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Friday Female Athlete Friday: Tara Savage (revisited)

Updated: Sep 15, 2023


We are revisiting some stories that were just too big to fit on social media now that we have a blog. Tara Savage was one of them. Tara recently finished 1st female and 5th overall in a 40K race through some very treacherous mountain terrain in Khun Chae National Park in Chiang Mai, Thailand.

We will let her tell the story, give you her background and do a 2nd post with UTMB World Series race report!

I am a single Mom of three wonderful kids, a full time teacher at an International School in Bangkok, Thailand and I run long distance mountain races all over Asia and sometimes in the USA and Europe. I've been living in Thailand for over 17 years and I've spent more time in Asia (24 years) than the United States (my original home is upstate New York, the pretty part of NY). Prior to living in Thailand, I spent a year in Japan, Nepal and South Korea. I traveled extensively through Asia through the years as well. I started my running journey here in Thailand, while going through big changes in my family life. I needed a healthy outlet, I needed new friends and I needed something that was for me, something to work on that felt good. I found running!

I dove into ultras quite quickly and moved from 50kms to 70kms.... up to 100mile events. My first 100 miles was my Everesting attempt in Chonburi, Thailand. I miscalculated the elevation of my 36 loops and completed 165km with 11, 400 meters of elevation gain (though I was aiming for 9000 meters of gain). I have won several events here in Thailand- usually in the 50-80km range. I've come in 1st female a number of times with top 5 overall (men and women) including this last weekend in Thailand. I loved the singletrack slippery ridge line route, up to the windy peaks! I came in 1st female and 5th overall. It was good fun! I chose the 40km this weekend because I consider myself still in recovery from my 100mile event in December. It was Doi Inthanon 171km event, part of the UTMB World Series, with 10,000 meters of elevation through dark, deep, gnarly jungle and forest in the highest mountains of northern Thailand. (See post 2 for the race report.

How does a full time teacher and single Mom of 3 train for 100km or 100mile races, while living in Bangkok, I am sure you are wondering... Dad lives here in Bangkok as well and we have a good, friendly co-parenting situation. When it is a Dad weekend, I fly up to Chiang Mai or down to Phuket to get my mountain fix in. I will put in double or triple long days in the mountains. Often alone, as I really like to explore on my own but also with friends or small groups. The running community here in Thailand is awesome. I am known in the area for being one of the only female runners who runs the jungle trails alone all night long or goes off on 50km runs alone using random GPX files I found here or there. I'm not scared in the jungle or in the mountains. It feels peaceful and really helps me balance out the chaos of my busy city life here in Bangkok. I choose the long hauls because I like the time it gives me to dig deep into myself and figure out what I need to work on. I can ask the questions that I usually don't have time to explore, I can find answers or at least realize what parts of myself or my life need change or need work. I always come out a changed person. And I like knowing I have the strength and self efficacy to drag myself out of the very deep lows that happen in long haul events. It's a transformative experience.

It was my second time joining this event. In 2021, I came in 11th and 1st in my age group but the competitive field was much smaller and the course was easier (less elevation, a few peaks missing). This year, the course was absolutely brutal, but I was determined to complete it. DNF was not an option at all. The best part hands-down was seeing my fellow running friends before, during and after the run and climbing up Doi HuaSua (Tiger Head Peak) in the middle of the night, during the second night. The worst part was the 2000 meters of slippery drop in the dark after climbing Doi Inthanon (Thailand's highest peak), the climb up I love. The drop down was horrid!! I wanted to take this race on a second time because I wanted to have full confidence in my own capabilities to run this race my way and not have to buddy up with anyone because I was afraid of getting lost, etc. I know myself and I know I can run alone for hours. I know I can run all night long for fun. And I know I can be lost and drag myself back to where I need to be. I know how to pace myself and I know how to convince myself to move forward. I paced myself conservatively and to my surprise I finished in the top 20 and 2nd in my age group, against a much deeper competitive field (GREAT pro runners involved this year!). I went home with a trophy again and my age group results, to my great surprise, granted me priority automatic entry into UTMB in France this summer! That was an ENORMOUS surprise!

