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Tara Savage is glad she discovered running later in life, but she admits she had to travel around the globe to find it.
The 44-year-old American ex-pat school teacher and single mother of three has lived and traveled all over the world and immersed in several cultures, but she only picked up the universal language of running five years ago, after more than a decade living in Bangkok.
“I had always been into fitness and a couple of years ago, a friend of mine said, ‘I’m doing a 10K run, do you want to join?’ And I thought, ‘Wow, that seems like a long race. I don’t know if I can do it, but let me give it a try,’” Savage says. “And then after the race, he says that he and some other runners were going to do a few more loops. So I did a few more loops, and it sort of snowballed from there. I loved it.”
Skipping the traditional path of running half marathons and marathons, and partly fueled by the need to refocus her life after going through a divorce, the native of upstate New York developed a penchant for extraordinarily long runs, participating in numerous ultra-distance races around Southeast Asia. In December, she ran her first 100-miler, placing 11th overall and fifth in her age-group at Thailand by UTMB.
With an energetic, spunky spirit and a constant thirst for adventure, it’s perhaps no surprise that Savage has found her calling as a trail runner. In many ways, long ultra-distance runs have perfectly sated her quest for adventure in the natural world while reaffirming her zest of being a strong, fit, and ambitious woman and mother.
“My heart is in the mountains, hands down,” says Savage, who is known for wearing brightly colored running outfits and bright blue eye shadow when she runs. “I need to be out there. I need to run. It’s a combo. The runner’s high is brilliant, for sure. But it’s also that push, physically finding your limits and then pushing past those limits, proving that you truly are capable of anything.”
When she was younger, Savage had an itch to see the world. After studying abroad in both Ireland and India in college, and earning degrees in music performance and eastern religious studies, she returned home to Clifton Park, but found splitting time working as a waitress and a personal trainer at a local gym wasn’t going to cut it. “It was hard to make ends meet, and I was just bored out of my mind,” she says, recalling how she eschewed the life that many of her twentysomething friends fell into.
So she packed her bags again and took a job teaching English at a school in Japan, a gig that enabled her to become fluent in Japanese in the process. After several months, though, her sense of adventure was twitching again. She stuck it out for a year before heading to Kathmandu, to learn Nepalese and do some long mountain treks through the Himalaya. That eventually led her another job teaching English in a village outside of Pokhara.
From there it was off to Suwon, South Korea for a year, where she learned Korean while earning a black belt in Tae Kwon Do. While living in South Korea, she and her then-husband visited Thailand and loved it so much, they decided to move.
She says she immediately appreciated both the Thai culture and the Western comforts available in cosmopolitan Bangkok, plus the chance to teach at an international school that offered great benefits. Thai food, local hiking trails, tropical beaches, and Thailand’s proximity to so many other countries were also big plusses, as was the chance to further her career and remotely earn an international education degree from a U.S. school.
Although the marriage dissolved, she and her ex-husband have remained rooted in raising their three children—Joe, 14, Jade, 10, and Jesse, 7—with the same multicultural flair that brought them there. Each of their kids speaks English, Thai, and Mandarin, have classmates from the U.S., Sweden, England, China, Japan, France, Italy, Thailand, Australia, and The Philippines, and have traveled to nearly a dozen countries.
Savage says she’s made it a point to learn the local language every place she’s lived, not only because it helps her with her jobs but also because it facilitates a much richer and deeper cultural experience. It’s rare for foreigners to be able to have fluent conversations in Thai, she says, but she’s become proficient enough to talk on the phone in her surrogate language.
“Thai is a tough language … to have basic speaking ability, it took maybe a year or two,” she says. “There are words with vowels in front of, behind, under and above the consonants, and sometimes the vowel just disappears. You can get a word with all consonants, and somehow you are supposed to know the vowels are there.
“Eventually, I started to study the written language to understand the tones and accents of the spoken language. I can read Thai slowly now and speak on the phone, so I think that’s pretty good.”
Savage has also found similarities and crossovers between immersing in a new culture and fully engaging in running.
Over the last several years, she has run numerous races, between 50K and 100K, in Thailand, Hong Kong, and Vietnam, occasionally winning her age group. She primarily runs with the Bangkok Runners, a running group that includes ex-pats from the U.S., U.K., Australia, Hong Kong, and many other countries, as well as local Thai runners.
That group meets on weekends for long runs, trains together for local races, and organizes low-key fun events (i.e., full moon runs, all-night runs, and Halloween night runs in costumes) throughout the year.
“Finding Bangkok Runners was exactly what I needed when I found it. I was just going through my separation, and I kind of needed a group of friends, people to hang out with and people to run with,” she says. “It’s a great group because they come from everywhere and they’re different kinds of runners: fast runners, slow runners, long runners, short runners. It’s just a cool group of people.”
Savage has also engaged in many running adventures on her own. Two years ago, she ran a 50K on the roof of her 33-story condominium building to raise money for COVID aid in Thailand and to support friends working on the front lines of the coronavirus in New York City.
Last June, she took on the Everesting Challenge and became the first person in Thailand to accumulate at least 8,848 meters (or 29,028 feet, the equivalent height of Mt. Everest) in one push while running repeated laps on Khao Chalak Trail, which goes up and down a mountain on the southeast of Bangkok. The only problem was that she miscalculated the distance and her 36 laps on that trail resulted in her accumulating a whopping 11,400 meters (or 37,400 feet) over 166km (103.1 miles) during her 38-hour self-imposed grind.
At her peak of training last year, Savage was running 75 to 100 miles per week with a lot of elevation gain and back-to-back long run days. When her kids are with their father, she often flies to Chiangmai, a mountainous region in northern Thailand known for great trail running.
Although she says she struggled at times during her 100-mile debut at Thailand by UTMB (the race included 28,169 feet of elevation gain through the mountain and jungle terrain of Doi Inthanon National Park), her tenacity and a bit of self-reflection helped her recover from IT band achiness and a few wrong turns. She finished with a smile on her face after more than 44 hours of running.
“You cross the finish line having learned something, usually quite a few things,” Savage says. “I find when I am in the woods alone for hours, through the night as well, I find my mind has the chance to explore all of the things I don’t normally have the time to explore. Or perhaps my mind doesn’t want to explore. But out there alone in the wilderness, you are forced to face your truths, ask questions, and often find some surprising answers.”
Savage earned enough points in her 100-miler to qualify for the CCC 100K race during the Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc festival of races in Chamonix, France, in late August. It’s a daunting 62-mile race through the heart of the Alps that starts in Courmayeur, Italy, passes through Champex Lac, Switzerland, and eventually finishes in Chamonix. She’ll be training for that race this spring and summer with some of the Bangkok Runners who will also be heading to France to race.
“I love being outside, in the forest, jungle, and mountains for hours and hours,” she says. “I need that communion with the natural world for balance, for stability in my life. I also do the long distances because I really long for the deep lows that come during the long hauls. But it’s not the deep lows so much that I look forward to, but it’s the strength and resilience I need to discover within myself to pull myself out of those deep lows. It’s a very transformative experience.”