Q & A with Katie Visco and Henley Phillips
The grand adventures of a long-distance runner from Glen Ellyn
Back in 2009, Katie Visco, a long-distance runner who grew up in Glen Ellyn, set off on a trial of endurance — a coast-to-coast run across the USA. She was the second-youngest and the 13th woman overall to complete the run. Ten years later, Visco recently fulfilled another life-long dream by running north to south across Australia — a 2,210 mile journey. Not satisfied with the extreme nature of that challenge, Visco decided to ramp it up a notch by reducing her support system to basics — her husband, bicycling enthusiast Henley Phillips, made the journey with her, fully loaded with camping gear, water and provisions needed for the trip. West Suburban Living recently caught up with the couple who shared stories from their adventure in the Australian outback. To follow Visco’s career, visit www.katievisco.com or check them out on Instagram @katievisco and @henley.phillips.
Tell our readers about your connection with and memories of the west suburbs.
KV: I grew up in Glen Ellyn and am a 2003 graduate of Glenbard West High School. I have so many wonderful memories of being on the cross country team. On one run the girls and I ran just a mile to the local Panera Bread to eat bagels, then pretending we ran the entire eight miles. I don’t think our coaches ever caught on! I loved going to the Glen Art Theatre with my family. I used to get excited when we got large
popcorn refills! I carried a camcorder around my entire senior year of high school to document daily happenings, as a sort of time capsule. I’ve got incredible footage!
How do you remember yourself?
KV: I like to think that I was everyone’s friend. I was a goofball and I loved to laugh. As captain, I took care of my girls on the cross country team, and I loved it!
Were you always a runner?
KV: In middle school, I was duped into joining the cross country team. I thought I was signing up for summer soccer camp but it was the pre-season running team! I didn’t like it much at first — it was hard — but I ended up with all my best friends on the team. Once I had a built-in family, I knew I’d run for a long while. I did — I ran every year all year to this day!
What would you like to share about your first major run across America?
KV: It was in 2009 when I was 23 years old. I always wanted to run the USA, but was inspired to embark on the trek after a year of service working with high school students. I asked the students what their dreams were, and they had plenty, yet they also told me that they’d never been asked that question before. It was then that I knew I would run across America to inspire people to take steps towards their passions and dreams. I ran 20 miles a day and stopped to speak with over 200 groups and schools during my nine month run. I met tens of thousands of people. I knew I was following my calling because I felt so alive doing it. It was so worth it!
What do you remember best?
KV: All the people I met and the stories they told me. I heard from mothers about the dreams for themselves they felt like they didn’t have the time to pursue, a gas station owner who didn’t believe in retirement, kids who wanted to change the world, and country folks who had never left their hometowns. I’ll never forget the kindness and generosity that everybody gifted me along the way. I’ll always be deeply inspired by this.
Tell our readers about the fundraising that was part of your goal for the run.
KV: Girls on the Run is a non-profit program that works to encourage pre-teen girls to develop self-respect and healthy lifestyles through running games. I visited more than 10 GOTR chapters across the USA to speak with the teams!
How did you and Henley meet?
KV: We met through running! We had a mutual friend who suggested to each of us that we go on a run together, so we did! We were friends for two years and then we fell in love through letter writing
and a 50-mile trail race in Montana!
Henley, tell our readers about your background and your interest in bicycling.
HP: I grew up in Glen Rose, a small town in the Texas Hill Country. In college, I made friends with folks who were into bikes — it made sense for me because I lived only a few miles from school. That’s when I bought my first bike with my own money, a brand new Gary Fisher that eventually got stolen from campus. I started fixing up old bikes to scoot around on, but it was still for utilitarian purposes. No thoughts about big bike trips.
I lived in Central America for a few years as a Peace Corps volunteer, and that was the first time I was introduced to bicycle touring. I was so intrigued by the simple idea of loading up your bike and
setting off. A couple years later I had saved up enough money to buy a touring bike, and I flew back to Central America for a long tour. I was robbed in the middle of the night about two weeks in to my trip, but I didn’t care because I had gotten a taste of the touring life and knew I wanted more.
Since then I’ve been fortunate to travel in Europe, Asia and Australia, on my bike. Supporting Katie on her run across the Outback was the ultimate blend of so many things I enjoy in life, all on my bicycle.
Katie, 10 years after the US run,what made you decide to tackle Australia?
KV: I’ve wanted to run across Australia since 2006. I wanted to travel through her deserts, into her complex and elegant desolation. Running across Oz was my pilgrimage to confront all parts of myself in one of the most raw and barren places on earth. I wanted to challenge myself by doing something incredibly hard. Also, I had always been fascinated by the Aboriginal right of passage, the walkabout. A young man goes out into the bush and needs to survive by his own means, and only when he succeeds and returns home does he become a man. Respectfully, I had always wondered if I could have my own walkabout-type experience.
Tell our readers about the Australia run.
KV: From July 13 through November 8 last year, I ran 30 miles a day for 2,212 miles across Australia — across the Outback, from Darwin to Adelaide. As my support “vehicle,” Henley pedaled a bicycle and trailer loaded with 350 pounds of food, water, gear and toilet paper. Never before had a bicycle supported a transcontinental run, and our trek became the first if it’s kind.
What was it like, day to day?
