Kris Whorton: A Runner's Life

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Kris Whorton is strong in the core and legs, with intelligent, brown eyes. Her face is handsome and when she smiles a dimple on the left side of her mouth appears. Her skin is tanned, and her voice has a grain to it which is rather melodious. She was born in August of 1965 on the western edge of Illinois and the Mississippi River. When she was one, her parents moved the family to Boulder, CO, where she remained for the next 30 years. Their house backed up to Boulder Creek and the Mesa Trail, and she and her brothers spent summers fishing for trout and running and hiking through the canyons. When she was 14, her parents packed the family into a VW van and drove them to Alaska, where they car camped for 3 months. “Our parents had taken us on so many trips that we’d explored much of the west, by the time I was 9,” she says.

Kris stayed in Boulder for college, and a few years after graduating she married her college sweetheart, although her first marriage did not survive. “He was an amazing person, he really was. But he was gone all the time. Not far into our marriage, we were spending so little time together, that I felt I barely knew the person I’d married.” During this period in her life, Kris began spending more and more time trail running as a means of meditation. “I don’t know,” she sighs, “running wasn’t necessarily an escape, because I was completely present. It was a means to self-discovery. Running a trail was like following a path to clarity.” In the winter of ‘92, she drove to Utah to run a marathon through the snow-covered canyon lands around Moab. “It was in the lonely expanses of red rock and white ice, that I realized I would eventually leave him,” she says.

Several years later, she married Randy Whorton, her husband of now 18 years. He, too, was a runner, and in the mid-90’s, during the early years of their courtship, they began exploring longer distances together. Their first ultra was the Quad Dipsea, and in ’96 they moved into a house together in Erie, CO. Eerie is located on the plains, and for the first time, Kris lived beyond the shadow of the mountains. The landscape consisted of hundreds of miles of dirt roads and irrigation canal paths, and she and Randy became adventurers together, often setting out on all-day runs in the prairies just east of the Front Range.

As the urban sprawl of Denver changed the landscape around Eerie, Lafayette, and Louisville, Kris and Randy began considering possible moves. They were looking at New England and China, but a headhunter connected Randy to an opportunity in Huntsville, AL. “One day, Randy walked in and asked me what I thought about Huntsville. I told him I didn’t think anything about Huntsville, but that I loved Faulkner and Barry Hannah, and so what’s the harm in checking it out. I had this idealized view of the south as this bastion of literature and culture, but I had no concept of what the running would be like.”

On their first official visit to Huntsville, Kris called up Dink Taylor, the race director of the Mountain Mist 50K. He invited the visiting couple to a group training run. It was mid-December and 40 degrees, and although Monte Sano State Park was shrouded in dense fog, over 20 runners showed up. For Kris and Randy, the running community of Huntsville provided the welcome they needed to make the previously unconsidered move to the southeast. “In Boulder, you saw all of these runners. They were gods, and when you saw them running like horses up into the canyons, you knew their names and recognized their strides, but you didn’t expect you’d ever grab a beer with them. In Huntsville, the trail runners and the roadrunners mixed and intermingled. It was just remarkably friendly, and we met these southern runners, these amazing southern runners who could go for days in the dense humid forests of southern Appalachia.”

In Huntsville, Kris went back to school, earned her Masters in English Literature, and started teaching at the university, before she and Randy were invited by a businessman to Chattanooga to co-found an early-stage e-commerce company. Chattanooga wasn’t far from Huntsville, and they moved the 100 miles northeast in 2002. She and Randy worked for the company for three years. The work was stressful, and they were lucky if they could run 20 miles in a week. In 2005, they both left the company. Kris was hired at UTC as a professor, and Randy found environmental work. “We’d both spent more than ten years in technology, and now we were both out, and we celebrated it with running.”

Not just any running, as it turned out. In 2008, they celebrated by running four 100-mile trail races together in a single year. After a 100-miler they both loved in Vermont, it was at the second of these four, San Francisco’s Headlands 100, that Kris lost her own resolve. At mile 55, Kris was the leading woman, but she was in mental anguish, and with a 100-miler already under her belt that season, her mental armor cracked. Having passed 75 miles, Kris was driving hard, but she simply wasn’t mentally together. Many long-distance runners describe reaching the physical limit as ‘bonking.’ Kris describes this moment as a mental bonk. “I told Randy I wanted to stop, and even though he was hurting, he told me we could make it, that I could win it. But I was done. I started hammering. I was punishing him, and within 5 miles, he had fallen off, and surrendered. We stepped off the trail and hitchhiked our way back.”

Kris tears up as she relays this story, and I ask why the story is so painful to recount. “It was just mental. I basically tried to run him into the ground so he’d quit. I manipulated him and I stole from us both. I regret that, ya know. We could have done it, but I didn’t want to, and I was really unkind about it. He doesn’t remember it that way, but that’s how I remember it.”

What remains a painful memory for Kris, may have been a blessing, for the mileage they avoided at Headlands may have enabled them to finish a brutal, 31-hour Superior 100 a month later. The race is known as one of the most beautiful in the country. The trail passes through the dense forests of Northern Minnesota and along limestone bluffs that line Lake Superior. The terrain, like the trails of the southeast, is technical. For 100 miles, runners are rarely afforded opportunity for easy, loping strides, and instead must concentrate on the perfect landing to avoid stumbling on the rocks and crashing face first into hard, jagged trail.

During the night, they encountered a 9-mile section that took 4.5 hours. “It felt like we were never going to see daylight, that we’d never finish. I wanted to stop again, and so did Randy.” Finally, the sun rose, and the dawn afforded them the energy of hope. They were at mile 85 when Kris began driving them harder. They came to a section that was for the first time runnable. Kris’ gait opened, and she began pushing the pace. “I could feel Randy slipping away,” she says. “And so I stopped, and I turned around and waited for him. He came up to me, and I could see the lights fading. He was barely hanging on. And then I told him that we needed to cry. I dunno, I just thought we needed to cry. And so in the middle of the trail, we hugged each other and cried. It was the most cathartic moment.”

A few minutes later, they looked at each other, as if to say 'okay,' and then started running again. “We thought it would never end. But, ya know, we just pulled together, and it did. Randy is my favorite person to run with. We get each other.”

Today Kris teaches English at the University of Tennessee in Chattanooga, and like the home of her childhood, the house she has built with her husband is nestled in the dense, deciduous forest of the Chickamauga National Military Park that backs up to the base of Lookout Mountain. From their side door is a network of over 50 miles of connecting trail, many miles of which have been protected and expanded through the work of Wild Trails , a non-profit formed by Kris, Randy, Rock/Creek , and other Chattanoogans dedicated to improving access to the city’s significant outdoor recreational opportunities.

She spends her time writing, trail running with her Australian shepherds, and as of recently, Stand Up Paddleboarding. When I ask how beginners can get into trail running she laughs and says, “Go on a hike, and when you’re hiking, ask yourself why you’re not running.”

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