The trails are still dark, there is dew on the fields and the early morning mist is just lifting. That’s when it happens, a burst of blonde energy comes around the corner and in a flash is gone. Just like that, back into the mist. If you were out hiking the Appalachian Trail that early misty morning and you blinked, you may have missed her.
Ashley Walsh spends hours each week and runs thousands of miles each year so she can be the runner blowing by you as you struggle your way over a hard uphill section of a trail. Ashley is an ultra runner and was the top overall female (6th overall) in the Ancient Oaks 100 miler and the top overall Female (2nd overall) in A Stroll in Central Park 12 Hour Race (in which she ran 70.4 miles). She has not always been an Ultra Runner though. In fact, she did not begin crushing it at the over marathon distance until just a few short years ago. It wasn’t until then that she had ever even heard of an ultra.
” My close friend, Beth McCurdy (from BethEats2Run.blogspot.com), introduced me to the idea of ultras when she told me she was running a 100 mile race. Once I became aware of the distances past the marathon, it was an easy step to take towards the ultra direction. I was drawn to the seemingly impossible idea of her 100 miles of nonstop running. Beth inspired me to do the same. I ran my first 100 about 2 years after my first half marathon.”
We were lucky enough here at TrailsROC to have the opportunity to interview Ashley Walsh. To give her a chance to tell us her story, and to help us figure out what it takes to become one of the top Ultra Runners around.
Not only has Ashley Walsh become the epitome of fitness and a champion distance runner, she has done so while overcoming a severe drug addiction brought on by a need to fit in and constant grade school teasing that “the new kid” always seems to endure as her family moved from school to school while a youth. She even failed phys ed 2 times because of her inability (or disinterest) in completing the running component.
So just how did a woman who once called her husband “nuts” for running to the stop sign on their street, (.7 miles) become such a dominant force in the world of ultra running? Why did that woman decide to run 100 miles? She called her husband nuts, and then she realized there must be more out there for them. It was around this time that Ashley decided that to be the mom she wanted to be, and to be the wife she felt her husband deserved that she would get herself in shape. Six months later she ran a 24 minute 5K and the rest as they say, is history.
For many of us, running, and specifically trail running is a way to kick back at the demons of our past, to pound them out on the trails and to leave them behind in a stuttering mess of mud and rock, broken and exhausted in our wake. Ashley is no different.
“Ever since I started running, I have always craved to push myself harder: faster, farther, running crazier trails and doing tougher races. No matter the way I choose to do it, I simply like to push myself past the comfort zone.”
It is leaving this comfort zone that we all can embrace what comes next, and in trail running, what comes next is typically something like a big hill or rocky creek bed to traverse. We wanted to know if what drives Ashley to run trails is the same as what drives many of us. As someone who grew up on a farm, Ashley naturally gravitates to the trails, but it’s what she says about why she does this that is the same reason many city folk do the same.
“I enjoy the sense of rawness I get when I sprint through the trees on a twisty single track. There is nothing quite like it.”
“Nothing quite like it” may be the best way to define trail running. Asphalt is asphalt. Trails are never the same, not from one day to the next, not from one season to the next. Trails are alive and it that seems to be one thing that keeps runners like Ashley coming back time and time again.
But what does it really take? What does a mother of 2 have to do in order to accomplish what Ashley has accomplished at such an early age with toddlers running around the house? The realization as she puts it is that “Family comes first”.
Many people may roll their eyes and say “there is no way you can run that kind of mileage and still say family comes first”, Ashley disagrees (as do we at trailsROC ). We each find our own ways to fit in our mileage and we each have families, but the question for Ashley is how does she do it. She ran over 6,000 miles last year. How can you do that and be family focused? Some of us literally may not even drive that far this year. So what is the rule? How does it work?
The rule is family first “It is easy to unintentionally forget this rule when you are very focused on achieving a big goal! In the past, I have trained at well over 100 miles a week. I did almost all of my running predawn before my children (6 & 4 year olds) were awake. I will do this again when I amp up my training miles this summer. I find that it is absolutely necessary to make sure that my family knows that while I like to run, I do not value running over time that could be spent with them. My actions should always reflect these feelings”
Like many of us who love to play around and get dirty on the trails, Ashley realizes we can never do this with a proper support system and in order to have that, we have to support them as much as they support us. When speaking of her family, specifically her husband, Ashley knows these races (and even long training runs) won’t happen without him, so she makes sure to be fair to his interests. Running can often seem like a selfish sport. It can be isolating. It can take hours each day. When not done with that in mind it can be polarizing. So what can you do? How do you find the middle ground?
“It is all about balance and prioritizing the most important things. Running is great, but our loved ones are much much greater! I make sure he gets the same amount of time to enjoy his hobbies in return.”
But what about the mileage you might ask? How can you be sure to not overdo it and wind up cranky, tired, or injured all taking time away from your family and friends? Ashley admits it can be a challenge, perhaps the biggest challenge ultra runners face. Each runner is different, each runner can handle different amounts of running. It is important to roll the miles up slowly if you are new, and to listen to your body. If you are a new runner or have been at it for years listening to your body will be the most important clue as to just how much you can handle. Trails are also a lot different from roads, so listen closely, and be prepared for changes needed for success.
