Interview with Miriam Fein, Nine-Time Baker Trail UltraChallenge Finisher

The Baker Trail UltraChallenge is a grueling, 50-mile ultramarathon that takes place every August, rotating between three sections: North, Central and South. This year, Miriam Fein completed her 9th Baker Trail UltraChallenge, earning her third rolling pin, the coveted award which goes to a person who completes all three sections of the trail within the race time limits. She is the first person ever to earn three rolling pins and has accumulated 450 miles of Baker Trail running! I recently interviewed her via email.

  1. How old are you and where do you live? Tell me about your family.

I’m 40 years old, and I live in Long Island, NY. I’ve lived in NY my entire life. I have some wonderful trails near my home, but have fallen in love with the trails of Western Pennsylvania, which started with the Baker ultra. I have three kids- all teenagers now! My twins are 16 and my youngest is 13. They keep me on my toes- and very busy- as I’ve been a single parent most of their lives.

  1. What do you do for a living (when you’re not running)?

I’m a research scientist by day. I help manage a laboratory with a focus on autoimmune diseases, specifically Rheumatoid Arthritis. I have a background in cancer immunology, and after many years of doing basic research, I decided to take a more managerial role- without removing myself from academia, which I am passionate about. I also run a local grassroots science advocacy group to help communicate science to the general public called Science Advocacy of Long Island. It’s my own small way of giving back to the community- using my knowledge and background in a positive way.

  1. When did you start ultrarunning?

I had been running marathons for many years, but burning out- and perpetually having knee pain. I ran a road 50k in 2013, but hated it. I signed up for a local trail run near my house, a 25k- it was the first time I ever ran on trails. That was just the beginning for me of learning about the trail and the ultra world. And I’ve never looked back.

  1. When did you run the Baker Trail UltraChallenge for the first time?

The first year I ran Baker was the summer of 2013. I had never run a 50-miler before. My friend found the race online and suggested it to me. She told me about the ‘rolling pin’ and it sounded like a great challenge. We trained together that year, and drove out Friday of the race. We did not think about the traffic getting out of NY, and left far too late- we sat in hours of traffic and didn’t arrive to the farmhouse until midnight. We were so wiped that we didn’t set up a tent, just slept in the car for four hours before the race start. We both completed the race, but my friend struggled in the heat and was extremely nauseous. Back at the farmhouse, we asked Rebecca and Hisham where the nearest hotel was since we didn’t have a tent set up. They offered for us to stay at Hisham’s father’s house, just 5 minutes away. We were blown away by their kindness, and it turned out to be incredible to stay at the home of a world-renowned artist. I think a good part of the reason I’ve returned so many years is that family.

  1. What other races have you done? What’s your favorite distance?

I have run several other ultras, mostly on the east coast. Several in upstate NY, including the Finger Lakes 50s,Bear Mountain, and Cayuga Trails. The Devil Dog Ultras in Virginia was where I ran my first 100k. I completed Laurel Highlands 70 miler this year, which is one of my absolute favorite trails.  I even have that mountain range tattooed on my back. But working towards a 100-miler has been a more challenging journey. I’ve attempted Oil Creek 100 several times, even making it to 95 miles one year before timing out! Last year I finally completed the 100-mile distance at Burning River in Ohio- but am still working on getting my buckle at Oil Creek. That will be next year’s goal. For now, I love the 50-mile distance the best. It’s never easy, I can’t do it without training, but I don’t destroy my body (entirely), and can get back to my normal running routine in a decent amount of time.

