Angela Shartel, from overweight spectator to vibrant ultra runner
The Angela Shartel of 2020 is a smiling, healthy, popular ambassador for the trail and ultra running community. Flip back the calendar to the early 2000s, and you will find an Angela Shartel that was a depressed, overweight and abused woman.
“At the peak of it all, I felt like I was an outsider in my own body watching life, being a spectator rather than a participant,” she recalls. “I wore a smile. I guess I appeared happy for the most part, but there was a lot of pain that I was holding inside.”
Before she struggled with weight in her 20s, Shartel was active growing up. She doesn’t consider herself a natural athlete but relished playing in the outdoors, trying new sports and bonding with teammates.
Then over time, unhealthy changes crept in.
“For a long time I didn't realize that it was happening,” she says. “Going through each day, our habits and routines become our norm. And after a while you forget what you're comparing it to. When days run into months into years, that becomes the new norm.”
Shartel got married and soon had her first child, who was born with heart complications.
“She had to go through a couple of different open heart surgeries. And during that time, the marriage started unraveling. It became not only verbally abusive, but on two occasions it led to physical abuse and then a lot of emotional abuse.”
Looking back, Shartel sees that she was in “survival mode but didn't really know it. It became my norm.”
Emerging from a dark place
Her daugther’s health issues and husband’s abuse tore at Shartel.
“Those things are probably what led to my becoming overweight,” she says. “But more than being obese, I was struggling with depression. I was struggling with anxiety. I was sad about my daughter and her heart condition. I had another child, my middle daughter. And then I was sad that these children were being raised with this kind of father and why couldn't I be this kind of mother and then I was scared, ‘Is my daughter going to survive these heart surgeries? Am I going to survive this?’ And then I was afraid of being a single mother.”
Shartel retreated inside for the most part. At home, she would play games with her kids and teach them art. Still, she reached for food and medicine to calm her anxieties.
“I would experience these bouts of sadness and that became overwhelming sadness,” she remembers. “Then I would go to the doctor for that and was diagnosed with depression. And all the while I was consoling myself with food, but I thought that I was taking care of what was wrong with me. It wasn't until I learned that I had high blood pressure and was pre-diabetic that I would think to myself, ‘I need to get out and exercise.’"
Shartel headed to the doctor, thinking she weighed around 170 pounds. The scale disagreed; it read 198 pounds.
“I was sort of stunned. I didn't realize that it had gotten to be where it was. And it was sort of at that point where everything flashed in front of me and I thought, ‘The only thing different in my life that I'm not doing right now is exercising.’"
The first of many defining moments
The doctor told Shartel what she already knew: she needed to lose weight. Shartel gave herself a year to lose 65 pounds and get off all medications, starting on Jan. 1, 2004, which was a few days away.
Shartel set herself up to succeed. She vowed to go to the gym three times a week by herself. Her reasoning was that if a workout partner bailed, Shartel would also find an excuse to not go.
It was challenging in the early going. She felt intimidated by the treadmills, intimidated by the weight room, intimidated by the group classes. She found a safe spot toward the back of the aerobics class.
“The first class was very humbling, actually humiliating to me,” she says. “We went through all of the exercises. At the end we were stretching and the teacher asks us to bend down and touch our toes. I tried to bend down. Not only could I not touch my toes, but I couldn't even breathe while I was bending down. I had to come up for air.”
For Shartel, that was one of her defining moments.
“Life is full of defining moments and what you choose to do with those different moments causes a positive or negative effect,” she says. “To me that was a defining moment of, ‘OK, this is where you're actually at. You cannot touch your toes and breathe at the same time. Are you going to come back to class or are you not?’ And I am that Type A personality, charging bull. I made the commitment that day that I was going to come to that class every week.”
She achieved that goal, which boosted her fitness and confidence enough so that she would advance to the treadmill, StairMaster and then weight training. This also led to her change in diet when she adapted a 1,300-calorie a day diet.
“I decided that I would just keep a food journal,” she says. “That's how I learned to eat healthy really, because the research came when I ran out of calories one day, midday, over a little pint of ice cream.”
It was another defining moment. She faced a decision: eat a good dinner and start over the next day, or keep her commitment. “Being the stubborn person I am, I decided I was done eating for today."
Changing her diet
Shartel turned that experience into a self-taught nutrition lesson. She started checking the calories on foods and realized that she could eat more frequently if she focused on fruits and vegetables.
“After all, I was a food addict and that led to more healthy eating. Then I began exercising with more intensity. I decided to start jogging on the treadmill and I got up to three miles before the end of that first year.”
With the increased activity and reduced calories, Shartel began feeling weak. A friend named Michele who is a doctor counseled her — "I think you need more food" — and Shartel increased her calories beyond the 1,300 limit, which helped her get her energy back.
Then came another defining moment.
At the end of 2004, Shartel lost 60 pounds, just five short of her goal. “I was mad. I considered it a complete failure, which again is a different issue of being so hard on yourself. It was another defining moment as to whether or not I was going to give myself some grace, keep moving forward or give up and call it a worthless effort.”
