Record holder Katie Spotz is an endurance sport junkie who ran her first marathon at the age of 18. Since then she’s taken on a long list of monumental physical challenges, including swimming the 325-mile Allegheny River in 2008, becoming the youngest person at the time (2010) to row the Atlantic, and the first person to run the length of Maine (137-miles) in 2020. And when she broke her pelvis in a bike crash just a week before a world record attempt at the Race Across America (RAAM) in 2011, she switched up her plan and completed it on a hand bike instead!
Katie, who is 33, does all of her endurance challenges to raise money for charities dedicated to providing clean water solutions to hard-hit areas across the world. Find out more in our Q&A below.
Your achievements include rowing the Atlantic, cycling across America and swimming the 325-mile Allegheny River. Which has been the endurance feat you’ve enjoyed the most and which was the most challenging?
In some ways, the most challenging endurance feat was my first marathon. Yes, it may seem odd since I’ve run much further than a marathon since then, but during my first marathon, I was battling fears and insecurities about whether or not it was possible, as it was far from anything else I had done before in terms of athletics.
Since then, rowing solo across the Atlantic was the most difficult endurance challenge, mainly because of sorting out all the logistics before the journey began. It took several years to put together all the pieces just to get to the start of that 3,000-mile journey rowing from Africa to South America. There was no follow boat, so it was critical that I had all the right gear and supplies simply to survive 70 days at sea.
My most physically demanding endurance challenge would have to be the last one, running 137-miles nonstop across the state of Maine. I wanted to find my limit, and I certainly did! Since the route was all road miles, my ankles took a beating, but thankfully some friends showed up to run the final few miles with me when I wanted to give up. No big feat is done “on my own” and it certainly requires support, even if that means moral support, to take on big endurance challenges.
Your endurance challenges raise money for clean water charities. Does this provide extra motivation to always have a ‘next big endurance challenge’ in the pipeline?
I love the quote, “If you have a strong enough why you can figure out how”. Water is my why and adventures are my “why not?” Of course, I am driven by the idea of reaching beyond limits, and my passion for water began while studying Environmental Science. It was during a course, that my professor mentioned that the “wars of the future” would be fought because of water, and in some countries, it was already happening.
That was my awakening moment of really wanting to dive in and learn about this problem. I was shocked and defeated by the enormity of the issue. I couldn’t imagine life without access to clean water, and I couldn’t believe that this issue wasn’t something we had “figured out” by now. I found hope in the amazing charities working tirelessly to be a voice for the voiceless. I knew I wanted to do “something” and endurance became that “something”. To date, $400,000 has been raised for clean water projects from endurance challenges, providing 10,000 people with clean, safe drinking water.
In preparation for your Run4Water 137-mile run across Maine, you only ran twice a week in training. Can you talk through your training volume and what your physical prep looked like?
‘Less is more’ was certainly my mantra during training for Run4Water. From about 2013-2017, I was constantly training for my next Ironman race (2.4-mile swim + 112-mile bike + 26.2-mile run), and after my fifth season, I was seriously burnt out. It no longer became fun for me and I made a new goal: to not do big endurance challenges for a year. I failed to meet that goal, but ended up regaining that passion for endurance through ultra-running and did my first 100-mile run around that time. After the 137-mile run across Maine, I took a solid 10 to 12-weeks off running to give my mind and body the much-needed break and keep running as a source of joy.
For Run4Water, I did two runs per week. One was on Saturday, the “long one”, where I could be running anywhere from 4-12 hours depending on the week. My body needed (at least!) a week just to recover from that weekly long run. My second mid-week run was mainly about active recovery to help flush out my legs and prevent stiffness. The plan itself followed what you might see in other running plans, with the long run increasing every week by 10% and then every fourth week taking a recovery week with a 30% decrease in volume. My focus was completely on volume, without any speed or intensity added to the training load. Some of my ultra-running pals think it was crazy to only run twice a week, but it worked for me!
How did you fuel your 137-mile run?
Easy-peasy. All powder! I basically did the Orange Vanilla Perpetuem from Hammer Nutrition. For the longer runs, I do prefer all liquid because it means less can “go wrong”, and utilizing fuel without needing to break it down like with solids. My friend was following by vehicle during the 137-mile run across Maine, and we would meet up every five miles on the route. She’d head off and then we would meet again a quarter-mile or so later, to pass back the empty bottle once I’ve finished so that I was moving forward as much as possible!
Around the 50-60 mile mark or 10-12 hours into the run, was when I started to incorporate some caffeine to push me through the night hours. It helped, but I still ended up hallucinating at mile 80 or 90 thinking I saw a cheetah in the woods! At least it made me run a little bit faster for a few strides!
What mental strategies do you use during endurance challenges?
I know a lot of people think [certain] thoughts to motivate themselves, but for me, the less I think, the easier it is. Like, what I love about running is that it requires no thought, but all focus. When things get tough, I really zero in and focus. I focus on my breathing (deep belly-breathing), I focus on my body mechanics (sometimes using a metronome), I focus on a forward tilt (to let gravity help!) and focus on relaxing my jaw, my back, my body. It’s almost like driving a racecar, just constantly checking the “gauges” to make sure everything is running smoothly.
