WeRunFar Profile: Shawn McTaggart

A long profile of ultrarunner and Alaska adventurer Shawn McTaggart.

By on May 20, 2014 | Comments

It was February of 2008 and Shawn McTaggart finished the Susitna 100 Mile in Alaska as the fifth woman. For nearly 50 hours, running in knee-deep snow, fluctuating temperatures, and unusual periods of sunlight, she was miserable. As soon as the plane touched back down in Washington state, her then home, she knew her next trip north would be a permanent one.

In the summer of 2011, after a few years of wearing down her fair-weather husband, Tony Covarrubias, the couple packed and moved to Anchorage, Alaska. In a cover letter addressed to a local law firm, Shawn listed professional skills and her past experiences working as a legal secretary. She also squeezed in, between work references and her educational background, the hint of an upcoming race and the requirement that if hired she was going to need the entire month of March free.

Shawn’s finishing time of the Susitna 100 qualified her for the 350-mile option of the Iditarod Trail Invitational (ITI), a 350-mile and 1,000-mile race. She has since trekked the Alaska-spanned ultra four times, finishing the 2014 race this past March. Although it was her fourth time battling the Alaskan weather and solitude, and over hundreds of miles of snow-covered trails, the journey never gets easier.

“I hate it so much when I’m out there,” Shawn said, thinking back to each of her races. Her latest experience, the 1,000-mile race, began on February 24. Despite many tears and a possible seat on the next flight home if she wanted it from any number of the little villages she passed, Shawn surged through, completing her second self-supported 1,000-mile expedition across Alaska in 28 days, 17 hours, and 30 minutes.

“But then the nostalgia kicks in after, and I’m like, ‘That was great!’” she said, chuckling. “You’re in Alaska, all alone, the stars are out, and you’re thinking, Wow, this is amazing. Where else can you get this?

Shawn and her husband now live in Palmer, Alaska with their three dogs, Silas, Herbert, and Ms. Gray. She celebrated her 37th birthday during this year’s race.

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Shawn beginning her second ITI in Knik Lake, Alaska. Photo: Tony Covarrubias

Shawn began running as a kid, accompanying her mom in 10k races. She grew up in Bellingham, Washington, and joined the track and cross-country teams as a junior in high school.

“My parents inspired me to start running,” she said. “I would probably have been a couch potato without my parents; actually, my body prefers to be a couch potato.”

But even at a young age, fast, competitive racing never quite suited Shawn.

“I was always more interested in the trails around my house,” she said. “I never knew about long-distance trail running until the early 2000’s. It was right up my alley. I loved it and haven’t stopped.”

In 2005, Shawn ran her first ultra, a 50k, at the Mt. Si Relay & UltraRuns in Washington, finishing among the top-10 women.

“I was undertrained and had no idea what I was doing,” she said. “My brother paced me on his bike. I was miserable and my feet hurt. And as soon as I was done, I dove online and signed up for five more races for the summer.”

She was hooked. In 2006, she ran seven ultras, including her first 100 miler, the Cascade Crest 100 Mile Endurance Run in Washington, in 30 hours. Shawn spent the next couple of years training with a running group, and racing nearly every weekend at local races in the Washington area. During this time she met her husband, Tony, who has been running ultramarathons since 1999, on carpool rides to races and training runs.

In 2009, the two began expanding their race destinations, looking for tough, “not possible” races. They landed on the 150-mile option of the Potawatomi Trail Runs in Pekin, Illinois. “Tony said, ‘Let’s do it.’ And we ran the whole race together,” Shawn said. “It was a pretty positive experience; a great confidence builder. People there who had done it before told us about the hills and the trails, so we felt like we had to prove ourselves in their community.”

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Morning during the ITI. All photos courtesy of Shawn McTaggart unless otherwise noted.

Despite taking a three-hour nap during the run, Shawn and Tony’s finishing time of 51:16:30 remains the sixth-fastest time ever for the women’s 150-mile race. Though accomplishing a race that is comprised of 15 loops of 10 miles, Shawn said she is not a fan of loop races, being too easily drawn in by a warm car and nap. Sleeping, she revealed, is somewhat of a problem during races longer than 50 miles. “I wished I liked 100 milers, but I am just not good at them,” she exclaimed. “I struggle at night, lay down in the dirt, and sleep.”

