Trittipoe was 36 when she ran her first “ultra,” a 50K in Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains. She won. Soon she was doing six or seven races a year, eventually placing second among women competitors in her first 100-mile race. In 2003 Trittipoe took on the Jungle Marathon, dubbed “the world’s toughest adventure race” by CNN. For seven days she braved jungle rot, jaguars, and chest-deep swamps for 157 miles through the perilous Brazilian rainforest. Now 61, Trittipoe has lost track of how many ultras she has completed—but it’s easily over 100.
For Trittipoe, as for many ultrarunners, the sport is not masochistic, but it is about seeing what you’re made of. It attracts individuals who thrive on constant self-improvement, goal setting, and pushing beyond one’s perceived limits. There are no cheering crowds or TV cameras deep in the mountains to push a runner on with the promise of glory. It’s just mountains and sinew, despair and willpower.
Yet the same drive that spurs ultrarunners on to incredible feats of endurance also has a dark side. “They have to do it,” Horton explained. “It’s a high. You do a race, you’re [OK] for so long, and then you gotta get another fix.”
Some become like alcoholics, guzzling a cocktail of endorphins and achievement, and there’s always further, faster, a bigger mountain to scale and a harder race to endure.
For years, ultrarunning was all Trittipoe could think about. Every fragment of her life became either a piece to fit in the training regime or toss to the wayside. “There’s this infinitely thin line between dedication and obsession, and I crossed that line,” she said. “[Running] became my god.” She says it didn’t ruin her marriage (she and her husband Gary have been together 41 years)—“but it definitely didn’t help.”
These days, Trittipoe says her perspective has changed. She’s a grandma now, and spending time with her granddaughter is a huge priority, as is going to basketball practices and swim meets to mentor young athletes.
“I know I can be better than I am now if I put in the training, but the question is balance,” she said. “I’ve got grandma duties. I’ve got to serve all these coaches and athletes.”
When people asked her why she did ultras, Trittipoe used to answer, “Because I can.” That’s still partially true, but she now realizes the ways ultrarunning has honed her character and given her opportunities to impact others.
“There are so many life lessons, so many Biblical principles that I’ve learned because of my running,” she said. “Ultimately I think it’s better equipped me for ministry.”
As Liberty’s women’s athletics chaplain, Trittipoe uses her ultrarunning experience to connect with the school’s varsity athletes and coaches. “Jesus taught in parables,” said Trittipoe. “He always told stories because you’ve got to gain [people’s] attention to be able to make the application. … I have this rich bucket of experiences that I can use to really bring the truth home.”
She’ll tell athletes about the 100-mile race where she was distracted by stress and quit at mile 60. Once it was just an experience, a story about pain. Now it’s a lesson about keeping your eye on the prize. She takes teams on long hikes in the mountains and tells them about pressing on through injuries, losing her map and taking the wrong turn, the fruits of discipline, and the dangers of obsession. The sport that nearly consumed her has become her greatest tool in a quest to instill young athletes with Christ-centered character.
“Human beings are capable of so much more than we think,” said Trittipoe. “[Ultrarunning] is just a physical manifestation of that. That’s what I have experienced, and that’s what I want to show people. You can always do more than you think you can.”