Although she’s been a life-long athlete, 31-year-old Wisconsin native Kaytlyn Gerbin is relatively new to running and even newer to mountain sports. Regardless, she’s quickly ascended to the top level of trail running, and is at the leading edge of putting up routes that combine running and mountaineering.
After completing a mathematics degree at the University of Wisconsin Madison, she moved to Seattle to do a PhD in Bioengineering at the University of Washington. She joined the Allen Institute in 2017 and is a member of a team that is studying cell biology.
Kaytlyn is among the ranks of other Seattle-area woman-scientist-endurance runners we’ve interviewed. Before the pandemic Sophia Liu was trying to qualify for the Chinese national Olympic Marathon team. Ellen Lavoie set the “Only Known Time” across Washington state on the John Wayne Pioneer Trail. Both are researchers at the University of Washington.
Kaytlyn’s most recent running accomplishment was setting a new Fastest Known Time (“FKT”) on the Wonderland Trail. On August 26 she ran the 93-mile loop around Mt. Rainier in 18h 41m 54s. The Wonderland is most commonly done as a week-long backpack, or as a 3-day “light pack.”
“Fastest Known Times” is a relatively new phenomenon that has evolved out of the use of GPS devices. A bit like Strava taken to the next level, athletes post their GPS data for a particular route, and get ranked against others who have done the same. “Known” is a key part of the FKT concept. Before GPS, others may very well have done some of these same routes in competitive times, but since they were largely unrecorded we may never know. In pandemic conditions and no formal races happening, going after FKTs is a natural draw for some.
Kaytlyn’s other notable efforts include winning the 2020 Transgrancanaria 128km, 3 top-10 finishes at the
100-mile Western States Endurance Run, first all-woman team to complete the Rainier Infinity Loop with Alex Borsuk, and the FKT for the Ptarmigan Traverse also with Alex Borsuk.
1st, Transgrancanaria, 2020
3-time top 10 Western States Finisher, 4th 2017, 2nd 2018, 6th 2019
1st, The Coastal Challenge 6-day stage race, 2020
1st and course record, The Bear 100, 2018
1st, Cascade Crest 100, 2017
1st, Pine to Palm 100, 2016 (first 100 mile race)
10th and Women’s Team USA Bronze, Trail World Championships, 2018
1st, Squamish 50/50, 2016
2nd, Transgrancanaria, 2019
2nd in Ultra Trail World Tour rankings, 2019
First all-female team to complete the Rainier Infinity Loop with Alex Borsuk, 2019
Here is the conversation we had on September 4:
How are you feeling?
I’m feeling better than expected. I’m a little over a week out, and it takes the first week to catch up on sleep and calories. Now I’m just letting my body recover. Since I don’t have any big plans or races coming up I really have no reason to push it to get back out so I’m just kind of trying to enjoy the downtime. I’ve done a few bike rides but haven’t tried running again.
What kind of bike rides do you like to do?
I came from the Midwest and I actually got a road bike when I lived there. I just love biking on country roads. When I moved to Seattle I was bike commuting. After we moved to Issaquah I would bike commute to Seattle once in a while. Bike commuting every day gets to be too long for me especially when I need to get in a run, which is always my priority.
I actually just got a gravel bike. I’ve been out on the Snoqualmie Valley Trail and the John Wayne Trail (aka Palouse to Cascades Trail) and that’s as much exploring as I’ve done so far. As you know there’s a ton of good gravel riding around here and I’m excited to do that and get off of the roadways.
Are you putting off running for the time being, or just enjoying life on bikes, or?
No actually I’ll probably start running again soon. And usually after something like this I like to try to take a week off. I’ll start with some easy hiking and running and just kind of listen to my body. Since I have a new bike, I’ve been excited about that.
Kaytlyn after finishing the Wonderland Trail Fastest Known Time. Credit: Ely Gerbin
How did you get into running?
I played team sports and was athletic as a kid growing up, but I hated running. Running for a lot of us into team sports is like the punishment. I didn’t start running for fun until I got to college.
I grew up in a small rural farming town in Wisconsin, and when I moved to Madison for college I started running as a way to explore my new area. I actually started enjoying it, and eventually I was running a few days a week throughout the year.
A friend of mine told me about this PE class called “Marathon and Distance Training” because she saw I was getting more into running. I signed up for the class thinking “oh, maybe I can learn how to run a half marathon that would be a really cool goal!” And then, of course, the first day we learned —“oh no!”–to pass the class you actually needed to run a marathon! I never, ever thought that was something I was capable of doing.
That class helped me feel a sense of community, and learn things about training and recovering and even how to find races to run. Probably the same things a lot of kids learn when they’re doing track and cross country in high school.
I ran one marathon in Madison, and by the time I moved out to the Northwest I started doing just a few marathons. I did the Seattle Marathon and Portland Marathon.
At first I never thought about combining running with the things I was doing in the mountains. When I moved here I had been getting into mountaineering, backcountry skiing, hiking, and backpacking, and then slowly was like: “Okay, let’s try to do this on the trails. That would be fun.”
