When Kristin Gablehouse couldn't work, watch TV, run errands, read or drive, she could run — not fast, but far.
The 39-year-old Lafayette ultrarunner healing from a traumatic brain injury will fly out Thursday for her second 100-mile race this weekend in the Salmon River Mountains near McCall, Idaho.
"I've said multiple times to people that on my bad days, I am far more fatigued than I ever was doing 100 miles," she said about finishing the Run Rabbit Run 100 miler last September near Steamboat Springs.
At 6 a.m. Tuesday, Gablehouse met up with a group of about eight other runners and her ultrarunning coach at the trailhead of Cowdrey Draw, south of Boulder. It was dark, but after the 4-mile run, the Flatirons and the blonde fields edging the trail glowed orange with the day's first light.
It was her second-to-last training run before Saturday's Idaho Mountain Trail Ultra Festival 100, a 102.9-mile loop featuring steep climbs and descents, summits and ridges, deep canyons and low rivers, and mating elk.
Runners with the UltraRunner Training group, led by coach Cindy Stonesmith, wished her good luck. A few runners sent her off by clasping their hands together to point to the sky and exclaiming the group's acronym, "URT!"
"It's a long way from that year and a half," Stonesmith said about Gablehouse's progress since joining the group in April 2016. "She's really come leaps and bounds for some of that. We all had to learn to get what she needed and be there for her."
In August 2015, Gablehouse and her husband — Joshua Lawton, a former Daily Camera photographer — were on the sixth day of a bike tour from Vienna, Austria, to Venice, Italy, when a dog darted into her bike's front wheel. Gablehouse was thrown off and her head hit the pavement.
In a blog "TBI to 100 Miles" that she has kept primarily to update friends and family after the accident, she wrote that she thought nothing serious would come of the crash. But she learned once she returned home to Colorado that the dizziness and episodes of vertigo were linked to a traumatic brain injury, or TBI.
Symptoms from day to day included migraines, mental fatigue, disorientation, poor memory, motion sickness and light and sound sensitivity, which she described in a blog post as being "like a really bad hangover without the fun the night before."
She couldn't drive. She couldn't focus on screens or pages in books. She couldn't return to work as a veterinarian. She couldn't be around people.
But Gablehouse discovered that the inherent process of putting one foot in front of the other to run was the most restful she had felt.
"It makes my brain feel really good and for a while, I forget that there's anything wrong," she said.
Prior to the crash, Gablehouse had run a 50K (about 31 miles) in 2011 and a 50-mile race in 2014. So she broached an idea to her physical therapist at the time that she knew most people wouldn't understand: Should she sign up for a 100-mile run?
"She said that she thought it was the best thing I could be doing for myself because it made me feel better," she said. "It made me feel like myself. It helped with a lot of the feelings of depression and isolation."
Gablehouse said she struggled to run 4 miles when she registered for the Run Rabbit Run 100 miler scheduled for Sept. 24, 2016. But on her own, Gablehouse worked her way up to running 40 miles.
Her running community
In April 2016, Gablehouse joined Stonesmith's UltraRunner Training group. At first, the neon-colored running clothes and the chatter of other runners in front and behind her triggered symptoms. It wasn't like anything she experienced running in solitude.
Now, Gablehouse said she hovers in the middle of the pack at a 10-minute-per-mile cruise pace. She talked through the entire run Tuesday, and Stonesmith said she's now so engaged that she points out the proper names of wildlife and flowers that they see along the trail.
"Joining this group has been so good for me," Gablehouse said.
Gablehouse also said she owes her progress to her husband, Lawton, who drives her most places. Largely a cyclist, Lawton, 41, has fallen into running long distances, even though he said after his first 50K race that he'd never do one again.
"I think one of the main reasons that I have been so willing to go out and turn into a silly runner is because I know how it makes her feel," Lawton said. "The better she feels, the better our life is together. And so that's really key."
As her caretaker, he said, he swings between selflessness and feeling the burden of her injury. He said he told someone once that everything in their lives changed after the accident except the names of the characters.
"Nothing is the same," Lawton said. "It changes every aspect of your life. Going into Christmas, what's the first thing that I do when I walk into a room? I critically analyze lights, the television, the noise, windows, to try and figure out how I can in a way push her into situations that are less impactful to cause symptoms.
"And I do it so second nature now. It's just kind of a natural reaction because I've learned the hard way so many times having to mop her off the floor because sometimes she doesn't know how to self-regulate."
Gablehouse chimed in: "I'm really bad at that. Some of that is the ultrarunning mindset, like, I feel terrible but just keep going ... but you can't do that with your brain. You hit a wall and it's just done. Learning that when those symptoms start, you can't keep pushing, otherwise it's going to get so much worse. That was definitely really hard for me."
Helping others with TBI
In February, Gablehouse's Lafayette physical therapist Mary Finck introduced her to another patient interested in organizing a support group for other people recovering from TBI. The group is called Like Minded.
Every other Monday, Gablehouse leads the group discussion that's followed by a Yin yoga class led by instructor Bobby Summers in the studio provided for free by Soul Tree Yoga, 422 E. Simpson St. in Lafayette.
Gablehouse said the turnout and feedback has been positive. She said it's reassuring for her to hear stories of people who have been recovering for as little as three months and others who have been in the process for 10 years.
"For me to build this thing that I know is helping other people, it really helps give me a sense of purpose and just feel like I'm helping people get through something that is really hard," she said.
"If I can help them a little bit and at least help them feel not so alone, it can make a big difference. It can make all the difference knowing that you're not alone, that you're not crazy, you're not making it up, that these feelings actually happen."
Two years since the crash, Gablehouse said she has seen small but noticeable improvements. She said she has recently come to terms with knowing she might never return to "normal."
"Brain injury is invisible, and people have a hard time understanding how I could possibly run 100 miles and not be able to hold down a job," she wrote in an email after the run Tuesday. "I get it. I know it doesn't make a lot of sense. But running is innate. Toddlers run, animals run, even insects, it is something you can do with very little brain power. When your life is turned upside down and you aren't able to live a 'normal' life, if you can find something, anything, that makes you happy, you have to cling to that. It is a little life raft to get you through the hardest parts. That is what running has been for me."