It is said that roughly 1 percent of the population will ever finish a marathon. A small portion of that group will add ultra marathoner to their resume. And a small percentage of that group will ever complete a 100-mile race.
And a fraction of that tiny number will ever finish six 100-milers in one year.
But that is precisely what Karen Bonnett-Natraj did in 2019 when she turned 63.
Bonnett-Natraj has not always been a runner. She started out with a passion for ultra cycling. “I did not like running, the bike was more fun.”
‘Maybe, I should run’
She got hooked on cycling in the 1990s when she joined some family members for the MS 150 ride, which was from Phoenix to Parker, Ariz., in a two-day event. After moving back to California, she became inspired to do the 100-mile Foxy’s Fall. Then she knocked off a 200-miler and learned about a French series called the Brevets.
“The biggest thing to accomplish is the Paris-Brest-Paris, which is a 1200K,” she says. “I listened to people's stories and just got inspired.”
To prepare for that, she did a 1,200K from Davis, Calif., to Davis Creek at the Oregon border.
“I wanted to try a 1200 before I went to Paris and see, can I finish this?” she explains. “I did and I was first woman. It was the experience of a lifetime. Then the next year, two years after that, I went to Paris in 2003 and just had the time of my life. We rode from just outside of Paris to Brest, which is out by the ocean and back. Just to be around 5,000 riders from all over the world that come and do this, it was just awesome.”
Bonnett-Natraj did one more 1200K, from Boston to Montreal and back. “I loved cycling. But then I thought, maybe I should run.”
Embracing the running community
A friend persuaded her to run a marathon, which she did in December 2000. She continued to run, throwing in marathons here and there. Then, in 2007 a friend talked her into her first 50K. The following year, friends talked her into her first 50-miler. Soon enough she sought out her first 100-miler.
If the act or running didn’t win her over, the running community certainly did.
“I met some runners who were just super fun and crazy,” she says. “And they actually worked by me. They said that they do these lunch runs, just across the river from where I worked. My boss let me come in early. And I took an hour plus lunch and ran with them. They got me hooked.”
Bonnett-Natraj grew her population of running friends and miles. In 2009, she met Nattu Natraj, her husband.
“He was a crazy 100 miler who had done Badwater, the Sahara desert and other crazy stuff,” she recalls. “He was blown away with all the cycling I did and I was blown away with all the running he did. Then I think a lot of the inspiration of him is we just started running 100s and then I'd just gotten carried away with it.”
Six 100s, plenty of memories
They both remain active 100-mile runners, often taking turns pacing and crewing one another. In 2019, Karen’s schedule kept Nattu busy with pace and crew duties.
She completed Old Dominion in June, the Vermont 100 in July, the Wasatch 100 in September, Javelina Jundred in late October, Rio Del Lago a week later and Across the Years in December.
“That was the first time I did Old Dominion,” she says. “The history of that one was really cool because I live here at the Western States trail and that's on the Eastern States trail. I was a little intimidated by the 28-hour cutoff, but it still was a great run. I think the most exciting part last year was that for the second year in a row I did Javelina and Rio Del Lago back to back. Both for those runs, I was an hour faster than I was a year before.”
While she enjoys the races themselves, she brings an inquisitive mindset to her racing.
“I'm really intrigued with how many I can do, with the journey and how well I can recover,” she says. “I'm intrigued with the body and how well it wants to survive.”
She has collected several years of finishing four to six 100 milers. The only thing seemingly that can stop her is a global pandemic. “This year won't go that way. It won't go that way for anybody.”
A DNF at Western
She would have had a seventh 100 last year but had a DNF at Western States.
When Bonnett-Natraj reached the snow and ice atop the escarpment, she slipped. “I threw my leg out and I didn't pay much attention to that,” she remembers. “Then when I got to Forest Hill, my lower back was pretty tight. I tried stretching it. I wanted my husband to bring me some Deep Blue but he forgot it. I couldn't climb. My time was really good and I was way above schedule, way ahead of the clock.”
But the injury eventually took its toll. Later her pace receded. “I couldn't walk. I couldn't climb so we were doing a really slow pace. It was my lower back and it had affected my walking. Never ever experienced it before but I think what contributed to it was the fact that I had stopped all my core work (due to shingles) during training. It made a difference on my performance.”
Bonnett-Natraj was looking forward to going back to Western this year after her number was drawn in the lottery of attendees at the drawing. Now that the historic race has been cancelled, she will aim to complete the Grand Slam in 2021.
A triumph at Western
Western States is, of course, important to her. Not only does she live nearby, it is where she achieved one of her greatest triumphs, similar to the finish by Gunhild Swanson a few years ago.
But the story of Bonnett-Natraj’s finish at the 2017 Western States actually begins in 2015 when she broke her ankle. It wasn’t until October 2016 when she was able to run 100 miles again.
“Holy cow — that whole journey!” she exclaims when the question is asked. “Before I was totally healed from the injuries, I ran Javelina to get my first ticket. Then I came into 2017 like a new runner. I went through all the normal aches and pains with shin splints and all that stuff. I had up and down recovery and training. I was trained but I had the muscle memory and the mental attitude for 100.”
That year at Western, the deep snow and mud slowed her down.
