Luther Alumni Magazine

Sproston descends on day three of the 2014 El Cruce Columbia, a three-day 100K stage race in Chilean Patagonia.

The ultra life of Amy Sproston ’96

Oregonian is working full time and running her way to a world-champion title

Amy Sproston trains.
Amy Sproston trains.

At the starting line of the 100K world championships in 2012, Amy Sproston ’96 didn’t imagine winning. Having been hospitalized five weeks earlier after suffering a pulmonary embolism from deep vein thrombosis in her right calf, she hoped merely to finish in the top 10 to secure a place on the U.S. team for 2013. In fact, it wasn’t until the last 5K and a lot of back-and-forth internal dialogue that she thought, Wait, I might actually win this thing! And she did, finishing the 62-mile race with a time of 7:34:08 and an average of 7:19/mile. It was a crowning achievement for Sproston, a multi-sponsored elite runner who consistently finishes in the top tier on the international ultrarunning circuit.

Sproston entered the ultra world casually. She began running track in junior high and completed her first marathon at the University of Kansas, where she got her master’s degree. After moving to Washington, D.C., in 2004, she befriended a group of ultra-trailrunners. She ran her first 50-miler in 2006. Within a couple of years, she was winning ultra races in Virginia. When she relocated to Portland in 2009, she entered the more competitive West Coast racing scene, which upped her game. The next year, she ran the JFK 50 Mile in Maryland—and won (with a pace of 8:19 per mile), earning her a spot as an alternate on the U.S. team. Since then, she’s been a top finisher at races around the globe, some as short (ha! short!) as 50 miles, some as long as 100. And somehow she manages this in tandem with a full-time job that requires tens of thousands of miles of travel each year.

 “I’ve learned that you never really figure out the distance, and maybe that’s part of the intrigue and why, years later, I’m still planning my life around 100-mile races.”

Ultra work/life balancer

It’s easy to assume that for a runner of Sproston’s caliber, running is the career, but not for her. She works for the global aid agency Mercy Corps, and her job requires international travel to ensure grant money is being spent correctly. So she travels extensively for work while training at an elite level for a sport that also requires extensive travel as well as running 70 to 100 miles per week.

Sproston’s international travel in 2012 included three work trips (Kenya, Turkey, and Iraq) and two running trips (France and Italy, for the world championships). In 2013, she traveled to Ethiopia and Turkey for work (she also ran an 80K in the latter) and to Japan (twice) and France for running. So far this year she has gone to Brazil and El Salvador to work and to Argentina, Chile, and South Africa to run. By year’s end, she’ll fit in Ethiopia and Turkey for work, Japan for a race, and Doha, Qatar, for the 2014 world championships.

If these trips were spaced evenly throughout the year, her schedule might not seem extraordinary, but Sproston can control neither natural disaster nor the timing of top-level ultramarathons, so she ends up on a pretty harried schedule. Her last work trip took her to Brazil. She was expected immediately afterward in Chilean Patagonia to run El Cruce Columbia, a three-day race that covers just over 100 kilometers. But since work purchased one plane ticket, to and from Brazil, and the race purchased another, from Portland to Chile, and they couldn’t be changed without paying exorbitantly out-of-pocket, Sproston had to forego what would have been a four-hop hop for a 31-hour ordeal that took her from Brazil to Portland to Chile for a total of 50,000 miles. Imagine feeling like you could run 62 miles after that! On the plus side, Sproston notes, she tends to rack up a lot of frequent-flier miles.

In addition to her grueling travel schedule, Sproston, who lives in trail-friendly Portland, Ore., faces uncertain running conditions in the countries she visits. If conditions are really inhospitable she’ll make do with a treadmill, but sometimes even that proves elusive. She describes December 2012, when she was stationed for three weeks in Iraq: “I wasn’t sure I would even be able to run in Iraq, but our security guys assured me it was okay, just to avoid small streets off the beaten path” because of safety concerns and the occasional old land mine. The runs “had to be done in early morning before the smog got too bad, and I wasn’t technically supposed to leave the apartment compound after dark alone. Which meant that if I ran in the evening I had to run loops around the apartment compound. Mind numbing. Technically it was dark in the mornings when I left the apartment compound to run, but morning darkness seems less threatening. People don’t get kidnapped before noon, right?”

Conversely, sometimes work travel introduces Sproston to new running friends and great trails. When she knew she’d be visiting Turkey for work, she contacted the author of an article about trail running there to ask for recommendations. “This resulted in my being picked up from my hotel at 4:30 a.m. on a Saturday morning to go run in the Belgrad Forest with five guys,” she recounts. “A colleague expressed concern as to whether this was safe—going to run in the dark forest with a group of strangers (all male). I assured them it was totally legit—ultrarunners are ultrarunners the world around.”

It’s not easy being ultra

Winning the 100K world championship gained Sproston membership in more than just the world-champion club—she is now in the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency registered drug-testing pool, which means that she has to file quarterly reports that detail her daily schedule from 6 a.m. to 11 p.m., providing a time and location where she can be found seven days a week, including a guaranteed 60-minute testing window each day. Sproston jokes, “Kind of makes you feel important in an odd way. Like, am I really being drug tested in my own home at 6 a.m. on a Sunday morning?” Which has happened to her twice.

The trials and tribulations of an ultrarunner are many, and Sproston has stories, most of them recounted with dry wit, about everything from slopping through kilometers of shin-deep mud (“It reminded me of what I expect a Tough Mudder to be like, except that I would never sign up for a Tough Mudder”); to attending to bodily functions while running; to the hard decision to drop out of a 100-miler in the Alps during which she contended with an illness; to occasional face-planting (“I was bleeding, but oddly was more concerned about the fact that I chipped a nail”).

On her blog, Just Another Goat, which she writes with intelligence and humor, she often dissects her runs mile by mile in a way that someone with even a passing interest in running will find riveting, in part because of the awe and horror scrolling in the back of the mind: Wait—that’s mile 17 of a 100-mile race! But in addition to detailed race reviews, she also pans out to look at the bigger picture, discussing with raw honesty how ultrarunning has influenced her career decisions and where she’s chosen to live, how it’s derailed relationships and subsumed other hobbies, and how it continues, in spite of that, to exert a powerful pull: “Getting sucked into the ultrarunning ‘cult’ has obviously not been without effect. And the question remains as to why I keep doing it when the goal of it is to run races that are potentially not going to be a lot of fun. I hated my first 100-miler. I had a miserable time and was not proud of my finish. Maybe that’s what motivated me to run my second 100—to prove to myself that I could figure out the distance. But in subsequent races, I think I’ve learned that you never really figure out the distance, and maybe that’s part of the intrigue and why, years later, I’m still planning my life around 100-mile races.”

In Sproston’s philosophical reflections, it’s hard not to see the great race as a metaphor for life: “There is something about the unpredictability of the journey that is 100 miles that has a real draw. You know going in that you’re going to suffer, and that there will be highs and lows, and that you won’t know what those will be until you face them; there’s something about that uncertainty that is really quite appealing. Or at least it must be, otherwise, why do we do it?”