Professor, Mars Hill University
Board of Directors, Carolina Climbers Coalition
Mars Hill, N.C.
Long before Laura Boggess ever tied a figure eight, she was a conservationist. Born and raised in Burnsville, N.C., Boggess is a western North Carolina girl, through and through. From the time the now 34-year-old was just a child exploring her parents’ farm, she knew she wanted to be outside protecting the natural world.
So when she stumbled upon a graduate program in cliff ecology at Appalachian State University, she found very much like she had discovered her calling.
“I was dumbfounded that someone would pay me money to rappel and check out these cool areas,” she says. “That’s how I got into climbing, and there were definitely times in graduate school where I was doing more climbing than studying.”
But really, climbing and studying were one and the same. In 2013, Boggess married her two passions for conservation and climbing as a member of the Carolina Climbers Coalition Board of Directors. She’s since helped incorporate conservation practices and policies into climbing management plans for areas like Hidden Valley and the Rumbling Bald boulderfield. As climbing gyms continue to rise in popularity, Boggess says it’s important to her to be involved with educating how climbers can also be good stewards, too.
“I’m glad that I started climbing with the awareness of how cool the habitats were where I was climbing,” she says. “I think the biggest reason I love to climb is because it’s such a holistic experience. I know that makes me sound like a hippy, but you’re using your whole body and mind. Everything has to be on the same page. You really feel how connected everything is, and that’s the best vision of conservation.”
Just two years ago, Boggess’ world came screeching to a halt when friend and fellow climber-conservationist Kayah Gaydish died from a 50-foot fall. Boggess and Gaydish were climbing with friends at Hidden Valley when the accident happened. Boggess say she’s met many inspiring people in her life, but none who quite compared to Gaydish.
“I think about her so much in the work that I do,” she says. “Of all of the friends and mentors I’ve had, she really stands out as someone who was really special. She was such a role model to me as a conservationist, as someone who loves the outdoors and brings that ethic of stewardship and community togetherness. Kayah was it for me.”
Boggess is now working on a number of climbing and non-climbing related conservation projects, including the Bailey Mountain Conservation Project, a 212-acre tract of land Mars Hill University will purchase next month and preserve for conservation and recreation use. Boggess is also working with the Forest Service in its Pisgah-Nantahala Management Plan to ensure that climbers continue to be a part of the conversation, both as user groups but also as stewards of the rock faces so few people ever see.
When Boggess isn’t in the woods, she’s teaching yoga at Mars Hill University’s Breathing Room, where students and staff can learn the basics of meditation and yoga.
Assistant Professor, University of Maryland, Baltimore County
Kathleen Cusick’s near-20-year relationship with running began in 1999. At the time, she was 23 years old, and nearing the anniversary of her sister’s death, whom she lost to cancer when Cusick was just 14 years old.
“I wanted to do something to help fight cancer,” says Cusick. “Her birthday and the day she died are very close together in March, and that week was always so tough for me.”
She joined the Leukemia & Lymphoma’s Team In Training and signed up for her first marathon. Cusick was living in Florida at the time, and that marathon was up in Toronto. Despite it being bitterly cold, she felt strong and empowered. That same year, back in Florida, she saw an advertisement for a 50K trail race.
“I remember reading it out loud and my boyfriend at the time saying ‘You can’t do a 50K.’ That was like waving a red flag in front of a bull.”
The following year, Cusick ran that 50K, and soon, she was signing up for 50Ks and 50-milers like it was her job. Then, just a few years after her very first running race and in the midst of earning her PhD in microbiology from the University of Tennessee, Cusick found her true passion: 100-milers.
“I realized when I was getting my PhD that with 50Ks and 50-milers, I’d get up early in the morning, go run the race, and then try to get back in the lab. It’s like the whole time I was out there I was just thinking about doing this-this-and-this, where with 100-milers, you know you’re going to be out there all day and all night. That’s all you’re going to be doing for the next 24 hours, so it’s more relaxing in a sense.”
She enjoyed those long distances so much so that in 2015 she ran 10 100-milers in a single calendar year. And she didn’t just run them: she destroyed them. She placed first at Fort Clinch 100 in Florida, the Massanutten 100-Miler and Old Dominion 100-Miler in Virginia, the Eastern States 100 and Pine Creek Challenge in Pennsylvania, and the Cloudsplitter 100 in Virginia. She also placed second at a number of other 100-milers and 100Ks like the Vermont and Pinhoti 100-Milers and Hellgate 100K. By all appearances, Cusick was in the prime of her running career, but in 2016, she was diagnosed with both Lyme’s disease and anemia, which slowed her down sometimes to a literal crawl.
