Zoë Rom grew up hiking, backpacking and canoeing on the Buffalo River in Arkansas.
“The Buffalo River Trail (BRT) had always captured my imagination,” Rom says. “Growing up, the Buffalo National River just seemed like the wildest, most magical place on earth. It’s this huge, winding river surrounded by lush forests and sandstone cliffs. The trail goes through tons of amazing waterfalls and hollers, and over sandstone bluffs.”
The river itself is one of the few in the continental United States that is not dammed. It is also known as America’s first national river. The accompanying trail meanders through historic homesteads from the 1800s and through campgrounds where Rom stayed as a kid.
During college, she envisioned backpacking the whole trail in a week. But with the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, she changed those plans and eyed running it in a day and setting an FKT on the trail.
A hiker turned runner
Growing up, Rom didn’t see running the trail as an option. In fact, she discovered the joy of trail running far from home and the historic trail.
She found running in Milan, Italy, when she was an exchange student there during high school.
“During the week, I didn’t have a lot to do so I started running in the woods near the house I was living in,” she explains. “I was pretty lonely. I essentially started running because it was something to do other than sit at home, study and read. I started running every day, eventually venturing into the Alps for half-hikes, half-runs.”
Rom followed her hiking background to be a backpacking guide during the summers, when she spent a lot of time hiking and backpacking in technical terrain in northern New Mexico. At 18, she hiked 50 miles in one day with a full pack.
“That experience got me excited about the terrain I could cover with my own legs in a day,” she says. “I ran a bit to keep up my guiding fitness, and to explore parts of the southern Rocky Mountains near Taos.”
While attending college, Rom worked at a running shoe store. Her manager encouraged her to try racing. So Rom entered a trail 10K, and won.
“I fell so many times during that race that I was covered in blood, bruises and scrapes,” she recalls. “I went to a friend’s wedding shortly after the medal ceremony and had to hide in the background of all the photos because my hands and knees were bleeding so badly. (I looked like I had the stigmata). That got me excited about trying to move quickly through challenging terrain.”
For her graduation, she gifted herself a race entry for a 50K. She won that, too.
“I liked that trail racing rewards traits other than just speed,” Rom says. “At longer distances, events are also about who can run smart, eat hard and stay engaged in the competition. I loved trail racing and running because it felt like a bridge between the epic adventures I loved in New Mexico and rewarded the daily grind of road running that I also enjoyed.”
Celebrating the process
With the pandemic shutting down races such as The Canyons 100K that Rom had signed up for, she harkened back to the trail of her youth.
“I ended up adding the FKT to my schedule last minute when I was only at a 16-mile long run — Yikes! I wanted to be really careful to respect stay at home orders in Colorado and set a good example for others, and not risk the health of my community members just so that I could run a thing.”
Living in Colorado during winter when COVID-19 hit meant running in the snow and cycling in the garage for Rom. She resisted the temptation to go all out.
“During training, I learned that less is more,” she says. “I always try to make sure my training is coming from the right place, and for me, that’s joy. I train because I really love the daily process of showing up for myself and seeing what kind of magic I can make happen. The FKT was just a natural celebration of that process.”
And that’s the key to her training and a staple of the philosophy of her coach — and mine — David Roche.
“I learned that if my training isn’t coming from a good place — for example, the desire to impress others, to achieve a specific goal or try to shore up my value as a person — then it won’t be productive. When I focus on finding joy in the process, rather than a specific outcome, I am much happier and the training ends up being better as well!”
A belief in success
Roche has helped Rom improve as a runner. She is faster, has a better running economy and goes longer. But the FKT better illustrates how his coaching has worked wonders.
“During the pandemic, David encouraged me to live my life and chase adventures that inspire me, even a random FKT in Arkansas,” she says. “David’s attitude toward my FKT illustrates what he’s done for me as a coach and friend overall. I texted him a link to the trail map a couple of months ago, and said, ‘The overall FKT on this trail is 8:20. Do you think I can do it?’ I’m almost 100 percent sure that he didn’t bother looking at the map or elevation gain before replying, ‘FUCK YES GO FOR IT!’”
On May 19, she set the FKT in the unsupported classification with a finish in 7:56:17 of a 37-mile section of the trail.
Roche inspires his athletes with unique relentless abandon, regardless of their genetic ability, Ultrasignup score or whether they are lining up at the start line at Western States or a trail head in Arkansas.
