By Oliver Lazenby
Kacie Cleveland, owner of Kulshan CrossFit gym in Bellingham, holds the record for the fastest trip across America on inline skates. That’s a record that begs a question: why would anyone do that?
For Cleveland, 34, the answer includes a struggle with a potentially fatal illness that rearranged her outlook and priorities at 20 years old.
Cleveland excelled as a college track athlete at California Polytechnic State University until health problems sidelined her. She developed heart failure as a side effect from birth control at age 20. Her heart rate would soar to well over 200 beats per minute and then her heart would stop. She’d regain consciousness with a heart rate in the 20s. Though these episodes started a month after she began taking birth control, seven specialists couldn’t diagnose her.
“I hit a point where I had to see a therapist to accept that I was going to die because my doctors were turning me away saying, ‘I can’t treat you anymore, I don’t know how to fix it,’” she said.
Cleveland suspected her birth control was the problem and decided to stop taking it, against the advice of her doctors. Her heart problems disappeared, but a rare condition called compartment syndrome, which she’d been struggling with at the same time as her heart issues, lingered. Compartment syndrome is an exercise-induced nerve and muscle condition that mostly affects young athletes. For Kacie, it caused swelling in her legs that prevented oxygen from reaching her nerves and muscles.
This made running impossible at times, but skating was easier.
“I started skating longer and longer distances because I wanted that feeling of running distances,” she said. “That’s how I fell in love with distance skating.”
Recovering from heart disease, Cleveland had a fresh perspective on life. She hiked Machu Picchu and started pursuing other bucket list goals. One of her goals – road tripping across the U.S. – snowballed into inline skating across the U.S.
She wanted to do it as a fundraiser for the Special Olympics and started looking for sponsors. The record holder for the fastest inline skating trip across the country, Danny Dannels, reached out and encouraged her to try to break the record.
Cleveland has a competitive streak – in college, she’d count how many people she could pass on the way to class – so she decided to go for it. By that point, her compartment syndrome had subsided and she was already an accomplished athlete – she had taken up the “sport” of stair climbing and become one of the best in the world. She’d developed mental armor for extreme endurance; as a stair climber, she’d pushed her body so far that she injured it several times. Once in a race, her lungs expanded so much that they tore the muscles between her ribs.
So in May 2012, she set off to skate about 2,700 miles from Solana Beach, California, to Jacksonville Beach, Florida. With help from a support team in a converted school bus, Cleveland not only broke the record, but smashed it by more than 22 days, reaching the Atlantic Ocean in 47 days, 23 hours and 37 minutes.
Now, with her days of pushing her body until it breaks behind her (hopefully), Cleveland knows a thing or two about endurance and has a refined philosophy on life.
MBE: Did your health issues lead you toward inline skating across the country and other crazy goals?
KC: Yeah, 100 percent. When you think you have all the time in the world, you’re going to go on that trip later, when you’ve saved up money and the time is right. I decided I’m not waiting anymore; I’m going to do it. That’s how I still live my life. I make life decisions based on not wanting to regret anything.
Part of me thought, “I might die soon, so I’ll make my bucket list. I’m going all in.” It was a blessing – usually people have those realizations when they’re older and they don’t have the energy or the will to do it. I was 20.
Skating across the country isn’t really something people do, right?
I believe three or four men had done it. It’s not like biking across the country. I thought about biking, but I wanted to skate. I thought biking was too normal, and I was a skater … I mean, I thought I was.
Did you have a good idea of what it would actually be like?
No idea. I didn’t even have the right skates.
Did you originally want to break the record?
Not at first. I talked my husband into doing it by saying, ‘“We’re going to explore the country and I’m just going to skate.” I was like, “I’ll just skate 50 miles a day, I’ll skate in the morning and we can explore in the afternoon,” not realizing that some days I’d skate for 15 hours straight and barely get 48 miles in, because the road conditions and wind were so bad.
What were those slow days like?
If you have no perspective of skating on rough roads with wind in Texas – I could bust out 50 miles in two-and-a-half hours here on nice roads. Some days in Texas I did 30 miles and it took me 12 hours. There were days where I literally had my skates on and I was walking through sand, stepping, not gliding.
Once we hit Louisiana, it rained every single day and I skated through floods. The water would be over the top of my skates. We were pushing through fully flooded streets. So you’re not skating, you’re just shoving through water. I had to change my bearings every day.
How did you keep yourself going mentally?
It all comes down to mental games. I tried to focus on one day at a time and skate 50 miles a day. So if I did 48 one day, I tried to do at least 52 miles the next day. I didn’t tell myself at the end of the day, I have 1,950 miles to go. You have to make more immediate goals. Endurance training is all mental. It obviously helps to be physically fit, but it’s very mental.
What’s the farthest you skated in a day?
I wanted to get a 100-mile-day the whole time. I didn’t get it until Mississippi where the roads were smooth. I skated 101 miles. It was probably 11 p.m. when we finished that day.
How did you handle hills?
When it was really steep I would brake behind Kevin, a friend who came along on a bicycle. What we would do is, he would brake and I would push off of his back, so I wasn’t wearing out wheels. Because what I would do otherwise is drag my wheels, and that’s hard on the wheels and especially on my knees. Or you’d just ride it out.
How fast did you go?
I know we went 38 miles an hour. After 38, I wouldn’t look at my watch. Moving my head to look down or up changed my velocity at that point.
How dangerous was the trip?
Every road is dangerous but a few were extra dangerous. In Alabama, we only skated in the middle of the night because they would run us off the road. It was very dangerous there.
Did you enjoy it? Does it stand out as a highlight among your bucket list trips?
It definitely does. It was such a long adventure; we had so much fun and experienced so many emotions. We saw the country; we saw everything. I’m grateful that I was able to do it.
How were you able to beat the previous record by 22 days?
It was 100 percent because of my support team. I was able to just focus on what I was good at, which was skating and pushing myself. My husband and Kevin were in charge of the route. They just told me where to go.
Kacie Cleveland on her cross country skate trip. Photos courtesy of Kacie Cleveland.