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Champion ultra runner finds meaning, grit beyond the podium

(Photo credit: Myke Hermsmeyer)

Katie Graff wanted a new hobby so she began running in high school. She didn’t know that the sport would transform her life in so many ways.

Running taught her about setting goals, conquering challenges, embracing a community, seeking adventures and being physically fit. After undergraduate school, she moved on from the competitive aspect. She joined her first running group while in graduate school, and hooked up with others as life took her to Oregon, Montana, Alaska and Korea.

“I took advantage of the social benefits of running,” Graff recalls. “I was not racing competitively nor did I have a strict training regimen during this time. I was primarily running to stay healthy, meet new people, explore new places, and to socialize. It was not until I moved to Texas in 2014 that I started to race again, train, work with a coach, and start running ultra marathons.”

She rekindled her love for running with a renewed commitment to training and racing, which has carried her through the highs of podium finishes and the lows of extended injuries. Ask her about her “why” for running now, and you get a peek inside her soul.

“It is a voice that is sometimes screaming or whispering inside of me to just continue putting one foot in front of the other,” she wrote as part of a poem a few years ago. “It is those moments when I can almost feel all of that epinephrine being released and celebrating inside of my brain!”

Learning and succeeding

Graff eyed Brazos Bend as not only her first ultra but as a 100-miler. A stress reaction in her foot forced her to move down to the 50-mile race.

“I knew very little about ultra marathons and did not even own a hydration vest,” she admits. “I did not carry a bottle on me and thought that they would have cups at the aid stations. Unfortunately, they only had cups at one aid station! Needless to say, I was extremely dehydrated and I ended up adding on four miles after taking an incorrect turn. I swore that I would never do another ultramarathon after that experience!

That didn’t last long at all.

“I was admittedly in a lot of pain after that race and my muscles were cramping up,” she says. “I did not know anything about how many calories to eat or that I should have had salt tablets! But just a few days later, I was already looking for another ultra marathon! Even though the first experience did not go very well, I wanted another opportunity to see what I could do if I drank enough water and consumed enough calories!”

Graff’s finish at Brazos Bend was more than respectable, just over 9 hours, giving her 15th overall and sixth among women. Still, she showed that she learned valuable lessons there and improved to a top 10 finish — and second woman — at the Cross Timbers 50-mile run just three months later.

But she was only getting started.

Graff won the women’s race at the Pigtails Challenger 100-miler, Captain Karl’s Reveille Ranch 60K, the UltraCentric Gold Rush Six-Hour race and the Brazos Bend 50-miler from May through December 2015. In reflecting back on the early success in her running career, Graff credits a variety of factors.

“I have had an enormous amount of support from Team TROT, running friends, coaches and just friends in general,” she says. “I also love challenges, being out on trails and in nature, learning more about myself. I realize though that some of my personality traits and characteristics also have impacted my early success. While I am also trying to grow in various ways, I feel as though I can be determined, resilient, focused, goal-oriented, extremely inquisitive and passionate.”

And her grit definitely played a key role.

“I genuinely enjoy finding ways to increase my mental fortitude and racing gives me opportunities to test my mental skills,” she says. “Lastly, I have been exploring the mind and body connection for the last several years, which has helped me better understand myself, my race performances, and what I am capable of doing.”

A successful return from injury

Graff continued to be competitive, including a victory at the Bigfoot 200-mile race in 2016. But last year, an Achilles injury put her running on pause for about six weeks.

“I tried to keep running through the pain, but I eventually saw my orthopedic who warned me that if I had any desire to run long-term, I needed to start taking better care of my body,” says Graff, who is coached by Jason Koop (photo by Scott Rokis). “I appreciated him being direct with me, and I decided to follow his advice and take off six weeks. It took me about two months before I felt like I was back in shape. I did a lot of rock climbing, biking and swimming while I was recovering.”

Since about a six-month layoff from racing, she has recovered well. In fact, she won the Brazos Bend Marathon at the end of last year, and followed that up with victories at Jackalope Jam Six-Hour race in February and Crazy Desert Trail Race Half Marathon just two weeks later.

A diet that works for her

In one of her social media posts after the Jackalope race, she credited her nutrition for getting her through the endurance event. She doesn’t put much emphasis on pre-race fueling but focuses on eating healthy.

“I am not one to consume a lot of carbs beforehand,” she says. “I try to eat a healthy meal and something small in the morning like toast with peanut butter. My main focus was to drink enough and consume enough calories during the race. I use Osmo for my electrolytes, which worked out very well. I filled up four bottles and just made myself drink a bottle every hour. I also stayed focused on getting at least 200 calories an hour. I mainly had Mamma Chia pouches and a vegan rice crispy bar.”

In the past Graff has experimented with a vegetarian, vegan and even a pescatarian diet. She’s lactose intolerant so she eliminated dairy from her diet in her early 20s.

“I have mainly been following a vegan lifestyle for a couple of years now,” she says. “I find that my body just feels better without eating meat. It can be a challenge at times to get in enough protein, but I try to find creative ways of doing so. I genuinely enjoy cooking and trying out new recipes. I do not always eat too much when I am racing, which has been an issue, but I have been trying to experiment with finding foods and nutrition that I really love. After racing competitively in high school and college, I never ate while running and it has been a challenge for me at times to eat much food or think about eating while racing. I have made a lot of progress with this limitation though over the years.”

What’s next

As Graff eyes her bucket-list races such as Hardrock, UTMB, Western States and The Bear, she is also giving back to the community. She has begun coaching and is looking to get into mental skills coaching.

Her outlook, her passion and her motivation to inspire others all circle back to the poem she wrote about running.

“It is my free therapy. It is my favorite way to listen to all of the beautiful songs that Mother Nature offers. It is a type of movement meditation that tames my soul. It is a wildfire that sometimes gets carried away in the wind. It is that trigger that pushes me closer to my edge. It has helped me to inspire others by pursuing what I feel most passionate about.”

Speed drill

Name: Katie Graff

Hometown: Vine Valley, N.Y.

Number of years running: 20

How many miles a week do you typically run: When my volume is high and intensity is low, it is usually over 70. When I am focusing more on speed and intensity, it is usually under 70 miles.

Point of pride: Finishing first place at Bigfoot 200 and completing the Triple Crown of 200s.

Favorite race distance: I am still figuring out my distance of choice! It seems like I am more competitive with timed events, but I am drawn to 200s and all of the challenges that come along with them!

Favorite pre-race or training food/drink: I usually just try to focus on drinking a lot of water before races. There is not a particular meal or food that I need to prefer before a race.

Favorite piece of gear: Nathan Howe Vest

Favorite or inspirational song to run to: I have way too many songs that I love to run to! My interest in music is very eclectic, so it just depends on my mood, workout, race, pace, etc.

Favorite or inspirational mantra/phrase: I do not have a specific mantra that I always use. I may come up with something simple to focus on for a particular race. For instance, I just focused on nutrition during Jackalope Jam this year. I often try to break things down into smaller chunks, which helps to motivate me to go faster or just keep moving. Also, my coach, Jason Koop, will sometimes tell me something simple that sticks in my head for an entire race.

Where can other runners connect or follow you: I have a blog that I am going to start back up at People can also find me on Instagram at ktg8888.

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