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How Movement and a Connection to Culture Saved Her (Carol Seppilu)

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Carol Seppilu Humans Outside Podcast

After a suicide attempt almost took her life and left her with a tracheotomy, Carol Seppilu ultimately made the choice to pursue mental health through ultra trail running. If you think running 100 miles sounds hard, imagine how hard it must be when breathing is a challenge under even non-running circumstances.

But Carol is relentless in her pursuit of doing great things. Listen to her share her journey and why staying in touch with her Indigenous Alaskan culture is an important part of that on this episode of the Humans Outside podcast.

Some of the good stuff:

[2:15] Carol’s favorite outdoor space

[4:19] About Nome Alaska

[6:54] Carol’s story of suicide and healing

[11:16] Why Carol got into running

[16:28] Carol’s advice for mental health

[20:45] The importance of being outside and movement to Indigenous culture

[28:00] What it’s like to run 100 miles in Alaska

[32:20] Why deciding matters

[39:42] Carol’s favorite outdoor gear

[41:10] Carol’s most essential outdoor gear

[41:54] Carol’s favorite outdoor moment.

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Here’s an edited transcript of our conversation on The Humans Outside Podcast. Listen to the episode on iTunes, Google Podcasts, or wherever you find your favorite podcasts.

Amy Bushatz

It is impossible to see Carol Seppilu in action and not be inspired. A resident of remote Nome, Alaska, Carol is an ultramarathon runner and suicide prevention and mental health advocate with a focus on her own indigenous Alaska community. And that’s inspiring, but it’s not why Carol is inspiring. When she was 16, Carol became blackout drunk and attempted suicide. When she awoke in the ICU, she did not remember what had happened. Doctors saved her life, but her attempt took a portion of her face and required a tracheotomy. So not only is Carol an ultra runner in Alaska successfully completing the resurrection pass 100 miler, but she runs with a tracheostomy, a tube placed in her neck through which she breathes, however hard someone like me without one imagines that must be, it’s assuredly harder. Carol recently joined us on the Humans Outside Podcast to talk about her journey, the importance of spending time outside to it and her, and the place of nature in the indigenous Alaskan community. Speaking with Carol was a huge privilege, but due to how remote Nome is, our connection wasn’t great. And speaking with a tracheostomy is also very challenging. The sound for this episode isn’t fantastic, but the story is, so I’m excited for you to hear it. And with that, here we go.

Carol, welcome to the Humans Outside Podcast.

Carol Seppilu 1:55

Thank you for having me.

AB 1:58

So we start these podcasts imagining ourselves in our guest’s favorite outdoor space, just sort of like, if you and I were actually hanging out together in your favorite outdoor space, where would we be? So tell me, where would we be?

CS 2:15

It would be Anvil mountain.

AB 2:19

And can you describe that for us?

CS 2:23

It’s a hill, but we call it a mountain. There are three towers that are left from the [military]. A lot of history up there. It’s my favorite training run and I go up there pretty often.

AB 2:51

Yeah. And how much of that is incline?

CS 2:58

From about mile four to five and a half you’re climbing. It’s not too steep on the road side, but it’s pretty steep when you go on the trail.

AB 3:15

Yeah. I asked that because so a lot of people listening to this podcast don’t live in Alaska, but you and I know that in Alaska trails are usually steep. We, for whatever reason, Alaskans don’t believe in switchbacks which are normal in the lower 48. We just go right uphill. So I always like to clarify when we’re talking about 1000, like when we talked about going uphill we talked about going uphill. So I actually want to talk first about where you live and how unique to many Americans that that is because for many people is something they may not even be able to imagine. So you live in Nome, Alaska, which is not accessible by road, which is sort of beyond comprehension for most people. Can you describe Nome for us?

CS 4:19

It’s a very small town. It’s about 4,000 people here right by the ocean. And then you have the mountains up in the north — a town where everyone knows each other.

AB 4:39

What’s the population of Nome

CS 4:41

About 4000 people

AB 4:44

Yeah, so you really know everybody? And there is not a lot going on there.