Read her race report:

"Can't believe I did it! Doi Inthanon Summit 160 by UTMB. It is part of the worldwide UTMB series. It is actually 170km with 10,000 meters of elevation drop and gain. Much harder compared to last year's event. The elevation added more of a challenge to be expected, but the course itself was changed and incredibly difficult in many sections. And I came in top 20, 18th female. With 2nd place in my age group!

My goal this year, was to run this race by my own plan, trusting my own capabilities. I know I can run alone for hours, I know I can run all night by myself. I know I can pace myself for long hauls, to conserve energy when needed. This was my only goal, to finish and run it my way. I didn't want to be afraid of getting lost, I just wanted to be out in the woods knowing my own strengths and trusting in what I love. Mind you, 100 milers is not what I love... let's be clear about this! But I do love mountains so I took it on.

The start felt so different this time. I wasn't with my running buddies from last year. I stayed the night alone in Inthanon and thought about all of my friends joining the different races, the different courses. A few of us in the 100 mile race, but many in the 100km and 50km event. The morning of, I was happy to bump into so many familiar faces, Thai and other foreigners alike, from many different countries. For the 100miler, you have two drop bags and one finishing bag. Bag #1 is left at A5 (50km in) and Bag #2 can be found at A9 (100km in). I thought this was an odd set up, last year the drop bags were at 80km and 130km. But hey, I'll take my drop bags where ever they may be.

I somehow made the elite cut again... which always makes me giggle (shhh don't tell them I'm not actually elite!). So I got to start with the pros again. Shoulder to shoulder with some excellent pro runners. This year UTMB pulled a much deeper competitive field to toe the line. Many more people from around the world came to join Doi Inthanon's 100mile race this year, so I had zero expectations of performing well. Plus, my stress levels have been extremely high lately. Between work and single parenting, I feel overwhelmed, confused and wiped out. I have kept up with my training... mainly for my sanity. But admittedly, I was not as well trained this year as I was last year.

I considered to scrap the race entirely, but I thought that perhaps an entire weekend alone in the woods was exactly what I needed to sift through the chaos in my mind. Wandering around the morning of the race and hugging, taking photos, fist bumping so many cool, brave, strong running friends secured my notion that THIS IS indeed what I needed.

This year, the course took you straight up Doi Inthanon first. It's a climb I fondly remember. I love these types of climbs up and up and up. I was able to watch the sunset over Inthanon park and reached the Pagodas in the dark. I let out my usual prayers, out loud. A little early to be teary eyed, but there it is. Me being real and honest.

A5 was actually at the tippy top of Inthanon this year. Thanks to Bram for volunteering and helping at that aid station. It was getting chilly up there, so I didn't stay long. This was the first I had heard about the 2000 meter drop to come... um.... whatttttt? It was a killer, hands down. In the dark, 2000 meters of steep dirt covered descent... it was impossible to get traction in some areas. You just slid down and down and down. It was never ending. My least favorite section, for sure.

After that, I had decided to just get it done. Climb whatever was in front of me. And put on my music to stop being so damn grumpy. This helped a lot and I was able to pick up my speed later with music and some food in me.

It was never the climbs that bothered me for this race. I love climbing. I can climb at a steady pace and still have more to give. But those descents were hard. I knew I had rocks in my shoes, I knew I had giant blisters. But I refused to give them any attention. I went into an aid station, ate some food, drank some water, moved on. I thought the faster I moved on, the sooner I would finish this very very long day. At A9, 100km, I changed my socks and my panties. You won't believe how nice that feels. I ate as much as I could and pushed onwards. The 100km race merged with ours, which was completely demoralizing. Watching the 100km racers run by with full energy. They were 30km in, I was 100km in.

I knew eventually I had one big climb left at the end, followed by a smaller climb. So I held on for that long climb, completely unaware of what it entailed. I took it on with another fellow runner named Stuart (or Stew). It was great to have someone to talk to, as my brain had started to spiral into negative repetitive scenarios (I was going into my second night). It's amazing how you can't control the negative spirals in the second night. I would say over and over again to myself... STOP! And then it would come back. My brain kept focusing on anxiety and stress. Better than last year, but still very frustrating.

