Over the last decade she has tackled countless ultra-distance events, including becoming the first woman to finish the Yukon Arctic Ultra 430-mile race after winning the 300-mile version outright the year before, towing a 45-pound supply sled across the ice-covered tundra in -50 degree wind-whipping conditions. She has ventured into the wild traversing the treacherous Italian Dolomites, climbed South America’s highest peak, tread through the mossy jungle of the Philippines, run up the steps of the Great Wall of China, and traversed the mountainous terrain of the Alps through France, Italy, and Switzerland.
“Even when conditions are grueling, it’s therapeutic for her,” Millsaps, who helped her navigate much of the Mountains-to-Sea trail, told me. “There’s a peacefulness to her running.”
Even with the changing scenery and her waning memory, she insists that she feels at home as long as she’s moving in nature. “Visually I can only absorb about 30 percent of what most people see throughout the day, so on a trail, I can remember some of it, but not all,” she said. “One thing I always remember, though, is the emotion, the emotion of feeling vibrant and being able to do whatever my body will let me do.”
Van Deren finds the familiar within herself, rather than in place. This is why she eschews GPS watches and smartphone applications on trail. “Oh gosh, I don’t even know how to use those things!” she lightheartedly scoffed when asked. The surgery hampered her spatial reasoning too; it’s now impossible for her to read maps. Technology that is geared towards simplifying life actually does the opposite for Van Deren—these tools offer extraneous data that overwhelms her mind. Running out on the trails, however, she’s able to escape the clamor of the modern world and focus on simple, instinctive movements.
Even while running, Van Deren still gets lost fairly often. She compensates by relying on a system of strategically placed sticks, rocks, and branches at key forks in the trail so she can backtrack if necessary. “At races I don’t get wrapped up in the details of the course; it’s mental overload for me,” added Van Deren. “I know where to start and where to finish and then I just go.”
Even when she forgets the intricacies of the path on which she has tread, the tempo of her breathing and the cadence of her feet signal a spark of recognition and a sense of refuge. On the trail, there are no walls, limits, or reminders of the fact that her brain doesn't function like most. Since memory and place are altered in Van Deren's mind, the closest thing she feels to a sense of home comes to her when she's on the move.
“She’s just so in her element in the outdoors,” Bainbridge said. “It’s like she was born in the wilderness; it’s part of who she is.”
Back in North Carolina, on the morning of June 1, 2012, at 9:29 EDT, the weathered Van Deren climbed that last sand dune on the Outer Banks at Jockey’s Ridge State Park, marking the end of her 1,000-mile Mountains-to-Sea adventure. Setting a new speed record of 22 days, five hours, and three minutes, she knew it would only be a matter of time before she began to plot her next expedition. While she calls that venture her “Superbowl,” she has run countless other ultra endurance events since and the now-54-year old says she doesn’t plan on slowing down anytime soon. For her, home is in the journey.