GRETCHEN KARSTENS: Kind of a Tough Runner

This is the story of my friend Gretchen Karsten’s first 100 mile trail race: the Superior 100 mile in Northern Minnesota. Gretchen is a pediatrician, a mom of two girls, and, despite what she says in this interview, very much a runner. Prior to the Superior 100, she had run several road marathons, several 50k’s and three 50 milers.

In this interview, Gretchen shares how she overcame doubts to make it to the starting line of her first 100 miler, how running a 100 miler changed her self-image, and how she is passing her love of running onto her girls.

What was most intimidating about running your first 100 mile trail race?

I was worried that I wouldn’t finish with a time that counted. If they had said I had to cover 100 miles in two or three days, I would have been like, “OK, that’s a long way, but I have plenty of time.” Saying you have 38 hours to finish felt like, “I am going to have to move. I am going to have to really move.”

I still struggle with thinking of myself as a runner. I never think of myself as athletic. I am solidly in the “nerd” category. Running 100 miles in the time required sounded solidly athletic, so that felt pretty crazy… to undertake as a “nerd.”

Where did this idea come from, that you’re not athletic and you’re not a runner?

Well, runners are very thin and fast, and they have very strong legs. They don’t complain about having to get up early in the morning for a run. They don’t want to quit for the first half to three miles of a run. During a 14 mile run, they don’t call their spouse and say, “Come get me. I’m done.”

In my mythos of what a runner is, runners don’t do these things and these are all things that I’ve done. So, it just felt like I must not have hit runner level. I am a slow jogger. That’s kind of how I think of myself.

I am asking you as if this were a serious line of questioning. Where did you get this idea from?

I am sure it’s just all my own construct.

When did you start running?

I ran for maybe four months my senior year of high school. Then, I ran a little bit in college. I tried fencing. I tried tai chi. I tried jogging. I was just interested in trying things in college.

Then, after I had my youngest kid in 2008, I read an article in Better Homes and Gardens about a lady who had regained her pre-baby body by doing yoga and running, and I thought, “Oh, I should try that. I have run before.”

In 2009, I ran Grandma’s Half Marathon with my sister. Then, she said we should run a marathon, and I thought, “Oh, I am going to need a training group for a marathon because that’s a lot. That’s a really long way to go.” So, I joined Duluth Running Company’s marathon training group in 2010. And, we survived. I mean we finished! We were so happy.

Do your parents and sister think of themselves as athletes?

I think my parents would both describe themselves as “active.” My parents ran a marathon in 1981. Other than that marathon, my dad would do a 5K here and there. Biking, skiing and hiking have always been a part of my life. I think they would use the word “active.”

What made you want to run a 100 miler?

First, having gotten a divorce, it’s hard not to think of myself as a quitter. I wanted to do something where a lot of people quit — not quit, but a lot of people don’t cross the finish line for all kinds of reasons — and I wanted to see if I could not quit something hard. I wanted to kind of have that sense that maybe that story is not true. Maybe you’re not a quitter. Also, a lot of people I know have run a 100 miler, and I wanted to be part of the club.

How much time did you devote to training, and how tricky was it to fit training into your life?

I ran six days a week. Most mornings, I tried to run five or six miles. Wednesdays was a 10 to 14 mile run, usually in the woods for some of it.

On Saturdays and Sundays, if the kids were with their dad, I would go up the shore to run. I don’t think I ever ran much more than 20 or 22 miles on the Superior Hiking Trail. Then, on Sundays, I would be back on the trail maybe doing 10 or 12 miles.

Every fourth week, I took a down week for recovery. I tried to make it so my recovery weeks were when I had the kids. I also ran the Voyager 50 mile, so that was a long run.

Did you feel like training fit into your life, or did you feel like it took over and became too much?

It varied. Sometimes, it was definitely too much. Then, I would take two down weeks and try to regain some of the other piece.

I recall one training run had you questioning whether you should line up at the start of the Superior 100 mile.

I have a real phobia of failure. I didn’t want to start this race knowing I was going to fail.

So, one weekend, we went up the shore [to run the Superior 100 mile course]. My husband came with me, and we were going to do a group of long runs. We started right before the Split Rock aid station and went to Silver Bay. We ran and hiked and stopped and had lunch. We ran out of water, and it was hotter than heck. When we got to the end, my husband told me the time I would need to run that stretch in during the race and what we had covered it in.

I was going to email [race director] John Storkamp and tell him: “Maybe you need to take someone off your waitlist because I’m not going to finish your race… because I am too slow.”

The next day, I ran alone. I told myself if I can’t cover this next leg in the time I need to during the race, then I am going to drop. I won’t even start. I ran from Silver Bay to Tettegouche — that’s Bean and Bear Lakes — and you have to cover that section in three hours. I ran it, got to the car, and was just crying because I had done it. So, a) I had to keep training, and b) there was hope again.