Because of these catnaps Shawn has toed the starting line of the Plain 100 Mile in Washington three times, yet has only finished the race once. “The first time I didn’t finish, I only made it 60 miles,” she recalled. “I finished the second time. Tony finished our third time, but I didn’t because I took so many naps.” During the race, after one of her multiple rest stops, Shawn woke up as the sun began to rise and took off running—in the wrong direction.

“For the Iditarod, you get to sleep every night,” she added. And that was the deal-closer.

The ITI follows the Iditarod Trail, the 1,000-mile route through Alaska, and has been held in some capacity since the early 1980’s. Inspired by the historic sled-dog race, the Iditarod, which was first run in 1973, the ITI is now trekked by bike, foot, and skis.

Today, the 1,000-mile race runs through about 23 Alaskan villages, beginning in Knik Lake and ending in Nome. Each year the race alternates between the North or South Route of the Iditarod Trail. The 350-mile option also begins at Knik Lake, but finishes in the town of McGrath. The trail does not exist in the summer since the lakes, swamps, and rivers freeze over, producing a solid course to traverse. The ‘trail’ is actually a thin, white line created by snow machines, bikers, and sled-dog teams using it for training, travel, and racing.

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Looking ahead, and following the trail.

The terrain is varied and always challenging, but for different reasons. There are small, steep hills which are difficult to tackle while pulling a heavy sled of gear. There are frozen rivers and lakes that can be icy or have dangerous water overflow. There’s a traverse through the Alaska Range, with a lot of climbing, descending, and sometimes dangerous weather conditions. Then there are the interminably flat, straight sections, miles at a time of nothing but a straight line through snow.

The route is ‘marked’ by pathways left from the other racers, in addition to wooden poles and reflectors pounded into the snow and ice every so often. These, Shawn said, usually are knocked down by snow machines or are blown away. “Sometimes it gets so snowy and windy you cannot see the trail ahead,” she added. “Then you just keep walking straight.”

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Shawn leaves her mark on the snow-covered terrain.

In 2011 and 2012, Shawn completed the 350-mile option. She finished the 2011 race in 8 days, 11 hours, and 5 minutes, and intended on continuing onto the 1,000-mile finish line in Nome after finishing the 350 miles again in 2012. However, due to the worst weather conditions in decades, according to the ITI website, Shawn exited the race at McGrath. No one made it to the last checkpoint in Nome that year.

In 2013, Tony set off with Shawn on her second attempt for the 1,000-mile mark. He only planned on running the 350-mile course, so at the town of McGrath, he packed up his sled and Shawn continued alone.

“I decided to go with Shawn on the first part of the course,” Tony said. “I got to see first hand what she had seen the previous two years.” Tony had planned on flying to the finish to see Shawn come in at Nome. But, for a couple of days near the end of her race, neither Tony nor Shawn were sure she’d finish under the official cutoff, which is 30 days, 23 hours, 59 minutes, and 59 seconds.

“That lit a fire under her butt,” he said, her wanting to beat the cutoff. Kicking up the pace, Shawn ran the last 68 or so miles in under 24 hours, running through the night to make it to the finish line on time. Squeaking in hours before the cut-off, she finished in 30 days, 12 hours, and 10 minutes as the only woman to finish the race that year, and setting a then female foot record by almost 10 days.

“The record was there for anyone,” she said. “It was not any amazing feat.” She deems it as not amazing because the previous record holder, Janine Duplessis, was the first woman to complete the 1,000-mile course, yet ‘competing’ was not really her intention. In 2000, she and her husband chose the journey as their honeymoon, leisurely finishing the 1,000 miles in 41 days, 10 hours, and 30 minutes. Since Duplessis covered the distance with her husband, Shawn’s 2013 finish established her as the first woman to complete the race solo.

“I just kept going,” she said, describing her mindset. “Honestly I had no choice but to keep going. Each time I came into a village and slept in a cabin at night, I felt re-energized and just kept going. I felt like I needed to prove to myself that I could do this.”

However, 2014 was an entirely different experience. “A couple of times this year, I wanted to throw in the towel,” she said. “I wanted to catch a flight home, but the thought of, ‘What would people say?’ came back to me. I had to show them, and show myself.”

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One of the ITI course’s frozen lakes.

This year, it seemed luck was on Shawn’s side regarding Alaska’s infamous weather conditions. At pit stops in the villages and checkpoints, Shawn kept hearing about conditions on the trail ahead of her: mushers from the near simultaneous sled-dog race being blown off course and horrible storms thundering down. But for some reason, Shawn’s run stayed pleasant and sunny. “I always knew later in the course it could get bad,” she said. “There is a 20-mile stretch down along the coast, where I have heard horror stories about the possible weather conditions. I was praying the whole race to have good weather there, and for some reason I did.”

