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Liz Canty's journey from rugby to elite ultra runner

Liz Canty admits she despised running and her first marathon was the “most miserable thing in the entire world.”

She trained, ran hard and fell short of her goal of qualifying for the Boston Marathon. Ditto for her second marathon.

“I just could not have liked anything less,” she recalls. “I was overdressed for the first marathon. I was sick the whole time. I just couldn't walk for two days. And then I did another one after that, and again, missed the BQ. I just threw my hands up and said, ‘Screw this.’"

But then she found trail running and the community. She was all in. “I could win 50Ks and walk the next day no problem. Clearly this is a much better thing for me to do."

Rugby lessons pay off

Canty had an atypical path to success as a trail and ultra runner. She played rugby in high school and at the University of Massachusetts in Lowell, where she received her degree in nuclear engineering.

The rugby team started as a club team her freshman year. Due to the success of another sport, all club teams were later elevated from roughly a Division IV level to playing Division I competition.

“We went from winning D-IV, D-III games, to playing the biggest, scariest women in the Northeast Region who receive scholarships for playing rugby,” Canty explains. “These were the strongest women on the East Coast. We were the smallest women on the East Coast. I'm 5'2” and at the time I was about 140 pounds. I was one of the bigger women on the team. We started getting clobbered my junior and senior year just by going up a division.”

She wanted to continue to play adult rugby. However, “I just got hurt way too many times with blown-out knees and got one too many concussions than I was comfortable with.” And that’s when she tried out marathons but discovered a love for the trails.

Still, Canty learned lessons from her rugby experience that have helped her as an ultra runner.

“I learned that it never hurts as bad as you think it does and the pain doesn't get worse,” she says. “Those are two things I'll chant to myself in a run.”

She also explained that sometimes her team could only field the minimum of 13 players against another team’s 15, which was legal.

“That meant no one could quit,” she says. “If you went down one and played 12 on 15, the game was canceled. So you played no matter what unless you were actively bleeding or couldn't walk. And so it was like, ‘Oh snap, I'm limping a little bit. Well, I've got to go chase down that girl and tackle her. It’s probably just an ankle sprain, it'll be fine.’ It's this mentally overcoming pain, there's a limit to that. But I think ultra runners find a limit a lot further out than a lot of people.”

Smokin’ fast in the Smokies

With races largely canceled in 2020, Canty has joined the wave of those pursuing Fastest Known Times (FKT). Earlier this month, she collected her third — and most prestigious — FKT of 2020.

In the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the Smokies Challenge Adventure Run (SCAR) is a 70-plus mile route along the Appalachian Trail. The total elevation gain is 18,660 feet with 12,800 feet in first 40 miles and 5,860 feet in the last 30 miles. Canty finished SCAR in 18 hours, 37 minutes and 38 seconds.

“The Smoky Mountains are among the most beautiful sections of the Appalachians,” she says. “It is one of the only natural rain forests in America, it's just astounding to be out there. And the trails speak to me, so I am very much the happiest when I am in hiking. I love to hike. I love to power hike. I love having the trekking poles in my hand.”

And there was plenty of hiking, up and down hills. Canty estimates that there were less than four miles of a 5 percent grade or less.

“I took one look at the elevation profile and had it on my wish list for a while,” she says. “I wanted to do it, and then the pandemic hit, so there's not a better time. Everything we had planned this summer was canceled instantly.”

Living in Alabama, Canty used a combination of long midweek speed work routines and long weekend runs on trails to prepare for the FKT. She occasionally sprinkled in weekend road trips and runs in the Smokies or Blue Ridge Mountains to get more elevation gain.

She knocked off one last 20-mile training run in the Smokies two weeks before the FKT. “I feel good,” she remembers thinking. “I guess it's worked out, all the heat, and humidity, and misery, and road hills, here we go.”

Thanking her crew

Canty is thankful for the crew that helped her on her FKT journey. Her supporters included Pete Schreiner, who has crewed Canty at Western States and the Georgia Death Race. He did the first 20 miles of the FKT with her.

“They are just some of my best friends, every single one of them. My dear friend, Pete, is strangely different from me. I'm a 29-year-old married woman. He's a 50-year-old married air conditioner repair man in the county. And he's one of the sneaky fastest masters trail runners in our area. And I've actually trained with him for years.”

Canty’s crew also included her husband, Luke Hough, Christie (Pete’s wife), Leah Billups, and David Dye.

