Very Fine Day #33: Brianna Sacks

Brad Esposito

When facing a wall of flame that’s tearing down a mountain, ripping itself through people's lives and homes and understandings of the way things are, very few people outside of professional firefighters would walk towards that fire.

That is, with the exception of BRIANNA SACKS. Bri is our guest today on Very Fine Day. She is a reporter on BuzzFeed News who often focuses on natural disasters. Oh, and she is an ultra marathon runner, too. She runs very far, for very long stretches of time, and I guess whatever number you're thinking of right now as being “very far,” you should probably double it, or maybe even triple it, and that's the kind of distances she’s running.

VFD: I ran 20 kilometres on Wednesday to try and get in your mindset.

Brianna Sacks: I am honoured. And, also, I hope that you don't hate me because of that.

VFD: Yeah, it wasn't great.

Brianna Sacks: Everyone is always like: what is wrong with her? Why does she do this?

VFD: Why do you do it?

Brianna Sacks: The answer has definitely changed over time. Especially now that I have gotten older and it’s harder to do. But I think the main thing is that it’s a processing thing for me. I just like to be in motion. And that’s kind of how I move through, in many ways, things in my life or things in work. I also have a lot of energy, so I think it helps dispel that.

In terms of ultra-running and adventure, I really like enduring hard things and seeing if I can do them. And also being in nature and doing really dumb things that people think are really stupid just to see how it turns out.

VFD: So did you just decide one day: I’m gonna go run for a long time, very far.

Brianna Sacks: It was a whole Forrest Gump thing. Yes. I just took off from my driveway and never looked back! No, it was definitely this love/hate relationship with running that I had and that I think most people do. And then I was 25 and a lot of things were shifting in my life and I got into this LA marathon training team for beginners. The coach of that team was an ultra runner and he had bought on a bunch of his friends and they kept… not pressuring me… but suggesting strongly that I should go on a trail run with them. And I was just like: you’re fucking insane. Like: Absolutely not. I will die. That sounds terrible. They started at 6 in the morning and ran up a mountain. Like: no. But they wore me down and I did it. It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done – five miles and I felt like I couldn’t walk the next day. But it was also one of the most amazing experiences: the sunrise, running down this trail. I know it’s super cheesy but I was just like: Oh, my god, I’m alive. And that progressed really fast.

I’m a very “say yes” person. I’ll say “yes” without thinking with work and other things. But they just kept being like: Hey, you should run this 15K. You should run a 50K. You should run a 50 miler. And I just kept saying “yes”. It turned out I really loved it and my body, for some reason, could run for a really long time.

VFD: What do you think about for those three hours, or twelve hours, while you’re running?

Brianna Sacks: A lot of things. I go through a lot of periods of mental anguish and anxiety. That’s actually a thing I’ve been open about recently: the mental game is really hard for me. I struggle with the anxiety of performance. And then pain. The fear of pain. Like: Holy shit, I’m at mile seven and I have to run 40 more miles. I can’t do this. So there’s a lot of that. I usually like to talk to people throughout the race, so I’ll find people to talk with. I’m also weird and I’ll put on one song on repeat for sometimes three hours and just zone the fuck out.

VFD: We going classical? What are we working with?

Brianna Sacks: No, it’s a range. Cold War Kids, Taylor Swift, it’s all over the map.

VFD: I was trying to think about the culture of that running subculture, and it’s a certain kind of ambition and competitiveness to say: I can run very far, steadily. Can you call it competitive? Or is it more compassionate than that?

Brianna Sacks: It’s interesting. It’s not as competitive as you would think. Road running, for example, those people who are in marathons and stuff are way more competitive. And if someone passes you you’re kind of like: I’ve gotta go after them! But ultra running is just being out there for so long. If someone passes you you’re just like: Get it! God bless you. You’ll try and tag team with them for a while. And then, also, it really caters to people’s strengths. You’ll see in the ultra running world that there are so many different body types and ages, which is really cool, because there are so many different ways you can excel.

For me, I’m really fast downhill. And I’ll see people who will blow right past me uphill. I’m still solid there but I’m not running up that hill. I’m gonna hike that. And then I know that I can catch them on the way down. So it’s not really as competitive – it’s definitely more supportive because the suffering is prolonged and it can be different to so many people. It comes in waves. You can have an amazing 20 miles and then 20 really shit miles and then the last few miles are the best you’ve ever felt… After you puke everything up. Which I have done quite a few times. “Puke and rally” is a very big thing.

