Welcome to the eleventh installment ofThe Story Goes, a monthly column of stories told by Eric Senseman about someone, somewhere in the sport of running. You can find every installment of the columnhere.
If you had to describe a friend of yours with just one word, what word would you choose?
The one-word-only description of a person is an interesting exercise, I think, since you have to reduce a person to a single thing, in effect trying to capture the expansive and nuanced essence of a complicated person in just one word. It’s reductionist in that it oversimplifies a much more elaborate reality, but it also has this weird result, where your mind quickly replays the many experiences you’ve had with another person, and then your brain’s hardware goes to work swiftly and somehow processes all this data in a split second to find a pattern that you then turn into a lone descriptor.
When I think ofAnna Frost, the word that immediately comes to mind is happy. I’ve seen her quite intoxicated after taking multiple tequila shots off other people’s bodies; I’ve seen her hunched over her hiking poles in the middle of the night, reeling in pain from the tortuous course that is the Hardrock 100, halfway up a snow-covered pass in the San Juan Mountains; I’ve seen her abstain from late-night partying to take care of herself while she was pregnant, forgoing the late-night revelry for a higher cause; I’ve seen her dash down a steep mountainside while being pelted with hail to narrowly avoid exposure during a lightning storm; I’ve watched her yell in excitement after winning a game of cards. Through all of those moments--the sober and drunk ones; the challenging and fun ones; the thrilling and mundane ones--she has always seemed at peace in the most fundamental way, as if she understands her place in the universe and has accepted it and embraced it and is happy because of it.
I had known of Anna Frost since I started ultrarunning in 2011. Anyone who took even a cursory interest in the sport would have known of Frost, or “Frosty”, as she’s often called. At that time, Frost was at the top of the mountain and ultrarunning universe, winning and setting course records nearly every time she toed a start line. She also seemed a very graceful winner, someone who cheered on the finishers behind her and interacted with anyone that introduced themselves. Beyond winning, I think it was those latter qualities that endeared her to fellow competitors and fans of the sport alike.
I felt like I knew Frost before I had actually met her, probably because she was in the spotlight as often as anyone in the sport and because she seemed entirely candid both in her words when she was interviewed after races, and in her actions when she was racing. Frost seemed like the type of person who didn’t much care about winning, at least for its own sake. It’s not that she conveyed an air of pretense or acted like she was too cool, it was that she didn’t seem to revel in her victories. It was as though she realized that winning was a fleeting thing that couldn’t be bottled up and held on to forever. It was as though she raced because she loved the wind in her hair and the sun in her face and blood pumping through her muscles, and she just happened to be good enough to win most races she ran. It was as though she raced to be alone with herself and the consequence for that sort of intimate experience was media attention and fanfare at the finish line, which she didn’t desire but she would put up with gracefully as a show of gratitude for the hours of punishment she was just allowed to endure alone. She also seemed intensely kind, constantly with a smile, asking questions and seemingly interested in anyone who approached her at a race. When I finally did get to know Frost, I found out that my perceptions of her were mostly true.
I was in the Canary Islands off the coast of Africa in 2016 for a race on the island of La Palma called Transvulcania. A two-time winner of the race in 2012 and 2014, Frost had no shortage of fans on the island that weekend. The locals adored her. Frost and I were friends at that point, having met in Flagstaff, Arizona in 2014, and we met at race headquarters to pick up our bib numbers a few days before the race. Frost was sort of only half able to chat with me because there was an endless rotation of people saying hello to her or asking for an autograph or shaking her hand or whatever. Then a funny thing happened where she got her bib and I gave the volunteer my name and they didn’t have a bib for me because I wasn’t signed up.
Admittedly, I was new to the international racing scene and I suppose I thought that perhaps international registration systems worked differently, or that a big race like Transvulcania handled elite entries differently than in the U.S. The short story is that I had traveled to Transvulcania as part of a sponsored team, and evidently I just assumed that because the team was invited to run the race, we already had entries. But the truth was that you had to register for the race just like everyone else and I hadn’t done that. Now the race was full and I was standing there, surely with a befuddled look on my face as I tried to process everything written in this paragraph, and Frost looked at me and said something, probably something like, “Why does your face look like that?” or “What’s wrong?” I explained the situation to her and she told me to follow her. We walked around the huge outdoor tent that was large enough to host a circus but which actually served as the headquarters for race check-in, and after a while we found the person Frost was looking for, and that person was the Transvulcania race director.
Frost now explains my situation to the race director and asks, as a personal favor to her, if I can please be entered in the race (I was planning to race the marathon, not the ultramarathon, but I don’t think that makes a difference and now I’m not sure why I’m even mentioning it). The race director agrees that, yes, I can enter the race but this can’t happen again and it’s a one-time only thing. I had only known Frost for two years and we had only hung out a handful of times and she was more than happy to call in this favor for me without my even asking for it. I remember thinking that that’s the sort of thing that only a genuinely happy person would do for someone else.
