"Each time dawn appears, the mystery is there in its entirety."
At 4 a.m., it is a safe bet to say that most of us are in bed, sound asleep. But for Sarah Keyes of Saranac Lake, running on the trails and the open roads of the Adirondacks is the perfect start to the perfect day. “I feel like that early morning hour, from anywhere between like 4 and 6, is pretty special,” said Keyes.
While 4 a.m. is not the most typical hour for a workout, Keyes is far from a typical athlete. Her interest in running blossomed from being a recreational hobby to a full blown professional career. In fact, Keyes has amassed a wide array of accolades to her name, including nine current “Fastest Known Times” (FKT), seven of which were earned in 2020 alone. FKTs are precisely what they sound like: the fastest completed time on record of a particular course, one that has been verified under a strict set of guidelines. Both Keyes and fellow runner Alyssa Godesky (Charlottesville, VA) made headlines in August 2020 as they raced for the women's FKT across the 46 Adirondack High Peaks. Each athlete picked their own route and starting point, and the entire endeavor covering over 160 miles and over 67,000 feet in elevation was self-supported. Godesky would ultimately earn the title of the women’s FKT and the second-best overall FKT, completing the challenge in three days, sixteen hours, and sixteen minutes. Despite injuring her foot during the second day, Keyes would also complete the challenge, finishing in four days, twenty-two hours, and fifteen minutes.
Yes, Keyes is far from the typical athlete.
From recreationalist to pro
It would be easy to assume that a runner as decorated as Keyes has been running since birth, but you would be wrong. Keyes was surprisingly not involved in sports during high school. “Ya know, I was not a competitive kid, really. Well, I would say I wasn't a competitive kid — my sister might say different!”
Keyes picked up running recreationally only after she graduated high school and found an immediate interest. “It really was something that I quickly was drawn to, especially running on trails and in the High Peaks because it made me feel more confident,” she said. “There weren't a whole lot of other people out there running in the mountains.” While running began for Keyes as a hobby, it has evolved into a career. Keyes is now a professional trail and ultra runner sponsored by Rab, Julbo, and Leki. Around her busy training and racing schedule, Keyes also serves as a per diem nurse right in Saranac Lake.
Running with the best (on four legs)
If you happen to be out on the town, at Mount Pisgah, or at Dewey Mountain around dawn, keep your eyes open for Keyes and her fearless training partner, Mocha. Mocha is Keyes’s faithful twenty-five pound mini Australian Shepherd Spaniel mix. “I adopted her through a rescue I guess probably eight years ago, now. She is originally from Kentucky, but I think she likes the Adirondacks better,” Keyes said with a laugh. Mocha is nine years old. As she has gotten older, she has slowed down and been more resistant to doing workouts with Keyes on hot days in the summer. Pisgah offers Mocha a way to get the best of both worlds: getting a run to the mountain with Keyes before laying down at the bottom of the hill and waiting for Keyes to complete the rest of her workout.
Rugged ADK toughness
The trails in the Adirondack High Peaks are not easy. They just aren’t. “Our trails are very rugged,” Keyes said, later referring to running in the High Peaks as “fast hiking.” “They usually go straight up drainages. There’s no switchbacks, typically. Very rocky and rooty and muddy, and not always a great view. Sometimes you can summit and there’s just one little spot where you can see a ridge line somewhere else.”
That said, anyone choosing to religiously train in the Adirondacks must hold a sincere appreciation for responding to adversity as “easy days” simply don’t exist here. It comes as no surprise to learn that the difficulty of these trails is precisely what Keyes has most come to appreciate.
“It’s about the training; it’s not about the destination, right?” she said. “Enjoying the difficulty of a trail has become really important to me. But I think that translates into life in all areas. Enjoying the difficulty makes everything else that much better.”
One of Keyes’s favorite training areas is located at Mount Pisgah in her hometown of Saranac Lake, NY. It is close to her home and offers the challenging terrain needed as an elite trail and ultra-runner. Keyes can amass 700-800 feet in elevation before being at work by 6:30 a.m. Repeats of the ski hill at ount Pisgah alone can rack up a couple thousand feet of elevation in only a few miles.
It is safe to say that these typical workouts for Keyes would make many cringe. While a runner of her calibre naturally needs this kind of challenging terrain, we can’t help but wonder how she is able to dig so much deeper than the rest of us day after day. “What's the point, right?” Keyes laughed. “Like, why am I out there doing seven laps of Pisgah? Some of that is just having the drive to succeed at some other time. You know, anything you do, you can certainly relate it, like any career. The more work you put in in training, the hopefully more successful you’re going to be. I think finding joy in the training, even when it's really difficult, is just sort of one of the secrets. If you can enjoy the really crappy times and the stuff that's really rough, the good times are amazing.”
Self-discovery among the peaks
Running has given Keyes much more than a healthy lifestyle and a career. “I think it helped me identify with the person I wanted to be, someone who is independent, has grit, and works really hard, and someone who enjoys the community of running, especially trail running,” she said. “Running, for me, has definitely provided a window into who I wanted to be as a human being. I wasn't totally sure of who I was and found that mountain running gave me that direction. And being here in the Adirondacks gave me that direction.”
This story is a feature of The Dawn Patrol, a series of videos created by Adirondacks, USA, which follows incredible locals as they share what the Adirondacks and their favorite outdoor activities mean to them. Join us for scenic wonders and unforgettable moments as the sun rises. To watch the episode on Sarah Keyes, tune in on Friday, November 12!
The Dawn Patrol series: