Reprinted with permission from the 2012-2013 UGA Foundation Fellows Annual Report.
Writer: Chris Starr
As a Ramsey Scholar, a Mid-Term Foundation Fellow, and a Coca-Cola Scholar, Kacie Moreno-Schoen Darden enjoyed multiple opportunities for international adventure during her days at The University of Georgia.
“I had the best of all worlds because I had the Coke Scholarship to travel, and combined with the Foundation Fellowship, it was almost too good to be true,” says Kacie, who graduated in 2005 with a bachelor’s degree in ecology and a master’s degree in conservation ecology and sustainable development.
“I traveled a lot. My other Fellow friends were like, ‘Wait a minute. How are you traveling more than we are?’ My research for my master’s was all in India, so I went there three times inside of one year.”
And while the Northwest Georgia native has basically been to the four corners of the globe, the most important trip of Kacie’s life found her firmly ensconced within the continental United States.
In June, Kacie and her friend Dani Grabol formed the Power, Pedals, and Ponytails team and took part in the Race Across America, a grueling endurance bicycle competition that begins in Oceanside, CA and ends 3,000 miles later in Annapolis, MD.
Since her UGA graduation, Kacie has frequently tested her physical mettle in a host of ultra-endurance competitions, and she owes her start to a guy from Georgia Tech – her husband, George Darden.
“My husband was a collegiate athlete – he ran for Georgia Tech,” says Kacie, who teaches science and math at High Meadows School in metro Atlanta and has taught in the Governor’s Honors Program in Valdosta. “And when we got married, he hadn’t been running for a while because he was working on his PhD at UGA. I told him I felt like he was missing something in his life. He said, ‘I should be running.’ And I said, ‘How about if we both signed up for a race?’”
The couple started in 2008 with a dualathon, a run-bike-run competition, and George decided to pursue cycling competitions while Kacie delved into triathlons and ironman events, which evolved into even more difficult endurance sports.
“My first ultra-marathon in 2010, I was the first female to finish,” she says. “I realized there was something about the very long distances that I’m really good at. I never saw myself as an athlete, but I think part of what I found in sports as an adult was my mindset. I’m extremely goal-oriented and very willing to do whatever work it takes to achieve something. And ultra-endurance sports really do that for me.”
After competing in a double ironman event, which consists of 4.8 miles of swimming, 224 miles of biking, and a double marathon of more than 52 miles (all of which took 28 hours to complete), Kacie ended up with stress fractures in both of her legs, which took her off the road for anything but cycling.
“My doctor told me I could carefully ride my bike as much as I want,” she says. “So I took that literally and decided to get into ultra-bike racing while my legs healed.”
Last year, Kacie joined an eight-member Atlanta-based team that competed in the Race Across America, raising funds for the Shepherd Center and completing the California-to-Maryland trek in 6 days and 18 hours.
“When we were done in Annapolis, I looked at my crew and said, ‘I think we’re going to have to do this one again,’” Kacie says. “But I didn’t want to do it with so many people – I wanted to ride my bike more. So I called Dani, a friend from the double iron race, to be my race partner. We started talking about it, and it didn’t take me long to talk her into it.”
After nearly a year of planning, Kacie and Dani not only developed their strategy for biking across the country but also spearheaded a fundraising effort for Camp Twin Lakes, an assemblage of camps providing unforgettable outdoor experiences for thousands of children in Georgia who have serious illnesses, disabilities, and other challenges.
“When we decided to do this race together, we agreed we wanted it to be more than about us racing across the country,” Kacie says, noting she and Dani had raised $30,000 en route to their goal of $60,000. “Camp Twin Lakes is such a great platform. Dani works in geriatrics, and I’m a teacher, so we’re kind of at the two ends of the life spectrum.”
The duo – who traveled with a crew of 10 and three vehicles – concocted an elaborate schedule to set a new record for two-person teams. “Our race strategy was that we would alternate in the mornings for about six hours, about a half hour at a time, and try to keep the speed pretty high. Then in mid-afternoon, we each took a two-hour turn so the other one could sleep for about an hour or so. Then we’d do another six hours back and forth and back and forth every half hour. At night, each of us went four hours so that we could sleep about three hours. Hypothetically, we’d get enough sleep to survive.”
Given Kacie’s admitted dogged persistence in the face of physical challenges, it would have been folly to discount her desire to claim the record in the race, which is painstakingly mapped out (“You have to follow the course and the clock never stops – not at night, not for rain, not for bad weather”) and covers 11 states. “Of course, any finish is a success, but our goal was to take that record … It’s kind of ‘who can be the most stubborn,’ and I am really stubborn.”
On June 23, 2013, the Power, Pedals, and Ponytails team completed the race in 8 days, 2 hours, and 35 minutes, smashing the previous record by more than 13 hours and claiming the world record for two-person female teams.
Kacie – whose sister-in-law Christy Darden Brennan is also a UGA Foundation Fellow alum – says she usually is already looking ahead to the next challenge while she’s preparing for the present one. This this time around, however, she doesn’t know what she’s going to do after the Race Across America.
But it’s liable to be something spectacular.
“Until I crossed that finish line at Annapolis and we’d really done it, I could not think ahead,” she says. “There was no space in my brain to think ahead. But there’s a lot of stuff I haven’t done yet. I’ve dabbled with the idea of swimming the English Channel. And I still like running – it would be fun to get back to that after so long. There are lots of races – there’s always something else. This sure isn’t the end of the road.”