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Carol Seppilu: Running for Life

Carol Seppilu running out in the country near Nome. Photo courtesy of Carol Seppilu, 2020.

Before you listen to this episode of KNOM Profiles, you should be aware that we will be discussing the issue of suicide. If you feel triggered or need immediate assistance during this program, call Behavioral Health Services at (907) 443-3344, or on the weekends (907) 443-6411.

During this episode you will hear from Carol Seppilu. Originally from Savoonga, Seppilu has called Nome home for many years and within the last ten she has been actively running all over the surrounding countryside. As you’ll hear directly from Seppilu, she loves to run – it’s her passion – but she also runs to promote suicide prevention efforts in Western Alaska. Sherri Anderson of BHS’s Native Connections will also join us on this Profile to share resources for anyone who is struggling with suicide.

Seppilu: My name is Carol Seppilu, I’m from Savoonga, Alaska but I’ve been living in Nome for the past almost thirty years now…

KNOM: And I would say you are a runner; do you call yourself a runner?

Seppilu: Yeah…maybe (chuckles)

KNOM: At this point, how many runs, marathons, or events do you think you’ve completed?

Seppilu: I should’ve pulled that up, I actually lost count…Over eight ultra-marathons completed with a few more attempts that I couldn’t complete, but they were still very long runs.

KNOM: So at least 500 miles right?

Seppilu: Definitely more (chuckles).

KNOM: What was the first event you did and why did you start running long distance?

Seppilu: I started running in 2014. I was severely overweight and it was hard for me to just get out of bed, I was very depressed. I remember waking up one day, it was beautiful out there, and I woke up at noon and didn’t want to get out of bed. I told myself, ‘Carol, you have to get up out of bed and do something. Go for a run, go for a two-mile run. How hard could that be?”

Well, I couldn’t’ run more than a couple of walks before running on the grass, but I decided to walk the rest of the way and I did that every day for about a year. I noticed my endurance was building up and I could run farther. In 2015 I entered into the eight-mile Wyatt Earp Dexter Challenge. And that’s when I decided I could go for the Cape Nome half marathon that next year, and then after that half marathon I decided to go even further.  I just kept pushing myself to see how much further I could go, I fell in love with running.

I didn’t know about ultra-marathons until my friend signed up for a hundred miler. I had no idea people did that; I was very intrigued. So, I followed her to her hundred miler and I signed up for the twenty-mile race. That’s where I fell in love with the ultra-running community. I was very inspired by their endurance, their will power, and they were smiling through the pain. They loved what they were doing and that’s what I wanted. So I decided to train for long distance marathons. I completed my first ultra-marathon at the Resurrection Trail, a 50-mile self-supported race. I just wanted to see how much further I could go and that’s what I’ve been doing.

KNOM: And it seems like you’ve started to build a running community here in Nome, or at least with one gentleman, Dr. Lemaire?

Seppilu: Yeah. We met in October, he came up to me at the hospital and said he read my article in the Anchorage Daily Newspaper, and asked if I wanted to run with him. I said sure, ‘let’s run up to Anvil.’ That’s actually where we talked about a few big adventures.

KNOM: And then the idea for the Teller run was born huh?

Seppilu: Yeah, who knew I would ever do that! He talked about possibly forming an ultra-marathon race here in Nome. We talked about what courses would be fun and ideal, and we just got into a conversation about the roads we have here in Nome. He said, ‘it would be cool to run all three roads to see how long it would take.” And I said yeah, that would be fun, we should do that next summer. We talked about it a lot, but I never thought it would really happen, but it did.

It was in May, at the beginning of May, when I was out running, and I completely broke down. I couldn’t stop crying. I couldn’t run so I walked up to Anvil Mountain. My heart was very heavy because we had lost some people to suicide very recently, at that time, and I just felt the overwhelming grief. I immediately got ahold of Tim and I said we should seriously consider doing a big run to give a message of hope out there because I felt like people needed something like that. He was up for it.

We both have a race in August, and you have to time these things according to your race schedule, so we set it up for July 11th.

KNOM: So you started on a Saturday, and you started in Nome?

Seppilu: We drove out to Teller at about 9:30am and we got there about 11:45am, we drove out to the sand spit.

KNOM: And that was what, about 68 miles?

Seppilu: 71.53 miles

KNOM: 71.53 miles in 19 hours, that’s awesome. Along the way, I heard that you ran into some wildlife?

Seppilu: Yeah, we actually saw a bear right when we started. It was across the valley and it was running on the hills. We didn’t’ see anything else until about ten miles outside of Nome. Tim’s wife came back and told us she saw a sow with three cubs, so she would be driving close by for our safety. We walked with caution and she yelled out the window and motioned with her hands. It didn’t register to me until after I saw the animal at the side of her truck. At first, I thought it was a bear. I remember telling Tim we needed to back away, back away. So we did, slowly, and thankfully it was a musk ox. It was still very scary. He had been running and he stopped at the truck. He was going to start running again, but he saw us and was very hesitant. So he started running again and all I could think of was, ‘this musk ox is coming, prepare yourself to take a hit.’ But he just looked at us and ran past.

