Back in the 1980s, Nancy Hobbs was working as the Director of Administration for the Pikes Peak Ascent and Marathon. But even though she was promoting a trail race, she hadn’t spent much time on the trails herself.
“I was primarily a road runner,” said Hobbs, now 58. “A friend took me out on the trails, and I just thought, wow. That natural, organic, to-the-earth feel is something my body and mind were both looking for. There it was.”
Since then, Hobbs hasn’t forgotten either the healing power of the dirt or the sense of community that brought her there in the first place. Fast forward about 10 years to 1995, and Hobbs discovered there was a men’s team heading to the World Mountain Running Championship, which was then called the World Mountain Running Trophy.
“In 1995, I was getting more involved in the sport,” said Hobbs, from her home in Colorado. “I asked a friend why there was no women’s team going. He said that he had asked around and no women wanted to go. I said, ‘What if I got a team together?’”
Hobbs only had three weeks, and even though her friend assured her that no women were interested, she called her mountain running friends and assembled the first USATF Women’s Mountain Running Team. At that first race in Edinburgh, Scotland, the U.S. women's team finished near the bottom.
“We grew slowly,” remembers Hobbs, “But it didn’t take long until we were in the top ten. That was really exciting. By 2004, we had a team on the podium and an individual in the top 10."
Hobbs didn’t just organize the women’s mountain running team, she also supported the case that women’s and men’s teams should have the same number of runners and should run the same distances.
“At that first race, men were running about 11 to 13K while women only ran 7 to 9K,” remembers Hobbs. “Six men ran and four scored, while only four women ran and three scored. I remember thinking that there is no reason we can’t run the same distance as the men.”
All that has now changed. Because of the persistence of advocates like Hobbs, women and men run the same distance and have the same number of competitors on each team.
“Back then the USATF just had a long distance running division with mountain, trail, and ultra under that umbrella,” said Hobbs. “Now we have a separate council for mountain, trail, and ultra as well as international teams for mountain, ultra, and trail world championships. There are more opportunities now for men and women, but the difference in what women were able to do before and what they can do now is remarkable.”
When asked about the biggest obstacle Hobbs has had to face in her years as an advocate for the sport of trail running in the US, Hobbs speaks honestly.
“The biggest hurdle was not having any opportunity for women or any women’s team,” she said. “Having nothing was a pretty big obstacle.”
But Hobbs kept going, one step at a time. Over the past 30 years, she has built up funding, promotion, awareness, and support for the sport of trail and mountain running in the U.S. for both men and women. In 1996, Hobbs founded the American Trail Running Association (ATRA) and she is currently the chairperson for the USA Track & Field's Mountain, Ultra & Trail Running Council. She is also treasurer of the World Mountain Running Association.
Additionally, Hobbs has co-written with Adam W. Chase The Ultimate Guide to Trail Running as well as “The Best Trail Runs” series, which includes detailed information about the trails in Portland, Seattle, Denver, Boulder, and Colorado Springs. She and Chase are coming out with a new book in December called The Best Trail Runs San Francisco.
“I just felt like nothing was happening and no one was advocating on our behalf,” says Hobbs. “So instead of complaining, I decided to do something about it and navigate the system as diplomatically as possible. That’s my mindset. I’m goal oriented. I’m driven. I’m competitive and I’ve got a real passion for this sport.”
Unlike many key players in off-road sports, Hobbs isn’t a coach. She has a master’s degree in public administration and has been self-employed for years as a contractor in both the profit and non-profit sector, and used those skills to grow the budget for the US Mountain Running Team.
“Today, the USATF Mountain Ultra Trail Council has a $100,000 budget,” said Hobbs. “That might not seem like much, but when you start from zero it’s a significant development.”
Hobbs, who has run many of the races in the XTERRA Colorado Trail Series, as well as the XTERRA Trail Run National Championship when it was staged in Bend, Oregon and the XTERRA Trail Run World Championship on Oahu, is still going strong. She is committed to growing the sport of trail running and supporting all of the heroes on the trails as well.
“The focus now is on the youth in the sport,” said Hobbs. “And I’m not talking about 10-year olds running 100 miles. No. It’s about getting people introduced to the sport early whether it’s through a 100 meter run or a 1000 meter run or a 5K. A big part of getting kids involved in the sport is about getting them to understand what it is to have both nature and trails and the knowledge of how those trails got there.”
Hobbs is committed to creating opportunities for kids to hit the dirt just for fun and to learn about environmental sustainability and stewardship. She believes that community is a huge part of this whether it’s through coaching, partnering with high school cross-country programs, or youth camps, like those put on by Melody Fairchild and five-time XTERRA Trail Run National Champ and four-time XTERRA Trail Run World Champ, Max King.
“We want to develop heroes in the sport and get more minorities and people of color on the trails,” she said.
Hobbs applauds trail heroes like Max King and three-time XTERRA Trail Run World Champ, Joe Gray, as well as Gina Lucrezi, who has created the organization Trail Sisters to promote and increase women’s participation in trail running.
“A true sports hero isn’t just an elite runner who wins a race. Those kinds of heroes are important because they are people you can look up to, but I think the bigger heroes are those who give back and develop community within and opportunities for the sport.”
Hobbs practices what she preaches.
“I always answer emails and phone calls because I want people to know that they are welcome into our sport and we want them to be a part of it,” said Hobbs. “One of my roles is to welcome people onto the trails and have them feel the family that I feel there. To me, that’s just about doing what you say you are going to do. If we can get one more person inspired, then great. They can carry the torch and inspire someone else.”
Learn more about the XTERRA Colorado Trail Series