“The landscapes I crossed in Sri Lanka, Namibia, China, Chili, and Antarctica were simultaneously spectacular and brutal,” says Jax Mariash Koudele, who last month became the first woman to finish the 4 Deserts Grand Slam Plus. “For instance, in Sri Lanka, the first weeklong race of the series, it was often 99 degrees with 99 percent humidity, and for the most part, without an established trail through muddy jungle terrain.”
Koudele, a 36-year-old professional ultra-runner representing the U.S. and Canada, set a world record by becoming the first woman to finish the series of five 250K (155 miles) ultramarathons over one year across some of the harshest terrain in the world. Not only did she nail her goal of finishing the series, she was also crowned the 2016 4 Deserts World Champion after placing first in four of the five races.
“If you can imagine literally pushing your way through sticks—that was the first 10K,” Koudele says. “It’s a place that’s just not meant for running.” Before she’d even run 4 miles, she fell into a leaf-covered hole, like a trap, where she was stuck until another runner pulled her out—her legs bloodied and scraped, but otherwise OK.
After emerging from the jungle, she headed into the Sri Lanka highlands, “a lush landscape of green mixed with tea fields and huge Buddha statues everywhere,” she says. “It really reminded you to be mindful.”
However, without the protection of the jungle canopy, the scorching sun and heat brought on extreme dizziness. “I thought, ‘What am I doing out here—this is crazy.’” She trundled up a couple of switchbacks before collapsing and puking. Each time she tried to get back up, she’d fall again, puke again. So, she crawled for a little while. Eventually she made it to the first checkpoint, where they gave her an anti-nausea pill.
“At that point I had to make a decision,” she says. “I could either quit or I could honor the Lyme patients that I was running for.”
One of the reasons she was competing was to support the LymeLight Foundation, which aims to raise funds to provide medical grants to children and young adults to treat their Lyme disease, which has affected some of her closest friends.
“I decided to manipulate my thoughts,” she says—a strategy she’s honed over many years to overcome adversity. “I imagined I was starting the race over.” While dizziness plagued her throughout all seven days of the race, she finished in second place, even after spraining her ankle on day three.
Each subsequent leg of the series presented unforeseeable challenges, like when the soles of her shoes melted in China’s 130-degree Gobi Desert—one of the hottest days of the event on record. But slogging through the desolate, glacial terrain of Antarctica, the last race, topped them all. “It was the hardest run I’ve ever done in my life,” she says. “The snow was sloshy instead of icy. Your feet hurt from lifting them out of the snow over and over again. On day one, I was crying with severe IT band pain and utter exhaustion. By the end of each day, you’re just ripped apart.”
But the scenery, she says, was mind blowing. “I especially enjoyed running on Damoy Point, a small island with a penguin colony,” she says. Some of the penguins fell in line behind the runners, as if they too were part of the race. “We also heard avalanches in the distance and watched pieces of glaciers breaking off and crashing into the sea. I still cannot believe that I saw that with my own eyes versus it being in a National Geographic article.”
As she took those last snowy steps toward the final finish line, she cried in relief. “I was in total shock that I’d made it, that I was safe, and that I’d surpassed all my goals. I’d dreamed of doing something like this since I was 8 years old,” she says, when she won her first medal in a race.
Growing up in Denver, Koudele turned to running—pretending she was Wonder Woman—to give her strength to cope with challenges. “Wonder Woman has been my hero since I was little,” Koudele says. “She spun around and emerged in this radical, magical outfit. She was a woman and she was conquering the world.”
Over the years, the superhero has become Koudele’s personae, and sometimes, she even races in custom-made WW attire (including the metal bracelets) hoping to inspire others to tap into their own superpowers.
“I feel like I’m running for more than myself,” she says. “Things that you think are impossible are not. You CAN do them.”
Her own superpower, she believes, is grit—a dogged determination to just keep moving toward your goals, which she says everyone can develop. “Ultrarunning is 90 percent mental. You can’t listen to the bird on your shoulder saying ‘just quit.’ You gotta flick ‘em off. There’s always a way to get through problems.”
In addition to using affirmations such as just fucking do it, Koudele has learned to smile when things really hurt. “If you’re frowning, your whole body behaves that way. But if you smile, your body chemistry has no choice but to support it.”
Since her victory just over a week ago, she’s hatching new goals, which include expanding Stoked Roasters—a premium coffee roasting company that she launched in 2014 in Hood River, Ore., where she lived part-time before recently moving to Park City, Utah. Its mission is to inspire people to get outside.
“We know athletes want a really good cup of coffee,” she says. “We’re obsessed with making exceptional roasts for outdoor enthusiasts.”
With Wonder Woman behind the brew, perhaps we should all get stoked.
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