Diane Van Deren can run for days without any sleep, covering hundreds of miles in severe conditions and environments. A former professional tennis player, the 52-year-old mother of three from Sedalia, Colo., started running to help stave off epileptic seizures, for which she underwent a right frontal lobotomy in 1997 that robbed her of some brain function and memory. Van Deren has competed in some of the world’s most grueling ultra races, having won the 2008 Yukon Arctic Ultra 300 in Canada (amid temperatures of 50 below zero) and also climbed the highest peak in South America—Argentina’s 22,834-foot Aconcagua. We caught up with The North Face-sponsored runner to talk about her recent trek: Completing the nearly 1,000-mile Mountains to Sea Trail Endurance Run where she traversed the entire state of North Carolina in 22 days.
How did you physically and mentally prepare for this journey?
I ran 15-30 miles everyday on trails and mountains, and threw in 30 pounds in a pack to simulate what it would be like if I were running with my sleeping bag and gear. Mentally, I just had to go at it one day at a time. It was so intense; I didn’t have any room for air. I couldn’t think about getting to the finish because it was intangible at the time—all I could think about was the present moment. I’ve run through rivers, rocks and ice all over the world and [Mountains to Sea] is, without a doubt, the hardest trail I’ve ever experienced. I now know why they call them the Smokies—visibility is low and humidity is high.
How would you describe the kind of support you had on and off the course?
I never ran alone. I can’t read maps because of the surgery so I always had somebody with me. Chuck Millsap from the Great Outdoor Provision Company handled everything for me—from logistics to actually running with me. It’s like he set up basecamp right there on the trail. The crew I had could outdo anybody at Daytona; they were amazing.
Did you come to any revelations about yourself or the sport during the trek?
What was so meaningful was the harmony of everything that I’ve believed in as an athlete. It’s about discipline, drive and passion. It’s not a sport about ego, but rather the friendships, trust and respect you earn on the trails.
What was the most emotional part?
One of the guides who ran with me was a gentleman who’d just returned from serving in Afghanistan. He told me he’d never gotten lost while on duty and he was there to take care of me. Three days later, on Memorial Day, I’d found out he had a friend drive him 3.5 hours just so he could run with me again on Memorial Day. We’d passed by a memorial and that really hit me.
How influential has running become on your life?
When I was still having seizures, there’s something called a premonition that you have before you’re about to have a seizure. I remember being on a dirt road, having this premonition, and then packing and started running home. Once I got home, I realized I didn’t have a seizure. So whenever I would have a premonition, I would throw on my running shoes and run to the mountains. The mountains became my safe spot and I’d never have a seizure while I was running up there. That’s when my ultra running took off, because I was trying to run away from having a seizure.
This interview first appeared in the October 2012 issue of Competitor magazine.