“I wouldn’t say I got frustrated, but it could be a little disheartening during a race when I couldn’t breathe or I was feeling weak,” she says. “But at the same time, I just kept trying to learn from it. I kept running even though it wasn’t always pretty. The last six hours of the Vermont 100 were just really, really painful, and not like ow-my-quads-hurt but like deep, internal fatigue where you’re like, how am I going to be able to take another step?”
Still, she managed to eke out a few more wins that year at the Twisted Branch 100K in New York and the Grindstone 100 Miler in Virginia. But by the beginning of 2017, Cusick still wasn’t feeling 100%. At the HURT 100 in Honolulu, she could hardly breathe on her final lap.
“I was wheezing and could hear the anemia taking its toll. For several days afterwards my body was white. It’s like my blood wasn’t circulating properly. I mean, I was cold and we were in Hawaii.”
Still, she kept running, placing first at Double Top 100 in Georgia, the Massanutten 100-Miler, Eastern States 100, Grindstone 100-Miler, and the Vermont 100-Miler, where she ran her second-best time at 17 hours, 39 minutes. Her secret to success is startling in its simplicity: keeping health challenges in perspective between what can be controlled and what can’t, some old-fashioned grit, and a few well-timed mid-race bags of Tom Sturgis pretzels or Saucony Creek Brewing Company beers (carbs are good, especially if they’re Pennsylvania carbs).
These days, Cusick’s health finally seems to be on the upswing. And perhaps more than the trail-aged perspective and pretzels, she says it’s the ultra community that has supported her and kept her going, race after race after race.
“I’ve lived so many different places and I’ve really gotten to know a lot of the different trail running folks. I love ‘em. It’s just a wonderful group of people, and running these races, returning to these trails, is like you’re visiting family. And how fortunate are we that we get to go out in the woods and eat?”
League Director, West Virginia Interscholastic Cycling League
When Cassie Smith first bought a bike to commute to her classes at West Virginia University, little did she know that she would continue to ride and compete for 23 years.
“The guys at the shop sold me a men’s large. It was huge. I just rode it anyway, and when I met my husband Jeff who’s a local and who rode in the woods, I started mountain biking. I raced the first year I started riding and I was really green. It was super hard. I struggled big time. I was not super athletic.”
Smith, now 47, hardly let that deter her. She kept at it, competing regularly in the West Virginia Mountain Bike Association (WVMBA) series and enlisting the guidance of top riders like Sue Haywood.
“Every year I just wanted to keep getting faster, and my goal was when I hit 40, I wanted to be in the best shape of my life.”
After long days working for FedEx, Smith would crank out 15 hours on the saddle every week and work out in the gym. And though all of that discipline paid off with podium results, the final race of the 2013 WVMBA series gave her a change of heart about competition.
“All I had to do was finish the race in order to win overall, but halfway through I got stung by this bee. I’m not even allergic to bees but it stung me right on my neck and it took me down. I started having a reaction and about five or six girls took care of me. They gave me Benadryl and made sure I was okay, and they wouldn’t finish in front of me. It was just amazing that they respected the camaraderie here in West Virginia. Those girls could have easily just passed me, and that was a pretty humbling moment for me.”
Smith is still racing. Just last year she won the cat 1 master’s women division at the USA Cycling Mountain Bike National Championships at Snowshoe Mountain Resort. But now, more than anything, she is pouring her energy into inspiring the next generation of riders, which includes her 14-year-old son Levi. Last year, Smith played a pivotal role in creating a West Virginia youth cycling league under the National Interscholastic Cycling Association. She says she’s looking forward to expanding cycling opportunities for her son and other West Virginia youth.
“This year might be the year where I won’t be able to keep up at all,” she says of Levi, who won last year’s WVMBA enduro series in the junior division. “He smokes me on the downhill. I can gain a little bit on the climbs, but I’m losing ground fast. He’s my training buddy, and he’s worked so hard for everything he’s gotten, and I hope I can get other families to see that this is such a great, healthy way to raise kids.”
Q+A WITH COVER PHOTOGRAPHER
How did you get your start in photography?
CA: My photographic career started in my mid-teens and I am a second-generation photographer. I was trained by my beloved father in traditional photographic techniques, and I like to say that I “grew up in a darkroom” as a film photographer.
What are your favorite and least favorite subjects to shoot?
CA: Favorite: extreme athletes. It pushes me to achieve more than what I thought I could, try new things, and to create portraits in environments where portraits with flash are hard or almost impossible to obtain. Least favorite: Babies. I honestly just don’t have the patience.
If you could go anywhere in the world on assignment, where would you go?
CA: For right now (because it always changes!), I would say either Norway or Greenland. I’ve dreamed of photographing the Northern Lights for quite some time now.
If you could pick one album to be the soundtrack of your life, what would it be?
CA: Dave Matthews Band, Busted Stuff.