Running with Grief

After experiencing a devastating loss, Kelsey Hoffman finds solace in ultra running and embraces the Mountain Lakes 100 as an opportunity to begin processing her grief.
Kelsey Hoffman Kelsey Hoffman
One-year member and ultra runner
October 03, 2023
Running with Grief
Kelsey and Chad Hughes at the finish line of the Mountain Lakes 100. Photo by Kelsey Hoffman.

The first time I ran the Mountain Lakes 100, I DNFed (Did Not Finish) the race at 61 miles in the middle of an early winter storm. 

The second time I ran Mountain Lakes, I was determined to make up for the previous year and finish the full 100 miles. That year, the weather was great. I finished in 29 hours and 30 minutes. I felt so good about the race that I signed up to run Mountain Lakes again in 2023, hoping to finish the course in 24 hours or less. 

I first encountered the Mountain Lakes 100 as a member of a friend’s race crew. Standing behind the pancake griddle, churning out endless stacks of hotcakes, I knew I had found the race for me. This wacky collection of ultra runners, pushing themselves on a grueling wilderness trail with stiff cutoffs and beautiful views, felt like the place to test my endurance and stamina. And as a teacher, it was important to me that the race fees benefited the Warm Springs Academy (kindergarten through 8th grade) Cross Country and Track teams. 

Before running the Mountain Lakes this year, I PRed (got a Personal Record) in two training races, I was in shape from all the mountaineering conditioners, and I felt strong. I started ticking off the days on my calendar until the day of the race, September 16.

A Heartbreaking Countdown

September 5, ten days before the race, I set up my classroom. This year, I am going into my twelfth year of teaching Special Education. The teachers have one last day of prep time before the first day of school.

At 10am, the principal calls us all down to the cafeteria.

He shares a  terrible announcement: over the weekend my 7-year-old student, his mother, his father, and his infant sister died. Their home burned. His 11-year-old sister, also a student of mine, escaped the horrifying tragedy.

My first thought after hearing this news is my student’s gleeful face, smiling as he runs to greet his older sister at the door of her classroom. An image of him jumping into her arms, the two of them swinging around in circles, sticks in my mind. 

My second thought is of my own younger brother, a ranger in Yosemite National Park. My brother is the person I care for most in this world. We grew up hiking the Sierras and exploring nature together. As kids, we learned to rock climb, and being one another's designated belay buddies brought us even closer. Learning of the death of my student and the survival of his older sister, an overwhelming sense of grief washes over me. What do I do with my student’s hand-labeled folders? How do I erase his name from the whiteboard? What will his sister do without him? 

Nine days until The Mountain Lakes 100. It’s a heartbreaking first day of school for the whole community.

Five days before the race, I go home early from work, throat raw from crying, wishing for an escape to the wilderness. 

Two days before the race and I’m packed and ready. My brain and body are craving the restorative effects of nature. My drop bags are stocked with vegan snacks, and brownies as a gift from my boyfriend, with some not-so-vegan cookies thrown in for good measure. 

One day left and my boyfriend Chad and I drive down central Oregon through dense forests and beautiful river valleys to the start line of the race. We enjoy a pasta dinner next to a lake and head to bed in the back of my Honda CRV, falling asleep to a view of the sunset on the water. 

IMG_5456.jpgOlallie Lake, with Mt. Jefferson peeking over the horizon. 

The Day of the Race

The Mountain Lakes 100 is 101 miles of rugged mountainous terrain. I have 101 miles of forests and wilderness to reflect on the loss of my student. 101 miles to try and distract myself with loving memories and glaciated peaks. 101 miles to let go of regrets as I scramble over rocks. 101 miles to try and make sense of this tragedy. As I run, I come to feel grateful for the time and space to work through my grief in the mountains and forests of Oregon.


For the past 16 days folks have been telling me that grief comes in waves.

A wave of grief overtakes me at mile 48. A bat flits by. My student made the best Halloween decorations, cutting out paper bats and hanging them on the classroom door. I remember this and cry. 

In the middle of the night, at the mile 62 aid station, I am struck by a memory of my student excitedly asking me about last year’s race, his mouth full of fruit gummies. I laugh with the thought of him seeing this table of sweet treats. He would have enjoyed the gummy bears. 

Another wave of grief washes over me at mile 70, this time pushing me to run harder, to make the cutoff. My student loved running. His love of speed and his joy of movement were infectious. I pass tired runners; I fly through the aid station. I make it past the race's official cutoff time of 5am with exactly one minute to spare.

The next wave levels me at mile 83. I’m barely upright, whimpering into my sun shirt and stumbling down the trail, thinking of my mother’s encouraging texts, which remind me of my student’s carefully packed lunch box and all his mother’s love for him.

At mile 96, my boyfriend-turned-pacer finds me with a welcome hug and words of support. It is too late for me to make the final cutoff, but I finish the course anyway. I cross the finish line 30 minutes after the official clock has stopped. 30 hours and 30 minutes, 101 miles, wilderness, grief, gratitude, and all the fruit gummies made this race what it was. 

Gratitude and Grief

I am grateful for all the challenging miles of the Mountain Lakes 100, and I am still grieving. 

Ultra running in the great outdoors has given me many opportunities for gratitude. I am grateful for the time I had with my student, for the miles I got to run with my memories of him, for the community that made this race possible, and for the people who have held me up and held me together these last few weeks.

For any Mountaineer who has lost loved ones or who grapples with grief, I hope you can give yourself the time and space to be in nature, to seek solace in the outdoors. I hope for you to be in community with others who share your passions, and to experience gratitude as you take on challenges. My gratitude for nature has helped me untangle a small part of my grief. My gratitude for my family has helped me start healing. My gratitude for this long, long, race has helped me recognize the joy in my memories. And my gratitude for The Mountaineers and this forum for this story has helped me process. 

IMG_1248.jpgKelsey crossing the finish line. Photo by Chad Hughes. 

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Shawn O'Neill
Shawn O'Neill says:
Oct 10, 2023 06:54 PM

Beautifully expressed Kelsey. I'm so sorry for your loss. Nature provides so much solace - I will pray for you and also the surviving sister.