Editor’s Note: We are excited to bring you part one in the Making It series by aspiring professional runner Reid Burrows. The series will follow Reid through his ups and downs as he attempts to go all in after his dreams in the trail and ultra running world. We pickup his story last winter as he tried to make it state side in the hopes of training and competing alongside the best in the US.
In February 2022 I saved up enough money to quit my job and pursue a pipe dream – I wanted to be a professional trail runner. I’ve always felt like a bit of an outsider, but I think I was meant to do this. My drive to exercise for long periods of time, alone, is not very relatable to most, but up until this point my entire life has been centered around endurance sport. I’m far from the best, but I think the power of an athlete’s story, an athlete’s journey (and mine specifically), can be as valuable as winning races.
Although, there are many parallels with road running, our sport is worlds away. We do not have appearance fees and often the upper echelon of this sport are paying the same price of admission – front or back of the pack. The interesting thing about this dream of mine, I’m Canadian. Specifically, I’m from the east coast of Canada where the harsh winters make winter running (road or trail) challenging. I have always lived at sea level, and any vertical gain is accomplished only by a lot of creativity, stubbornness, and drive to run to my potential.
You’ve likely never heard my name, and I may not be the most qualified athlete to write on the subject of ‘trying to make it as a pro trail runner.’ There are times where I feel the imposter syndrome – “I’m not good enough to do this full time.” With every bad workout or race the imposter syndrome is louder. Recently I received the pro badge on Strava… there was a moment where I wondered if I deserved it, or any of the recognition I’ve received this year. Despite my drive to push myself, I still struggle – front of the pack or back – the struggle is still there uniting us. That’s part of what drew me to the sport, the shared experiences that bring this community together. I receive a lot of joy and energy by connecting with that community. They inspire me to chase my dreams and staying connected through local runs keeps me grounded.
My background is in triathlon. Unlike in Olympic sports in Canada where funding is much easier to come by, there seem to be very few rules in trail running when it comes to prize money, endorsement deals etc. In Olympic sports there are federations regulating regions, nations, and the global landscape of many sports. There are rules as to who can sponsor you, where your logos can be placed on your race kit, and government funding largely contributes to your ability to make sport financially sustainable. Trail running on the other hand is a relatively new sport from a professionalization standpoint – but it’s a growing industry. Still most runners with a professional contract have a second job – unable to truly run full time. I’m currently trying to chase the later… coming up against that financially sustainable limit.
April 2022 – Did I make the right decision?
My first key race of the season was the Canyons Endurance Run in Auburn, California. I decided it would be best to escape the often never ending Canadian winter and headed to Arizona. I don’t like the cold, and truthfully, I had nothing keeping me in Ontario. I like being hot, the less layers I have to use the happier I am. Shirtless, running along the trails with nothing more than a handheld, and my phone to take a few pictures. This minimal running lifestyle has translated into my everyday life. I’ve cut out a lot of the unnecessary expenses this year. I don’t expect to get rich running, but I’ve also needed to drop a lot of the everyday luxuries I used to take for granted, other than good coffee. Coffee is where I draw the line. With many years spent in the triathlon world, I specifically chose Tucson because I knew I’d be able to keep the cost down – crammed into a house of triathletes also looking to escape winter. I had predictable weather, real mountains and a seemingly endless supply of pristine trails.
Canyons is a golden ticket race, an automatic entry into Western States. I went in knowing a golden ticket was unlikely, but knowing it would be a good learning opportunity of a more international field. I felt like I had raced through what Eastern Canada had to offer, whereas the opportunities are still endless in the US – so many races with untapped potential.
My plan was to stay patient for more than half of the 100-kilometer (62 miles) race. This was testing for me – I love racing hard and being in contention even if I know I have no chance at winning the race. When I was racing triathlons, I was known to be really aggressive on the bike and that part of me never left as I transitioned to trail running. I stuck to the plan and stayed patient until the 60-kilometer mark. It’s hard to let an entire pack go off the start line, but I knew I was making a smart choice by doing so. The conservative race plan helped me as we went up the last climb through snow-covered trails. (Snow in April in California didn’t seem right to me either) I ended up finishing in 25th overall, 20th male. I was happy with the step in the right direction, but I knew I had a lot more potential. I felt like I had a great race, but the result was far from what I wanted. I’m human, self-doubt crept in. Imposter syndrome knocking at the door. Did I make a mistake? Am I cut out to do this full time?
I told myself I would keep doing this until I made it – or the money ran dry. Fortunately, I had barely tapped into my savings and I was ready to make the next big move.