CS 4:53

It’s pretty busy during Iditorad. And the summer events, we have a lot of tourists coming here. But other than those two major dates not a whole a lot, … a lot of fishing and hunting and gathering in the summer and fall time and a lot outdoor recreational activities during the winter.

AB 5:31

Yeah, a lot of time outside doing stuff in nature.

CS 5:35

Yeah. Right in our backyard.

AB 5:39

in our backyard, you are also indigenous Alaskan. Alaska has many different Native American tribes. Can you tell us a little bit about yours?

CS 5:51

I am from St. Lawrence Island. We are the .. Yu’pik people. I still speak my native language, it was the first language I ever learned. And we practice our cultural traditions very strongly today. I’m very grateful for that.

AB 6:18

So let’s talk a little bit about your story because it’s so incredible. You have this incredible story of strength and seeking mental health recovery, which starts with not being mentally healthy. It starts with depression and alcoholism as a teen 20 years ago, and today has brought you to be an ultra runner. You recently completed a 100 mile mountain race, which is just incredible. And you run with a tracheotomy. And you are a mental health advocate.

So would you just tell us your story?

CS 6:54

When I was 16 years old, I became intoxicated, I actually don’t remember a whole lot of it. I did attempt to commit suicide that night by shooting myself. I woke up in the ICU and not knowing what happened and began asking for a pen and paper, which the doctors and nurses were amazed at, they thought it was a miracle that I was still mentally intact … and the first thing I wrote was ‘what happened?’

They told me and I became pretty upset but I went through an experience in the ICU where I couldn’t breathe, and I fell into a deep fog. And an old village appears, and a couple of elderly men beckoned for me. They were smiling really big. They told me that everything was gonna be okay. And I have to go back because I was going to accomplish great things. And they told me I heard things. I’ve heard forgot, but ever since then I knew, I just knew it must be okay.

So, I went through a decade of really difficult, painful surgery from the effects of a gunshot wound. It went through face, and they reconstructed, they they made a new jaw bone out of my fibula, and a new nose… of skin from other areas.

it was really hard. Very difficult going through all of that. And after a decade I decided it was too much for me, I was going to take a break. I’m still not very great.

But in 2014 I remember laying in bed, I woke up at noon and it was a gorgeous day and the sun was coming through my window and I didn’t want to get out of the band. I told myself, Carol, you need to get up and do something. Go for too long. How hard could that be? I ended up lacing my shoes and at 233 pounds, the heaviest I’ve ever been. I went for a two mile run, I couldn’t even make it more than a couple of blocks without running out of breath and it was all downhill.

made it a goal to walk the rest of the way and I get that everyday, and a year later I was healthier and happier and I had lost a lot of weight, getting up, getting out there for that two miles.

AB 11:08

How does two miles become 100?

CS 11:16

That next year there was an eight mile race. I signed up for it. And back then it was really far. I wasn’t sure how long it would take me.

I got up there under two hours and what’s really happy so I thought if I could do eight, I could sign up for the half marathon that next year. And I did. I went into that half marathon, not knowing anything about running. I didn’t eat or drink anything the entire race. And by the end of that I was shaking pretty hard. Really, really exhausted. But I fell in love with the distance. And I just want to see how far I could go.

AB 12:26

So running is not necessarily comfortable for anyone, right? It’s a challenge. What is running with your tracheotomy like? Because I know you ran a little bit before so you are able to make a comparison. Can you describe to people what that takes to really appreciate the level of dedication we’re talking about here.

CS 12:55

It’s really hard to breathe even normally without running. I think I would compare it to putting a straw in your mouth and then going for a run. … It’s really hard but I got used to it. I love it.

AB 13:34

Right, it just a part of what you do. But I am in awe. So, to me that, I mean, what an incredible thing you’re working through to do that. I am so in awe of what you do.

Why was running the mental health thing that you chose? Because you know, you talked a little bit earlier about the importance of being outside hunting and gathering to your culture and your background. There’s lots of things people can do outside. So why was running the thing that you turn to?

CS 14:19

A friend of mine had been running marathons frequently, andI was following her, and she really inspired me. And I just thought running would be a good way to get outside. I didn’t have a car or a vehicle to get far or do anything other than running. So I have to use my own two feet to get out there.

