When I first met ultramarathoner and North Face athlete, Diane Van Deren, at REI Outessa in Waterville, New Hampshire, I was immediately magnetized by her positive vibes. She had been up since 4:30 in the morning running along the red- and orange-studded trails at more than a thousand feet of elevation. Yet, she was cheery, bursting with energy and enthusiastic as all hell. “How lucky am I to have this as my office?,” Van Deren said staring back at the mountain ranges behind us. At 57 years old, Van Deren looks like the superwoman you’d pictured her to be: sun-bronzed skin, short, dirty blonde hair and strong, sculpted arms and legs.
Van Deren has been ultraracing for more than 16 years, treading around the globe 300 to 1,000 miles at a time. “I’m so grateful for being able to do this sport for so long and at the level that I’m able to,” she says. On average, Van Deren clocks in 70 to 90 miles a week in Colorado, where she lives with her husband, Scott. But before she hit the peak of her ultrarunning career, Van Deren faced an uphill battle with her health.
Running Away from Epilepsy
Ultraracing was never in the cards for Van Deren, who was once a professional tennis player, but it was the draw that helped her get through the hand she was given. In fact, Van Deren didn’t take up running until she received an epilepsy diagnosis at 28 years old. Whenever she experienced an aura — which is a feeling you get before a seizure — she would lace up her shoes and hit the trails. Running, she says, was the only way she could avoid a seizure.
In 1997, at age 37, Van Deren underwent a lobectomy to remove a part of her brain that would eventually cure her of the disease. “[The surgery] was the most painful experience I’ve had in my life. I couldn’t bend down to tie my shoes,” Van Deren recounts. Today, Van Deren uses those tough periods in her life to help her get through races. “I always think, ‘If I got through that, then I can get through this,’” Van Deren says. “People ask me, ‘when are you going to stop doing this?’ And I tell them, ‘Oh, I’m just getting started.’”
5 Lessons from Ultramarathoner Diane Van Deren
1. Treat each race like it’s your first.
You know that excitement you get when you sign up your first race? Hold onto it. Van Deren says, “I have no fears. I have excitement for the unknown and what lies ahead.” Even after countless endurance events at a variety of distances, Van Deren treats every race like it’s her first. “Once you become overconfident, the drive, will and excitement are diminished,” she says. Van Deren, who never runs on a treadmill, says training outdoors is always best in order to truly assimilate to the conditions of a race.
“It’s only when nature breaks you that you can truly grow as an athlete.”
2. Use movement as your meditation.
The start of a race is just as important as the finish, and that’s when Van Deren really focuses on being present. “Smelling, listening and feeling are things I use to be present in a race. I love being entertained visually, and nature is perfect for that,” she says. Looking up at the trees and listening to the rustling of the leaves can help you feel calmer and more empowered. There’s also something to be said about leaving your devices at home. “People become so consumed with detail, structure and their gear that it becomes too much thinking,” Van Deren says. “Be prepared and do your training. But once you get to the starting line, you just go.”
3. Listen to the rhythm of your feet.
While Van Deren doesn’t listen to music while she runs, she pays special attention to the rhythm of her feet and her breathing. And that’s especially when she’s starting to get tired. “When I’m not running, I play the guitar and sing, but I always carry that four-beat sound on the trails. It allows me to focus on my breathing and pace myself throughout a race,” she says.
4. Embrace the unpredictable.
Van Deren has been on running expeditions, where it can take as long as a month before she crosses the finish line (it’s a 1,000 miles, after all), and the weather can vary drastically day-to-day. “One minute it can be a calm, sunny day and the next, it’s 20 degrees, with 50 mph winds and sleeting,” Van Deren says. “Things are unpredictable on the course, and it’s how you deal with it that really shows you what you’re made of,” she says. “It’s only when nature breaks you that you can truly grow as an athlete.”
“I want to make a memory, and it’s that kind of hope that keeps me in it.”
5. Hit pause if you need to.
Whether you’ve started cramping or are feeling especially exhausted on the course, don’t give up and fixate on people running past you. Take a minute to pause and find a way to finish. “I’m not invincible, but I always have some kind of solution to get through,” Van Deren says. Sit down, sip water and snack on energy gels and chews for a quick boost. And when you’re towing yourself to the finish line, remember that you don’t need a PR to show that you’re giving it your best. Van Deren says, “Records are great, but they’re short-term recognition. I want to make a memory, and it’s that kind of hope or drive that keeps me in it.”