Outdoors

Marathons on seven continents empowered runner Karen Hohertz-Jacobs

The little girl just wanted to play soccer. She wanted to run around the field and kick the ball and be with her friends, and who knows, maybe score a goal.

But Karen Hohertz ran a little funny. That's what her coach told her, not meaning to be intentionally hurtful. He said she should play goalie instead. She was 7 years old.

Hohertz was always the last person picked in dodgeball games on the playground. She was skinny and sort of clumsy, more bookworm than athlete.

She tried soccer one year in her hometown of St. Louis in the late 1970s, but that comment – you run funny – embarrassed her beyond belief. She internalized it and told no one, not even her parents. She never played organized sports again.

"I lived with it literally my whole life," she says. "I carried that story – I'm not an athlete."

Forty years later, she carries a different story.

On March 18, now Karen Hohertz-Jacobs, crossed the finish line of a marathon held on King George Island off the coast of Antarctica. That race completed her quest to run a marathon on all seven continents, a journey she started less than a decade ago. She was 40 then and out of shape. She googled "Couch to 5K" at a friend's suggestion.

What started as a simple goal became an obsession that has allowed her to run through Disney's Cinderella Castle, across the London Bridge and past the Imperial Palace in Tokyo. She ran by armed guards near favelas in Brazil. Her race on a South African game preserve was delayed 45 minutes so elephants could be moved off the course.

To reach the Antarctica Marathon, she endured three plane flights, 40-plus hours on a converted Russian research ship through choppy waters in the Drake Passage, and one nasty bout of sea sickness. But she completed the rocky, muddy course in 6 hours, 7 minutes.

Tears filled her eyes as she neared the finish, her emotions stirred by a sense of fulfillment. "I did it," she told herself.

"That story that I carried for 40-something years, what could I have done if I hadn't carried that story?" she asks. "Nobody was reinforcing that story overtly with me. I was doing that to myself."

The path to self-discovery sprouted from her desire to help sick kids. Hohertz-Jacobs' daughter, Kate, was diagnosed with Stage 4 neuroblastoma when she was 11 months old in 2007. She endured eight rounds of chemotherapy and four surgeries and has been cancer-free for a decade. She turns 13 in May.

An aunt of Hohertz-Jacobs had an idea about how to raise money for pediatric cancer: rafting through the Grand Canyon. Hohertz-Jacobs' sister Melissa joined her the second year of the fundraiser. They decided to climb out of the Grand Canyon along the Bright Angel Trail.

Karen huffed and puffed the whole way, which led to some ribbing from her sister. "Need me to carry your backpack?" Melissa asked. "You should get in shape," she added.

So she did.

Hohertz-Jacobs, who leads a program management office at Best Buy's headquarters, took up running and participated in her company's charity 5K. A sense of pride washed over her that day. Then she ran a 10K, which spurred a thought: "Maybe if I could just run one marathon, I could let go of this story in my head."

An injury scratched her from the Twin Cities Marathon that year, 2011. Too eager to wait another year, she entered the Disney marathon a few months later. Hohertz-Jacobs dropped to her knees as she crossed the finish line.

"Instantly," she said, "I knew I wanted to do it again."

She earned bibs at the largest marathons by running for charities devoted to pediatric cancer. She represented Alex's Lemonade Stand Foundation in the Chicago and New York City marathons. She raised more than $10,000 for the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in the Boston Marathon.

She ran three World Marathon Majors in 2016 – Tokyo, Boston and Berlin – to complete that series. Then an idea hit her: She already had run marathons on three continents. Why not do four more?

She found an organization that combines travel and running marathons. And away she went.

She ran marathons in London, Rio and New Zealand in 2017. She did the Big Five Marathon in the South African savanna last year.

Organizers drove runners along the course the day before the race. It took three hours because of the rugged terrain. Hohertz-Jacobs was worried she might not finish the race before the 6 1/2-hour time limit.

Inhabitants of the game reserve included lions, elephants and rhinos. Game wardens monitored animals with drones for about 200 runners.

At one point, Hohertz-Jacobs heard a runner ahead of her yell, "Stop!" A pack of zebras charged across the course.

Hohertz-Jacobs was one of the last runners on the course. She found herself alone on one stretch, just she and a warthog in the distance. A little nervous, she took out her phone, scrolled to a Lady Gaga song, turned up the volume and held the phone up as she ran. "I was like, 'This is crazy,' " she said.

She probably had the same thought in March as her bed inside the Russian research vessel rolled and swayed with high waves in the Drake Passage in the middle of the night. She was too nauseated to eat or even get out of bed once the ship reached Antarctica.

The ship doctor gave her an electrolyte solution, and she was able to eat something light later that day. She ran the marathon 48 hours later.

There are no permanent residents in Antarctica, only scientists from around the world who live in research stations. The course followed ATV tracks between the Russian and Uruguayan stations. You won't find a Target at the bottom of the world.

"You cannot spend money in Antarctica," Hohertz-Jacobs noted.

Boats aren't allowed to dock, so they parked in a bay and runners took a Zodiac raft to shore. Conditions were unusually perfect: clear skies, little wind, temperatures in the mid-20s, no snow or ice on the course.

That trip alone cost Hohertz-Jacobs more than $10,000. Her experiences have been invaluable.

She remembers five runners stopping to help her when she tumbled during the London Marathon. (The fall cost her a shot at achieving her goal of a 4:30 finish. She crossed the line in 4:31.)

She ran out of gas at Mile 25 in Rio and started walking. An older woman stopped and held out her hand. They ran the last mile holding hands. They spoke different languages, so they couldn't have a conversation, or even share their names. They took a selfie together at the end.

"That's the culture of running," she says.

That devotion led Hohertz-Jacobs back to her hometown a few weeks after returning from Antarctica. She ran a St. Louis marathon in early April, her 13th total.

While she has no plans to run again internationally until her two kids are done with high school – her son, Ryan, is a freshman, and Kate is in middle school – the marathon urge hasn't left her. In October, she plans to run in Milwaukee and in the Marine Corps Marathon, which spans Virginia and Washington, D.C.

"I have met a ton of people that have run all 50 states," she said with a smile.

Hohertz-Jacobs turns 50 in January. Though she hasn't made it an official goal, she figures if she runs three or four marathons a year in different states until her kids finish high school, that would put her about halfway to 50.

Her new story continues to be written.

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