Whoever says it’s too late to start running (or start any sport for that matter), hasn’t met this inspiring woman yet! Meet Shoestring Warrior and school teacher Karen Lozano. Just shy of her 50th birthday she decided to check out a running club in her neighborhood. Not too long after that she ran a marathon and has since become an ultra runner, running as many as 100 miles in a single race!
I could not have dreamed in two lifetimes I’d be running 100-milers starting at age 51! But after I did it the first time, it made me realize pretty much anyone can do it if you put your mind to it.
When she’s not out running, she’s helping to inspire younger generations in the classroom and through a youth running program she started in her community. Keep reading to learn more about Karen!
Shoestring Warrior: Karen
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First grade teacher
What are your passions outside of work?
Of course, my family comes first, followed by running and doing what I can to make my community a better place to live. I also love to bowl. I’ve bowled on leagues probably at least 30 years, mostly on the same team as my mother. However, I’ve had to take the past two seasons off due to my mother’s failing health. We both miss it greatly.
Tell us about yourself!
I was born and raised in Modesto, earned a degree in Journalism from Fresno State and worked in community newspapers for almost 20 years when I decided to go back to school to become a teacher. I had always wanted to be an elementary school teacher and after helping in my daughter’s kindergarten classroom, I knew it was time. I was very fortunate to land a job before I even had my credential. I’ve been in first grade at the same school ever since. Then when my daughter was in high school, my husband at the time was diagnosed with cancer. I was quite stressed out with the care-giving and began packing on the pounds, so I decided to pursue another bucket list item and signed up to train for a marathon. I joined the ShadowChase Running Club and found my passion.
After running the marathon, a friend said we could run a 50-miler. I didn’t think so but was coerced after she signed me up. I couldn’t let that race entry go to waste, so I called it my “50-for-50,” since I’d be turning 50 later that year. Then another “friend” said we could run 100 miles. Then I decided that I needed new friends. Haha. So we trained for the Rio Del Lago 100-miler. I finished, learned a lot about myself along the way, and kept right on going. Teaching and chasing around 24 6-year-olds is truly the best ultra training one could hope for! Summer and Christmas off is a bonus!
How would you describe your level of camping experience?
My camping experiences are pretty much limited to my childhood. Coming from a very large family of six kids, it was not uncommon to spend family vacations in campgrounds across the US and Canada surrounded by cousins by the dozen. Back then I remember my parents and aunts and uncles burying a pig on hot coals in the ground, then digging it up the next day for dinner — stuff we wouldn’t dream of doing today! I remember close encounters with raccoons, bears, snakes, and — ick icky ick ick — giant banana slugs!
My most recent camping experience, however, was last June while volunteering at the Painted Rocks aid station at the Western States 100 Mile Endurance Run. We work through the night helping ultra runners by filling their water bottles, preparing food for them to eat, and providing encouragement to keep them going throughout the night. We arrived early in the day, pitched a tent, then tried to catch a nap at some point so one of us could drive home the next day. There’s no running water so it counts as camping, right?
At age 47 you ran your first marathon and have since become an ultra runner tackling 100 mile races. What do you enjoy most about running?
At first, it was the running community that hooked me. I joined the ShadowChase Running Club which had a group training for the San Francisco Marathon. I met the most sincere, dedicated people in that club. I loved running those first long runs with others, sharing our misery and excitement at our accomplishments. But that was almost 12 years ago.
Now I log most of those miles by myself — usually out of necessity — but I do love my alone running time. It gives me time to think or not think, to plan or to unwind my brain, to listen to podcasts about running, or to listen to the silence around me. It’s everything and nothing. Basically it’s my sanity. I also enjoy the challenges that running puts before you. There’s always choices to be made, whether it be challenging yourself to get faster to qualify for the Boston Marathon, or to challenge yourself to go higher or farther.
Funniest experience/mishap out on the trail?
Like Vegas, the cardinal rule of trail running is “What happens on the trail, stays on the trail.” Probably a good thing for me and my buddy Jeff Rowe. But I can tell you once, not even a mile into a 50K, I fell face first into a giant mud pit while everyone else was tiptoeing around me. Yeah, I was that girl. And I had to be “that girl” for the next 30 miles.
What is your most memorable race and why has it left such an impact on you?
It has to be my attempt at the Western States 100 Mile Endurance Run in 2013. Western States is an iconic ultra race, considered the granddaddy of them all, and it’s very hard to get an entry. There’s a lottery that thousands enter, but only about 250 names get drawn. That year I got in through our running club. Since we run an aid station, we get one highly coveted entry. I trained super hard, traveling many pre-dawn Saturday mornings to the WS trails to run. However, a few weeks before the event my baby sister became ill and passed away. It was a tough, emotional time for me, and very busy for all the wrong reasons. We buried her, had a reception at my house, and then left the next morning for the race. I was pretty much an emotional wreck operating on very little sleep. I was sooo close to quitting, but no one would let me. That’s the funny thing about ultras, you train and train for these impossible distances, and then you want to quit but no one else is ready to let you.
