Just before Christmas, after an infamous 24-hour trail running challenge in Dunedin, a local newspaper reported the 80-strong field included a two-year-old dog named Scruffy and a “six months pregnant woman”.
The unnamed athlete was, in fact, Anna Frost – one of the world’s best-known mountain trail runners, who happens to hail from Dunedin.
She’d pitched up to quietly run a couple of laps of the Crush the Cargill race – where runners try to summit Mount Cargill as often as possible – for a bit of fun.
The fact that she managed to sneak into the field without being recognised by media, or without making a fuss about her presence, says a lot about Frost and the point she is at in her illustrious career.
This is a woman who would be mobbed by fans at any of the big trail races in Europe or the United States.
A woman who was one of the first trail runners to become professional, who has won some of the world’s most daunting ultramarathons. A woman who’s had an inspirational children’s book written about her, called Fearless Frosty.
And a woman who’s at the forefront of a global movement to encourage more girls to be active, through sport and adventure.
Frosty, as her friends know her, is back home in Dunedin awaiting the birth of her first child, a daughter, in March.
The 37-year-old who left New Zealand to travel the world racing almost 15 years ago says she’s returned home with a very different attitude to running.
In an interview with the Dirt Church Radio podcast, Frost explains how the “big boom” in trail running a decade ago put a harsh spotlight on her. The pressures of social media ultimately sent her spiraling down. “I went into a deep, dark hole,” she says.
But she emerged from that hole, to re-establish herself as a queen of the 100 mile distance, seen as the ultimate test of ultramarathon racing.
Now, as she enters a new phase in her life, Frost is contemplating what’s next in her running career, and how she can imbue others with the same love of the sport she nearly lost, and then found again.
Frost’s love affair with the outdoors was sparked growing up on a hill in Dunedin, travelling from lakes to mountains around the South Island in her parents’ blue Bedford bus, and in the wilds of Papua New Guinea, where her parents worked for a while.
A promising hockey player, Frost started running at the University of Otago while studying to become a high school PE teacher. When she made the New Zealand team for the world mountain running championships in Italy in 2004, her life suddenly took a new path.
She’d then spend six months of the year living out of a van, driving around Europe on the mountain racing and adventure racing circuits. In 2009, the year after she became the world mountain running grand prix champion, Frost signed up with Team Salomon, becoming a professional athlete.
It was the time when trail running went viral, “when everyone started getting sponsored, and everyone wanted to know more about these athletes,” Frost says.
“It was weird… We were just running because we loved it. And all of a sudden we were thrown into this world of sponsorship, press conferences and social media.
“It was hard because we didn’t know how to deal with that. We weren’t the kind of people who enjoyed standing up and talking in front of people. We went running to be out in the mountains on our own. It was a shock.”
The pressure of instant fame took its toll on Frost, who was also dealing with a nasty shin injury.
“I kept trying to run, because I thought ‘who would I be if I couldn’t run? I would be no one’,” she says. “Because I thought no one would like me, with all my Facebook likes… I spiralled down and started partying, running through an injury that kept getting worse.
“Then finally I had to throw my shoes in and say ‘I’m done’. I got off social media for as long as it took me to get out of the spiral, and accept I am enough as a person without running.
“I will only run for the love of it – not for anyone else’s expectations, or Facebook likes.”
Frost was able to recapture her running passion, winning a streak of races including the Hardrock 100 – one of the toughest 100 mile races in the world over Colorado’s San Juan Range – in both 2015 and 2016.
She admits she’d held off attempting the gruelling 100 mile (161km) distance, after watching fellow runners labouring through it.
“It looked brutal. Everyone’s in pain, they’ve got blisters, you’re all limping, you’re all puking. It’s not much fun,” she says.
“But I guess it just got into my soul and I thought ‘I wonder if I can do that, I wonder if I could push through like they did’.”
Frost is also looking at life outside competitive running, setting up a business with her husband, Ron “Braz” Braselton. They run Trail Run Adventures – guiding people to “reach their own summit” running on trails around the world – without racing.
In November, at 22 weeks pregnant, Frost was running and hiking with a tour group through the Himalayan mountains of Bhutan.
Frost is also an enthusiastic ambassador for Sisu Girls – a global movement to empower girls to get outdoors. Sisu is a Finnish term for determination, bravery and resilience.
Frost was the hero of the first in a collection of books on “fearless females”. Fearless Frosty is her story of chasing her dream to become a professional mountain runner.
“It’s a really fun project. It’s huge right now that young women are inspired through the outdoors,” Frost says.
“But also now I think it’s really important we keep the men in our world, who are so supportive and encouraging of our women, supported as well. So Sisu Girls is changing to We Are Sisu, because it’s important that we are all empowered and all inspired.
“What’s most important with this project is that we realise we are all role models to the little people in our world. And it doesn’t have to be that we run to the top of Everest and back to be that role model. We can just be encouraging of ‘hey, let’s put our phones down and let’s go outside and play and experience’.”
Frost has a feeling her own daughter will be an adventurer.
“She’s been around the world a lot already. I was still racing when I was eight to 12 weeks [pregnant], in Greece and Norway, and it was fun to take her on the race scene already, even though I wasn’t feeling that great and I was extremely slow,” she says.
“It’s been fun to share that with her already, and I’m pretty sure it will be ingrained in her blood and bones, and she will continue adventuring in one way or another.”
* Dirt Church Radio is a Kiwi trail running podcast hosted by Eugene Bingham and Matt Rayment. Learn more at dirtchurchradio.com