AB 15:07

What part of the benefit of this for your mental health is running and what part of it is just being outside in nature and what part is just movement in general? Do you see a benefit to just being outside? Or is it all about running?

CS 15:29

I think it’s a combination of both. Moving your body, getting your heart rate up and becoming healthier that way, and getting out there getting hot sunshine and the Vitamin D that we need.

AB 16:00

What is your advice to people who are looking for mental health but may not be runners? Because I know you advocate on this issue … I love to run, you love to run. I think people who don’t like to run are maybe a little crazy. They think I’m crazy. It washes out. But what is your advice to people who are looking for mental health seeking that but are not interested in running? Do you ever talk about that?

CS 16:28

Yeah, I think just getting outside, whatever way that you can, just go for a drive or getting out in nature.

I found a great connection and healing out there when I’m in nature. When I was going through depression all I wanted to do was just lay in bed, and I did that a lot, but getting out there, it really does make you happier.

AB 17:32

Speaking of dark moments, Nome has a lot of that because the sun doesn’t come up very much at all. In the wintertime. How do you tackle that? How do you tackle the physical, actual darkness?

CS 18:34

I grew up here. … Where the sun comes up in the afternoon goes down before four. I think I just am used to it. But it’s definitely could get depressing if you are asleep when it’s dark and when you wake up when it’s dark

AB 19:08

Where I am, for those listening, is quite a bit south of where Carol is. And it gets light therefore earlier than it does where she is and dark a little bit later. So my shortest day is something like 10:30am to 3:30 or 3:45pm when the sun technically set just for context.

But I find for me the darkness, it creeps in on you a little bit like I don’t realize how hard it is to deal with until I’ve already until the light starts coming back. And then I realize whoa, wait a second. I was having a hard time, because I feel so good in comparison.

Yeah, you know they say, boil a frog by just turning up the heat a little bit at a time and the frog doesn’t know it’s boiling. And that’s a problem, right? That’s sort of how it is that the darkness — it just gets darker and darker and darker. And I don’t know that I’m drowning until I start to have just come out of it. And then it’s like, oh, maybe that wasn’t as good as I thought it was.

CS 20:34

You have to really keep yourself doing… things you like to do it’s very important.

AB 20:45

Yeah, I want to talk about the intersection of outdoor focus life and your experience as an indigenous Alaskan, if you’re willing to talk about that. You touched on, again briefly earlier, the cultural tie to foraging and hunting and being outdoors and how you keep those cultures alive.

So I want to talk to you a little bit about how you do keep those cultures alive. Talk to us about about how that looks in your community.

CS 21:17

We do a lot of subsistence hunting and gathering. I love picking berries, I can be out there for eight hours … picking.

We have … a small dance group where we all gather together and sing and dance to traditional songs that have been passed down for many generations. We keep our language alive and try to talk to each other in our language. So keeping in touch with my cultural identity is very important for my mental health because that’s who I am.

AB 22:18

Do you find when you’re advocating for mental health and Alaska that that is one of the problems is that people have lost touch with their cultural identity.

CS 22:31

Yeah, I feel this generation that we’re, we’re bringing up, a lot of them are losing that connection as they get into the western way of things, and I feel like losing your culture identity it does a lot. …

AB 23:15

How is outdoor fitness, or running, or sport a part of that cultural identity is something that that is an eat that is even a part of the cultural identity that you have.

CS 23:31

Yeah. Our people long ago, they have to use their own two feet to get from point A to point B. Or their dog team, and they did walk a lot back then ,and they ran a lot — they were very what I like to call the true ultra runners. I have heard stories of endurance races where they ran in a big circle, a big circle for a long time until there was only one runner left. They did that to keep in shape and for various journeys throughout the year, gathering food. And I feel a strong connection with my ancestors when I am out there going far.

AB 24:45

And I, you know, I hear you say that and I’m thinking about your story earlier when you said that you had a vision, essentially of your ancestors telling you you weren’t done yet. And that’s just another way to care. That along with you as you’re outside and seeking healing and continued health.

CS 25:07

I could see what they were talking about when I get out there and do these kinds of things.

