Moving mountains. (Why I coach.)

Trasnrockiees Run, 2016, Colorado 2016.
Lots of mountains climbed.

“These mountains that you are carrying, you were only supposed to climb.” ― Najwa Zebian

This is my favorite quote.

These words often worm their way into my mind during a tough workout or race as a sort of mantra. If you were running/cycling with me you might hear me mumbling ‘…climb….’ Sometimes with an expletive.  Sometimes just that single word.  It’s at those moments when this quote is going through my head. 

For a long while this was a mind-expanding epiphany. Now it’s profoundly motivating and a touch-stone of sorts. This quote has found it’s way to the core of my coaching philosophy.  

Turns out I was not the only one trying to freaking carry the Cascade Mountain Range on my back – when it was meant to be climbed, explored, enjoyed. 


When someone is tackling a lifestyle shift that involves triple-digit weight loss or battling health complications that accompany obesity or reversing life-long unhealthy behaviors; there’s some… uh… tremendous baggage we have to trip over, name, claim, move, give-away and figure out along the way.  

Mountains of shit.  

Mountains. 

So, I have one simple job at the very start: I listen to their mountain(s).  

Listen patiently and with grace and creating space for them to be raw, honest and share and say things they’ve perhaps never said aloud/confessed/acknowledged to another person.  

When someone is willing to trust you and tell you how they got to a place they really don’t want to stay, a place that might even be trying to kill them, a place they aren’t even sure how/when they arrived…  A place that is oddly and sadly more comforting that the unknown of trying to change…

Honor them by listening to them talk about the mountains they are carrying.

Those mountains they’re carrying, they’re going to have to learn in their own way, and in their own time, that they were meant to be climbed.

If I’m really lucky, they’ll invite me along for the learning, work, sweat and adventure that follows when we learn to climb ‘their’ mountain one step at a time. 


I get asked ‘why do you coach?’ and ‘what kind of people do you coach?’

The simple truth?

I got certified as a health and wellness coach because I wanted to be the person I NEEDED when I was starting to lose weight, reverse type 2 diabetes and learning to be active as a morbidly obese woman.

I’m coaching the kind of people I was just a few short years ago.

I was obese, morbidly obese, grossly overweight, fat.  Call it what you want. I was very ill, unhealthy, with a lifestyle-induced disease. Yet I had this wild, burning desire to change things and NOT A SINGLE CLUE where to start…. I needed help.

There was a whole lot of wonderful/helpful/supportive humans who had (and still have) my back and I refuse to deny their role in helping me change my life…

…But the other truth was that I needed a level of specialized expertise I couldn’t find…

You can’t take someone who is inactive and carrying 100-300+ pounds and apply a normal ‘weight loss and activity’ plan. You can’t. Well you can, and the desperate client is going to try to do what’s being asked; and they’re likely going to get hurt and discouraged and give up. I know what I’m talking about. That cycle of failure is one I know intimately.

The coach has two jobs… The first is to believe in your client. The second is to start from where they ARE; not where they used to be, or where they think they should be…

  • What do you do if you can’t reach your feet to tie your shoes? Or normal shoes don’t fit on your feet?
  • Where can you find a 48FFF bra that someone can actually run in? How do I compress my belly rolls or other body bulk so I don’t get hurt when trying to move?
  • What if I’ve been (or get) laughed at, or the race times don’t allow me to be on the course because I’m slow or the gym equipment is not rated for my weight?
  • How do you start running/moving when you weigh 300+ pounds?
  • What if you have complicating medical conditions that limit what you do – they aren’t just handy excuses; but real barriers?
  • What if no one else in your life supports your desire or efforts to change?
  • What if you can not do even day ONE of the ‘Couch to 5K program’? You can’t even get on the gym floor to try a sit-up/push-up? You get winded walking up the stairs to the indoor track?

The issues that the overweight/obese face and deal with in their daily lives can swamp them before they even get started on a routine. They see the mountain they have to carry or climb; when you’re 100+ pounds overweight ‘carry’ AND ‘climb’ seem to be the same effing insurmountable level of effort needed...  They know it’s going to be chaos, messy, uncomfortable, lonely, discouraging and hard and they barely have the energy to get through the day.  They’ve likely failed in previous attempts. They need someone who’s been there and can help them navigate the barriers and feel some hope and stay focused on the long-term goals.

I have a health and wellness coaching certification. This past Fall I went one step further and got additional education and training in working with those who are inactive, obese and/or are dealing with chronic illnesses. I spent hours learning how to get people moving safely and get some solid lifestyle skills in place to keep them moving towards health. Learning about change behavior, social/physical obstacles and best practices. It was odd to learn about all of this and look back and apply it to my own journey. I got a lot right with sheer determination and dumb luck. I got plenty of stuff wrong – and now I know better and will help others do better. 

As someone invited into a life-changing process, how can I help people learn to CLIMB the mountain instead of carrying it?

