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How Jeanne Conquered 7 Summits and 7 Marathons on 7 Continents…

Think hiking the 7 summits is difficult?

Try running a marathon on each of the continents too!

Jeanne Stawiecki holds the world record for:

  1. oldest woman to climb all 7 summits – the highest mountain peaks on each of the seven continents – and
  2. fastest aggregate time for a woman to run marathons on all seven continent.

Learn how Jeanne turned her life around at the age of 38, conquered her fears of the unknown and broke the Guiness World Record in this interview…

Interview with Jeanne Stawiecki

How did you get into hiking and running? 

I was never athletic.

In fact I was excused from gym in school because of what my gym teacher called “clumsiness.”  She told my mom it was for the best because I didn’t have any athletic ability. Being “profiled” at a very early age, I took no interest in anything athletic until I was 38 (more on that in a minute).

At 18, I started smoking when I entered nursing school. I saw the other students smoking and they told me it helped reduce stress, so I tried it.  Fast forward twenty years – with smoking two-packs a day – at the age of 38, I was unable to climb a flight of stairs without stopping to catch my breath.

I “woke up” when I realized in two short years I would be 40.  I remember sitting on the floor crying thinking that I had never lived; I had no interests, no passions, no hobbies.  All I had was work.  I was getting to an age where if I didn’t make some changes, I knew with dead certainty what my life would be like in another twenty years.

Every time I thought of that horrible future, I found the inner strength to quit smoking.  Persistence pays off… one theme that has worked well for me in my life.

I decided to try running and immediately found I began to violently cough after running a short distance.  All those years smoking had left their mark.

So, I walked and gradually worked up to running three miles every other day!  Being in nature was new to me and a wonderful experience. I had been working so much that most of my life had been indoors.  I loved running and it also reduced stress.

About this time, I heard about the hundredth Boston marathon and how runners would be picked by lottery and not by their time.  I decided that I would love to run the Boston marathon.

I found several books on how to train and because I was still working many hours, I did all my long runs on weekends. I was getting better at running and began to entertain the idea of qualifying for Boston instead of relying on a lottery.

At the age of 44, I ran the New York City marathon to qualify for Boston… in three hours and thirty six minutes. I cannot describe the feeling of crossing that finish line – knowing I had qualified – and remembering that day I sat crying on the floor. Something had changed inside me. I knew I would never be the same. I went on to run seven Boston marathons, re-qualifying every year!

At work, a new doctor joined our anesthesia group and was a mountaineer and rock climber. He recommended I try rock climbing and I decided to give it a try. Although it was scary the first few times, I kept at it and grew to love the intense concentration it took to find the right “holds” in the rock face. I went on to ice climbing in the winter and found another passion.

When I approached the age of 50, I decided to pursue my biggest dream… to travel.

I wanted to have a trip-of-a-lifetime because I thought it may be the only big trip I would ever take.  I signed up for a trek in the Himalayas – having never traveled outside of the U.S. and certainly not alone. I met the trekking group in Kathmandu and it was an incredible experience because I had finally conquered my fear and traveled around the world all by myself.

My world had expanded beyond my imagination and I grew with each experience.

Life had become a journey…. not just an existence!

What made you decide to hike all seven summits and run a marathon on all seven continents?

After the trek, I decided to combine my love of travel with my love of climbing.

My first climbing trip was in Ecuador where I climbed four active volcanoes. The experience of hanging from the side of a volcano, heart hammering in my chest with the most incredible scenery, was beyond anything I could ever have envisioned.

I decided that the next climb would be one of the fabled Seven Summits….the highest mountains on each continent.

I climbed Elbrus in Russia, Denali in Alaska, Aconcagua in South America, Vinson in Antarctica and finally made an attempt to climb Everest in 2004.

I became disabled with a mysterious breathing problem on my first Everest attempt. I developed shortness of breath prior to Everest and found, just as I had when I smoked, I couldn’t climb a flight of stairs without stopping to catch my breath. That breathing problem became serious and I wasn’t able to walk for any distance, let alone run or climb.

I was devastated.

The doctors in Worcester didn’t know what was wrong with me and decided I needed a temporary teach (hole in the windpipe) because I was wearing out fast.  I couldn’t talk, couldn’t work and when i ate I would begin to choke.

