“Bertha’s coming!” I jumped up with her Band of Runners teammates and hurried to meet her near the 2021 Badger 100 Mile finish line. We stood, cheering, as Bertha Lotje Woehl ran the last half-kilometer to the Ten Junk Miles arch at the finish. She’d been slowed by a nasty lean since mile 48, but she still had over an hour to make the 36-hour cutoff. She finally appeared at the top of a small hill, bent over like a little old lady from a children’s book. She had a huge smile on her face.
Bertha Lotje Woehl is 53 years old. She started running just six years ago when she was 47. Since her decision to become a runner, she’s completed some 50 half marathons, 17 marathons, nine 50k races, three 50 milers, seven 100k races, and three 100 milers. Her success at the Badger 100 Mile, despite a crippling lean, was due to the same mindset that allowed her to start an entirely new sport and take on increasingly difficult physical challenges at an age when many people no longer seek out these experiences.
Bertha is curious about what her body is capable of, in a nonjudgemental way. Like a toddler learning to walk, she is willing to learn by trying. And she seems entirely unconcerned with what others might think about her progress. It’s a powerful combination. “I gave myself time to try,” she told me. She balances a fearless self-reliance with a faith in the goodness of others and a willingness to accept help graciously and joyfully.
[Editor’s Note: This interview with Bertha has been edited for brevity and clarity.]
iRunFar: What inspired you to start running when you were 47 years old?
Bertha Lotje Woehl: I was depressed back then. I had just lost my oldest son. Then after that, 36 days later, my mom passed away. When I went to work, I didn’t want to let the people know. So I was a happy person at work, but when I went back home, I was depressed. I cried all the time. Things got very bad.
My work had a healthy-living program, and if you signed up to do a 60-minute workout every day for two weeks, you could get a $50 gift card. I thought, Hey, why not? So I started walking on an outside track. There was a girl running there. She ran circles and circles. And I thought, Well, I might do that. So I tried to run. I could only run a quarter of a mile before I had to walk, but I didn’t give up. I just gave myself time to try. Eventually, I got to one mile of running without stopping. And I said to myself, Well, maybe I can do two miles. Since then, I’ve just kept building. And I got the $50 gift card from work. In fact, nobody was doing the workouts besides me, so every two weeks, I’d get $50. That was awesome.
iRunFar: How old was that girl on the track who inspired you to try running?
Woehl: She was a young girl. Every day that I went to the track, she was there running. I didn’t know if I could run, but she inspired me to push myself.
iRunFar: You never thought that you were too old to start running? You never thought, That’s a young girl. Of course she can run. I’ll just stick to walking.
Woehl: I did think I was too old, but I also thought that I wanted to change my life. After I started walking and running, I signed up at a gym, and my instructor said, “Hey, Bertha, you might try training for a half marathon or a mud run.” I asked what a mud run was, and he told me it was running in the mud with obstacles. That didn’t sound like fun, but the race was only 25 minutes from my house, so I decided to go see what the race was like. And running in the mud actually did look like fun, so I signed up for the next one. I didn’t train for it specifically. I just wanted to go for the fun. Before that, though, I did a half marathon. Then two or three years later I signed up for my first full marathon in 2017.
iRunFar: Did running help you manage your depression?
Woehl: Yes, right from the start, it probably helped me manage 90% of the depression. I kind of released my depression with it.
iRunFar: You weren’t ever anxious about jumping into a sport that you didn’t know much about?
Woehl: Oh yeah, I’m not afraid. Even that mud run, I went by myself.
iRunFar: When did you feel that you were part of a running community?
Woehl: I met Team Red, White, & Blue. They had a Saturday meet-up group. Then I met more and more people at races. I was with Team Red, White, & Blue for six years. They introduced me to Band of Runners. I went to the Band of Runners trail running camp in 2019, and I learned how to care for my feet and about powerhiking. I’m so happy I got to join this running community. My running friends always help me. When I ran a virtual 100 miler, 20 people came to help.
