Last Thursday I went for a short run—my first in over two weeks. I forgot my music, so it was just me and the sweet serenading of birds. My solitude with nature gave me time to ponder many things, including how people come into our lives; I determined usually not by accident.
I thought about Karla, an inspiring woman who I connected with in April when I stumbled on to her blog, National Park Quest. She and her husband, Andres, are currently visiting and illustrating all 59 National Parks as part of the centennial anniversary of the park system. What first intrigued me is their challenge to camp and make no trash. I felt a shared connection and reached out and found out we have a lot more in common than just waste prevention.
Karla planned her official first half marathon—the Grand Teton Half Marathon—when they would be at Grand Teton National Park in early June. She was excited to learn about Small Change, my initiative to encourage donations to organizations making a difference in the places we visit for races and other adventures.
I’ve continued to be inspired by Karla’s National Park Quest and recently caught up with her to learn more about it and her first half marathon experience.
How was your first half marathon?
There is only one word to describe the race: Incredible. Going into it, I was extremely nervous and had even contemplated not doing it the few weeks before. We’ve been living on the road since April 16th, so it’s been pretty tough to keep up a training regime. Grand Teton National Park is our 6th park along the quest, and in each park I tried to sneak in runs. Usually I ran around the campgrounds or on a well-trafficked hiking trail. Still, I hadn’t run even 6 miles straight since March, so I was very nervous.
Luckily whether through peer pressure or my own will-power, I showed up and felt immediately swept up in the pre-race energy churning through all the hundreds of runners around me. Going into the race I had the goal of just finishing, and going as slowly as possible. I started with the 2 hr 20 minute pacing group and went pretty slowly, to the point that I fell behind the group during the first half of the race. Tons of people were passing me. It was a little disheartening, but I had my favorite songs on and just disconnected from those around me, focusing instead on the incredibly sunny morning and mountains in front of me. I knew I could run faster, but kept it intentionally slow, realizing the distance still ahead.
By about mile 8, I was feeling good, barely out of breath, so I increased my speed and realized I’d caught up to my group. I even passed the pacer with the flag. During the last three miles I passed as many people who’d passed me in the beginning. That part didn’t matter to me, but feeling STRONG at the end was definitely the best part. Yes, I was tired and sweaty, but I’d managed to go the entire race without stopping, walking, or slouching. I was super proud of this ability and felt proud of myself. I’m my toughest critic, so this is rare. Maybe it was the mountains, or maybe it was the enthusiasm of the race, or maybe it was the sunshine, but something ignited my spirit that morning. I ended up finishing at 2 hours and 18 minutes, and looking back it seemed to go by so quickly.
Who or what inspired you to run it?
My older sister Megan has been a runner and cyclist for a long time, and I always admired her long distances and endurances. She inspired me to run as a late teen, but for a long time I was the runner who jogged 2–4 miles per workout, never getting too seriously into it. Then a couple years ago a company I was working for sponsored a 5K, so I ran it. After that tiny thrill of racing, I decided to take it to the next level.
When my sister told me about Strava I downloaded the app and it motivated me greatly to reach milestones I’d never achieved before. It was fun to go to new places, see my runs mapped, and set new challenges—almost like a game. I realized how good I felt after running longer distances so kept it up, to the point of unofficially running my first half marathon in March of 2016. When Megan suggested I train for a marathon, it seemed only natural to take the next step of running an official half-marathon.
Andres and I were planning the National Park Quest at the same time, so I wondered if the parks hosted races. A little Google searching turned up several options through the organization Vacation Races. When I saw the Grand Teton race coincided with our planned time there, I knew it was meant to be. This race would be the perfect way to keep me motivated and push my abilities. I love challenges.
Why did you choose Grand Teton National Park Foundation as your Small Change beneficiary?
It seemed like the perfect fit to support the goals of our National Park Quest. We are donating 10% of each poster sale from the journey to a charity associated with the parks. The Grand Teton National Park Foundation is our beneficiary for the Grand Teton poster, so I also chose it for the race. I liked the idea of giving something extra to the park associated with the race, since many of us runners spent time enjoying the beauty of the Tetons. The Foundation has done incredible work in supporting the cultural, natural, and historical initiatives of the park.
