When it came time to apply for Badwater the year after my first application was rejected, I almost didn’t bother trying again. I hadn’t done any major races in the last year, except for a few 50- and 60-milers that were hardly worth mentioning. Others would be listing several 100-milers and even longer races. I had to give it a shot, though. So I sent off the completed application, expecting to never hear of it again.

Several weeks later, I was sitting in my office in New York, looking out at the MetLife building and Grand Central Station. An email from AdventureCorps arrived with the decision on my Badwater application. I skimmed for the words “we regret to inform you,” but instead I saw that I’d been accepted.

“Wait, what?” I thought. “How can it be that I’d been accepted?” But there it was in print, an invitation to join the 2014 race with just 99 other runners. A big grin came across my face and I shut my office door to jump up and down in celebration. My mind was in disbelief, but my heart felt the joy of another barrier broken.

I started training right away, with many miles to cover to be ready by July 21, when the race would start. I planned to run 20 to 30 miles every Saturday, 10 to 20 miles on Sundays, and several longer runs of 40 to 100 miles periodically. To make the training more fun, I signed up for a few races. Since I had so little time outside of work already, I planned the races to also allow for some time with family.

The first race on my plate was Badwater Cape Fear, a 52-mile race on North Carolina’s Bald Head Island. I took two days off of work to make a long weekend of it and arranged for my grandparents, who were living in Durham, to join me.

To reach Bald Head Island, you have to drive from Wilmington to a little town called Southport and then take a ferry. But it’s well worth the effort. As soon as I stepped onto the beach, the coarse sand and emerald waters calmed me. It was like being back at Topsail, only a few hours north, where my family had a beach house growing up.

My grandparents and I went to a beachside restaurant for my pre-race dinner. I doubted that hushpuppies qualified as “good carbs” since they are essentially fried cornbread, but they came with honey butter, which I never pass up. I was so happy to be back in a place where ordering ranch dressing is a normal request. In New York, the waiters and waitresses would reply, “Ranch? Sorry, we don’t have that here.”

I was also happier than I realized I’d be to see my grandparents. Since Mom’s passing, they had treated me like a daughter. Grandpa would even slip sometimes and refer to Nana as if she were my mom. “Why don’t you ask your mom, sorry, Nana,” he’d say. I loved that we’d grown closer, even if I hated the circumstances under which it had happened.

The weather was perfect the morning of the race. We started out right by the Old Baldy lighthouse and ran the first 12 miles on shaded roads and trails lined by moss-covered oak trees. The hushpuppies must have been good running fuel after all because I felt great running just behind the race leaders. We hit the beach where we would run the bulk of the race, the remaining 40 miles. It was a double out-and-back with water stops halfway and at the turning point. The tough part was there was no protection from the sun and the sand was soft, so each step took double the effort.

As I passed through the checkpoint at the turnaround, a race volunteer mentioned that I was the first female through and among the top five overall. I was surprised, but I didn’t think much of it, since I tend to get passed later in races once the smart runners, who paced themselves at the beginning, catch up. As I made the return trip, however, I could see that the second female was far behind me.

I thought that I’d be tiring as I strode into my thirtieth mile, but I was energetic. My legs felt as fresh as they started and I’d honed in on a more efficient way of running in the sand. Instead of trudging through the softest areas on the beach, I ran right along the edge of the water. The waves would catch me every now and then, soaking my shoes, but it was worth being wet to take advantage of the firmer footing.

Once I made the last turnaround and headed back, I noticed a flat area of sand far from the water that no one had tried. While I was tempted to keep dancing with the waves, I thought I should at least give it a chance. Recalling Jay Batchen’s guidance in the Sahara, I kept my footsteps flat and tried not to break the sand’s surface as I scuttled across it. This was even easier than the shoreline. I was now moving faster than most.

As runners still on the outbound leg ran past, they started cheering me. “Go, Katie, go! You’ve got this!” I was so close to my second-ever win that now I wanted it. “If you’re running, you’re winning,” I told myself. “No one can catch up now if you just don’t walk.” I repeated this mantra to myself, but I didn’t need to: I was inexplicably still feeling fantastic.

I crossed the finish line after 9 hours and 13 minutes as the first female and 5th of 56 overall. I was happy with the result, even more so because my Nana and Grandpa were there to see it. I was also glad that Badwater’s race director, Chris Kostman, would be able to see that he hadn’t made a mistake in letting me into the Badwater 135.