Diane van Deren is one of the most gifted endurance athletes in the world. She shared her personal story with the Dublin community on Friday morning. It was a spellbinding story of adversity and triumph.
Growing up, Diane was always a gifted athlete. She discovered early on that she was not only better than the local girls at sports but also better than the boys. As a kid she played baseball with her hair hidden under her hat. She excelled at golf and then discovered tennis. She played professionally. But she would often get a strange feeling almost like deja vu. It would pass but something was wrong.
When she was 28 and pregnant, she suffered a grand mal seizure. For the next ten years she would suffer these episodes on an accelerating basis. It restricted her life as she became unable to do many of the things that we take for granted. Even a bath posed a risk of a seizure-caused drowning. Her husband and young children planned life around the possibility of an episode. Ultimately, she was diagnosed with epilepsy. One of her few reliefs was running. But over time even that provided less comfort and protection. Medication lost its effectiveness and the seizures increased in frequency and severity.
When her doctors discovered that the seizures originated from a localized part of her brain—the right temporal lobe—they advised Diane that she would be a candidate for a lobectomy. Her response was “Let’s go.” She wanted to be back to being a mom, a wife, and an athlete and was was willing to take the risk of brain surgery. The surgeons removed a kiwi sized piece of Diane’s brain. While successful, the surgery also came with consequences. Organizational skills, short-term memory, and time management all were significantly impacted by the loss of a portion of her brain. Those pose issues today for her in her long distance running.
She soon discovered that she could run, and run, and run while tolerating pain that slows the rest of us. So Diane applied her athletic ability, her love of the outdoors, and her endurance to a sport she loved: ultra-running. She described in words and pictures several of the races that she has finished.
Diane completed what many consider the world’s hardest 100-mile race, the Hardrock 100 in Colorado. Running for 45 hours straight, she climbed and descended a total of 60,000 feet. That’s more elevation gain and loss than on an ascent and descent of Mt. Everest, from sea level.
She ran the Iditarod race, following in the path of the dog teams. Having beaten that event, she took on the tougher Yukon Artic Ultra. She become the first woman to finish the Yukon Arctic Ultra 430-mile race after winning the 300-mile version outright the year before. She towed a 45-pound supply sled across the ice-covered tundra in -50 degree wind-whipping conditions. Most of the competitors could not finish due to frostbite and the adversity of climatic conditions. Swollen and battered, she could not leave the hotel for days afterwards as she slowly repaired her body.
Her most recent feat was to run the 1000 mile Mountains-to-Sea Trail which runs across North Carolina. Averaging 50 miles a day on one hour sleep per night, she beat the then current record by running in 22 days, 5 hours, and 3 minutes - surpassing the previous record by some two days. She went through 13 pairs of shoes on the run and ran through a week of rain, a hurricane and a nearby tornado. She is confident that, ”that is a record that won’t be beaten by a man or a women ever!”
Responding to a student question, Diane said that after her first 100 mile race that she figured she was done running at that distance. She had accomplished that and saw little need to do another. But she was asked to visit a camp for kids with epilepsy. After giving her talk to the kids about not giving up hope, a little girl named Mandy, who suffered from both epilepsy and cerebral palsy, asked Diane to run her next ultra marathon for her. She pledged that she would keep running Ultra Marathons until “your story is on national TV”. As a result, it has been on GoodMorning America
The final question concerned suffering. She talked about how every life at some point will have some suffering in it. She accepts the suffering as a part of what she does. She pushed the students to consider that how they deal with suffering is an important part of who they are. Afterwards, a long line of inspired students, some with their own challenges, shared a private word with Ms. van Deren.
Diane van Deren is a member of The North Face Never Stop Exploring team and was presented by North Face. We are fortunate that Ryan Hyde’s father Mark is a member of The North Face team and has supported Dublin School on numerous occasions through his corporate affiliation.