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Q&A with Kaydee Gaeta: Tough in Mud

Kaydee Gaeta posts on Instagram about running with epilepsy, and the training she fits into her busy life. But her posts are not just documenting running on flat, dry tarmac. For Kaydee, the extreme challenge of Spartan Races and Tough Mudder runs are a fun way to test her abilities as an overall athlete.  

Born in Adrian, Michigan, Kaydee grew up on a farm for the first eight years of her life. She was diagnosed with epilepsy when she was sixteen years old, after having a tonic-clonic seizure on Christmas day. She now lives in Horton, a small farming and lake community in Michigan, with her husband Justin, their two foster children (Nancy and Mae) and three fur-babies (her dogs, Koda, Maxx and Roo!). We asked her to tell us more about how she got into such an interesting sport.

So Kaydee, for anyone who hasn’t come across them, what are Spartan Races?

Spartan Races are a set of obstacle runs ranging between three and fourteen miles. The obstacles vary: wall jumps, rope climbs, atlas stone carry, tyre flip, spear throw – and plenty of upper body obstacles such as monkey bars and a multi-rig.  There’s a penalty for failing an obstacle (thirty burpees!) and you cannot move on to the next obstacle until you have completed your penalty. The terrain is also a huge obstacle depending on the location of the race.  I have learned through my race experiences that there is a thing called “Spartan miles” which basically means that three miles will turn into six.

Spartan races mud landscape
When you complete your first race, you earn your headband and become a Tough Mudder Legionnaire.

And what are Tough Mudder runs?

Tough Mudders are similar to the Spartan races, but only have two lengths: the Tough Mudder Full, which is between eleven and thirteen miles and the Tough Mudder Half which is usually around six miles. The obstacles in the Mudder are on a much larger scale than in the Spartan Races: they include climbing up and over giant mud hills and dropping into the water-filled pits below, getting zapped by running through strings of open electricity and even creating a pyramid of people in order to reach the top of a slippery, curved wall. When you complete your first race, you earn your headband and become a Tough Mudder Legionnaire.  

It sounds like a great way to make exercise fun (or terrifying)! How did you get into this type of extreme race?

I’ve never really been good at sports in general (although I do love a good game of volleyball). But in September of 2015, my husband and a couple of his friends decided to run a Tough Mudder race. He tried several times to get me to join in, but I refused because the thought of crawling through mud and getting electrocuted did not appeal to me. I showed him my support by being a spectator and watching him run and do the obstacles. The more I watched, the more I was drawn in…

The terrain was intense with one muddy hill after the other; racers were slipping, sliding and falling all over the place, me included

savage race mud crawl ohio cover

He looked like he was having a blast and I was sold. I began running the very next day, and we began to incorporate weightlifting and obstacle training into our daily lives.

What is your favourite obstacle?

My favourite obstacle is in the Tough Mudder: it’s called Block Ness Monster. It consists of large, block-like barriers suspended in a pit of muddy water. The only way to get past the barriers is to help out your fellow Mudder by pushing, pulling and rotating the barriers so that you can grab a hold of the barrier and be rolled over and come splashing down in the other side of the pit.

Which is the hardest?

To date, the hardest obstacle for me is the rope climb in the Spartan Races. The rope gets covered in mud and it makes footwork extremely difficult. I have no problems climbing a straight rope during training, but I have yet to conquer it in a race… it is my nemesis.

[UPDATE: Kaydee completed the rope climb in the Michigan Spartan Sprint on 23rd September!]

Where do you like to run and train?

I live in a very quiet subdivision with several connecting roads that provide me with ten miles of safe running space. My basement is set up as a home gym. As for the obstacle training, I don’t have to go any further than my own backyard where I have a rope climb, monkey bars, jumping steps, wall climb and salmon ladder.

The cool thing about obstacle training is that there isn’t any special equipment needed. Anything can become an obstacle to train on and the park is a great place to go. Getting started is incredibly easy, all you need is the drive to get started and a goal to work towards. My training varies from week to week. Mostly it depends on what I’m focusing on. Some weeks I will spend more time working on cardio and endurance than I will with weight and obstacle training, and vice versa.  

What is your hardest race to date and why?

The Spartan Beast in Chandlersville, Ohio is the most intense race I have run to date. It was a gruelling fourteen miles of mud, obstacles, mud, and more mud! It had stormed the night before the race so everything was extra wet and muddy. The terrain was intense with one muddy hill after the other; racers were slipping, sliding and falling all over the place, me included. 

After four miles of nothing but intense terrain that zapped me of my energy, I then had to face more than thirty obstacles spread out over another ten muddy miles. I failed five obstacles (the rope climb included) which resulted in 150 burpees!

Can you tell us a bit about how you were diagnosed with epilepsy?