“The challenge for me is making sure I do not do more than my body can handle. My mind is always very willing to run fast, far, and hard, but oftentimes my body simply can’t keep up”
So what about actually getting out on the trails? What do you do? What do you need? What should you know? You have to stay prepared and at the ready. As for gear there is a fine line between carrying what you need for a long run in the woods and having so much that is weighs you down, Ashley knows this and offers up some advice on what she does. This will be different for each runner, yet her advice is sound, yet we suggest newer runners air on the side of too much over too little. Better safe than sorry. As your experience goes up, your pack list may very well go down. Besides what she packs in, Ashley never hits the trails without her Sole Spikes. You can’t tackle big slippery trails safely without some grip!
“I prefer to run with a women’s Nathan Intensity pack without the bladder. I keep my food, cell phone, and first aid in the pack, and use a handheld bottle for liquids. If I am going out for a really long unsupported run, I will use the pack bladder instead. My thoughts on gear are that it is best to be prepared but not overly prepared. You don’t want to be lugging 10 extra pounds over 100 miles. Plan out exactly what you need pre race and if there are water and aid stations- take note of these and plan your gear accordingly.”
As for safety; (a big concern, especially among female runners, and especially among female trail runners). Besides clipping a knife to her bra that she runs with at all times (as a sort of last resort protection) being prepared and knowing where you are plays a huge role. Always let someone know where you are going, when you plan to be back and what you have with you (solid advice for any runner, not just trail runners). Bring a map, bring some water, and have a plan. Even professional runners get off track and get twisted inside out when on the trails. Make sure you know where you are going and how to get back.
“In my last 100 mile attempt, I got badly off course. Thankfully, I was with several others and we had a map, so we were able to navigate our way back to the right path. Other than that, there really hasn’t been that many times that I’ve gotten too terribly lost. When I explore new trails, I always hang a right any time I come to an intersection. This makes it easy to find my way back in case I get a little turned around.”
It’s not all beautiful scenery and happy thoughts out on the trails. Running mileage like this is a challenge, it takes hard work it takes preperation. With the increase in people running longer and attempting longer races it is important to figure out how to safely do it. When we asked what the key to succeeding the way she has was and Ashley agreed with us that it is indeed hard work. She then gave us some tips.
“Proper training, an unbreakable spirit, and basically a good day. 100s are becoming pretty popular, and there are many people who just dive in without putting much thought or training into it, and these people rarely have what it takes to actually complete the gig. It may look like a lot of fun, but actually finishing 100 miles hurts like heck. It takes a ton of grit, patience, and pain tolerance to push through to the finish. Yet, even for a well trained ultra athlete, 100 miles isn’t ever a guarantee. It takes so long to cover the distance that pretty much anything can happen- a blizzard, lightening storms, a broken ankle.. ANYTHING!”
So even if you train your guts out people still do not complete the courses? How, why? A DNF (did not finish) when you worked so hard? As we said though, rain, snow, wind, animals, stomach issues and most of all out on the trails our emotions can get the better of us. Highs are really high, but the lows can be miserably low. Finding a support system as Ashley has is one key to her success.
This does not mean she has been without trial in her time as an ultra runner. She admits to having breakdowns. On runs, in races, and everywhere in between. What serious runner has not done this or has not taken themself too seriously? Ashley, like many of us trains because she loves the way it makes her feel, even the emotional lows.
“My husband and friends always have to remind me that I run for fun, and train because I love the way it feels. I am thankful to have others that support my hobby and help me keep my head on straight.”
We at TrailsROC think Ashley has a bright future in our sport, she has a few wins under her belt already, a few burnouts to learn from (recently she was forced to take a few months off from training because she had overdone it). She has a support crew to rely on and an understanding of how all the pieces fit together. She accomplished all of this in just a few short years. While she is not currently craving the races as often as she once was, this may keep her fresh and boil her competitive spirit even more. Again, it is about balance, so Ashley sees herself crushing some 100 mile races and enjoying her “downtime” in between.
For anyone interested in getting involved in trail running, or even more intense into ultra running, Ashley is pretty clear that it takes work. Hard work.
It takes commitment, it takes support, and it really is not a sport for everyone. don’t feel bad if your body simply doesn’t agree with longer distances. Some of us are built for short and fast, and others for long and slow. Either way, remember to enjoy yourself and don’t get caught up in what everyone else is doing. Explore your local trails, and mentally get lost in the amazing natural world around you- because if you miss all the beauty you are missing the real rewards!
“Explore your local trails”
We at TrailsROC could not agree more.
For more information about Ashley Walsh please see below
Though I am a runner, I am also known for my writing. I am the writer at www.ultrachicksunite.com, a website celebrating female ultra athletes. My writing will be featured this year at the legendary Badwater 135 race (www.Badwater.com) as I join the official race staff to provide media coverage for the female racers. This will be a first for me, and for the race. So I am very excited to be a part of this! I also blog daily about the ups and downs of being an obsessive and emotional trail junkie atAshWalsh.wordpress.com