May 4

Miles That Matter – Karen’s Story

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Karen A.

What happens when a National Park Ranger runs at the parks? 


Everyone has a different reason for running. For some it’s the exercise, for others it’s the community, and for others it’s for exploration. Like many of us, Karen runs for fun; she appreciates a course with thrilling views, exciting terrain, and an entertaining environment. As an astronomy ranger in the National Park System (more on that at the end), she has gotten to see many spectacular views but she says Yosemite National Park is her home park. “That’s where I grew up, so it will always feel special.” She doesn’t think that she would want to work at Yosemite because she wants to preserve it in her memory as a place she enjoys that is separate from work. “Sometimes working at a place can change how you think about it.” 

In 2017, Glacier National Park was her first assignment as a ranger, and she ran the inaugural Glacier Half Marathon that year. “I don’t know what was more crazy, the tribal cops shooting shotguns to scare off the bears, or seeing the video of the grizzly that ran right through the race!” Karen recalls she worked the entrance station the day after the race and wore her race medal. Another woman noticed her medal and showed her the video of the grizzly running across the course. No runners were harmed, but it was a reminder to all runners and visitors that these lands are wild and that we should respect and maintain our distance from wildlife...especially grizzly bears.

Although she has run many races with us, the Zion Half Marathon in 2016 was her first of the National Park series. Stepping up to the start line of that race wasn’t easy for Karen. Just six months before the race, her husband, Don, sadly passed away in a flash flood that also claimed the lives of six other hikers in Zion’s Keyhole Canyon. In a beautiful article written by Terry Chiplin, Karen shares this experience. She offers that it was her husband’s children that gave her the strength to run at Zion. The family originally had plans to hike some of Zion’s trails together in October 2015, just weeks before the flash flood. The family still hiked together that autumn, and during that trip Karen decided “it might be good for my body and soul to go through with the race.” 

Views of Glacier National Park during our race in 2017.

While it was incredibly emotional and physically challenging, Karen finished the race saying that it felt as if she had overcome a major hurdle by being able to run. Running as a whole isn’t as emotional, but running at Zion, she shares, will always be emotional because it is a way that she is able to honor Don. With time, the emotional part of the race becomes easier, but “anytime you race, it’s emotional.”

Through the miles, years, and emotional growth, Karen has also developed her racing ritual. At her first Vacation Race in Zion, she participated in a Positive Race workshop hosted by Active Acuity. In her interview with Terry Chiplin, she says that she wanted to do everything properly including training, nutrition, and mental preparation. The workshop was incredibly encouraging and each participant had a compelling story for why they ran, she shares. Since that first workshop, Karen has gotten quite good at honing her race routine. She says her go-to supper the night before a race is salmon and a baked sweet potato.


“That’s what I had for dinner before the best race that I ever ran, so I stuck with it!” she chuckles. Once, she wasn’t able to get her hands on salmon and a sweet potato, so she opted for vegetarian pizza. The next day, she felt great during the race, so now she includes that meal in the rotation. She still credits a lot of the training she received through Active at Altitude for helping her to continue to develop good racing habits. They help cover all the bases: training, mental preparation, and nutritional planning.

Active at Altitude has training programs for our half marathons. 

We all know that our minds can be our biggest roadblock, so that training can be very handy for someone like Karen who often runs solo. “Sometimes a friend joins me, and one of the other rangers at Great Basin National Park plans to run Bryce Canyon with me in May.” Even when she runs with others, she says they each set their own pace and goals. Karen plans to continue checking off races on her bucket list as she aims to complete each of the National Park races. She says it can be tough to work the busy summer season at the National Parks and compete in Vacation Races events, but she’s confident that she’ll make it happen. 

Karen celebrates being on course at the Saguaro Half Marathon.

As mentioned, Karen is an astronomy ranger with the National Park Service’s Dark Rangers. She hosts night sky programs on the Great Basin Star Train, a program that takes visitors on a nighttime train ride to one of the darkest skies in the continental United States where visitors can explore the night sky through telescopes and ranger-led programming. Hop on board the old-timey locomotive and allow your imagination to be captured under a blanket of twinkling darkness. Don't believe us? Just take a quick peek at the photo in this LA Times article.


Miles That Matter, is Vacation Races' blog segment where we share inspiring and touching stories from our runners. Some stories may make you cry, some may surprise you, and others may give you the grit to get out there and do the darn thing. Over the years, we've been inspired by the compassion and determination of our runners and this is just one small way that we can share their stories to uplift even more people. Our runners do the hard work; we're just here to share their voices. 


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