“When I got to Robinson Flat, I was in tears and scared because I was 20 minutes from the absolute cutoff,” she recalls. “I worked real hard through the canyons because I realized I didn't have my lights. I worked hard from getting from Robinson to Michigan Bluff and I got there just as it turned dark. Then I was looking to sit down and get a hug and then my husband looks at me and says, ‘Get out of here.’ Everybody's yelling at me to get out.”
Her brother, Paul, began pacing her and the race against the clock was on.
“We worked hard. I worked hard the whole time I ran that whole thing, still chasing the cutoff. I ran it scared. I ran it in tears. I ran it listening to my brother yelling at me.”
They reached No Hands Bridge with 3.4 miles to go in 57 minutes “and two more stupid climbs,” she says.
‘Make me run’
The aid station was almost completely packed up.
“I knew what that meant because Western States doesn't take down their aid stations when there's people left out there,” she says. “They didn't know I was out there and they didn't know another guy was out there. Man, the depths in my heart. I'm crying. I didn't know what I could do here."
She told Paul to "make me run. I was just in this fog of fear. We get to the top of Robie Point and Paul is freaking out, but I'm letting him freak out for me.”
The aid station volunteers told Paul there was no cutoff there but they prefer runners to reach it at the 20-minute mark.
There were 17 minutes and one more climb to go before the 30-hour time limit would strike.
“Oh my God, it was a stupid climb,” she says. “Then Tim Twietmeyer came back and found me at Robie Point and poured two ice cold bottles on my head because it was record heat. He says, ‘You got this Karen.’ Oh my God. Then I'm running down Finley Street, just hoping to God I don't do a face plant on that asphalt.”
Andy Jones Wilkins, running with her in flip flops, encouraged her as they headed toward Placer High School.
“I get on the track and I could just feel the ground vibrating with everybody screaming. I can hear John Medinger call out my name, but I'm not listening. Paul's yelling at me to get over into the first lane to be on his heels because my brother's got these long legs and he can do a seven-minute pace and I'm just holding on for dear life.”
Bonnett-Natraj says she had no idea how close she was until she came around the corner and saw the clock.
“Holy shit! I'm going to make it. I had crowds of people behind me or chasing me with their cell phones. I had hundreds of cameras in front of me getting a shot of this filthy, stressed-out lady coming in. It was emotionally draining cause I was emotional from Robinson all the way to the finish mark. It just took everything I had.”
Official time: 29:59:51.
That finish is not only memorable but has helped her when facing other adversity in different races or training runs. And it’s help her give back with sage advice to the running community.
She remembers an encounter with Amy Clark, the editor of Ultrarunning Magazine, during the 2019 the Canyons Endurance Run 100K.
“She wasn't too sure she would finish,” Bonnett-Natraj recalls. “And I say, ‘Look, if I can do Western States with nine seconds to spare, you can do anything.’ She said that resonated with her. I mean it’s just me being me, but it's true. If I pulled that off, anybody can pull it off. It’s all. About mindset.”
Love, freedom and solitude
It’s that strong mindset that keeps Bonnett-Natraj going even during a pandemic that has essentially wiped 100-mile races off her calendar for 2020. She stays off single-track trails and more frequently runs on roads where there are more options for keeping a safe distance.
“We’re just a mile from the last three mile section of the American River 50 course,” she says. “We go out early and I wear a Buff around my neck. When I see people, I just pull my Buff up. It’s getting better now. When it first happened, there were tons of people out.”
As for her race calendar, she is taking a wait and see approach. Looking beyond 2020, she is interested in taking on a 200-mile challenge.
“The logic and training for that type of race is hiking,” she says. “Focusing on becoming a better hiker is key because you're going to hike a lot of it. I'm really good on lack of sleep. I can do pretty well on a 100 with no sleep.”
Her cycling background could also pay off. During the 1200K races, competitors would grab some sleep. “I learned that from doing the 1200Ks, you have to sleep. You can't be out there for 90 hours or even 75 hours and expect not to sleep.”
She says the Tahoe 200 is the most likely because of its proximity, then pauses. “What the heck? Maybe we’ll do that Triple Crown. Why not?”
Bonnett-Natraj has come a long way from when she was a cyclist who detested running.
“Now, I love how I feel. I love the freedom of it, especially being out in nature. It’s the solitude of being out there. Just the smells and the heat, the trees and just everything. It's like a meditation in a sense. I love the peacefulness of it. I love the journey of it. I just love how I feel before, during and after.”
Name: Karen Bonnett-Natraj
Hometown: Auburn, Calif.
Number of years running: 20 years.
How many miles a week do you typically run: 40 to 75.
Point of pride: Running multiple 100 in a year and throwing in an Ironman or two.
Favorite race distance: 100 miles.
Favorite pre-race or training food/drink: Salmon, salad, mashed potatoes and veggie the night before, morning of is coffee and a banana with homemade almond butter
Favorite piece of gear: Adorable purple running skirts,
Favorite or inspirational song to run to: I don’t listen to music, I listen to nature. So I guess it is the tune of the birds chirping.
Favorite or inspirational mantra/phrase: I can do it. I got this. Pick your feet up. (My husband chants this to me when he paces me.) On my own I embrace the journey, take in the nature and find the gratitude to be out there.
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