About halfway through the race knowing I had a giant climb in front of me, I started throwing up. It was in the 100s temperature wise and I couldn’t hold anything in. But I had to pull myself together because no one else was listening to my pity party. So I finally started walking. I climbed that mountain, met my crew, and started running again. I often think back to how miserable I was, but I didn’t want to disappoint anyone so I just kept going. It gives me strength knowing that I didn’t throw in the towel.
I eventually made it to just short of our aid station at mile 93 where I timed out. I was picked up by the sweeps and had to ride a horse into our aid station! Those who know me know that I do NOT enjoy riding horseback, so you know I was pretty bad off. So that’s pretty much been my defining moment. The year they cut my band off at Western States.
I’ve been trying to get back in to finish that beast for the past six years. Each year I have to do another qualifying 100-miler to put my name back into the lottery. Then each December, my husband and I join other WS hopefuls in Auburn willing our names to be called. I’m still waiting. But I really do feel like next year is my year. I’ll be 60. What better time to realize a dream?!
Although running is thought of as an individual sport, it really takes a team of people to get an ultra runner to the finish line. Can you share with the Shoestring Adventures community who those key players are?
My husband Jeff is my biggest fan and supporter. He almost always crews me and is always researching things for me and giving me guidance. He’s a certified USATF coach, always selflessly helping others. He buys me all kinds of “toys” to not only help with training and recovery, but also to keep me safe. He’s bought me a tracker to be worn in the mountains in case I get lost and a water purifier after my friend and I ran out of water on a very hot training run in the mountains. NOT fun. There’s my friend Vickie Chu-Hermis, who travels with me to many of my ultra adventures and selflessly crews and paces me when needed. And there are countless others in the ShadowChase and Dusty Bottoms running communities who come out to crew and pace and provide encouragement. Insert many hearts and kissing face emojis here. 🙂
You are a founding member of Teens Run Modesto, a program for teens in the community you grew up in. What inspired you to start the program?
Modesto can be a tough place to grow up. It’s been called Methdesto for obvious reasons, and is one of the leading places in the country to have your car stolen. One of our local judges — who happens to be an ultra runner — and a high school student wanted to start some kind of program to help our teens learn the benefits of running. They brought their idea to the ShadowChase Running Club, and a group of us decided we’d try to give it a go, based on the Students Run LA model. And since we were worried about transporting and being responsible for a very large group of teens, we decided to start the Modesto Marathon as well, and have that be their final destination. It’s become quite successful, with teens benefiting from a structured training program, learning dedication, discipline and perseverance. We provide everything they need, from shoes to hydration gear, and even college scholarships to many who had previously never considered college as an option. We have more than 400 students in the program this year! Mike Araiza and Heidi Ryan are among the founding group who dedicate their lives to making this program successful. Plus there are countless others who give so much each year to help train and guide the students throughout the year.
What is your favorite movie about running and why?
Oh my goodness, that is one tough question, especially since I’ve been putting on our Wine & Movie Night for the past nine years. We’ve shown some pretty awesome running films. I’m inserting a shameless plug for Wine & Movie Night here in case this article comes out before Jan. 20. We’ll be showing Skid Row Marathon, a new documentary about an LA judge who founded a running club on Skid Row. It looks so inspirational — check out the movie trailer. We serve food and wine, and have a silent auction and drawings. It’s a fun and inspirational night, and a fund-raiser for the TRM program. Click here for tickets and more information . The movie’s director and producer will have a Q&A after the film too. But I’d have to say my all-time favorite is not one that we’ve shown yet, Unbreakable: The Western States 100. It follows four top ultra marathoners through the race in their quest for victory. It’s inspiring, and exciting, and beautiful, and of course, very personal. The filmmaker is an ultra runner himself, and he did such an amazing job. Oh, I think it’s time to pull it out again!
What advice do you have for people interested in starting a new sport but hesitant to make the first move?
Stop wasting your life! Get out there and start living, no matter what the sport. Don’t let fear guide you! I didn’t know a soul, but decided I needed to get out into the land of the living, to stop being a stressed out middle-ager packing on the pounds and wishing I would have crossed “marathon” off my bucket list. Just pick something and do it. You never know where it will lead you! I could not have dreamed in two lifetimes I’d be running 100-milers starting at age 51! But after I did it the first time, it made me realize pretty much anyone can do it if you put your mind to it. I’m not built any differently than the next person. I just made up my mind to do something and I did it. I had a LOT of encouragement along the way, but I trained hard, put in the work, and trusted my training. Then it just became a matter of what would win, my head or my heart. Trust your heart and find your passion.
Where’s your next race/adventure?
I will be running in Huntsville, Texas in the Rocky Raccoon 100 miler in early February. I’ve done this one before — full of nasty roots waiting to trip you most of the way — and I swore I’d never do it again. After being very warm all day and night, the skies opened up and poured the final 20 miles and it turned freezing cold. AND I thought I might have given myself a giant blood clot, but it all turned out good and I finished. I need a WS qualifier and I don’t want to wait too long to get it done … just in case. Plus they’ve changed the course due to Hurricane Harvey so it will be interesting at least.
The perfect s’more?
I’ve never had a real s’more — pathetic, I know — I’m not a fan of chocolate. But I do love a good melted, lightly burnt marshmallow! Sometimes simple is best!
Photos © 2017 Karen Lozano