I wasn't a star athlete when I was growing up. Sports were fun, but once they started getting competitive, I checked out. It wasn't until my senior year of high school that I was forced to take a running class as a requirement for graduation, and that's when things changed for me. The sense of accomplishment I felt after each run was so rewarding; it motivated me to push further the next time I hit the pavement.
Six months later, I ran my first marathon. And by the time I turned 21, I had biked 3,300 miles across America to benefit a charity in memory of my grandmother, became the first person to swim across the Allegheny River, and ran a 100K trail race in Australia. After that ultramarathon, I really understood that anything was possible if I just put my mind to it. (Looking to upgrade your workout? Here are the best extreme sports to try)
I also happened to strike up a conversation with a guy who was just as into endurance challenges as I was. At the time, I thought I had heard of everything "big" that was out there, but he told me about a friend who had rowed across an ocean alone. Immediately, I was intrigued. I kept asking myself, "How does a person ever do that?" "Is it physically possible?" "What kind of equipment did he use?" "What would accomplishing something like that feel like?" It was so far beyond anything I'd ever experienced, and I had no rowing experience, but still—I wondered.
During my senior year of college, I decided to go for it—I wanted to become the youngest person to row across the Atlantic Ocean by myself.
I gave myself almost two years to prepare for the 2,817-mile trip, and set a goal of raising $30,000 for the Blue Planet Run Foundation to raise awareness for safe drinking water. I aimed to fit in about 10 hours of exercise each week, in between my full-time job, and an additional six to eight hours of rowing on the weekends.
The toughest part, though, was the mental preparation. I had to learn to meditate, and even took a 10-day course where I meditated for 12 hours a day without making eye contact with another person. (Here's how to meditate, and why you should.) Then there were the basics: I had to learn about first aid at sea, and sea survival in general, just so I could learn to withstand being confined to a 19-foot, 750-pound boat for 70 days.
Eventually, the time came—I started the journey on January 3, 2010, with everything I could possibly need piled into the yellow boat that I now called home.
Photo: Katie Spotz
Just a few days into the trip I began to realize that rowing 10 hours a day was just a small part of the task at hand. I also had to survive on freeze-dried food and energy bars, make sure all precautions were taken so my boat didn't capsize, constantly check my GPS and radar so bigger boats and ships could see me, and never sleep for more than two hours at a time.
That last part was, in my opinion, the worst of all. An athlete usually recovers from training through sleep, but I couldn't do that. There comes a point when your body adapts to it, so I shifted into a state of insomnia—which made it that much harder for me to get the sleep that I so desperately needed. I felt like I was at a point of exhaustion—there was no energy to complain, I just had to push through.
I never really thought I would quit while I was out there though, or worry too much that I had gotten in over my head. My reason for pursuing this adventure really kept me going, and the breathtaking scenery, wildlife, and feeling at one with the sea were incredible takeaways that I wouldn't trade that for the world. (Related: 5 Ways to Train for an Endurance Run Besides Actually Running)
Looking back, there's no denying that the adventure was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. I was able to exceed my fundraising goal, contributing $75,000 to help over 2,000 families gain access to safe drinking water. I had also grown as, well, a human. I was now more patient and understanding, and I developed a deeper appreciation for things in my life, whether that was just food or basic human interaction.
That being said, I don't think it's something I'll ever do again. Since I got into endurance activities, I've always gone from one challenge to the next. Over the past few years, I've competed in Ironmans, won the Cleveland Triathlon, and accomplished my goal of completing three ultramarathons over the course of a year. (Related: Secrets from a 76-Year-Old Ironman Athlete)
Recently, I've taken on one of my toughest adventures so far: Not signing up for an endurance challenge for an entire year. To be honest, I'm not sure if I'll be able to do it, but I think it's important for me to take the time to reflect and recover without constantly pushing my body—and mind—to their limits.
Throughout all of my crazy and incredible journeys, though, there's one lesson that transcends: We have a choice to either doubt or believe in ourselves. If you can make it a habit to believe, anything is possible, and that positivity carries over to other parts of your life, manifesting in ways you can't even imagine.