For her 50th birthday, NYX athlete, Kathi Cover, endured 50 miles back and forth across the Grand Canyon. Coach Laura interviewed Kathi about her journey.
L: What did 2020 look like for you leading up to the decision to do this?
K: This has been a year of profound change for me. I moved out to California at the end of 2019 from Maryland. I had been in Maryland since 2002, where I had a small farm that I lived on for 15 years, and a triathlon community that had been built out over more than a decade. And then a lot of things changed and I decided that it was time for some new opportunities so I moved across the country. I connected with Coach Julie right away and started to rebuild a new life with plans on the horizon. Then COVID hit and everything came to a screeching halt.
I had plans to do Ironman Arizona and Oceanside 70.3, I had joined the tri club with the intentions to meet a bunch of new people, and that all went off the rails. The company that I had moved out here for took a big hit from COVID and had to close down, so I had no job, after a few months of misery at the job. There was just a lot of uncertainty.
But at some point through this process, you start to adapt and come up with different strategies and a lot of that came through NYX and with Julie, thinking we don’t need a race. We can come up with some other stuff. And that led to thinking about what’s new out here on the West Coast that I can try to explore. I started looking at National Parks, which led to thinking specifically about the Grand Canyon.
L: What was the timeline between when you decided to do Rim-to-Rim-to-Rim and when you actually went and did it?
K: It was about 10 days. Rim-to-Rim (just one way) had been on my bucket list for a while but it’s really hard to plan and there are so many logistics around it. So it never bubbled up really high on my bucket list, but it’s always been there.
I knew that I had a week off at the end of August that was going to coincide with my birthday and I started looking at hiking around the Grand Canyon, so I could spend some time visiting my parents in Vegas. I learned that the shuttle doesn’t run anymore so if you’re going from one rim-to-rim, you have to go back. Everything started to to fall into place. And then my next step was to run it by Coach Julie.
L: Actually that was going to be my next question: tell me how Coach Julie responded when you brought this up to her.
K: She did not respond with a no. She responded with some questions: What are you thinking? How is this going to work? Etc. But there was never a time where ‘no’ was anything I could see coming out of her- it was always ‘there’s a way.’ And plus, I think she really likes crazy ideas. So I feel like this one really resonated because I think it’s pretty crazy.
L: When you were selling this idea to Julie, what did you tell her were your reasons for why you wanted to do it?
K: This was coinciding with my 50th birthday, which is a landmark birthday and it’s one that I’ve been struggling with because I feel like now I’m officially old. And it was also part of several months of big life transition for me, which have been hard and frustrating. I feel like I’ve been trying to find my path forward through all of it. Something about this kind of a challenge felt like a crucible for me – to just go all in – chew it up, burn it up, and be ready to embrace 50, to embrace California, and just be all in.
L: Is there something that you needed to prove to yourself through the process of turning 50 in order to be ok with it?
K: I don’t have a lot of years left to be something different or to achieve career goals or epic fitness goals. There just aren’t that many years left. I know people in their 70’s still do amazing things but the odds are not in their favor. And when I started thinking in those terms, I felt like I shouldn’t be waiting around any longer for a perfect moment to present itself or for the circumstances to be just right. I just need to do it. So 50 is about time and making sure that I do the most that I can with what I have left.
L: I know that you did a lot of research regarding the logistics of the event, but did you do any mental preparation, like mantras for example, that may have helped get you through some of the tough points?
K: I didn’t necessarily have mantras, but what I have found, having gone through the Ironman process and now this process, is that everything comes into sharp focus. All the chatter of life starts to go away. Like what’s going on with work or lack of work? What’s going on with my family? What’s going on with politics? All the noise of life starts to disappear and my brain becomes very quiet. It’s very focused on what I’m doing, what’s about to happen, and what I need to get done. And I find that to be so peaceful.
L: I completely resonate with what you’re saying about sharp focus but sometimes that sharp focus is on “wow, my body really hurts!” Were there any low points?
K: The climb out of Bright Angel (about 20 miles in) was happening in the wee hours of the night. I probably had not managed my nutrition and/or my salt as diligently as I should have and so I was just bonky and tired and my feet hurt. So I was resting a lot. But at the same time, I would turn off my head lamp and lay down on the trail and look up at the sky. I could see the milky way and all the stars. And I thought, “I feel like shit but I don’t care because this is what I’m looking at. It’s just me and the universe out here.”
L: What is it about being out there in the darkness? Did it make you feel more connected?