What gave you the confidence to think you could finish the 100 miler and to line up at the start?

When I lined up at the starting line of the Superior 100, I was pretty sure I would finish. The Voyager 50 mile went better than I expected. I also timed myself on other segments of the Superior Hiking Trail. I was like, “This is how much time you have. Make it happen.” And, I saw that I was able to more.

It helped to talk to you. I had my blue nail polish on and the podcast that you sent me. I had taken notes. I had notes tucked in the pocket of my vest, so I knew where some of these different landmarks were along the course — “Float into Finland” — I had done everything I could to prepare.

Yes, you had done everything you could to prepare. You had practiced your pace, studied that podcast, taken notes…

Yeah, that’s the nerd.

Yeah, you were super prepared.

Being able to go super nerd on it helped me have more confidence. I am not a big data analyzer in real life. But, I looked at the data, and there seemed to be some pretty good evidence that I could do it.

I never had any of these doubts about your ability to finish a 100 miler that you had. You’re not a back of the pack runner.

My husband told me that too — that there are slower runners than you who finish. But, I would think, “Well, they probably have some special skill that we don’t know about.”

Having gotten a divorce, it’s hard not to think of myself as a quitter. I wanted to do something where a lot of people quit — not quit, but a lot of people don’t cross the finish line for all kinds of reasons — and I wanted to see if I could not quit something hard.

Did you ever doubt during the race that you were going to make the time cutoffs?

No, not really. I was with a lot of people, especially at the beginning. There were a lot of us, so I couldn’t be at the back.

I had such good fortune. It was just a day of good fortune. Within the first five to six miles, it was clear that I was running a similar pace to another woman. She said, “Hey, we seem to be running the same pace. Do you want to run together?” And, she and I ran together through Finland [the halfway point], and she was incredible.

At about 30 miles, it was raining on us and my stomach hurt and she was like, “How about I tell you a story,” and “Do you want a salt tab?” So, she just started telling stories and she gave me a salt tab, and, before I knew it, we were done with that section and that moment had passed. When I was with her — and she had already done a 100 miler — we were making pretty good time.

My goal at the start was to finish in 37 hours 59 minutes. I think I finished in 34 hours 16 minutes — way under the cut off.

Also, I’m not super proud of this, but I share it because it’s kind of funny. Near the end, my husband said to me, “You know, if you keep going like this, you’re going to beat my time.” At that point, we heard the creek and I knew from the podcast that we had a little under a mile to go. I think, oddly, that was my fastest mile since we were on the bike trail. I was like, “Get out of my way. I am so finishing.” And, I did. I beat Tony’s time.

…and Tony’s a runner.

Tony is totally a runner.

When we spoke right after your 100 miler, you said this experience influenced your view of yourself as an athlete. Could you explain that?

Finishing the 100 mile made me realize that, “Yes, I am a nerd, but, in addition to being a nerd, I am a runner.” When I was growing up, no one would have said, “She is someone who can run a really long way.” They would have said, “She answers questions, so we don’t have to sit there and just stare at the teacher.” I think I really internalized that. Now, I guess I am also a runner… and I am kind of a tough runner.

During the Voyager 50 mile, you said you felt guilty for delaying your family’s vacation. Did you feel that guilt during the Superior 100?

No, my kids were with my mom and stepdad, and they were pretty pumped that I was doing this. At one point, maybe a month before the race, my oldest Mary asked me: “Are you really going to do this?” And I said, “Yes,” and, after that, there was no going back.

After the race, I was cold and got the shakes, and the kids were incredible. They were so gentle, and they helped me take my wet sports bra off, which was not easy to get off. They kept saying: “You did it. We’re so proud of you.”

Since the Superior 100, they have been way more accepting of my running actually. During quarantine, they have even started running a little bit. They want to share it with me. I mean Mary would rather bike, but to see Cate out there running — and going through those beginning stages of running — I’m just so proud of her.

Why was it important to you for your girls to be at the finish line?

I had really wanted to run in with them. That was going to be the culmination of what this was. I think, with the divorce, I felt like I had failed them. And now, I had followed through — I hadn’t quit — and they were going to run in with me. The three of us were going to finish something really great together.

Instead, it was just kind of a classic family moment, standing at the finish line wondering, “Where are they?”

You finished so fast — so far ahead of your projected finishing time — that your kids were not at the finish line. When I spoke with you right after the race, you almost didn’t think the race was a success because you hadn’t finished with your kids.

Right. It was a really big deal.

As I sat with it further, I realized I started out by myself and I finished by myself, and that was really cool. I started this race with so much fear and doubt about my running. I found a friend within five miles. I covered the race distance way faster than I thought I could. I got in and out of the eight aid stations. I had all these epic Superior 100 experiences.

Instead of having this experience as Mom, I really got to do it as Gretchen. That was a really big deal because sometimes I can kind of hide behind Mom.

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