“David’s belief is completely authentic,” Rom says. “He believed in me unconditionally, and that gave me the courage to chase big dreams. His coaching is the perfect combination of the kinds of boring daily things that you do to get faster, and the constant, mental-emotional flame stoking that actually allows me to apply what I’ve gained as an athlete in competition and adventures. I don’t think either element of his coaching would be effective without the other. If his program just relied on killer workouts with no personal development, I never would have had the courage to use my fitness in a meaningful way.”
His approach is also contagious in his athletes.
“David has believed in me in ways I didn’t think were possible,” she says. “That has given me the ability to believe in myself, and more importantly, believe in others with the same intensity. David lifts others up with his whole heart, and I try to emulate that in all I do.”
Success from failure
Rom also achieved another milestone earlier this year, launching the DNF podcast for Trailrunner Magazine.
She studied environmental journalism at Colorado University at Boulder and used to work for Aspen Public Radio. Story-telling is another one of her passions.
“You can learn a lot from a really good interview, but deep, sound-rich storytelling is the most powerful tool for communication,” she says. “I really wanted to tell stories about trail running that were sound rich and engaging like the stories I worked on in public radio. I’m also a huge sound nerd. I love audio engineering and mixing. Having high-quality audio makes a huge difference when you’re trying to honor someone’s story. I wanted to make something that was a bit more intellectually engaging, and different than what already existed in trail running podcasts. There are a lot of interview podcasts out there — and that’s great, but I wanted to highlight stories.”
Roe pondered the types of stories that are interesting to her. And she zeroed in on failure.
“Partly because of my own epic DNFs — both in life and racing! — and because I think there’s more to learn from failure than from success,” she explains. “There’s a saying that everything is either a good time or a good story — and that’s especially true about running. Stories about races and life adventures gone wrong are way more interesting than simple victories.”
As she pursued this concept, she also came to realize that those she respected on professional and personal levels had grown from their own setbacks.
“Everyone is basically an iceberg of failures — and I was only seeing the 10 percent of that person’s work or career that was successful,” she says. “I think making failure as visible as success is really interesting. The more we talk about failure, and how important it is toward achieving the things that are really meaningful to us, the better of we’ll all be.”
With no shortage of podcasts already devoted to trail and ultra running, Rom wanted to create one that she would listen to. (Looking for a running podcast? Here's my recently updated top 10.)
In essence, she says, the DNF podcast is “the result of a trail-obsessed audio-nerd meditating on failure. I wanted to make something that would resonate with me, because a lot of running podcasts don’t. I wanted to make something fun, touching, quirky, emotive and earnest that felt like an extension of myself. I think that people that know me well would say that DNF is very Zoë, and I’m proud of that. I wanted my voice to come through when it mattered, and to back away when it was more important to highlight other people’s stories. I wanted the project to feel like getting a deep, 11-second hug from a good friend.”
A personal podcast
The podcast is personal to Rom. “It’s my attempt to reconcile the challenges and feelings I have about myself, my failures and my own inadequacies,” she says. “I love that it resonates with people, but I hope that I would invest as much of myself into it even if it didn’t.”
She recommends that people investigate the parts of themselves that they struggle to love, and get comfortable with the parts of themselves that they’re ashamed of.
“A lot of us struggle with the same feelings about ourselves but mostly we struggle from the loneliness and isolation we feel about not being able to share those feelings,” she says. “I made a podcast about failure because I’m scared to death of it. I try to embrace that fear, and mine it for stories that will make myself, and others, feel less alone.
“Whatever it is about yourself that you’re not happy with, chances are that it’s inspiring as HECK for someone else. Share it!”
Rom’s podcast project has allowed her to grow as a person as well as an athlete. For runners mired in the race-less quarantine, she heartily endorses going for an FKT.
“I would say: FREAKING GO FOR IT! A huge part of me was scared to fail at the FKT attempt, which is REALLY SILLY. Don’t let the fear of not being fast enough keep you from enjoying a rad-tastic day on the trails. The worst-case scenario is that you have an epic day on great trails.”
Name: Zoë Rom
Hometown: Carbondale, Colo.
Number of years running: 8 years
How many miles a week do you typically run: 60
Point of pride: I give good hugs! (Hugs are my favorite upper-body workout!)
Favorite race distance: 50M or 100K
Favorite pre-race or training food/drink: Pizza
Favorite piece of gear: Patagonia Endless Run Shorts
Favorite or inspirational mantra/phrase: “Do It Out Of Love.”
Where can other runners connect or follow you:
• Instagram: @carrot_flowers_z
• Twitter: @zoehrom