Carol Seppilu and Tim Lemaire arrive back in Nome after completing a 71 mile run from Teller. Photo courtesy of Carol Seppilu, 2020.

KNOM: What did it feel like when you reached the finish line in Nome? I imagine it was early morning…

Seppilu: Yep. That last mile was the most painful. My entire body was hurting and I was very tired. I had been up for more than 24 hours and I actually started crying but no tears would come out. My parents were there, and my niece was there, she brought my dog. I could hear my dog barking for me and that made me really happy. It actually made me run faster up that hill by TSR. I felt relieved and very happy. We were out there to get it done and we finished. My goal was to show people that you can keep going no matter how difficult things get. This run was very difficult and painful, but we had our mind set to keep going and get to the finish. And that’s what we did. I was very happy, excited…

KNOM: Your story is really powerful, would you like to share some of that now and your own experience with suicide?

Seppilu: When I was a teenager… I became very intoxicated one night, I don’t actually remember a whole lot of it. But I remember seeing everyone running around and screaming. Everything went completely dark. I couldn’t hear and I couldn’t’ see. I couldn’t really understand what was happening, but I knew that I didn’t want to die. I prayed for God to save me.
And I remember waking up in the ICU and asked what happened. I wrote on a piece of paper ‘what happened?’ They told me I had attempted suicide by….

I had attempted to end my own life and I remember being very upset. It was a very difficult time for me, but I had an experience in the ICU. I was having trouble breathing and I fell into my bed. I had been sitting up a little. I fell into my bed and I walked into a fog when an old village appeared. I saw a couple of elderly men beckoning for me. I walked over to them, they were smiling really big and they told me that it wasn’t my time yet, that I was going to do great things, and that I had to go back. I feel like I was given the strength then that to go through what I had been going through over the past twenty years. I knew that I would deal with whatever life had for me and I knew everything would be okay.

Long-distance runner Carol Seppilu and BHS employee Sherri Anderson chat at KNOM’s studios. Photo from Davis Hovey, KNOM (2020).

Anderson: (*Introduces herself in Inupiaq) Good morning, my name is Sherri Anderson. My Inupiaq name is Aziqsik and I was born and raised in Shishmaref, Alaska. I’ve been living here in Nome for twenty years now.

So, I work under Behavioral Health Services through the Native Connections project, and our Native Connections project is to connect our tribal communities together to raise awareness about suicide prevention.

KNOM: How would you describe the scope of suicide in this region?

Anderson: so being born and raised in a small community, I myself have experienced multiple completed suicides. I actually lost my youngest brother, who was 11 months older than me to suicide. And that really made me who I am now, to be more observant and precautious with my own children and their friends about triggers or signs, and letting our youth know that there is help, and they are not alone if they are feeling depressed, or mad, or sad, because we feel several emotions throughout one day. We never know what someone is feeling because each person is a different person and they have their own experiences.

KNOM: It’s not an issue that just affects younger people, but it seems like a lot of younger people in this region do struggle with suicide….

Anderson: Yes. Under our Native Connections Program, we aim to serve youth ages 14 through 24, but we also know for a fact that there are young parents in that age group as well, there are grandparents raising children, so we want to encompass as many community members as we could, as many entities as we could as well, to help raise awareness and protect our youth and have everybody have a healthy life or encourage healthy choices too.

KNOM: I know you have some other resources as well Sherri, you had mentioned some exercises. It seems like things like Carol does, like running is a good option, but what else would you suggest for suicide prevention.

Anderson: With our Native Connections Program, we actually received extra funding because of the coronavirus pandemic, and we were able to purchase some self-care kits. So, we are planning on sending some to youth across our region and that’s by referral. So, if any youth needs a self-care kit, we encourage them to reach out to our Village Based Counselors (VBCs) in our communities and fill out the consent form, our agreement form that we use to track our numbers. Then we would be able to send them a care package.

So, if you are in any of our surrounding communities, we have VBCs and the best way to contact them is through the clinic. If they don’t have an office at the clinic, the local health aide should know how to contact the VBC. If the Village Based Counselor wants to request any of the care packages for youth in our region, I would encourage them to contact myself or Ivory at BHS, the 907-443-3344 number will work.

Carol Seppilu hikes alongside Dr. Tim Lemaire of NSHC in Southeast, Alaska during a recent ultra-marathon. Photo shared by Norton Sound Health Corporation, originally taken by Max Romey.

KNOM: I have one more question for you, Carol. What advice or motivation would you give to a young person in our region who is struggling right now?

Seppilu: I know that life can be very difficult and painful, but you can still experience joy, happiness, fun. And that pain is not going to last forever; it definitely feels like it will when you’re going through something difficult. I still struggle with depression. Even a couple nights ago I was going through a hard time and it felt like the night wouldn’t end, but morning came, and the sun came out. I made it past that very dark moment. I just want everyone to know that I am very grateful to be here still, very grateful that I’m able to see and to talk. When I had this happen to me, I was legally blind, and the doctor said I wouldn’t’ be able to see again, but here I am running on the trails out there.

Image at top: Carol Seppilu running out in the country near Nome. Photo courtesy of Carol Seppilu, 2020.

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