On February 15, 2009, a dozen runners toed the starting line of the Yukon Arctic Ultra, a 430-miler across frozen tundra in the dead of winter. With 30-below temperatures and seven-hour windows of daylight, it’s said to be the toughest race in the world. Not a single woman had ever completed it. But, then, there is no woman like Diane Van Deren.
Twelve years ago Van Deren, a former pro tennis player, had a kiwi-size chunk of her brain removed to treat epileptic seizures. The lobectomy was successful, but since then she has noticed a strange side effect: She can run without pause for hours.
“When I’m out on the trail, all I have to think about is my body,” she says. “That simplicity, compared to the real world, is like medication after a brain injury.” Over the past decade, that therapy has propelled Van Deren, now 49, into the uppermost echelons of ultra running.
At the start of the Arctic Ultra, icy winds froze Van Deren’s water supplies, forcing her to run the first hundred miles without anything to drink. She kept going by sucking on frozen blocks of gorp. On the 11th day, the ice beneath her feet fissured, and Van Deren plunged up to her shoulders into a freezing river. She managed to climb out but struggled to continue. Her soaked boots had frozen to her feet.
Yet somehow through it all, Van Deren remained upbeat, perhaps cheered by another curious by-product of her operation. “I have a hard time with short-term memory. I could be out running for two weeks, but if someone told me it was day one of a race,” she jokes, “I’d be like, Great, let’s get started!”
And then, on February 26, 2009—exactly 12 years from the day of her surgery—Van Deren crossed the finish line of the Arctic Ultra. She was one of eight finishers—and the first and only woman.
Originally published in the December 2009/January 2010 edition of National Geographic Adventure