When I was sixteen, I woke up one morning with bruises on my forearms and bite marks on my tongue. My mother took me to the doctor and I was told that the bruises were from a night terror and the bite marks were actually a tongue fungus. But I was incorrectly diagnosed and I’d had a nocturnal seizure.

"I completed a lot of the obstacles I attempted and I kept trying the ones I couldn't... I left the gym blistered, bloodied, bruised and pumped"

hoop obstacle course

The epilepsy diagnosis came  six days later, on Christmas morning. I was standing up next to the Christmas tree, excited over a bunch of stickers that had been stuffed into my stocking, when it began. My mother says that all of the colour drained from my face and a blank stare came over my eyes. I dropped the stickers and began to fall forward. My younger sister was sitting on the floor a few feet in front of me and if not for her, I would have fallen face first into a solid oak coffee table. After tripping over her, I rolled onto the floor, my head tilted back and my body became rigid. I had a grand mal (tonic-clonic) seizure that lasted for about forty-five seconds followed by about ten minutes of unconsciousness. To this day, I still cannot remember anything about Christmas morning or Christmas Eve the day before.

Do you take any medication for your seizures?

I’ve been on a few different ones. After that seizure at Christmas, I was prescribed an anticonvulsant named Dilantin (Phenytoin); I was seizure-free for nine years on this medication. But due to the detrimental side effects of Dilantin, my neurologist wanted to try me on Keppra (Levetiracetam) instead. After a lot of thought and consideration, I decided to give it a go. I was completely weaned off of the Dilantin and solely on Keppra for three days before my next grand mal seizure happened.

savage race balance beam ohio

Over a three month period, I had three seizures. So I decided Keppra was not the right fit for me and opted to go back to Dilantin.

I was then seizure-free for just over two years when out of nowhere I had a breakthrough grand mal seizure. My neurologist quickly increased the dosage of my Dilantin to try to account for this, but the dosage increase was too much, and it caused there to be toxic levels of the drug in my system. My dosage was decreased back to the starting dosage and over the next two months, I had two more seizures. After an inpatient admission to the hospital, they added Lamictal (Lamotrogine).

That was on July 27th, 2016 and I have been grand mal seizure free since. I still have myoclonic seizures daily but I have learned how to manage them.

Did you know much about epilepsy before you were diagnosed?

I knew what the definition of a seizure was, but beyond that, I knew very little. After my diagnosis, I researched and studied what epilepsy is, the causes, the treatments etc. and I use all of that knowledge on a daily basis to educate people about this condition.

What would you say to someone who has recently been diagnosed?

I would tell them that they are going to go through some rough times and to not give up. Having epilepsy is a part of who you are, but doesn’t define who you are. Use it as a driving force to show yourself and the world that even with epilepsy you can do great things. #EpilepsyCantBeatMe

Additionally, I would tell them to educate themselves. Learn the ins and outs of epilepsy; learn the symptoms, the warning signs, and keep a “seizure diary”. Every seizure I have had has been different from the last. I journal everything that happened with each seizure, what warning signs I had, how quickly it came on, if there were any factors during the day that could have played into the onset of the seizure. The more you know about epilepsy in general and about your epilepsy, the better.

Who inspires you?

I read about people with disabilities (physical, mental, emotional, medical) who go against the odds and show that they can do amazing things. The drive and willpower that these people have is what keeps me going when I’m having a rough day. I love when people are told “you can’t” and turn it into an “I just did”.

"I refused to let epilepsy beat me. I have run two Spartan Sprints, Spartan Super, Spartan Beast, Warrior Dash, Dances with Dirt, and two Tough Mudders!"

Spartan races medals Kaydee Gaeta

When and what was your latest adventure?

My last notable adventure was going to a Ninja Warrior training gym with my husband, Justin. I always watch the Ninja Warrior television show, but I have never actually attempted any of the obstacles. The gym was fully equipped with a warped wall, climbing wall, cliffhanger, salmon ladder and several other obstacles. I was able to complete a lot of the obstacles I attempted and I kept trying to complete the ones I couldn’t. I tried so hard that I left the gym blistered, bloodied, bruised and pumped. I would definitely recommend for anyone interested in obstacle course training to try and find a ninja training gym and give it your all.

Do you have anything else you’d like the readers to know?

I went through a period where my epilepsy knocked me down so hard that I couldn’t get up. There were days when I couldn’t walk without falling, couldn’t hold things without dropping them and there were some days where simple tasks were rendered completely impossible. I went through a series of med changes that kept me off of work for over three months. But I refused to let epilepsy beat me.

Since then, I have run a half marathon, several 5k’s and 10K’s, two Spartan Sprints, Spartan Super, Spartan Beast, Warrior Dash, Dances with Dirt, and two Tough Mudders!

You can follow Kaydee on Instagram @Running_with_epilepsy

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