Timeless Trail Runners: Resilience Remastered

Seasons of life converge on endless trails.

Written by
Cherie Turner
min read
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Cherie Turner is a seasoned runner, podcaster, and storyteller with a passion for exploring life's paths. In this article, Cherie explores the intersection of trail running and aging, unraveling the experiences of masters trail runners and revealing how they redefine athleticism and embrace the challenges and joys of aging. The empowering insights of these athletes offer a fresh perspective on staying active and fulfilled at any age.



The relationship between aging and athleticism is evolving, reflecting a more positive and dynamic connection. The messaging of the past has typically been, as you age, expect diminishing returns in your athletic pursuits. That’s not the case anymore.

A growing number of masters athletes (older than 35 years) are finding new reasons to keep showing up. Goals and bodies change over time, but so do the rewards and motivations. Getting out on the trail and experiencing the outdoors provides its own special thrill at any age. 

Trails offer an excellent outlet for your health and wellness as the years roll on. Certainly, the physical rewards are mighty, and it’s also a way to maintain body awareness. Elite road marathoner turned ultra trail runner Verity Breen, 56, has noticed that because this sport requires a lot of focus and concentration: “Trail running gives me the opportunity to be totally free of self-awareness, but also being deeply aware of my own body.”

Verity Breen / Photo Credit: Dominique Philippine

As long-time trail runners and community builders, Nancy Hobbs, 63, and Verna Volker, 49, share a passion for discovering new trails, especially when traveling. Hobbs, the founder of the American Trail Running Association, and Volker, the initiator of Native Women Running, find exploring new places through trail running exhilarating. "My favorite place is the trail I'm on," says Hobbs. "It's pure joy."

The added elements of uneven and unpredictable surfaces are also beneficial: “Trail running helps keep me nimble,” says Hobbs, “and I develop good balance.” Balance and agility being two major points of concern as people age.

"My favorite place is the trail I'm on. It's pure joy."

The mental and emotional payoffs are noteworthy as well. Trail running is a time and place to decompress and experience the tranquility of nature. “It’s my chance to be alone,” says Volker, also a mother of 4. “I get lost in my running, with so much beauty all around. It brings me peace, and I bring that peace back to my family life.” 

Beyond all that, trail running, moving the body through nature using your own two feet, delivers a fulfillment these runners just don’t get elsewhere. For Volker, “Running on the trails changed my spirit. I’ve experienced a lot of loss and trauma, and running has helped me heal.”

Verna Volker


For long-time ultra runner and author of The Trail Runner’s Companion Sarah Lavender Smith, 54, being out on the trails “is a place for my imagination to flow; it’s a thinking time like no other.”

Sabrina Pace Humphreys, 45, an ultra-runner, author of Black Sheep, and co-founder of Black Trail Runners, echoes this sentiment: “I find a special freedom when I’m running in nature. It’s a serenity I just don’t get anywhere else, and it’s helped me reclaim myself. It’s an important part of maintaining my mental health.” 

“I find a special freedom when I’m running in nature. It’s a serenity I just don’t get anywhere else."

But trail running isn’t easy, and the combined joy and difficulty brings its own type of satisfaction–notably, it’s empowering: “There’s no better feeling than feeling powerful and strong,” says Pace Humphreys, who just completed the epic Winter Downs 200-mile race in December 2023.

For both Volker and Pace Humphreys, there’s also a connection to ancestry: “I’m never truly alone,” says Pace Humphreys. “I’m with people from my community in spirit on the trails and it’s uplifting. I tap into the spirit of my ancestors and the power of my community to find strength.” Volker notes that she runs in honor of others: “They’re with me,” she says. “They keep me going.”

Sabrina Pace Humphreys


Add to all of this, trails vary tremendously. There’s an enormous difference between groomed trails along a coastline and summiting over 10,000 foot peaks of technical terrain. Getting out on the trails is a never-exhausted opportunity to feed curiosity and to develop new skills. No two trails require the same sorts of abilities, and there are trails out there to suit a myriad of interests. 

