Her race to doctorate aided by brutal marathon feat

January 10, 2020 / by / 0 Comment
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By Ashlee Larrison
GCU News Bureau

Debra Bartkowski rings the bell after successfully completing 250 miles in the “3 Days at the Fair” race.

Everyone is good at something. For Grand Canyon University doctoral learner Debra Bartkowski, it’s running.

Bartkowski’s father trained lifeguards after retiring from the military and encouraged her to run alongside them as they did laps from buoy to buoy. He promised her ice cream if she was able to zoom past them. 

She was 11 years old.

“I would fly like as soon as I hit the buoy. I would just fly back to him and then he would give me a big hug and would say, ‘OK, go meet Mom, she’s going to get you ready,’” she said. “I didn’t know that he would be staying back to yell at all of the lifeguards about how they were beaten by an 11-year-old girl.”

That would shape her from a child capable of outrunning grown lifeguards and into a woman whose drive led to graduating from GCU twice and becoming a world leader in distance running.

For Bartkowski, who is pursuing her Ph.D. in General Psychology with an Emphasis in Industrial Organizational Psychology through the College of Doctoral Studies, running has become a way to overcome obstacles in her life. It’s a way to conquer her struggles with dyslexia or power through 250 miles at the “3 Days at the Fair” ultra-marathon in Augusta, N.J., and cracked the top 20 list of runners in the world.

“Really running was an outlet for me,” she said. “I feel like you can solve all the world’s problems on a good long run.”

Bartkowski was able to get snacks and water at the aid station during the race.

In high school, Bartkowski struggled in her classes and couldn’t figure out why she had trouble comprehending what she read. Then a teacher asked her if she knew what dyslexia was.

“I’m very prideful. My mother is a doctor herself — she’s a psychologist — so it was really frowned upon to kind of come out (with dyslexia). There was kind of a stigma,” Bartkowski said. “I went through school really struggling with reading comprehension and math skills, and so I never really thought that I was worthy to stand up and be counted in a class of college individuals.”

Later, while she was pregnant with her second child, that fear of not being college worthy was replaced with a drive to “stand up and be counted” in the medical field, like her grandmother and mother before her.

She went on to complete nursing school, then earned her bachelor’s in Program Development and Advanced Patient Care Services and her master’s in Leadership from GCU. Throughout her academic journey, she remained close to her love of running, attempting her first ultra-marathon 100k 15 years ago.

“I failed at that attempt. I found out that blisters really, really hurt, and they can really take you out of the game,” she said. “It was a lot of learning, a lot of adapting, a lot of overcoming and a lot of understanding about the crash/the wall and getting up and trying again.”

Bartkowski was eligible to crack the top 20 women ultra-marathoners in the world.

Last May, Bartkowski took on “3 Days at the Fair” alongside world-class runners such as Scotty Eckert and pushed herself to a new level of running. Her goal was to reach the 200-mile mark, 50 shy of the minimum requirement to reach the world ranking. It was a goal that Bartkowski questioned whether she would make shortly after the starting gun went off.

“I made the mistake the first couple of miles. I went out and ran and I was running at maybe a nine-minute mile pace and it’s not super-fast, but it was definitely fast,” she said. “I realized, ‘What are you doing?’ Three miles into it I really started feeling a little fatigued, and I knew that this wasn’t going to be good at all.”

But Bartkowski got through 50 miles and then 100 miles, which put her in the top five among women in the race. At mile 175, however, she faced a new challenge: the growing pain in her feet.

“My ankle was swollen; I’m still healing from it,” she said. “My left Achilles (and) ankle started to become infected, and I knew that I was starting to feel what they call vasculitis on the top, which is almost like too much trauma of tissue, trauma of overdoing it.”

The runners were able to rest in tents when they needed to take a break.

Bartkowski planned to tape up and rest her leg for a bit in hopes of continuing but had to abandon that idea when she got to her rest tent and discovered that all her gear was wet because she forgot to put a tarp over it.

The solution: She went to an aid station and got about five pairs of socks to create compression, then continued running. “I had to keep moving or else I’d be out of the race,” she said.

She kept going, with the exception of bathroom breaks, out of fear of rhabdomyolysis, a breakdown of muscle tissue caused by extreme strain that could lead to damage in her kidneys.

“I literally just thought to myself, ‘Just one more mile, just one more mile … just 200 more yards … sit down, there’s a bench right there … there’s a hilly grass,’” she said. “I started doing that more and more.”

There was another issue at mile 198: She became nauseous. She forced herself to rest and get some broth in her system and finally was able to properly tape up her foot.

That’s where Eckert stepped in. The pair were friends, and Eckert inspired Bartkowski to keep going past her 200-mile goal. They continued together to 225 miles before Eckert had to stop for a food break, and the motivation that came after still brings tears to Bartkowski’s eyes.

Bartkowski had to cut her toes out of her shoes during the run.

“I saw my husband, and then my kids and then there they were, just cheering me on,” she said. “That’s when I realized that what I was doing was bigger than what I thought it was going to be.”

Her husband, Mark, who is also an athlete, provided her with Desitin, and her daughter, Jenna, gave her a Big Mac and a Skype call with her son, Jacob, also a serious runner. 

“Mom, pace yourself now because anything can happen from now to then,” he told her.

But Bartkowski felt newly motivated.

“I had more energy in that moment than in the entire race,” she said. “I started clicking through the miles fast. You could hear my Achilles just go like this (snaps her fingers) — it almost became a metronome. It was starting to loll me and literally gave me the pace.”

Early the next morning, Bartkowski reached her last lap, No. 250, but decided to first get some rest in her tent because she was falling asleep while running. At 4 a.m., Eckert was the one to wake up Bartkowski after hearing her alarm going off for several loops around the track.

Bartkowski’s feat was celebrated by her family.

“You’ve got to get up, you have to get up,” Eckert told her.

Bartkowski’s pain was intense. Her ankle was swollen and red. Her feet were trashed.

“I don’t know,” she said.

Eckert persisted: “You have one mile to go and you’ve got to get up.”

“How did I get here?” Bartkowski asked in her confused state.

“One mile at a time,” Eckert replied. “Let’s go, my friend, because I’m going to run you in.”

After reaching her 250th mile, Bartkowski rang a bell to signify becoming the No. 19-ranked female ultra-marathoner in the world, then did  a celebratory walk with her fellow runners for an additional lap. 

What does her “3 Days at the Fair” accomplishment have to do with her doctoral studies? It’s given her a new perspective of what she can do.

“My takeaway from all this is that you can do anything that you set your mind to because no one ever told me I couldn’t and that’s the one thing that my father always used to say,” she said.

“Yeah, I may not be the smartest person in that room. I mean, I may not understand the theories just yet, but I’ve made it this far and I think that if I continue to go and I adapt, I overcome and I take my fate, tape my leg and take a couple naps here and there and reset, I may look haggard when I cross that threshold and get my hood, but I’m going to be so proud about that.”

Contact Ashlee Larrison at (602) 639-8488 or ashlee.larrison@gcu.edu

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