“I was very regimented in that way, and ultras have proved to me that you can go with the flow and it’s gonna be okay.”
Nat Smitobol’s first big disappointment happened in the ninth grade, when he was cut from his soccer team. “I had the skills, and the speed, but I was so much smaller than everyone else.” He still clearly remembers his weight from that year, sixty-two pounds. Dan Woog was, and still is, the soccer coach in town. He had met Nat a year earlier, and encouraged him to come out for the team. Despite being crushed, Nat reflected back on that day in a positive way. “It was a great moment in my life, looking back, and he’s someone that I still keep in touch with.”
Nat’s childhood was set in Westport, CT. “I was a hyper-active kid.” His family lived in one of the more modest neighborhoods in town. Being an only child, he felt fortunate to have lots of kids on his street to hang out with. “Looking back, it was a good childhood and a good place to grow up.” His first love was tennis, a sport that would go on to bring him the opportunity to play at a high level collegiately, not to mention his future wife. Nat’s parents provided much of his earliest tennis teachings, as this activity also brought out one of his strongest attributes, dedication. “I was pretty much the only kid that would hit against the knock board.” The knock board is a backboard that he would hit balls against for hours and hours by himself, trying to improve his skills. “I had the ability to just do things for a long, long time.”
Nat was also an avid skateboarder and inline skater. These types of counter culture sports intrigued him. It was Dan Woog, who encouraged him to run cross-country in his ninth grade year. He laughed, as he described his first year in the program. “I didn’t love it, but it was a great means of cross training for tennis.” His cross country team was one of the top ranked teams in the country, with a legendary coach, Laddie Lawrence. It was here, Nat learned about speed work, tapering, and nutrition, but his teachings went way beyond running. “He taught me to be very thoughtful about whatever you were doing.” After high school, Nat hung up his running shoes for more than two decades.
Nat continued his tennis career in college, starting at a smaller school, before transferring to Skidmore College. He was also becoming more interested in fitness, and majored in exercise physiology. “I was doing VO2 max tests a couple times a year and wingate tests.” He was fascinated with understanding metabolic testing, bone density and body fat percentage. His college was ahead of the curve when it came to these types of resources. “We were one of two schools in the country that had a barometric pressure chamber.” After graduation, he headed to San Diego. His goal was to earn his master’s degree in sports psychology, but he was uncertain about what he wanted for a career. He was competing in tennis tournaments, and earning money being a teaching tennis pro. In addition, he was doing some substitute teaching on the side, and also fell in love with surfing. “I was living the dream, and I thought there is no way I’m ever going to move away from San Diego.”
But Nat did move back east, following the girl he first met a Skidmore. Her name was Heather, and she was also a tennis player, even more accomplished than Nat. In her freshman year of college, she won the National Championship team title. After college, Heather had joined him in San Diego for a few years, before heading back east to Saratoga Springs, NY, after accepting a job coaching tennis. Nat eventually followed her back, and they are now happily married with two sons, living in Brooklyn, NY.
Years later, Nat found himself working as a college counselor at a private school, a job that was proving to be quite stressful at the time. Around 2009, he found a good outlet for his stress, triathlons. He enjoyed his new hobby, and the physical and mental benefits that came with it. It was during this time of his life, that he met Shannon Whipple, who was also in the triathlon community. Shannon’s husband, James, was an ultra runner, who had just gained entry into Western States. It just so happened that James was in need of a pacer for this event. Shannon thought Nat would be a good fit, and coordinated a trail run with him and James. The two of them hit it off, and the stage was set. On race day, Nat split his duties between crewing and pacing James, and had a major revelation. “I remember specifically being at highway 49 aid station, and this guy comes hobbling in. It’s the middle of the night, and he was really limping.” The man was suffering from blisters, and was wondering if anyone had any spare socks. Nat was struck by what he was witnessing, as people immediately began taking off their shoes and offering up the socks right off their feet. “At that point, I was like, these are my people.” Nat paced James for about twenty miles that day, as James completed his first Western States in under twenty-four hours. He now calls Shannon and James two of his best friends.
A year later, Nat found himself up in the Silver Hill meadow at the Vermont 100, as he paced Shannon to a finish. He gushed about the event. “I loved the grassroots feel of it. I knew at that time, that this would be my first hundred.” That following July, in 2017, Nat was back at Silver Hill, chasing his own hundred mile dream. He remembered the doubt he had going into the event, feeling undertrained, wondering if his body could take him that far. The first twenty-one miles to Pretty House flew by, as he enjoyed the beauty of the course. As the race progressed, his biggest challenge was figuring out his nutrition, which led to bouts of vomiting and having to slow down. He credited his crew and pacers, Shannon and James for helping him crawl out of his hole, and keeping him moving. It was a memorable day, and he crossed the finish line in the early hours of the next morning, a finisher.
Nat’s favorite gear item is a bit of a throwback. It’s his Spibelt, which he brings on all of his runs, and is the perfect spot for his phone. “I take a lot of pictures on my runs.” Nat is big on, not only being in the moment, but also wanting to capture the moment. Tailwind has also become his go-to hydration. After his stomach problems in his first VT100, he turned to Tailwind and it was a game changer for him. He loves to run in Gore Wear gear, depending on the temperature and conditions because it’s so versatile.
As he discussed his running future, longevity was the main goal. “I’d love my sons to be able to pace me one day, that would be awesome.” He also imagined how great it would be to someday be a pacer for his sons in this sport. He has two VT100 finishes, and has his eyes on a 500 mile buckle. In addition, he is signed up for the Big Foot 200 in the summer of 2019
One of his running highlights was running the R2R2R in the Grand Canyon, back in April of 2015. “I took like five gigabytes of photos and videos.” He shared that day with two close friends, as they enjoyed the views and serenity of the canyon. They filtered water out of the river, “Just to say that we did it.” The only minor disappointment happened at Phantom Ranch, where Nat fantasized about having an ice-cold coke. Even though there were no cokes there that day, he doesn’t hold it against the donkeys.
Nat’s approach to running has been a far contrast to the way he has handled many other aspects of his life. If you’ve ever bumped into Nat on race day, you would probably see him smiling, taking pictures, or engaging in friendly conversation with a fellow runner. Running seems to bring out a relaxed quality in him. “I’m almost too laid back when it comes to nutrition or prepping my pacers.” His pep talk to his crew and pacers. “Hey, if you’re there, cool, if not, I’ll see you at the next one.” He compared it to his tennis days, when he was so meticulous about his approach and methodology. “I was very regimented in that way, and ultras have proved to me that you can go with the flow and it’s gonna be okay.”