In a sport obsessed with mile splits and personal records, it's surprising to hear marathoner Kelly Hansen describe her race times as meaningless. "I'm slow," she admitted. "But I don't do it for a time goal."
What she does it for is a love of taking on new challenges, meeting new people and seeing new places around the world through the eyes of a runner.
Hansen is one of an elite group of runners who belong to the "Seven Continent Club," having run a marathon on each of the world's seven continents by the time she was 25 years old.
"I was trying to go for the record of the youngest woman to complete the challenge, but someone beat me to it," she said, explaining that for the Antarctica race only a very small group of runners is accepted, and the first time she applied she was waitlisted. "I was disappointed not to get the record, but for me it was still a victory just to finish the races."
Kelly come lately
You might think that for such an intense undertaking, Hansen had been a runner for years. Not so. "I did my first marathon on a dare from my ex-boyfriend in college," she said. "He basically bet me that I couldn't do it, so of course I had to prove him wrong."
Though Hansen guesses her longest run until that point was about five miles, she gamely laced up and jumped into the legendary Boston Marathon as a bandit. She finished -- barely -- and didn't run another step for three years.
In every marathon, there's a new challenge awaiting you that you haven't met before. You are constantly pushing your limits, both physically and mentally, to stick with it to the end.” -- Kelly Hansen
"It was incredibly frustrating and painful," Hansen said. "I didn't exactly help myself with a lack of preparation."
Though relatively new to distance running, Hansen is no stranger to sports: She played soccer growing up and was into cycling. The running gene was nowhere in her family.
"My brother dabbled a bit in baseball, but that was the extent of it. Neither of my parents were runners," she said. "But everyone was extremely supportive when they found out what I was trying to achieve. My mom even got into planning the logistics -- how would I get from point A to point B in doing all these races so far apart in the world?"
When she returned to running after the three-year hiatus, it was through the organization Team In Training, a not-for-profit group that helps runners, bikers and triathletes reach their athletic goals through specific training programs, while raising money for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society.
"Two of my grandparents died from multiple myeloma, and this was a way I could raise awareness while pushing myself physically," she said.
Along the way to her finishing races on every continent (including marathons in Thailand, Kenya, Ecuador and New Zealand), Hansen learned a thing or two about herself.
"In every marathon, there's a new challenge awaiting you that you haven't met before," she explained. "You are constantly pushing your limits, both physically and mentally, to stick with it to the end."
Because she is an average-pace runner, Hansen pointed out, she's on the course for a long time -- enough time to have doubts and painful thoughts creep into her head.
"I cried at some point in every single race," she said. "Not just because it is hard physically, but because for me, running is an emotional release. I find out more about who I am by doing these races."
Without time goals or a certain running pace to motivate her, Hansen drew on the special places she was running and the people she ran with, to propel her toward the finish line.
"Getting to see the world through running marathons was incredible," she said. "For me, I'm running slow enough that I can take it all in as I go. It's one of the best ways to see another country."
During her seven-race tour, she spent several weeks in some of the locations. "Going out for runs and doing the race itself, you get a better sense for the people and culture than if you just visit as a tourist."
Having finished her multiple-marathon extravaganza, Hansen is looking forward to her next challenge: a century ride in Lake Tahoe this summer with several friends.
How does training for 100 miles on a bike compare to 26.2 by foot?
"Biking is definitely easier on my body," Hansen said. "It's a more fluid motion, less pounding."
Where biking once served as cross-training for her running, right now, the roles are reversed. Hansen does several short rides during the week, then a longer one on the weekend, supplementing her cycling days with running and spin class. She estimates the 100-mile ride will take her about 6.5 hours -- longer than a marathon but, in her eyes, less taxing.
"It's a different type of challenge," Hansen said. "On a bike, you cover the space so much faster. There's less time to think about things hurting or how much farther you have to go, whereas when I'm running, it's a constant mental battle to keep going."
As for future marathons, Hansen can't wait to check a few more exotic locations off her bucket list.
"I'd love to run the Great Wall of China marathon," she said. "And there's a midnight marathon through Mongolia and another in Iceland during summer when the sky is light nearly 24 hours a day. Those are at the top of my list."
Sounds like the perfect motivation to lace up for a run.