In seventh heaven | by Lisa Marshall

Karen “Casey” Cortese

Posted on Mon, Jun 1, 2015

Denverite claims Triple-7 marathon victory for her, Girls on the Run

Karen “Casey” Cortese

Karen “Casey” Cortese

“Why not?”

Karen “Casey” Cortese surprised even herself when, in October 2014, she uttered these words in response to a friend’s lofty request: Would she like to try to run seven half-marathons on seven continents in seven days to raise money for charity?

Cortese had plenty of reasons to say no. She’d gone 17 years without running due to knee pain that ultimately required surgery. She’d picked it back up again recently, but wasn’t fast or competitive. She’d just started a new job and was barely running 20 miles a week. She could, quite possibly, be the slowest runner in the group. And, well, it sounded “really, really hard,” she recalls. She signed up anyway.

“In the past, I had confused being THE best with being MY best and walked away from opportunities when I didn’t think I could be THE best. As a result, I missed out on some things,” recalls Cortese, a 51-year-old marketing executive from Denver. “I decided I was at a point in my life when I was no longer going to be deterred by the idea of something being too hard.”

On Feb. 7, Cortese boarded a 787 Dreamliner for a 16-hour flight to Melbourne, Australia, where she would meet 34 other runners (many of them veteran marathoners) for the inaugural Triple 7 Quest. The adventure race takes runners, who pay about $14,000 each, to Melbourne; Abu Dhabi, UAE; Paris, France; Tunis, Tunisia; Long Island, New York; Punta Arenas, Chile; and King George Island, Antarctica, to run certified half-marathon or marathon courses. Cortese ran for Girls on the Run, a nonprofit youth development program that uses non-competitive running as a tool to empower girls in third through eighth grades.

Girls on the run

Casey with her mom and sister in China

“I felt like what I was trying to prove to myself was exactly the kind of message that Girls on the Run is trying to convey to its girls – that it’s important to take risks and try new things you never thought you could do,” she says.

Running aside, she spent 85 hours in flight or in airports, using a cramped seat in coach as her hotel, and potato chips and airplane food for pre-race carbo-loading. She traveled through multiple time zones, slept as little as three hours at night, and relied on adrenaline to keep the jet lag and sleep deprivation at bay. Remarkably, her flight was only delayed twice, and she never got sick or injured. The bonds she forged with other runners were uniquely tight. “You just had these intense moments of being with people on an emotional level you don’t often experience elsewhere,” she says.

But at times, she had to dig deep.

After a glorious first race in low-60s Melbourne weather, she faced 96-degree temperatures and a scorching headwind in Abu Dhabi. The picturesque lake-side half in the French countryside was so perfect it even included chocolate and gourmet cheese at the finish. But the next race, which started in Africa just 19 hours after the previous one started, was far from ideal. The hilly course ran through the historic city of Carthage in Tunis at night. There were no spectators, or porta-potties, so she had to duck into an all-night Fat Burger for a pit stop. In Chile, she brought no water, assuming there would be some along the course. She was wrong. She couldn’t drink from the local tap, so she went hours without fluids. “It was tough, but you just find ways to get through the dark places,” she says.

One thing that helped: Reading a card from a Girls on the Run participant prior to each race. Some girls came from broken homes or poverty. Many participants had struggled with low self-esteem until Girls on the Run offered them a glimpse of their potential. All were following Cortese’s progress online. “Casey showed these girls that all you have to do is put one foot in front of the other, and you can reach your goal – that it is not about how fast you do it but that you just do it, says Lisa Johnson, Girls on the Run of the Rockies executive director. “That’s an important message.”

girls on the run antartica town

Antartica town

The lowest and highest points of Cortese’s trip came at the end. As their plane prepared to touch down in Antarctica for her seventh and final half-marathon, the pilot announced the fog was too thick, and he couldn’t land. “My heart just dropped into my stomach. It was such a let-down,” she says. They flew the 2.5 hours back to Chile to wait it out for a few days. After they were told it was the worst flying conditions in 30 years, and the Antarctica course looked unlikely, she and a friend decided to run the Chile course again to get their seventh run in. She ran it harder and faster than all the others (2:25:00) but just as she approached the finish line, she heard a friend calling from the window of the hotel. The Antarctica trip was back on, and they were leaving in two hours.

Cortese spent that night camped in a tent in a rocky, wind-swept field on King George Island and awoke to 20-degree temperatures and snow. As she climbed out of her tent at 5:30 a.m., she changed her plans. She decided to run the full marathon. Eight hours later, after a frigid but spectacular run past blue glaciers and penguin colonies, she crossed the finish line, greeted by applauding fellow runners (including 65-year-old Girls on the Run fundraiser Ila Brandli, who had just finished her 100th marathon) and one sea lion.

She had run eight races on seven continents in 11 days and raised $12,000-plus for Girls on the Run. “I just kept thinking I had this group of girls back home that I was running for, and I would get a big smile on my face,” she says. “That last mile was amazing.”

Girls on the Run triple 7 questBy the numbers

  • Training miles:  480.3
  • Marathon miles: 117.9 miles
  • Run time: 27:46:12
  • Flying miles: 39,748 miles
  • Money raised: $12,141

Girls on the Run of the Rockies

Provides after-school programming for 20,000 girls along the Front Range. Girls meet twice a week in small teams for 12 weeks, learning about teamwork, relationships, and self-understanding via non-competitive running games. At the end, they run a 5K.



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