazine ran an abridged version of our Q&A in its January 2009 issue; here’s the longer version of our conversation, along with the introduction:
I met Ann Trason 12 years ago, when I lived a block away from her in Kensington, California, just north of Berkeley. There she goes again, I’d tell myself each time her lean body darted by on the sidewalk. She would typically run around the corner to a trailhead, her shoulder-length straight hair bouncing with her springy stride. The short, quick cadence of her legs looked effortless yet almost antsy, as though she was impatient to get past the warm-up through the neighborhood.
When I asked around about her, I discovered an athlete in her mid-30s accomplishing unthinkable feats. To list just a few: In 1994, she set course records that still stand at the Western States 100-Mile Endurance Run (17:37) and Leadville Trail 100 (18:06); in 1995, she set a world record in the World 100K Challenge with 7:00:47 (a 6:46 pace); and in 1996, she scored another victory at Western States just 12 days after winning the 56-mile Comrades Marathon in South Africa (a “double” she repeated in 1997). She was no less than the Joan Benoit of the ultra-distance world, redefining what female runners could do and inspiring a new generation.
Trason’s unmatched ultra career began at age 24, when she entered the 1985 American River 50 Miler, having never even done a marathon. It was 108 degrees and she didn’t know to carry a water bottle, but she won—and set a course record. (Eight years later, she went back and dropped her time by an hour to establish the 6:09 course record that still stands.) Her speed and versatility also turned in a marathon PR of 2:39 in 1992. In all, she won Western States 14 times, most recently in 2003.
In 1997 we got to know each other a bit when she was recovering from a ruptured hamstring—one of several injuries, including a torn ACL, that led to multiple surgeries over the next decade. When she invited me on a short run, I felt like a girl who’s given a soccer ball and told that Mia Hamm wants to come over and kick it around.
Like the terrain she runs in, Trason’s personality can seem remote, tough and demanding. Beneath that exterior, however, I found someone who’s warm, supportive and humble. If you run by her while she’s volunteering at an aid station, she’ll call out, “You can do it—you’re just gonna love that hill!” Or if you tell her she’s been called the greatest female ultrarunner ever, she’ll shake her head, look down and say, “Nah, I wouldn’t say that. There are so many good runners these days.”
Trason, now 48, doesn’t like giving interviews or having her picture taken, but she agreed to talk a couple of weeks before the Dick Collins Firetrails 50, which she co-directs with her husband and training partner, Carl Andersen. We met at the turnaround point for the out-and-back race in Berkeley’s Tilden Park, which is at the bottom of a canyon shaped like a massive bowl and filled with oak and bay woodlands.
She emerged from a dusty Subaru Outback wearing a gray fleece pullover and looking as though she hadn’t aged much since we first met. Her light brown hair still framed her long, angular face and ruddy complexion, and her 5-foot, 4-inch body appeared as thin as in the mid-1990s, when she weighed 102 pounds. After she took a seat at a picnic table, one of her legs vibrated like a hummingbird’s wing while her fingers gathered and twirled fallen pine needles on the table. We began by talking about the Dick Collins Firetrails 50.
Q: What year did you and Carl take over as race directors, and why?
Ann: This is our ninth year … [After Dick Collins died] we were worried that it wouldn’t continue, and I really liked Dick Collins; he put a lot into the community and did a lot of races. I just thought [the Firetrails 50] should continue, and continue more in his spirit, which is more, I would say, as a blue-collar race. It’s not really sexy; it’s the kind of race I’d like to go to, where you just kind of run and have a picnic at the end, and you have well-stocked aid stations, and it’s pretty well marked—unless you have ecoterrorists out there taking down your ribbons [laughs]. In an urban area you have that problem.
Q: What does the Firetrails 50 race mean to you?
Ann: I run in these trails all the time. I only did the race once, and it was after doing a 6-week bike trip, so we got back and two weeks later I ran it, and that was a zillion years ago. Carl’s done it a couple of times. To me, if I think of Firetrails, I think of the fire that happened [the 1991 firestorm] the day after Carl took a record.
Q: You’re being a little humble—you mentioned Carl setting a record and that you only ran it once, in ’87, but you didn’t mention you set the female course record that still stands.
