COLUMBIA CITY — In April 2016, Kelly and Ashley Cearbaugh overcame the biggest challenge of their lives — they completed a 100-mile race at Chain O’ Lakes State Park.
Battling pure exhaustion, 15 hours of rain and the mud that ensued, they crossed the finish line after more than 24 hours of running — they couldn’t have done it without the help of their friends.
They had no idea that in a way, that race prepared them for the most horrific thing that can happen to any parent — the loss of a child. Four months after their 100-mile race and in the middle of training for their next 100-milers, the Cearbaughs lost their daughter, Kaila, age 22, in an accident involving a semi-truck on U.S. 30.
“When we first started running, we never thought it was possible to run 100 miles, but we got through it,” Kelly said. “I never thought we could lose a child and continue on. I didn’t think it was possible. But it happened and we’ve had to push through it.”
The Cearbaughs believe God led them to trail running and the friends they met along the way, to help them through what was to come.
“Our friends have been the best support. I’m not sure where we would be had we not decided to do this training,” Ashley said. “It’s a God thing. He brought these people in our lives so we could have them. I don’t know where we would be without them.
“The mental toughness you gain through the training and the mental toughness it takes to finish — to have something like this happen, unfortunately it prepared us a little bit for what was to come.”
The starting line
Ashley had a history of running, but Kelly didn’t start until about 10 years ago.
“She ran in high school but stopped after we had kids,” Kelly said. “Then she started running again, and I just watched her. I never had an interest at all.”
Ashley said she got back into running to stay in shape, and enjoyed running with her friend Suzi Swinehart.
“We would run every Saturday in Huntington — rain or shine,” Ashley said. “He (Kelly) wasn’t liking it at first when I was gone a lot. I just prayed about it. I knew he would love it in the woods, and it was something we could do together.”
She ran her first half marathon in Indianapolis in 2003 — but that was just the start of longer races.
One day, about 10 years ago, Ashley was going out for a run, and Kelly said he was going with her.
“I just wanted to see what intrigued her so much,” Kelly said. “I wanted to see what motivated her and made her want to do it so much.”
That day, Kelly was only able to run a half-mile before stopping to walk.
“She kept working with me. Next thing you know, I could run a mile without stopping,” Kelly said.
Before long, Ashley helped Kelly enter in his first half marathon.
“I felt like I conquered the world when I finished those 13 miles,” Kelly said.
After that, they entered in the Chicago marathon, but Kelly only made it 18 miles.
“I was copying her habits on nutrition and hydration and that didn’t work for my body,” Kelly said.
The next year, Kelly finished his first marathon in Traverse City, Michigan.
Continuing with their training and cranking up their mileage, the Cearbaughs discovered they enjoyed trail running more than road running.
“The trails are harder, but the comradery between the people is much different,” Ashley said. “I would run up next to someone and want to talk, and they didn’t want to. Trail running is more like a family. We run together and stay together. When running this many miles, if you don’t support each other, you might not finish the race. Mentally, it’s hard to do if you don’t have someone there.”
They kept training and, in 2015, ran their first 50-mile race at Chain O’ Lakes.
“We stayed together for the whole race,” Kelly said. “With a quarter mile to go, I started crying. I knew I was going to be able to finish and it was the biggest thing I’d ever accomplished.”
Runners had 15 hours to complete the race. The Cearbaughs got it done in nine.
“I was overwhelmed with emotion trying to get to the finish line with her,” Kelly said.
It wasn’t long before some of their friends suggested they try a 100-mile race.
“I wasn’t going to do 100 miles,” Ashley said. “I like the 50K and 50-mile races. But, when Kelly started running the trails, someone talked him into signing up for 100 miles. If he was going to do it, then I was too. I wasn’t going to let him get ahead of me.”
The 100-mile race begins at 6 a.m. Saturday, and runners have until noon Sunday — 30 hours — to complete the course, which is several loops on Chain O’ Lakes’ trails.
Almost 250 runners were at the starting line of the 2016 100-mile race at Chain O’ Lakes — only 79 of those crossed the finish line, including the Cearbaughs.
“It rained for 15 hours,” Ashley said. “It was a muddy, sloppy mess.”
Some of the runners were getting hypothermia from the cold, wet weather.
“It got to the point that we didn’t even try to go around mud puddles, we just went right through them,” Kelly said.
They ran the first portion of the race together, but started to spread out as the race went on. Both Kelly and Ashley had friends who came in to “pace” them for portions of the race.
Pacers come in to encourage the runner, as well as make sure they’re eating and drinking well.
While runners in marathons and shorter races typically eat sugary gels and drink Gatorade, runners in longer races need to eat “real” food, like hamburgers and bacon.
The couple strove to keep a steady heart rate. Knowing when to walk, especially up hills, and when to hold a faster pace.
“You have to control your heart rate,” Kelly said. “If you spike, you can get away with it for awhile, but it’ll catch you.”
While both said their pacers were essential in finishing the race, Ashley’s pacer was especially helpful in getting her to the finish line.
“I was 75 miles in and was literally falling asleep walking,” Ashley said. “You don’t realize what your body does until you push it to that limit. I had my pacer with me and she noticed I was struggling. We got some caffeine. It took a little bit, but I woke up.”
Kelly finished in 24 hours and Ashley crossed the line at the 28-hour mark — still two hours before the cutoff time.
The race director at Chain O’ Lakes, Mike Pfefferkorn, stands at the finish line for the entire race to give each runner a hug a the finish line.
“When I crossed the line and Mike gave me that hug, I teared up — I think everyone does,” Kelly said.
The couple was preparing for their next runs, which they were going to run separately, when their daughter was tragically killed on U.S. 30.
“I was in the middle of training for a 100-miler in Alabama, and I was ready to pull the plug on everything,” Kelly said. “It was probably the best thing to just keep on going.”
It wasn’t easy, but with the help of their friends, they continued on their training schedule.
“We would try to run and start crying and have to stop and walk,” Ashley said. “They were always there for us. It was a hobby that we might have fell away from and not been able to continue”
The couple said they also appreciate the help of the entire Whitley County community, as well as their running group.
“The love and support from the community has been amazing,” they said.
They went on to finish their next 100-mile races, and have continued to run.
This year, the Cearbaughs aren’t running in the 100-mile race at Chain O’ Lakes, but they are supporting their group by running portions as pacers for their friends, helping to prepare the trails and assisting at aid stations.
“We might not run the 100-miler at Chain O’ Lakes again, but we will be involved in helping out,” Kelly said. “I’ll be cooking burgers at an aid station and will keep an eye on the runner I’m pacing.”
This year’s race at Chain O’ Lakes will be held this Saturday and Sunday.
Their training continues, as Ashley is training for a 70.5-mile race in Pennsylvania and Kelly will run another 100-miler in Oregon in September.
Running has become a lifestyle for the Cearbaughs — they go out to dinner with friends they met through running, and much of their vacation time is planned around trips for races — whether they are running themselves or going to help their friends.
“There’s been several times we’ve gone to other races to pace other people — they’re mini vacations,” Kelly said.
They’ve traveled to many states for races, including Ohio, Tennessee, Florida, Alabama and Virginia.
“It’s nice when you’ve ran 20 miles and you come through and see someone there you know, who has food, clothes, shoes or socks for you if you need them,” Kelly said.
Kelly is the superintendent of the Columbia City Street Department, and Ashley works for Whitley County Consolidated Schools.