This story was reported by Beth Bragg and Marc Lester and written by Bragg.
In her quest to complete a 100-mile ultramarathon in August, Carol Seppilu had made it through 38 demanding miles on a mountainous trail high in the Rocky Mountains. Then the brutal part of her race began.
Ahead was a 3,400-foot climb to Hope Pass, which at 12,600 feet is the highest point in Colorado’s Leadville Trail 100 — rarefied air for anyone, but especially for someone like Seppilu, who lives and trains at sea level on Alaska’s Bering Sea coast.
Seppilu had been running and hiking for nearly 10 hours and was already feeling the altitude when she reached a checkpoint 37.9 miles into the race. There are cutoff times along the race trail, and Seppilu reached this one with 19 minutes to spare.
She looked at her watch. “I barely made it,” she said. “I’m fighting for every breath.”
She drank water as she walked through the checkpoint and smiled at strangers who shouted encouragement. “Yes, Carol!” “Way to go, Carol!” A member of her race crew gave her a hug and reminded her that running uphill is her strength.
Hope Pass was 3.6 miles away, a grueling ascent Seppilu prepared for with her go-to training run in Nome — an 11-mile run from her house on the east side of town to the top of 1,050-foot Anvil Mountain and back.
Repeated trips up and down that mountain have helped Seppilu, 36, lose nearly 80 pounds since she started running five years ago, but nothing prepared her for running at altitude, not even arriving in Colorado a week before the race and camping out in the Rockies in an effort to acclimate herself.
As she climbed higher and higher toward Hope Pass, her pace slowed. She was walking now, and every single breath came with a struggle. When she couldn’t breathe anymore, she stopped, sat down and spent a few moments gulping in air.
Seppilu missed the cutoff time at Hope Pass by about 20 minutes. She turned around and walked back to Twin Lakes, her race over but her spirit strong.
“I had fun,” she said. "It was cool. Forty-three miles up to where they cut me off, and then I had to walk back. So I did 48 miles here in Leadville. I think that’s pretty good. Almost half of it.”
Survival, at a cost
There is no shame in failing to finish the Leadville Trail 100. More than half of the 831 runners who started this year’s race on Aug. 17 didn’t finish. Known as the “Race Across the Sky,” it taxes the lungs of every athlete who tackles it.
But no one struggled like Seppilu, who can’t breathe through her nose.
Her nasal passages were destroyed 20 years ago when she put the barrel of her father’s hunting rifle under her chin and pulled the trigger. She was drunk, depressed and 16 years old.
Since then she has endured more surgeries than she can count. Her nasal airways remain closed, so she breathes through a tracheostomy tube in her throat that sends air directly into her lungs.
“I wear it every second except when I’m cleaning it,” Seppilu said of the tube. “I’m used to it. It’s part of me now.”
So is the white gauze mask that usually covers the lower half of her face, the part most badly disfigured by her suicide attempt.
Her real nose is gone, replaced by a piece of blue plastic covered by skin taken from her forehead. Bone from her fibula was used to reconstruct her lower jaw. Sometimes when she feels an itch around her nose, she scratches her forehead. When she broke her ankle in a race last year, her jaw ached.
“I couldn’t eat for almost a year. I had a feeding tube in my stomach,” Seppilu said. “I remember craving food all of the time. I don’t drink soda anymore, but every so often I crave Pepsi, and I think it’s because I wanted it for that whole year.”
All about oxygen
In the corner of Seppilu’s small house in Nome hang several medals she has collected since running her first ultramarathon in 2017. She didn’t earn a medal at the Leadville Trail 100, but she earned respect.
Chad Trammell, an Anchorage man who finished second in the race, marveled that Seppilu managed to make it through as much of the race as she did.
“It really blew my mind,” he said. “That’s one of the highest-altitude races there is. Running at 5,000 feet is pretty intense but this one goes up to 12,000 feet. The amount of oxygen gets exponentially lower as you go up like that. I’m really shocked she was able to do that.”
Usually the limiting factor in an ultramarathon is how your muscles respond, Trammell said, “but at altitude it’s really about the amount of oxygen you can get.”
And breathing while running is never easy for Seppilu, even at sea level. The first time she ran in subzero temperatures in Nome, ice formed in her tracheostomy tube and cut off her air flow.
“I thought, ‘How am I going to get this open?’ So I took out my key and scraped the ice off it and then continued my run," she said.
Behind the mask
Though Seppilu almost always wears a mask because she is self-conscious about her face, she doesn’t hide how she was injured.
She has served as a member of Alaska’s Statewide Suicide Prevention Council, and even as a teenager she was willing to tell her story in the interest of raising awareness in a state with one of the highest suicide rates in the nation.