One of the only goals of her FKT attempt was “to not be mean to a single person.” She admits having a history of meanness during dark times in races.

“Most of the people in that picture I have been mean to at least once in our lives in a way they should never be friends with me again. I've called my husband an idiot for forgetting batteries in a headlamp. I don't know why he's still married to me. And I have made it a goal for the last year to just try to chip away at that.”

Canty kept her vow for the most part, finding joy throughout the 18-plus hour adventure.

“I was not going to be short with anyone, even if it was a hiker I had to pass; I was just going to be as happy and polite as I could be,” she says. “I got a little sore at the end. The most anger I ever directed at anything was the people who 100 years ago cut steps into Davenport Gap because having to descend stairs as a 5-foot tall woman after running 70 miles is about the meanest thing you can do.”

Inspired by Coach Roche

Canty’s “be-nice” approach is clearly a lesson learned from her coach, and mine, David Roche.

“I still am one of the most cynical people I've ever met,” she admits. “I am never happy with myself or my performance, that will never go over well. My husband actually pushed me toward David. He (her husband) told me I was going to drown myself in darkness and sadness if someone didn't inject some crazy happy vibe in my life.”

For anyone coached by Roche, or who has read his articles for Trailrunner Magazine or listened to him on podcasts, his happy vibe is contagious. It’s part of every training plan, every communication, every fiber of his being.

“I think it's made my running a lot safer and a lot happier,” she says. “I don't overdo it nearly as much as I used to. I haven't found myself ever over-trained or feeling that sort of drained feeling in the last two years that I've worked with David. I feel stronger than I was before, even though I was running probably on average more volume. But I get to Sunday afternoon and just feel trashed. I don't feel that way anymore.”

Roche encourages his athletes to not compare ourselves to others, which can be challenging when the goal of an FKT is to beat another person’s time. How does Canty you wrap her brain around that?

“That is always tough,” she admits. “It's also tough because the spirit of FKTs is ‘beating someone else.’ Right? That's how a lot of people approach it. But the way that I like to think about it is just raising the bar because there are stronger women than me across the world. I hope to raise the bar a little bit and inspire a younger trail runner. I know several of them who were out there working their butts off on the AT to take another hour off it.”

Roche also emphasizes full rest and recovery days, typically Mondays.

Canty recovers on Mondays with a short two-mile jog/sniff/pee/walk/sniff again routine with her dog. She’ll repeat that routine on other days, too, but get her training run in later.

“Mondays are the day I get to clean the house, make a really good dinner for rest day,” she says. “Usually that's when I take the time to bake bread or a big soup. Mondays are our favorite days.”

With the pandemic still going strong, it’s challenging to know what races will be held. Canty is looking forward to the Lookout Mountain 50 in Chattanooga, Tenn., and Mountain Mist 50K in her hometown of Huntsville.

30 minutes of relief

Canty has come a long way from an athlete who despised running. Now she does find and exhibit joy on the run and in life.

“I think everyone could use a little bit of happiness in their lives,” she says. “If you are unhappy and you get to the end of your week and you spent more than the majority of your runs unhappy with yourself or unhappy with where you live or unhappy in any way, just fix that as quickly as you can.”

It's especially challenging now, given the pandemic and political climate. Canty offers sage advice on how to keep the turmoil and vitriol under control.

“If all you have is the 30 minutes a day you get to put your headphones in and listen to gangster rap, which is what I do when I run my dog in the morning, take that 30 minutes. Don't take that 30 minutes to put the current pandemic update podcast on. You will drown yourself in it. I rip my own headphones out of my ears when my podcast shuffle goes over to something like that. If all you have is that 30 minutes make sure you love every second of it.”

Speed drill

Name: Liz Canty

Hometown: Taunton, Mass., now living in Huntsville, Ala.

Number of years running: 4.5

How many miles a week do you typically run: 60 to 80

Point of pride: Currently, finishing the SCAR FKT

Favorite race distance: 100 mile+

Favorite pre-race or training food/drink: Coffee and jam on toast

Favorite piece of gear: Leki Trekking Poles

Favorite or inspirational song to run to: Non-Stop from the Hamilton Broadway Soundtrack

Favorite or inspirational mantra/phrase: "It doesn't hurt enough yet."

Where can other runners connect or follow you:

• Instagram: @runcantyrun

• Facebook: Liz Canty


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