“I wanted to see how far I could go.”
by Kyle Cochrun
Connie Gardner, 54, has run more than 150 ultramarathons. She has won 90 ultramarathons since 2001. She won her first national championship 100k race in 2002, at the age of 38. She once ran across the state of New Jersey in a single weekend. In a span of four weeks early one summer, she ran a 100-mile race through the Sierra Nevadas, 135 miles through Death Valley and the Burning River 100-miler through the Cuyahoga Valley National Park. She describes her 13th place finish at the world-championship 100k race in Taipei, Taiwan, as “OK.”
During a race in California, someone in the crowd shouted to her that she was on pace to break the women’s 100-mile American record. She asked who currently held the record, and the crowd shouted back, “You do!”
Connie Gardner is a badass on an international scale.
She is also a lot of fun to be around.
When I asked her what her secret to being a world-class ultramarathoner is, the 54 year-old long-distance runner smiled through the wisps of dirty blonde hair dangling over her face, lifted a hand and, with her index and middle fingers, mimicked a pair of legs swishing forward.
“That’s all there is to it!” she said.
Then she laughed at me for asking such a stupid question.
This is a typical Connie moment, her tendency to downplay her successes. I laughed too. She has a way of making the people around her feel good.
This might come as a shock if you’ve only ever seen her when she’s racing ultramarathons, which is any race longer than a marathon. Photographs of Connie during competition usually portray her looking as if she’s going to fight somebody, as if she wants to kick whoever is holding the camera with her Adidas Adizero Adios racing flat.
But off the course, she’s so lighthearted and easygoing that it makes you wonder if all those grueling miles – almost 38 years spent muscling through slick mud trails, focusing for hours on the horizon at the end of paved state routes, and running as far as she can on 400-meter tracks in 24 hours – has granted her perpetual contentment, the same sort of affability and unhurried charm you find in oceanside huts.
Of course, she isn’t content. Otherwise, she wouldn’t continue to log the sort of mileage that causes people to throw out descriptors like “insane” and “superhuman.”
When I asked what made her fall in love with running as a child, Connie said, “I wanted to see how far I could go.” She ran her first-ever marathon in Columbus at age 17, clocking a time of four hours and 11 minutes. Twenty years later, she ran the Columbus marathon in three hours and 11 minutes.
Sometimes, usually after a rough race, Connie gets weary and talks about retiring. But then she’ll do something like win a 24-hour race by outrunning a 20-something year-old woman who is known for swimming the entire Potomac River, which she did in 2016.
My guess is that Connie will never stop running. I’m not sure she could.
She does have to take a break to bring in some cash every now and then. Connie is the head boys and girls cross country coach at Archbishop Hoban High School. Since she started in 2015, the teams are having their best seasons in school history. She coaches ultramarathoners on the side, mostly Masters runners, ages 40 and up. She also works at Second Sole in the Merriman Valley, where this writer also works, and where she has been known to convince novice runners on couch-to-5k plans to train for marathons. She has a way with people like that.
“I used to be a sprinter,” said Michael Jorgenson, a top runner on Hoban’s cross country team. “Then, one day I walked into Second Sole to buy spikes and, by the time I left, Connie talked me into running cross country.”
One day, Connie talked local ultramarathoner Zach Vierheller into running across the Grand Canyon with her. Zach had a full-time job, had never flown on a plane before and is a little claustrophobic. But not long after the conversation, he purchased his ticket.
“She never questions whether we should go on an adventure,” said Emily Collins, an ultramarathoner who accompanied Connie last November on a six-day run from the southwest corner of West Virginia to the northeast corner. “We hardly even talk about it. We just go, with unknown obstacles, because we’re fit enough to truly experience people and places by foot.”
Connie’s next race will be the Tunnel Hill 100-miler in Vienna, Ill., on Nov. 10. Her 55th birthday is four days earlier. What many would consider an insufferable form of torture is what Connie considers a birthday present to herself.
She sincerely loves running. Talk to her about it sometime, and see if she doesn’t get you to want to love it too.
Kyle Cochrun is a writer from Akron, Ohio who is currently enrolled in the NEOMFA program for creative writing.