As we took on this last mountain, we saw people passed out on the trail. Asleep. I saw this in the heat of the day too, people overheating and sleeping on the side of the trail to recover. This time though, after two full days and headed into another full night, many people just needed to sleep where ever they were. We climbed upwards.. another 1100 meter gain. After quite awhile, I looked up to see headlamps way up ahead.... seemingly inside the clouds. "No way" I said. We were approaching the peak. I asked the ranger standing guard the name of the peak, in Thai. He said it was Doi HuaSua- Tiger's Head Peak. Very exposed, small trail, hard to navigate in the dark. One wrong step and you are taking a tumble! I loved it, I will be honest. Shame I didn't get to see it in the daytime.

Then came another never ending downhill. I ran it but my foot and calf were in so much pain. I was in the puke and rally stage at this point. I didn't puke, though I thought I might, as the pain was searing through me. I think it was cramping. Some magnesium seemed to help ease the pressure eventually. I wasn't fast, but I was steady. And closing into the last aid station, as usual, the course offered some difficult, dangerous little downhill slip-slidey sections.... meanwhile you are wishing to just get to that station to know you are one step closer to being done. With 5km left, I knew I had to gun it. So I ran the last section with everything I had left. I had no idea what position I was in (I never checked at any point) and I didn't care. I just wanted to run and be done. I wanted to pass as many people as I could, just to say I raced it hard. I fell at one point but carried on and passed another 100 mile female runner on the road section as I went into a full sprint. And that's it, I crossed that finish line at about 3:30am. I had hoped for a finish in under 40 hours. But in the end, I still finished faster than my time last year.. and this was a much harder course.

Here are my take aways- I dug in really deep this time. I knew I had massive truths to rip open and deal with. I knew I had some decision making to do. I needed a good solid talk with myself. I needed to find out what is ailing me, what is causing me grief, why am I so stressed out. And I found the bottom of it all. And I realized what I want, but I wasn't sure how to do that, how to get there. But I will say this, I have a lot of healing to do. I have a lot of reprogramming to do. I need to unlearn a lot and relearn a lot. And that's okay. I also really need to get out the city at some point.

One of my biggest fears is that people want to see me fail. And whether that's a reality or not, is inconsequential because I can't change it either way. It's not okay of course, if people do wish anything bad on me. But it's okay that it's not okay. This is life. Not everyone is on your side and that can serve to be a learning experience. It doesn't have to hurt. And on that same note, I don't need to be so damn paranoid. The truth is, so many people sent me texts or recordings during my race. My kids called me. My friends sent cheering messages via voicemail. Focus on those people Tara. They believe in you and will love you no matter what happens out there in the mountains. You could come in dead last and your friends will still be your friends. Your family will still be proud of you.

I have no idea where this running journey is taking me. I keep getting deeper and deeper into it. Telling myself it's time for a break, but then realizing, dense forest trails and mountains are what I need to feel calm and find the peace inside my soul. And while often, I am running away from people, from city life, from the chaos of too many people, too many demands, all too much, all the time. In truth, one of the greatest joys from this long event was meeting up with SO MANY people whom I share a passion with. So many friends racing by, running along with me, sharing a smile, a story. high fives at aid stations, hugs, cheers of "you're awesome, go get it" and genuine authentic adventuring together. We are all on our own journeys, yet we share the same path along the way.

I love the trail community. Thank you everyone for helping me find me. I am so lucky to have met you all and to continue to meet more and more like minded people along the way. Happy trails everyone... thanks for reading my race report."

I ran CCC, the 100km UTMB event in August of 2022, so I know exactly what I will be up against this summer in Chamonix. When I was in Chamonix, I planned to meet a friend of mine, Brian Metzler. You may have heard his name before, he is a well known journalist and writes many articles for the running community. He had written a piece about me in January of 2022. Brian brought the craziest news to me the day of my flight... Hoka wanted to include me in a video series! I thought it was a joke! But it was true and real. The Hoka film crew spent days dressing me up in new Hoka gear (which was wonderful since my luggage was lost by Austrian Airlines) and taking me all over the mountains in the area to film me running, interview me, record me walking through the famous town, take me for bib pick up, joining a Hoka team group run,,,etc. It was a dream come true. I was a running princess for a week in Chamonix!!! They met me at the first aid station and surprised me at the 80km mark as well. I am pretty sure I looked quite haggard by then, but it was indeed a nice surprise to see some familiar faces before taking on that last mountain.

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