Ann: Yeah, I’m hoping it gets broken. I mean, it’s pretty pathetic, really. We had, seriously, ridden our bikes for six weeks, around the Continental Divide and came back. I’d like to be that young again. I mean, I couldn’t do that now. Could you imagine, at my age? [smiles, shakes head] “I think I’ll just go run 50 miles!”
Q: Does being a race director ever feel more difficult than running the race?
Ann: [nodding] Oh, I’d rather run. We get a lot of help, but there are just a lot of things that only one person can do. If you’re doing it professionally, then you have a lot of races and a better website and it’s more professional. This is kind of hokey.
Q: Tell me about the race’s namesake. Who was Dick Collins and how was he legendary?
Ann: He ran, like, 200 ultras. He was everywhere. When he started the race—this is the 26th year—he went to the park district and said, “I want to put on a 50-mile race and get insurance,” and back then, it wasn’t done. They were like, “You can’t run that far.” It’s hard to imagine now because there are three or four races every weekend that you can choose from. My favorite Dick story is I was doing this 24 hour run up in Santa Rosa on track, and it was just pouring rain. I said, “Dick, why are we doing this?” and he says, “What’s wrong with you? It’ll be warmer. Last year, it was freezing, so if it’s raining, at least it’ll be warmer.” And I was like, yeah, you know what? [laughs] I’ll always remember: I had the wrong attitude. Every time after that when I would get in a race where I was nitpicking something that you have no control over, I always thought of Dick, like: I had the wrong attitude. It rained about four inches, and there were puddles all over. I didn’t make it to 24 hours—I did the hundred [miles] and I said, “Okay Dick, I’ve had enough,” but he kept going. He was out there for 24 hours.
Q: What year was that?
Ann: Probably around ’86 or ’87. Honestly I can’t remember.
Q: Speaking of those years, a lot of people know of your winning streak at Western States, but they may not know about how you did not finish your first two times trying, first in ’87 from knee problems and then in ’88, near the finish line, from dehydration. What did you learn from those two consecutive DNFs?
Ann: Probably not to push it as hard [laughs]. To train better, not try and overdo it, and to think more. I always tell Carl, Western States is a thinking race. In a lot of ways I was fortunate that that happened, because it did force me to think more. I’m not one of these people who come out and seem always to have great races and no problems; I always had problems, some stomach issue or something that I had to battle through, which made it challenging—you just never knew what was going to happen, and I enjoyed that part of it. So, it forced me to realize that for me, to run, I’d have to do a lot more thinking out there than just running.
Q: That’s quite resilient, to come back from two years in a row of not finishing. Since ’89, have you finished every 100 you’ve started?
Ann: No, there were a couple—I had the ACL problem, which kind of killed my career. So I’d like to go back and finish the races I didn’t finish. I didn’t finish Rocky Raccoon—I didn’t know I had a partially torn ACL—and I didn’t finish Angeles Crest, which I’d like to do.
Q: How much are you running these days?
Ann: I had to take some time off; I did something with my back. I’m having a hard time coming back. I was running quite a bit—slowly, and enjoying it—I had a hundred-mile week, and I was doing a 50-mile run every month. I did that for 18 months, but then I herniated a disc in my back. We have this property [laughing, shaking head] and I think I overdid it with the pick or something. I’m just now running again but not pain free. It’s my back; I’m stiff.
Q: I didn’t know you had an ACL tear. What happened?
Ann: In ’95, I had all these problems and they couldn’t figure out what it was. So everything else started slowly falling apart. I couldn’t straighten out my leg, so they went in and there was a lot of swelling on the ACL … they removed that, and it weakened it or something, and it finally just tore completely. And even then they didn’t diagnose it right because I was so strong and they do all these physical tests…. My knee, by the last time I did Western States [in 2003], was just killing me. I knew then that would be my last year, because my knee was just—ugh. … I had three surgeries in one year, right after the race.
Q: It’s been five years since you last raced Western States, in 2003. Would you do Western States again?
Ann: I’d like to, but I don’t think my body can handle it. I need to get a lot stronger, and I have all these biomechanical problems. I’d love to do it again—I’d just love to finish it again. I love the race, I love the course—I mean, we have property on the course now, and I run on it a lot, but I don’t think my body could handle it. If it can, I’ll do it. [laughs]
Q: So what are your running goals now, short term?
Ann: I’d like to get healthy enough so I can run every day, and I’d like to get back to where I’m running a 50-miler every month. That was fun.