AB 25:20

What is something you? — Sorry, go ahead.

CS 25:23

I would never have imagined back then this is what I was doing.

AB 25:32

A 100 mile run is a lot of time to think about stuff — like a lot. Right? I think that that’s something that people don’t really connect the dots on just how much time we’re talking about here. And you’re, you know, you’re not usually listening to music. You might have somebody running with you, you know, or you’re following somebody or your mind’s just empty. You know that’s on my measly little 30 mile runs like I can’t even imagine how much empty space there is on a 100 mile.

Do you feel like they’re there with you while you’re doing that?

CS 26:14

Yeah. I can feel them, the spirits. What they say you’re gonna do, you’re gonna accomplish great things, and I think about that a lot. They the Teller to Nome run and the wind was on backs the entire time. I could feel them pushing me on that run.

AB 26:46

Yeah, that makes such a difference, that push. It makes such a huge difference. If — if our listeners haven’t run or cycled or would be another thing where you notice the wind at your back or Worst, when it’s at your front, you know, you may not even notice it at your back, but you definitely notice it at your front. That makes such a huge difference. And when you are out there and you can feel it pushing you along, it really does feel like somebody is pushing you along. And yeah, and it’s an incredible feeling. To have that and can and to recognize it is the other thing, because I think that by spending time outside like you do, and like I am trying to learn to do and encourage other people to do, you become in tune to things that other people don’t necessarily notice.

Do you find that to be true?

CS 27:52

Yeah. I was actually during the Resurrection Pass 100 miler, I was out there — you notice what animals are following you, you can tell.

AB 28:09

Yeah. So I think for probably anyone who’s not in Alaska, they’re like, Dear God, that’s terrifying. Talk to us about what you mean by that. I mean, is that a scary thing? I mean, it could be right. What kind of animals are you? Are we talking about?

CS 28:30

There seems to be a bird following me every long distance run I go on. And there was a bird that followed me maybe for a couple of miles that was really nice. And I chatted with a bird for a a couple of miles.

Yeah, so the more scarier part is when I saw a big black bear more than a quarter mile away which is a pretty comfortable distance, I just you know checked about every couple of minutes to let him know I was in the area … and prayed that he wouldnt come over. But a really cool thing I did out there when it got dark — Im terrified of the dark — and completely alone out there in the pitch black dark. I talked in my native language. I said … and that means “The Lord is taking care of us all.”

And I was talking to the wild animals, specifically the bears, to let them know that I was out there and to be protected. And later on an elder, without me even telling her, she told me long ago our people talked to the bears in our native language and they understood. And I thought that was really cool.

A small animal was following me for a while, I’m guessing it with the linx, but it was walking with me for maybe a little bit less than quarter mile but I got kind of scared. After that I asked it to go away and he went away.

AB 31:04

Did you stop following me?

CS 31:10

He paused right there and he’s was like, all right, I’m heading out. He was probably protecting me but I didnt like the idea of being followed by a wild animal.

I got to the lake where the moon was shining on the lake but then I heard a wolf howling calling. And it was so beautiful but at the same time I’m like I’m out here alone and there’s a wolf howling, but then I decided to enjoy it, and it sounded like it was across the lake. But who knows, maybe it was … that came over and followed me.

AB 32:08

I’d rather think it was a linx.

CS 32:13

Yeah, I’ve never seen a linx that close.

AB 32:21

You make a really good point though, what you just said like you decided to enjoy it. And you talked earlier about how hard running is for you. It’s just really hard. But you have decided to enjoy it. And I think that you’re going here is like this really good point. And that you’re making about the power of deciding that you are going to be enjoying something that despite the fact that it’s hard or despite the fact that it’s good. That you have taught yourself a mental fortitude by doing it anyway and then you can in turn do it anyway that it sort of like feeds itself over time. Do you think that that’s true?

CS 33:17

Yeah, we we all have a choice to whether we look at it from a bad perspective or a positive perspective. Either way you’re going to go through it and it’s better to enjoy the good parts of it. When I’m running a 100 miler I could either cry because Im scared or enjoy nature’s music. So I decided that I was going to think of the wolf hollowing as beautiful music.