That’s when Michele offered another life-changing idea: Run-walk the Big Sur Marathon. Shartel signed up for the 21-mile walk-jog the following April at Big Sur.
She started slowly but eventually was able to hit sub-9 minute miles. People kept asking her whether she was going to do a marathon. “No,” she would tell them. “I'm going to do a walk-jog."
As the same question kept popping up, Shartel finalized asked what a marathon was.
“When she told me 26 miles I was like, ‘Are you kidding me?’ I said, ‘We're signed up to do something that's five miles short of something everyone knows about. I think I could do five more miles.'"
Shartel persuaded the race director to let her upgrade to the full marathon.
Like many first-time marathoners, she was nervous at the start line. “It was a pretty surreal experience standing on the start line,” she recalls. “They did a runner's prayer, released all these doves, and we started running in the fog and then we climbed this big hill and we came out of the fog down along the post. I remember thinking, ‘This is the most beautiful thing I've ever experienced.’"
She hit the wall around 21 or 22 miles but gutted it out the finish. “Everything on me was sore and I remember just hobbling. But again, being so happy that I knew I was going complete this, that I was going to be OK. It was just the best feeling when I crossed that finish line.”
Not only did she complete a marathon, she beat her 4-hour goal by a few minutes. In the moment of her incredible accomplishment, a reminder of her past anxieties resurfaced.
“I was so proud of myself,” she says. “And my husband at the time says, ‘Well, you missed qualifying for Boston.’ As awful of a thing as that was to say, I remember thinking, ‘Well what's Boston?’"
Shartel learned all about the historic race, qualifying for and running it twice. Then Michele offered up another life-changing suggestion.
At that point, they had hiked on trails but never ran on trails together. Michele told her, "I think you're really going to like this."
The first attempt “didn’t feel as fluid,” Shartel remembers, noting the rocks, hills and changes in pace. “I did a lot of complaining when I was out there with her for a six-mile run.”
Michele challenged her friend to just give trail running a try for a week, joining her for two or three more runs. "And if you hate it after that, I won't ask you to join me anymore."
“It only took a couple more runs,” Shartel says. "This is pretty cool. We don't have to stop at the lights. I started changing my perspective and really enjoying the time out there and appreciating where I was. It was in my neighborhood where we were running and I had lived there a good 10 years or more and never even been to those trails. So it was kind of a cool thing to experience that.”
Soon enough Shartel signed up for a trail marathon, the Catalina Eco Trail Marathon, which would propel her to her next journey.
Just five more miles
At the start line, Shartel noticed runners wearing 50K and 50-mile race shirts.
"Is that running? Who are these people?" she wondered. After Shartel finished the race, she learned 50Ks were only five more miles than a marathon. Just like when she decided to do her first marathon, she thought, it’s only five more miles.
She remembers encountering some struggles at her first 50K but not was dissuaded.
“I already had a love for the trails and I loved the 50K distance,” she says. “It didn't seem like too much more suffering than the marathon and totally worth it to be out in the dirt, nature and everything. The next step is a 50-miler. And people do it and don't die. It's possible. And so if it's possible, I want to try and do it."
Around the time of her 50-miler is when Shartel got divorced.
“It just became about figuring it out and knowing I'm OK and I can do hard things and I'm going to survive,” she recalls. “At that 50-miler is where I met a lot of the people who I run with today. That was the beginning of those friendships and I just took that natural progression a couple months later to go and take my hand at the San Diego 100 and give it a shot.”
A happy, healthy family
And — best of all — her children also have blossomed.
Her daughter with the heart condition? She celebrated her 23rd birthday last year and her visits to the cardiologist have been reduced to once every two years. Her other daughter is going to graduate from Chico State this May and her 18-year-old son will graduate from high school this spring.
And she has the support of her boyfriend of 10 years, Mike. "He's been so wonderful in helping me heal on the inside with his unconditional love and support."
Shartel is well aware of the difficult decisions she has made and the courage it takes to start. Her advice to other women — and men — struggling with poor health or facing abuse from a partner is to talk about it.
“My biggest recommendation is talk to someone. It doesn't matter who it is. It doesn't matter if it's a close friend, if it's a counselor, if it's a doctor. Talk to someone. Because talking to somebody will let you know that you're not alone. And the minute that you know you're not alone, then hope is there to change. And help is there.”
Shartel is also open to being a resource. “I'm on social media and I have offered since the beginning — and will continue to offer — a listening ear to anybody out there who wants to talk. And I'm more than happy to let them know they're not alone and help them find resources to change their lives.”
‘A blessing and a curse’
Running has provided so much for Shartel. A healthier body. A friendly community. A better life.
“It gave me some solitude where I could ask myself the hard questions and sort things out in my anxious brain,” she says. “As I started doing that and going through this pros and cons list, I started to understand what I wanted. The life I wanted for my kids, the life I do deserve, even though often I felt like I didn't deserve it.”
