When people say, “Anything is possible,” they don’t truly mean anything. Some things are not going to happen anytime soon: a dog won’t win the National Spelling Bee and I won’t win a gold medal in rhythmic gymnastics. If I were writing this article on June 28, 2016, I could probably have added another thing to that list: Alyssa Schmidt wouldn’t win her age group in a trail 100K in just over a year of running.
You see, up to that point, Schmidt, 29, of Sioux Falls, South Dakota, had never run a mile. “I was the girl who walked the mile every year in school,” Schmidt says. “I wouldn’t run for anything.”
Finding Herself on the Trails
Growing up, Schmidt thought of running as something other people did. “I had been overweight my entire life and never athletically coordinated in competitive sports,” she says. “I specifically remember telling people how silly I thought running was.”
In her late 20s, around the time most people settle into the groove that they’ll occupy for the next few decades, Schmidt jumped off her track. “I lost 65 pounds and had so much extra energy,” Schmidt says. “I wanted to do some kind of physical activity, but I wasn’t sure what.”
On June 29, 2016, one of her coworkers convinced her to sign up for the Sioux Falls Half Marathon. That day, she did her first ever run.
It wasn’t particularly pleasant. She got a couple hundred meters before stopping for a walk break, and was sore for days afterward.
But, “It was like some switch had flipped inside of me,” she says. “As someone who didn’t have a lot of confidence, there was something about constantly pushing my boundaries and succeeding that made me feel so good.”
After a few months of running, she fortuitously discovered the trails. “I was just tired of running on the paved bike trail here in town,” she says. “I knew we had a couple of areas with hiking trails close by, so I went out one day and did my training run on them. I had to walk a lot, and my pace was slower, but it was an entirely different experience.”
On the trails, Schmidt found “a connection with nature and the universe that I’d never had before.”
From One Mile to 100K
Schmidt’s first months of training were structured around a Couch-to-5K online program, extending the long runs by a few miles. Once her legs had adapted, she progressed into a routine that generally looked like this:
Monday: Rest and recovery
Tuesday: 3 miles easy
Wednesday: Rest and recovery
Thursday: 4 miles moderate
Friday: Rest and recovery
Saturday: 8 miles easy on trails
Sunday: 4 miles easy on trails
In September 2016, using that amped-up Couch-to-5K strategy, she finished her half. She enjoyed the process of pushing her boundaries so much that she set her sights on a marathon two months later.
She went from four days of running per week to five, with short, easy runs during the week and a weekly long run on trails. Schmidt says “I definitely didn’t have too much of an idea what I was doing.” But it worked for her. In November 2016, she finished her first marathon.
Then, in December, using the same consistency-plus-long-run strategy, she finished seven minutes under the cutoff at a 50K to get her first ultra finish. “At the time, it was both the most miserable and most exhilarating experience of my life,” she says.
A month later, buoyed by continued consistency over the holidays, she signed up for Illinois’ Shawnee Hills 100K on August 26, 2017. The race would fall 425 days since she ran her first mile, and less than a year since she found her love of trail running.
She settled into a routine of running five days a week, totaling between 30 and 40 miles. Most weeks looked similar:
Monday: Rest and recovery
Tuesday: 4-6 miles easy plus 4 x 30 second hills moderate
Wednesday: 3 miles easy, 20 minutes of intervals (e.g. 10 x 1 minute fast/1 minute easy), 3 miles easy
Thursday: 4-6 miles easy
Friday: Rest and recovery
Saturday: Long run from 12 to 20 miles, with two training runs at 25 miles, and a 50K
Sunday: 4-8 miles easy (sometimes with hills)
Schmidt peaked above 60 miles in a week, with most weeks around 40, and 90 percent of those miles slow and relaxed, plus a small amount of focused intensity.
On race day, she repeated her favorite mantra, “This sucks, and that’s OK,” and finished in 24 hours. On the brutal Shawnee Hills course, she was the only person in her age group—male or female—to finish. So, through belief and persistence (plus support from her crew), she won the 20-29 category outright.
“I learned that you never know your boundaries until you push them, and you never know your limits until you find them,” Schmidt says. “Never listen to someone when they tell you to be smaller than you know you can be. The confidence and self love that comes from the experience of constantly redefining my limits helps me to know myself better and appreciate things about myself that I never have before.”
Starting Your Trail Journey
Schmidt’s journey to 100K was about much more than mileage and training hours. It had a lot to do with mindset.
Every day, Schmidt repeated three mantras, which can help anyone embarking on the trail running journey.
First, she says, let yourself slow down. “The first two miles of every run, I feel like a newborn fawn. My legs have no idea how to work, things feel so unnatural and it’s almost as if I’ve never run a day in my life.” Schmidt overcomes those first-mile feels by taking it easy, emphasizing consistency over speed.
Second, she says, recover intelligently. “Nourish your body with good food and make time for your warm-up routine, foam rolling and whatever other things work for you.”
Finally, she says, “Give yourself grace.” Schmidt wrote this down and put it on her fridge, a constant reminder to be patient with her journey. “Realize that you may not hit every mile every time, and that’s OK,” she says. “Training is a process, not a test. We are constantly growing and pushing and sometimes we don’t take the time to realize how far we have come because we are so focused on where we are going.”
David Roche runs for HOKA One One and NATHAN, and works with runners of all abilities through his coaching service, Some Work, All Play.