Trail running then is forever a place to find health, solace, connection, and satisfying challenges. But while that may remain steady, over time other things do change. 

There is the reality that getting older brings on changes that most people don’t look forward to. For women, the massive transition of menopause can throw your body–your whole life, really–into a spin. 

Sarah Lavender Smith

Wherever you fall on the gender spectrum, poor movement and health habits can catch up to you as you age in the form of injury and illness, your nutritional needs change, and you need more rest; speed, strength, and muscle mass are more difficult to maintain than in the past, and over time, your top end begins to diminish. 

All to say, aging ushers in change and left unattended, the consequences can be truly unpleasant. Breen isn’t the only one to say, “Aging isn’t easy.” It takes effort and thought to age well. These runners and the increasing number of others like them are showing by example how that can happen. 



A resounding similarity among these runners is that they’ve discovered that strength and conditioning work is critical. Also paramount is really learning to listen to your body, especially because body chemistry changes over time. What worked before may not work now.

“Aging requires adjustment,” says Hobbs. “You have to get to a point where you can accept changes and give yourself permission to be wherever you are in your journey. Change your expectations to be aligned with where you’re at.” 

“Get to know your changing body,” adds Breen. “It’s important to understand what you need.” Breen had noticed that she needs more fuel and hydration on the run than she used to; good sleep and cross-training have taken on an importance that they didn’t have before. Hobbs adds that body work like massage as well as balance exercises have become regular parts of her wellness routines.  

Nancy Hobbs

Athletes across the board noted that they simply don’t recover from hard efforts as quickly. This has led Pace Humphreys to give a closer look at her rest and recovery. “For me, this includes making sure I have mental rest, too,” she says. “I really think about what rest means.”

The changes of aging are undeniable, and they aren’t all easy, pleasant, or fun. But in other realms, aging had great upsides. “I have more confidence about my running than I did 20 years ago,” Hobbs states without question. With age comes ability, experience, knowhow, wisdom. Whether you’re a long-time trail athlete or relatively new to the sport, bringing life experience to the trails can serve you.



Relatively new to her deep dive into ultra trail running, Breen leans heavily on her well-developed problem-solving skills: “There are so many variables on the trails; nothing is certain,” she says. “I need that mental and emotional toughness that comes with age.” Breen adds that ultra running requires a level of thinking and concentration that keeps her sharp: “This is unknown territory, and I have to think on my feet.” Having taken a few big falls as she’s learned to navigate this new running landscape, Breen also mentions that trail running has helped her tap into developing a sense of humor about it all, too. 

For many, trail running means running far. This is the case for Pace Humphreys and bringing a lot of real world experience to the trails is key: “Life gives you the skills to endure,” she says. “And I haven’t found a distance that has broken me yet.” 

“Life gives you the skills to endure, and I haven’t found a distance that has broken me yet.”

Another gift of time is the ability to get more comfortable with your own body, your abilities, and your interests. Pace Humphreys has learned in her many years of running that she much prefers trail running to running on the road. Early on, however, the trails just didn’t feel safe; as a woman of color, she wondered if it was a place she should go at all. At first, she stayed close to home, but over time she’s ventured far and wide.

Pace Humphreys has also changed her outlook about her identity as a runner. Like many before her, she used to equate being a runner with being thin, fast, and restrictive. “I wanted to look a certain way and I would beat myself up about not being fast enough,” she recalls. “Now I understand my body better. This is the body that allows me to do these trail adventures. I’m muscular and I need to be strong.” And as she’s discovered, these long distances “really suit my body.”



There’s always satisfaction to be found in continuing to improve and challenge yourself, but there’s also a lot to be said for simply keeping at it as you age. “Maintaining my commitment to trail running is important to me,” says Lavender Smith. “I feel really strongly about showing up, and I’m proud of meeting weekly training goals. That’s an accomplishment.” 

