When Katie Spotz, 26, was growing up, she didn’t exactly look like the ultra marathoner and world record holder she is today. She spent her childhood basketball, baseball, and soccer games warming the bench. It wasn’t until high school, where a mandatory running class got her to test her physical limits, that she became addicted to that competitive adrenaline rush.
Since then she’s taken up every challenge she could find, tackling cycling across the country, racing in a marathon and ultra-marathon, running across the desert, finishing a few Ironman competitions, and participating in a 325-mile river swim relay. Oh, and she also rowed across the Atlantic. By herself.
That feat made Spotz, then 22, the youngest person ever to row an entire ocean solo (that other couple had each other), and the first American to row a boat without help from mainland to mainland.
While Spotz is a thrill-seeker (obviously), she doesn’t just tackle these adventures for the heck of it. Since college, she’s been a clean water activist, and she’s partnered with projects like H2O for Life, the Blue Planet Network, and currently Aveda, to raise awareness and money to help make clean water available worldwide—thus far, she’s raised $250,000 for the cause.
We chatted with Spotz to find out how she stays motivated during her adventures—and what inspired her make a difference in the world through her very, very intense workouts.
What originally inspired you to become a champion of clean water and help spread awareness about it? When I was 19, I studied environmental science for a semester abroad in Australia. At the time, they were experiencing a drought, and I saw how a lack of water could bring a very developed country to its knees. I was raised on the Great Lakes, one of the greatest sources of fresh water on the planet, and the idea of conservation was new to me.
A professor once told me that the war of the future would be over water, and it made me want to learn more. A billion people worldwide (one in six humans) don’t have access to clean water. I was really inspired to do something about it.
Water—and the ocean!—have obviously been a big part of your life. Why did you decide to take on the challenge of rowing the Atlantic solo? While I was on a bus in Australia, I started talking to the person next to me about ultramarathons—he mentioned a friend who rode a boat across the Atlantic. It was one of those comments that made me want to know more; it sparked a million other questions. I didn’t know how to row at the time, and I just became obsessed with the idea.
What were some of the mental strategies you used while rowing that you still tap into today? I never thought of it as a 3,000 mile row—I thought about rowing one mile, 3,000 times. On some days, thinking about rowing for another two weeks would have been overwhelming. It was all about breaking it down into manageable pieces.
Even looking back at all my adventures, I see smaller moments. I don’t see those big numbers. Every big thing is just the accumulation of lots of baby steps.
That’s true with anything in life. How did you stay positive and confident during your journey? There’s no quick fix to positivity or confidence. There were definitely moments when I thought about quitting, or that I would do anything to get off the boat. But I think your greatest strength is in admitting your weakness. By fighting it and feeling overwhelmed—you’re just magnifying it. I always ask myself, “What would I tell my best friend if she was struggling?” In weak moments, kindness and patience help.
It’s about being your own best friend. You won’t feel overwhelmed forever, just like you won’t feel excited forever, either. Those feelings come and go like waves. But accepting that there will be tough moments makes them less scary. —Molly Gallagher