Rachel DuBois describes her younger self as “not very athletic and not very outdoorsy.” What’s significant about this description is that since beginning her running career in 2011 DuBois has competed in 34 organized events. Seventeen of those events were ultras – including a 100 miler – and eight others were marathons.
What’s most striking is not the number of miles DuBois has put in. It’s the interconnected way that people have led her to the trail and the trail has led her to the most important people in her life.
In 1997, at the age of 29, a friend talked Dubois into a backpacking trip in Maine. A chance encounter with an unlikely muse would turn her life in a new direction.
“We met a young man that looked like he was a homeless person,” DuBois recalls of meeting the Appalachian Trail thru-hiker. “He was dirty, he had this beard, and his pack looked like it was 50 years old. He had these intense eyes. I asked him how long he had been out there and he said ‘since February’. And this was like, July!” she recalls.
DuBois was so impressed with the idea that one could hop on a trail in Georgia and end up in Maine 5 or 6 months later that she did it herself. She negotiated a 6 month sabbatical with her corporate employer and, along with her Siberian husky mix sidekick, Micah, she completed the entire 2,185-mile trail.
The long distance hike was far outside her comfort zone and it affected her in a way she hadn’t expected. “It planted a seed in me I didn’t know was there,” she says.
It wasn’t just a new found love for the outdoors that resulted from that encounter on the Appalachian Trail. Shortly after completing the AT, DuBois met her would-be husband, also an AT finisher a few years earlier, at a thru-hiker get together in New Hampshire. The medium distance romance began – the pair lived in two different parts of North Carolina - and the couple backpacked another long distance trail as a final trial for their relationship.
Soon came two children, now ages 6 and 13, and long weeks on the trail were replaced by monthly weekend camping trips and a yearly two-week outdoors vacation.
When the kids got a bit older, it was time for DuBois to revisit her goals. “I needed to start moving towards my aspirations,” she says. “I always wanted to run a marathon.” In 2011 she grabbed some shoes, started putting miles in and, in November of that same year, ran her marathon.
A chance encounter brought DuBois back to the trail. While training with a running group she met Linda Banks. Banks was training for a local ultramarathon in Raleigh, the Umstead 100.
“I didn’t even know these events existed,” DuBois says, “and I certainly didn’t know one was happening in my backyard here in Raleigh. I was just fascinated.”
Rachel paced Banks during her 100 mile bid in 2012. Her perception of what was possible was challenged again. “That weekend just rocked my world. It was a phenomenal experience to witness all of the diversity. There was a 15 year old boy and people in their 70’s,” she says. “Some of these participants, I would never in a million years think that they were runners, let alone 100 milers,” She says. “I love being surprised by people. I love that (about trail running). You can’t tell a person by their looks because you know nothing.”
The park has since become her go to training location. “I’m very lucky. Ten minutes from my back door is Umstead Sate Park. It’s a tremendous resource,” says DuBois. Umstead is located along the western edge of Raleigh and offers 22 miles of running – hiking trails. The 5.8 mile long Company Mill Trail is her top pick in the park.
In 2014, DuBois finished that same 100-mile race at Umstead in 20 hours and 21 minutes. It’s the connection between the trail and the people she’s met through the sport that keeps her going. It’s why she prefers small races to the big 15,000 people affairs.
“It’s amazing the intimate exchange you can have with complete strangers,” she says of running ultras. “You can end up running for hours with someone and afterwards you are strangers no longer.”
Rachel works to make sure her priority is still her family. She’ll only run one event a month and, when possible, she’ll make a weekend trip out of it. Overall, she views ultra-running as a great compromise.
“I look at this as taking a long distance backpack trip and cramming all that weekly mileage into one day. I still get my mountain time and miles, it’s just condensed.”
What she gives to her family, her family returns. After being beat up on a particularly grueling 71-mile event called The Ring, Rachel recalls being in a very low place.
“I’ve never had an event like that before,” she says of the event where only 25 of the 50 entrants finished. She was number 24. She had doubts that she belonged in that caliber of race. “This may have cured me of ultra-running,” she remembers thinking. “Then I got home,” she recalls, “and my husband looked at me, smiled, and said ‘you finished in the top half of the participants.’ That totally turned it around for me.”
Now there are times when her kids see her bruises, missing toenails and self-described swollen “kankles” and wonder why mom does these things. But the seed has been planted in them like it had been in Rachel. Her oldest daughter recently wrote an essay about her favorite things and included hiking. Just like that hiker on the AT with the intense eyes, Rachel is showing her kids what can be done.
“I want them to see that even an ordinary, non-athletic mama can run 100 miles.”
It’s all come full circle.