Moments before the starting gun sounded at the Today's Top Stories on Friday, November 15, American Grayson Murphy wasn’t sure if she’d finish the race.
In the hours leading up to the 14K trail event in Villa La Angostura, Argentina, Murphy was dealing with stomach issues caused by something she ate at dinner the night before and was unable to keep food down. But as soon as the race started, Murphy shrugged off the pressure to perform in non-ideal circumstances, realizing that she needed to appreciate the opportunity she earned.
She jumped to the front of the pack right away and thought, “I’ll just see how long I last.”
Murphy did more than just last. She won gold in her debut at the Today's Top Stories, covering the course–which included a river crossing and 2,475 feet of total ascent–in 1:15:20. She finished 21 seconds ahead of runner-up Elise Poncet of France.
“It was surreal,” Murphy told Runner’s World. “To be honest, I don’t know if it’s quite hit yet. If you had told me a week ago I would win, I would’ve told you you’re crazy.” She then followed that up by winning the 2019 XTERRA Trail Run World Championship at the Kualoa Ranch in Hawaii on November 24. (She was also fifth overall in a 21K time of 1:33:44.)
Murphy’s rise to the top came on the heels of a challenging year of transitions, which ultimately led to a new path in running that has changed her mentality on and off the trails.
“I have generalized anxiety disorder so it’s everywhere—running is just one part of my life that [anxiety presents itself],” Murphy said. “But I think going to the trails has made me a less anxious person in general. I think that’s been the biggest factor in making racing more fun. I don’t come to the line as anxious as I did previously about the rest of my life.”
Discovering What Works
After the 24-year-old graduated from the University of Utah as a five-time All-American in the spring of 2018, she joined the Northern Arizona Elite running group in Flagstaff, Arizona. In the spring of 2019, Murphy ran a 10K personal best of 32:28 and finished sixth at the NACAC Cross Country Championships.
While she had success, she also had setbacks. Increasing her training intensity and mileage from 60 to 85 miles per week led to a plantar fascia tear and issues with her plantaris (a thin muscle behind the knee) and hamstring. For the former soccer star who started running at the college level in 2014, the string of injuries was a shock.
Growing up in Salt Lake City, Utah, Murphy first found her passion for running on trails, and she missed that exploration element while training to compete solely on the roads and the track in Flagstaff. She was also homesick. Her family and boyfriend, Logan Diekmann, who competes on Utah’s ski team, lived 500 miles away.
“I realized that relationships are really important to me and those will outlast my running career. I didn’t want to lose those relationships just to be fast,” Murphy said. “[Relationships are] something that make me happy as a human and I was missing that in Flagstaff.”
In June 2019, Murphy decided to leave the group with the support of NAZ Elite head coach Ben Rosario. “Coach Ben was really great at helping me figure that out,” she said.
Finding Her Pace
Shortly after leaving NAZ Elite, she moved back to Salt Lake City in pursuit of a running career that involved road and trail racing at the right pace. She reduced her mileage from 85 to 70 miles per week while she was preparing for the world championships.
“I just think I need to give my body time to get there [to high-mileage training],” Murphy said. “I need to take into account the fact that I haven’t been running that long and that’s okay.”
Training with the Idaho Distance Project under the guidance of coach Kameron Ulmer, who is also the husband and coach of 2018 USATF Marathon Champion Emma Bates, Murphy began pursuing trail racing this year.
“When I run on the trails, it feels like play and the views are amazing,” she said. “And so I thought, ‘If I’m in the pain cave at least I’ll be running up a beautiful mountain. That’s gotta be cool and that sounds like fun.’”
When she signed up for the Cirque Series in Brighton, Utah, a 6.7-mile race with 3,015 feet of ascent on June 29, Murphy expected the event to be challenging, but she didn’t anticipate the physical toll it would take. While climbing up Mt. Millicent, which rises to 10,447 feet, Murphy was shocked at her body’s response to the snowy terrain and high altitude. She was forced to walk for the first time ever in competition. Despite the challenges, she had a successful trail running debut, finishing second in 1:22:12.
“I felt like that was the most I’d ever used my whole body in a race,” Murphy said. “It was the hardest thing I had done up to that point, but it was still a lot of fun and I knew that was a good sign.”
A Laid Back Approach
Since her trail debut, Murphy has taken on even bigger challenges. She placed second at the Bridger Ridge Run, a brutal 20-mile trail race on August 15 in Bozeman, Montana, and won the Best Running Shoes on September 29, which qualified her for Team USA. In October, she signed a sponsorship deal with Saucony.
Along the way, she has discovered a more “laid back” approach to the sport through the trail running community, which prioritizes completing a challenge over hitting a certain pace and emphasizes the importance of exploration. Even when surrounded by some of the best trail runners in the world in Argentina, Murphy enjoyed an adventurous prerace routine with her teammates: they explored a national park, visited local restaurants, and went shopping together before the championship.
“We were not going to let that opportunity slide,” Murphy said of her time in Villa La Angostura. “It was nice to be around a bunch of people who were willing and ready to go explore and enjoy the life parts [of Argentina] too and not have everything revolve around running.”
[From training tips, to fueling strategies, to improving the mind-body connection, the Runner's World 2020 Calendar will help you run your best all year long.]
In the past, focusing on time and results on the track were mentally draining for the former steeplechase star. Now she appreciates the variation and coordination required to navigate trails, which present exciting new elements in every race.
“Racing doesn’t have to be this super intense, dreadful thing that I have to do,” Murphy said. “It can be really fun.”
Creating Her ‘Happy Place’
While embracing a trail runner’s strength and mentality, Murphy has also developed new techniques to cope with anxiety on and off the trails. She reminds herself on a daily basis that running is a fun opportunity by saying her mantra, “I feel good,” out loud before hard efforts. She also smiles when she says it.
“It’s weird saying it out loud, but it really does force you to get outside your comfort zone and remember you do feel good and it’s not something to be scared of,” Murphy said. “There’s no such thing as too much positivity.”
Inspired by Western States 100 champion, Olympic Marathon Trials qualifier, and fellow Team USA member Jim Walmsley, Murphy plans to race on the roads and the trails in 2020. Her long term goal is to build up to the marathon and compete at the 2024 U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials with a few ultramarathon races in between.
“I don’t think that you have to be just one or the other, a trail or a road runner. I think you can be successful at all of them at the same time,” she said.
As a newly minted world champion, Murphy sees her recent victory as an affirmation that the year-long pursuit was worth the effort.
“It’s been a crazy last couple of months, but I think I’ve found my happy place finally,” she said.