The Fastest Trail Runner You’ve Never Heard Of
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Trail running can exist in parallel worlds. There’s the sport itself—the races, the adventures with friends, the solo forays—and then there’s the online scene. Our runs finished, we share photos on Facebook, compare paces on Strava or dream up pithy comments for Twitter. For the fastest among us, those platforms become stepping stones to partnerships with brands, invitations to races and endless attention.
Unless you’re Tristan Williams. Then all you really want to do is run.
Williams just might be the fastest trail runner you’ve never heard of. And that’s perfectly fine by him. The soft-spoken 29-year-old carpenter from Jackson, New Hampshire, works with the Appalachian Mountain Club’s Construction Crew. A tight, loyal, irreverent band of builders, they hike and ski year-round, maintaining the AMC’s eight huts and dozens of shelters in the state’s White Mountains.
The crew is legendary for its ability to play hard in the mountains. In the past, some have worked at the South Pole during the off-season. Others have ranked among the best telemark ski racers in the world. Williams is right at home with the quirky, under-the-radar gang.
“When I first got to know Tristan, my impression was that he was intense and reserved,” says White Mountains trail runner and ski-mountaineering racer Andrew Drummond. “In fact, he’s just taking mental notes. He’s got a huge amount of depth. He’s incredibly smart and funny—and talented.”
Very talented. A few summers ago, one of New Hampshire’s best-known and fastest mountain runners, Kristina Folcik-Welts, ran into Williams at Lincoln Woods, a busy trailhead that marks the entrance to the remote Pemigewasset Wilderness. Williams was setting off with an old day pack.
When Folcik-Welts returned to the trailhead, Williams’s truck was already gone, but the two reconnected later that summer. Williams, it seems, had completed a 32-mile “Pemi Loop,” one of the classic test pieces in the White Mountains, in a time of roughly six and a half hours—with just an old analog watch, he didn’t know his exact time. Folcik-Welts excitedly told him it was within minutes of an FKT, or fastest known time. “That’s cool,” Williams offered.
Soon, he may start timing a bit more precisely. “I’d like to see what I can do the FKTs in,” he says now. “But I’m not going to parade around town with my times.” Ryan Welts, Folcik-Welts’s husband and holder of several of those times, is calmly matter-of-fact about the possibility: “If he wanted to take every single FKT in the White Mountains, he could.”
This short video, by Andrew Drummond, was shot in one of Williams’s stomping grounds, the Southern Presidentials. It might be the only footage of Williams running. When local runner and former US Mountain Team member Kevin Tilton saw it, he spoke for many who know Williams: “Tristan on video? That’s like a Sasquatch sighting.”
Williams is right at home in the region. He grew up downstate, in the town of Canterbury, and went to the University of New Hampshire. He played soccer at first, but trips with the UNH outing club introduced him to the mountains.
In his freshman year he started working on the AMC hut staff. Wearing Limmers, old-school leather boots made locally, he’d pack in fresh food for guests. Upon arriving at a hut, he’d switch to sneakers and start ticking off runs through the rugged backcountry to neighboring huts—long a tradition among crewmembers. In time, the distances stretched into the double-digits. “I’d run from Zealand Hut to Galehead, meet the crew, run down to Thirteen Falls, go swimming and run back,” he says. That’s 19 miles of some of roughest terrain in the Northeast.
After college, Williams spent some winters in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, filling every available moment with long backcountry ski tours. Summers he went back east, putting his degree in horticulture to use on an organic farm and road running after hours. It didn’t have the allure of trail running, though. “I like being alone out there,” he says. “You’re only responsible for yourself.”
Williams had found his calling; those long, tough days in the mountains are what he loves. “He’s got nothing to prove,” says Drummond, one of the very few top regional mountain runners to have run with Williams. “He seems more curious than anything else. He’s really comfortable with his lifestyle.”
As for racing, it’s relatively new territory for Williams. In 2013, he tested himself against Colorado’s Ultra Race of Champions, a point-to-point 100K that starts in Breckenridge, Colorado, and finishes in Vail.
“The morning of the race, it snowed four inches,” he says. “I was freaking out. I didn’t know what to carry. I thought I was supposed to be doing six-minute miles. I’m supposed to be racing, right?” The practicalities of transportation got him through: “The only thing that kept me going was that my car was in Vail. I had to run.”
He thought he would be outmatched, but finished 14th in a field that included internationally competitive runners like Kilian Jornet, Sage Canaday and Rickey Gates. In 2014, he finished sixth.
The past year has only seen him improve. Williams finished third in both the marathon and vertical kilometer at the U.S. Skyrunning Series in Whiteface, New York, behind two of the world’s fleetest mountain runners, Colorado’s Joe Gray and Scotland’s Tom Owens.
Later in the summer, in his low-key way, Williams proved key to shepherding Scott Jurek through the White Mountains during the latter’s record-setting run on the Appalachian Trail.
“We were coming off an epic 24 hours without sleep, running from Mount Moosilaukee to Galehead,” says Drummond, who was brought on to help guide Jurek through the White Mountains. “And in the morning, here comes Tristan trotting up the trail for his morning jog on South Twin. The next thing we know, we’re spending 24 hours together. He became a valuable resource with his knowledge of the trails. We told him, ‘You’re locked in. You’re coming with us!’”
The next day, running through the rocky, exposed Presidential Range, Williams again proved invaluable. “Any questions Scott had, Tristan was quick to answer.”
Running with Williams can be vexing for some of his contemporaries, however. Take, for example, his lack of a digital timepiece. “It’s frustrating for the rest of us,” says Drummond. “We can’t compare efforts.” That may not matter much, as everyone in the region knows who to track down for a hard push. “If you want to do something big, you call Tristan,” says Drummond. “He has incredible experience in these mountains, and a monster engine.”
While the rest of us are busily checking Strava feeds, New Hampshire’s Zen runner is probably out on the trails. It seems to be working for him. Says Welts, “He’s really into living in the moment. He seems very stress-free.”
And as elusive as ever. Want to reach Tristan? Try leaving a note at the Appalachian Mountain Club’s workshop. He does own a cell phone—but few seem to have the number for his retro flip phone. Not long ago, Welts ran into Williams on the side of Mount Washington. The two agreed they should run together sometime. “I’ll be at Mizpah next month if you want to swing by,” said Williams, referring to one of mountain huts in the region. In Williams’s world, that’s as close to a firm date as you’re likely to get.
What might the future hold? Williams seems to consider all of his options with thoughtful deliberation. “I think about taking time off and finding a sponsor,” he says. Then he adds, “I don’t know if I’m the best candidate for sponsorship. It’s all online these days. Would I be willing to do that? Maybe—for a little while.”