A year ago, the mother of Soldotna’s Sheilah-Margaret Pothast, Salli Sterrett, had her left leg amputated from the knee down due to a severe bone infection.
Pothast, 50, said that due to a laundry list of medical issues, there wasn’t a time when she could remember her mother, now 70, being healthy. Watching Sterrett try to rehab from the amputation was particularly poignant, though.
“When I watched her try to learn to stand up without a leg, even when she could walk it had been so hard, but when I watched her simply try to stand, she looked so scared because she felt like she could fall,” Pothast said. “She kept at it. She was so determined.
“I thought about how lucky I am to have her as a mom to look to for inspiration.”
Sterrett had always been a big supporter of Pothast being active. Pothast, who turned 50 on Jan. 30, had been toying with the idea of doing 50 races in her 50th year for her mother.
Watching the rehab of the lady Pothast calls her “Miracle Mom” clinched it. The race was on.
Sunday, Pothast plans to complete that 50-race race in a Kringle Kross fat bike race at Tsalteshi Trails.
M-D doesn’t mean G-O-D
Pothast constantly watched her mother battling ailments. When Pothast was in middle school growing up in Camp Verde, Arizona, doctors discovered why — systemic lupus. That’s an autoimmune disease, for which there is no cure, in which the immune system of the body attacks healthy tissue.
The doctor told Sterrett she would not live to see her kids graduate from high school.
“She said, ‘The last time I checked, M-D doesn’t mean G-O-D,’” Pothast said of her mom. “She’s super determined and has a strong will to live and a great sense of humor. She outlived the doctor that told her she would die. There’s some irony there.”
Problems continued to build over the years, though. Rheumatoid arthritis. A heart condition. Diabetes. Raynaud syndrome.
Pothast always admired that whatever her mom was healthy enough to do, like ringing bells for donations around Christmas, her mom always did.
“Her medical file is just super thick, but she’s a trooper, she just keeps on keeping on,” Pothast said. “She jokes that God doesn’t want her, and the devil is afraid she’ll take over.”
By Sterrett’s side through everything has been her husband, Dennis.
“Just the devotion he has for her is beautiful,” Pothast said. “It’s an example of the commitment you make when you get married. They’re both really strong, faithful people.”
Running for mom
Pothast and her husband, John, have two kids. Hannah is a 2016 Soldotna High School graduate and senior at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, while John-Mark is a 2018 SoHi grad and sophomore at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff.
Sheilah-Margaret had run for her high school team, but had not been very active since then. About five or six years ago, Sheilah-Maragaret was talking to her mom and mentioned Hannah and John-Mark were out running for the Stars.
“She said, ‘I wish I could run.’ I said, ‘Really, mom? I can’t remember the last time you were able to run,’” Sheilah-Margaret said. “Here I can and I didn’t, while she can’t and wishes she could. I decided then to start running for her.”
After that, Salli constantly started asking her daughter about running, even though that daughter started out unable to run a mile. Salli was always interested in hearing that her daughter was active, never caring about the speed in which races were completed.
Sheilah-Margaret has an autoimmune disease that is not nearly as bad as her mother’s, but is marked by periodic flare-ups.
“She feels guilty about the fact that I have an autoimmune disease,” Sheilah-Margaret said of her mother. “If I can go out and be healthy and run and ski, it makes her feel better that I’m not ending up in a wheelchair.
“You always want better for your kids. In her head, running means a healthier future for you than what she had.”
Sheilah-Margaret also had tore her left ACL from the bone in 2011. With her mom as inspiration, and chiropractor Evan Frisk and physical therapist Jason Buckbee providing know-how, Sheilah-Margaret was able to complete the Kenai River Half Marathon in 2015 and two more half marathons in 2016 and 2017.
Wall of bibs
As Sheilah-Margaret did more races, she sent the bibs to her mother for a wall in Salli’s house.
Sheilah-Margaret had the idea of putting 50 more bibs on that wall in her 50th year, but it was the amputation that spurred her to action.
“They put her on hospice care because of this infection,” Sheilah-Margaret said. “They decided not to do surgery because she was not strong enough for surgery.”
John and Sheilah-Margaret decided it would be great for Sheilah-Margaret to celebrate her birthday with her mother.
“My mom mentioned this to the hospice nurse and the hospice nurse said if you don’t go to the hospital to have this surgery done you’re not going to make it to her birthday,” Sheilah-Margaret said.
