Written by: Joe Miller
It started with a simple introduction: Host introducing guest of honor to a local dignitary. Ultra runner and The North Face elite athlete Diane Van Deren had just finished speaking to a captivated gathering at Kings Barcade in downtown Raleigh last October, sharing her remarkable journey from celebrated high school athlete to pro tennis player to epileptic ultra runner. In the intimate gathering that followed, Chuck Millsaps, with event sponsor Great Outdoor Provision Co., introduced Van Deren to Kate Dixon, executive director of Friends of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail, North Carolina’s thousand-mile work-in-progress trail linking Clingman’s Dome in the Appalachians with Jockey’s Ridge on the Atlantic.
Proceeds from Van Deren’s appearance, part of The North Face’s Never Stop Exploring Speaker Series, were benefitting the Mountains-to-Sea Trail. Van Deren hadn’t heard of the MST, so Dixon obliged with an elevator speech. Because she figured Van Deren might be interested, she mentioned that a runner, Matt Kirk, had just completed the entire trail in record time.
“How long did it take?” Millsaps recalls Van Deren asking.
“Twenty-four days,” Dixon replied.
Millsaps could see the wheels turning. “I wonder if it could be done in less time than that … ,” Millsaps recalled Van Deren saying.
By the end of the evening the groundwork was laid for the MST Endurance Run.
Starting today from atop Clingman’s Dome, Van Deren will head east on the Mountains-to-Sea Trail in the hopes of reaching Jockey’s Ridge State Park sometime on May 30. If she can cover the roughly 930-mile trail in those 21 days it would eclipse Kirk’s record, set last year, of 24 days, 3 hours and 50 minutes.
Just one caveat to Van Deren’s race against the clock.
“It’s not a race,” Van Deren says. “It’s an expedition. If it’s raining and slippery, I don’t want to risk turning a foot. I just want to be in the moment. I don’t want to be pushing it through the Smokies. I want to enjoy the views.”
It may seem a curious approach for a professional athlete who’s had the urge to compete as long as she can remember. In the third grade she pretended to be a boy so she could play in a boy’s-only baseball league, she won high school state championships in golf and tennis in Colorado, and she left high school early for the pro tennis tour during its Billy Jean-Martina-Chrissy-Tracey hey day. She doesn’t deny her competitive drive. It’s just that in the 1990s her life profoundly changed, giving her a new perspective.
After leaving pro tennis, she began having what she calls “de ja vu moments. … They were these funny sensations that I thought everyone had.”
Eventually, the “funny sensations” evolved into full-blown seizures — not unlike one she’d had years earlier, when she was 16 months old. The seizures continued, drugs didn’t help. Finally, a new physician identified the problem: Van Deren had epilepsy. He was able to pinpoint the “focus” of the seizures in her brain; that portion of her brain was removed. The seizures stopped, but there was fallout: Her organizational skills suffered, she had trouble with time and she can’t read a map to save her. Her brain became … jumbled.
But she quickly discovered something that offered clarity: running. And the longer she ran, the better she felt. In 2002, she started running long distances competitively.
Her race/expedition schedule provides her with lots of clarity. She’s gotten plenty of relief over the years from the Hardrock 100, which, with a total of 33,000 feet of climbing, is arguably the hardest 100-mile run around. She’s done it seven times (she’s registered for an eighth, a month after she runs across North Carolina.) Also good for the mind, the Yukon Arctic Ultra 300-mile race, which she won in 2008. She found so much relief in that race that she did the 430-mile version the following year, coming in fourth.
“It’s like candy to a child,” Van Deren says of running’s impact on her brain injury. “You hear your feet, your rhythm, your breathing, but not the noise of society,” she says. “It’s healing. It’s very comforting to me.”
Some have described her ability to zone out and run punishing distances without appearing punished as her “super human power.”
“If I do have a super human power, it’s gratefulness,” she said last week as she wrapped up training at her home south of Denver. “I have my life back after having seizures for 10 years. To go through what I’ve gone through and not have to think, ‘What if … ‘ anymore … . I’m grateful every time I get to the finish line.”
To get to the finish line at Jockey’s Ridge on May 30 Van Deren has been taking long runs out the front door of her family’s home along Colorado’s Front Range. Their house — she’s married with three kids — abuts the Pike National Forest, where a variety of trails snake into the foothills. For extra credit she’ll head south toward Colorado Springs and run up 14,110-foot Pikes Peak.
She’s run races with loads of elevation change (the Hardrock 100). She’s run in horrendous conditions (the Yukon Arctic Ultra). And she’s run races with scary names (the 78-mile Canadian Death Race). Still, the MST Endurance Run is more than twice as far as she’s ever gone in a single event. How has she adapted her training for this particular challenge?
“I try to simulate what I’ll be doing for the event,” Van Deren says of her training. “For the Yukon, I’d go out at midnight with a 45-pound sled with 60 pounds of sand in it.”
For this month’s run she focused on doing back-to-back long runs. “I tried to train on tired legs,” she says. “I’d do 25 miles one day, then 20 the next, mostly running on rolly singletrack trail.”
Unlike most of her events which have aid stations and support, for the MST Endurance Run she’ll be on her own while she’s on the trail. (She will have a support team from Great Outdoor Provision Co. with her when she’s off the trail, and because her brain surgery left her unable to use a map, she’ll have trail guides running with her every day). Thus, she needs to carry everything she’ll need for the day — water, food, rain gear.
“I practiced carrying 12 to 15 pounds,” she says.
Hhaving the Rockies at her disposal has helped her prepare for speedy passage through the Smokies.
But again, it’s not a race.
“It’s a long event,” she explains. “It’s called an expedition because a lot happens along the way. Whatever happens, you have to work with that. You have to be willing to be flexible and move with those things rather than let them interfere.
“At the finish, I’ll know I’ve given it 100 percent, that I did my best. Whatever the outcome is, we’ll see. That’s how I go about approaching things. That’s what works for me.”
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Follow Diane Van Deren’s progress in the MST Endurance Run at MSTEnduranceRun.com on on Twitter, at www.Twitter.com/MSTEnduranceRun.
Read more about Diane Van Deren’s journey through epilepsy here.
Joe Miller writes about fitness and adventure in North Carolina, primarily through his Web site, GetGoingNC.com. He’s the author of three books, including “100 Classic Hikes in North Carolina” (2007, Mountaineers) and “Backpacking North Carolina” (2011, UNC Press). He’s currently working on another book, “Adventure Carolinas,” due out in Fall 2013 from UNC Press. And, he’s a trail runner.