Climb Every Mountain

Melody Fairchild, once a high school star, now is at the top of the mountain-running scene.


Melody Fairchild in the 2012 World Mountain Running Championships, where she finished eighth and the U.S. women’s team earned gold.

She was the first high school girl in history to break 10 minutes in the 2-mile (9:55.9) and although she struggled initially at the University of Oregon in the mid-1990s, she came away a 3,000m indoor NCAA champion and an Olympic trials qualifier in the 10K. Melody Fairchild was considered a star constantly on the rise from her earliest years, until 2000, when after a disappointing showing at the U.S. Olympic marathon trials, her name disappeared from race results for a decade.

Fairchild insists, however, that she never left the sport. After weathering its many ups and downs since she was a kid, she simply took needed time to figure out new ways to come at it and maybe even enjoy it.

“My running journey has had a continuous, unbreakable thread since I began running when I was in third grade,” she says, “even if it has appeared to the outside world that it had been broken.”

Indeed, Fairchild, now 39 and living in Boulder, is rising once again and back at the top of the race results — this time on the trails. In July she made the U.S. Mountain Running Team by placing second in the 5-mile Loon Mountain Race in July, the qualifier in New Hampshire that averages a 10 percent grade, with sections of more than 40 percent. She went on to the World Mountain Running Championships in Ponte di Legno, Italy, in September, where she placed eighth, helping Team USA earn a gold medal for the first time since 2007.

“She piped up at a team meeting and said something like, ‘Yes, we can do this. Let’s go out there and win,'” says Richard Bolt, the U.S. Mountain Running Team leader. “I think that was inspiring to her teammates and gave them additional confidence for the race.”

It had been awhile since Fairchild represented the U.S. in competition — the last time was 1991, when she traveled to Belgium and the World Junior Cross Country Championships. When she qualified for the mountain running team during the summer, Nancy Hobbs, chairwoman of the USA Track and Field Mountain/Ultra/Trail Sport Council, had tears in her eyes.

But during that decade of time “off,” Fairchild still remained involved, trying to find enjoyment in a sport that had become too pressure-packed. She coached several high school and college teams, as well as joining the staffs of various running camps, including the Steens Mountain Running Camp in Eastern Oregon. In 2007 she founded the Melody Fairchild Running Camp for High School Girls (melodyfairchild.com), in an effort to help other athletes overcome the struggles she experienced first-hand in her own running career.

“I saw a disturbing trend in young girls in high school, not making the successful transition to collegiate running and then, again, from college to post-collegiate running,” Fairchild says. “I wanted to teach young women to trust what is going on with their bodies and begin to understand what they are capable of.”

She also pursued a four-year training in Cortical Field Reeducation — body therapy based on the work of Moshe Feldenkrais, a physicist who founded a method of gentle movement to increase range of motion and improve flexibility. Fairchild credits her studies with improving her overall health and power.

“My desire to excel and the motor pathways I laid down when I was a high-school phenom never have gone away,” she says. “They just needed refreshing by seeking this physical, emotional, mental and spiritual balance in my adult life.”

Whether it was the renewed strength, a newfound desire to inspire the youth she worked closely with, or her induction into the Colorado Running Hall of Fame, Fairchild was ready to return to the competitive scene. In 2010 she won the open women’s division of the Gore-Tex TransRockies Run, with her teammate Ellen Parker. The six-day stage event, which traverses 120 miles of the Rocky Mountains, “busted open” Fairchild’s perspective on her ability.

“The recipe for my success of late includes being coached by [2:07 marathoner] Steve Jones and having the opportunity to train with a strong, positive and supportive group of women,” Fairchild says.

Six days after earning the team gold at the World Mountain Running Championships, Fairchild found herself standing on top of the podium with a gold medal around her neck, helping Team USA win another title at the World Long Distance Mountain Running Challenge at the Jungfrau Marathon in Switzerland. Next up? Fairchild says she’s aiming to make the 2013 IAAF World Cross Country Championships and finish in the top three at this year’s World Mountain Running Championships.

“It feels so good to have reached an elite level at age 39. It adds a new element to my happiness,” Fairchild says. “Now, even going into the races I’ve won in the past, I have the presence of mind to tell myself, ‘I will enjoy this,’ and during the race, smile with gratitude. Running is fun again.”

Written by: Ian Torrence