This conversation started on February 15, 2018.
What is your name?
Eastwood is a rather badass name.
If you have to share a name with someone it might as well be with one of the worlds biggest badasses, Clint Eastwood. I grew up with “Go ahead…make my day”. I won’t lie. The name came in pretty handy when trying to get a trendy table in Manhattan or California.
How young are you?
I am 52 years young.
Where do you live? and why?
I live in Bethpage, NY which is smack in the middle of Long Island. I was born in Brooklyn, NY and lived there until I was three when my parents decided that Suburbia was the best alternative to Brooklyn. After getting married we bought a house two doors down from my parents which is common practice in Bethpage. Many people do not leave what is called the Bethpage Bubble. The town is roughly 23 miles from New York City which makes it a natural choice for commuters, many of whom are city firefighters and police officers. We are 10 minutes from either the North or legendary South Shore beaches and an hour from the famed East End. It really was the perfect place to raise my family.
Why was it important to you that you live two doors down from your parents?
Actually, I fought this decision initially. We had put in an offer on another home in Bethpage a week before. It was in the development I had always wanted to live in since I was a kid. My husband picked me up at the airport after a business trip and said that he found another house for us and that I’d be very happy. It turns out that our friends, who lived two doors down from my parents, were being transferred from the NYPD out to Arizona and had to sell quickly. It was a split second decision but turned out to be the best move we ever made. Our kids were two doors from my parents, which allowed them to grow up together (both my parents, Jake and Julia). They have a very close bond. My parents moved to a 65 and older condo community in town a few years ago.
I still miss them terribly even though they’re only a mile away.
Why do people stay in the Bethpage bubble?
I often ask myself this question, but always arrive back at the same answer…it’s still a great place to raise a family. The school district is home to Blue Ribbon schools and our high school is rated one of the best in the US. In some respects, Bethpage still has that small town feeling. It truly is a comfortable setting complete with culture, sports, and home to the infamous Bethpage Black golf course. There really is very much a “Cheers” feeling here, in which everybody truly does know your name.
What’s it like living around everyday heroes, New York firefighters and police officers?
The sense of pride I have living with these angels is overwhelming. These folks will give you everything they have and then some. The brotherhood found with these neighbors, friends, and some family is a bond I never want to lose. Our town was hit very hard on 9/11.
We lost a best friend in the WTC. It is something I struggle with every single day.
You called them angels, why do you use that word?
I consider angels selfless souls who are sent to you when you need them without asking or questioning their own lives or situations.
You struggle everyday with the loss, how do you deal with the suffering?
One of the things we found out was that our friend was going up the staircase in the trade center as others were coming down. It helps me to think that he was doing what he always did…helping anyone he could no matter where he was. It even helps in my training and in races. Reaching out to help others is my way of…I guess honoring his memory.
That is incredibly beautiful and inspiring. How do you help others in races or in training?
I am in love with helping people at my gym. When they hear my story of when I started and why, they fall in love with the process. The old “if she can do it…I can do it” philosophy. I always want to give back to the program that helped change my life. I will always stop on the course and help someone with any obstacle or even if they’re on the side of the trail. So many have helped me along the way. I’ll never forget the kindness and how it made me feel even if it wasn’t until days later when I realize – hey that guy helped me on Stairway to Sparta or he held my hand jumping fire when I was petrified to jump.
Tell us about your family. How many kids do you have?
I have two children named Jake (age 19) and Julia (17). It took years to meet my kids as we experienced a decade of infertility and loss. When Jake was born we felt as if we had finally won the lottery. Julia arrived two years later to complete our family.
Jake was diagnosed at age 3 with Autism which sent me into a mini depressive state for a few years which I didn’t let anyone outside of my family see.
On the outside I was still cheerleader Karen who always wore her shiniest smile and had the happiest appearance. We were told that Jake would most likely never speak, hold a job, live on his own, or and I quote “be a functioning member of society”. I’m happy to report that Jake graduated from High School with a Regent’s Diploma, was a football and wrestling team manager, works in a local business and our school district as a classroom assistant in a special education classroom, and is a Junior Firefighter in our local fire department. Julia will graduate from Bethpage High School this June and attend my alma mater of College of St. Rose in Albany, NY in September, 2018.
10 years to wait for the birth of your children. Can you talk about perseverance and how you kept trying despite 10 years of setbacks?
There were many months when I wanted to give up. The emotional toll infertility was taking on me was just too much. I dropped friends who were starting a family and it really impacted me at work when one of my staff members would get pregnant. I had a miscarriage after year five of trying. This was a sign though that I could get pregnant so I pushed on with every type of treatment offered to me. We tried to adopt a child domestically which fell through when the mother was in her 8th month. I was devastated. I took a year off from the process, but the vision of being a mom got stronger. A friend told me about her success with an infertility specialist way out east on Long Island. Finding this doctor made me a mom – twice. We finally conceived through IVF both times. Jake was initially a twin. We lost twin B early on.
When they told you he wouldn’t “be a functioning member of society” what was your reaction? And did you ever really believe that in your heart?
At first I was numb to this news. This little guy of mine was everything, so how could he not be productive part of our world? I never believed that Jake would be what the professionals said he would be. I refused to believe it. I knew that I would never give up on Jake no matter how severe the path of Autism became. I don’t believe in coincidences. I think that every situation has a purpose. There has to be a reason why I was given my Jake. He is a gift. I am currently developing a new curriculum for children (and adults) on the Autism Spectrum that will focus on introducing change and how to deal with it.