VFD: Ultra running sounds awful.

Brianna Sacks: Yeah, it’s like that. It helps a lot.

VFD: When you go to doctors are they just like: WHAT are you doing?? Why is your body like this?

Brianna Sacks: Totally. Just take a shot of fireball and then you don’t have any other concerns. Yeah, look. I can’t get my toenails done anymore at any establishment.

VFD: I was going to ask about that but I didn’t want to be like: tell me about your fucked up feet.

Brianna Sacks: They’re so bad. I’ll send you some pictures. One time I posted a photo on my Instagram story after a race and it was just my toenails coming off. And I had friends telling me I needed a trigger word or something. Like: You need to preface this with “concerning content.” But yeah, I don’t get pedicures often because I really feel terrible for them.

The last time I did it the woman was like: are you an athlete? But doctors are definitely like: that’s bad for you. And I’m like: well, y’know, there’s worse things I could be doing to myself. But I’ve lucked out - I’m seeing a foot doctor and he’s an ultra runner and so he gets it. He’s just like: you’re young. You’re fine. He’s still racing.

VFD: Yep, keep going to that doctor in particular. That’s always a good approach – find the one who tells you what you want to hear and then just keep going there.

Brianna Sacks: Yeah, I want to treat all of my other problems with him. Like: I’ve got some iron problems and I know you’re a podiatrist but it should be fine.

VFD: Exactly. So, where are you right now? Are you in LA?

Brianna Sacks: No, I’m in Denver. I moved here during the pandemic and have been here almost a year.

VFD: What was that like: moving during a pandemic?

Brianna Sacks: In the Winter! It was a brilliant idea. I moved in January to a locked down place, alone. So… fun. It was difficult. But I think it was important, because it’s also the first time I have lived alone, and I was very alone. And it was this thing of: I have to do all this stuff by myself. Figure out what I want: Where am I gonna live?

And then I’m also seeing how I live alone without other people influencing my decisions to do things. And it’s like: I don’t know if I like this part of it… there are things I should work on here. But it has been a good learning experience and I have been travelling a lot this Spring and Summer. I haven’t really been in Denver since May, I would say, for more than a week.

VFD: Why Denver?

Brianna Sacks: For running. I moved to Colorado to be living at elevation a little and be closer to the mountains.

VFD: Wow, you were that serious about it.

Brianna Sacks: Yeah – I’m going through a bit of a transition with it right now but last year, or 2019, I was gearing up for a pretty big year. I was training harder than I have ever trained, running 70-80 miles a week. I know. Crazy. And then the pandemic happened and I just kept on that trajectory but my body – and more my mind – needed a little bit of a break from it. So I’m just recalibrating right and have been having a lot of fun doing other things.

VFD: And you’re alright living alone now? Do you have siblings? Have you spent your whole life living around other people?

Brianna Sacks: Yeah – I went from college to LA, and you can’t afford to live by yourself in LA, especially in you ‘20s. I mean, if you wanted to, you could live in some unique places and could make it happen. Or live out of your van.

It’s a good question.

I’m definitely not good at sitting still. But I have realised the importance of rest and sleep, and I have let myself do that.

VFD: You’ve realised “sleep is good”.

Brianna Sacks: Yeah, at 32-years-old I have had this really groundbreaking discovery that sleeping for nine hours is actually a good thing.

VFD: They say it’s important.

Brianna Sacks: And I think it’s also an important thing to live alone for a bit.

VFD: Where’d you grow up?

Brianna Sacks: I grew up in Malibu, California.

VFD: OK. What was that like? I’m thinking of stereotypes here… surfing the beaches…

Brianna Sacks: I know. I have to preface that like: Look. I know how that sounds. But I swear. I joke that I’m from LA. Where in LA? *cough* Malibu…

It was cool. It was very different than it is now, just this small, surfer, sleepy town. I went to preschool with kids I graduated high school with and there were no chains, just very mom-and-pop. Unfortunately, it has become super Instagram-influenced and there are a bunch of terrible people who go there and spend money on ridiculous things. It’s a scene now but back then it was a pretty cool place to grow up. I sadly never learned to surf, though. I somehow really fucked that up.

