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Grit: The Most Overlooked Ingredient of Success, With wilderness athlete & Iditarod Musher Katherine Keith

Learn about your body mind connection. Find where you store memories of pain and grief then work to let them go. Use this as fuel to keep moving forward during the tough times. Keep the joy, but release the painDevelop a goal or dream larger than yourself. This will propel you forward and provide the […]

Learn about your body mind connection. Find where you store memories of pain and grief then work to let them go. Use this as fuel to keep moving forward during the tough times. Keep the joy, but release the pain

Develop a goal or dream larger than yourself. This will propel you forward and provide the motivation to get you up day after day, through tireless work, and insurmountable odds.

Be ok with failure and even the occasional disaster. Failure is not easy to deal with and takes time to recover from. The key is to pick yourself up again, recognizing that failure leads to success.

Facing down fear in its various forms is critical because it can freeze you in your tracks. Working through your fears is key to developing grit. Starting with smaller fears can give you practice on building grit. Then apply grit to more crippling fears.

Being emotionally and mentally strong when you are open and vulnerable is the most difficult. It is also critical to developing grit.


As a part of my series about “Grit: The Most Overlooked Ingredient of Success” I had the pleasure of interviewing Katherine Keith, a wilderness athlete, experience junkie, spiritual questor, long-distance dog musher, and mother to a sixteen-year-old daughter and thirty-five dogs, living above the Arctic Circle in Kotzebue, Alaska. Accomplishments such as completing six Ironman triathlons and five 1,000-mile dog sled races form the cornerstone of Katherine’s philosophy of generating grit through overcoming real-time obstacles. A never-ending dreamer, Katherine is pursuing climbing the seven tallest summits on every continent as a budding alpinist.

Katherine recently authored her first book, a memoir titled Epic Solitude.


Thank you so much for doing this with us Katherine! Can you tell us a story about what events have drawn you to this specific career path?

Happy to, although I don’t have a single career path. My work includes being an author, a small business owner, rural Alaska project director, energy engineer, commercial fisherman, dog musher, and wellness advocate. This question boils down to what drew me to Alaska.

My nomadic nature eventually calls me to Alaska when I am 21. Dad and I find an upgraded short bus, painted white and converted into an ice cream truck with pictures of Pokemon ice cream bars covering both sides. While Dad is working on the engine, I hit the horn hoping to mess with him. Instead, we hear high-pitched cartoon theme music. At that point, kids in the neighborhood run toward the bus. The bus averages eight miles per gallon and I doubt I have enough money to make it. So begins my journey to Alaska. I throw in a mattress, blankets, curtains, journals, and some food. As the saying goes, “Alaska or Bust.” Leaving behind a nightmare of struggle with depression, medication, and hospitalizations I am on a quest to save my life on my terms. Time to search out the wilderness.

I overnight in Wal-Mart parking lots and camp under the stars when possible. The road ahead is full of promise and hope until, three thousand miles later, I cross the border into Alaska. The striking beauty serves as its own form of meditation. This heavenly vast wild breathes life into me sending shivers down my entire core. The pure blue sky is utterly perfect and mixes flawlessly with glacial lakes and snowcapped mountain peaks below. The wilderness makes back into my heart and deep healing transforms my pain into possibility. The past slips away and only the present exists.

This is the point from which all things follow and the rest of my life begins.

Can you share your story about “Grit and Success”? First can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey?

A dog mushing story is best for this.

Our dog team arrives at the Old Woman shelter cabin where the trail of the Alaska’s Last Great Race, the 1,041-mile Iditarod, transitions to the Bering Sea coastline. My lead dog became ill and another musher offers to carry him into Unalakleet, the checkpoint ahead of us. The dogs must rest for four hours before continuing over the next section of trail. Gripped as I am by worry my attempt to sleep fails. I have not slept for three days, but we need to keep moving. Once the dogs have their four hours of rest, we set out for Unalakleet. The lack of sleep, torn muscles, cut fingers, concern for my lead dog, failure after failure along the trail, and overall personal toil invades my consciousness breaking it into submission.

At times of severe exhaustion, our emotional regulator can malfunction allowing the past to creep in and haunt us at the most inconvenient time. Like a tidal wave, all the agony, grief, guilt, and shame swells into an insurmountable tidal wave. Flashbacks come in rapid succession. After overcoming close to seven hundred miles together in seven days, it is not possible to deceive the dogs. They know something is wrong with their musher.

My endless hunger for the wilderness seems poor justification for deaths that resulted from living in rural Alaska. The need for adventure and solitude is all-consuming but does it what cost those around me? It is -25F and my entire body shivers. I stand on sled runners as we make our way through a stark and unforgiving landscape. Repressed grief threatens my sanity as I remember, in vivid detail, the lives of those I could not live without, now lost.

