2021 “Naturalist 50K” 1st Place Finisher
On October 2, my sleepy western North Carolina town hosted it’s annual “Naturalist 50k”, named after the late botanist-explorer, William Bartram, who was also an accomplished artist, horticulturalist, first-peoples ally, abolitionist, animal-rights advocate. In 1775, he explored the southeast on horse back as told in his account, TRAVELS. The mountains where I live are home to the Bartram Trail, which is roughly the route he took, and where Amy Johnson was the first woman to achieve an overall win in this rigorous race through the Nantahala forest, into the town of Franklin, NC, where the race is hosted by Outdoor 76, our local outdoors store and pub.
I hadn’t planned to even attend the race and it’s festivities with too much admin on my plate at my small eco-tours business. But when my partner, who is the director of the Blue Ridge Bartram Trail Conservancy sent me a simple text with a picture of this un-fazed woman (we’ve come to know as 37 year-old Amy Johnson of Clayton, NC) blowing past his support station on Wayah Bald, I pulled my boots on and peeled out for town in our work truck so I wouldn’t miss her finish, which clocked in at 5:43.
Angela: Amy Johnson, tell us about the beginnings of your journey that recently led you to your victory in the Naturalist 50k. Was/is running your first (and only) passion?
Amy: I started running regularly about 15 years ago, once I graduated from nursing school and suddenly had a lot more time for it. It quickly became part of my daily routine. I love spending time outdoors in general whether it be hiking, kayaking, snowboarding, etc. Physical activity and time outdoors are both things I am passionate about and need on a daily basis. Running allows me to fulfill both of those needs simultaneously. My husband is also a runner and running or hiking together is the way we spend quality time with one another. We love traveling to new places and exploring them on our own two feet!
We also enjoy the excitement of a race. Over the past several years, we have lived in some smaller towns where a 5 or 10k race was a primary means of fundraising for local organizations so we would hop into as many of them as we could. It’s a win – win situation because it motivates us to work on speed, while also contributing to a good cause. It’s also fun to be surrounded by fellow runners. My husband is in the military so we have moved across the country a few times. (From New Mexico to Kentucky to Texas to North Carolina) Running has been the way we have met people in our new location and has helped us feel like a part of the communities we live in. It has been the way we have made some really great friends who encouraged us along our running journey. We have been through 2 deployments and many other months spent away from each other, but having running as an outlet and having other runner friends has helped me us get through those tough times.
The encouragement from fellow runners is what led me to run my first marathon in 2016. It was a small race but I loved it and knew I wanted to do it again. My husband and I ran the Grandfather Mountain Marathon (my 2nd marathon) in which I ended up placing 1st in my age group. Later that year, we ran the Savannah Rock ‘n Roll Marathon. When I finished, a fellow runner congratulated me on my BQ (Boston Qualifier). I wasn’t quite sure what she was talking about. The marathon was so new to me then that I had no clue what my Boston Qualifying standard was or how getting in even worked until I googled it after the race! Since then, I’ve had the honor to run 3 Boston Marathons (2020 being virtual of course, but still one I had to qualify for). I’ve enjoyed every single road race I have done, but my heart is on the trails.
In 2018, we were living in Texas. My husband had just returned from a year-long deployment and after being home for only 6 months was offered a temporary assignment at Fort Bragg. We had always enjoyed visiting North Carolina and had decided that it was a state we would love to live in one day so while I hated for him to leave, I was excited at the thought of going to visit him, which I did about every 4 weeks! When I wasn’t visiting, he spent his weekends exploring the area and signed up for some local races. On a whim, he signed up for the 2018 Naturalist 50K. It was only his second 50K and having just moved from Texas and also recently returning from a Middle Eastern deployment, he hadn’t run any significant elevation in over a year. It was a tough one for him but he said it was absolutely gorgeous and had a blast exploring Franklin and the surrounding area. This race has been on my bucket list ever since then!
On my next visit out to NC, we backpacked the Appalachian Trail from Fontana Dam to just south of the Nantahala Outdoor Center. We ended that trip by exploring Bryson City and Franklin, which we both fell in love with! This was a special hike/trip for us as there were some hints that his temporary position might become permanent and so possibility of making North Carolina a permanent move was on the horizon. We fantasized about moving back to the south and about expanding our family. Three months later, part of that dream came true and we made our new home in the Raleigh area! I had been running trails weekly in Texas and had done well in a few local trail races but this opened up a world of possibilities as far as new places to explore!