It kind of just took off from there. When I was running on the road, I was never at any competitive level. I qualified for Boston but I was never like, “Oh, this is something I could actually do as a career.” That was a completely unexpected finding, but I fell in love with the fact that your two feet can take you really far, and to really cool places. That kind of adventure aspect of it was what really drew me into running longer and longer.
Kaytlyn taking a pizza break on the Ptarmigan Traverse Credit: Ely Gerbin
What was the timeframe for this?
I moved out here in 2011. I did my first trail race in 2014. I started really getting into it in 2015.
I think your story is kind of common. A lot of boys get introduced to whatever sports they’re doing, except maybe for cycling, when they’re in junior high and if it clicks for them, then it tends to be something they stick with for a long time. But a lot of women tend to discover their athleticism after high school.
Yeah, I discovered competitive running as an adult. Many of us think that we reach our peak when we’re younger. It’s really cool to see different examples of people not even finding a sport until after they pass their so-called peak, and then have years of growth in the sport.
At 31, you’re really still in a development phase, physically and mentally. If you don’t burn out, or if you can keep it fun you can probably keep it going for at least a decade if not longer.
Yeah. In endurance running the demographic is definitely a little bit older, and there are a lot of people in their 40s and up who are crushing it.
Talk about your connections with the local trail running community.
So, when I was living in Seattle one of the things that really got me integrated in the community and probably kept me coming back to trail races was Seven Hills Running Shop.
My husband and I both started going to the weekly group runs there. And that was a really fun way to meet people and hear about other races. And now, even though I live so far away from there, if I need a running shop Seven Hills is still my go-to shop. I have made so many connections through the running community. You know, years later many of my running friends come from those initial group runs, and they span the entire age range. There’s people in that group who are 20 years older than me. Running together erases all the gaps and connects friends who have similar interests, which is fun.
And then there’s also a pretty huge trail running community within Seattle and the greater Seattle area. I have a few different friends and training partners that live close by that I meet up with. And I try to volunteer at as many of the local events that I can.
Talk about your motivations–both for running, and outdoor stuff–as well as the other aspects of your life.
I have found that trail running allows me to escape from the stress of life. A lot of times there’s nothing better than just running through the woods. We have so many awesome places to run and explore here that once you build up the endurance, you can start going longer and further, and you’re able to check off all those backpacking routes.
When my husband and I first were getting into it, we picked up a backpacking guidebook for the Northwest and we started looking at these three to five-day backpacking routes and realized, “Oh, could we do this in two days!”
We started doing a lot of weekend overnights with lighter gear and kind of running through and that continues to be a lot of inspiration for me for what I enjoy doing this year now that races have been canceled. I’ve been really getting back to that and just moving in the mountains and coming up with cool routes and things that I enjoy doing, which is a little bit more of an adventure aspect than a competitive aspect.
Kaytlyn with an all-women’s rope team on Mt. Shuksan’s Fisher Chimneys Route Credit: Alex Borsuk
Right. I think that’s the interesting thing about the whole FKT trend. The fact that we have these GPS devices now has opened up a different way to compete. But it also makes me wonder: Do people miss out on the raw enjoyment of going out and walking around in the woods?
It seems like everything’s got to be timed and recorded. I’ve been going to Mount Rainier the last couple weeks because I haven’t really done much hiking down there. We saw people uploading selfies on the trails. It kind of blows my mind. Are you really in the “backcountry” if you can upload a selfie?
Everyone has their own way of experiencing the mountains. As for me, I think a small dose of FKTs can be a fun way to set a goal and set a challenge, especially if it’s something that is meaningful and motivational to me. I don’t want to be constantly pursuing a time or an FKT because I enjoy just going out and having an experience, and I don’t want to take away from my experience or sense the adventure of just being out in the mountains.
Plus, FKTs are all relative. Getting one depends on the day that you choose and the weather conditions. Getting a competitive time is a fun motivator, but at the same time it’s really hard to use that as an objective measure of someone’s athletic ability because there are so many subjective things on each route and the trail. I was curious to see what would happen this year with FKTs–whether they’d turn into a race replacement.
Back in the mid-1980s I had a friend who was a backcountry ranger at Rainier, and he was doing the Wonderland for time on his days off. I’m sure he had the equivalent of the FKT at the time. He was super intimate with the trail because he was doing trail work and stuff, and he was an Olympic caliber race walker. Things like that that have happened throughout history, obviously. It’s just that now we have a way of recording or memorializing it. It does definitely change the context of what’s happening these days.
Yeah, I think there are certainly some people in the community who really enjoy making every effort count and really going after those times all the time. But most people I know just enjoy like going out and and planning an adventure and it doesn’t always matter about the time. And of course, time is all relative for everyone, like a route that I might do in a day and have a very leisurely go at it, someone else might decide to do it in two days and that’s the way that they enjoy being on the trail.