Sinking into a despair, as dangerous as the life-threatening wind and cold, the dogs and I pull off the trail. I tip my sled over and collapse in the snow. Getting wet, I shiver uncontrollably as hypothermia sets in. The situation continues to deteriorate as time nebulously goes on.

I feel a wet tongue licking my check. Using my fingers to peel open my frozen shut eyes, I look up to see Shadow standing over me as if saying, “You got this Mom.” Shadow is a stately, snow white, husky and by far my most steadfast ally. He is right, time to step up.

Taking out a bag of meat, I feed the dogs. Each dog needs to have a bootie on their paw for protection. It takes dexterity to put on a bootie, but my fingertips are frostbitten and hands deeply frigid with cold. Attaching Velcro tears open the deep raw cracks in my fingers, dripping blood on the snow. After sitting, certain dogs must have their shoulders massaged and ankles stretched. The hypothermia makes it hard to concentrate, so it takes time, but at last the team is ready.

Standing on the sled I say, “Up UP.”

This is now about survival. One step at a time, we must move forward. In the past, after the shock of losing a loved one, it was one day at a time. In recovery from mental and emotional health crisis, it was one day at a time. Here again, it is one step at a time. Through the unimaginable physical pain, emotional pain, bitterness, through the suffering, through the doubt, through the struggle, all we ever take is one step at a time.

Finally, we pull into Unalakleet without fanfare. For the race, it was just another team into another checkpoint. For our team, it was a massive success. We survived when that was not a guarantee. It took grit, Shadow’s love, and the simple maxim of taking one step at a time.

Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?

For this I think I should tell another dog mushing story.

It is 2015 and we are on the Iditarod Trail on the way to Koyukuk. It is 2:00 am and -60F. It invigorates the dogs to breathe in the crisp air at the wild edge of night. Numb hands and freezing fingertips make the dangers of this evening obvious. Having seen firsthand the consequences of the deep cold, I have a healthy respect bordering on fear for the elements tonight and our position in it.

When racing there isn’t often a need to start a fire. It is more often for pleasure. Tonight, it is a requirement which takes skill. Starting a fire at such low temperatures is challenging. Dry wood, if it exists at all, is rarely close to the trail. Completing the routine of laying out straw for the dogs, I start the dog cooker and feed. I then swim through waste deep snow in search of willow branches or downed black spruce branches.

These conditions are extremely difficult, just as they have been for countless similar physical, emotional, and mental situations in my lifetime.

I meditate to keep calm while warming my hands by the fire. Looking above the bluish-green needles of the spruce trees lining the trail, I recognize comforting constellations, as old friends, spread out across the expanse of the firmament. Fire red and blaze orange aurora borealis splash color over the midnight sky canvas adorned with stars. I watch the display in awe knowing there will be no sleep tonight.

My drive, now rejuvenated with celestial elegance and a winter campfire, will keep me going down the trail in great anticipation of what I might have the privilege of witnessing around the next bend.

So how did Grit lead to your eventual success? How did Grit turn things around?

It would have been easy to cave into the victimhood of my problems as early as my teenage years. It takes grit not let yourself be a victim and to keep moving forward which is what it takes to be a success. When we fail, the easy thing to do is to is to blame outside circumstances or ourselves for not being good enough. Blaming and shaming is part of the victim cycle. Developing grit: the strength; determination; courage; heart; and a will never to give up allows you to rise out of that cycle and focuse on solutions rather than blaming failure on problems.

Based on your experience, can you share 5 pieces of advice about how one can develop Grit? (Please share a story or example for each)

  1. Learn about your body mind connection. Find where you store memories of pain and grief then work to let them go. Use this as fuel to keep moving forward during the tough times. Keep the joy, but release the pain
  2. Develop a goal or dream larger than yourself. This will propel you forward and provide the motivation to get you up day after day, through tireless work, and insurmountable odds.
  3. Be ok with failure and even the occasional disaster. Failure is not easy to deal with and takes time to recover from. The key is to pick yourself up again, recognizing that failure leads to success.
  4. Facing down fear in its various forms is critical because it can freeze you in your tracks. Working through your fears is key to developing grit. Starting with smaller fears can give you practice on building grit. Then apply grit to more crippling fears.
  5. Being emotionally and mentally strong when you are open and vulnerable is the most difficult. It is also critical to developing grit.

None of us can achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped you when things were tough? Can you share a story about that?

A severe blizzard is hovering over the Iditarod Trail from Shaktoolik to Koyuk. Trapped on the glare ice, we cannot gain train traction without being blown sideways a hundred yards over the ice. We crawl around the ice in circles searching for the trail. After traveling for eight hours, the winds increase to sixty miles per hour. This continues for over eight hours and we are not even halfway to Koyuk. This is now a life-threatening situation. We are alone out here, no teams will leave from Shaktoolik behind us.

