Your Items

Just Added

of Routine 

Words by Sheridan Wilbur
Photography by Adam Parshall 

LIZ DERSTINE PROVES it’s never too late to try new things. As a musician she spent much of her twenties and thirties touring the world, first as a solo artist and then for five years with the Grammy-winning pop artist RAC; as a runner, throughout that time she was a competitive marathoner. Now, at the age of 37, she’s pivoted: west coast to east coast, professional musician to master’s student, and Olympic Trials marathon-hopeful to ultra-trail runner. Last fall, Derstine left Portland, Oregon to study classical piano in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

“Going through the application and audition process for graduate school was pretty nerve-racking,” she says, as was “returning to an academic environment well into adulthood.”

Daunted by the amount of new music she was expected to grasp during her first semester at the Longy School of Music, Derstine the ultra-runner, who recently raced 108 miles around a one-mile loop, adapted her mindset to her studies. You can’t let the giant task ahead overwhelm you. One measure at a time, one phrase at a time, one mile at a time.” 

Derstine hasn’t always been an overachiever. Her high school teammates gave her the nickname "Slacker” which she confirms was “lovingly accurate.” She recalls the team as “a goofy, quirky bunch of kids.” They would run to Dairy Queen and her coach would buy them ice cream, then drive them back – a contrast to competitive high school teams that resemble Division-1 programs. For Derstine, running has always been a social pursuit: this influenced her coaching style when she became a high school cross country and track coach in Portland.

“I wanted to help the high-achieving runners perform and help them with college recruiting, but also make it something fun.” 

On a rainy afternoon in January, I meet Derstine for lunch in Boston’s Back Bay, not far from Tracksmith’s HQ and the finish line of the Boston Marathon. Her wide-brim black fedora sits angled on her head, small black boots peek out beneath a dress coat. Her nails are painted pink. She carries herself with an aura of gravitas, and an awareness of her appearance around others. Of all the people passing through this busy downtown area, this poised and elegant woman would be among the last you’d predict had recently fended off bears alone.

“I wasn’t worrying about what I looked like or what anyone thought about me or that stupid thing I said one time,” she writes about her recent 108 mile run. 

“We joke around sometimes that she's ‘Dirtbag Barbie’ because you don’t picture it,” says her boyfriend, Glenn Kasin, a Chiropractic Doctor in Boston. “Everything's in place, everything's pink. Usually very dainty-type stuff. Then you see this other side of her. It's gritty.” 

Derstine and I walk to Umai on Newbury Street, without umbrellas or complaints about the drizzle, because she tells me she loves sushi. She eyes the menu.

Inarizushi… Wanna split that with me?” she asks. The appetizer reminds Derstine of her childhood – her mom would make fried tofu pockets inspired by her grandmother’s recipes from Hokkaido, where they were missionaries. Derstine grew up modestly in a Mennonite household outside of Philly.

“Growing up in a more modest culture, you were expected to be a certain way. She didn't get outside of that box a lot,” Kasin remarks. She has created a space for herself that expands positively upon what she was supposed to be.

"We didn’t look like the Amish, not with bonnets or something,” Derstine clarifies about her parents and older sister Katie. 

Derstine admits she was an angsty rebellious teen. “I started to bemoan the word ‘community’ as it was emphasized over and over.” So much so, she deviated from the traditional path to a Mennonite university her parents and sister had taken, and took the road (and trails) less traveled. She studied piano at Greenville College in Illinois, and upon graduation, found herself with even more distance from her religious upbringing in Pennsylvania: the music scene in Portland, Oregon.

Derstine talks wistfully about moving to “this hippy but also affordable city at the time,” with two of her bandmates and one college friend, and renting a house together. One of her bandmates got signed to a big record label (Cherrytree Records) as RAC, and Derstine and their friends went along on tour. 

On tour, the teenage “slacker” fell in love with the discipline of running. She believes the routine of running was grounding for her when she was on the road, playing keyboard and singing with RAC starting in November 2013 and on/off until October 2017. She’d find a coffee shop first thing in the morning, then a place to run.

