Karen Gelmis, an engineer for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) in Huntsville, AL, brings her problem-solving expertise to her running life.
In high school she ran on the boy’s cross country team because her school did not have a girls team. In college, she ran to relief the stresses of long hours spent studying. When she registered for her first half-marathon she joined a training group to help her prepare.
Initially a solo runner, Gelmis enjoyed the camaraderie of her training group. After finishing the race, she decided her new group of friends needed to stay connected. “When the race was finished, we said, 'now what do we do?' We have these great relationships and have gone through the racing process together to accomplish this goal. We just had to stay together,” she says. “We formed a club and kept running. That’s when running became much bigger for me.”
After moving from Houston, TX to Huntsville, AL, Gelmis followed a similar approach. But finding local runners to train with wasn’t quite enough for her. She created Let’s Run Huntsville to spread the word about local runners, routes, and races. “It’s not a formal running club but a forum where people can post about running or find people to run with. It’s taken off and we just crossed 4,000 followers,” she says.
Managing a forum with thousands of visitors isn’t the only way Gelmis champions running in Huntsville. She’s a member of the Track Club and a committee member of the group’s Trail Race series. “We have a trail race each month that I help with and occasionally get to also run in,” she says. “These race distances vary from 4 miles up to 50K and have grown in popularity. More people are finding out just how much fun trail running can be!”
Let’s Run Huntsville has created an interconnected, vibrant community of local trail runners, and Gelmis is proud of how local runners have embraced the group. “We want to be the welcome wagon for people who are new to the community or new to running — people who didn’t previously know where to run or who to run with. It’s a wide variety of runners, not just competitive runners but everyday people,” she says.
Gelmis, who started running road marathons in the 1990’s, has shifted to trail running in the last few years. “Trail runs are my favorite way to run and the longer the better. I have finished several 50K, 50 mile and 100 mile races.”
Like many runners switching from road to trail, Gelmis has learned how to handle the ever-changing environments and trail surfaces encountered on the trails. “I have more scars on my knees that I’ve acquired trail running in the last 5 years than I have collected the rest of my life,” she says. “On a technical trail I don’t really feel like a deer running, at all. Other places, though, you can just open up your gait, let yourself go, and not worry. When I’m in that state of mind I’m having a great time.”
Exploring the trail routes around Huntsville satisfies her day-to-day running routine but races give some meaning to her training. And Gelmis admits to a competitive streak. “I never know how a race is going to go. Sometimes I start thinking I just want to go out and have fun. Then I start passing people and I want to pass even more people. I start to wonder if I could PR. I’m not a competitive runner because I’m not that fast but when I’m racing I always have my eye on the person in front of me and wonder if I can pass them,” she says.
Gelmis has had her fair share of memorable finishes, but she's also had plenty of what she calls 'epic fails.' "At the StumpJump race in Chattanooga a few years ago, I tripped, fell, and smacked my knee on a rock within the first couple of miles. It hurt but I thought I could shake it off. Within a mile I sprained my ankle. Again I thought I could shake that off. The entire 11 miles was a painful combination of ankle, knee, ankle, and knee. It was an epic fail because I didn’t listen to my head and stop,” she says. “I want to finish healthy and happy and if I get a PR that’s great. Shaking off an injury gets harder the older you get.”
Running is an integral part of life for Gelmis, and her family enthusiastically supports that need. “They know when I need to go run. They will say, ‘Mom go run’. They understand,” says Gelmis.
What they presumably understand is that running for Gelmis is more than just a workout; it's a way to reset the batteries, relief the the stress, and engineer a new way of thinking about things... and the workout is pretty good too.