If I am really in tune with my body, I feel like I am less likely to get to those low-lows since I’ve been monitoring things before things derail, especially with nutrition and hydration. If all else fails, music! I actually try not to use music until I really need it so it maintains that motivational effect.
What kind of mental preparation have you done for your endurance challenges?
One thing you’ll hear about endurance is that it’s “all mental” more than a physical challenge. I find truth in that statement in that no matter who you are or how fit you are, there are going to be hard moments. There is no way around it, no matter how fit you are. I’ve also heard that “It doesn’t get easier, you just get faster” in ultra-running and ultra-endurance. The mental challenge is real, and there are things I have learned, mainly through trial and error, that have worked for me to help combat some of those mental challenges.
Before my solo row across the Atlantic, I participated in my first Vipassana meditation retreat which entailed meditating 12 hours a day without human interaction and contact with the outside world. No reading, no writing, just meditating. That helped in that endurance brings out feelings like excitement, elation and freedom, and also feelings like defeat, exhaustion, and boredom. Meditation taught me through practice that you can have a feeling without “listening” or reacting to it. That you can feel like quitting and still continue is a lesson that I am learning and relearning now until the rest of my life – in and outside endurance especially, as someone who struggles with seasonal depression. Turns out, the same self-talk you practice with battling depression is the same self-talk you can use in endurance. The gift of depression is that you get more practice with learning how to feel and then making a choice that is in line with your true values.
Are you big on goal-setting and planning?
Planning is my jam. I love using my imagination and then working backwards and breaking things down into the smallest steps. I use scrolls of wrapping paper to dream and jot, and New Year’s is my favourite holiday, mainly because it gives us a chance to step back and look forward, and appreciate the time we have been given. I love striving for more, even if it leads to failure because even failed goals have a way of pushing you forward more than not having any goals at all. Plus, failure is a better teacher than success, so failure is a welcomed part of the journey of striving towards goals.
Matthew McConaughey said it best about how he sets future goals about how his hero is his future self and that, “Every day, every week, every year of my life my hero is always 10 years away.” My identity as a Christian is believing in Jesus, and so my addition to his vision would be to look forward to who God created me to be and what God created me to do, knowing Jesus to be the ultimate hero, and being more like Christ as the ultimate goal.
A week before your RAAM cycle, you broke your pelvis. Can you tell us what happened and how this impacted your ride?
This Ohio gal moved to California for about 8 months prior to RAAM so I could train like crazy. After months of training, I was doing my last big ride, about 70-miles, before the race began in 7 days. There’s always a bit of moisture in the air near the San Francisco bay area, and I fell off my bicycle on the first downhill going overtop the Santa Cruz Mountains. I immediately knew something wasn’t right, but never imagined it was that wrong. I’ve never broken a bone up until that point, and I was given a printout of my x-rays to see just what damage I had done during that bicycle accident. I had a broken pelvis.
I went home and immediately emailed everyone I knew in the cycling community, and every local bike shop, to see if I could get my hands on a hand-bike and in time for the race. The clock was ticking and the pressure was on to find a way despite the setback. There are a few videos during the ride to share some of those highs and lows moments with you thanks to Levi’s!
Currently, what does a typical week of training look like for you?
Because I work a fairly regular schedule, my workout routine is also routine. Right now, during the winters, I usually focus more on strength and less on endurance, while also maintaining a base-level of endurance with one long-run per week. Right now, it’s typically like this:
Five targeted barre classes – usually a quick 20-minute workout. I love barre to help maintain balance in my body and overall strength, preventing muscle imbalances that could cause injury. I use AloMoves and my go-to barre series is Barre Strong with Emily Sferra based out of California. We are actually hosting an event together on Earth Day, April 22nd to raise funds for a water project in Honduras. Donations are encouraged, but not required, to join. Clear Water Filtration, a Vermont-based company equally passionate about water, will be matching every dollar donated, so your impact can be doubled!
Aside from barre, I do one or two stair-climbing workouts and one or two runs (usually 5-miles), and then one long run on the weekend for 10-15 miles.
What are your favourite items of kit, and are you sponsored by anyone right now?
I’m all about my Newton running shoes and Garmin watch and have taken them on lots of adventures over the years. Running over 100 miles at a time, people will assume that I must have had many injuries that are so common to runners, like plantar fasciitis or Achilles tendonitis, but I believe that your choice in running shoe matters in injury prevention, and just enjoyability! I just love how the Newton Running shoes help guide you towards becoming a more natural, mid-foot runner rather than heel-striker, and how their shoes have a nice kick-back. I couldn’t imagine running in any other shoes!
I love my Garmin almost to a fault. If it hasn’t been charged, I will wait until it is before going on a run or ride, rather than to go without it. It’s almost like “my coach” in that I can monitor heart-rate and program intervals, and geek-out after races by uploading all the data. I also love how my current Garmin Forerunner 245 running watch looks like a fashion watch too, so it’s both functional and fashionable. But, it’s an amazing training tool and keeps me motivated to track and monitor progress.
Right now, I am excited to be partnering with Ortlieb, Sinwave Cycles, Spurcycle for my next endurance challenge. Come to the “Raising the Barre for Clean Water” event and I will share with you what it is!
Katie is currently raising funds for a clean water project in Ethiopia on behalf of H2O for Life. Learn more at her website Katiespotz.com or say hello at Facebook.com/hellokatiespotz or Instagram.com/katiespotz.