My husband had enjoyed the two 50K’s he had run so far and so we signed up for one the weekend after we moved – it was my first go at that distance. Our house was not even unpacked yet, but we couldn’t pass up the opportunity to get on the trails before the fall colors disappeared for the winter! I ran my 2nd and 3rd 50K’s in early 2019, placing 2nd female in both. No one knew yet, but the second part of our AT hike dreaming was about to come true as I was actually pregnant during that second 50K. I ran as long as I could during my pregnancy, up until about 33 weeks. I only did one other race which was the Army 10 miler in Washington DC. I did okay and got a lot of attention for the belly, but had to take a break from running after that one.
In November of 2019, we welcomed our sweet little girl to our family. A part of me wondered if I would ever be able to run well again or be able to make the time for it after having her, but to my surprise, these past 2 years have been some of my best yet. Once she turned 6 months old, she was finally large enough to go on runs in our jogging stroller. She napped and I ran around our neighborhood. This was also during the shutdown so while there was no racing going on, we had a pretty consistent routine of running every evening and I’ve been averaging about 150 – 200 miles a month since then. Since I push her in a stroller, I have to stick to the sidewalks rather than the trails I love so much but I honestly believe that pushing the stroller has been great training. Additionally, whenever we go hiking, I carry her on my back so I’m used to being on the trails with 30+ lbs of weight, even when it’s just a day hike.
After having my daughter, I was hoping to get back in shape enough just to complete a 50k. While still pregnant, I signed up for the Grayson Highlands 50k which should’ve happened when I was about 6 months postpartum. Because of Covid, it got rescheduled to the fall but I did run it and surprised myself by coming in as the second female on what is a pretty challenging course. It was an amazing feeling having my husband and two kids right there at the finish line, spread out on a blanket snacking and playing…something that doesn’t happen at most road race finish lines. These days, my husband and I alternate racing so one of us can stay with the baby. We want race weekends to be an enjoyable experience for everyone so we look for races in scenic areas where the rest of the family can hike while the other is running and can have a fun, family-friendly place to hang out while waiting at the finish line. I also try to pick races that are logistically simple. You can’t go wrong with the welcoming environment and convenience of a small mountain town! The Naturalist certainly had all these bases covered!
Again, with my husband being in the military, our schedules are often uncertain and he was supposed to work the weekend that the Naturalist was being held so I had not planned on being able to run it this year. In fact I ran a 50K only 2 weeks prior – Table Rock Ultras (I placed 1st female, 6th overall. I signed up for that race only 2 days prior.) Shortly after finishing that one, his schedule changed and he asked if I wanted to run the Naturalist. I knew it was and still is the “hardest” 50K he had done so far, but of course I said “sign me up!” That is a last minute decision I do not regret!
Angela: Tell us about some of your other achievements and how does placing 1st in the Naturalist rate among them for you, personally?
Amy: With all the doubts I have had about running and racing postpartum, I have surprised myself and have had a pretty great year. Highlights of this year include:
- Conquer the Rock 50K – Time 5:50, 1st Female, 3rd overall and female course record
- Down the Mountain Marathon – my marathon PR at 3:06. 1st Female, 4th overall.
This race is along the Virginia Creeper Trail, which is so scenic and our cottage was along the route so it was great to see my family at mile 17 and at the end.
At my first attempt at the 50-mile distance. I went into it not even knowing if I would finish since I had never run more than 31 miles before, but once I was out there, I just enjoyed it and then pushed at the end to get back to my baby girl and it paid off! I was 1st place overall.
This was a huge victory and coming into the finish line and seeing my husband and baby girl was great! However, it didn’t feel like I had won anything. The race director gave me a hesitant congratulations and then proceeded to go into the timing tent and look at the computer screens and make some calls – I assume he was contacting the aid stations to ensure I had actually made it to the turnaround and hadn’t cut the course. I suppose it was not expected that a female would come in first.
And of course, the Naturalist 50K!
The course was beautiful! The weather couldn’t have been better. The volunteer support was great and the finish line festivities were perfect – fun, family-friendly and great energy! It was nice to see other runners finish and then chat with them. And I cannot complain about the win!
