Chasing the exploration and the unknown – even in the Midwest – is what fuels The North Face ultra trail runner Coree Woltering’s drive to keep going, even when the going gets hard.
From embracing his true self to uncovering hidden gems along the way, Coree has many tales to share around the impact trail running and growing up in the Midwest has had on his life.
Mappy Hour Chicago Chapter Leader Erica Zazo chats with Coree about his experiences as a Midwest-based runner, how he manages to persevere on ultra runs, and the story of finding his identity as a black, LGBTQ trail runner and professional athlete.
Tell us about yourself. Who are you? What do you do?
I’m Coree Woltering and I’m a professional trail runner, ultra runner, a North Face sponsored athlete. What that really means is I get to go and run for long distances, usually in the mountains, and typically I run about 50-mile to 100-mile races.
I love what I do because it’s fun. Well, I guess it’s also work too, but mostly, it’s fun.
In the trail and ultra community, I believe I am one of the only – if not the first – black and gay professional ultra runners, which I think is pretty cool.
My job has been bringing awareness to not only the sport, but the lack of color in the sport and community while also sharing more about the LGBTQ community.
When I got into trail and ultra running I had no idea I’d become that person: a black, gay, professional trail and ultra runner.
Did you grow up in the Midwest? And how did the Midwest influence your trail-running career?
I was born and raised in Ottawa, Illinois – and now I am back and currently living here.
While I moved out to Colorado and Nevada for a couple of years, I eventually moved back for family.
It’s definitely been interesting being back in Illinois. Specifically because a couple of years ago, Trail Runner Magazine wanted to do an article about what it’s like being black and gay in the trail community.
While they wanted to talk about that topic, I actually wanted to talk about the lack of endurance outdoor athletes in the Midwest and call out the fact that we’re not often sponsored.
The day the article came out, The North Face (TNF) reached out.
It was the first major sponsor that had ever gotten in touch with me wanting to talk. It was awesome that a company read the article and was interested in what I was talking about.
At the time I didn’t have a major sponsor. And now, I’m officially sponsored by TNF.
Why do you choose to stay in the Midwest, despite all of the great trail-running destinations like Colorado, Montana, and California?
I stay in the midwest for family mostly. My parents, grandparents and husband live here too.
It can be a struggle at times, especially because I got my first taste at trail and ultra running in Colorado. It’s definitely different to run here.
What we don’t have in big mountains or high elevation and altitude – we do have some pretty technical trails here in the Midwest.
The Midwest in general has a lot of underrated trails – like the Ice Age Trail [in Wisconsin] and the Superior Hiking Trail [in Minnesota].
And oddly enough 3 of the 10 oldest 100-mile races are based in the Midwest.
I don’t live near anything that’s a single-track trail, so I either drive 75 minutes to Peoria, Illinois or drive up to Wisconsin to get on the Ice Age Trail – for my long trail runs.
I usually like doing my running alone, but when I do want to meet up with people, I just have to send a text and sure enough, will have a small group of people gather together to run with me.
Another great thing about the Midwest is people are willing to stick around after the race to have a good time. When races are able to happen in-person pre-race and post-race dinners and BBQs are always fun.
Where are your favorite places to run in the Chicagoland area?
The Palos Hills Trali System is probably one of my favorite spots to run in Chicago.
Peoria, Illinois also has a bunch of different trail systems I enjoy, but the trail I love there specifically has a lot of valleys and hills. You actually have some pretty decent climbs out in Peoria – you’re out in the woods, in the forest, and it’s amazing to watch the leaves change color in the fall.
On some of these climbs, you can look into the river valley and see the trees. A lot of deer, chipmunks, squirrels are out there too – which is really fun and makes for an exciting trail run.
The Ice Age Trail is another go-to. The trail is so different across the state and what you may see in the southeast is going to be completely different from the northwest. So, it really depends what section you go on in Wisconsin to determine what you’ll see, but there are lots of rock formations, rivers and streams. It’s just really neat.
How does your black and LGBTQ identity intersect with your life as a trail runner?
When I was starting trail running, I didn’t realise I’d become “the black, gay trail runner.”
I always thought, “Oh, that’s just me.”
But when I really think about it, for me, the outdoors has really been a big piece of my sexuality.
Specifically, when I moved to Boulder, I thought I wanted to become a pro-triathlete. But during my training, I started hanging out with trail runners and we’d spend hours at a time in nature together. At that point, I had not come out to them yet.
At this time in my life, I was actually engaged to my now-husband Tom – and we were just 9 months away from being married.
I decided one day to come out to my trail running friends because we were so close and I trusted them. Their response was a simple, “Cool!”
I had no idea that it would actually be no big deal to them.
That gave me the confidence to come out to my friends and family, and they too were okay with my identity.
But then, I was afraid of what potential sponsors might think.
I didn’t want to have to navigate those waters, so at the time, I decided to keep the news to myself. But just for a little while – because eventually, I posted on Facebook that I was engaged. Only one person deleted me online and nearly everyone was so happy and supportive of my relationship and who I was.
I share this story and am proud that I came out because I figure that I am inspiring people to also live their true lives. If I was scared to do it at one point, but persevered, maybe others will find courage too.
The crazy part about all of this is that when I came out to my trail running friends, it was Valentine’s Day and also the same weekend as a major marathon I was running. I was really stressed, to say the least.
It turns out I ran the best marathon time I ever have – cutting 9 minutes off my best time.
I thought to myself: “Maybe I should ‘come out’ the week of a marathon all the time!”
What keeps you going when you’re hitting a rough stride on the trail?
I like to remind myself that I am the one who signed myself up to do it. That’s one great way to keep going.
I enjoy the discomfort of racing because it reminds me of all the hard work I put into my running to get to this place. I think to myself that I did the hard work and now I just need to get through those next few miles.
It’s all very internal.
I would say that I usually sign up for races because I want to know how it feels.
What keeps me going is chasing the exploration and the unknown.
Here more from Coree at this week’s Mappy Hour LIVE: