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Sarah Keyes Bio

By: Sarah Keyes

Sarah Keyes is a mountain and ultra trail runner for The North Face based in the Adirondack Mountains of New York.

The World Mountain and Trail Running Championships occurred last month in Innsbruck, Austria bringing together over 70 countries and 1,500 athletes. My personal goal for this year was simply to make the team, getting to race at worlds being the icing on the cake.

The Race: A Test of Attrition 

Friday morning I shed my warm layers, hugged my teammates, and inched my way to a spot in the starting corral. I stood shoulder to shoulder with runners from all around the world, waiting for the gun to go off, music blaring from a four-foot speaker on my left. If you’ve never stood on a European start line let me set the scene for you; looking around people are literally vibrating with excitement or is it nerves, both? Faces range from smiles to fear. Not dissimilar from being in the moshpit of a concert, it’s loud and sweaty, and you try to both sway with the force of the crowd but also not lose your footing. Mostly it smells like sunscreen as we’re all freshly slathered and lubed. I smile and wave to Americans in the crowd and I hear the calm, cool, and collected voice of Men’s Long Trail teammate Drew Holmen, “Today’s results won’t change how awesome I think you guys are.” 

The gun goes off and 300 runners funnel onto a four-foot-wide bike path. The US women work together over the next mile to move through the crowd, being careful not to make a misstep. By mile three we hit the steep uphill singletrack and poles start flying. The line of runners acts like a slinky, spreading out on runnable grades and bunching together at steep pitches. My race plan was to keep calm, use the first climb to warm up, and I welcomed the irregularity of the conga line. 

Sarah Keyes flanked by Hannah Allgood and Emily Schmitz in the opening miles of the long course race.
Sarah Keyes flanked by Hannah Allgood and Emily Schmitz in the opening miles of the long course race.

In the days preceding the race, I had previewed small parts of the course including this first climb and descent. Knowing what to expect brought me some comfort as we worked our way over the technical terrain. Over the entirety of the course, the terrain ranged from very technical rocky trails similar to my home in the Adirondacks to smooth crushed gravel bike paths, soft loamy evergreen forest floor, grass pastures, snow fields, deep narrow cow paths, loose rocky downhills, the most perfect alpine paths on cliff edges and even a bit of pavement. When it was all said and done the numbers came out to 52ish miles with 20,000 feet of elevation gain and descent. And a course that I’d argue is one of the more difficult in the world.

Mentally I had broken the course up into blocks. The plan is to stay in control for the first two big climbs and conserve some energy for the second half of the race. In my mind, the third block of this course was where I’d be able to use my training from earlier in the year on the runnable terrain and start pushing the effort level. Unfortunately, that block came and I just didn’t have the pep I was hoping for. Maybe it was the sections at altitude, maybe it was a bit of accumulated fatigue, or maybe it just wasn’t my day. But you know what? It was my day to appreciate where I was, to enjoy my surroundings, to help push some other women in the final miles, and to celebrate my teammates and this community. 

Motivation: Give it All You Got

Years before I began competitive ultra running I saw Rodrigo y Gabriela perform live in Burlington, VT. The passion they exude while making music is envious. I left that show in search of something that would make me feel that same way. Now, in isolation, slowly moving over technical terrain is not nearly as exciting as a live concert but I do think the motivation gained by getting an opportunity to see others do what they love is something special. 

When I reached the final crewed aid station on Friday, I had just passed teammate Hannah Allgood. Unfortunately, the afternoon heat had hit her hard. She refused my offer to hold her hand and let her float in the adjacent river, secretly hoping for a reprieve from movement myself. I was now the final and third scorer for our team. As I left the aid, I looked up to see Drew on the Jumbotron screen surrounded by cheering fans as he pushed as hard as he could toward the finish line in Innsbruck. “Sh*t,” I thought, “do it for the team.” Feeling efficient and moving well at the end of an ultra is akin to acing your final exams or finishing a work that has taken bits of your soul. And as I made my way over the final climb and descent, I found another wind. 

Teammates giving out 'life force' in the form of high fives.
Teammates giving out ‘life force’ in the form of high fives.

Ultrarunning: Making The World a Better Place

I believe that the need for community is a common ingrained fundamental part of being human. Are we human without our connections to each other? To many, ultra running is a solitary exhibit of their abilities. The accomplishments of an athlete are typically noted without mentioning the team of supporters that back them. But none of this would be possible, or really would just be meaningless, alone. 

In a time when a lot of the world seems to be moving toward individualism, the sport of ultrarunning may be embracing some collectivism. My greatest memories of racing in Innsbruck will most certainly be of spending time with my teammates, on and off the course. Not much compares to hearing your name carried across the Tyrolean Alps like a lyric from the Sound of Music. 

*Title adjusted and taken from Dani Rojas

Clare Gallagher was welcomed into the finish line by the rest of Team USA.
Clare Gallagher is welcomed into the finish line by the rest of Team USA after a long day out on the long course.

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