We found a great little cabin right down the road from the start/finish but far enough to feel like we were in the mountains, which made for a great overall weekend! We spent the afternoon on the cabin porch, then went back in to town and visited the Lazy Hiker where we had a great conversation with some locals. We walked around and enjoyed the live music of the fall festival. Then we got up the next morning and hiked 6 miles on the AT near Winding Stair Gap. It was a perfect weekend in my book and one I will never forget!
As I had mentioned, the mountains of North Carolina hold a special place in our hearts. I am so excited that my kids are growing up being able to explore this area and I hope that they love it as much as I do.
Most but not all of my ultra-race details are listed at: https://ultrasignup.com/results_participant.aspx?fname=Amy&lname=Ross+-+Johnson
Angela: The author Anna Tokarchuk said a thing after winning the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2019 that I love: “Today it is exactly one hundred ten years since the first woman won the Nobel Prize in Literature – Selma Lagerlöf. I bow low to her across time, and to all the other women, all the female creators who boldly exceeded the limiting roles society imposed on them, and had the courage to tell their story to the world loud and clear. I can feel them standing behind me. We really have won the Nobel!”
I wish I could be surprised by your experience with the under-whelming response to your win by the organizer, which you endured at the MST 50 mile race… Local women in particular beam with pride when your Naturalist 50k win comes up. Do you think there is an element of shock in races when a woman wins it for the first time? Or do you chalk it down to sexism or even misogyny when this happens?
And what change would you like to see, should your daughter compete, if she decides to run races?
Amy: I do think that many people are surprised when a woman out-performs the men and rightfully so as physiologically speaking, men are typically stronger and faster than women. However, trail and ultra-running requires much more than just physical strength and speed. With increased difficulty in the course, conditions (such as weather, mud, etc.) and the longer the distance, the toughness and endurance that is required becomes more mental and less physical. This seems to even out the playing field between men and women.
I think this fact is just recently becoming recognized as more women enter the trail and ultra-running scene. In fact, as I type this up on Sunday morning, I just saw that a woman won a pretty difficult 100 miler – the Cloudsplitter 100 in Norton, VA. The Facebook post reads “OVERALL 100 MILE CHAMPION IS A WOMAN! Mika Thewes from Golden, Colorado crossed the finish line in a course record of 22.37. Congratulations Mika!” It’s awesome that they gave her a shout-out like that, but the surprise that a woman won is evident.
The general public, or at least the running world, is starting to take notice that women can compete with men when it comes to this sport. This was recently the case at one of the most famed American ultra-marathons, the Western States 100 (often considered the super-bowl of ultra-running) where 3 women made up the top 10 finishers, 9 women were in the top 20 and 15 in the top 30! The conditions, mainly heat, made for an exceptionally tough race, but the women clearly prevailed!
I think things like this need to be celebrated because it sets an example for others and as women we need to encourage and support each other, whether it be in sport, business or other pursuits. Hopefully the more attention we give to women breaking barriers, the weaker those barriers become.
I think that my experience with winning the 50 miler and similar instances is mostly related to naivety. Of course, there could be other factors involved, but as a generally positive person, I’d like to think that that is not the case.
There have been many times where I have been the new person joining in on a group run, and as a faster runner, I find myself in the front of the group surrounded by males. There have been a handful of times where I felt that there was some annoyance by my presence, or that it was awkward and I purposely slowed or changed course, but for the most part, runners tend to be some of the most encouraging and accepting people. Women cheering on other women is great, but having men cheer for and encourage women makes a statement and is something we need more of. I think this helps women feel more accepted, safer and sets a good example for the younger male generation.
I do see some races trying to make an effort at making their events more female- friendly. There are the noticeable things like equal podium spots and awards and the less noticeable things like feminine products at aid stations, pregnancy deferrals and gender-specific race apparel. I can’t tell you how many race t-shirts I have either given away or stuffed in a pajama drawer because a unisex small is just not the same as a women’s small – especially the sleeves, which make it just not appropriate for wearing in public.
I think we are on the verge of creating the change that needs to happen to make races and other sports more accessible and appealing to women. I recently discovered the Trail Sisters community whose mission is “To increase women’s participation and opportunity in trail running and hiking through inspiration, education and empowerment.” I started joining group runs with my local Raleigh-Durham Trail Sisters group just to meet some other women trail runners in the area, but in researching the organization, I found that they have a race calendar and by meeting certain criteria, most of which I mentioned, races can be listed as Trail Sisters-approved events. This is definitely a step in the right direction and I hope to see more races seeking to attract and welcome more women. Progress is being made but there is still a long way to go when it comes to equality in sports. I think much of it starts in the schools and youth sports where in many places, the attention still goes to the males.