VFD: Yeah that’s like me, man. Every time I meet people they’re like:, Oh, you’re Australian! Cowabunga! And I have to tell them how I absolutely, never got to that stage. They’re like: did you live in the desert? Like, no, I lived 20 minutes away from a beach – which is 19 minutes too far.

Brianna Sacks: I grew up going to the beach. My parents were those types of parents. My dad would be at the beach, but he’s not athletic in the way that would require him to go on a surfboard.

VFD: Were they more about going to school and studying hard?

Brianna Sacks: He likes working out. I think that’s where I got my discipline from, because he would go to the gym every day. Even if he was sick, or it was his birthday, he was at the gym. And he was super healthy, making protein shakes and eating tofu way before it was cool. I grew up eating super organic and it was awful because, back then, it wasn’t the yummy tasting stuff. I’d be like: Mom, why do I have this soy yoghurt when all the other kids have Trix yoghurt??

VFD: Like, their yoghurt is purple. Their food is purple and red and green. I want that!

Brianna Sacks: Yeah.

It’s like: I’m in preschool. Who did I hurt to get this meal?

VFD: I was thinking about how you mentioned that pain is part of the running experience - and processing that pain – and I realised not that long ago that I have the same thing. But also, as I get older, my body can’t do the pain. The last 18 months I just keep getting injured, keep hurting things.

Brianna Sacks: What sorts of activities were you doing?

VFD: I could always run pretty far – for a normal person. I would do CrossFit or play football or get obsessed with a small athletic things and just do that a lot and then be like: fuck, there goes my achillies. I’d get destroyed because I’d be like: I’m gonna do hill sprints every day for a month. And then my body’s like: Are you fucking serious?

Brianna Sacks: Well, I have gotten better at it but I have this invincibility complex that my body will do what I want it to do. I have to help it out now more than I used to, obviously. I would get up hungover so many times and go run 13 miles. I can't really do that anymore. But it also might be a shoe thing for you.

VFD: So how did you get out of Malibu? And did you need to? Were you like: fuck this place.

Brianna Sacks: Yeah, I did. I just didn't really identify with the people there at all. I went as far as I could. I went to DC for college, George Washington University, and was like: let's do this whole East Coast thing. I learned what Winter was.

I wasn't interested in journalism in the least. I never took a journalism class. And then I was in DC during one of the most pivotal times in our country's history: Bush is done, Obama comes in. I went to the inauguration and that was just monumental. Then Osama bin Laden dies and we stormed the White House for that. So it was a really amazing time to be in DC.

It was funny, because I was just not looking at it from a journalistic lens at all. Just living it. But looking back, I'm like: wow, going into journalism at that time would’ve been nice. But I came back a little later.

VFD: Did you run straight in out of high school?

Brianna Sacks: Well, I always knew I was gonna be a writer, but I was a dork and was like: I'm gonna be a poet. And I'm gonna do good poetry.

VFD: Wow, any good poetry we can include? None of this modern stuff, either. It’s gotta be old.

Brianna Sacks: Yeah, my high school angst. I’ll see what I can dig up. It’s definitely still in a pink notebook somewhere - God knows what I’m writing about. The poetry thing I definitely shelved but I’m kind of getting back into it again. But I went to college, I did American Studies in English and Creative Writing. And then journalism was because, well, I wanted to go to grad school and my parents shot down my MFA idea about poetry…

VFD: What did they say?

Brianna Sacks: They were like: We love you, but there’s this thing called money and you need to make it. We’re not gonna pay for this… So what if you pick something that’s slightly more practical?

And I was living in Paris at the time as a nanny…

VFD: Wait, you went to Paris?

Brianna Sacks: Yeah, I went to Paris after college – I didn’t know what I wanted to do. So I went and was an au pair. But I had this dinky little internship at a newspaper once and was like: I kind of like that. I’ll… apply to journalism school and if I get in I’ll go.

So I applied to five and I got into them and it was, like, I’m gonna do it. And then I ended up really liking it and having a knack for it.

VFD: You didn’t want to stay in Paris?

Brianna Sacks: I did not want to stay. I loved Paris. Parisians are tough people. But I was also so broke and just hungry and I got into USC back in California. It was just: home sounds good. So I’d been gone, essentially, for five years at that point.

VFD: The Parisian thing is funny – and I’m sorry to anyone there who is reading this – but I have been there a few times and every time I’m like: This is great. No one cares about me. They’re busy. These are my kinds of people. Just run your lane and leave everyone else out.

