This is the extended article about Diane Van Deren from our winter issue’s “Beyond” department. It includes stories we didn’t have room to print but do want to share.
By Jennifer C. Olson
This summer, Diane Van Deren set a new record on North Carolina’s 1,000-mile Mountains-to-Sea Trail (MST). She traversed the entire state in 22 days, 5 hours, 3 minutes, surpassing the previous record of 24 days, 3 hours, and 50 minutes. The MST Run was meant to support the work of Friends of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail, the non-profit that builds, protects, and promotes the MST. To date, the campaign has raised more than $32,000.
“But greater than that has been the notoriety and attention that Diane’s expedition brought to the trail,” says expedition leader Chuck Millsaps, of the Great Outdoor Provision Co. in North Carolina. “So many across our state were exposed to it, which was wonderful to honor and thank volunteers who’ve worked on the trail for so long.”
In addition to bringing together athletes and the community, the MST Run proved that Diane is more than just another ultra runner. She’s an extraordinary woman with a big heart and seemingly unlimited physical strength, despite a limiting disability. Years ago, Diane underwent life-giving brain surgery to halt debilitating seizures. She hasn’t seized since, but now her remarkable athleticism is often and wrongly attributed to the supposed advantages of having a brain injury.
While her MST record brought lots of media attention to the trail and its newest champion, some of the news outlets got her story wrong. And it devastated Diane. One headline read “Brain Injury Adds Endurance” for example, which discounts all the hard work, preparation, and team effort that went into Diane’s accomplishment.
“The MST Run was the most challenging thing I’ve ever done—more challenging than the 430-mile Yukon Arctic Ultra across a frozen wilderness,” Diane says. “But, I have to tell you, I look at this headline and it almost kills me. If brain surgery really added endurance, every elite athlete in the most extreme races in the world would want to get it done. All I did was cure my seizures.”
So, Diane shares with Women’s Adventure the real story, tells us how she earned that record on the MST and continues competing in the biggest, baddest races on the planet, all while inspiring and sincerely encouraging us mortals.
“I dug so deep,” Diane explains about her three weeks on the MST. “I was crawling some mornings. Every day I got up and there was blood everywhere.” She’d worn down the padding on one of her feet had blister on top of blister, which she hoped wouldn’t get infected after exposure to mud and gunk.
“It was horrific—what I dealt with. But,” Diane pauses, “it wasn’t the brain surgery. Brain surgery gave me the possession of life.”
Guide runners read maps of the trail and led Diane in the right direction so should could conserve the energy she would have spent navigating. “With my brain injury, mental fatigue does affect me, even after working with the doctor at Craig Hospital for a long time. If I did interviews all day, then had a speaking engagement, then went to the store, I’d be knocked on my butt. I can run 50 miles, but add trying to read maps and get directions from people, and I’d be exhausted.”
It took her years, she said, to understand that if she does that much mental work, she’ll get extremely tired. “Having people out there telling me which way to go helped keep me in the moment,” Diane said, explaining that she signaled to the guide runners when she needed to check out. “I’d say, ‘Hey man, I’m going on a trip.’
Always positive, though, Diane says, “I got the job done! With my disability and the way the trail was written, it would’ve been hard for me solo, especially being so sleep deprived.”
Chuck, who coordinated guide runners, communicated with the public, and served as a liaison with the media, can testify to Diane’s lively spunk. “For example,” Chuck offers, “sometimes, we were surprised to find the media out in the wilderness with us. Other times, we heard about newscasters up ahead, and she’d joke, ‘How does my lip shimmer look?’”
Chuck describes Diane as a delight, a wonderful combination of endurance and grace. “We had so many obstacles thrown at us over that time, and she responded to all of them with class and determination.”
He describes one such obstacle: “We were on our twentieth or twenty-first day and headed up the outer banks, when what had had been Tropical Storm Beryl as it hit land in Florida was bearing down on us. We were so close to finishing, yet this particular day was one of the longest days of the run, plus we had to make three ferries. These ferries only run on certain schedules. We were running into a black sky near Highway 12 and could see the coast. This unmistakable sound of a tornado was just off to our east. She did not recognize that sound, but I’d been in one before. We were tethered together but running along and being blown off the road when she asked me, “What is that sound?” I responded, “Oh it’s probably a boat or an airplane. I didn’t want to get her riled up.” And she said, “That is so bizarre. Can you imagine flying in these conditions?” When we got to the ferry and jumped on it, the ferry driver looked at us like, ‘What in the world are you knuckleheads doing when there’s a tornado nearby?’ And Diane looked at me like, ‘Tornado?’”
Diane’s grateful for and amazed at the support she got from Chuck and Great Outdoor Provisions Co. “Chuck is phenomenal,” Diane said. “I’ve been a professional athlete for 12 years, and you don’t have an expedition where all the logistics come together smoothly, where people say they’ll run with you, where the staff is there 24/7 to shuffle guide runners in and out. Expeditions aren’t like that.”
The crew would pick her up, throw her in the back of a truck, haul her back to the trail early in the morning, and wait for her as she wrestled her feet into shoes, even if it took an hour. Chuck and two other crew members together made decisions with Diane’s best interest at heart and with her record goal in mind. “At one point, someone assigned me the title of expedition leader,” he said, “and it was scary. This was not a Himalayan adventure.”
But, Diane looked out for her crew, too. Chuck says, “She was on the trail for 20 hours a day, running on a couple hours of sleep and yet was checking on us!”
Similarly, Diane supported her guide runners, many of whom ran more miles than they ever had before while leading her on the MST. “The guy who started with me said, ‘I’ve never done 100 miles before, Diane. I’ve done 50 or 60 miles, but I’ve been training and know the trail really well.’ I said, ‘Well, Dennis, I’ll tell you what. I’ll get you 100 miles. You keep me on the trail, and I’ll keep you awake.’”