Though traveling without a thermometer, Shawn was able to tell by feel the temperatures while out on the trail. Recalling from memory, Shawn guesses that the warmest temperature she encountered were between 2 to 3 p.m. each day, and it could be as warm as 35 to 40 degrees Fahrenheit. The coldest she observed was when a gray layer of frost covered the trail, at about minus 20 to minus 30 degrees. “At the warmest part of the day, I’d be stripped down to my base-layer shirt with sleeves rolled up, and my pant legs rolled up,” she described. “On average, though, the weather was pretty mild and I’m guessing it was usually in that sweet spot between minus 10 and 10 degrees.”

Throughout the race, Shawn experienced leg pain in the form of “shin splint-like pain,” she said. This caused her to back off some days when it came to the daily mileage she traveled. Her goal each morning was to make it to the next checkpoint, usually 30 to 40 miles away, averaging about 35 miles a day for the entire trip. Because of the shin pain, she tried to push herself hard on some stretches so that she could take an easy, short-mileage day afterward and rest longer at the checkpoints. “There were also times I’d get to a checkpoint early in the day. I would get in about 30 miles,” she explained, “and then I would stay at the checkpoint for one to two hours and get in another 10 to 15 miles that night.”

In previous excursions Shawn was able to sleep in the villages more often, usually in the towns’ schools and, once, at a bed and breakfast. But this year she ended up camping outside for about a third of the race, which was a result of the incredible weather she encountered. Night was typically spent burning garbage from that day’s supplies used, changing clothes if needed, melting water for the next day, and preparing dinner, if she was in the mood. Usually she was not and so her dinner resulted in pre-made bacon and a candy bar. Then, making a nest out of tree branches for warmth, a trick she learned from other racers, Shawn would plop down into her sleeping bag and fall asleep immediately.

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Shawn’s sleeping bag on the side of the trail, making a nest with branches and grass.

While on the trail, Shawn ran with a five-pound sled trailing behind her. Adding nearly 50 pounds to that were her supplies for the entire trip: a duffel bag, sleeping bag, stove and fuel, thermos, and extra clothing such as running hats, running gloves, and running socks. She brought two pairs of typical, trail running shoes, swapping out a dry pair when necessary. Unless absolutely forced to, Shawn said she did not snowshoe much, deeming them a “pain in the ass to readjust.” She also carried several electronic sources, such as a two iPods, a camera, chargers, and batteries. Food included about five to 12 pounds of candy bars, gummies, bacon, Coke, and a lot of doughnuts, depending on where she was on the trail. After stopping at a village, the fresh drop bag of food she picked up added another 10 pounds. Shawn said typically her sled weighs about 65 to 70 pounds fully loaded, yet fluctuated up to 85 pounds total depending on the amount of food and water she was carrying.

During the race, each runner could prepare three 10-pound boxes of supplies that the race director would send to a future checkpoint. In addition, Shawn sent herself a few more drop bags: one to each village’s post office for the duration of the race. These bags could range in size and weight, and usually provided more chocolate, pastries, Gatorade, and fruit. “This year by mid-race, I started to hate chocolate,” she said. “Every time I got a box, I would leave the M&M’s and Reese’s. I just couldn’t stand the sight of it!”

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Traveling along the coast toward Nome.

When coming upon villages, the first questions Shawn asked were, “Where are the nearest school, store, and post office?” Shawn determined her actions by the answers, especially when she was coming in during the night. If the school was closed, sleeping outside or finding some sort of hotel was the next step. If again closed, Shawn would bypass the post office looking for the nearest store to restock any supplies. “You really have to learn to use communication while out there,” she said. “It is hard coming into villages and you don’t know where to go, especially at night.”

Shawn said that being a woman came in handy during the race. Sometimes snow-machine drivers would call ahead to villages, forewarning of her future approach. “One guy[, a snow-machine driver,] said, ‘Look for Maggie’s B&B; I’ll tell them you’re coming in,’” Shawn remembered about one friendly man. “I think it is easier to be a woman on the trail —people are more willing to help you.”

But when her short time at a village was over, the isolation of the secluded trail always crept back up. The solitude, and the struggle of bouncing between high and low points usually stimulated Shawn while ultrarunning; however, the loneliness of this year’s race was the most difficult obstacle to overcome, she said. “There were some low points. I would just sit on my sled and have a cry about it,” she said. These struggles usually occurred in the evening, around 7 p.m. as the sun went down and she settled in for the night.