Q: How do you cope with that uncertainty of not knowing whether you’ll rebuild and have another comeback?
Ann: Oh, I don’t think I’ll ever have a comeback. It would be more of a survival. I mean, I’m not fooling myself; I’m a lot older. It’s more the journey than—I’d like to be able to go the distance again, I just don’t know if my body could go a hundred miles, with all the issues.
Q: Tell me more about why you yearn to go back and go the distance.
Ann: It’s just, it’s a journey. … It’s experiencing something different, and exploring. I always say it’s a life in a day.
Q: You’ve broken 20 world records during your career, and some consider you the greatest ultra-distance runner ever—
Ann: Oh, I wouldn’t say that.
Q: Why not?
Ann: There are so many good runners these days. I don’t believe in titles; I would never say that about myself. … I mean, I feel like crap and out of shape and gross and I’m like—I don’t feel like an ultrarunner. Part of the hard part of putting on this race is I just don’t feel like I’m part of the community anymore.
Q: Well, out of all your accomplishments and world records, what are you most proud of?
Ann: The consistency—that I could come out and finish Western States as many times as I did, through the different things that happened. One of the hardest ones was when Carl was running and had 15 miles to go, and he had been leading and I got there, and he was sitting in a chair and was totally white and looking sick, and I didn’t want to go out. I mean, how do you? And then the person who was pacing me was pulling me and saying, “you have to leave.” And I did.
Q: How do you think the sport of ultrarunning has changed since you started?
Ann: I’d be the last person to ask, because I haven’t really raced for forever. But there are more people [in the sport] and the standards are higher at the races. I used to think getting a T-shirt was a good thing; I mean, Dick didn’t even give out T-shirts [at Firetrails 50]. Now, they want jackets [laughs].
Q: Who’s been your biggest inspiration?
Ann: It’s kind of funny, it’s more the courses that have inspired me. I love where I’ve been, and that’s inspired me to try harder. Someone who’s inspired me is Carl. Our greatest times have been when we’ve just been able to go out running together and exploring, and that’s probably what’s gotten me to do as much as I used to do, anyway.
Q: You have a remarkable partnership. I see a lot of marriages suffer when one spouse becomes sort of a running widow while the other is on the trail. Has running made your marriage stronger, or marriage made your running stronger, or is it symbiotic?
Ann: It’s probably symbiotic. I mean, it’s hard because both of us have been injured, but then we’ll do things like bike together. We did quite a bit; we did like seven double centuries one year, and a triple—don’t do that again—but we like the outdoors; I think it’s more than just running. I mean, we spent five weeks trekking in Peru. We try and find things outdoors that we both enjoy. I’m very fortunate, because he could be a couch potato.
Q: What do you spend your time doing when you’re not running or race directing?
Ann: We have some property up in the foothills, and I love gardening. Except the bear got my garden. I started what I call my mini farm—I had fourteen 4-by-10 raised beds. A bear came in, cleaned out all my watermelons and all the corn, and it was pretty hysterical. The first year it’s funny. Next year, I’m getting an electric fence. I’m serious, I can’t go through this again.
Q: At least the bear didn’t break into your house.
Ann: Yeah, well, I’d rather it get in the house because we spend more time outside. I’d be like, “You can have the refrigerator, but leave my corn and my watermelon alone!”
Q: Do you have any regrets about any aspect of your running career—things you would do differently?
Ann: Oh I’m sure if I thought about it I could come up with some. But now, I just wish I could go out and run every day. I think I took it for granted. I knew I’d slow down and get older, but I didn’t know there’d be a cliff. [laughs] But it goes both ways, because if you’re always happy with what you’re doing, you don’t push it so hard, so I don’t know.
Q: Do you think there will be a point when you say “I’m retired, that’s it,” or do you want to always think of the possibility that you’ll be like Helen Klein, racing in your 80s?
Ann: Oh, I feel pretty retired right now; I don’t think I’ll be like Helen, nah-uh. I don’t think my body can handle it. I’d just like to go out and do 100 one more time I guess, just to show that I could do it. But I don’t need to race. I really enjoy just running and being outside.
Q: Do you have any advice for other ultrarunners about staying healthy and running for years to come?
Ann: Well, I’m probably the last person to ask. Just come back slowly. I always tried to do too much, too quickly.