I chose not to follow their advice and went home in tears, totally lost.  I went on the web and looked up the number one respiratory hospital in the country.  It was the National Jewish in Denver Colorado.  They found my problem.  One of my vocal cords was “lazy” and every time I took a breath in, it stayed in the middle of my throat so I was trying to breathe through a very small opening.  They told me they had never treated an athlete who was a  climber and advised me to never attempt a high altitude climb because they didn’t know how the lack of oxygen would affect my vocal cords.  They also felt if I ever managed to get better control of my breathing, it would be best to limit my runs to much shorter distances.

During my disability, it was what I “learned” that enabled me to heal and begin running again.  You know when you hear of people having life changing insights because of a severe difficulty?  Well that is what happened to me.

When I had recovered sufficiently to begin walking, slowly I would run for very short distances during the walk and just as I had when I first quit smoking, I persevered. Persistence pays off and I found I was able to run longer and longer distances.  I still had some difficulty breathing but I had found ways to compensate.  It was about this time, because of a chance encounter, I found if I ran marathons on every continent and climbed the rest of the seven summits (I had already climbed four of them), I would be the first woman in the world to do so.

I was so encouraged by “how” I had been able to heal – despite the doctors telling me I may never be able to run distances or climb again – that I decided I would take on this challenge.  So…

At the age of 56, I knew this was something I wanted to finish.

So I:

  • climbed Kilimanjaro in Africa (Aug ’06),
  • ran the Melbourne marathon and climbed  Mount Kosciusko in Australia (Sep ’06),
  • ran marathons in Africa (Nov ’06), Chile (Dec ’06), Dubai (Jan ’07), South Beach, Florida (Jan ’07), Spain (Feb ’07), Antarctica (Feb ’07), and
  • summited Mount Everest on May 22nd, 2007.

What was your favorite summit and hike? Why?

Denali was my favorite. It was my first technical climb (ice axes, self arrest, rope team, crevasses) and I was with an all-male team.

We had to haul everything for the two week climb in our backpacks and on a sled that was harnessed around our waist. It was a tough climb, but the scenery was not to be believed. I didn’t have to worry about dysentery because this mountain wasn’t in a third world country.

I challenged myself on so many levels and because this was the first really big mountain I had ever climbed, I was very excited to have succeeded. I was thrilled to find my little world expanding in ways I never could have imagined it would.

It was what I was learning about myself that made all the experiences so special.

What was your least summit and hike? Why?

All of them were special for different reasons, but Aconcagua in South America was such a slog, climbing loose rock and dirt (volcanic scree).

How did breaking both records change you?

It showed me the power that habitual thoughts and beliefs have on our lives… to hold us imprisoned by fear or to live really exciting lives and grow beyond our wildest dreams.

Did you face any challenges being a woman on your travels? If so, what were they?

The biggest challenges I faced were of my own making.

With anything new… traveling to foreign countries, visas and the like, it was the fear that I would make a mistake that always made me nervous. I grew to find it was easier than I would have believed.

Before the age of 51, I had never really traveled anywhere. I was too afraid of the unfamiliar and the older I got the more frightened I became until I actually swallowed my fear and did it.

What are the three things you always pack no matter where you travel? Do you have any other advice for women on how to pack?

My biggest concern was always security. I always made copies of my passport, driver’s license, and airline tickets. Plastic bags in all sizes always came in handy and my nalgene water bottles were perfect for holding anything that might break or puncture.

I always packed too much and learned to only pack what I really needed. Travel clothes are the best because they are wrinkle free, easy to wash and dry quickly. I would wash delicates using the small shampoo bottles as soap and they would be dry by morning.

What is your favorite book, movie, and album for travel?

  • My favorite book is Under the Tuscan Sun by Francis Mayes.
  • My favorite movie is Moonstruck.
  • My favorite music is John Serrie’s album And the Stars Go With You. It’s mystical and always relaxed me in the frenzied pace of travel.

What one piece of advice would you give for women travelers?

I always take city tours. Firstly, they showed me the attractions and major sites to visit while there. Secondly, they provided a sense of the city and the areas I needed to avoid.

What was your biggest culture shock abroad?

My biggest culture shock was the lack of individual freedom, especially for women, in some of the third world countries. I always returned being thankful I lived in the U.S.

Do you have any upcoming trips? If so, where to?

At the present time, I don’t have any plans.

I have been speaking all over the country and writing a book about my many experiences and that has taken me on a new journey. I would like to travel to Indonesia in the future to climb the Carstenzs Pyramid.

Any other thoughts or advice for our women readers?

Never let fear stop you. No matter what your age, try new things, challenge yourself and you’ll be amazed at your potential.

Thank you Jeanne Stawiecki for participating in this interview.  For more info on Jeanne Stawiecki, please visit SevenIn2007.com.

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