Why I Train for City Marathons on Mountain Trails

Olympic runner Sarah Attar on the profound effects of embracing nature as an athlete and artist

Why I Train for City Marathons on Mountain Trails


Sarah Attar


Sarah Attar





Sarah Attar is a California-based professional runner, 2x Olympian, and artist. In 2012 she made history as Saudi Arabia’s first female Olympic runner.

a summer of trail runs
of sunrises and wildflowers
cool mornings paired
with the first touch of pink on the peaks
countless lakes and high
alpine swims
mountain passes
good company
and some of my favorite miles I've ever run

For two months this summer every single Sunday long run was a trail run above 10,000ft, between 15 and 26 miles, and included an average of somewhere around 3,000ft elevation gain. These runs have all been part of my buildup for the Chicago Marathon—a flat road race at sea level. I didn't seek out these stats, I just wanted to be deeper in the hills, to see some lakes I've dreamt of, and embrace the land a little more consciously.


I live in the Eastern Sierra, one of the most epic stretches of earth I have come across. The ease of access to these types of trails is unparalleled, and so I made it a priority to take full advantage of that this past season.

In the last three and a half years of living and training here, I have had some extremely profound experiences when spending time deeper in the mountains. That connection to this place has the most beautiful impact on my being. After back-to-back 10 mile runs to Meysan Lake out of Whitney Portal back in June, I knew that these mountain runs were going to be a crucial component to my fall marathon build-up.

"There may be a million other factors, but I believe in these runs and the power of these landscapes."


Always on the horizon was one big run I've dreamt of since moving to this area—a 26.2 mile trail run from Mammoth to Yosemite. An unsanctioned marathon in the mountains. And in July, we completed it.

These runs were, of course, incredible physical training. I knew the big miles on the trail, and on the feet, the sheer exhaustion of ascending the countless switchbacks of mountain passes, the altitude, and the hours of movement would prep me well for future marathons. But maybe more importantly, these runs transformed my mind.


They provided hours of calm engagement with my mind, the land, with the mountains, with the lakes and the dirt and the wildflowers, and with others on the trail (many of the trails utilize shared sections with the Pacific Crest Trail and the John Muir Trail). These Sunday runs in the mountains became sacred. To find myself deep among the vistas I've gazed at for years, surrounded by an expanding world, feeling so grateful for these views and experiences brought a peace and contentedness unlike any other. 

And how did this all play out in the Chicago Marathon? I ran a personal best time by four minutes. There may be a million other factors, and correlation doesn't necessarily prove causation, but I believe in these runs and the power of these landscapes. And I know they have a positive influence on my being and what I am capable of.

I keep coming back to a quote by one of my favorite authors, Rebecca Solnit:

“Mountaineering is always spoken of as though summiting is conquest, but as you get higher, the world gets bigger, and you feel smaller in proportion to it, overwhelmed and liberated by how much space is around you, how much room to wander, how much unknown."

When our world expands, what our mind knows also expands, which means what we are capable of expands too. Here's to the mountains, where I'll continue to call both home and training ground for years to come. And to creating more moments like these—more moments of profound beauty and exploration of possibility. 


Published 12-01-2018