Grit and Determination

As Katherina Laan headed into 2020, she was in peak condition and looking forward to a packed race schedule. She only just discovered ultrarunning four years earlier, but had already acquired an impressive collection of 100-mile and 50k podium finishes.

It all came to a grinding halt when the pandemic hit. Races were canceled, and Katherina was soon searching for new goals to feed her momentum. She participated in a number of virtual races but nothing could quite recreate a 100-mile endurance race.

She didn’t have to look much further than outside, where Mount Tamalpais, a peak in Marin County, CA, beckoned with an elevation of 2,500 feet. If she ran that 16 times, she could replicate a 100-mile race and still be close to home.

On Dec. 5, 2020, supported by her husband, three kids, and the local ultrarunning community, Katherina became the first person to summit Mount Tam 16 times for a total of 105 miles. Her time of 32:49 is a testament to the brutal 40,000 feet gained in elevation.

“Once you do something like that, you feel pretty accomplished just by doing it,” she says, adding that the experience taught her the power of hard work. “Definitely if you move with an effort — any effort — your base fitness is going to be strong, there’s no question about it. That’s the main thing I’ve learned.”

Katherina was just 36 when she discovered trail running, but it didn’t take long for her to get hooked. Originally from Estonia, a move to Marin County was all the motivation she needed.

“It’s the place we live. It’s so beautiful, and there are so many trails,” she says. “Trail running is basically walking but a little faster, so it was easy to transfer into running.”

After a friend talked her into running a half-marathon, she soon tested the ultrarunning waters with a 50k. Then in 2015 she tackled Miwok 100k, a winding California coastal course where she came in 292nd place with a time of 15:23.

“I’m proud of my very first ultra the most because I didn’t know what I was doing, but I was able to be mentally strong enough to finish,” she says. “That was the most awesome feeling. I couldn’t believe that I had done it, and that encouraged me to do better and be stronger.”

Katherina confidently returned to Miwok a year later and shaved two hours off of her time. In 2019, she cut another two hours, earning a 3rd place finish with a time of 11:29. She ended the year with three podium finishes.

Despite the pandemic’s disruption, Katherina picked up right where she left off in 2022 when she won San Diego 100 with a time of 22:01. It was a four-hour improvement over her time in 2019.

Six months later, a last-minute ticket gained her entry to 2023’s Hawaiian Ultra Running Team’s 100-mile endurance run (HURT,) a course choked with tree roots. Here, she nimbly picked her way to a 2nd place finish with a time of 26:46.

Part of Katherina’s success can be attributed to constantly tinkering with and making adjustments to her training regime.

“Can I eat better, can I train better, can I feel less injured?” she says of her process. “It’s a race, you’re going to be hurting. But you can be better prepared.”

One way she prepares is by doing hot yoga and going to the sauna with friends.

“I always do heat training. Your body gets less oxygen and it learns to adapt,” she says. “It’s so mentally cleansing as well. You talk shit in there, whatever comes to mind. It’s the best therapy.”

Another area of focus is nutrition.

“Leading up to a race, I’m always trying to make sure I get everything I need from my food and not taking a lot of supplements,” she says. “Figuring out those things has been what I’m most proud of.”

Nutrients are one of 11 health systems analyzed by BellSant. The body needs 40 different types of nutrients, with needs fluctuating as we age. Tracking nutrient levels for water, fat, and minerals can help identify deficiencies and provide valuable insights on metabolism.

While Katherina views food as fuel, she keeps a healthy perspective on her diet.

“I try to eat healthy, but that for me means eating balanced, not eating more or less than I need to. I listen to my body,” she says. “But I also love junk food. French fries are my favorite foods. And I don’t think I can give that up. Ever. I think stressing about what you eat is worse for your body.”

In 2024, Katherina is preparing a return to HURT. She is modest about her goals for the rest of the year, but acknowledges that she has reached a level of earned confidence with running.

“You know, I think finally, after nine years of running ups and downs, I feel like I am an athlete and a runner. And I can talk about it more comfortably,” she says. “In the end, this lifestyle brings me so much joy, and I’m a better person for it.”

Story told by: Millicent Skiles

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