Extreme local sports. Who are the Ultra Trail Runners in the Birmingham area?

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Birmingham Ultra Trail Society
BUTS President Lisa Booher. Photo via Alex Morrow

100 miles. I’ve got to admit, before I started writing this article about ultra trail running, that’s all I could think about. Superhuman people in our community who can run on a trail for 24 hours at a distance that equals a trek from Birmingham to Huntsville.That’s what ultra trail running is…right?  

Thanks to two remarkable women and a close knit local trail running group they belong to, I learned it’s not about the 100 miles. It’s about health, friendships, the love of the outdoors, and a little competition.

Here are their stories and advice on getting you on the path to becoming a trail runner, and possibly an ultra trail runner.

Stumbling Into Trail Running

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Olivia Affuso, Ultra trail runner and epidemiologist at the Pinhoti 100. Photo via Olivia Affuso

“Almost 10 years ago, I stumbled into trail running,” Olivia Affuso chuckled. 

If you have ever run on a trail in a forest or a meadow, you know that tripping, sliding, stumbling and getting muddy and dirty is part of the jig. 

An epidemiologist at UAB, Olivia’s research focuses on getting people to be more physically active, particularly women. She described to me how nearly a decade ago, she was reading popular books about ultra trail running, such as Born to Run by Christopher McDougall and Dean Karnazes 50/50 Secrets I Learned from Running 50 Marathons in 50 Days.

She was hooked. Soon Oliva decided to train for an ultra marathon (a race over 26 miles) all on her own for the next five months, without a support group. She simply didn’t know anyone participating in the sport. Self-trained, she entered her first race in Pine Mountain, Georgia, and it was there she met the legendary Dean Karnazes. She has been running ultras ever since.

The Streak and 30 Minutes

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Olivia Affuso, Ultra trail runner and epidemiologist running in North Carolina Photo via Olivia Affuso

Shortly after that first race, Olivia eventually connected with BUTS, the Birmingham Ultra Trail Society, a group founded by four friends, Kyle Stichtenoth, Greg Wingo, John Gregg and Brad Siegal. In the years that followed, Olivia became vice president of the group and presently leads the BUTS beginner trail running group called the Super Fun group that meets on Tuesday nights at Red Mountain Park.

Today, along with her ultras,  she is also renowned for the “streak”—running at least one mile a day.

“I’m almost up to 900 consecutive days of running every single day. And since I started, so many crazy things have happened, like being stung by more than 50 Africanized killer bees or getting that mile in after running two 100 mile races.” 

The streak is done all outside in the fresh air on Alabama’s many trails. Olivia tells us nature inspires her and keeps her going out every day. She doesn’t own a treadmill.

All these personal efforts fit nicely with her dedication to promoting healthy lifestyles and physical activity.

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Olivia Affuso on the far right with the GrassRoots Community Foundation in 2018. Photo via Olivia Affuso

“From a public health perspective, we know that at least 30 minutes of physical activity, five days a week, so that individuals accumulate about 150 minutes a week, is really good for their health,” Olivia said. “We’re trying to get more people to engage in that level of exercise. I think a part of my craziness inspires people to get to that minimum level. It’s like hey, if this crazy woman can do that, I believe I can go out and walk for 30 minutes.”

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Mom of Four

Ultra Trail
BUTS President Lisa Booher on left with former BUTS VP Mary Campbell on the right. Photo via Birmingham Ultra Trail Society ( BUTS)

Lisa Booher, President of BUTS, is entering her 3rd year in that role. A mother of four children, Lisa just finished her 5th 100-mile race in five years in October. 

Running is Lisa’s profession. She coaches running for trail and road runners alike. She enjoys teaching beginners in the sport the most, because their lives change so dramatically. 

Trail running is her passion, but ultra trail running was something she never thought of doing. It is not easy. 

According to Lisa, really fast ultra trail runners can finish a 100 mile race in half a day, but for her, it takes 24-30 hours (more or less) depending on the terrain and whether the trail is actually over a 100 miles long. Trail math is not super specific. 

Obviously, you don’t sleep in these 100-mile races, but you can stop and get food every five to 10 miles. Your goal is to keep moving, whether it’s walking or running. 

“Running an ultra trail is about getting comfortable with being really uncomfortable. It’s not hard for me to cry during the home stretch of a race. Most of the time it’s from joy, an overwhelming feeling of gratitude that I am completing something I thought was impossible. It’s a great feeling and super tiring,” said Lisa

BUTS—Trail Running for Everyone

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BUTS Tuesday night running group at Red Mountain Park in 2019. They will start back on March 16, 2021, 6:00 PM with COVID restrictions. Photo via Birmingham Ultra Trail Society (BUTS)

The name of the group, Birmingham Ultra Trail Society (BUTS), might give you the impression that only people interested in ultra marathons are welcome. The organization represents so much more. And, let’s be honest about that name, BUTS. It is probably tied with BUMP—Birmingham Urban Mountain Pedalers—for the all-time best outdoor group name anywhere.

“We support trail runners and the trails—anything that encourages people to get outside,” said Lisa. “We really don’t care if people walk the trails or if you’ve done an ultra at all. We just want people to come outside and appreciate the trails. My view is the more people we have getting out and experiencing the trail, the more they’ll plug in and want to be a supporter of our many initiatives.” 

BUTS has approximately 300 members and nearly 3000 Facebook followers.

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Photo via Birmingham Ultra Trail Society ( BUTS)

A number of their members are folks who actually help with the races or maintain the trails. For example, recently BUTS has become part of the Freshwater Land Trust adopt-a-trail program. Families and friends work on clearing paths and removing invasive vegetation. 

They also organize four races a year. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, events were postponed throughout 2020. Their first race in 2021 is the Race to the Lake at Oak Mountain State Park on April 24th.

They are planning and hoping to nail down these three additional annual races in 2021:

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Photo via Birmingham Ultra Trail Society ( BUTS)

If you want to expand past the Birmingham metro area, there are events scheduled every weekend within a 2-3 hour drive.  Visit https://ultrasignup.com/ for details. BUTS also encourages runners to check out Southeastern Trail Runs

Places to Run and Additional Info

If you are looking forward to running with a group, here is the BUTS list of scheduled weekly group runs that are open to everyone.

Below are maps of local Birmingham stores that sell running gear and popular running trails.

Ready to get started? Contact the folks at BUTS today. Visit their website – HERE.

“It is really a special community, like a small town. You are welcome no matter what kind of ability you have. I really love that part of the community. And you don’t mind getting a little dirty,” concluded Lisa Booher.

Next Up

Bennett Smith
Bennett Smith upside down. Photo via Peter Holcombe Photography

Now that we have explored local mountain biking and trail running, let’s get wet.

Our next topic is kayaking.

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