Thursday, April 13, 2017

Book Review - The Trail Runner’s Companion, A Step-By-Step Guide to Trail Running and Racing

I recently had the chance to read a sneak preview copy of Sarah Lavender Smith’s new book, The Trail Runner’s Companion – A Step-By-Step Guide to Trail Running and Racing from 5k's To Ultras, which will be released on June 1st, 2017 (and is now available for pre-order). I really enjoyed it. Sarah eloquently weaves sage advice, coaching tips, and her personal experiences from racing around the globe into 250 pages full of great pictures and how-to’s. This book is ideal for those just getting started in the sport, but I think trail runners of all levels will enjoy it the storytelling and thoughtful tips.

I’ve been a fan of Sarah’s writing for years (both on her blog and more recently as a regular contributor to Trail Runner Magazine), and always look forward to her cheery voice when she co-hosts the Ultrarunnerpodcast. As a trail runner, coach, Mom to teenagers, and elite runner (although she would claim she’s not…I’ll just point to that 2016 Western States silver buckle), Sarah enjoys everything from 10k road races to multi-stage 150-mile adventures. She is also brutally honest in person and her writing, sharing first hand insight into burnout, injury, marital stress from training, and other topics many of us ponder secretly. So I was excited to hear about her book, but also curious why she took this on.

“I actually didn’t intend to write a book, at least at first. I had the kind of hang ups a lot of women have (as described so well in Lean In) about feeling the need to have full-fledged credentials and top-notch experience before being “legit” enough to put myself out there as an authority worthy of a book,” explained Sarah, “Then, as fate would have it, I got an email out of the blue in late 2015 from the publisher, Falcon Guides, which publishes a lot of books on hiking and the outdoors (such as The Ultimate Guide to Trail Running by Adam Chase and Nancy Hobbs back in 2010). They recognized the growing popularity of trail running, and wanted to publish a fresh trail-running book, and someone recommended me as a writer/runner. So the question to me was ‘could I do something fresh’?”

“My favorite books in the genre are memoirs—Dean Karnazes Ultramarathon Man, Scott Jurek’s Eat and Run, Cory Reese’s Nowhere Near First. I love teaching through storytelling. The publisher had in mind a prescriptive, practical how-to book, but I felt that had already been done well by Jason Koop, Krissy Moehl, Meghan Hicks and Bryon Powell, Hal Koerner, and others. I definitely didn’t want to write a book that would read like a manual and feel like homework for the reader. Could I combine memoir AND have a practical how-to book that distilled all my coaching knowledge for training and racing? I warmed up to the idea of the challenge to write a book that is extremely practical, step-by-step and well researched, but also a good read, told in my voice and drawing on real-life stories.”

Sarah’s journey from road running into trail running came in 2004, right about the time I was also discovering this crazy niche sport where characters like “Rocket”, “Karno”, and “Tropical John” would run mountains all day just to do it. Her book opens up by perfectly capturing her first trail race up Mt. Diablo, running into legend Scott Jurek in the starting corral, and meeting people who would later become lifelong friends. Throughout the book, this same awe and respect for the sport come through in tips and suggestions like “be more humble than arrogant” and “take what the trail gives you”, and that trail running is as much a mindset as a change of terrain. There’s also a hilarious vocabulary section that will ensure you can keep up on those long trail run conversations.

The Trail Runner’s Companion is packed full of guidelines too, including safety, hydration, packing, fueling, menstruation (I had no idea), pacing, packing dropbags, base building and race planning, avoiding burnout, running technique, what to do when you run into a wild animal, and more. Sarah shares her own experiences, those of her coaching clients, and adds plenty of advice from her favorite runners. Although not as regimented as some coaching books, the guidelines are more than enough to get started in the sport.

All in all, The Trail Runner’s Companion is a wonderful book. At ~$18, it’s a total steal (pre-order now!). I have ordered mine, and look forward to it complimenting the trail running tomes that fill my shelf. If you are in the Bay Area, you can also attend her book signing at in Oakland on Wednesday, May 31, 7pm, at A Great Good Place for Books.


  1. I'm really looking forward to this book comes out - her writing is really great and I can't wait to read how that skill translates to the book format. (And I also want the joy of walking up to her, just before she heads out at some trail race, to get her to sign my copy. In front of everyone.)

    1. Allen, I'm looking forward to that! Maybe you could stop me when you're volunteering at an aid station :-). Thanks so much for what you wrote -- and for all you do at trail races!

  2. Great review. Even I, a dedicated non-runner, would like to read it! But what I'm really asking is: so, where's your book, smartypants...


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