I coach because I have been in their shoes. And their 48FFF bra. And their sweat-drenched clothes from walking a mile. And questioning whether a piece of gym equipment can handle my weight.

I coach because I love helping people find a new, healthy path in their life.  

I coach because the people I’m lucky enough to support are doing the exceptionally hard work of trying to get handle on their lives. I know how hard that work is. 

I know, as their coach, that I’m being invited into a really special place in their journey to help them figure out exactly how to get started climbing when they’re standing at the bottom of a mountain and aiming for the top.  

My coach Spencer.  He led with belief in what I was trying to do and together we worked out the details of HOW to make it happen…
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Los Cabos Ironman 70.3

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1.2 mile ocean swim, 56 mile bike, 13.1 run.

That’s how you get the 70.3.

78 degrees water temp, 84 degree biking/running temp.

70 minute cutoff out of the water. 5:30 cutoff on the bike from the start. 8:30 cutoff on the run from the start.  My goal was FINISH, or if we want to get really specific, I was hoping to pull off an 8:15-8:20 finish and beat the cutoffs.

This was my first triathlon. Ever.

Mike Larsen (Spencer’s coach and my friend) talked me into trying this. I was cussing him at points and turns during training. His ears had to be burning intensely the 48 hours prior to the start.

Mike is the kind of man who instils instant confidence with short declarative statements of absolute belief in your abilities. Someone believing in you is powerful-good medicine in my book. When he said ‘Bets, you’re ready, why aren’t you doing this?’ I freaking hit ‘register’ on the event before really thinking it through.

And then I buckled down and trained hard and well and smart.

Waiting on the beach, sun rising, with a bunch of nervous-as-hell, back-of-the-packers, getting ready for a running start from the sand of Palmilla Beach into the ocean to swim… I thought I was going to cry, puke, pass out, grab a cab all the way back to Oregon AND kick Mike Larsen in the shins for convincing me I could try this distance. I felt like I didn’t want to disappoint Mike. Or Spencer. Or me. Or any of the humans in my life who hand me their blind belief when I tell them my wild dreams. I was in Mexico, standing on a beach with 1,000 other people, in a bathing suit, getting ready to run into the ocean and swim a mile.

Dumbest. Idea. Ever.

Swimming for me has been a damned soap opera. I panic in the water. Like; flop on the deck of pool and cry. I never learned how to swim as a child. I’m not strong or fast in the water. Getting to the ocean swim was a white-knuckle, mean-street-fight of simple grit over the past few years. I worked my ass off to get to a point where I could swim remotely well enough to even think I could try this.

Standing on the beach watching the fast folks run into the ocean – Spencer among them – I decided that my mind was my biggest tool in this whole thing. She needed to be on my side. She needed to believe we were doing this. So I had a little internal pep talk.

‘We’re doing this… We’re strong. We’re brave. We’ve worked so hard. And you can always grab a kayak and go back to shore – but you HAVE TO START. And SMILE DAMN IT!… You are alive to be part of this. You chose this. Quit acting like a kicked dog who doesn’t belong here. YOU EARNED THIS — go swim…. ‘

The man at the swim chute patted me on the back and said ‘vamanos’. I ran down the beach and hit the water. Ran a bit in the shallow water and then — dove and started swimming.

The first 750 meters was ugly. I couldn’t breathe, I couldn’t get into a rhythm with a stroke. I was hitting people. They were hitting me. I was fighting waves and currents. I was fighting panic. I finally decided I was done. I was quitting.  I couldn’t do this.  I was clearly in over my head. I looked for a kayak to flag over and tell them I’d like a lift back to shore. I was bobbing up and down in the water getting face-smacked by the waves. Done. I wanted to be done. I would just go watch Spencer race this thing.

My trail sister Daisy – her brother Scott was a triathlete. Scott was killed in a training ride over a year ago. It was a horrible, senseless tragedy. I had talked to Daisy before coming down here to get a boost of confidence and she had said Scott would be proud of me for being scared senseless and doing this anyway. So I was bobbing up and down in the water, unable to see a kayak, wanting to cry and finally said out loud — ‘SCOTT… Uh, wanna swim with me…? I’m terrified. Daisy said I could ask you for help…’

Then I got stung by a jellyfish. Ouch. Stung a second time. WTF? That hurt…

Then I pulled my head out of my ass and decided that I wasn’t going to quit this thing.

I was not going out of this event without a fight.

I put my head back in the water determined to get cut-off in the 70 minutes and dragged out of the water, but this was not ending with me QUITTING… I started to swim and saw a pair of feet (ugly feet BTW) and bubbles and I suddenly knew — I FOLLOW THIS GUY. I stick to him like glue and swim for all I’m worth to keep following him. I am 100% convinced his name was Scott. 🙂 I swam hard and strong and learned to turn to the non-chop side to breathe, and breathe on the 2 count, not the 3 count. I threw my training out the window that worked for the pool and got aggressive about adapting to the ocean. I didn’t worry about sighting the buoys — he ‘ Scott’ was doing that work. And I swam… Hard. Steady. Turning around buoys, never losing site of the ugly feet, and finally I could see the bottom of the ocean coming up to meet us and I could see… shore… Whoa. SHORE.