As for myself, I can’t say that I struggle with feeling unsafe or unwelcome in a male- dominated environment, but I know that this is not the case for many females. Of course I have heard one too many annoying cat calls while out on a run, but I’ve never had any horrible experiences or traumas that might make me feel like I don’t belong or like I can’t run in an unfamiliar location or alone at night (don’t tell my mom though,
lol). I do recognize that I am lucky in this way and I hope that my daughter and other young girls can have the same or a better experience. I recognize that I am privileged to be able to run and feel safe doing so, but not everyone has that opportunity. This is why it’s important to create safe spaces for people to be active and to have youth sports and other programs that are accessible for everyone. Above all, I hope that my daughter will find herself surrounded by encouragers and that she gains confidence to pursue whatever interests and/or pastimes she wishes.
Angela: Seeing the beautiful support of your family and hearing about the mutual support you have in your running community, what are some of the ways you support yourself through nutrition or other self-care?
Amy: Self-care is so important but is often overlooked when faced with life’s competing priorities. I am of the belief that we are able perform better in all of our roles when we have taken care of our own needs. I can focus more wholeheartedly on my family when I am feeling good myself, and I feel my best when I have gotten in my day’s workout. For this reason, I prefer to get my workouts/runs in first thing in the
morning. However with the baby, I’ve had to adapt and now I run more often in the evening. I do try to get at least 30 – 60 minutes of weight training in at least 4 – 5 times a week. I think this is key in injury prevention. I am also a huge believer in yoga. It has just as many mental and emotional benefits as it does physical ones. I used to practice yoga about twice a week in a studio but that also has been more difficult to squeeze in with the little one these days.
As far as nutrition goes, I live by the 80/20 rule. I eat fairly clean most of the time, but if I do not deprive myself of foods that I enjoy and do not let diet restrictions rule my life. I do enjoy cooking so unless we are traveling, my family eats home cooked meals 99% of the time. I meal prep on weekends and take my lunch to work. We have a plant- centered diet, but I do eat eggs and dairy, especially cheese. I don’t avoid processed foods altogether but I try to stay as close to whole foods as possible and I buy local, seasonal produce and base the meals I cook around that.
Angela: And finally, I love that you also backpack and treat yourself to the beauty of the mountains at a different pace sometime! Tell us some of your upcoming plans for future races and backpacking trips.
Amy: North Carolina is such an awesome state and there is so much to explore so close by. We try to make it out to the mountains as much as possible. Most of the time we travel for a race, which is what determines the location but we always try to further explore the area by hiking on the non-race days. My husband and I both have a bucket- list of races that we would like to complete at some point in our lives, but nothing is too extravagant. Although I like to plan and have things to look forward to, more often than not, our trips tend to be spontaneous. With my husband being in the military it is hard to plan things out too far in advance.
We do have a lifetime goal of hiking the entire Appalachian Trail at some point in our lives. This may not happen until we are retired and it may have to happen in segments, but eventually we would like to complete it. We also tend to gravitate towards the Mountains to Sea trail so any time we find ourselves near it, we try to get some more miles there. Hopefully one day we will also complete at least the actual trail sections of the MST. We also hope to one day have visited all the NC state parks. I believe we’ve been to 15 so far but I really like the junior ranger program so we will probably do them all again once our daughter is a bit older.
I am actually not currently signed up for any other races, which is unusual but in all honesty we are hoping to expand our family so I have been hesitant to sign up for any races too far out. Winter racing is not my favorite, but I have a few nearby races that I am keeping my eye on and if they don’t sell out, I may join in. Other than local races, I don’t typically go back to run a race that I have previously done only because I’d rather go somewhere new. However, we did have a great time at the Naturalist so something tells me we will be back!
Angela-Faye Martin is the co-founder of Alarka Expeditions, an arts & ecology-based workshop and river tours company in the western mountains of North Carolina. She is also a songwriter, who primarily depicts her surrounding forests, with two albums, Pictures from Home (produced by the late Mark Linkous of Sparklehorse) and Anniversary, recorded in Richmond, VA.