Brianna Sacks: Yeah, especially being American. I would speak French at the grocery store – well, I was trying – and they were just not conducive to it at all. But I love that city a lot, though.

VFD: It always makes me think of that scene in “Inglorious Basterds” where Brad Pitt is pretending to be Italian and he’s just like: Bawn-zhur-no.

Brianna Sacks: Yeah, that was probably me speaking, or attempting to speak, French.

VFD: OK. So in journalism school you go through that whole time like: this is the right decision. I’m still confident.

Brianna Sacks: I mean – it was hard. But I have always been really passionate about people and storytelling. And I just love talking to people, especially those who – from the storytelling aspect – are really struggling. For some reason I just get into the idea that I need to do my best to get whatever it is they’re going through out there.

VFD: Right.

Brianna Sacks: So they made us go into the field a lot, obviously, and USC is in this area of South LA which just has an array of issues. There’s a lot going on there. And that sealed the deal for me, where I got to go out and meet all of these people who were doing work to try and get issues like homeless youth out there, or homelessness, in general. And I got to go to India – I did a religion and politics class – and we got to report on how Muslims are treated there, which I just did not know about.

I definitely got into my rhythm and figured out what I was really passionate about. And also that people, for some reason, would open up to me. And that was cool.

VFD: How did you learn to deal with that? People being quite open and emotional to you as a complete stranger, a lot of the time?

Brianna Sacks: It’s a good question – I'm still learning how to deal with it. Because definitely, in times, there's been periods in stories I've covered that took a great emotional toll and I didn't realise it was happening or anything until it was a little too late.

Like, especially with the fires, I had to take a break from those because I just couldn't. My body was just like: No, no.

But I think I've learned how to set up more boundaries. And it sounds cheesy but I was just, I think, born with the capacity to do that, because I was always that person. It was like that with my friends – For some reason, people would just dump on me. But I didn't feel like it was something I wanted them to do. So I think I was always that way, and I was able to use it in a professional setting, which is really cool.

VFD: Yeah. How did you realise that, though? Was there a moment?

Brianna Sacks: Yeah, I think I got feedback from professors. And at BuzzFeed that’s something I hear overwhelmingly from editors. Like: you just have this knack of getting people to talk to you. And I didn’t realise it was a skill, right? Not until I was years into my career.

I think it was just something that happened. I’d go do a story and then I would just meet this family and they would let me come to their house. Three days later I’m going to their memorial service for their son that they lost. And then I’m going to dinner. And that’s just a thing that would happen. I never thought of it as being a job. I think I just approach it as a human first. Like, if I walked in and I wasn't a reporter, I think I would approach that the same way.

VFD: You mentioned the fires before - when would that have been? 2020? The start of 2020?

Brianna Sacks: I mean, I grew up evacuating fires. So I think that was another reason why – especially with those stories – they just hit harder for me. But I started covering fires pretty much non-stop in 2017.

VFD: Was that a decision you made? Or did it just kind of happen?

Brianna Sacks: It kind of just happened. I got back from a two week trip covering the effects of Hurricane Irma and Maria on the US Virgin Islands. And that was my first disaster reporting that I ever did. It was six months into my career as a reporter and I convinced them to let me go. The story is crazy, but they were like: if you can figure out a ride to get yourself to the US Virgin Islands you can go.

So I finagle my way onto this military aircraft and went and covered that for two weeks. I got back, walked into the office, and my editor at the time, Jon Passantino, was like: Bri, there’s this fire going on in Northern California, would you want to go? And I was like: Yeah, OK. And I just turned around and left and went the next day.

And we have had so many fires: 2017, 2018, 2019, and I just became the fire girl. I would just go to all of them.

VFD: What did you adapt to be able to do that? Other than, obviously, figuring out what’s safe and not safe. I guess what I’m getting at is: how do you approach it now compared to back then, because I know recently you have been embedded in the fires happening in California.

Brianna Sacks: I was a lot dumber back then. At the time I think it was a fearless quality where I was more curious about it and I probably was really dumb and just like: it’ll be fine! And now I understand the power and danger of covering these things a lot more.

