Two roads diverge in a yellow wood. While Robert Frost may have taken the road less traveled, Kathy Smith has found passion and purpose by abandoning the road altogether.
Smith has been running all her life, but is a relatively recent convert to the world of ultramarathons and trail running. But in just four short years, she’s made a name for herself as well as plenty of new friends and memories in this small niche of runners that revel in the idea of pushing their bodies to the ultimate limit.
“In the Smokies you can have virgin trail for miles and miles. You might see a squirrel or a bear or nothing at all. You just never know... and the [other runners] are so encouraging. I’ve always felt welcome," she says.
This camaraderie and shared love of nature has been one of the biggest highlights for Smith. “I don’t even compete in every race,” she admits. “It’s fun to win, but it’s also fun to just run with your friends and not be so competitive all the time.” Smith is a member of the Knoxville Track Club and helps organize races for the Treadin’ Trodden Trail Series, which hosts more than a dozen runs at city, county, and state parks across East Tennessee.
But don’t, for all of her community involvement, think that Smith isn’t also a competitor. When she shows up to compete, she’s out to beat everybody, male and female. She has finished in the top two amongst her female peers at several races over the past couple of years, including the Double Top, Pinhoti, C&O Canal, and Pistol Ultra hundred mile races, the last of which earned her a spot among the top five female runners in the nation with an impressive time of 17:03.
While her record against her female peers is impressive, one of her favorite trail races was the 2013 Georgia Jewel, which she won outright. “I beat everyone—boys and girls—so that was definitely memorable,” she says. This gender-blind competitiveness began in high school, where she ran and competed on the all-male Cross Country team. “There was no girls team, so I ran with the guys.”
Smith works for the local school system coordinating after school and summer camp programs, as well as managing BCS-TV, the district’s television station. “I love kids and I love to run,” she says. But while the two passions might have some modest crossover, it seems like her life of work and family remains in many ways distinct from her life as a runner. She and her husband have two adult children, and they all support her running habit to varying degrees, but she confesses that at a deeper level, “...they don’t get it. They don’t know why mom runs that far.”
That's a fair question. With so many more convenient running opportunities available, why would someone choose to run hundred mile long races across unpredictable landscapes with roots, rocks, dirt, wild animals and often very steep elevation gains? Part of her response to that question is very reasonable. Smith says that while trail runners might be more prone to falls, the overuse injuries in the knees and hips and ankles are far less common than those found among her pavement-pounding counterparts. “And when you do fall [on the trail], it’s usually softer ground,” she says. “And you get up and you’re fine and you just keep on going.”
But at a deeper level, Smith admits, it’s hard to explain the sport to outsiders. “[W]e know that people think we’re crazy, but that’s okay, because we know we’re crazy,” she laughs. “It’s different when you don’t know you’re crazy.” She’ll still run road races from time to time, but the wild and unpredictable challenges of running in the mountains have become her passion, and it’s a passion that isn’t going away anytime soon. For her fiftieth birthday, Smith is running the Great Smoky Mountains portion of the Appalachian Trail, a seventy-two mile stretch from Fontana to Davenport that includes an estimated 20,000 feet of cumulative elevation gain. “I cannot think of a better way to celebrate than spending all day and night in the mountains,” she says.
Smith embodies that beautiful mix of community and self-motivated perseverance that makes running a life-long sport for so many people. Whether she’s on road or off, Smith is surely taking the way less traveled, and, for her anyway, it’s making all the difference.