[Author’s Note: Team Red, White, & Blue is a non-profit that works to enrich the lives of America’s veterans by connecting them to their community through physical and social activity. Band of Runners is a non-profit made up of trail runners. They welcome veterans and their surviving family members into the trail running community through education and mentorship.]
iRunFar: Why did you decide to run ultramarathons?
Woehl: I wanted to try something longer than the full marathon, so I signed up for the 50k, and after I did the 50k, I told myself, This is it. I’m done. No more 50k races. But we have a local race series in South Carolina, where I live, called Upstate Ultras, and I ended up signing up for 100 miles just to see what I could do. The first half marathon I ever ran, I lost four toenails because I didn’t know what kind of shoes to wear. I still didn’t know what kind of shoes to wear, so I brought a lot of socks to the 100 miler. I kept changing my socks, but I still got a lot of blisters, and I didn’t finish the full 100 miles. But I did end up running 77 miles in under 30 hours, so I thought, Well, next year, I’ll go back.
I signed up for the Badger 100 Mile in 2020, but I had to do it virtually because of COVID-19. So that was my first 100 miler. I ran five-mile loops on sandy trails in 95-degree Fahrenheit heat in South Carolina with my good friend Mya DeLeon. We had the best crew in Michael and Clara Beaudet. Without them, I might not have finished or met Badger’s 36-hour cutoff. I couldn’t believe I ran 100 miles under 33 hours.
This year’s Badger is my third 100 miler, and the third time that I’ve had trouble with leaning. At the virtual Badger in 2020, I was leaning, but I didn’t realize it until I saw a photo. Three months ago, when I did another 100 miler, they tapped me and told me that I was leaning. I felt like I was straight, but then I looked at my shadow and thought, Oh my god! I’m leaning. That time, I leaned left. This time, I leaned right. I don’t know what the issue with my body is. I’m seeing a physical therapist about it.
iRunFar: When did you start leaning at this year’s Badger 100 Mile?
Woehl: Mile 48 at the Hollywood aid station. I told Michael I needed my hiking poles then. I don’t think I could have finished without the poles. I tried to straighten up to walk, but I couldn’t. I could run with the poles though.
iRunFar: Did you think about quitting as you became more and more bent over?
Woehl: Just once. My body was so painful. I had blisters on my hands from the trekking poles. But my mind wouldn’t quit. I didn’t want to let Michael and Clara or Band of Runners down. If my body couldn’t take it, I would have quit. But my body could take it. It was very painful, but I was okay, and my mind was still strong. I knew I was going to feel happy when I finished.
iRunFar: Did you think about your age during the race? Did you think, My body is too old for this?
Woehl: To be honest with you, I didn’t think about that. I was thinking: I’m happy. Otherwise, I might think back about the bad things in my life. People tell me I’m always smiling. “Even when you’re leaning, you’re always smiling.” It’s because I don’t want to think back on the bad things in my life.
iRunFar: Do you feel like being older can be an advantage at ultra distances?
Woehl: Yes, I think the older I am, the stronger my mental focus is. I don’t think about quitting. My body hurts, but my mind wants to keep moving.
iRunFar: Would you have done anything differently during the race?
Woehl: I lied to Scott Kummer, [the race director,] at the finish. I told him I would never do another 100 miler. But I will… just to see what my body does. I’m going to work on my body’s weaknesses before the next one.
iRunFar: Did your nutrition work out well?
Woehl: I can’t eat when I run. I used Tailwind, dotFIT, Fanta, and coconut water.
iRunFar: Is it harder to recover from long runs now at age 53 than it was at 47?
Woehl: Yes, before, I’d run seven days a week three or five miles a day. But now, getting old, I feel more body pain. I have to look at what my body needs. Now, I take rest days when I need to, and I do a 60-minute yoga class twice a week. I also do strength work three times a week.
iRunFar: What advice do you have for trail runners and ultrarunners who are just getting into the sport?
Woehl: Just try. Someone will always look after you. The running community will take care of you, and you will make friends.
Call for Comments
- What are some ways you’ve discovered community in the trail running and ultrarunning worlds?
- Have you been able to pull yourself out of a tough time through your community of runners?