“It’s the best way for me to understand a city,” she says. “Our band wasn’t as much of a party band as others can be, but running offered a good alternative to that rockstar lifestyle.” Derstine co-wrote two original RAC songs “Seventeen” and “It’s A Shame,” the latter featured on Netflix’s Wednesday

Derstine met Kasin in 2018, when they ran on Rose City Track Club together in Portland, a team Derstine co-founded. “She was still chasing the marathon at that point,” Kasin recalls. “We trained together, just as friends.”

They bonded over the grueling miles of marathon training. “You have to be willing to suffer more than anybody else. It definitely goes with the territory,” Kasin says. Yet Derstine noticed herself defining a sport purely for fun, by the times she hit at road races and track events. Naturally, expectations built.

“I wanted the OTQ [Olympic Trials Qualifying standard] so badly, it was almost obsessive, like too much,” she admits.

Derstine gave a last ditch effort to run the standard at the Houston Marathon in 2020 and ran 2:51, six minutes shy of the standard. Then the pandemic hit a few months later and races were canceled indefinitely. She found herself chasing something else, abandoning her OTQ pursuit – and pressure that came with it. Instead, she went looking for a whole new way of life. 

First, she left Portland to hike the Appalachian Trail. Thru-hikers, akin to truck drivers, have a tradition of having nicknames either selected for themselves, or bestowed upon them by fellow hikers. Leading up to the AT, Derstine gave herself the trail name Mercury while listening to Gustav Holst's orchestral suite The Planets, preparing to leave behind the life she knew, for the one she was about to create.

“I read a long message from her every once in a while. Most of it I just saw on social media. Occasionally, she’d call just to keep busy because she was literally walking for 20 hours a day,” Kasin says. 

IT’S STRIKING HOW some people crave comfort and others look to suffer. “It peeled back a bunch of layers and showed who I was underneath,” Derstine says of the AT, which was as much a mental journey as physical.

“Lately I have been questioning my willingness to go deep into the well,” she recently wrote on her Instagram.

“We've had conversations of, like, maybe we can't talk when you're out on the trail at times, when you're in those places. It's a hard position to be in as the other person,” says Kasin. Her boyfriend doesn’t like to witness this resolute version of her when he’s not there.

“I'd get phone calls in the middle of the night and she sounded horrible. There'd be tears, there'd be pain, and she'd keep pushing through it. There’s nothing I can do to help her. It's literally two in the morning. She's alone in the dark, and as the boyfriend, you feel helpless. You get off the phone and you're like, okay, what if she falls? Your mind races. I have a lot of respect for her for what she does. At the same time, I’m still trying to figure out, where did this come from? Because when you meet her, you would never, ever think, this person does that.” 

From Georgia to Maine, Derstine traveled on foot over 2,193 miles in 51 days, 16 hours and 30 minutes. Derstine set the fastest women’s known time going northbound on the Appalachian Trail and the second fastest time ever for a woman. But the strides she made internally shatter her time-based accomplishments on the trails.

“In my pure road running days, I would inadvertently set limitations on myself as my mindset was very numbers-focused. I could fit my training and my goals in neat little charts and follow everything to a tee,’" she says. “When I started trail running, I didn’t really have any pre-established notion of what I thought I was capable of. I just ran by feel. It was incredibly freeing, and honestly life changing.” 

As she hiked north on the AT, someone rolled their window down and asked her, “Ma’am, are you ok?” A 70-year-old man driving a vehicle was following her. Derstine explained to them she was more than OK. Derstine had asked Warren Doyle (trail name Jupiter) and his car (trail name Pegasus) to follow her, as crew support. Doyle had set an AT record of his own in 1973 and he still holds the informal record for hiking the trail from end to end the most times – 18. Surprisingly, Derstine’s parents support her alternative choices. Her dad has driven cross-country to see her race. And her mother, Rachel, made an award-winning quilt as a tribute to her daughter and the many people who spend time on the Appalachian Trail. 

