In the lab, bioengineer Kaytlyn Gerbin differentiates gene-edited human induced pluripotent stem cells (hiPSCs) into cardiomyocytes (cardiac muscle cells) to study their cellular state and behavior. In layman’s terms, says Kaytlyn: “My group works on trying to understand the ground rules for a cell—what a cell is doing and why.”
When it comes to distance running, Kaytlyn—who won the first 100-mile race she entered—takes a much less scientific approach. First off, she’s self-coached. “I’ve learned to listen to my body and stay in tune with how I’m feeling,” says Kaytlyn. “I like being in control and giving myself extra grace and flexibility when it comes to training. Because I’ve had to work so hard to find balance between running and the rest of my life, I always like to keep running fun and not a task I need to finish every day.”
In 2017, Kaytlyn joined the stem cell and gene editing team at Seattle’s Allen Institute, a non-profit bioscience research organization dedicated to accelerating research globally and sharing that data within the science community. She first moved to Seattle to earn her PhD in Bioengineering at the University of Washington, where she studied cell transplantation and tissue engineering for cardiac regenerative medicine, using stem cell-derived cardiomyocytes. Growing up in a small farming town in Wisconsin, without a mountain in sight, Kaytlyn fell for the Northwest and its variability of terrain, exploring the Cascades every chance she had. “You can be in super craggy peaks and volcanoes with glaciers in the morning, then run in a mossy green forest in the afternoon—it’s the best of everything.”
Kaytlyn started running in a two-credit PE class called “Marathon and Distance Running” at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. She had never run much more than an hour. “Running was the way I explored my new surroundings,” says Kaitlyn. “I loved where my feet could take me.” Because of a snowboarding injury, Kaytlyn couldn’t complete a marathon or the class until right before college graduation two years later. Kaytlyn says if it hadn’t been for the class, she never would have tried a marathon.
In graduate school, her running consisted mostly of commuting back and forth to the lab. Running and adventuring in the mountains was the escape she anticipated to maintain her sanity. Kaytlyn climbed, backpacked, mountaineered, backcountry skied and split boarded, but her running remained in Seattle. She wondered why she wasn’t running in the mountains, so she signed up for the 2014 Baker Lake 50k with her fiance. To train, they’d head to the Cascades and try to complete multi-day backpacking loops in a day.
I race didn’t go well. She loved every minute of the first half, cruising and chatting with competitors on the trail. The second half of the race, her stomach gave out, and she spent the last 15 miles hobbling back to the finish with plenty of pit stops in between. She dialed in her nutrition for her second race, the 2015 Beacon Rock 50K (fueling with gels and other easily digestible food rather than the cheese, sausage and candy bars that hindered her first performance). Kaytlyn placed second in the race, her first indication that she might have a knack for distance running. “It’s just running,” says Kaytlyn. “In a long race, you know that no matter what happens, all you have to do for 20 some hours is just run.” Her third year of trail running, she ran the Squamish 50/50 and won the 50-mile race, then the 50-kilometer race the next day. A few weeks later, she won the Pine to Palm 100, her first 100 miler. “I had been telling myself there was no way I could run that distance or that fast, but winning that sequence was the validation that I could be good at it,” says Kaytlyn.
She started gaining more experience and more regularity in her running. Kaytlyn continued mixing in other activities, like she still does today. She says there are many different ways to build fitness and strength, so she’s not going to turn down a volcano skiing mission just to get her miles in. The following year, Kaytlyn raced and got the golden ticket for the legendary Western States Endurance Run. She placed in the top 10 and went on to race the event the next two years. She improved her finishing time by more than hours from 2017 to 2018 and upped her place finish from fourth to second in 2018. At the 2018 Bear 100, she set a new women’s course record and made the overall podium. And at her first European ultra, the 2018 Trail World Championships in Spain, she placed 10th individually and helped Team USA earn a team third place.
Now, she frequently races two 100-mile races per year, as well as a handful of shorter distance races. Last fall, Kaytlyn and Alex Borsuk became the first all-female team to complete the epic Rainier Infinity Loop, which involves summitting Mount Rainier twice and covering close to 135 miles and 47,000 feet of elevation gain on a mix of technical glaciated terrain and rugged trails. This year she’s enjoying multi-sport adventures (that often turn into all-day sufferfests). On some, she’ll chase FKT’s. Kaytlyn dreams of racing UTMB. With The North Face, she enjoys connecting with many athletes who were her childhood heroes and working in product development.
She prefers leaving science and technology out of running, but admits that trial-and-error testing—the kind she does in every race and long run—is a scientific process. “A long race in the mountains is always about problem solving,” says Kaytlyn. “Things are going to go wrong—whether it’s nutrition, gear, navigation or self-doubt—but you have to be ready to evaluate the situation, assess what tools you have to solve it and apply what you learn to future adventures.”
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