As far as sports go, trail running is still a bit of a renegade. Let’s face it. There is no AYSO, Little League, or Pop Warner for trail running. As a sport, it’s hard, lonely, and often comes down to who can handle more pain. As Steve Prefontaine said, “Somebody may beat me, but they are going to have to bleed to do it.”
It’s not surprising then that some of the best trail runners have found this rugged sport after moving on from something else. Former XTERRA Trail Run World Champs Max King and Kimber Mattox were both steeplechasers in college. XTERRA Trail Run National Champ, Liz Stephen was a skier, and XTERRA Trail Run World Champ, Polina Carlson used to play tennis.
Perhaps that is why Morgan Arritola is such a perfect fit for this untamed sport. After six years of competitive Nordic skiing, including a stint at the 2010 Winter Olympics, Arritola made the switch to trail running in 2011 and she hasn’t looked back. Then again, she is usually so far out in front, she doesn't have to.
After competing in the 2010 Winter Olympic Games in Nordic skiing, Arritola was burned out. In the summer of 2011 she did a trail run in Oregon, and then in September, she competed in the 2011 XTERRA Trail Run National Championship. She won the whole thing and finished in front of her Olympic teammate, Liz Stephen.
In 2012, she finished third at the World Mountain Running Championship, leading her team to win the gold medal, and by 2015, Arritola was a three-time US Mountain Running Champion. (Joe Gray, Kimber Mattox, Max King, and Brett Hales have also been on US Mountain Running teams.)
Arritola is more than just an athlete though. She is going to school to be a respiratory therapist and works in the summers.
“Sometimes I miss the simplicity of only having to train, rest, and eat but that's not my reality and long term, it is not sustainable,” said Arritola. “Financially, I have to have a real job so I am working toward that goal.”
She also stresses that she runs because she loves it, and she is careful to balance running with the rest of her life to avoid another burnout.
As an elite athlete, Arritola is honest about the struggles former Olympians face as they navigate the transition back to a more normal life. On one hand, it’s nice to not feel like a training machine, but on the other hand, that competitive fire isn’t snuffed out just because sport is no longer the most important thing.
“I think it's really hard having been very fit at one point in life to be okay with being more normal but enjoying a race,” said Arritola. “I am programmed to want to win and sometimes that's not reality. It's also hard when people see your name and think ‘Oh you will win’ or ‘Did you win?’ as if fitness is a life-time membership.”
Arritola says that she isn’t in good shape at the moment, but that’s what she said before she won the bronze in the 2012 World Mountain Running Championship. In July, Arritola was the runner up at Mt. Marathon, a very intense 5k in Seward, Alaska with incredibly technical climbs and downhills. Runners fly down steep drops of loose shale and climb 2675 feet in less than a mile.
At Mt. Marathon, Arritola finished second to NCAA steeplechase champ, Allie Ostrander - who holds the second-fastest time in the race’s history - and ahead of defending Mt. Marathon champion Christy Marvin.
But while Arritola is fast, she isn’t doing the XTERRA Trail Run National Championship just for a shot at the podium. Being in the mountains is central to who Arritola is, and she is happy to spend a day doing what she loves.
“I raced XTERRA several years ago and I like this course and the atmosphere. It will be a good, hard effort, and I'm sure some speedy ladies will be there."
True to form, Arritola reveals that she has another important reason for Sunday's race besides just running.
"I also have a friend racing in the XTERRA Pan Am Championship on Saturday so it will be fun to watch her.”
Photo Credit: Todd List Photography