THESE DAYS, Derstine has traded nights sleeping outside in the woods, for a luxurious apartment in the old Rubber Mill in Melrose, seven miles outside of Boston. When I meet her at 5:30 a.m. for a five mile run before classes, she pulls back her platinum-blond hair behind an ear warmer. For all the dirtbag freedom Derstine uncovered on the trail, her life here is engineered to fit around running and music.

“I wanted to set myself up to train more easily with less resistance,” she says, explaining how she came to live across the street from the Middlesex Fells, an area with over 100 miles of mixed-use trails, “even though the commute to school sucks.”

Derstine stands in her kitchen petting one of her two cats, Bo: ““In juggling music and running, it’s not all free-flowing creativity. Nothing is really improvised, it’s all time management. How much can I get done in this two hour block of practice time?”

Reflecting on her ability to return to the marathon with new revelations, she says: “One big epiphany I had out [on the AT] was that I don't need to accomplish great feats to be worthy of love.”

Perhaps Derstine’s hike on the AT could be analogous to a hero’s journey. “I was tying my self-worth into my achievements. It's a pretty dark way of thinking. And it simply isn't true.”

She credits music touring and hiking as both expanding her worldview. She looks to discover intangibles like harmony, beauty and nature. “If we stay in our little bubbles, socially, politically, and physically, the world beyond starts to seem like a very scary place.” 

DERSTINE CAN SUM UP her love of trail running and music with one phrase, “the zone.” It’s that feeling when the pressure of time, or accomplishment, is suspended, and you’re just fully present. “Both involve getting into a very particular headspace, a zone I can spend hours and hours in… I get frustrated when a passage I’ve played seemingly a million times doesn’t stick. But like clockwork, everything eventually does click. I’m hoping that is what’s happening here too,” she says about graduate school. 

Derstine’s solitary passions might be seen as selfish, but she considers them a medium to impact other people. She tutors other music students after hours, gives talks about her adventures to schools, writes a weekly newsletter, and after graduation, she hopes to play with people at a university, or get involved in the music community in another city. She says she’s most proud of seeing her original song “Start Over” adapted for a high school performance. Despite going against her family’s norms, she has come to value, and long for community, which is why she co-founded Rose City Track Club.

“It's hard not to attribute my upbringing at least a little,” she confesses. It was her father after all, who initially encouraged Derstine to join her high school cross country team. “I was about to start at a new school and he was worried about me making friends.” 

LAST NEW YEAR’S EVE, Derstine spent time with friends and strangers who would become friends. Over 26 hours, she logged 108 miles around a one-mile dirt/paved loop in Camelback Ranch in Arizona.

“I thought it sounded like a fun way to spend the New Year,” she says unironically about Across the Years, a race until only one person remains standing. In the end, she was the last woman to drop. Only three men continued after her.

“I had to check in with myself a lot,” she says. “I found an inner toughness I hadn’t tapped into in a long time.” All these years later, running is still about making friends and new connections.

Around 7:45 a.m, the sun pokes through the windows on the train. Derstine usually takes this liminal time to review what she has coming up for the day, or to decompress.

“I told myself I wouldn’t train for anything big during the school year after last semester being so hard to balance,” she says, minimizing her ambition to qualify for the prestigious Western States next month by running a 100K race in Arizona.

Like clockwork, the T arrives at Harvard Square. Derstine follows her schedule to a tee, but she’s okay when things (or the actual T) don’t go to plan. Her New Year’s resolution is to fail more. She recalls receiving feedback like, “Wow that was brave of you to perform/try/share” and feeling embarrassed by these backhanded compliments. She knows this is part of the process of putting yourself out there.

"Some of my failures have been tough to swallow but they also have led to unexpected experiences, new ideas and connections. I haven’t “arrived” and don’t think I ever will. But it’s the striving that makes life fulfilling at all.”