As the reality of our predicament sinks in, I think of my daughter, Amelia, who is now in sixth grade. What will happen to Amelia, her only living parent, if I do not make it out of this alive? I sink into horror at the scenarios that play out in my imagination. I must keep moving for her but want to lie in my sled, curl up, and sleep. I have been awake for over sixty hours. The windchill factor is -70F and I am unable to see from the constant onslaught of wind and snow. Regardless for Amelia, I must keep moving. Thoughts of the race drop away. Time to survive.

The dogs cannot hear my commands over the howling wind, so I lead the team myself. For Amelia, I must keep moving. I must keep moving for Amelia. Wet from sweat, I lead the dogs toward land inch by inch as if I hear her voice calling us to safety.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

While running the Iditarod, we teamed with other non-profits to heighten awareness of suicide prevention programs to communities along the Iditarod trail and around the state. This program ran for three years and focused on the importance of wholistic wellness and community in individual healing. There are many programs doing impressive work and we wanted to highlight their work but not reinvent the wheel.

Most of my recent professional work has been in rural northwestern Alaska. I co-own, Remote Solutions, which supports rural Alaskan communities in their efforts to become more independent and sustainable. A major part of this is wellness promotion, suicide prevention, and youth leadership programs.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

With the publication of Epic Solitude, I am working on a series of workshops which implements some lessons learned from on and off the trail. Racing on the Iditarod Trail teaches many things about survival and working together as a team. Every step along the way is all about grit. During year-round training, regardless of conditions, we are out there hitting the trail.

I spent countless days on the back of a sled feeling full of despair, grief, loss, with the world against me. We all feel that way, sometimes unable to continue. Some never make it and end their lives somewhere alone in a blackness of despair. Our youth should not consider the notion that suicide is an option. Teaching grit and resilience is a solution. The workshops I look forward to offering may help people find other pathways to healing which lead away from that blackness.

What advice would you give to other executives or founders to help their employees to thrive?

My advice for an employer is to visualize a dog team. In a dog team, each has a critical role in making the team a success. The leader is critical because he/she is the one to stand first when all others are tired. The swing dogs, behind the leaders, serve as the glue between the leaders and team dogs. They communicate from the leaders to the entire team. The wheel dogs, in back, pull the sled around corners to steer it so the load doesn’t fall on the team. The remaining team dogs run in unison working together to match each stride. As we know every dog has a unique personality, goes through ups and downs, and has dogs they like and dislike. A business, and the people within, are really no different. It is critical to understand each member of the team. Know where they are best suited, most comfortable, and challenge them but don’t push them beyond their limits.

Last, I would suggest providing recurring engagement and recurring goal setting. This forms the container for individuals to complete routine work while having freedom to innovate. Ongoing engagement helps both the founder and employee to connect and express any repressed frustrations. Environments can get toxic without open channels to deal with problems at once. This allows employees to understand the big picture and the employer some day-to-day issues. Goal setting helps to prioritize and revisit expectations regularly to avoid miscommunication.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

If I could inspire a movement, it would be a modern-day form of transcendentalism. Basically, a return to nature. Solitary time in wilderness areas leads to greater self-reliance, personal healing, and global responsibility. The United States has an amazing National Park system which enables safe access to nature for even the most inexperienced city dwellers. This entails getting out of the RV and campers, finding non-paved trails for those physically able, turning off the phone, and looking around. Notice the earth, sky, and sea. Smell the pine trees, feel the wind on your face and in your hair, eat a raspberry fresh off the plant, and let your feelings pour out of you. That is the movement I would like to inspire.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

There is no such thing as a problem without a gift for you in its hands. You seek problems because you need their gifts.

— RICHARD BACH

Richard Bach has been a long been one of the most influential authors of my life since I read Jonathan Livingston Seagull and Illusions: The Adventures of a Reluctant Messiah.

This “Life Lesson Quote” applies to me as it helped me understand my relationship with trauma, loss, and problems. I learned that each of my trials has a gift to offer once I look it squarely in the face.

Life comprises bouncing from one problem to the next as if we are a ball in a pinball machine with someone else at the controls. Richard Bach reminds us that we are at the controls driving the ball into the traps and pitfalls because we have something valuable to gain from them. A gift that we need. We learn and grow from challenge and adversity.

It is abstract but we have lessons to learn in life. We will continually seek problems because we need their gifts. When we no longer need their gifts, we can move on and find new problems. I call this growth and developing grit.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

Vlog: www.lifeisinthedetours.com

Website: www.katherinekeith.com

Instagram: Katherine.Keith
Facebook: kmkeith

Twitter: @katkeith

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