Run Ultras: 5 Dream-Big Lessons From a Third-Grade Teacher

How do you run ultras?

“It’s like riding a roller coaster,” says ultrarunner Sheri Gewelke.

“You know it’s going to get a little crazy."

"You have to tell yourself, once you get on you’re not getting off. And once it starts, it’s gone. You sort of have to have that mentality to run ultras.”

If you run ultras, you’re bound to learn a few lessons from going the distance that spill over into the rest of your life.

That’s true for Sheri. 

She’s a third-grade teacher at Ashley Academy in Johnson City, Tenn.

And she’s a master at helping kids learn and grow, build confidence, and discover their talents.

But her influence doesn’t stop there.

She’s also a cross country coach, athletic director, personal trainer, and ultramarathon runner.

👉Check out these 5 dream-big lessons Sheri’s learned by going the distance.

1. Everyone has a gift

1. Everyone has a gift

At just four years old, Sheri was running around her neighborhood. She loved school field days and running events.

She joined the cross country team. She ran in college to stay in shape. And she realized that running made her feel good...gave her energy.

"Running is one of my gifts," says Sheri.

"Running gives me energy. If I don't run, I feel like there's a clog. It's part of who I am."

"Everyone has a gift. Maybe it's not running. But if you're willing to step just a little bit outside your comfort zone, you'll discover your gifts."

The Eastern Divide 50K

Sheri discovered her gift for ultrarunning when she first ran the Eastern Divide 50K trail race in southwest Virginia about a decade ago.

"My ultrarunning friends told me this would be a great first ultra," says Sheri. "But sometimes ultrarunners lie."

"It turned out to be a lot harder than I thought. There was a four-mile section straight up the mountain. The race also included running through a gulley, fields, and stone and rock formations. It was amazing."

Even though she could feel her gift and energy flowing from running, it was still hard. She "mummy shuffled" to the finish, and wanted more.

"It gave me a glimpse of what running 100 miles might be like."

2. Don't let fear hold you back

2. Don't let fear hold you back

Want to run ultras? Don't let fear hold you back.

"Fear is such a demon," says Sheri. "If you're too afraid to try, you'll end up stuck. But it doesn't have to be that way."

The no-fear half marathon

When Sheri isn't in the classroom, coaching cross country, or racking up training miles for her next ultra, she's also a personal trainer.

And mindset is just as important as learning how to exercise.

"I trained a 60-year-old woman who'd never ran a day in her life for the Asheville Half Marathon at the Biltmore Estate," says Sheri.

She created a plan to help her get to the finish...

  • Start walking. 
  • Build strength a little at a time. 
  • Walk then run. 
  • Run a little faster. 

That's how Sheri prepped her client for the half marathon.

And then something happened.

"She tried to back out on me," says Sheri. "But I knew she could do it. I helped her get over her fears. And you know what? She finished. And that's what matters."

The impossible mile

As a teacher and cross country coach, Sheri wanted to make sure every kid had the chance to participate.

One student athlete had health concerns that made it harder for her to run than others kids. She wanted to try, and she wasn't afraid. But her parents weren't sure about it.

"What if she gets injured? What if she comes in dead last? they worried," Sheri recalls.

Instead of giving into fear, Sheri encouraged these parents and her student to take it one step at a time.

And you know what happened...

"She never came in last," says Sheri. "She went from a 16-minute mile down to a 12-minute mile."

Naturally, the parents were amazed and grateful. And so was her student.

"When you let go of ego, when you face your fears, and just run, you might be surprised by what you can accomplish."

3. People will help you

3. People will help you

Sheri joined two other runners early on during the Bloody 11W 111-mile ultra from Knoxville, Tenn., to the Virginia state line.

But with rising temperatures, she started overheating. Eventually, the trio made it to a quickie-mart pit stop along the course around 40 miles at 3 p.m.

"I was starting to get heat exhaustion," says Sheri. "I was feeling sleepy. Almost like the heat was lulling me to sleep."

She managed to cool off enough to keep going...alone.

She ran for another 12 hours, stopping at another remote convenience store in the middle of the night. It was around 3 a.m. She was still suffering from the heat.

And that's when things went from bad to worse.

'I'm gonna cut you..."

Out of nowhere, a guy comes out of the shadows with a paring knife wrapped in a paper towel.

"He comes up to me like he's going to do something," says Sheri.

"But I was so raw and so beat down, I just looked at him and said, 'Dude, I don't have time for this.'"

The angel runner

Shortly after the encounter, ultrarunner Lee Hosbrough arrived and found Sheri in survival mode.

"He gets me a Slushie," says Sheri. 

"He helps me cool down inside and out, and kind of revives me. Really he was like an angel to me. And it reminded me that no matter what you're going through, there are people who will help you."