Sheilah-Margaret, a teacher at Skyview Middle, took time off to go to Arizona for the surgery aftercare. She took turns with her father at the hospital, running in the thin air of Flagstaff as stress relief.
“That’s when I was sold on the idea to do this,” she said. “The trick is, can you find 50 races in Alaska to do?”
Tsalteshi to the rescue
Tsalteshi Trails, located behind the middle school where Sheilah-Margaret teaches, has been a part of the Pothast family since John took the principal’s job at now-gone Skyview High School in 1999. John now works at the central office.
When the Pothast kids were younger, they would always ask to Pick. Click. Give. to Tsalteshi. John-Mark even had his senior photos taken there.
“The Pothast family story is not the family story it is without Tsalteshi Trails,” Sheilah-Margaret said.
Since the time when John was principal, Tsalteshi has grown to offer races in running, cross-country skiing, mountain biking, cyclocross and fat biking year-round.
“If it wasn’t for Tsalteshi, all the race series and events they host, there’s no way the 50 races would have become a reality,” Sheilah-Margaret said.
If all goes as planned Sunday, 17 of the 50 races will have happened at Tsalteshi. Those races weren’t all easy. Some were running events on icy singletrack doubling as a luge course. Others took place on mountain bikes and fat bikes.
“If I hadn’t been trying to hit 50, I definitely wouldn’t have gotten on a fat bike and I probably wouldn’t have done the cycle series,” Sheilah-Margaret said. “Being pushed to do races I wouldn’t have done, and being able to complete them, helped boost my confidence.”
I want to ride my bicycle
She became particularly fond of the biking community at Tsalteshi, which would provide 10 of her 50 races.
“When I’m running slow, it’s whatever, I can do this,” Sheilah-Margaret said. “The bike races scared the heck out of me, but those folks at the bike races are so good, so kind and so encouraging.
“That vibe made me want to come back and do those. I never felt in the way and I love that about those races.”
She said the hardest race of the 50 came Dec. 8, a fat bike race on the Slikok loops and singletrack.
“I was completely freaked out driving over there,” Sheilah-Margaret said. “I’d never been on a fat bike and I’d never ridden on snow.”
John had driven to so many races, even running or riding in them with his wife. He hadn’t said a word about all the money being spent on entry fees.
But on that car ride over, he proved more valuable than ever with this sage advice: “Babe, it’s gonna be OK. You’re not going to be going fast enough to hurt anything.”
John then ran behind his wife, providing support during the toughest parts of the race, and No. 49 was in the books.
First is still first
While Tsalteshi and the vast number of races available in Southcentral gave Sheilah-Margaret the chance to meet tons of new people and contribute to many good causes, the races that will always stand out in her quest happened in Arizona.
At the top of the list is Run Sedona, a 10K completed on Feb. 2.
“The most memorable is the first one, because my mom was there,” Sheilah-Margaret said. “That’s the first race she’s seen me run since high school.”
Salli was recently out of the intensive care unit, but there was a handicap accessible area at the finish line that allowed her to attend.
Sheilah-Margaret returned to Arizona for her mother’s birthday on June 1, running in the Yarnell Memorial Run that morning. The run is in memory of 19 firefighters who died in the Yarnell Hill Fire in 2013.
“It was a moving race and a powerful race to be a part of,” Sheilah-Margaret said. “I asked my mom if it was OK for me to leave that morning and she felt really moved that I was able to honor them.”
June 4, some of Sheilah-Margaret’s old high school running mates organized a special 5K to add another race to the list.
The running club gave Sheilah-Margaret a personalized race bib, a club shirt and a medal that included Salli’s 70th birthday.
“They went way above and beyond in the count to 50,” Sheilah-Margaret said.
Sheilah-Margaret chose Sunday’s race for No. 50 because both of her kids will be back from school and her husband also can attend.
She’s learned how much is possible with the right inspiration.
“I learned I can do things I didn’t think I could,” she said. “I also learned that having a goal like this is really good for me physically as well as mentally. It forces me to be active, not wasting the blessing that I can be active.”
Sheilah-Margaret also learned how important it is to have a lot of people enforcing accountability. For that reason and also for her mother, she meticulously documented her 50 races on “50races50thyear” on Facebook.
“I turn 51 pretty soon, and I thought about what I’ll do for year 51,” she said. “Right now the plan is to try and put in 51 miles a month in my 51st year. It’s a big deal. I’ve haven’t ever covered that much mileage in my life.”