I first met Crista Scott at the Born to Run Ultramarathons where I and several dozen others spent a weekend camping, dancing and running ultramarathons — by which I mean we ran 31, 50 or 100 miles around a farm in Santa Barbara, California.
Although the run itself was fun, it was the people that were the most fascinating — take Crista, for example. We stayed in contact following that weekend, and I had the chance to see her, a sports psychology researcher and entrepreneur, found Dirtbag Runners, a brand that unites runners of all distances who enjoy a minimalistic lifestyle. That can mean anything from spending weekends running in the mountains and doing the daily grind during the week, to living full time out of an RV and traveling from race to race throughout the U.S.
I had the chance to catch up with Crista and ask her how she exactly she went from grad student to business entrepreneur — while training for distances most of us hate driving.
How did you first become involved in the ultra running community?
In 2010, I read Born To Run, like many other runners, and found myself enthralled by the idea of people running distances further than a marathon. I had never heard of it before, although I have been a runner since high school. During my Master’s degree, another student in my cohort overheard me discussing ultrarunning. She mentioned her dad was an ultrarunner. I asked her if I could talk to him and ask him about his experiences. The look on her face said, “Oh my God, I can see that crazy in you, too!” A few days later, I went on a run with my fellow cohort’s dad, and several other seasoned SoCal ultrarunners. I lasted a good three miles before my lungs and legs couldn’t take it anymore. It blew my mind that they were all twice my age and completely kicking my ass on the trail. It was my first real trail run, and I was immediately hooked.
I heard about a race called the Born To Run Ultramarathons. It was a few weeks away, and I signed up, even though I didn’t know anyone. It was pretty scary for me at the time – taking one giant leap of faith! That weekend ended up changing my life, and some of the people I met at that race are my best friends. I’m now planning on going to my fifth Born To Run Ultramarathon this May.
I have run a handful of ultras – mostly running the Born To Run 50K for the last few years, the Marin Ultra Challenge 50K, Leona Divide “Fat” 50K, Red Rock Half Marathon, and probably a few I’ve forgotten about. I’m hoping to start training for a 50 mile race next year.
Do you see a relationship between the mindset needed to tackle ultra marathons and managing a business?
Absolutely. Starting my company over the last two years has been one of the hardest and most rewarding experiences of my life. It definitely is related to the experiences I have when I run. You have highs, lows, and must persevere through the difficult times.
You wrote your Master’s thesis on “The Health and Psychological Benefits of Long-Distance Running.” When did you first notice a connection between physical distance and mental tenacity?
My life dramatically changed when I started trail running. The longer I spent out in nature, the happier I was.
When I was trying to pick a topic for my Master’s thesis, one of my mentors suggested I explore the benefits of trail running. I didn’t even realize at the time that I would be starting an entirely new area of research, in the merge between trail running and positive psychology.
Why do you think ultra runners develop such tight-knit communities?
When you do something intense like run a hundred miles all day and night through the mountains, it’s important to surround yourself with people who will help you succeed and “get” why you’re doing it. Our community has grown because of necessity. We need each other. We need volunteers at races. We need advice about training, nutrition, and which trails we should run when we are visiting a new place. Ultrarunning is a pretty small sport (although it’s growing very fast!) so we depend on ourselves for being each other’s sounding boards. And, a fair share of us really enjoy the post run hang out sessions with a good beer, camping chair, and fire. Some of my favorite moments in ultrarunning have actually happened off the trails. Many people have said it before–it’s really not about the running itself.
What sparked the idea for Dirtbag Runners?
Luis Escobar started calling me and a small group of my friends from Southern California “dirtbags” a few years back. Rightly so — we had quit our jobs, were living out of our car, traveling across the western states and loving every minute of it. Most of my friends didn’t have blogs, so I decided to create a small website for everyone to share photos and their stories on. I really didn’t think it would turn into what it is now.
I’m a graphic designer and web designer, so I created a logo and thought it would be cool to put it on a hat. We ordered 50 hats for fun, and our minds were blown when we sold out of them in two days. People kept asking — how do we get a Dirtbag Runners hat? And it was at that point that we realized we had something cool on our hands.
What does it mean to be a Dirtbag Runner?
My own personal definition of being a Dirtbag Runner means to live free, whatever that means to you. There is no clear definition of it. It means something different to each person. For some, it’s living on the road and off the grid. For others, it’s sneaking away into the mountains every weekend while maintaining a 9-5 during the week.
Were you apprehensive about starting your own business? Have any of your research skills been useful in running your business?
Not really, because it kind of just happened to me! I didn’t plan on it, it formed organically over time, and hasn’t really felt like a job at all. It’s fun. I’ve never enjoyed something so much in my entire life.
In my research, I learned that people thrive when they have goals, a community, and positive interactions with other people. I decided that I wanted Dirtbag Runners to be a collective, an environment, a “space” for runners of a similar mindset to connect with one another. After a year or so of running a mostly apparel company and maintaining an online social media community, we branched into my biggest dream — event directing.
We put on our very first Dirtbag Runners Camp & Run in March of 2016, and it was so much fun. There were many people I had never met before, we had taken that same leap of faith with this camp & run as I did with Born To Run five years ago. I am looking forward to creating many more events in the future! Nothing is more fulfilling to me than seeing new friendships be cultivated, people enjoying each others company sans technology (I picked a location where there was no cell phone reception, wee!), and creating epic memories.
Ultra running is still a male-dominated industry, but it seems like that’s changing. Do you feel Dirtbag Runners plays a role in inviting women into the ultra running scene?
I think it’s definitely male-heavy, but women are becoming more and more attuned to the dirtbag lifestyle. We can partially blame society for this — telling us that men can get dirty and do really physically challenging tasks while women should keep themselves well-kept and “dainty.” I personally have never been able to adhere to those “standards” and finding the ultrarunning community was like a breath of fresh air. I actually feel the most attractive at the end of a long trail run when I’m covered in dirt and my hair is a mess. I see more and more women embracing this — ditching the make up, styled hair, and excessive primping. We don’t have time for that. We have trails to run, beer to drink, and food to shovel into our faces with our bare hands.
Where do you hope to see Dirtbag Runners in the future?
My dream would be to host camps and runs all around the world. We have Dirtbag Runners Ambassadors in over twenty countries, forty-two states, and a pretty prominent international following. Nothing would make me happier than to cultivate a company that promotes new friendships all around the world.
What the most “dirtbag” thing you’ve ever done?
Quit my job, lived out of my car for four months, and traveled from national park to national park, drinking lots of beer, meeting lots of amazing new people, and seeing more trails in a short timeframe than I had in my entire life. On a smaller level, though? Probably the numerous times I “showered” in random gas stations while on the road.
A native of Vancouver, BC, Jade Belzberg is a freelance writer and MFA student in San Diego, CA. When not writing, you can find her on the trails: hiking, running ultras or looking for birds.