A Story of Helen Galerakis’ Wild FKT on the Arizona Trail
In 2014, ultrarunner Helen Galerakis needed a lifestyle change. Actually, she wasn’t even an ultrarunner back then, nor did she identify herself as a runner. Just a few months prior, Helen was a business executive living in Hong Kong. She had dedicated the past 22 years to her professional career, which had built itself a stellar resume and an illustrious career trajectory, managing a staff of over 2,000 in 9 different countries. But this isn’t a story about her fancy meetings and fancier hotels. And this isn’t even a story about running. This is a story about checking in with yourself, creating new chapters when it’s time to move on, and finding your roots in the process.
By the end of her 22nd year in the corporate world, Helen was picking up Cantonese, living independently across the world, and working as Chief Financial Officer for a large company in Hong Kong. Making a good living and having nice things is what Helen, like many people, spent years working towards. But upon arriving to her career destination, things felt different. She wasn’t with her family, she was completely overworked, and her health was an afterthought that she only considered after her endless work was done. Burnout was looming, and Helen realized that if she didn’t get off the corporate merry-go-round now, with financial security and no major commitments, she might not ever get off.
“It was probably the scariest decision of my life… but it was the best.”
–Helen on leaving the corporate world and moving to Greece.
Helen’s closest family ties are in Greece, so she packed her bags and bought a one-way ticket to Crete. Despite a clear language barrier and a years-long gap in seeing her relatives, Helen knew that she was where she needed to be –with family, a slower pace of living, and a break. She picked up Greek, built relationships with her relatives, slept 10 hours a day, and ate a fresh diet that was both healing for her body and soul. Between the beautiful mountains and stunning beaches, Helen felt like she was exactly where she needed to be.
One day during a casual run (at this point Helen still hardly identified as a runner, more like someone who runs occasionally), her local butcher saw her jogging by. He said the classic line that most runners have heard from a non-runner at some point in their lives: “Hey, you should try to run a marathon.” Taking that one-off comment to heart, she signed up, trained, and completed the Athens Marathon. Running through the homestretch of the Athens Marathon in the original Olympic stadium with her family, Helen was truly at peace.
“Running was my meditation time where I was able to sort out all the muddled thoughts in my head and make sense of them.”
After the Athens Marathons, Helen wanted to give trail running a shot. She searched trail running camps and came across a camp held by a guy named Rob Krar. The Rob Krar Ultra/Trail Camp proved to be much more than just a weekend running getaway.
“[Attending the Krar camp] was the second biggest life changing experience I have had.”
Enamored with the Flagstaff trails and community, Helen felt like she truly belonged. Fast forward just one month and she had a new residency…in nowhere else but Flagstaff, Arizona. (And she also had a nice new coach by the name of Rob Krar!)
Now equipped with a new coach, home, and a passion for long distance running, Helen set her eyes on a 100 miler. With the wisdom of Krar (who knows a thing or two about 100-milers), Helen slowly built her base up to 50Ks, 50 Milers, and eventually her first 100K. She ran and completed the Bighorn Trail 100 Mile Run in June 2019, and quickly sought after a goal that would be unique to her. Someone mentioned the Arizona Trail, spanning from Utah to Mexico (and dotting right through Flagstaff.) It’s 800 miles, and after some quick arithmetic (that’s 800 miles…if I run 50 miles per day, that would take me 16 days), Helen decided it was possible. Call it bold, call it naïve, but once it was in Helen’s realm of possibility, it was to be completed. (At this point, she had followed through on quitting her job, moving to Greece, finishing a marathon, moving to Arizona, and running a 100-Miler...)
In March 2019, Helen trialed a 150-mile segment of the AZT. Nearly falling off the edge of a mountain as well as other numerous near death experiences, she quickly learned that this wouldn’t be a (800-mile) walk in the park. It required mountaineering skills, overcoming both hot and cold climates, and a whole lot of grit. Rob Krar detailed out a 12-week buildup to Helen’s FKT attempt, highlighted by several back-to-back 10+ hour days, summiting the tallest peaks in the Flagstaff area again and again, and countless gym sessions. The AZT FKT attempt started earlier than planned though with the first crucial (and most often overlooked) part of any ultra…logistics.
“I was very stressed going into the run. The logistics were piling up… when I started my run, there was still a 3-day gap in which I didn’t have any crew members available.”