During the 2013 journey, Shawn and a runner from Austria named Klaus Schweinberger became each other’s support groups, swapping stories and doubling the morning alarms kept her moving forward. But this year, most of the voices coming at her were from snow-machine drivers and the singers blasting through her iPod. “Drivers ask if you need anything or ask if you need a ride,” she said. “They know about the race but are still surprised. They will say, ‘Oh, you’re one of those ‘iditawalkers.’ They have no idea.”

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One of the cabins Shawn stayed at. She left the Old Woman shelter on Monday March 17, 2014.

Since the ITI is self-supported, no outside aid or pacing is allowed. Though racers are permitted to carry a satellite phone, Shawn opted not to due to the cost. Thus, only at checkpoints and villages with wi-fi reception was she able to make contact with Tony. Communicating with Shawn while she is racing is always difficult, Tony said. This year was the toughest since the first half of the race took her longer than normal, causing him to fret more than the past years. A few times he wanted to tell her to just come home. Once Shawn made it to a village with internet service, she and Tony could call and FaceTime. “She cried a lot at times and told me she wanted to come home,” he said. Shawn also asked him to look up flights from the next village, but when she arrived she would continue onto the next one. “My wife is incredibly competitive and independent. I think she finally got to a place where she told herself she was not going to quit and her attitude really changed.”

“Then, finally, she was ready to push hard through the last couple of villages to Nome,” he added. “She finished stronger even than the year before, knocking off a couple days and doing the last stretch in 22 hours.”

As Nome inched closer, Shawn said it became easier to keep moving. “I kept waiting for Nome and just hammered the last section,” she said. “I put my best playlist on [my iPod] and let myself be happy.” It was during this last section, as Imagine Dragons’ “I’m on Top of the World,” blasted through her headphones, that Shawn finally felt free to relax and just run. “I didn’t have to worry about getting up the next morning and I could just go,” she said, describing her last day on the trail. “I really enjoyed it.”

On March 28 at 7:20 a.m., Shawn came sprinting into Nome, concluding the entire 2014 ITI race as this year’s final finisher. She finished two days faster than last year, coming in among the five participants to complete the full 1,000-mile race on foot. Of those five finishers was the couple, Loreen and Tim Hewitt, from Pennsylvania, finishing in 26 days, 6 hours, and 59 minutes. Loreen now holds the new women’s course record, and Tim is honored with the most number of finishes in history, with 2014 being his eighth completion of the ITI’s 1,000-mile option. The winner this year was John Logar of West Virginia, who arrived to Nome after 23 days, 23 hours, and 10 minutes.

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Shawn at the finish line of the ITI in Nome, Alaska, on March 28, 2014.

Back at home in Palmer, after the race, Shawn quickly jumped back into her regular routine, taking about a week off from work and running. Similar to last year, recovery included a lot of food and walks with the dogs.

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Shawn chilling on the shore of the Knik River with her three dogs, two months after finishing the ITI. Photo: Tony Covarrubias

By early May 2013, after completing her first 1,000-mile ITI, Shawn’s name and application were already sent in for the 2014 race. However, her 2015 future with the ITI remains uncertain. “Last year I knew I wanted to do it again right away,” she said. “But this year I have not signed up yet. I’m sure if I don’t do it in a year, then I will in the next two.”

And it may take those two years to get Tony fully on board. “It’s a very dangerous and serious race not to be taken lightly,” Tony said. “It’s very tough sitting at home while she’s out on the trail. I told her that if she decided to go to Nome again, I would have to seriously think of going with her. If not all the way, at least to McGrath.”

But if it is not the ITI in 2015, Shawn and Tony have their eyes set on other future races, including the H.U.R.T 100-Mile Endurance Run in Hawaii and possibly another go at the Potawatomi 150. Yet, for them the race has to pass a personal decree of difficulty.

“We tend to gravitate toward races that are really hard to do,” she said, also adding the Western States 100 and the Hardrock 100 to their ‘future-race list.’ “We like to see how ‘hard’ a race really is. How much damage can it do?”


Jessica Campbell
Jessica Campbell began her iRunFar career as an intern. A former 'swammer,' Jessica turned her passion of endurance sports to marathon and ultrarunning. She lives on the shores of Lake Michigan and works as a journalist for a small-town Indiana newspaper.