By Catie Joyce-Bulay
Photograph courtesy of The Leighton Co.
From our September 2021 issue
Last summer, Katie Spotz reached a point that runners know well: the point at which she couldn’t possibly take another stride. But unlike most others who’ve experienced the feeling, she was 132 miles into her run — that’s five marathons’ worth of miles. Her ankles had swollen, and she felt like she was running with her arms rather than her legs. Exhausted, she crumpled on the side of the road, crying and tearing up fistfuls of grass. A member of her support crew offered to run with her the rest of the way, and that got Spotz back on her feet. “It just shocked me out of my little temper tantrum,” she recalls.
For the last few miles, friends jogged alongside and cheered from the curb, and about an hour after almost giving up, she reached the finish, in Freeport. She was the first person to run 137 miles across Maine, from the U.S.–Canada border crossing at Coburn Gore to the coast. It took 33 hours. “We all need people in those moments,” says Spotz, who moved to South Portland two years ago for a posting with the Coast Guard. “I think what’s great about what I experienced at mile 132 is that you’re allowed to feel the weight of the challenge and yet you can still keep going.”
Spotz is no stranger to ultra-athletic challenges. After graduating from college, in 2008, she swam the entire 325-mile length of the Allegheny River, from central Pennsylvania to Pittsburgh. In 2010, she became the youngest person to row across the Atlantic Ocean, from West Africa to South America, which landed her a book deal and international speaking engagements. The following year, while training for the 3,000-mile Bike Across America relay, she broke her pelvis a week before the race, then completed her segment using a handcycle.
Spotz worked at several nonprofits and as a personal trainer over the years, but she found herself looking for a clearer sense of mission. In 2018, she joined the Coast Guard, where she’s now a junior officer involved in emergency-response operations off Maine. This spring, she was named the Coast Guard’s Elite Female Athlete of the Year, shortly before she ran across her home state of Ohio — 11 ultramarathons, 31 miles each, in 11 days. She broke the Guinness World Record for most consecutive ultramarathons and raised nearly $40,000 for clean-water infrastructure projects in Uganda, all in the midst of a heat wave. After one run, her uncle spent an hour scraping melted tar from the soles of her shoes.
All of Spotz’s challenges are designed to attract donations for clean-water initiatives. To date, she’s raised more than $300,000 for projects in a dozen developing countries. In September, she was on to her next endeavor: biking 360 miles along the Maine coast from Lubec to Kittery to raise money for the nonprofit H2O for Life. She was excited, she says, to tour Maine in a less physically taxing way than a 137-mile run. Coming up, she has her sights set on cycling from South America to North America, along the way visiting some of the water projects she’s funded. “Endurance challenges often seem too big, and so does solving the water crisis,” she says. “And yet, change is happening — one mile at a time, one drop at a time.”