Diane Van Deren is no stranger to adversity. Following a long professional tennis career, Van Deren developed epilepsy. After 10 years of battling seizures, trying every medication available, and with her family hanging in the balance, brain surgery was the only option.
Fortunately, Van Deren’s surgery was successful, and while she was happy to be free of her ailment, the operation did have side effects. She now has some short-term memory loss, difficulty reading maps, and sometimes cannot recall how long she has been engaged in a particular activity. She uses a system of notecards and other reminders to navigate her way through her life.
In spite of these limitations, Van Deren has continued to flouirsh athletically. She is now a professional athlete sponsored by The North Face, and she has competed in ultrarunning events and expeditions around the world. She has run on the Great Wall of China, completed the Hardrock 100 endurance race in Colorado, and trudged through -40 degree temperatures in the brutal Yukon Ultra 300. She has embraced her new life and realizes that she is now capable of getting into the zone more easily than ever before.
Van Deren recently set a new record on the 1,000-mile Mountains to Sea Trail in North Carolina, arriving beside the Atlantic Ocean in a time of 22 days, 3 hours, and 50 minutes. That’s over 45 miles per day.
Her record-setting run was not without obstacles. Here is a look inside her mind during a few of the most dramatic moments:
“We are in a war zone, and everything is threatening to rip out of the sand and fly away. There is nothing to do but keep placing one foot in front of the other.
“The downpour is driving sideways and blurring the light of my headlamp.
“The winds are fierce, the conditions are brutal, but they seem par for the course for this expedition. Nothing has come easily for us. Only 30 minutes after leaving the Clingmans Dome trailhead, I got lost. Dense fog and rain pressed down on me for the first six days, and I literally didn’t look up for that entire time. I have run all over the planet, but that was the most technical running I have ever done. One slip on the roots or mud, one twist of my ankle, and the trip would have been over.
“So I didn’t slip.
“Now I have traveled over 900 miles across the state, and I am closing in on the terminus of the trail in the Outer Banks. But I am being battered by the remnants of Tropical Storm Beryl.
“Today I have 45 miles to go and eight hours to do it in, my crew tells me. I have to catch a ferry at the end of the day, or my record-setting attempt will be over. The team has become like a Nascar pit crew: I run into a stop, they sit me down and fly into action. Duct tape is put on my feet, food is shoved into my mouth, shoes are changed, and BOOM, I’m off again!
“My body feels empty. I’ve been operating on less than three hours of sleep for 19 nights in a row, and the wind gusts are knocking me to the ground more and more regularly. We haven’t spoken for hours, but Chuck keeps nervously glancing at his watch. He tries to feign optimism, but I can tell that things aren’t looking good for us.
“Suddenly, I hear a savage and malicious sound coming from the darkness to our right. ‘What is that?’ I yell to Chuck. He assures me that it’s an airplane and nothing to worry about, yet he continually looks over his shoulder as we run. I keep slogging in the darkness as the roar fades away. I am happy to have him with me in the midst of this chaos.
“Finally, a cluster of lights come into view, and we are back on pavement again. With twenty minutes to spare, we run into the ferry terminal where the whole team is waiting. Chuck and I collapse, elated to be under shelter and with friends. One person chimes in: ‘Did you guys see the tornado that just touched down? It was less than a mile from the trail!’ Chuck smiles knowingly, but I am stunned. ‘Whose idea was this anyway?’ I yell. The ferry begins pounding into the waves and the wind, but my exhaustion makes it feel distant, and I slip into a much-needed sleep.
“Two mornings later, we are still running, chipping away at the final 82 miles to the finish. It took me a long time to stand up today. The past few mornings I have needed to crawl for a while before I could put any weight on my feet. They are in rough shape, and may need significant medical attention when I get home. As I plod through the sand, all of the faces of the people that I have met over the past 22 days flash through my mind. They represent the beauty of running—a loving, caring community that is brought together by one collective passion. I think about Annette Bednosky, an ultrarunner who I usually compete against. She gave up her own time to come out and support me in my journey. I know that all of these people will be friends for life.
“Throughout the expedition, I have refused to allow myself to think of the end. Finally, after 1,000 miles of trail, I see one final sand dune come into sight. On top of that dune is a group of people cheering and yelling my name. Tears of joy overwhelm me.” •