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Why Rachel Long Switched from Ultrarunning to Mountain Biking

An injury forced the competitive ultrarunner into biking, and now, she’s not turning back.

Her senior year of high school, a friend dared Rachel Long to run a marathon. And she’s not the kind of person who says no to a dare. A soccer player through her teens growing up in Morrisville, Vermont, Long ran eight miles on a whim, then decided to sign up for a half marathon. “Why run a half when you could do a full marathon instead?” a friend challenged her. So, she did.

Long ran the Burlington Marathon in May of her senior year, alongside a teacher who inspired her to push herself. “I was competitive with myself,” Long says. “I was hooked on being better. I finished and knew I could do better.”

While in college at the University of Vermont, she signed up for the Philadelphia Marathon that fall and continued to run marathons through college. After graduating from UVM, she got into trail running and ended up running two road marathons in two weeks, which gave her the confidence to consider running an even longer race. Her first ultramarathon? The Catamount 50K at Trapp Family Lodge in Stowe, Vermont.

The very next day, Long moved to New York City to work as a teacher for Teach for America and get her master’s degree. “I had just fallen in love with trail running and I moved to the concrete jungle,” she says. Her first year in New York, she completed nine ultramarathons, ranging from 50Ks to a 100-miler.

Running was the one constant in her life for the years that followed, as she moved to San Francisco, where she worked at the San Francisco Running Company, then back to Vermont for a year, then relocated to Jackson, Wyoming, with the plan of training for running at higher elevations. “It was a tumultuous year with a lot of transitions,” Long says. “I had a new job, in a new town, and I didn’t have many friends. I was pretty solo.”

In the summer of 2019, her ankle started giving her trouble. It was acute Achilles tendinitis. “It was something I could run through, until I couldn’t,” Long says. “It got to the point where I wasn’t feeling good anymore. I had won some races but running wasn’t clicking for me anymore.”

She was 27 at the time and a running mentor of hers told her that she was too young to be punishing her body so much. “She was like, ‘At the rate you’re going, you’re going to end your running career,’” Long recalls. “It was hard advice. My ego was so wrapped up in trying to be a professional runner. I was winning some races, but I wasn’t at the top.”

A gravel bike, it turned out, saved the day. “I needed to transition. I couldn’t just stop being an athlete. I needed to focus somewhere,” she says. “I love endurance, so I focused on starting to gravel bike.” She competed in the Grinduro, a 70-mile gravel race in northern California. “I had no idea what I was doing, and I was horribly slow, but I could go all day,” Long says.

A friend who worked at a bike shop got Long a deal on a mountain bike. “That was three years ago, and I haven’t done a running race since,” she says.

Early one biking season, Long was in Pocatello, Idaho, sessioning this set of jumps that ramped up in size. “There was this girl riding there—I never even got her name, I have no idea who she was,” Long says. “But she was like, ‘Try this jump.’ It was a step up, but once I got one in line, I got the whole set.”

Sometimes it takes the words of encouragement from a total stranger to convince you what you’re capable of. Long—who’s a Flylow-sponsored athlete—has done a few mountain bike races, but at this point, she’s keeping things low-key and trying to not take the sport too seriously. But she can’t wait to see where it takes her.

“It was hard to walk away from running and try this new sport that felt really scary,” she says. “I got caught up in my ego with running. I didn’t always want to do it. But with biking, I’m genuinely having fun while doing it.”

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