Later that year, in July of 2016, Frost won the Hardrock 100 for the second consecutive year. When the race came around again in 2017, she decided she’d race it again and asked me to pace her for a section of the course. I would join her in Ouray, about fifty-five miles into the race that year, and escort her up and over Virginius Pass, through Kroger’s Canteen aid station, and down into Telluride--a roughly seventeen-mile stretch that would push her past the seventy mile mark in the race. This meant that we’d ascend toward the snowy, thirteen-thousand-plus foot pass, and then down the backside, in the dark.
The Hardrock 100 is an exceptionally difficult race. The majority of the course is higher than ten thousand feet above sea level. Most of the course is above treeline and exposed to the elements. The total ascent over the course of the race amounts to climbing to the top of Mt. Everst from Everst base camp twice. I’m not sure what success really looks like at Hardrock beyond simply completing the course under the forty-eight hour cutoff because anyone I’ve ever seen finish the race, and many people who haven’t, look a lot like they’ve been walking through an unforgiving mountain landscape for several days without enough food and maybe saw a ghost while they were out there.
When I picked up Frost in Ouray that year, she looked like maybe she should have already been finished, which is to say that she looked worked. She ate grilled cheese and drank soup and changed shoes and her crew replenished the water bottles and gels in her pack, and then we were shuffling down the road and up the long climb toward Kroger’s Canteen. It got dark soon after we left Ouray and the darkness put a chill in the air, and Frost took a break to put on warm clothes from her pack. (At the same time, she also ate a gel and in watching her eat the gel, I learned how to eat gels efficiently for the first time: you have to squeeze the packet from the bottom and as the bottom of the packet empties, you fold it over onto itself again and again until every last drop of gel is squeezed out. If you remember nothing else about Frost, remember that she’s a pro when it comes to eating gels.)
I had never seen Frost so uncomfortable. Even sitting down seemed painful, as the grimacing never ceased during those short breaks. I really wondered if she would get over the pass and into Telluride, nevermind the nearly thirty miles beyond that she still had to go. She would take heavy, labored steps and stop every so often to lean over her poles and moan in despair. She really couldn’t talk much, and she only half listened if I urged her to drink more water or praised her progress. We eventually did make it into Telluride and in the process Frost actually started running at a decent clip and she caught the third place woman as she entered the aid station. She eventually did finish in fourth place but that’s not really the point.
When I saw Frost cross the finish line later that morning, her trademark smile had returned. She ran down the dirt road with her pacer and boyfriend (now husband), Braz, by her side. I couldn’t tell if she was happy to be finished, or happy about the journey she just endured, or happy because of the people by her side. But she was unmistakably happy and I don’t think it would have mattered had she won the race, or finished fourth or last.
In the latter stages of her running career, Frost began to say things like: “Running is what I do, it’s not who I am.” When I say that her fourth-place finish isn’t really the point, or that Frost doesn’t really care about winning for its own sake, I’m trying to illustrate her very succinct point. I think, too, that Frost’s distinction between who she is and what she does allows her to be happy. If running and identity are tied together, then you are only as good as your last result. If you have a bad race, and your identity is tied to your running, then you might conclude that you are inadequate or not good enough. It will make you feel worthless, unfulfilled or, perhaps even worse, sad.
When I see Anna Frost happy, I see a person who runs for the right reasons: she doesn’t do it for fame or fortune, notoriety or accolades. (As a quick aside to make this point, during that same race weekend at Transvulcania in 2016, we were spectating at the vertical kilometer and Frost had been gracious as ever in chatting with fans. But it had been a long day of being gracious and I’m sure she was quite tired and besides she had to race the next and finally she just ran down the beach away from everyone and if it wasn’t obvious before, it was very obvious then that she had had no interest in the notoriety she had accrued, civil as she always was in being notorious.)
She runs because she loves to and because it empowers her to do other things through which she can empower others. For example, as a global ambassador forSisuGirls, and now an acting member in the organization, she has worked to inspire and encourage girls and boys to develop bravery and determination through sport and adventure. She even gave aTedX talk a few years go, the title of which is “Raising adventurous and brave children”. Winning for its own sake was never of interest to Frost. But Frost’s winning has allowed her to help teach children the power of bravery and determination, which can in turn lead children to winning and opportunities and a platform to inspire.
Her winning has also allowed her to raise adventurous and brave children of her own. Frost and Braz now have a daughter, Skylar, who will doubtless learn to be adventurous and brave and determined and happy, just like her mother.