But that's also shifted as the disasters have gotten worse, right? Back then, no one really knew how to cover a fire. Not like that – where they were coming into cities. We hadn't really ever experienced that. So I was kind of just showing up and being like: oh, there's the fire. I'm just gonna… go to it.

Like, what else would I do?

VFD: Yeah,

Brianna Sacks: And some of this content I look back on and I’m like: What the fuck was I thinking?

I’m talking to people and the fire is coming down the hill and I’m just like Why aren’t you guys evacuating? I always thought that was fascinating. And then they’re like: We should evacuate now. The fire is coming.

And I'm just like: Oh, I'm glad you guys are evacuating. I'll just document this as you're running.

VFD: Jesus.

Brianna Sacks: But in Southern California for a time period they were just all in cities. And I think one of the skills that I've learned that I had innately, which I've been able to mature a bit better, is instinct. And just knowing where to be, for some reason, and how to pivot and be flexible. Resourcefulness is super important. When you need a car, your cell service is not working, something's happening. And just being able to shift gears really quickly. The running has helped. I think just being able to go go go for a long period of time.

VFD: Do you find yourself having to balance – well, not balance, because you’re a human being with compassion – but having someone there saying I’m not gonna leave or there’s a family that’s fleeing and you’re with them. And what point does it become: OK, I’ve got to go now. Or: Oh, I have to hang out here for 24 hours to make sure this family of five is safe.

Brianna Sacks: I'm trying to think if I've been in that position. It's interesting because I grew up that way. Like, my dad would stay behind.

VFD: Right.

Brianna Sacks: With a hose.

VFD: Jesus.

Brianna Sacks: And we’d just drive away. And I’d be like: We’re just leaving??

I remember my parents would get in fights over it, because my house was wood, right? So he stayed.

So I think I grew up with this We’re just leaving him there???? kind of thing. Like this fascination and what the fuck is wrong with you? kind of thing.

And I talk to people about this a lot: why they decide to stay. But I've been in that position where there were kids, one time, and I didn't have to really make that call, thank God, because the fire came so quickly that some firefighters just swung in as people were fleeing. And so everyone just immediately, all at once, decided to go. It was like a little mobile home community.

VFD: Right.

Brianna Sacks: So that was the only time where I think I was gonna stay around and then the decision was made for them. And then there was the other one up here: when I was in Tahoe I met this guy who's 66. He's a former firefighter. And he's the only resident who stayed behind.

And luckily nothing happened and his son was on one of the fire crews there. But yeah, it is a weird thing to be a spectator of, but then also insert yourself into.

VFD: Do you think about how, as the world gets progressively worse, and as climate change happens and disasters become more common, your beat and what you write about happens more? And the focus on it is blowing up. So you’re getting attention for this thing that’s pretty fucking devastating.

Brianna Sacks: I think so. I’m trying to get better at sitting on this beat throughout the year versus just when major disasters happen. And that’s what I’m trying to do now, and the thing I'm really passionate about and interested in showing. Like: what happens to these people afterwards? My next really big focus is this.

And we've been talking about climate migrants and refugees for a while, but I think the reality is so starkly in front of us, in this country, that there are going to be people who are climate refugees who were your neighbours. People you grew up with. Like, their house burned down in an area that used to be affordable and now they can't live anywhere else. So where are they going to go?

And the PTSD. God, the PTSD of evacuating some of these fires and what it's done to people, that is really hard. I met up with a lot of people from the campfire recently, and all of them have severe PTSD that they don't really know what to do about. Like, one woman can't cook anymore. And a lot of people that have mental health issues before, or who were kind of already on the precipice of being vulnerable, or who were vulnerable, they just can't get their lives back. And I think that's going to become, or that already is, a more common thing with floods, with fires, and with tornadoes.

So I really want to pivot from covering: Oh, shit, there's a fire. We've never seen a fire this big before! And that's the story. To be like: Okay, well, three years later, what does that look like?

VFD: Yeah, yeah.

Brianna Sacks: And I think that's climate change coverage in a way that I like to do, because it's definitely people focused. That’s where I think the climate change reporting is changing. And I hope it does change, because I think before it was this weird sciencey kind of beat that no one really cared about, but now it's: OK, well, how do we make people understand that their town might not exist next summer?

VFD: Yeah, for sure. That’s a fun thing to unpack. OK, well, cool. Thanks so much for doing this, Bri.

Brianna Sacks: Yeah, of course Brad. Thanks for asking.