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Three young guns who started winning trail races before their 20th birthdays

Andrew Miller on his way to a muddy first-place finish at the 2015 Orcas Island 50K. Photo by Glenn Tachiyama

Last summer, Miller won the Bighorn Wild & Scenic 100-miler in course record time; this Saturday, he will be gunning for a second consecutive win at the Georgia Death Race.

Smith placed third at the Ultra Race of Champions 100K in September, and is registered for next month’s Gorges 100K and Lake Sonoma 50.

Last summer and fall, Erba won the Power of Four 50K, the El Vaquero Loco 50K (where she placed an impressive second overall) and the Flagstaff Sky Race 55K. She is also registered for the Gorges 100K.

This February, Ford Smith snagged the overall win at Arizona’s Black Canyon 100K, but he didn’t celebrate with a post-race beer. Neither did Ashley Erba after she finished third female at the Lake Sonoma 50K, nor Andrew Miller after he topped the podium at the 2014 Georgia Death Race. That’s because they won’t turn 21 for a couple of years.

Trail runners their age have grown up worshipping the likes of Anton Krupicka—who won the Leadville Trail 100 in 2006 at the age of 23 and went on to place second at the Western States Endurance Run the following year—and Scott Jurek—who won Western States in 1999 at the age of 25, and then defended that win every year through 2005. Now Smith, Miller and Erba are the young guns to beat, bursting onto the trail and ultrarunning scene with the same force that their idols did 10 years ago.

Andrew Miller

Recent Highlights: Georgia Death Race 68 Mile, March 2015, 10:27:44 (1st overall); Orcas Island 50K, February 2015, 4:28:50 (1st overall); Waldo 100K, August 2014, 9:23:28 (1st overall)

Andrew Miller’s Ultrasignup page is linked to his dad’s email account, because when he registered for his first ultra in 2010, at the age of 14, he didn’t have an email address of his own.

After several years at the back of the pack, he emerged in 2013 to earn top-10 finishes at the Orcas Island 50K in Washington’s San Juan Islands and Oregon’s McDonald Forest 50K and Waldo 100K. In 2014 he returned to win all three outright. Now 18, the Corvallis, Oregon, native is taking a gap year before college, working for his dad’s chemical-engineering startup and focusing on running.

Getting started: Ten years ago, my mom started doing ultras. At some point, I just started running with her and, as things went on, I started running farther and faster. I signed up for my first ultra in 2010, and honestly wasn’t sure if I was going to do another.

Lessons learned: At the 2014 Pine to Palm 100-miler in Williams, Oregon, I went in with a sacroiliac-joint injury [in the lower back] and dropped at mile 40. I was too focused on racing and hadn’t taken any time off that year to let my body recover. Moving forward, I know that I can’t focus so much on racing. I have to leave time in there to take it easy and run just to go run.

Youthful perspective: I think the sport is more accessible than it used to be. My generation is the first to grow up seeing ultrarunning and wanting to try it out. I look up to a lot of guys who didn’t necessarily have anyone to look up to when they were starting out.

Advice for youngsters: Go have fun every day, and you’ll be a good runner. If you get too caught up in being fast, you’ll get mired down in the numbers; if you just enjoy yourself, you are going to have a more sustainable career.

Going forward: I want to qualify for Western States. I’d also like to run the Hardrock 100 and the Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc. Other than that, I want to check out cool places and have fun running in the mountains.

Ford Smith

Smith is all smiles at the 2015 Black Canyon Ultras 100K. Photo by Ron Ceton

Recent Highlights: Antelope Island Buffalo Run 50K, March 2015, 3:48:58 (1st overall); Black Canyon Ultras 100K, February 2015, 8:31:48 (1st overall);Brazos Bend 50 Mile, December 2014, 5:48:10 (1st overall)

Growing up, Smith was a mediocre basketball and football player. Then he moved to Utah for his sophomore year of high school and gave running a shot. Surprisingly, he liked it. Even more surprisingly, he was good at it.

He was 16 when he ran (and earned a top-10 finish at) his first ultra, in 2013, Utah’s Antelope Island 50K. Over the next year he snagged top-10 finishes at Utah’s Squaw Peak 50-Mile Trail Run, Wyoming’s Bighorn 50-Miler and Texas’ Bandera 100K and Rocky Raccoon 100-Mile. Since September 2014, Smith has entered five races, and won them all.

Getting started: When I moved to Utah, I started exploring local trails and quickly signed up for a trail half-marathon. At the time, that distance felt like the ultimate challenge. I wound up coming in second and was hooked.

Lessons learned: I rushed into [racing] and DNFed at my first 100-miler, the 2013 Bear 100. I was ready physically, but not mentally.

Going forward: The Hardrock 100 in Colorado is a race I’d ultimately like to run. Beyond that, I am interested in exploring mountain ranges and using running as a vehicle to efficiently cover large expanses of wilderness.

Advice for youngsters: Be patient and remember that you have many years ahead of you. Also, don’t let anyone discourage you. People worry that distance running stunts growth, but the mental benefits outweigh any physical disadvantages. Running is a medium for finding out more about your self.

Ashley Erba

Recent Highlights: Lake Sonoma 50 Mile, April 2015, 7:36:24 (3rd female); Moab’s Red Hot 55K, February 2015, 4:29:29 (1st female; 10th overall); Über Rock 50K, September 2015, 4:21:47 (1st female, 3rd overall)

For Erba, trail running happened by accident. Three years ago, she set a meet record for the 5,000-meter race at the 2012 New Balance High-School Outdoor Track National Championship in Greensboro, North Carolina. It was the first step toward achieving her dream of Division I running. Then she suffered three stress fractures in her foot, essentially ending her track career.

After her freshman year of college, Erba took time off to crew and pace her mom, Karen, at some 100-mile races. On a whim, Erba ran the 2014 Über Rock 50K—and placed first female and third overall. Now a 19-year-old sophomore at the University of Colorado Boulder, Erba has eagerly embraced this new outlet for her running talent.

Getting started: After my freshman year of college, I realized that I was racing to prove a point—that my injuries hadn’t turned me into a burnout—rather than racing because I was passionate about the sport. I needed something different. After the Über Rock 50K, I knew that trail racing was what I loved to do.

Lessons learned: After that year of injury, I learned to take nothing for granted. Things don’t always go as planned, but you have to embrace the situation, adapt and keep on enjoying the ride.

Going forward: My goal races are Western States, Leadville and the Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc. I also want to climb in some of Colorado’s Fourteeners.

Advice for youngsters: Follow what you are passionate about. There are certain goals that young runners are often expected to achieve, or paths they are expected to follow, but remember that you always have a choice.

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