My small donation went specifically to the campaign for Jenny Lake, which is a big project to improve trail systems, interpretive spaces, and overall visitor experiences in a popular park destination. I’m really interested in the way people engage with and learn about our natural world, so any effort to improve interaction wins my support. We joined a (free) ranger guided hike at Jenny Lake, crossing the lake by boat to hike up 1.5 miles to Inspiration Point. Along the way our geologist ranger educated us about the landscape and how things became the way they are. It was a great learning experience and I was happy to see the other 15 hikers totally absorbed with her program. She dropped many hints about our connection to nature along the way, which was super inspiring. It gave me hope for humanity to see others interested in the discussion about our environment.
The best part was actually seeing rangers working on the trail as we hiked there, they were literally putting in new sign posts and we could see giant bags of rocks along the trail where improvements were scheduled to be made (side note: my cousin does trail work in Montana, so I know how tough this job is!).
Do you have other running goals this year?
Nothing set in stone yet. I’m looking for recommendations, would love to run another half marathon in the fall, somewhere in the east. I would like to do a couple of half marathon races a year to keep me motivated in my training, and when the time is right, raise the bar up to that marathon level. I would also like my next run to be for a specific cause.
Favorite post-run snack or beverage?
The race gave us a post-run recovery box with mostly sweet snacks like power bars and cookies, which didn’t do it for me unfortunately. I felt sick later on in the day and realized I was craving something salty. So a light portion of salty lentil soup with rice turned out to be the perfect meal, followed by 11 hours of sleeping. I also love almond butter to a fault.
Where are you and Andres headed next?
We are headed to Yellowstone where we’ll spend about two weeks. This is a huge moment in the quest because Andres has dreamed of seeing the bison there ever since watching a National Geographic program on Yellowstone many years ago. He was only nine but remembers feeling stunned by the beautiful imagery and majestic animals. So much so that for awhile he wanted to become a vet. Now he’s an artist and photographer who loves to illustrate and capture animals, so it’s quite possible that those early National Geographic programs inspired his way in life. While I’m personally excited about Yellowstone, the next park I just can’t wait to experience is Acadia in Maine. I’m a romantic, so feel drawn to the sight of those rocky cliffs, rugged Atlantic views, and crisp mornings. We’ll be there in September, if all goes according to plan.
We’ve planned the route according to the seasons (as much as possible), so after Yellowstone we’re going up to Glacier and then making a big right to skirt the northern U.S. as we head back east, and then on down to Florida by November, 2016.
What’s surprised you the most about your National Park Quest?
I’ve written about this a lot, but I’ve been surprised by the kindness from people we’ve met. I’ve always known most Americans to be polite and courteous, but I never would have expected a complete stranger to host us one night because we couldn’t find an open campground, or another couple of strangers to randomly pay for our lunch in a restaurant. Or a woman to play music for us simply because she wanted to brighten our day. It’s easy to feel disheartened by the news that bombards us each and every moment, but most people are truly remarkable and it’s been great to experience this surprise as we travel to new places. We especially love the country’s public library system and have yet to meet a grumpy librarian in the eight libraries we’ve frequented in six states. They’ve all been welcoming.
Anything else you want to share?
I think most people wonder “How can you do this? How can you afford this?” thinking that our NPQ sounds like a two-year vacation for the wealthy. I’d love to point out that you don’t have to be rich at all to pursue an unconventional path, and you also don’t have to live your life the way others might expect. And by that I mean the traditional 9 – 5 job, buying a house, etc. If you’re thinking of doing something a little beyond the norm, but it makes you feel alive, you should go after it no matter the obstacles. Andres and I have planned this quest for two years and during that time I worked a job that wasn’t my dream career. But it helped us save and establish our shop Hike & Draw, which is what we feel passionate about. Our lives are simple and fairly frugal, most people are surprised by how little we travel with (we manage to sleep in our Subaru Outback if cold weather calls for it).
If you have a mission in life, whether to pursue the career of an artist, or run a marathon, I think the biggest obstacle is often fear. I have felt afraid so many times, but always got past the negative emotion by taking one step at a time rather than looking at the entire distance ahead. There are many great resources out there and if I could share one post from our blog, it would be 7 Resources that Inspired Us for this Quest. I think the wisdom in these resources can help travelers, runners, and do-gooders of all kinds!
I’m incredibly inspired by Karla and Andres’ park quest and look forward meeting up with them in Oregon. You can follow their adventures on National Park Quest.