The Mountains-to-Sea Trail begins in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, twisting through forest for 350 miles before flattening out through rural North Carolina and ending, another 650 miles on, at the coast. “I’ll never forget that feeling when I started to hear the sound of ocean waves and knew I was almost there,” says Diane Van Deren, who set a new record running the trail in 22 days, 5 hours, and 3 minutes, for an average of 40 miles per day. “It was the most extreme, most incredible thing I’ve ever done.”
The first portion of the trail through the Smokies is highly technical—ruddy, rocky, and slippery—and in prime black bear country. “It was some of the scariest terrain I’ve ever run on in my professional career,” says Van Deren. “At one point, I don’t think I lifted my head for like six days, I had to be so laser-focused.” The remainder of the trail had its own debilitating challenges, including 175 miles of highway from Raleigh to New Bern. “With wide trucks and a narrow shoulder, you could never just let your mind wander. I had to be mentally on for the entire run,” says Van Deren.
Despite sleeping no more than three hours a night and enduring swollen, blistered feet when she couldn’t keep dry after five straight days of rain, Van Deren claims the mental game is the hardest part of a thousand-mile run. “Really and truly it’s what’s between the ears that gets you through it," says Van Deren. "You can be the most physically fit person in the world, but it’s the mental toughness that ultimately matters.”
Diane Van Deren
Ultrarunner Diane Van Deren takes her sport to the extreme. In 2009, she became the first and only woman to complete the Yukon Arctic Ultra, a 430-mile race across frozen tundra in the dead of winter. In 2012, she ran an average of 40 miles a day for 22 days to set a new record on the nearly thousand-mile Mountains-to-Sea Trail that winds through North Carolina. Read her Adventurers of the Year profile.
Diane Van Deren's Gear Pick: A Watch
“A watch. Any watch. It doesn’t have to be fancy," says the ultrarunner. "Just something that keeps you on track and reminds you when you need to get home. Otherwise, I could be out on the trails all day.” Van Deren wears a purple Timex Ironman.