AB 34:20

The other thing, I think it’s interesting that you just said is you are out there anyway, even though you made the choice to be out there. You know, it’s like, you’re choosing to do a hard thing, right, and then you’re choosing while you’re doing the hard thing to be seeing the good and to have that positivity.

CS 34:47

I mean, see, I really feel blessed that I’m able to do these hard things because they make me stronger, not only physically but mentally. I’m a lot stronger now than I was before the 100 miler.. I learned a lot about myself.

AB 35:27

Do you think that there’s a way for people to learn that about themselves independent of doing those hard things? Like is there a shortcut to developing that mental fortitude?

CS 35:45

I’m sure there are ways. Good question.

AB 35:55

Yeah, but I think so I think, though, that it is something that you may have to discover for yourself right? Because this is this is the way you have found and you had to go hunting for i, right, like you didn’t just didn’t just fall in your lap you had to try to find it. And then you found it and it’s what works for you. So this is what you do. You know, like you just pick something that works and stick at it.

CS 36:25

I absolutely love it. It’s very important that you find what you love to do and keep at it trying to get better at it. Work on your goals. I’ve been working on this 100 goal for quite a while, for years, and I finally accomplished it.

AB 36:50

How many 100 miler runs have you attempted?

CS 36:56

My first step happens when In 2017, I chose the Hitchcock Experience 100 miler without knowing anything about it, just that it was on my birthday, and the other choice was in Texas and I just can’t do the heat. But I get there I find out it’s over 20,000 feet of climbing…

it’s nothing but hills up and down that entire way. And I get really hard on your quads after a while but … I got it done here at home and hold on.

AB 38:40

Yeah. But congratulations again. What an incredible accomplishment for even the most ideal runner in the whole world, right like anybody in the world would be proud to complete that race. And so to be able to complete it facing the challenges that you face or continue to face. It’s just such an incredible, inspiring accomplishment. And I just can’t even say congratulations enough and I’m just so in awe.

CS 39:16

It was really painful, but I smiled through that pain and I’ve been smiling ever since.

AB 39:25

Yeah. So at the end of our podcast, we like to talk to our guests about just a couple of their favorite things. And so I was wondering if you would tell us what is your favorite outdoor gear? What is like something you just love?

CS 39:42

I love my watch. I love to know how far I’ve gone and how much I climbed. I don’t go anywhere without my watch.

AB

What kind of do you use?

CB:

I have some Garmin and a friend of my recently sent a Suunto, I’m excited to try that

AB 40:09

Yeah, those Suuntos are super cool, because after your run, they’ll do like this video of your route. It’s just like loops around. Yeah. It’s pretty sweet. Make it look, it looks really cool if you ask me, so that I’m a German girl as well. So I totally hear you on that. And I I wear two watches because I’m a weirdo.

So I have one on each wrist. And people look at pictures of me and say, are you wearing two watches? And yes, I am.

What’s your most essential gear, so like something that isn’t just your favorite but like, if you didn’t have it, you would die. I mean, it would just be the end of the line. Maybe you couldn’t keep going. Maybe you wouldn’t want to be there at all. It was just most essential. What is it?

CS 41:10

And so it would probably be something that I carry water and whatever it may be, whether it’s a hydration pack, water bottles. I have to have one with me if I’m going pretty far.

AB 41:32

Yeah, I hear that. Okay. And finally, we love to know what our guest’s sort of favorite outdoor momen, just like to close all off, if you close your eyes and picture yourself just in your most ideal outdoor space, where are you and where are you doing?

CS 41:54

Right now I’m at Resurrection Pass at the peak because it’s really special for me — it’s my first completed ultra in 2017 and it’s my frist completed ultra. It was there I knew I would make ti when I got to Resurrection Pass and it was pretty much downhill from there. I would love to go there and camp one of these day. It’s beautiful.

AB 42:31

Yeah. Yeah.

CS 42:34

I would love to go there.

This or that around there. Yeah. Beautiful.

AB 42:45

Carol, thank you so much for joining us on the Humans Outside Podcast today.

CS 42:51

Thank you for having me.

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