She took a break.
Not because of her severely blistered feet, which were nearly devoid of skin, or because of the flexor tendon in her left foot, which “nearly wore through.” Not because her calorie-starved body had dug into its reserves and was consuming muscle, or because she averaged about three hours sleep a night during her three-week MST Endurance Run. And not because her entire 52-year-old body was simply worn out from more than three weeks covering nearly 1,000 miles of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail, from 6,643-foot Clingman’s Dome on the Tennessee border to Jockey’s Ridge on the Outer Banks.
“With every event I’d ever done, as soon as I finished it was like, ‘OK, what’s next? What’s next on the schedule?” Van Deren said from her home outside Denver as she prepared to return to North Carolina in early February. The MST was something altogether different.
“With this,” she said, “I just wanted to take time to appreciate what I’d been through.”
During her 22 days, 5 hours and 3 minutes on the Mountains-to-Sea Trail, Van Deren had been through a lot. The cold and wet of the Southern Appalachians, the heat and humidity of the Piedmont, and the violent weather of the coast (on her 20th day she had to outrun a tropical storm and a tornado), The North Face-sponsored elite athlete faced about every physical and mental challenge imaginable. But those challenges are a dime a dozen in Van Deren’s world, a world that includes everything from multiple finishes in the Hard Rock 100, arguably the toughest 100-mile ultra run in the country, to the 430-mile Yukon Arctic Ultra, a race in which Van Deren and her 50-pound sled broke through thin ice on a lake a day from the finish.
“It was just life-changing,” Van Deren said of her MST Endurance Run. “The people I met on this race, we developed a real trust in sharing stuff. We were very vulnerable with each other. I’ve never had an experience like this and I don’t know that I ever will.”
Van Deren returns to North Carolina the first week of February for a series of statewide appearances, starting with her Feb. 2 address to the annual meeting of the Friends of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail, the non-profit spearheading completion of the trail. At present, just over half of the estimated 1,000-mile trail is complete, much of that in the mountains and Piedmont. The rest follows temporary routes, mostly along country roads. Van Deren’s run, sponsored by Great Outdoor Provision Co., was intended to accelerate the trail’s completion by raising awareness — and money.
According to Kate Dixon, executive director the Friends of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail, Van Deren was successful on both counts.
“I think there were two big things to come from the run,” said Dixon. “We got a lot of new members, people in the state who were not aware of the trail, and we got a lot of national recognition.” National Geographic, for instance, included the MST in its Ultimate Adventure Bucket List for 2013.
“As an internationally competitive athlete, Diane elevated the MST to its rightful place among the world’s best trails,” said Chuck Millsaps, Minister of Culture with Great Outdoor Provision Co. and the expedition’s leader. “Diane’s expedition revealed this grand traverse as a transforming trek through our state’s rich beauty, history and culture welcoming others to come and discover.”
The run also exceeded its fundraising goal of $40,000.
While Van Deren did bow out of the Hard Rock 100, which took place a month and a half after she completed the MST Endurance Run, she didn’t sit around reflecting for long. In September, she competed in a 50-mile endurance run in Chile and in December logged one of her best 50-mile times ever, completing the San Francisco edition of the 50-mile North Face Endurance Challenge in 9 hours, 25 minutes, 1 second, a pace of 11 minutes 18 seconds per mile. She’s currently planning her race schedule for 2013. (One thing she says she won’t be doing again is another 1,000-mile run.)
An elite athlete learns from experience and uses that experience to battle through perceived obstacles. Van Deren’s experience on the MST helped her blow off what many of her San Francisco competitors found to be intimidating conditions.
“There was horrific rainfall, a downpour, there were flash-flood warnings, and they had to alter the course,” Van Deren recalled with a laugh. “I was the only runner going, ‘Huh. No problem.’ My attitude was, ‘Hey, I ran through a hurricane, this is nothing.’”
While there were other lessons from the MST run that will benefit Van Deren in future events, it’s the magic of a team effort that continues to leave the biggest impression. A competitor in one of sport’s loneliest endeavors, ultra distance running, Van Deren found herself handing over her fate to her GOPC team, from support crew chief Joel Fleming, who woke her in the morning and tucked her in at night, to logistics guru Amy Hamm, whose duties included tracking down baked salmon dinners in the middle of the night, in the middle of nowhere, to her team of daily trail guides, to expedition leader Millsaps.
At times that support came in the form of helping Van Deren get her shoes off and her feet patched. At times it involved telling stories, cracking jokes and otherwise helping her pass the long hours on the trail. And at times it simply came to recognizing when Van Deren was in the zone and needed to be left alone.
Said Millsaps, “Diane reminded us that it is not about being super human as much as it is about becoming a human being. As a team we discovered how adversity reveals the best gifts: endurance, creativity and gratitude.”
And, Van Deren is quick to add, unity. Though it’s just her name in the record book, she says the entry should read like the credits to a Hollywood blockbuster.
“I still feel it’s a ‘we’ thing, not a ‘me’ thing.”
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Where to catch Diane
Diane Van Deren returns to North Carolina, the site of her record-breaking Mountains-to-Sea Trail Endurance Run, the first week of February. There are several opportunities to see her and hear her talk about the run, what she’s been up to since, and what’s in store for 2013.
Monday, Feb. 4: The Summit School in Winston-Salem, 7 p.m.
Tuesday, Feb. 5: Great Outdoor Provision Co. in Greensboro, 7:30 p.m.
Wedesday, Feb 6: Great Outdoor Provision Co. in Charlotte, 7:30 p.m.