Years ago after First Alaskans magazine published a story about her, a stranger approached her at the Juneau airport.
“This guy comes up to me and he says, ‘I want to thank you for sharing your story,’ because he said he had been thinking about suicide and just reading my story made him change his mind," Seppilu said. "That really touched my heart, and I thought, ‘I’m just going to keep sharing my story and hopefully it will help people like him.' ’'
Now ultrarunners all over the country are hearing about the woman behind the mask, and Seppilu is hearing from them.
“People will come up to me and they’ll say they recognize me and then they’ll share their own struggles that they’ve been through,” she said. “Even on social media, a lady contacted me and said she had been suicidal before and just reading my story gave her a lot of hope, and she told me to keep sharing it and to keep running.”
From Savoonga to Nome
Seppilu’s story is as long and winding as the ultramarathons she loves.
There are the years before her suicide attempt on Sept. 8, 1999, beginning with her birth in the village of Savoonga on St. Lawrence Island, where she grew up speaking Siberian Yupik and eating Native food “all day, every day.”
Seppilu was 8 when her family moved to Nome. As a grade-schooler she was a classroom star with dreams of becoming an astrophysicist, but dark days filled with depression doused those dreams.
“I was depressed for a long time, ever since I was a teenager and even before that,” she said. "I had a difficult childhood. Really difficult. There was alcohol abuse, physical abuse, even sexual abuse when I was a kid. It’s not really easy to talk about. A lot of that happens too often in this state.
“When I turned 13 I got into drugs and alcohol. I used marijuana first, and then cigarettes and alcohol. All my life I watched my loved ones, and they were drunk every day. I would drink until I would black out and didn’t know where I was when I woke up.”
'You’re a drunk’
She said she toyed with the idea of killing herself for about a month before she picked up her dad’s rifle in her family’s home in Nome.
“I was 16, and I said, ‘Carol, you’re a drunk. You’re a drug dealer.’ I said, ‘What happened to you?’ And that’s when I decided I didn’t want to live anymore,” she said.
"... I was drunk that night (and) had no idea what I was doing. I know I wouldn’t have done it if I was sober. I wouldn’t have had the courage if I was sober. I was holding my dad’s hunting rifle and I remember it slipped, so (the barrel) went up a bit before I pulled the trigger. I think that’s why I’m still here — (the bullet) didn’t go straight through my head.”
Seppilu was airlifted to the Alaska Native Medical Center in Anchorage. When she woke up, she couldn’t talk and her vision was clouded. She motioned to a nurse for pen and paper and wrote “What happened?”
People in the room rejoiced at that simple act. It meant Seppilu’s brain was still functioning.
A second chance
The next part of Seppilu’s story is a decadelong span of surgeries as doctors tried unsuccessfully to open her nasal passages and more successfully to reconstruct her face.
She defied predictions that she would never talk or see again, although for a couple of years it was easier to communicate by writing than by talking. Today she speaks in a soft, steady voice.
Seppilu earned a GED and went on to become a certified nurse assistant. After working several years as a CNA at the Norton Sound Health Corp.’s long-term residential care unit in Nome, she became the Quyanna Care Center’s cultural activity specialist in 2016. In that role, she prepares Native foods for residents and leads them through activities like berry-picking and group dance performances.
Depression has been a continuing problem, one that at times has led to great comfort. The year 2009 was a dark one — that’s when Seppilu halted reconstructive surgery after going through repeated procedures that were both painful and unsuccessful. That same year she broke her foot and spent day after day indoors. As a way to battle through the blues, she got a puppy — Solar, a malemute/husky mix.
Yet even with a good job and a good dog, Seppilu combated depression. She gained weight and slept away her weekends, although she says she has never returned to drugs or alcohol. She said she has had a drink on maybe five occasions since she tried to kill herself, and each one made her sick.
'Get up and do something’
During the summer of 2014, Seppilu weighed 233 pounds. She woke up at noon one day and willed her way to an epiphany.
“It was really beautiful out — you could see the sun shining through. And I couldn’t even get out of bed,” she said. "I was like, ‘Carol, you have to get up and do something. You can’t spend your entire day in bed.’ So I got up and decided, ‘I’m going to go for a 2-mile run.’
“I ended up running down one block and I ran out of breath. I couldn’t run the rest of the 2 miles, but I did walk the rest of the way. I said, ‘I’ve got to keep doing this every day.’ I discovered over time that it really helped me. I could tell I was becoming a healthier and happier person.”
And that’s when the latest chapter of Seppilu’s story began.
Encouraged by longtime friend Crystal Toolie, a Nome woman who is also an ultramarathoner, Seppilu entered Nome’s 8-mile Wyatt Earp Dexter Challenge in 2015 and finished in less than two hours. After that came a half marathon in 2016.
