FEATURE: Run, Meredith, Run

By on June 21, 2017

From the Himalayas to the Tetons, one woman’s peaking path to glory.

JACKSON HOLE, WY – It’s 10:15 p.m. and the sun has set on the Tetons. Loose rocks crunch beneath Meredith Edwards’ running shoes. Armed with bear spray, her reflective jacket glows in the dark and her dreadlocks dance in the wind. While her co-workers at C-V Ranch in Wilson commuted to work by car, she commuted by foot, twice, logging 20 miles in the same day she worked a 10-hour shift. Some consider this sheer insanity, but for Edwards, it is just the norm.

A world-class ultra-runner and ski mountaineer, she laughs, “You have to maximize your day.” Guzzling her fourth glass of water, Edwards strips off her heart rate monitor and wireless headphones and logs her mileage and time. “Running helps me handle crisis management situations at work more effectively.” For nine years, she has worked at the residential treatment facility with disabled and emo­tion­ally dis­turbed youth from across Wyoming.

Life wasn’t always like this. Growing up in northeastern Pennsylvania, she suffered from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), like many of the people she works with today. Edwards was constantly worried as a child. By fourth grade, her angst gave her an ulcer.

Running was her release. To escape, she began running on her family’s 30-acre property. “I became enthralled with the rhythmic beat of my feet hitting the ground,” she said. “I ran away from the pressures of life, the thoughts in my head, sometimes from myself. People thought I had ADHD, but really it was anxiety.”

Edwards started skiing at the age of two and alpine racing at seven. In high school, her father was her ski coach, and she raced in the alpine circuit until 18. Always too skinny and too light, she struggled to fit in to the racing circuit. But her tenacity was unmistakable. It would lead her to become an internationally sponsored skyrunner.

Skyrunning, Edwards explained, is an extreme sport that combines mountaineering and running. The vertical gain normally exceeds 6,500 feet, and involves forging routes across meadows and over rock faces. It is defined by altitude and technicality. In 1992, skyrunning became an alpine sport when Italian athlete Marino Giacometti organized the first competition from Courmayeur, Italy, to the summit of Mont Blanc, at 15,780 feet.

Two years ago, Edwards started running through the night in preparation for the world’s most extreme mountain marathon in Europe this September. The Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc (UTMB) is a 106-mile race that begins and ends in Chamonix, and spans France, Italy and Switzerland. For Edwards, running and mountaineering have been a process, one that has included failure, redemption and healing.

The mountains are calling

Sponsored by La Sportiva, Camelbak, Bolle, and others, Edwards has raced across Europe, the Philippines, and China. But often, “it isn’t about the racing,” she said. “It’s about the delicate balancing act of breathing, endurance and conditioning.”

Edwards, 32, runs 75 miles at a time, summits and descends the Grand Teton in under six hours, and deadlifts 177 pounds. “Running gives me the self-confidence that I lacked growing up. It empowers me,” she said. “I started running because it was the only thing that made me feel safe and free.”

In college, the once meek endurance athlete took comfort in running cross-country while she studied exercise physiology at the University of Louisville. Still haunted by anxiety and worry, she crocheted and ran to calm her mind. “Running gave me a sense of equilibrium in my life,” she said. “There is something rhythmic about repetitive motion.”

Shortly after graduation, Edwards was called to the mountains. It was “the whole package” that attracted her to Jackson Hole, where she fast became one of the top endurance athletes in the game, finding her niche in the high alpine athletic circuit.

Her quick wit and determination got the attention of some of the top performing mountaineers in the Tetons, including Jacob Urban, Dave Wade, and her best adventure buddy, the iconic “Wild Bill” Bowen, who skied the technical S&S Couloir at the ripe age of 65. “Bill reminds me of the Mad Hatter,” Edwards said. “We’re very lucky that we have each other in this lifetime. It’s fun to embrace the ridiculous.”

Bowen, who splits his time between Alaska and Jackson, makes his home at Edwards’ place during the winter season. Like the Mad Hatter in Edwards’ favorite childhood tale, Alice in Wonderland, which lives in her imagination, Bowen lives in her oversized closet. “I admired the Mad Hatter for embracing his inner craziness,” she said. “Once I embraced mine, no one could offend me anymore.”

Still, she has struggles with people’s opinions of her. “People think I am insane for running so much,” she said. “But I think it is wonderful. Running works for me.” The tireless athlete enjoys coming home to see her version of the Mad Hatter, her roommate Bowen, and her eight-pound chihuahua/pug mix, Moe, which she found on the side of the road in Alabama.

