An accidental-runner’s path to taking on one of America’s oldest ultras
Dawn breaks through a stand of ponderosa pines, and Sarah Keyes flicks back a homemade curtain. She scoots down her bed, a 24-inch wide slab of plywood, and opens the back window of her truck’s cap—a $70 Craigslist find she painted pink—and takes a deep breath of mountain air. Mocha, her 20-pound mini Australian shepherd, does the same, stepping over dusty running shoes while Sarah grinds beans for a tailgate French press. Over coffee, she’ll pore over maps and choose their day’s run. They’re partners on a cross-country road trip, running trails on the way to Sarah’s first Western States 100.
When you wake up at a trailhead, you have no excuses not to run.
If all went to plan, though, Sarah might be at work right now. In early 2015, she finished a two-year nursing program in Saranac Lake, a town of 5,000 set deep in New York’s Adirondack Mountains, but while her friends applied for jobs or grad school, Sarah had another idea. “I told people I was gonna build my truck out, head west, and run mountains,” she says. “Then I did it. I figure that when you wake up at a trailhead, you have no excuses not to run.”
Sarah’s love of running was born in 2011 at the Great Adirondack Trail Run, a local race that covers 11.5 miles of technical climbs and shoe-sucking bogs. She entered on a lark. Five miles in, racers usually gear down for a lengthy uphill. That’s right where a tall woman with a braided ponytail passed Nick Yardley.
“I was running my butt off, and she just flies by, tipping over rocks,” he remembers. “I wasn’t quite sure whether to hate her or like her.” That woman was Sarah, en route to a course record.
After the race, she found Yardley, who is the CEO of Julbo, to thank him for supporting the race and came away with her first sponsor.
I loved the race, but it was more about the community. We all hung out and drank beer after working really hard. I credit that to beginning my love for mountain running.
There was no reason Yardley, or anyone else would have seen her coming: Sarah only began running after high school, when her AmeriCorps program required a daily 15-minute jog. Trails came later. About 10 years ago, after shifts at the Lake Placid Pub & Brewery, she and a fellow manager would run small peaks. The pub supplied beer for the Great Adirondack Trail Run in return for a few entry spots and, in 2011, Sarah nabbed one. “It was a ‘let’s see if I can do it’ type of thing,” she says. “I loved the race, but it was more about the community. We all hung out and drank beer after working really hard. I credit that to beginning my love for mountain running.”
Soon, she added hill workouts, ran bigger mountains and rode her bike to class to fit workouts into busy days. All that, plus shifts at the pub and a local running store. “It takes serious work ethic to maintain that level of fitness through full-time jobs while getting a degree in a competitive program,” says Matt Harrison, pub colleague and early trail buddy. “But you don’t know how good you are until you get into a race.”
Her winter routine included backcountry ski tours, pre-dawn climbs on a ski mountaineering setup at Whiteface Mountain, snowshoe races, and, when conditions permitted, running miles with ice crystals frozen to her eyelashes.
In 2016, Sarah traveled as a La Sportiva ambassador to races between shifts as a medical-surgical nurse on the East Coast, and consistent podium finishes earned her the U.S. Skyrunning Championship. Between those events, she took fourth at her first 100-mile race.
Time to go pro? Not exactly. Sarah got her first coach, but kept all of her day jobs–and adapted when a record winter buried Adirondack trails. Her winter routine included backcountry ski tours, pre-dawn climbs on a ski mountaineering setup at Whiteface Mountain, snowshoe races, and, when conditions permitted, running miles with ice crystals frozen to her eyelashes.
So, when spring arrived this year, Sarah set out on the road to make her way to Western States. She’d upgraded to a Toyota Tacoma with a gear loft and an improved bunk that folds out to 48 inches and planned to join group runs at specialty retailers, help a friend with a Tetons objective, traverse Zion National Park, crew for a Grand Canyon ultra, and summit Mt. Whitney. Then, home in on the California Sierra to preview Western States, ultrarunning’s oldest and most prestigious 100-mile race.
Will Sarah run down ultrarunning’s elites? She’s clearly ambitious, but when posed with that question, she’d rather talk about how her new truck’s cruise control will make the drive home easier on her glutes and hip flexors.
“Western states isn’t the finale,” she says. “There are moments of bliss out on the trail, and it’s a life bonus that I get to dabble in this reality.”
Getting to Western States Is Only Half the Fun
En route to America’s oldest ultra, Sarah confirms what we already knew about road trips: It’s not about the destination. Here, she shares a few of her favorite trails and dirtbag amenities from her cross-country travels.
Loon Lake Trail | McCall, ID
Explore southeast Idaho on this rolling 4.8-mile trail to an alpine lake. It’s remote—when a B-23 Dragon bomber crashed here in 1943, the crew waited 21 days for rescue. Find the wreckage on the lake’s south side. In town, Keyes recovers with a Shiver IPA at the Salmon River Brewery and visits Gravity Sports (gravitysports.com) to check in on the local trail scene.
Newberry Crater Rim Trail | LaPine, OR
Ready for adventure? Head for this 20.6-mile loop that gains 2,381 feet, serving up volcanic views with loose pumice or buffed trail underfoot. “Pre-run, I go to Wickiup Junction Grocery for homemade donuts as big as my head,” says Keyes. Find that sugar rush at 17000 Burgess Road.
Mount Elden Lookout Road | Flagstaff, AZ
Get a taste of skyrunning with this direct ascent of the peak that dominates Flagstaff’s horizon. While the doubletrack is not technically challenging, the route climbs 2,015 feet in 5.3 miles—just a fragment of the 55K course Keyes ran to clinch her 2016 skyrunning title. Refuel at Flagstaff Brewing Company, which offers nine microbrews on tap and a menu that features hearty fare like poutine, wings and green chile.
Dewey Mountain Recreation Center | Saranac Lake, NY
Built by local nonprofits, this trail network serves up 5.5 miles of singletrack. Climb 450 vertical feet through hardwood forest for views of the lake chain encircling town. Visit Origin Coffee Co. for single-origin espresso and frittata with roasted poblano, caramelized onion and cheddar.