I came out of the water and Tracey was there and I said ‘Did I make the cut off????! and she said ‘YES! GET YOUR ASS ON YOUR BIKE!’ So I took off running to my bike.

59:56 out of the water on a 70:00 cutoff.

Then it hit me.

I never for one hot-second thought I was going to actually get out of the water.

I hadn’t looked at the bike course. I was going through the motions getting ready for this thing; but I had not convinced my mind I could swim. The details of the bike and run were murky at best. And now I was going to get to go bike and run! IN MEXICO, in an IRONMAN…. WOO HOO!

The bike was hilly. The roads were in pretty crap shape. HUGE potholes, lots of determined driving to keep from wrecking my bike. Spencer was kicking ass on the bike and was coming toward me on the out and back and gave me a subtle 2-finger wave as he sped past that I knew meant ‘YOU GOT OUT OF THE WATER AND I AM SO FUCKING PROUD OF YOU. FINISH THIS THING.’

And it was game on…

I had gotten out of the water.

I was on my bike.

I rode as aggressively as I could. I love my bike. I’m getting better all the time. I at one point hit a pothole and lost all the fuel out of my pockets and damn near wrecked my bike. So I had to play fueling catch up for the rest of the ride/run — which was not ideal, but my ultrarunning training kicked in and I happily looked for ways to adapt. It was hot and hilly, but I loved every single pedal stroke of that course. Ocean on one side. Desert on the other. Fans yelling ”Andale Vamanos!” and cheering wildly. Aid stations so stocked and friendly. I learned QUICKLY how to keep peddling, grab bottles, eat fuel and throw the trash in a very short distance.

I looked at my watch and it said I had been on the course for 2:51. I knew I was biking about 16 MPH and that I had 16 miles left. I remember thinking ‘Mike would be so freaking proud of me if I could break 4:00 hours on this ride…’ My goal had been roughly 4:30. I picked a bigger gear and decided to push. I wanted Mike to be proud of me. And honestly — I was kind of trying to chase down Spencer. I worked hard all summer learning to handle my new bike; now was the time to throw it all together and finish this thing strong.

I hit the bike finish line at 3:50 and ran into the transition. Racked my bike, threw on my shoes. Started walking out briskly to eat and settle down and get the feeling back in my feet.

I exited the transition to start the run and saw Spencer and said ‘I FINISHED THE SWIM!!!!’ He said ‘Enjoy every moment of this.’

I walked fast, jogged. I had to wake my feet up from the bike. I was hot. The pavement was new blacktop. But I know how to run on tired legs. And I was grateful to be healing so well from a bad hamstring/knee injury. I was NOT going to hate on even a single second of this run. Again – ultrarunning training kicked in. I grabbed ice and stuffed it in my bra. Dumped water on my head, ran from shade spot to the next palm tree shadow. I pulled out all the ‘cool body temps’ tricks and used them.

In the back of the pack — we usually form informal tribes. We cheer each other on. This event, with a multitude of languages, was no different. Encouragement in forms/languages/gestures I didn’t understand as anything other than encouragement. I gave back all that I got.

I was coming into mile 7(ish) – the turn around. And I saw a face that was a brand-new-to-me friend. She’s a professional athlete. Her name is Adelaide. And she was cheering for me – using my name. I was floored. She’d been done for hours – and she had come back onto the course to cheer for me. I stopped and said ‘how’d you do ?!” And she started yelling and waving her arms at me ‘DO NOT STOP — RUN, RUN, RUN!!!’ So I did.

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Adelaide and her husband Kennett, so, so supportive!  Kindness matters.  Deeply.  They’re proof.

Shortly after that, I heard Spencer cheering. I was DYING to know how he had done. He jogged next to me for a few steps and I said ‘How did you do?’ he simply said ‘Podium.’ I sobbed. Another story entirely, but to see someone work hard and chase their dreams and have a stellar day,  all of that was contained in that one word… He kept telling me to run – and I was; crying for pride and happiness for him.

Between Adelaide’s kindness at staying at the event to cheer on a back-of-the-pack athlete and Spencer’s podium finish news — I negative split the last half of the run.  I was running with the lightest heart and springy legs and … I was just happy to be able to run and I was feeling fit and healthy.

Coming into the finish I caught up to a guy walking. Santiago. We had been sharing bike/road miles trading places during the day. There was NO WAY HE WAS WALKING to the finish line. I patted him on the back and said ‘think maybe we should finish this thing together?’ He smiled and fell in beside my slow, steady run gait. We ran the last mile. He let me cross the line right before him.

I will admit it’s pretty damn cool to hear ‘Betsy Hartley, Bend, Oregon, YOU are an Ironman.’

I finished in 7:47 (ish).

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