Edwards scooped up the tiny canine and ran the last six miles home with her in hand. “It was the only time I believed in love at first sight,” she said.

Moe lived out of a shoebox for her first months. Not expected to survive, she is now 11 years old, and accompanies Edwards on her high intensity track workouts, to the gym, and on her threshold repeats up Snow King and Josie’s Ridge all before noon. On Edwards’ bigger vert days, where she shoots for 8,000 feet, including five times up the Glory bootpack during the winter, Moe runs alongside her for the final upward lap, and Edwards skis down with the chug in her jacket.

Then at noon, Edwards attends work meetings, sipping tea to rehydrate, simultaneously eating her daily allotment of avocado toast and soup. Fond of French baguettes from Persephone, the 103-pound ultra-runner consumes nearly double the average person’s intake per day.

When she was fresh to the Jackson endurance scene, Edwards bagged the Grand Teton without ropes on her first attempt alongside Wade, of Jackson Hole Ski Patrol, Jackson Hole Mountain Guides, and Alaska Mountaineering School. “A lot of people initially wrote her off because of her appearance and outlandish sense of humor,” Wade said. “I may have been the first to take her seriously as a high mountain athlete.”

Now a seasoned runner on the Grand, Edwards’ first five times up the peak were with Wade. “When given a chance to perform in a high-risk setting, she nailed it,” Wade said.

But the Grand has not been all glory. On her 25th birthday, Edwards tore all the ligaments in her ankle running down from the peak. The injury left her broken but not defeated. “I lost a lot of confidence,” she said. But her tolerance for pain increased and she pushed on. “I got really good at accepting failure. It’s a part of the process. My struggles have made me who I am. I just didn’t give up.”

Edwards climbed and descended the Grand Teton in just over five hours last August with local mentor Urban, instructor and trainer for the American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education. The two athletes were joking about the unbelievable amount of “vert” in her upcoming UTMB. Urban equated it to a double summit on the Grand. Edwards said, “I don’t think anyone has ever done that in a day.”

Urban replied: “I don’t think anyone has been foolish enough to try it!” And the plan was born to conquer the 13,776-foot peak twice in 24 hours.

Edwards is also a student of skimo, [ski mountaineering racing], and ultra-running are alike. “I like to run skyrunning. Basically races that go up and down peaks, but that’s about the only thing they have in common,” she said. Skimo races are short, only about two hours. Ultras are six to 24 hours. “You need to have a high pain threshold for both, and be stubborn as hell.”

In 2015, Edwards came in 6th overall in the US Skyrunning Series, and claimed the new course record in the Clark-Miyamit Falls 60K in the Philippines. The former Dynafit USA athlete has been on the US National Ski Mountaineering Team for four years, competed in two world championships, and raced in the World Cup. She took third at the 2013 US Nationals for Ski Mountaineering, and came in 25th in the World Championships Vertical Ski Mountaineering in 2015.

Trails of glory and defeat

Edwards always imagined the impossible to be possible. In 2014, she raced on the International Skimo Tour in Europe. “Every race … the younger kids slayed me. The process was hard, but I got used to sucking,” she said.

She was alone in Italy when her heart rate balked and she landed in the hospital. Undeterred that she had no coach and no money, her willpower and determination lunged her forward. “Failure,” she said, “isn’t scary when you do it over and over again.”

Edwards arrived injured to the doorstep of world-class running coach Eric Ortin shortly afterward. In just two years under his guidance, she placed 2nd out of 198 women in the Sur les Traces des Ducs de Savoie. The race spanned 119 kilometers with a 7,200-meter elevation gain. Beginning in Courmayeur, Italy, where skyrunning originated, the course wound along the “Grande Randonnée” paths, crossing through the valleys of Mont-Blanc, Beaufort, Tarentaise and the Aosta.

Guided by the rays of her headlamp in rain, sleet, snow and wind, the interlaced trails were a maze, but the cadence of one foot in front of the other, her mantra, drove her on. Her old ankle injury resurfaced when a French competitor blazed past her on the final downhill. That person won the race by just a few minutes.

During the hottest part of the day in the Alps, in 90-degree temps, Edwards climbed 5,000 feet out of a valley with no trees. The brutal course left her ill. But her performance earned her an automatic bid from the International Trail Ranking Association to the full UTMB, a single stage mountain marathon, with a distance gain of 9,600 meters. Again, failure transformed into opportunity.

“We ran in harsh weather through the night,” Edwards said. “Luckily, I am accustomed to those conditions living and training in the Tetons.” She aims to complete her first full UTMB in 26 hours, alongside an estimated 2,300 competitors.

