From Bhutan with love
By Leonie Sherman
Endurance athlete Terri Schneider inspired me to ride my bike for two hours before I even met her, just to get to our interview. Over the past two decades she has coached and consulted with hundreds of athletes, encouraging people to push harder and reach higher than they ever thought possible. She started running at age ten because it “seemed like fun” and she’s been at it for more than forty years, winning some of the most grueling races on the planet. Though she travels widely in pursuit of adventure and challenge, she always returns to where it all started.
“I was lucky to grow up in Santa Cruz when it was just a sleepy surf town, even before the University came here,” she says, tucking a strand of chin length golden hair behind her ear. “I literally grew up at the beach.” The youngest of five children, she started Junior Guards in 1971, the first year they allowed girls into the program. “That was my summer thing all the way through college,” she explains.
At Santa Cruz High she competed in running, earning a scholarship to Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo. Ready for “something different,” she threw herself into the emerging sport of triathlon and won her first race in her age group. At her second Hawaii Ironman competition she placed tenth for all women, and decided to go pro and travel the circuit, competing in Europe, Japan, Australia and New Zealand. “I just loved combining racing with adventure travel,” she says, leaning forward with excitement. “I didn’t have one of those upper class childhoods where your parents take you on vacation to exotic places and bankroll a gap year. So the travel bug hit me late in life, but it hit hard.”
In 1995, an ad in a magazine caught her eye and she enrolled in the first Eco-Challenge race with a team of friends. The race lasts seven to ten days and combines kayaking, hiking, mountain biking navigation and technical rope work, all in a remote location. “I had to learn four new sports for that event,” she laughs. “We just winged it. Our whole team had to learn all this new stuff just to compete. But I don’t tend to think about if I can do something; I just try to figure out how I can do it.”
How she does it is through a deep understanding of her own physiology, an eagerness to face her fears and a willingness to suffer. “Adventure racing is entirely mental, the crux is all in your head,” she insists. “It’s not about health or fitness; it’s about flogging the human body into submission.”
Terri has competed in seven Eco-Challenge races and dozens of triathlons, ultramarathons and mountain bike races on six continents, most recently organizing and co-creating and producing an International Marathon in Bhutan. “Any race is just the cherry on top, the icing on the cake,” she explains. “The journey is what captures the experience. The finish line is a place where you arrive, but it’s how you got there that shapes you.”
Terri’s journey as an athlete began in an entirely physical realm, and quickly brought her to psychological challenges as she faced fears and pushed beyond her own perceived limits. “Now what I find most satisfying is helping others,” she explains. “And immersing myself in other cultures. I’m constantly learning and growing and I hope to continue doing that for the rest of my life.”
“Friends have told me I have the intelligence and charisma to make a million bucks, but I’ve chosen a different path,” she says, an intense gaze piercing her purple-rimmed sunglasses. “I’ve chosen to follow my passions. My definition of success looks different than the standard American ideal.”
Three years ago, the remote Himalayan country of Bhutan captured her interest and she keeps returning to explore and motivate, coach and consult. She’s done an expedition crossing the country and works with the Olympic Committee there to train a whole new generation of Buddhist athletes.
She was less than 48 hours off the plane from Bhutan when I interviewed her and she is already planning to go back in the fall, to compete in the Tour of the Dragon, 268-kilometers of mountain biking that many consider the toughest one-day bike race on the planet. After competing (”I just want to cross the finish line,” she admits) she will lead a thirty day trek and conduct running clinics throughout the country, mostly to kids groups. “I love going to Bhutan, but I’m basically there as a volunteer, so it does take away from my business. Finding that balance is really important.”
With hundreds of satisfied clients and medals from all over the globe, Terri sees her primary gift not as an athlete or coach, but as a motivator. “I don’t see humans as having limitations,” she explains. “I’ve seen people do things that nobody thought were possible. I love showing people a bigger side of themselves. I’m just a mirror for people when I do that.”
Towards the end of our interview, an old friend passes by and they stop to chat. As Terri explains what she’s been up to for the past six weeks, her friend smiles and tells her he wishes he had her life.
“I get that all the time,” she says with a gracious smile. “And I’ll tell you what I tell all those other folks. ‘What are you waiting for? Do it now!’”