Imagine a world of near constant forward motion, relying on your training and a support team to continually push yourself for 10 to even 30 consecutive hours. It’s a world where you take what the course gives you; uneven and rocky terrain or flat groomed trails, rutted jeep roads turning to short stretches of smooth asphalt, and possibly steep elevation gains while you fight off dehydration, exhaustion, blisters, cramps, and whatever weather is in the forecast. That’s the world of ultra-marathons, a truly epic battle of mind and body that challenges the will of any athlete over the course of 50 to 100 or more miles. Now imagine running an ultra while already facing a life of tough, daily challenges before ever reaching any starting line. That’s Kristin Gablehouse.
Kristin wasn’t always the full-time ultra runner she is now. In fact, she used to be a veterinarian who just so happened to enjoy running in her free time, completing her first 50k race in 2011, the Dirty Thirty in Colorado.
“I wasn’t prepared for it at all and I suffered through it, but finished,” she admitted. “I never kept any sort of log of my training, but I didn’t run mileage anywhere remotely close to what I run now.”
In August 2015, Kristin’s life took an abrupt turn. It was a beautiful summer day outside of Klagenfurt, Austria, and she was on day six of a two week dream vacation cycling from Vienna to Venice, Italy with her husband, Josh. As they pedaled down a quiet country road she heard the dog’s bark first, the sound coming from the front of a house they were passing by.
“As soon as I heard the dog bark, I knew it wasn’t friendly.”
The dog ran out from the front yard and straight for her bike, directly into the front wheel and instantly sent Kristin to the ground, her head smashing into the pavement without any chance for her to react. As soon as she hit the ground, everything went dark but she remembers “trying to crawl off of the road and away from that dog.” Josh and a doctor, who was part of the riding group that day, took care of her before the paramedics showed to begin tending to what seemed like not too bad of an accident. There was no blood, no breaks, and she never lost consciousness. The whole time Kristin insisted that she continue the day’s ride but was instead lifted into the back of the ambulance and sent to the hospital for evaluation.
“I was in and out of the hospital quickly with apparently no serious injuries. Josh wasn’t happy that I wanted to get back on the bike the next day but I kept telling him I was fine. I didn’t feel fine, but I wanted to finish the ride.”
The next few days were a blur. She felt tired on the bike, switchbacks and turning her head made her dizzy, dinner conversations made her skin crawl, she was highly sensitive to light, and she suffered bad cases of vertigo on a few occasions. Unbeknownst to Kristin, she had sustained a traumatic brain injury (TBI) in the accident, an injury that left her with a list of symptoms she’s been dealing with ever since.
“I’m not sure that there is a symptom that is more frustrating than another. Mostly it is the combination of all of them together, the mental fog, the slow processing, the sensitivity to light and sound. The vertigo is by far the most terrifying. The sense of panic that floods over you when suddenly the whole world is spinning is something I can’t begin to explain.”
Like most people who suffer from TBI, Kristin soon found out that she’d require long-term rehabilitation and unsure if a full recovery is in the cards because there was no actual timetable. At one point her doctors thought she’d be better within a couple of weeks. That turned into a couple of months, and at six months they simply stopped trying to predict when she might get better telling her she may not ever fully recover instead. It was a crushing blow to someone who just wanted to return to her normal life, one that included plans for intense training and competing in numerous 2016 races, including her first 100 miler.
When Kristin found running to help with not just her balance and regaining quicker response times, but also therapeutic when it came to depression, a common side effect of TBI, she knew those plans would become reality and she’d see them through.
“There was never a time when I thought I wouldn’t stick with that plan. My doctors mostly laughed and thought I was crazy, but they didn’t see any reason why running was a problem if it was making me feel better. They mostly wanted to make sure I stayed honest with myself about how I was feeling. But running is one of the few times my brain feels really clear. I’m just me, running through the woods, and I’m happy.”
And although there were good days and bad days, 2016 turned out to be a pretty good year for her.
In May 2016, she ran the Sage Burner 25k, completing it, but still facing challenges not in distance or elevation, but tire track patterns in the dirt, cattle guards crossings, people talking behind her, and a lady with a neon orange jacket flapping in the wind, all aspects of the race that didn’t affect other competitors. She finished the North Fork 50k in June “with a smile” after battling severe dizziness and thoughts of quitting, Josh being with her the entire way. Six weeks later she hit her first setback at the Sheep Mountain 50 and got pulled from the course, the terrain far more technical than her brain was ready for at that point in recovery. September saw Kristin finish the Run Rabbit Run, her first 100 miler and with little to no TBI symptoms the entire race. And then she closed out the year in December with the McDowell Frenzy 50k in Arizona, finishing sixth in the women’s division, her first ever top 10 finish.
“Nothing can compare to that feeling of crossing the finish line of my first 100 miler, though. I started crying as soon as I saw the finish line. The best part about that was seeing all my friends there crying with me. It was a huge team effort to get there.”
The fact that TBI still affects Kristin everyday but doesn’t necessarily let it define her will be her key to moving forward, still unable to work, but with more confidence and focus in order to meet both her recovery and race goals.
“I would love to say my goal is “get better”, but I don’t know if that will happen. I might be as “better” as I’m going to get. I’m not giving up hope, but I’m trying to be realistic with my expectations.”
As for competing, Kristin lets on that “There won’t be any 100 milers this year, but I am registered for Moab’s Behind the Rocks 50k, Spokane’s River Run 50k, the Collegiate Peaks 50 miler, and the North Fork 50 miler in June. After that, both Josh and I will take some time off in order to play around in the backcountry for fun. I couldn’t have done any of this without his support so it’ll be nice to just spend some time together.”
The break from training and a busy race schedule will be well-deserved not just for Kristin, but for a couple who had their lives turned upside down; a reality they face together through good and bad, hoping life will return to normal or simply to find peace within their new normal.
To follow Kristin’s story, visit her blog, TBI to 100 Miles.