  1. How do you typically train for this race?

My training has changed a lot through the years. When I just started out, 50 miles was my goal. I transitioned from running roads to trails, and just went out for longer and longer weekend runs. My weekdays were always more rushed- I just would get a few miles before or after work. My weekly mileage was never very high, but I was always a very consistent runner. It was a lot harder when my kids were young- I always needed to find someone to watch them when I planned a long run. Now, I just tell them I’m going out for a bunch of hours and it doesn’t even faze them anymore! If I didn’t go out for my long weekend runs, they might think something was wrong. Over the years, this race has been folded into training for a 100 miler, so not specifically my goal race. The year of Covid- in 2020- my 100 miler was delayed until August- the week before Baker. Not wanting to break my streak, I figured I would try to run Baker anyway- if I could. I completed my 100-miler, barely walked all week, and showed up to run Baker the next Saturday. That year I wanted to quit more than any other year- I wasn’t sure my legs would let me continue moving- but somehow, I got it done. My body just remembered what it needed to do. I was pretty wiped after that feat, though!

  1. Why do you like the Baker Trail UltraChallenge; what makes it different from other races?

I love the Baker for several reasons. The format of the race- with each section being a piece of the pie to earn the rolling pin- keeps people coming back for several years. I’ve met some wonderful runners here, and created a community in Western PA. Although some sections have more road than I would like, the beautiful rural landscapes make up for it, as it’s so different from my normal running routes. I don’t get to see cows or cornfields where I live! And the years we spend at the farmhouse are just the best- I have come to feel at home every time I pull into that house and set up my tent. Because I live so far, I always stay the night after the race (often I’m the only one still there) and spend a couple of hours in the morning with Hisham and Rebecca enjoying a few cups of coffee before heading home.

  1. Which section of the Baker Trail is your favorite?

My favorite section to run is the north section, through Cook Forest. But the trade-off is that year is the one year we don’t stay at the farmhouse, and that’s where I get the feeling of the race and the ultra-community there. Where we hang out Friday night eating and drinking beers, and then camping out. So I guess I’d say that it’s good that it’s the section with the most beautiful trails!

  1. What have you learned in all the years running this race?

Patience. Every run brings something different. Sometimes you contend with the weather, sometimes it’s some physical issue or a bad mental state. But running 50 miles, year after year, you learn to be patient with yourself. Some days you have better runs than others, but it’s all part of the journey.

  1. When you enter the ‘pain cave’ what do you do to get yourself out of it?

I don’t define it as a pain cave. I feel more like I’m on a roller coaster when I run ultras. I have ups and downs throughout the day (and night). I’ve found that just riding out the rough patches, knowing I will feel better soon, tends to help. I try to keep moving (without focusing too much on how slowly I am going) until the feeling lifts. That, and finding something good to eat at an aid station!

  1. Who do you admire in the ultrarunning community?

I wouldn’t say one person specifically- but I always admire the people I meet while out on the trails running and during races. I find that most people are out there because they simply love it, and it’s just a part of who they are. It’s very inspiring to hear people’s stories while I share some miles with them. I find that some of my closest relationships are with the people I run with regularly. Running long distance tends to leave people more raw and emotional, and leads to a closeness you can only find in the trail.

  1. Do you have any hobbies outside of running?

Not really- I don’t have much time for anything else! For me, running has been not just a hobby, but a way for me to keep balance in my life and manage my stress. I often say, the more stress I have, the longer I want to run. Sometimes that can be counterproductive as I’ve definitely overdone it at points and pushed to the point of injury. But between family and work, I can safely say I don’t have any other hobbies!

  1. Do you have any advice for women runners?

As someone who has been active all my life, I never really thought about women’s inequities in sports- until I began running long trail races. I realize I am often in the minority in many of the races I sign up for. Which is surprising to me, as women are particularly good at pushing themselves and tolerating pain. I have generally felt safe while running, even alone, but I know not everyone does. My advice to others is to do things that may push your boundaries, but also fulfill you and keep you grounded. I know that women, and often mothers, tend to put other people’s needs before our own. But remember that in order to give to others, we need to be on strong footing. I have always felt that I’m a better person- and parent- when I’m happy, and being out trail running gives me that.

  1. Will you keep running this race?

Well, when I received my third rolling pin after running this race 9 consecutive years, I said I was retiring from Baker. But… I can’t make any promises. Baker holds a special place in my heart. So, I suppose we’ll see next August.


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