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ATRA’s executive director mixes running passion, entrepreneurial spirit

(Photo credit / Michael Scott photography)

Nancy Hobbs has pretty much been a runner since she could walk. As her mom, Peggy, tells it, Nancy went from sitting to walking to running with little crawling in between.

Now, as the founder and executive director of the American Trail Running Association (ATRA), Hobbs is laying the groundwork to pass the baton.

She has always considered herself athletic, riding horses since the age of 10 and playing team sports like field hockey, basketball and softball in her youth. When she wasn’t playing sports, she was photographing the action.

“I did much of the photography for my high school yearbook and was the co-sports photo editor for my college newspaper and yearbook, and went on to have many of my pictures published in newspapers, magazines and books,” says Hobbs. “Back in high school, my dad built me a darkroom and I started an equine photography business, which probably contributed to my entrepreneurial spirit.”

It was through her dad that she also found running in her youth.

“My dad ran and that inspired me,” recalls Hobbs, noting she didn’t discover trail running until the mid-1980s. “Dad was athletic – he played intramural football and was a rower in college. I also was a coxswain in college and loved that sport.”

‘A very competitive person’

In time, Hobbs found another love — running. She ran her first race – a 10K – in August 1980.

“I told myself that I would run the race if I could do 8-minute miles, which I did,” she recalls. “About eight months later I ran a road marathon with my longest pre-race training run being 13 miles. I wanted to run sub-four hours. I did. I set goals, attained them, looked for the next goal. I’m a very competitive person.”

Some say that if you find a career doing something you love, you’ll never work a day in your life. Hobbs has held several positions in the running industry. For her, it’s a passion and a meaningful way in which she can inspire others.

“Like any career, there are ups and downs,” Hobbs says. “I always wanted to be involved in the sports’ field and for the most part, I have done this save a few different jobs along the way. I’ve worked very, very hard to be in a comfortable spot in my life to enjoy the things I want to do. The most important thing has always been to give back and inspire others. Through ATRA, I have been able to pursue my passion and share what I love and build community. I will say this, if I didn’t enjoy what I did, I would change direction and do something else!”

The beginning of ATRA

Turn back the clock to the mid-90s and one will find an ultra running scene far different from today. Corporate sponsorships were few and far between. Signing up for races required snail mail, not email.

In 1995, Hobbs recalls, there was no organization dedicated to trail and mountain running in the United States. A group of race directors, journalists, brand representatives and — of course — runners formed a focus group and agreed there needed to be an association for their mutual love.

In stepped Hobbs to form ATRA.

The fledgling organization conducted a survey to determine what trail runners wanted. “The number one request was a trail race calendar,” she says. “We started with that as our focus and also included education through a print newsletter on current events, and trends in the sport.”

More than 20 years later, the sport has evolved but ATRA remains true to its mission.

“Our core values, to educate, provide resources, be a spokesperson for the sport, have remained constant,” Hobbs says. “We have added programs and outreach over the years, a variety of membership levels, have created partnerships, and formed strategic alliances. We have a great deal of ‘free’ information and with the support of corporate members and brands, we will continue to offer educational resources.”

‘Miles of trails, not miles of buildings’

ATRA relies on membership to support its programs, and to create additional resources and/or educational materials. In turn, trail runners turn to ATRA for its role in protecting our lands.

In the current political climate, ATRA is among groups fighting against the auctioning off of our public lands.

“Our theme for 2018 is Trail Stewardship: Leaving a Lasting Legacy,” Hobbs says. “A major tenet of this effort is to support trail maintenance and trail advocacy. We want to see our constituents get out to support the trails in terms of building sustainable terrain, maintaining what exists, and in general, being good stewards of the land.”

ATRA is collecting stories and submissions about people and organizations starting efforts in their own communities. Learn more, search for groups near you and submit ideas at this link.

To be sure, Hobbs is not against development. Still, she treasures our trails and wants to see generations of future runners, hikers and bikers enjoy them.

“I understand growth and development are part of our future,” she says. “Having been on a park board and open space working committee, I am personally invested in seeing development (when and where there is development) coupled with outdoor recreation opportunities. I would rather see miles of trails, than miles of buildings!”

Moving forward

In addition to her role with ATRA, Hobbs has co-authored, with Adam W. Chase, “The Ultimate Guide to Trail Running” and “Best Trail Runs,” a series of books for Falcon Guides covering Seattle, Portland, San Francisco, and Denver/Boulder/Colorado Springs.

For those looking to break into a career in the running or trail industry, Hobbs has this advice: “Be passionate first and foremost and walk the talk. Start out as a volunteer, an intern, or in an entry-level position and learn the ropes. Take advice from others in the sport, find a mentor.”

As ATRA works on its succession strategy, Hobbs says her proudest accomplishment is that the organization has “worked to stay relevant and that we continue to grow by adding new resources and programs to respond to the needs of our constituents.”

Still, the organization needs strength in numbers to remain solvent.

“To move forward will take an investment of time, talent and treasure,” she says. “We need passionate people who care about our sport excited to be part of the team. We need increased funding to help us pay the bills including staff and programming. Success to me would include seeing more of our constituents nationwide know about ATRA and be part of the organization.”

Speed drill

Name: Nancy Hobbs (although many of my friends and everyone in my family calls me Nano)

Hometown: Bethlehem, Pa.

Number of years running: First race, August 1980, but running around, according to my mom, since I was 9 months old

How many miles a week do you typically run: 35-40

Point of pride: I’m still running!

Favorite race distance: half marathon and below

Favorite pre-race or training food/drink: I’m a GUtarian. I usually have a GU before most runs. I also enjoy Electro-Bites, VFuel hydration, HoneyStinger grapefruit and cola chews, Scratch chews and hydration, NUUN hydration. For some races later in the day, or longer ones, cornflakes (no milk), dry bagel/bread – something easy on my stomach. Water is my go-to hydration.

Favorite piece of gear: Garmin

Favorite or inspirational song to run to: I don’t ever run to music. Not ever. I personally feel that headphones/listening to music A) is not safe and B) mars the experience of being in peaceful surroundings and enjoying the sounds that are natural

Favorite or inspirational mantra/phrase: Focus. Strength.

Where can other runners connect or follow you:

• Twitter and Instagram: @nanoontrails

• Website:

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