Continuing to show up is an accomplishment and perhaps because aging athletes don’t yet have a lot of role models to show them what’s possible, keeping at these trail running adventures feels like an unexpected gift. “I’m happy I can still do this,” Volker states succinctly. “I’m able to keep training and pushing myself, and I’m staying mentally strong; that’s very meaningful.” 

Cherie Turner

Furthermore, seeing as there’s no expiration date on the joy and fulfilling engagement trail running delivers, these athletes have no intentions of hanging up their shoes, ever. 

“I’ve been trail running for over 25 years,” Lavender Smith states. “It’s baked into my life. It’s just part of who I am. I won’t ever stop.”



As masters trail runners continue to break new ground regarding what’s possible as we age, they’re also discovering new perspectives. The trail running journey appears to become less attached to outer appearances and accomplishments and as much if not more about personal quests and challenges. “I’m not trying to impress anyone anymore with mileage and times,” says Volker. “I do this for myself.”

Similarly, says Hobbs, who still loves competition, as was common among these women, “I respect and appreciate what my body can do. I still beat my body up; I love that feeling. But I’m also kind to my body. And I’m more in tune with my body.”

Masters trail runners, especially women, and even more especially women from underrepresented populations, are rewriting the dated narrative that was handed down to them and they’re actively making change. 

“I want to serve as an example,” says Volker. “If I can do this, so can you.” For Volker and Pace Humphreys, representing their communities is powerful. “I’m holding space for myself and for others,” Pace Humphreys says. 

Verna Volker

Lavender Smith crews and volunteers at races, and she writes about trail running in her own newsletter as well. “I do feel like a mentor. I want to show that you can still do this,” she says. In addition, through her writing, Lavender Smith makes a point to focus on other older women who remain committed to the sport and who have inspired her: “I want to tell their stories. I want to spotlight these women,” she says.



There’s a double duty in redefining what’s possible: unshackling yourself from the past and then launching yourself into the unknown. Trail running is proving fertile ground for these athletes to reset expectations around aging, with purpose. 

“I realized I was aging myself, putting self-limiting beliefs on myself because of my age,” says Breen. “I was allowing myself to be overlooked, discounted. Now my mind is open to all possibilities. I’m emptying myself of all that preconditioning of how I view myself and finding a whole different level of wisdom. It’s epic to be an older woman who feels like she’s really living.” 

Verity Breen

Along this process, not only do these runners continue to help push the boundaries of how we define aging athletes, they find moments of surprising even themselves. “I can still impress myself with my ability to do things that are really tough,” says Volker. “I feel strong. I can run down technical, rocky trails. That’s badass.” 

Perhaps most exciting is the continual discovery of just what you can keep doing. “My limits continue to expand,” Pace Humphreys says. “I have yet to reach that ultimate red line. I’m curious, What will that look like? How will that feel? How far can I go? As I age, I get more curious about what this body can do.”

"I’m emptying myself of all that preconditioning of how I view myself and finding a whole different level of wisdom. It’s epic to be an older woman who feels like she’s really living.” 

This exploration into the lives of trail running masters like Verity Breen, Verna Volker, Nancy Hobbs, Sabrina Pace Humphreys, Sarah Lavender Smith and their peers reveals a profound truth: age is not a barrier but a gateway to deeper, more meaningful athletic experiences. We thank these inspiring women for not only breaking stereotypes about aging and athleticism but also for paving a path of empowerment, resilience, and joy for future generations to follow on the trails.








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Author Bio

Cherie Turner

Cherie Turner is a 53 year old competitive runner and lifelong athlete. In addition to a long career as a writer, she hosts and produces the narrated storytelling podcast Women's Running Stories, where women tell first-person stories rooted in their running experiences. Cherie has a growing passion for helping to redefine what aging can look like. Find her on IG and X.

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