That week, pouring rain made the root-ridden, rocky trail muddy as well. “I didn’t look up for six days,” Diane said. “Dennis’ foot was hurting really badly. We were taking a break in the truck, and I said, ‘Dennis, are you asleep?’ We couldn’t stay still for very long or we’d get too cold. But he didn’t want to go anywhere so he didn’t answer. ‘I wanted to sleep six hours,’ he told me. That was the flavor. We laughed, we cried.”
On Memorial Day, a soldier ran with Diane. “I met Tom on the trail at four in the morning and thanked him for running with me, and he said, ‘Mrs. Van Deren, I served in Afganistan twice. I’ve never been lost and I’m here to serve and take care of you.’ I cried. I cry now, because he’s like my son. Tom would flag cars for me. I told him he didn’t have to, but he said, ‘I’m here to protect you.’ He’d tell me, ‘Mrs. Van Deren, if you want to put your hand on my shoulder, go ahead.’ Or ‘I can hold your water bottle out here for you.’ He knew I was hurting. We went 30-50 miles then he left. Four days later, Chuck told me someone was meeting me. It was Tom. His other Marine buddy drove him hours to meet me on the trail. Now if that didn’t choke you…”
Tom escorted Diane into town. They ran by a memorial, where American flags were flying. Diane thanked him for being there, and he said, “My wife just had a baby and she told me to come back and be with you.” That’s the sort of magic and the type of emotions Diane experienced on this expedition. Chuck warned her there would be a cemetery. “But nothing prepares you,” Diane said.
Sometimes she’d have just one person, sometimes two or three guide runners. Being in the South, they would answer her with “Yes, ma’am,” and “No ma’am,” which surprised her a bit. “Call me Di,” she said.
One hot day, Diane was running on the road with two college-aged men as her guide runners. “I was getting hot so I turned around and took off my bra then shoved it in one guy’s pack,” she said. “An hour or two later, he asked, ‘Mrs. Van Deren,’ in his southern drawl, ‘would you like your bra back?’ I mean, where do you hear that stuff? It cooled down then got to be the middle of the night on the next day, and the boys got to be a little wobbly. So I thought I’d make a joke. What do you think of when you think of college boys? Farting. They like to fart. So I said, ‘Hey boys, would you like to have a farting contest?’ and I ripped one. That got them going. I told Chuck. There are two things I’m proud of: the run and winning the fart contest. If you’re gonna go for glory, you’ve gotta go big. Finally I told them, after hours, that the joke was over. It had to stop.”
After coming off Pilot Mountain, Diane stayed in a cabin right off the trail. “It’s really small but I hope it’s okay,” Chuck told her. “We threw 20 pounds of ice in the tub, so just lie in there and enjoy it.”
The cabin was tiny. Diane said, “I iced my legs and feet and crawled into bed. Then, the crew knew they could use the bathroom, even though they were sleeping outside. So, at 3 a.m., I heard this noise and one of the crew guys came in. ‘I’m so sorry,’ he said. ‘I had a bad cheeseburger!’ He had diarrhea! And I said, “I’m so glad you’re here! I need Advil. I can’t hold still—I hurt so bad!” He had G.I. issues, and I was like, ‘Oh praise god! Hallelujah.’”
Luckily, Diane herself never ate a bad cheeseburger on-trail though. The expedition crew fed her well. “The back of the truck was like a Whole Foods,” she said. And, when she returned home, the supply of nutritious fare didn’t dwindle. “People kept bringing me food. I said, ‘I didn’t die! It’s not a funeral.’ You know how, when people die, others bring over ham. I heard the doorbell and thought, ‘Oh my god. They think I died!’ It was kind of cool—I hate to cook!”
Last time I spoke to Diane Van Deren, she was just back from a 55-mile race in Chile. “I went down there with some The North Face friends and spoke at a university, too,” she says, raving about the passionate, loving people in Santiago. “The race went well. How could it not? With Aconcagua as a backdrop for it.” She climbed Aconcagua back in 2010 so appreciates that view like few can.
I asked for an update and she joked, “My cooking hasn’t improved but only set off one fire alarm this week, so I’m getting better.”
But, truly, Diane’s future holds many good things. She collaborated with Today show co-anchor Hoda Kotb on a chapter in a book called Ten Years Later: Six People Who Faced Adversity and Transformed Their Lives to be released January 15. “Each person featured is so different,” Diane said. “It’s exciting to inspire others and give hope. I’m a wife, mom, and athlete, so I get to wear many different hats.”
Career-wise, Diane will continue representing The North Face on the speaking series and through racing all over the globe. Rumor has it she may be the keynote speaker at on the most major ultra races in the U.S. “It’s my job, but it’s my passion,” she said.
Still, one wonders what drives her to dig that deep. She goes so much farther and harder than anything most of us have ever attempted.
“I knew I was different at a young age. I was faster than the girls and the boys. I was on the boys’ baseball team. I left to play professional tennis at age 17. Obviously, there is something different. People ask whether I was like this before my surgery. I say, ‘Oh gosh, I think I’ve slowed down!’ But I’m not ready to retire yet, because I still love what I do. I’m still hungry, I’m still having fun. I’m healthy. Everything I’ve portrayed as an athlete since I was 17 is what I had right there with me on the MST.”
Regarding the MST record, she says, “There is no way in hell no man or woman is ever going to beat that record if they do the whole trail. But I can’t say it was because of my brain surgery. It was really hard.”
Chuck agrees. “Had we known what we were getting ourselves into, we would never have signed up. But at the end of it, we just wouldn’t have traded it for anything,” he said.