I think just being willing to slow down for yourself and enjoy the sense of adventure and where you are and really take it in is important, rather than just pushing all the time. I’ve really enjoyed that this summer.
Talk about your experience with big mountains before you moved to Washington State.
I snowboarded as a kid.
I was a part of a ski and snowboard club in college which did a spring break trip every year out to Jackson Hole.
I’ve always wanted to move west to the mountains. I wanted to be a ski bum when I was in high school but academics got in the way of that. When I came to Seattle to interview, I went to Kerry Park as part of the ‘showing off Seattle’ part of the process. I don’t even think I knew that there were volcanoes here, or that they were so close. The mountains were a big reason behind why I moved out here for school.
My lifestyle took off from there. It’s just crazy to think of how different it would have been if I’d made a different choice which was very probable back then.
Where do you think you’re at in your progression as a runner, or maybe mountain athlete is a better description?
I like to think I’m still just getting started. Every time I go out I try to redefine my mindset about what I think I’m capable of. I think that’s the thing as an athlete I’ve always tried to do because I think it’s easy to sell yourself short. I often surprise myself. I think I still have years ahead of me, and I still have some really big race goals that I want to go after.
Do you generate income from your athletic activities?
Yeah. Through The North Face.
That’s new this year. I honestly love working with The North Face. It was a pipe dream when I first started trail running, so it’s been an awesome experience.
What are you looking forward to in the next two years?
This summer was like having a blank canvas. Not having a regimented training schedule was really fun because it allowed me to reset and like I said earlier, I got back to the roots of why I really got into running and mountain sports.
I’m really excited about blending different types of sports in the mountains, and getting more off trail, mixing mountaineering with endurance running, which I’ve done quite a bit of. Blurring the lines between these different sports has been really fun.
I plan to do more of that, especially if we continue to have fewer races. Even once races do come back I think I’m going to be a little bit more intentional which with which races I actually sign up for.
I was wondering about that. Do you feel, well there’s no doubt you feel competitive urges, but does racing fill that or do you get more satisfaction when you’re just out pushing yourself through the night or whatever on a hard, hard effort that’s not a race it’s just a trail?
They’re different. I think I get a similar sense of accomplishment out of each thing although there’s something special about just being entirely responsible for your own plan. It adds more of a sense of adventure and I really enjoy that. But I do think like in order to stay at the top of the sport competitively you need to have race results. And so, you know, I’m looking forward to when races come back for some things like that because that level of competition is something that I think is really fun and also helps push you to new limits, which then I can carry over into my own adventures.
Let’s talk about women’s running for a few minutes. From my perspective, after Title IX there was an injection of women in sports but to this day women don’t get respect financially.
For example, I don’t know if you’ve ever seen any interviews with Beth Rodden. She’s a climber who was married to Tommy Caldwell. They would be in conversations about their upcoming contracts. Everybody in the room was talking to Tommy, not Beth, even though she was climbing better than him. I think that is pretty common. Meanwhile, especially in endurance sports, women perform on par with men if not better.
I agree with you and I think that I have personally been really motivated by trying to help pave the way as best as I can. First of all, like, defining what’s possible for women and I’m not shy about trying to go after the men’s times and I often do. I also try to podium overall, especially in these longer races and there’s nothing more satisfying. I think women are absolutely capable of doing more of that but I think a lot of times we mentally hold ourselves back because we have this expectation about what women’s times are usually relative to the men’s times.
In terms of sponsorship support and media coverage I’ve really had to adapt because I haven’t been very comfortable promoting myself or being in the spotlight. At the same time I really try to advocate for fair representation, and gender and diversity within outdoor sports. I think that in order to do that I need to be able to embrace the opportunities that come if they do come. For the Wonderland Trail I’ve had a ton of media people reach out which is awesome, and I’ve really been trying to embrace and help showcase that because I think that, you know, maybe I can start to turn the dial a little bit more and get people excited and hopefully that will help infiltrate women’s running a little bit more.
As a scientist do you feel like there’s a similar level of bias?
I was a math major as an undergrad. I studied bioengineering for my PhD. For my entire academic career I was one of the few women in the room. I definitely I think it is similar to how things are in running, although now at the Allen Institute I work on a predominantly female team. My boss is a woman, and on my team of 12 there’s only one guy right now. So 90% of my work meetings are almost all women who work hard to help build and pull up others around them. That’s been really inspiring and awesome to experience.
I don’t take it for granted. Often, I’ll look at my Zoom call and see a panel of all six women discussing what to do with some big decision. I’m trying to bring some of that energy into running.
When I was first getting into trail and ultrarunning, there were a few times I got the chance to meet female legends of the sport at community running events or local races.
I looked up to these women, and I always really appreciated when they took the time to chat with me, congratulate me, or offer advice. That they went out of their way to celebrate my successes and welcome me into the sport was pivotal to my own growth and self-confidence as an aspiring ultrarunner. I strive to continue to pay this forward to women in the sport, whether for elites or first-time runners looking for an open door into the community.
Kaytlyn on Putrid Pete’s Peak with her dog Loowit