Sam Runyan | Teenage ultra-runner & Conservationist
#whywerun | Sam Runyan
Words & Images: Sam Runyan
My name is Samuel. I am 16, and I am an ultra-trail mountain runner from GSMNP, Tennessee. Aside from running, I have a deep passion for climate change and protecting our home planet, social issues, and I love to write, study philosophy, and spend time with my family.
I’ve pretty much been a runner all my life - I started playing soccer when I was four (with that comes a lot of running of course :), and was pretty obsessed (and still am! A Big Man City fan here :). After beginning to play soccer, I pretty much played soccer in the late winter/spring, and then in the summer/fall, I spent time in the mountains - my favorite place. Before moving on, a little backstory is that my ancestors lived in the mountains. My great grandparents lived in a section of what now is part of Great Smoky Mountains National Park, and is called Greenbrier (my favorite part of the park to this day!), so when the National Park Service came and forced them to sell their land, they gave my great grandfather a job as a park ranger since he knew the mountains like the back of his hand. And rightfully so because he had spent his whole life there. Naturally, because of this, my dad spent so much time in the mountains. Growing up, he spent the weekends with his grandparents (his grandfather was the park ranger) who lived right across the entrance to GSMNP in Pittman Center, TN (a small mountain town). And then on the weekdays, he would go back to his home with his parents in Sevierville, a larger town at the base of the Smokies. All to say, I was introduced to the mountains when I was very very young, and I loved them. So I balanced it out - soccer, then the mountains, and so on and so forth. This was how it was, and super awesome!
It wasn’t until I was 13 that trail running became a reality for me. I had dreamed of completing a famed route here in GSMNP called the Tour De LeConte - a 47-mile route with twelve-thousand feet of vertical gain and twelve-thousand feet of vertical loss that traverses all the trails (there are six) to Mt. LeConte, a 6,593’ ft peak (arguably the most famous mountain east of the Mississippi River here in the U.S.). I had spent time after time on Mt. LeConte growing up (this was my dad’s favorite GSMNP peak [and still is] and he has had 100s of summits to his name), and wanted to complete this route in one go because of my history on the route. I reached out to a guy I knew that was a trail runner who had just moved to New Mexico from here. I told him why I wanted to do the Tour and the plan I had for it, and he told me that since I was a runner, and I loved the mountains, but I never ran in the mountains and said that I needed to try my hand at trail running. And from there, it began. I fell in love with it (I then stopped soccer to spend more time in the mountains). I ran my first ultra-marathon when I was 14, and the love affair began. I ended up training and completed my first Tour De LeConte. I became the youngest to complete it and broke the under-18 age record. I finished the route in 14 hours and 30 minutes. It was truly a life-changing experience. This article talks about it -
Fast forward to the current day, I’m finishing up my summer of training - my last “big” run of the summer period is next weekend. A 40-mile (with about twelve-thousand feet of gain) FKT establishment running from the lowest point in the Smokies to the highest point. This past summer was my favorite summer of all time and I logged so many mountain miles and projects. I raced once this summer - a local trail half, and won, right before doing my second Tour De LeConte. This time it was longer because there were closures which made it out to 52 miles with thirteen-thousand feet of ascent and thirteen thousand feet of descent. I finished it in 10 hours and 46 minutes, enough for the fastest recorded time over that distance on Mt. LeConte. This is a write-up about that Tour - https://lecontest.com/a-long-
I am currently working on the FKT for the standard route, and my training partner, Anthony Groft, actually currently has it so we have some competition going on! This article talks about my latest Tour. Other than that, my summer has been filled with mountain miles on some of my favorite backyard loops, and I’m looking forward to the same this fall! Next year I have one big ultra here in the U.S. on the schedule, as well as some FKTs and projects (maybe a climate project/initiative mixed in with some friends as well!).
Zooming out on more of a broader level, running means so much to me. It’s more than a passion, it’s a way of life - it’s led me to meet so many people, and be able to connect with so many like-minded humans locally, nationally, and across the globe - which is so special. Running is an expression. We all come from unique and diverse backgrounds, yet are all connected through the simple aspect of traveling on our feet. I love trail running because it shows me what I can do, it shows me that if I am willing to put the work in, I can accomplish any goal, and most of all, it allows me to travel simply, efficiently, and naturally through the mountains - my homeland, where my roots are. However, we have to stand up for our home planet and do something about climate change, or there won’t be a place of solitude and strength like we have in the mountains for much longer. I fear for my generation - what we’ll experience if major changes are not made. I fear for my generation's future. As a teen athlete, I truly see the dire situation we have got ourselves in, and we have to change it. Climate change is the result of destroying our planet for hundreds of years, and now we’re dealing with the consequences. It’s so crucial to create long-term solutions to preserve our planet. As Hemingway once said, Earth truly is a fine place worth fighting for
You can follow Sam on IG here.