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Original Issue

The Iron Lady

Extreme racer Meredith Dolhare is using running to help Charlotte's homeless

Somewhere around mile 100 of the 126.2-mile course along the levees between Baton Rouge and New Orleans, Meredith Dolhare began to think about the pain. It was Feb. 9, her fourth straight Saturday racing an extreme distance. Instead of indulging the pain, she fixed her mind on her friend Andre Kajlich, a double amputee who had run a 135-mile race in Brazil with her a month earlier. "He's never felt sorry for himself a day in his life," she says.

Having worked with and raised money for the Challenged Athletes Foundation, which supports disabled athletes, Dolhare has no shortage of inspiration. "People say they can't run because their knees hurt, but some of these people [competing in these extreme races] don't even have knees," says the 39-year-old mother of two. "They make no excuses, and that's the type of athlete I want to be around."

In 2012, Dolhare set out to help another underserved group: the homeless. She started a running club, and three times a week she and fellow RunningWorks volunteers pound the pavement with some of Charlotte's displaced, and then hold postrun seminars to discuss topics ranging from teamwork to anger management. At first people showed up mostly for the perks—free sneakers, clothes, bus passes—but they ultimately gained much more. "Confidence, teamwork, self-respect," Dolhare says. "And there's camaraderie, fellowship and accountability, a sense of place that they don't have anywhere else."

The ultimate reward is when a member of her RunningWorks family—her geese, as she calls them—lands a job or moves out of a shelter. One, Matthew Hoffman, ran the Charlotte 50K with her in February, and she thought of him and the others often while running Badwater, the 135-mile uphill climb from Death Valley to Mount Whitney (SI, July 1, 2013). She wanted to show them how to persevere. Dolhare was the third woman to finish, in 32:52:40. Now, she's following that up with its sister race, Furnace Creek, a 508-mile bike ride—again in Death Valley—in October.

When she crosses that finish line she will become the 21st person, and sixth woman, to complete both races in the same year, a feat called the Death Valley Cup. And she will do it just 16 months after undergoing surgery to repair two ruptured discs in her cervical spine.

Juggling training with her RunningWorks responsibilities, not to mention her family and her job coaching cross-country at a local high school, Dolhare jokes that there are days she needs a hologram of herself. But she always finds peace on the road. "There's a reason why I like to run for that long, and it's because the rest of my life is so chaotic," she says. "That's my quiet time."


For the busy Dolhare, finding time to train is all about making the most of her nights and weekends. To prepare for Furnace Creek, she'll spend eight to 10 hours on a bike most Saturdays and Sundays between now and the race. It's been a challenge building back strength in her neck after surgery, and then reacclimating to the woes of sitting on a bicycle seat for hours upon hours. "My legs are fine and good to go," she says. "It's my neck and [seat] that have been less cooperative."

Because of RunningWorks and her coaching gig, she still runs about 40 to 50 miles a week. "I've never required a whole bunch of sleep," she says, "so sometimes I am training in the middle of the night." While her husband and sons snooze, Dolhare might be finishing up 32 miles on her treadmill or doing hours in her endless pool. While preparing for Badwater, she made her own hot box by surrounding a treadmill with space heaters to train for the extreme weather of the desert. "It's a juggling act," she says, "but I wouldn't have it any other way."



OUT OF THE FRYING PAN ... After finishing third among women at Badwater (left), Dolhare is preparing for another grueling race through the desert—this time on a bike.