K: There was definitely a heightened awareness. It’s a skin-tingling awareness of everything. Your eyes can only do so much, I had a headlamp that can only do so much. So there’s only so much you can see but there’s so much to hear – like the water and trying to get a gauge for how far is it down, hearing the changes in the volume of the water, hearing my own breathing and the footfalls. It created almost music as I’m moving through this space that I can’t necessarily see. The sounds of the bugs, the rustle through the overgrowth – you don’t really know if it’s the wind or a bird or a mountain lion. You can feel it on your skin because you’re moving through it and you’re hyper-aware of everything. That feeling made me feel super alive. More alive and more connected to the planet and what I was doing than normal life, where there’s so much noise and distraction. It was very rejuvenating.
L: Was there ever a point where you wanted to quit?
K: Yes. So I made it one way, I was pretty tired, and I turned around to look back at what I just climbed and I thought how the fuck am I going to make it back across that. On the north rim, you can’t see what you’re getting into very well, but at the south rim, you can see it and I thought ‘oh shit.’ My feet hurt, I was really tired and I thought to myself, “that was epic enough.” If I could have gotten a ride back, I probably would have taken it. I called a couple services and I talked to the hotel.
Then I had a friend who had texted me just to check in and she said, “Just shut up. Go get some breakfast, get some sleep, don’t make a decision, wake up and see how you feel.” So I texted Julie and I said I feel like shit, I want a ride back, I’m going to get some sleep and I’ll check in with you later. Well then when I woke up, my phone was lighting up with all these texts from all these people with all the things I needed to hear. And the texts were not “you suck, don’t suck.” They were saying I’m strong, I’ve got the force of the universe behind me, I have all these people who believe in me, I am strong enough to do this. And I wanted to. I thought, “OK, bring it. I don’t care if I’m going back out in the middle of the night full of mountain lions, I don’t care if I’m going to slip off a cliff, I don’t care. I’m going out, I’m going to get it done.”
L: When I’m at the low points in my Ironmans, I always think, “so many people are sending me energy right now, let me just lean on that.” Did you feel that from the team?
K: I did…
L: What did it feel like?
K: It felt like home. And that’s what I’ve been looking for ever since moving out here. I’ve got my tribe, and they’re behind me 100%. It’s hard to say how much that meant.
(L & K cry break)
L: Was there anything in your head from Julie, like anything that she says to you or had said before this that was going through your mind from her?
K: Not words, but just the way she lives her life. I look up to her so much. She’s a huge inspiration to me. She’s such a badass and she’s a magnet for bringing other people into her badassery and wanting to share it. That feeling stuck with me through all of this: I want to be like Julie. She’s going to be proud of me and she thinks this is great.
L: How did you feel at the end? Did you imagine a finish line? What were the last couple steps like?
K: I was thinking about what I was going to eat. I was really hungry!
I felt very very light. There was not the big Ironman finish with the medal and the catchers, but that didn’t matter. I got to the top, I saw my car, and I was thinking about the cold water I had in the cooler, the snacks that I packed, and taking off my damn shoes and how good that was going to feel. But it was every bit the sense of victory. And the lightness that comes with knowing you’ve done it. A lot of joy. Quiet joy. All by myself.
L: What did you learn about yourself through this process?
K: That’s a tough one. I learned that I can be alone, but I’m better when I’m not. I’m really glad I did this thing alone but I don’t want to do it alone again. There’s something about being part of a group that’s super important. I’ve been a loner for a while, and I can do it, but I would rather not.
I’ve learned that it’s ok to be slow. I really embraced my slowness through this event and that’s really the only reason it happened. If I had tried to run this, I wouldn’t have made it because I wasn’t fit enough to run.
L: Do you think another way to say that is not your ‘slowness’ but the importance of going at your own pace?
K: Yeah, that’s a better way to look at it. Doing it on my terms and not somebody else’s.
L: Did you learn anything about your own resilience?
K: Yes. There’s more of it than I thought. And you guys helped me discover that because I was ready to give up. But the very well-timed words of encouragement made all the difference in the world and I doubled the journey and had a better time on the way back. So yes I’m resilient, but I’m more resilient with you guys.
L: I’m just trying to get you to give yourself some credit. But I think you know. I think you know that you had to be strong to do that.
K: Yeah, I do.
L: Any last thoughts?
K: I do want to do it again. I’d like to be able to do it continuously instead of taking a long break in the middle. I’d like to go out and do more hiking and just be out for a few days in nature. It doesn’t have to be swim, bike, run to be epic.
I’ve learned to accept being 50. And not just accept it but it’s not going to defeat me. I’ve got a lot more epic shit to do and I’m going to do it.