KV: For as long as I had dreamed of one day running across Oz, it turned out to be a journey rich in pain, suffering, dread, tears and torment. Most every day we’d wake up two hours before sunrise and get going pronto to beat the heat. I’d run six or seven miles at a time, with hour-long breaks in between, totaling six to seven hours of moving time each day. The afternoons were brutal because it was often too hot to run. We’d make shade from noon to 4 p.m. and pass the time reading, listening to podcasts, drinking tea and coffee and just gazing up at the cloudless sky. Henley did all the cooking, mostly tuna with pasta and beans with rice, and we snacked on energy bars and crackers dipped in peanut butter — fresh food was almost non-existent given how remote our route was. Evenings were the best, under a huge starry sky, and I can still remember the relief and comfort I felt once I finally crawled into our tent having accomplished another day.
What was the hardest part?
KV: The 18 days between Alice Springs and Oodnadatta — so much stress, with almost no relief. Sandstorms, 25-mph headwinds, busted knees, 2-mph pace as we slogged through tears, rocky roads, 100º F heat, apocalyptic landscape without shade, flies and more flies. One thing after the other, and 439 miles with only one day of rest.
The moment my heart crumbled was seven days before Oodnadatta when I watched Henley go through immense hardship. I saw him so beat up as he pushed, pulled, dragged and kicked the bike through 24 hours of deep sand. He was desperate to not let the bike’s inability to cover ground be the end of us. Through his desperation I saw remarkable endurance. This was the moment when I realized how this trip wasn’t about me, but rather it was about us getting through thick and thin together. After 119 days and a brutal last day of headwinds, rain, groin pain, a flat tire, chaotic city traffic, and another emotional breaking point (for me), we hit the ocean in Adelaide on Friday, November 8th at 5:30 p.m.
From the beginning, we knew we wanted to be 100 percent human-powered, without the support of a motorized vehicle as is common for transcontinental runs. It was Henley’s idea to support by bicycle and a logical choice given our daily decisions and thoughts on sustainability,
Did you ever consider giving up?
KV: There were several times during the run that we seriously questioned the bike’s ability to effectively and safely support us both in the remote deserts of the Outback. We could have used a lot more creature comforts at the end of another 30-mile day, but often these comforts couldn’t be accommodated on the bicycle, which already weighed upwards of 350 pounds. On one occasion at the edge of the Simpson Desert, we pushed and dragged the bike together for two days through sand and intense heat. This made us thirstier, which required more water, which weighs more, which makes the bike even harder to drag through soft sand, which makes us thirstier. We wanted water to spare, but every day we were closely counting the liters to make it to the next re-supply before running out. Despite the enormous added difficulty, in the end we stuck with bicycle support because it was a decision that felt true to our values. Apart from our own sense of pride, we wanted to achieve a fully human-powered expedition as an example to others. If sustainability and your impact on the Earth are important to you, then you have an incredible opportunity to live those values even if you’re on holiday or on a personal challenge in the outdoors. You don’t get a pass just because it’s adventure time.
What unforeseen challenges did the Australian landscape present?
KV: Just before William Creek, we were in a sandstorm! It was thrilling, fun even. The past several weeks had been unending headwinds, but when the sandstorm hit a tailwind blew in, along with sand that felt like needles against our skin. It was at least something different!
While your route wasn’t in the path of wildfires, what are your thoughts on the current crisis in Australia?
KV: We experienced firsthand the worst Spring drought in Australian history. The number of animal carcasses outnumbered by far the number of live animals and insects we encountered. Some sections of our route in South Australia looked like a war zone. The drought followed by the massive heat wave that hit in December led to unprecedented dry conditions which caused the fires that are now consuming our precious Australia. It is heartbreaking.
Across the globe, climate change is ruining the places we cherish and jeopardizing the future of our planet. The decade that just ended was the hottest ever recorded, capped off by the second-warmest year on record. Extreme heat waves, ice melt and destruction of natural ecosystems are only set to increase. Not taking climate change into consideration in all our daily decisions is akin to piddling around on a sinking ship. Henley and I are taking a stand. We plan to share our Australian experience as a means to promote responsible adventure.
How do you finance your runs?
KV: Mostly by making and selling my own energy balls!! I also run a soup delivery company, Hot Love Soup. I always put away money for adventure.
What has running taught you about life?
KV: I have realized that endurance has nothing to do with how long you can go through hardship but rather how you can go through it with no end in sight. Ultimately, I have learned how to bear-hug pain.
How does the running/working together 24/7 affect your relationship?
KV: Doing anything together is worth it because at the end of the day, we respect, love, and trust each other, no matter what.
What’s next for you both?
KV: Henley is heading off to grad school. We are never going to stop exploring, but we have some homemaking and career-building to do next. We’re excited!
Best spot in Glen Ellyn for a night out? Marinella Italian Restaurant. I’ve been going there since childhood. We love Mexican, so Santa Fe also. Their salsa is addictive!
Best advice for distance runners? Don’t push away pain but welcome it. It’s there to help you. And always find something to be grateful about — at the very least, you can run!
How would you describe yourselves? We like to think we are giving and loving, adventuresome and creative.
Where would you take out-of-town visitors? For a walk on the Prairie Path, then coffee and a baked good at Blackberry Market.
Valentine’s tradition? We go out to dinner! We keep things simple — we just spend time together.
Best advice for couples working together? Divide and conquer!Edit Module