Edwards calls her current training program “the road to UTMB,” the biggest ultra in the world. The race spans 170 kilometers with 10,000 meters of height gain. “Three countries come together to put on a race. To run in an environment like that is really special,” she said. “It’s like the Tour de France or the Super Bowl. It’s the pinnacle of mountain running.”

The course will test her mental and physical stamina, especially the downhill stretches, up to 4,000 feet at a time. To prep, she is working with strength trainer Chris Butler on strengthening the anterior and posterior compartments of her lower legs with exercises like deceleration lunges. For three years, Butler has worked alongside running coach Ortin. They train her in conjugated concurrent training, derived from the old Soviet sport science of power lifting. The back-to-back trainings are teaching her body to run on fatigued legs.

This season her training involves regular “tram repeats.” She runs 4,139 vertical feet at Jackson Hole Mountain Resort, and rides the tram down, multiple times per day. “This is the strongest I have ever been, strength-to-weight ratio,” she said.

The full UTMB includes 33,000 feet of climbing. The last 100K, or 60 miles, have five 4,000-foot climbs. “I just have to keep moving,” Edwards said, echoing the Mad Hatter.

Two continents in 30 days

In April, Edwards summited and skied the 18,491-foot Pico de Orizaba volcano in Puebla, Mexico, the third-highest peak in North America. With Wade by her side, she integrated the high-altitude techniques he taught her: In the “rest step” position, she put most of her weight on her heel and skeletal system to relieve her muscles. Employing “pressure breathing,” or “pursed lip breathing,” she expelled as much carbon dioxide as possible on the exhale, enabling her body to instinctively inhale more oxygenated air.

“I have a goal to ski Denali, and push mountaineering to higher altitudes,” she said after Orizaba, a place she returned from with food poisoning and altitude sickness. “To live so passionately is hard, because you are always teetering between success and failure, so you really have to accept both.”

Less than two weeks after returning from Mexico, the Chinese government invited her to be one of 12 in the world to race the FKT Yuzhu Peak on the Tibetan Plateau. China’s largest trail community, XTrail, sponsored the 12K race. They were equipped with crampons and an ice axe, and fixed ropes for part of the course. “They wanted to understand why we run,” Edwards said.

Reaching an altitude of 18,700 feet, Edwards was denied the true summit due to driving wind, but still placed 4th. “I had just done my first 5,000-meter peak, so I went for my first 6,000-meter peak.” However, she wasn’t completely charmed. “If I had to pick a purgatory,” she said, “the Tibetan plateau would be it. It is desolate and colorless. It’s a high-altitude highway of convoys.”

For Edwards, the mountains were not the only challenge during her trip. In Chinese airports, people took photos of her without permission, and reached out to pet her dreadlocks. After the race director physically picked her up several times, she decided to do the same to him. When he said, “Men up here, women down here,” she revealed her athletic dexterity, and lifted him high in the air saying, “I’ll do what I please.”

The day she departed it rained in Beijing, a rare occurrence. The highway quickly transformed into gridlock. Edwards and her teammates jumped out of the taxi, and ran down the highway with their bags, still missing their flight. With the extra time, she purchased a Chinese tea set in the airport, which she would soon use in Jackson Hole to celebrate with her beloved chug, Mad Hatter tea party style.

Striking a balance

Edwards’ mountaineering approach to life extends to the troubled teens she works with and the crisis situations she regularly manages. “It’s like being in the mountains, where things don’t go as planned,” she said. “Your only option is to solve the problem. It forces you to be creative and not overreact. You have to remember that hard times will pass. Everything ebbs and flows.”

She admits that balancing her work and training schedule is a challenge. “You could say I don’t do easy,” she said, laughing. “Life can knock you around and kick you down, but there is no other option than to keep going.” When you really want something, you make it work. Like the Mad Hatter said, ‘Sometimes, the hardest thing and the right thing are the same.’”

When she isn’t racing or training, Edwards skis in bikinis and dances on trail runs. “She has a lot of character,” Bowen said. “With all the pressure she is under, she does a great job keeping it light.”

In July, Jaybird Freedom Earbuds will release a series that explores why endurance athletes run that includes Edwards skyrunning. The release of the Yuzhu Peak documentary by One Eye Open Productions, a Seattle-based film production company, is slated for the fall on ESPN.

“I think a lot of people are fearful of living their life to the fullest because you are putting so much on the line every day,” Edwards said. “When you are not afraid to fail, everything becomes limitless.” PJH

About Jessica L. Flammang

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