May – The Month of Change
After nine weeks on the road in Arizona, California, and Colorado I returned home for the last time. I emptied my apartment with the intention of preparing for my fall racing season in Tucson, Arizona. On May 28th I raced a local 50-kilometer race in Ontario, and to my surprise I won it. It was the perfect going away present, and another indication to myself that I was ready to move to the mountains. The next day I left for what I thought was the beginning of a long training block in Arizona. With an empty apartment, my bike, running shoes, and espresso machine in my car, I began driving to New York. At the border crossing, I quickly realized my dreams were going to be put on hold. I was detained and fingerprinted. Held at the border for two hours because of my lack of ties to Canada – being unemployed did not help. I’ve never felt fear like I felt that night, but my Arizona training plan was legal. As a Canadian citizen I can spend six months per year in the US without a visa and I had full intentions of returning after the Run Rabbit Run 100-mile race in September.
With no apartment, a full car, and no plan I quickly pivoted and began travelling east to New Brunswick. My parents welcomed me with open arms, and I started applying for a visa as a professional athlete. Calling myself a professional athlete is still difficult. I was drawn to trail running because of the welcoming community and the lack of pressure placed on results. It was more about the human experience and getting to the finish line. I’ve had to put a lot of work in on the mental side of things to make sure I find value in myself outside of results. But with my visa application I suddenly had try to justify every result, interview, and race I had ever done to chase this dream. I had to put it under a microscope. It’s an investment in my future and while I logically understand that… imposter syndrome knocks louder. How am I supposed to sell myself as a professional trail runner? Becoming one of my own biggest advocates has allowed me to ask for more from my current sponsors and even to reach out to Freetrail to write this article. I’m getting really comfortable with confronting uncomfortable things because it’s become a necessity in the life I am trying to live – and ironically will come in handy in the later stages of a future race.
I was frustrated and there was no indication of when I would be allowed to return stateside. I began training even harder. Although I was devastated, I will never take where I am able to train for granted again. My parents live 15 minutes from the ocean but their house sits about 300 feet above sea level on a good day. I now had to prepare for a race that went above 10,000 feet in Colorado, while the biggest ‘mountains’ in my backyard just crested 600 feet. I had to get creative, and this often meant climbing the same hill or mountain many, many times. I knew it was going to be a disadvantage coming from sea level to race in the mountains but that only made me want to be more prepared. I had never been above 8000 feet and had never raced anywhere much higher than sea level… to say I was intimidated by the race would have been a big understatement!
Fall (or Autumn) – Rabbits, Mountains and Self Belief
Crossing the border to race in September was not as stressful as the crossing in May, but I was detained for a second time. This time with my dad. I had a new contract (something I didn’t have back in May) but nonetheless they asked a lot of questions about our travel plans. This officer even looked through my Strava profile, the start list of Run Rabbit Run 100, and checked our accommodation and travel information to confirm the legitimacy of my story. When he finally told us we were going to be able to cross I felt a huge sense of relief, but I also felt emotionally drained. It didn’t feel real when we first entered Maine – but we were on our way.
I felt a sense of gratitude when I lined up race morning. It was far from guaranteed that I was going to be permitted to race, and it gave me an entirely different perspective on what it means to be able to do the thing I love. I have been lucky and resilient to injuries despite being an endurance athlete for so many years, so this was the first time I felt like racing was going to be stripped away from me. That scared me – I had taken racing for granted, but this time it was different, I was different.
I chose Run Rabbit Run 100 for the big prize purse, late start time, and challenge. Prize money went seven deep and I knew on a good day I would be able to take home some money. On race morning (can you call it race morning if it starts at noon?), I felt very intimidated. You spend the first hour of the race climbing straight up the ski hill and the field was stacked. My goal was to stay patient (again) until the top of the first climb before I would start pushing forward. I stuck to my plan and chatted with a bunch of guys in the pack throughout the night. I fell early on but fortunately someone helped me up, and there was nothing more than some blood running down my knee and hand. As the night progressed my stomach finally gave out, the altitude was beginning to take its toll on my GI tract, I was going to suffer. I knew this was likely to come, and I was prepared mentally to get to the finish line no matter what went wrong. I had trouble keeping it together running down the hill to the finish. It had been a really cold, tough night but I was so proud of myself for pushing through the difficult times. It was a massive step in the right direction for my growth as an athlete… but not quite a pay day. While prize money would’ve been another personal indication that I made the right decision back in February, any amount of money would have to wait for another day. This thing may not have been much more than a pipe dream back in February, but now it was alive and well.
Currently, I’m back on the east coast of Canada waiting to see if I can obtain a visa this year buoyed by my current ability, credentials, and results. While I’m still not the best, I’m better than I was yesterday, and hope to get a little bit better yet tomorrow. Professionalism is about community, and while I’m not yet comfortable calling myself a ‘professional runner’ I am excited about being an advocate for the sport where everyone is welcome. It’s not all about winning races, podium bonuses, social media, or accolades … well unless you are trying to get a darn visa. Trail running is about getting the best out of yourself on any given day. Exploring the human potential and sharing my story along the way. Not yet comfortable calling myself a professional, I am comfortable knowing I’m more than my results. If you take one thing away from this article, I hope it’s this: have big scary dreams, and do what you can do chase them.
Part two will (hopefully) begin with a visa update and a plan to escape another brutal east coast winter.