But it was set… on October 17th, 2019, Helen Galerakis set out to run the 800-mile Arizona Trail. Someone who wasn’t even a runner 4 years prior was about to attempt running 800 f***ing miles.
Helen’s first day was successful – a smooth 64 miles down to the Grand Canyon National Park Boundary. But it didn’t take long for things to start going wrong. Day 2, a 46 miler through part of the Grand Canyon, posed her first of many adversities. She experienced painful IT Band and hip flexor flare-ups… neither of which are promising when you have 700 miles to go. She grinded through the next couple days and her leg pains followed… always nagging but never debilitating. Unable to run hardly at all, she kept moving, despite the hours stretching out in front of her each day.
By day 5, word had gotten out about Helen’s attempt. She was met by friends and strangers alike, offering encouraging words and sharing steady miles. Soon she crossed the 200-mile mark, then 250, 300, and eventually, halfway.
The knee pain continued until day 8. By now, she had seen the landscape change from red-orange canyon to thick mountains. Her need for rest was rising, but so was her will to go through the pain. Day by day Helen ticked off countless miles and grueling 20+ hour days. (By now, she was averaging about 2 hours of sleep per night, and she often fell into a daydreaming state where all she could think about was sleep.)
By the time she reached 500 miles, the days stopped being measured in 24-hour segments. Rather, her ‘days’ were periods of being awake, broken up by a quick trailside nap for an hour or two. Helen narrowed in on the last 100 miles and sought after a couple final pushes.
In what Helen was hoping would be her final day, she logged 25 hours moving on the trail. It was paused by a measly 1-hour nap, then right back into a final-final 21-hour day. 46 hours of moving within a 47-hour span… and she had done it.
At 3:05 pm on November 3rd, Helen Galerakis touched the Coronado National Monument, officially completing her 800+ mile trek from Utah to Mexico. Every inch of the Arizona Trail, which she covered on her own two feet. She had completed the women’s supported FKT, clocking in a time of 17 days, 11 hours, and 3 minutes.
After sleeping for the greater parts of 4 days, only to be awakened by filling up on nutritious meals, Helen slowly came back to reality. In our recent chat with Helen, she discussed her highlights and struggles throughout the FKT. From repeating ‘I am a unicorn’ to will herself to continue in the painful early miles to spending literal days without getting more than a quick nap, she experienced all the highs and lows that running offers. But what was most striking was Helen’s attitude about her freshly minted FKT. With all the humility, Helen sounded surprised. Of course she knew that she could do anything she set her mind to, but upon actually processing the completion of the FKT, there was a moment. An “oh-my-gosh-I-actually-just-did-that” moment. Helen is slowly realizing the magnitude of what she had done.
At the core of it, running is an individual sport. But the best moments in running are often not just one person’s individual effort, but the community that rises up to support them. To keep them on track with their training, to encourage them to continue…even when every muscle is screaming at the brain to stop. To crew them and make sure they have the tools they need to push. But most of all, to share the moments with each other. The best moments can often be in the most challenging environments… like when you’re hundreds of miles into an FKT attempt with your buddies, sharing miles and laughing off the pain together. When you’re completely present and in the moment.
“Society can estrange us in some ways. We can get into such routines that sometimes aren’t exactly what we want. But the truth is… we have so many ‘chapters’ in our lives. We can make changes.”
Helen’s running story started after she moved to Greece for a complete lifestyle change. What began as considering a marathon quickly transitioned to moving to the US and completing an 800+ mile FKT. While her running goals have certainly changed, her perspective stays the same: it’s never too late to start a new chapter.
Five years have passed since Helen make the scariest decision of her life. She traded in her hotel amenities alone for sleeping under the stars with her closest friends, and she is happier and more accomplished than ever. Her dedication to embarking into the unknown is the inspiration for what we do here at GU… pushing ourselves to do things we’ve never done before. Finding what we’re made of and putting it to the test.
Because we’re a nutrition company, we loved hearing about Helen’s fueling strategy. Her go-to throughout the FKT was ROCTANE Energy Drink Mix. “Over the 17-day span, I sipped on it like it was water. Literally, there were only 2 occasions in which my vest didn’t have ROCTANE Energy Drink Mix!”
To supplement, Helen had about one energy bar per hour (amounting to over 400 energy bars!), oatmeal, pasta, and noodles. Every day was capped off with a ROCTANE Protein Recovery Drink Mix to ensure that her muscles were getting the nutrients they needed. Helen didn’t have a single GI issue over the entire 17 day run!