Her first taste of ultrarunning came in 2017 when she traveled with Toolie to Louisiana, where Toolie raced a 62-miler and Seppilu did a 20-miler. As Seppilu waited for her friend to finish, she watched an array of runners in the 100-mile race and was captivated by the commitment and camaraderie she saw. She decided then to become an ultramarathoner.
Later that year Seppilu took on the Resurrection Pass 50-mile race — and she took off her mask for the first time in public.
The unveiling came during the race after the mask had become wet and uncomfortable. Instead of stopping to put on a clean one, she decided to go with no mask at all.
“It felt good,” she said. “I could breathe better without it. It’s already difficult enough to breathe, because the trach is very narrow. It’s kind of like breathing through one nostril with your mouth closed. That’s all the time, and it’s harder when I’m running.”
The 100-mile quest
Seppilu has slimmed down to 154 pounds and is working on losing more weight so she can become a more competitive runner. At the recent Equinox Marathon in Fairbanks, she placed 89th in a field of 236 women.
The longest race she has completed was February’s Black Canyon 100K in Arizona. It took her 16 hours and 20 minutes to cover 62 miles — her goal was 17 hours — and she placed 455th among 516 finishers. More than 80 people didn’t finish.
Seppilu is still determined to complete a 100-mile race, and her next attempt will come in December at the Hitchcock Experience in Iowa. It will be her third time there.
“The first time I made it 50 miles and the second time I made it 83 miles before my toes froze,” she said.
It snowed 9 inches the day before her second attempt, she said, and for a while she was the top woman in the race. “Those people didn’t know how to run in snow,” she said.
But she wasn’t expecting snow and didn’t bring enough gear for the conditions. By the second half of the race, her socks were soaking wet. By the time she dropped out, she had second-degree frostbite on four toes, she said.
Strong, resilient, indigenous
For the Leadville race, Seppilu wore a pink tank top with the words “Strong, resilient, indigenous” on the front. She is all of those things. At a 50-kilometer race in Texas last year, she broke her foot 5 miles into the race and went on to finish.
She exudes a quiet warmth that belies her strength and an attitude that defies her challenges. At the Leadville Trail 100, Seppilu and Trammell were the only Alaskans in the race, and although her race ended several hours before Trammell was done, Seppilu insisted on waiting at the finish line to greet him.
The two had never met before, and Trammell said he was struck by Seppilu’s spirit.
“That race has a 56% dropout rate, so most people didn’t finish," he said. “A lot of people would be really upset about traveling all that way and not finishing. But she just focused on the positives and what a beautiful day it was and how much of the race she was able to complete.”
Seppilu traces her love of trail running to childhood outings in the hills around Nome. She sometimes invites people on Facebook to run up Anvil Mountain with her, but usually it’s just her and Solar, who on more than one occasion has turned protector by getting between Seppilu and a bear or a musk ox.
The reward for her breath-sapping effort is a breathtaking view, whether she’s atop Anvil Mountain or a peak in the Rocky Mountains.
“When I reach the top, there is pure joy in the moment. That’s why I go up there all the time," she said. “I have that joyful moment, and I experience that in every ultra. Even if I don’t finish, all I want to do is get up the hill and look around and take in the beauty of it. There’s something about reaching the top of a mountain that gives me joy even though it’s painful and hard."
‘Life is precious’
Ultramarathons are filled with obstacles that must be endured or overcome, Seppilu said, and finishing one reminds her that she can get through anything.
“I’ve been through a lot of difficult things, very painful things, in my life, and I’m still here and I’m going to keep going till it’s my time," she said. “All of my ultras remind me, ‘Carol, you can get through anything.’ You’ve just gotta keep going.”
And that is her message to others: Keep going.
“Life is so precious and you only get to live it once," Seppilu said. “Those who wish they weren’t here, I just want to show them you are still able to experience joy and see all these amazing things. It’s not going to be sad all the time.”
If you or someone you know is dealing with depression or a mental health crisis, there are many options available to help. Here are a few easily accessible ones:
• Call the Alaska Careline at 1-877-266-HELP.
• Call the National Suicide Prevention line at 1-800-273-TALK.
• Call the national disaster distress hotline at 1-800-985-5990.
• In Anchorage, the Alaska Native Medical Center’s emergency room is open 24/7 and can help any Alaska Native or American Indian dealing with a mental crisis or grief. The hospital is located at 4315 Diplomacy Drive. You can also reach them by phone at 907-563-2662.
• For more information on the Alaska Suicide Prevention Council and suicide in Alaska, visit dhss.alaska.gov/suicideprevention.
• For more information on the signs of suicide, visit afsp.org/preventing-suicide/suicide-warning-signs.