Sheri and Lee stuck together for the rest of the race, navigating their way through rural communities and unfamiliar roads to get to the Bloody 111 finish in about 59 hours.

4. Expect the unexpected

4. Expect the unexpected

Ever heard of Conquer the Wall Endurance Challenge in West Virginia?

Runners complete as many laps as possible within 47 hours.

That seemed doable for an ultrarunner like Sheri, but something unexpected happened.

A later winter storm in early spring, turned the race into Conquer the Blizzard.

"It went from 59 degrees to 19 degrees with a snowstorm," says Sheri. "I was literally running with icicles frozen in my hair."

Despite the cold and conditions, Sheri pressed on, completing 104 miles at Conquer the Wall.

"If you want to be good at running, and if you want to be successful at life, you have learn how to adapt," says Sheri.

5. Anything is possible

5. Anything is possible

How many miles could you cover running for 96 hours?

When Sheri stepped up to the starting line of the Ozone Endurance Challenge in 2018, she knew she was going to run past 100 miles.

But she wasn't sure how far her mind and her legs would carry her.

The goal: Complete as many two-mile laps as possible before time ran out.

"All of the trail on the backside of the course was extremely muddy," says Sheri. "And the mosquitos were tough."

But she kept going. And by the time she finished the race, she ticked off 164 miles.

What if she trained smarter and ran the Ozone more efficiently? It's question that's been churning in her mind ever since she crossed the finish line.

The power of goal setting

"I'm a kind of a psychotic goal-oriented person," says Sheri. 

"I have goals for almost everything, athletic, spiritual, personal. I have vision boards for every goal. And I'm constantly visualizing success."

And guess what one of those goals are for Sheri?

Run 200 miles at this year's Ozone Endurance Challenge.

"Anything is possible," says Sheri. "If you think it's possible, it's because it is."

She's been thinking about ticking off 200 miles at the Ozone Endurance Challenge ever since she finished 8th overall in the 96-hour event a few years ago. 

"Not everybody shares this kind of vision. When I say I'm going to run 100 miles, some people just laugh in my face and think it isn't possible. I don't take it personally. I just think, 'OK, I'm getting my ticket. Bye. I'm out of here.'"

  • So how do you get from where you are to where you want to be?
  • How do you chase down big goals?

For Sheri, the formula seems pretty simple. She shares this idea with her students and athletes. And it's the mantra she'll step up to the starting line with in October to run further than she ever has before...

"Anything is possible," says Sheri. "If you just believe, put yourself out there, and try, you might be surprised by what you can accomplish."

Fun facts about Sheri Gewelke

Fun facts about Sheri Gewelke

Favorite race

The Pistol 100 near Knoxville, Tenn. "Even though you're running a 10-mile loop on a linear path, this race is still challenging," says Sheri. "Once you're out on the loop, you can't really stop. It really forces your mind to think about staying in the race. It's a good race to help wrap your mind around running harder 100-mile races."

First ultra

Eastern Divide 50K trail race in southwest Virginia in 2013.

Longest distance I've ran

164 miles at the Ozone Endurance Challenge in Rockwood, Tenn.

Most interesting race

The Bloody 111 near Knoxville, Tenn. "It's an unaided race," says Sheri. "You just take your pack, a debit card, and a map. You can have plans A, B, C, and D. But anything can happen, and you might have to throw those plans out the window. It's a kind of race where you're living moment by moment. It teaches you to walk by total faith, and you sort of watch the universe click into place as you run this race."

Favorite running shoes

Nike Air Zoom Terra Kiger. "I don't like a lot of padding in my running shoes," says Sheri. "The Nike Zoom Terra Kiger feels natural to me. And it works for my body type and the way my foot lands."

Food & fuel

"I have a really small stomach," says Sheri. "I'm also a vegetarian. I eat really clean. Mainly fruits, vegetables, nuts, beans. But if I'm forced to thrown down a cheese pizza to stay in a race and finish, I will do it. I've also learned that at a certain point during and ultra, I have to switch to liquid nutrition."

Pre-race ritual

"I mentally dial in," says Sheri. "I think about the race all week long. People laugh at affirmations, but they work. I've been saying this a lot lately, 'I'm running 200 miles.' When you visualize things, your subconscious takes over to help you make it a reality."

What do you love most about running?

"It's my way of getting close to God," says Sheri. "I can feel His light, his closeness. It's a way to connect with God very fast. Being in motion is part of who I am, and I feel energy every time I run. It's a beautiful thing to feel that energy flowing."

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Evan Jensen
SANDY, Oregon
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I help RUNNERS reduce injuries, fix running form, run longer & faster by strength training without running ragged. I'm a NASM...


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