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Iowa City educator runs 100-mile race, stepping outside her comfort zone

Emily Dvorak says experience, although painful, increased her empathy for students

Emily Dvorak (right), the assistant principal at South East Junior High in Iowa City, manages a smile in early November while tackling a 100-mile Tunnel Hill ultra marathon in Vienna, Ill. She finished the race, angry and in pain. But being outside her comfort zone, she said, helped her better understand students who are sometimes uncomfortable about being in school. (Submitted photo from Emily Dvorak)
Emily Dvorak (right), the assistant principal at South East Junior High in Iowa City, manages a smile in early November while tackling a 100-mile Tunnel Hill ultra marathon in Vienna, Ill. She finished the race, angry and in pain. But being outside her comfort zone, she said, helped her better understand students who are sometimes uncomfortable about being in school. (Submitted photo from Emily Dvorak)

IOWA CITY — This is a story about a race. But it’s not a story about results.

It’s a story about stepping out of your comfort zone and doing something you could possibly fail at and the things you learn along the way.

“I just think sometimes, when we do that, we are able to learn more about ourselves or have greater empathy and compassion for the others around us who might be struggling with some things that are outside their comfort zone,” Emily Dvorak said.

Dvorak, 41, is in her fourth year as assistant principal at South East Junior High in Iowa City. She’s been running for the last 15 to 20 years.

She’s run half marathons and full marathons and, after running a 31-mile race that recreated Rocky Balboa’s iconic run through Philadelphia in the movie “Rocky II,” Dvorak signed up for the 50-mile race of Tunnel Hill, an ultra marathon in Vienna, Ill., that has 50- and 100-mile races.

“I just loved it,” Dvorak said of running the race three years ago. “I felt after that race, ‘I feel great, maybe I could do 100.’ ”

Last year, Dvorak signed up for the 100-mile race but only completed 50 miles. Undeterred, she signed up for 100 miles again this year.

“I basically felt like it was unfinished business,” she said. “I signed up for it because I think I rarely sign up for things that I don’t think I’m going to be able to accomplish. I think we all do that as adults. ... And I just wanted to sign up for something I wasn’t sure I was going to finish and even more so because I hadn’t finished one.

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“How often do you put yourself in that situation where you’re like, ‘I don’t know if I can actually do this?’ ”

PAIN, BLISTERS, COLD

The race began at 7 a.m. Nov. 9. Over the next 27 hours, Dvorak dealt with pain, blisters and, at times, unshakable cold. A friend paced her for the last 24 miles, always keeping a few steps ahead of her.

“She was fantastic because really, at that point, I was done,” Dvorak said. “I was walking. I have no shame in this.”

The last 5 miles were “probably the most miserable thing I’ve experienced in my life,” Dvorak said.

She had run out of ways to process the pain, she was angry, she wanted to stop. When she finally crossed the finish line, there was no smile.

“Three tears eked out,” she said. “I was just angry. I wasn’t emotional at all. I was just mad.”

But Dvorak said the anger quickly subsided.

Now, a few weeks later, Dvorak said she has several positive takeaways from the experience.

In addition to the value of attempting something you’re not sure you can complete, Dvorak said, she learned during training that people are capable of more than they think.

“Your mind always tells you to stop, but it’s done that your whole life, right?” she said. “Then you always find out you can do more than what your mind is telling you not to do.”

EMPATHY FOR STUDENTS

The other takeaway was a greater understanding of what school is sometimes like for students, Dvorak said.

While she chose to be in a situation that made her uncomfortable, students often are faced with situations where they’re uncomfortable — studying a subject they don’t feel confident in, for instance — and they don’t have a choice about being there.

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“I think having experiences where you’re outside your comfort zone just brings us back to a point of having that empathy and being more empathetic to other situations,” she said. “That student is really feeling uncomfortable in math. I understand how it feels to be uncomfortable.”

Dvorak said she doesn’t feel the need to run another 100-mile race, but she plans to volunteer at an aid station at Tunnel Hill to repay the support she was shown by volunteers.

She also insists that anyone can run a 100-mile race if they’re willing to put in the work.

“I think any normal person can do this, I really do,” she said. “I think it’s just a matter of what limit do you want to test for yourself?”

Comments: (319) 339-3155; lee.hermiston@thegazette.com

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