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Nancy Hobbs Makes Things Happen

The driving force behind U.S. trail running talks the state of the sport, how women’s mountain running has evolved, and her take on virtual learning.

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Nancy Hobbs is a serious trail runner with the endurance to show for it. And because she’s the executive director of the American Trail Running Association, that endurance is more important than ever. As 2021 marks the 25th anniversary of ATRA, trail running is in an interesting spot: The pandemic has inspired more and more people to hit the trails. Races and race directors have suffered from event cancellations, calling for creative ways to maintain community. Issues like diversity in trail running and climate action have been more in the spotlight, as they should be. With ATRA’s mission being to “represent and promote safe, fun and sustainable mountain, ultra and trail running,” Hobbs has a lot on her plate.

The Indiana native, now living in Colorado Springs, had the idea to form the association in 1995, after an article about trail running appeared in USA Today quoting the American Walking and Hiking Organization as the expert. “There needed to be an organization in the U.S. dedicated to trail running and mountain running,” she says.

Hobbs, who has an undergraduate degree in sports communications and journalism, and having worked in administration at both the Olympic Committee and the Triple Crown of Running (which includes the Pikes Peak Ascent and Marathon), decided to put together ATRA and launched the organization in 1996. She’s also been a key player in getting the United States involved in the World Mountain Running scene: She’s the chairperson of the USA Track and Field Mountain Ultra Trail Council and is on the World Mountain Running Association Council.

We caught up with Hobbs from her Colorado Springs home.

WR: How did you get into administration, which is key to both your heading up of ATRA and your role with the U.S. Mountain Running Team?

NH: I worked an internship for the Olympic Committee. Olympic hopefuls in different sports would come to the Olympic Training Center, and I’d take their photos, write articles, and promote the Olympic movement through stories.

I always wanted to do photography. I had worked at a camera shop. I starting taking pictures with a Kodak Instamatic when I was 10. I loved horses, and became an equine photographer. I had this business going when I was 15 years old where I’d take pictures of people in horse shows, send them the proofs, and they’d buy the photos. My dad built me a dark room in our house.

I volunteered at the horse stables so I could get lessons. I was a little entrepreneur. When we had horse shows, I helped do all the registration. I’d do everything a running race director would do but at a horseshow when I was a teenager. I cooked, put ribbons on the horses, sent out envelopes and mailers.

That all sort of translated to race organizations and how to put on an event. A bunch of years later, I got a graduate degree in Public Administration.

WR: What were the early roles of ATRA in the sport of trail running back in the 90s, and how has that changed?

NH: People wanted a calendar of events, so the impetus of ATRA was built around a calendar of events and resources to share information about the sport. It’s morphed quite a bit. We still have the calendar, but now we do a lot in sustainability, diversity, climate action… We have pillars of brand involvement, race involvement, and runner involvement. With that, we try to address topics that are akin to those three pillars, or all three collectively.

We try to address that through education. We’re now working on a podcast resource. We’re changing and evolving with the times. Having a staff of independent contractors with diverse ages helps us stay more present and continue to help focus on and address things happening within our sport.

Over the years what I’ve seen changing and evolving in the sport is the impact and interest that brands have taken, the media has taken, and in race directors. It’s all driven by the consumer, and there’s a response from the brands that helps people get out on the trails more comfortably and more prepared. You see images of people running on trails in advertising and running magazines and beyond. The media is not only in magazine or print, but podcasts about trail running are growing. People are hungry for information about the sport.

WR: How has the pandemic affected ATRA’s mission?

NH: We recently wrapped up a survey to 2,500 trail runners about the sport within the pandemic. We asked questions like, “What are we doing to create community when it’s hard to find community in this time?” We’re trying to address that, and create demographics that people can utilize.

Because of the pandemic, we’re trying to create that community people are missing without races. Competitive runners are chasing FKTs, people are doing virtual races, following each other on Strava. If you’re extremely introverted, you might go on a website here and there. The pandemic is challenging for a lot of people mentally… not being at a race where there’s a lot of people and trying to find engagement. We’re trying to help find those other ways where you can create community. I think it’s podcasts, reading articles, and learning about different things related to trails.

The U.S. Trail Running Conference that we usually host in person was a hybrid version of in-person and virtual access and opened up a whole new audience, which is very positive.

At the same time, we’re seeing run specialty stores closing, and race directors are closing their doors. It’s a tough time, but at the end of the day, things are gonna come back.

WR: You also have a huge role with the U.S. Mountain Running Team getting involved, and then finding success, on the world scene.

NH: I started being involved in the World Mountain Running Championships in 1995 and have gone every year since. Back then, we didn’t have a women’s team. They weren’t inviting women to come over and participate. But we pulled together a women’s team in 1995 really last minute. We finished at the bottom. So when the women won their first medal in 2004 (a bronze), I was ecstatic. We got some funding in 2002 and started getting more notoriety. Things evolved a lot. We started having selection races. We learned a lot through the process, got the athletes involved, and surveyed them. I always felt transparency, authenticity and grassroots were always the most important things in creating a movement… creating an organic feel. I learned that from the Olympic Committee.

[Editorial note: The women’s team has since won gold four times, in 2006, 2007, 2012, and 2017. The men’s team won gold in 2016.]

WR: Let’s talk about social media, and your “NanoOnTrails” posts that span gorgeous photos from trails around the world, to fun, very animated educational lessons that you post… which you start with a very funny, “WASSUP?”

NH: I use social media to share things. I love taking pictures. People seem to like pretty pictures, and I think it can be really helpful these days. I think I’ve noticed more people posting the images that are more thoughtful when they’re not feeling good. People are becoming more authentic and really sharing that deep dive into mentally—like “I’m not doing great and I just want to share that.” People use social media as a resource, so I think the realness is a better way to use it than comparing each other to someone’s “happy life.”

I started the educational videos because I have friends who are teachers who, when virtual learning started, were saying, “What am I going to do?” I was inspired to use my “NanoOnTrails” persona because my dad was a professor. I’d find things around my house, research that thing, and shoot these little videos under the persona and with a prop. I didn’t think they were that funny but my friends did. I’m going to have to resurrect those.

I’ve always been very creative. I love to write. I don’t get to write beyond press releases. My favorite photographs are those that tell a story. And I can do it in videos.

Plus, if you go, “Wassup!” somebody smiles.