Growing up in Alaska, Carol Seppilu sensed the importance of a purposeful life at an early age. She got straight As in school and read the Bible daily.
Things turned dark as she entered her teen years.
“As I became a teenager I chose to experiment with marijuana, which got me into cigarettes, and eventually I started drinking and doing harder drugs,” she recalls. “I was lost and I felt like I didn’t have a purpose in life anymore. I got drunk one night and decided that was it, I was done.”
Seppilu had lost several friends to suicide. Depressed and drunk, the 16-year-old thought that was her way out, too. She grabbed a gun, aimed at her face and pulled the trigger.
“Everyone was screaming and running around trying to save my life,” she wrote on her blog. “The noise began to fade away and gradually it became dark. I heard nothing and I saw nothing. That was the moment I uttered in earnest prayer, ‘Dear God, save me.’”
Her prognosis was dire. Doctors believed that she would never speak or see again.
A tough mindset
But she proved them wrong.
“From the moment I woke up in the ICU after the suicide attempt I knew I had to be strong,” she says. “I knew it the second I took the first look in the mirror after being able to see again. I knew it would be a long road ahead. It was then that I decided to be strong.”
Seppilu recalls a defining moment in her recovery.
“When I was in the ICU I fell into what I believe was a quick experience of death,” she explains, recalling a vivid dream. “I couldn’t breathe and I was lifted into a foggy place. This place gradually turned into a beautiful village where it was peaceful and where I felt no pain. My great-grandfathers beckoned and had me sit with them where they spoke to me in our language. They were both smiling and looking at me proudly. They said I had to go back, that it wasn’t my time yet, that I was going to do great things. I begged to stay there with them but I reluctantly came back. As I woke up the nurse was running towards me telling me to breathe and she sat me up. I’ll never forget that vision, I believe that it gave me strength.”
It is this unyielding mindset that keeps Seppilu strong during the tough ultra marathons she chooses.
“It helps me during my ultras where I know it’ll be hard and painful to go through but finishing will be worth it,” she says. “In life I’ve climbed mountains bigger than this world. I think running ultras help me keep this mindset strong for life also, it’s a perfect circle that I’m in the keeps me going.”
Finding her ‘why’
About 15 years had passed since the suicide attempt when Seppilu found the inspiration to run.
“I woke up one sunny day in the summer of 2014 at my home in Nome, Alaska, not wanting to get out of bed,” she says. “I was 233 pounds, depressed and had no goals in life. I thought to myself, ‘Carol you’ve got to get up and do something. It’s beautiful outside! Go for a run.’ And so I ran.”
Seppilu only made it a couple of blocks before having to stop. But she walked the rest of the 2-mile goal she had set. “It was then that I made the decision to see how much farther I can go and I haven’t been able to stop since.”
She wears a mask in her daily life. But when she runs ultras, the running community is so welcoming, she often takes it off. “It’s just something I’ve worn ever since the suicide attempt over 20 years ago. People are cruel and they’ll stare and say something awful. I’m still waiting to find a doctor who can fix me up.”
In 2017, she finished her first 50-miler.
“My proudest accomplishment is finishing my first ultra, the Resurrection Pass 50-miler, which is near Anchorage,” she says. “I went out knowing there wouldn’t be much help as it’s a self-supported ultra, and I had never ran that far before. I had to finish. There were no aid stations where you can drop out. I was mostly alone out there. I made it. It was the most incredible moment in all of my ultrarunning experiences when I saw my sister jumping up and down thrilled to know I was still alive. I cried. I fell in love with the distance.”
Now a six-time ultra finisher, Seppilu is still seeking her first 100-mile finish after a few DNFs, including at the 2019 Leadville 100. But the Resurrection Pass instilled a desire in her to continue to challenge herself.
“I knew then that I would do this for a long time. It was kind of a miracle that I did it without any real knowledge of ultra running.”
Runner’s best friend
In Alaska, runners have to be aware of their surroundings more so than other runners. While rare, grizzly attacks can happen. Thankfully, Seppilu has a trusty running partner.
“My dog is a super hero,” she says. “Solar is 10 years old and I’ve had her since she was 9 weeks old. I don’t think she’s a normal dog, I honestly think she’s autistic. She rarely barks, and she absolutely does not bark at large animals which is great because all other dogs do that and they end up getting attacked. Solar knows when there’s a bear around and she’ll let me know.”
Solar warns Seppilu by lowering her head and growling very quietly.
“If the bear is within a mile she’ll give me a quick look as if to say, ‘Start walking away’ and keep her head low and eyes locked on it,” she explains. “I’ll walk away and she’ll come to me when I’m at a safe distance. We’ve come as close as about 50 yards — that bear ran away thankfully — and she’s always very protective.”
Another time Seppilu took her nieces on a trail run. Solar again came to the rescue with a quiet bark.
“I knew there was a large animal,” Seppilu says. “I peeked and sure enough it was a huge muskox. The girls and I ran the other direction and Solar stood guard until we were far enough away, then she came back to us staying behind at a distance keeping an eye behind her as we got out of those trails. She’s very special and I wish I can have her forever.”
Chasing a 100-mile finish
Seppilu’s primary ultra goal for 2020 is to finish her first 100.
“I’m going try to finish a dang 100-miler,” she says. “I’ve been trying since 2017! Ha ha, it’ll happen. I definitely want to go back to Leadville in much better shape. I’m still working on my 50 states goal where I run an ultra in every state. Not sure how long it’ll take for that goal! I also want to be a better runner, it sucks having to race time cut-offs.”
Seppilu has come so far since that dark night when she was 16.
“My ‘why’ for running is the same as it has always been, to push myself and see how far I can go,” she says. “I also run to give others hope as I’ve always had a passion for suicide prevention. When I was a teenager I attempted suicide and miraculously survived. I want to give a message of hope through my running as well.”
Name: Carol Seppilu
Hometown: Savoonga, Alaska
Number of years running: Since summer 2014
How many miles a week do you typically run: About 40, peak 70 during training
Point of pride: I’m proud of my culture and where I come from, I’m an Alaskan native and am involved in our traditions such as native dancing and gathering native foods.
Favorite race distance: 100K, it’s not too short and not overly long.
Favorite pre-race or training food/drink: Pre-race: oatmeal, orange and beet juice. Training food: myspringenergy, Nuun, warm juice for those cold days.
Favorite piece of gear: My watch, can’t go without it!
Favorite or inspirational song to run to: Feels by Kiiara and Time by Hans Zimmer
Favorite or inspirational mantra/phrase: Keep Going
Where can other runners connect or follow you:
• Instagram: @nasqaq