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The 100-mile chaplain

Rebekah Trittipoe with her granddaughter (Handout)

Sports

The 100-mile chaplain

How one ultrarunner turned an obsession into a path to character

Walk through the front doors of the sprawling Liberty University Athletics Center in Lynchburg, Va., past the crashing iron of the Olympic weight room, the soft splash of underwater treadmills, and the sleep pods where athletes recover, and you’ll find the office of a small, silver-haired woman with boundless energy and a ready grin.

Meet Rebekah Trittipoe.

Serving as Liberty’s Women’s Athletics Chaplain with the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, Trittipoe tends to the spiritual care of Liberty’s women’s varsity sports teams. These women are hardcore, D-I athletes, and earning their respect is no easy task. But then, she’s no ordinary chaplain.

For more than 25 years, Trittipoe has competed as an amateur ultrarunner, testing her mettle and facing her limits on long, brutal trails from the jungles of the Amazon to the mountains of Appalachia. She has an endless supply of stories and a collection of injuries a mile long. She’s tough as nails, and that opens doors.

An ultramarathon is technically any race longer than a marathon (26.2 miles), but most ultrarunners say the shortest race that “counts” is a 50K (about 31 miles). The distances, and the suffering, only go up from there, with 50-mile, 100K (about 62 miles), and 100-mile races serving as standard fare. Most take place on mountain trails with punishing climbs and descents. All require massive amounts of physical training, but it’s the mental fortitude required to keep your legs and lungs moving over mountains, often alone, through the day and through the night, that sets ultrarunners apart.

Fatigue plays havoc with the mind. In the middle of one 250-mile adventure race, Trittipoe reached the top of a mountain and right there, clear as day, she saw a water mill—its wheel turning slowly in the high-altitude breeze. Sleep-deprived from more than 90 hours of nearly nonstop movement, she reached out to touch the cool, clear water, and the hallucination shattered as her fingers slipped right through.

She kept running.

“The average person thinks it’s crazy,” said Liberty University exercise science professor (and local ultrarunning legend) David Horton. “[People] admire someone that does a 5K, a 10-miler, even a marathon. But if you go beyond a marathon—oops, now you’re crazy.”

Seth Trittipoe

Trittipoe (Seth Trittipoe)

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.”