Shartel found success in ultra running early on.
Almost exactly five years after seeing the scale nearly hit 200, she won the Over the Hill High Desert 50K. Six months later, she won the PCT 50 Miler. And the following month, June 2009, she took third place in the San Diego 100. She has continued to excel, frequently landing on the podium as well as finishing top 10 at Western States in 2010.
“It was a blessing and a curse, honestly,” she says of her early success. “I was really enjoying running, so it was a great outlet and I loved that part of it. I always say I was a big fish in a little pond. The success just made me push harder. These things are hard, but I did really good at that race so if I just keep pushing hard, then maybe I'll do good in another one."
Other runners took notice and Shartel enjoyed the positivity.
“Racing for me is a lot of pressure,” she admits. “I think it's because of that early success. I got a lot of positive attention from it and that felt good. I hadn't had positive attention most of my life. So it became work based and it took me a while to see the authenticity in ultra runners and understand that they're being so happy for me is really because they care about me, not because I won.”
To be competitive in long-distance races, runners not only need physical stamina, they need mental toughness.
“When I first became an ultra runner, one of my early mentors told me, ‘People who are good at ultra running have been training for it their whole lives,’” she says. “What he meant by that was that it's not about winning, it's about learning to get through. It's about having a situation or having a goal, a problem. And the option being to complete it and pulling yourself up by your bootstraps and doing what needs to be done.”
Shartel needed that mental toughness a few years ago for neck surgery to repair a collapsed disc. In racing and training, she had been having issues with headaches, leg cramping, numbness in her feet and constant muscle twitching in her legs. A doctor discovered that her collapsed disc was pinching a nerve and surgery was needed.
After her neck surgery in September 2017, she wasn't sure if she'd be able to run ultras or a 100-miler after that. She couldn't run until mid-November when she started back slowly and progressed to eight miles by the end of the year.
Still, she wasn’t sure if she would be able to run 100 miles again.
Get ready to rumble
Shartel selected the Coldwater Rumble 100 on Jan. 20, 2018, a looped course so that she would have better access to crew and pacers.
"I'm just going to see how the race goes," she remembers thinking, adding that she ended up hiking about 80 percent of the race. “It went fairly well.”
She finished second woman and seventh overall in a time of 22:16:31.
“That gave me the confidence to do a 100-miler again,” she says. “I had been wanting to do Mogollon for a couple of years ever since I attempted it the first time and it got canceled for weather. And then I had to cancel it in 2017 to have my surgery. I went ahead and signed up for it in September 2018 but in the process of recovering from my neck surgery, I'd developed a shoulder injury.”
Shartel lost a lot of muscle mass since she was unable to strength train at that time.
Still, she started — and won — the Mogollon 100. “I probably struggled more than I ever have in a race at Mogollon. And at the end of it, I feel like it just took this enormous toll on my body. I wasn't strong enough physically to do what I made my body do.”
The toll included two peroneal tears in her foot, landing Shartel in a boot.
“At that point I just decided I am not going to make everything fit,” she recalls. “I'm going to step back and start over and work my way back up to being fit enough to do ultras hopefully and just reassess everything.”
Shartel’s involvement in the trail and ultra community goes far beyond simply running races. She volunteers. She paces. She cleans up trails. And in 2019, she took over as the San Diego 100 race director.
“It was nice to find a balance again in my life and doing San Diego 100 certainly took a lot of time but it gave me the outlet that I didn't have since I wasn’t running,” she says. “It was a new focus. It helped me clarify in my mind that I'm going to be a runner as long as I can run. I love running, but I don't need to race and I don't need that approval that I was so desperately seeking when I first started from others and myself. It kind of, everything came full circle. I always say when I run hundreds, the reason I love that distance so much is that I learned a life lesson and in the beginning that first San Diego 100 I learned that I'm going to be OK, that I can survive.”
Name: Angela Shartel
Hometown: San Diego
Number of years running: 15 years
How many miles a week do you typically run: I average 65 miles a week with a low of 45 and a high of 100-plus
Point of pride: I don’t have a singular point of pride. My pride comes from two things. 1. Being able to look myself in the mirror and know that I'm trying to do the best I can for myself and others every day. 2. Hearing or seeing that I've made a positive difference in someone's life.
Favorite race distance: 100 miles
Favorite pre-race or training food/drink: I can't say that I have one other than drinking coffee every morning. I've had everything from steak, vegetables and Indian food the night before a race to eggs and bagels pre-race morning.
Favorite piece of gear: Again, there are several but my "must haves" are InknBurn apparel, Injinji socks and Altra running shoes.
Favorite or inspirational mantra/phrase:
• Spiral Up or Spiral Down.
• Our choices create habits, those habits create consistency, that consistency creates momentum. Depending upon whether your choices in all aspects of life are positive or negative is what determines if you spiral up or down. Where can other runners connect or follow you:
• Facebook: www.facebook.com/angela.shartel
• Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/angelashartel