Maybe this was one of the many reasons we were given this chance. Maybe we will never know.
I’m sorry that you experienced depression. Please feel free to decline if you feel uncomfortable. A lot of people silently suffer with it. Why did you choose that path?
Although I was raised in a very “glass half full” atmosphere, it was also a household where appearance was everything. I often joke that our house was like being on the set of Mad Men..my mother would change, do her hair, put on fresh lipstick, and have the perfect dinner waiting for my Dad every night when he got off the train. We didn’t experience many bad things or loss as kids and we rarely cried. Everything was always happy and peppy at Chez Eastwood. When Jake was diagnosed, it was a combination of not knowing how to handle it and extreme sadness that this child that I waited so long for was in for a seemingly rough road ahead. I threw myself into Autism research and worked very closely with his teachers and therapists.
When I was in public, I was the life of the party and the mom who had it all together. When the sun went down and I put the kids to bed, I would sob myself to sleep every night wishing that things were much different than they were.
How did you find your way out of it?
It was Jake’s 6th birthday and I was sitting on the couch watching him open his gifts. I thought to myself, please let me see my son the way I did on the day he was born – full of wonder and excitement…not in the clinical eyes of whether he was doing the right thing or meeting his goals.
I remember it distinctly. He opened up a Fire Engine (even then he was fascinated by anything fire service related) and said “Mommy this is what I’m going to drive one day”.
It blew me away. Just like that..the depression was gone in a heartbeat. Things were so different from that very moment.
That is truly beautiful. What a gift. How has that moment impacted your life beyond eliminating depression?
Silly as it sounds…as soon as the fog of depression lifted I was able to sleep again but most importantly, I was able to really enjoy Jake and his day-to-day progress. Once I was back to focusing on the positive, my outlook on everything started to change. I felt like I reentered the human race again. I joined every PTA group I could at school and made valuable connections in the community that I may have never made if I stayed huddled in my shell.
Would you approach it differently today than you did at the time you were suffering?
If I knew then what I know now…oh yes. First of all, I am in a much different place physically which now drives how I approach things mentally. That would have made all the difference in the world.
Can you share where you are physically and how that drives your mental approach?
Right now I am down 66 pounds and 8 sizes. I take Boot Camp classes 5 times a week and work two hours with my trainer every Sunday, where we work specifically on increasing my strength and endurance for races. Physically I’m in the best shape since college. Because I feel stronger I now have a new can do anything attitude. Am I fast? No. Do I run Elite? No. But I finish and finish strong every single time.
Congratulations on losing 66 pounds. What else did you lose along the way?
I lost my habit of saying I’ll start taking care of myself tomorrow. When I started food prepping, in addition to training, I gained a new level of control. I lost the lazy me and found the old me.
I have found that people can be very supportive, or somewhat judgmental. Can you tell us how your transformation has been?
The transformation has been well received. I receive backhanded compliments such as “You look so much better!”or my favorite “What took you so long – you look amazing.” The best part has been keeping it off and helping my gym family members in meeting their goals. My trainers always hook me up with the new members and encourage them to keep in touch with me daily.
You mentioned that you found Spartan at 50. How did you find it or did it find you?
My fitness journey started at age 49. I was the PTA president of all schools in my district. Our Superintendent contacted me about setting up a District Family fitness initiative. He put me in touch with a Bethpage alumni who ran a Boot Camp a few towns over. I attended a TRX class a week later. I was hooked. One class a week turned into three and before I knew i,t I was attending Boot Camp five days a week. The gym formed a Spartan team in 2016. I joined not knowing anything about OCR. Months before my first race I tore my ACL doing a Burpee. I’ll never forget that sound. The pop heard round the world. I thought I was shot and would never start the Spartan season. I was determined. I had by that point dropped 50 pounds. I trained smarter with extra attention from my trainers. My first Race was Tuxedo 2016. It took me 5 hours to finish that race but I was hooked.
Jumping fire allowed me to leave my old life behind. My new life was waiting for me over that fire.
Can you explain what that means for someone who has never jumped a Spartan fire?
Spartans really do know at the finish line. Every time you jump fire you leave behind all of the obstacles you’ve overcome behind you. Your struggles, sweat, tears, and sometimes blood are left on the course and burned away as you leap though the fire and sail through the finish line. Your future self and new set of challenges are in front of you.
What does your new life look like?
My new life still has its struggles, but I no longer let these struggles shape me. I hold a very challenging position in school district administration where I serve as the District Registrar for one of the largest districts on Long Island. Training and racing helps to keep those challenges in check (well most of the time). Jake and Julia now know that you should never accept average or settle on something. If you have a dream or an idea – you should always explore every option and go for it!
What is your dream or idea?
My dream is building right in front of me. In the business world, I have dreams of building this curriculum business that I spoke of. In my world, I have broken out of the safe Karen bubble. My strength and determination that I have learned these past few years has allowed me to grow and rise above the walls I put up around me.
I will keep jumping fire and racing to the finish line.
You didn’t leave the Bethpage bubble, but you broke out of the Karen bubble. Do you wish you had broken out sooner?
I often say that I wish I had found Spartan sooner. However, I really believe that things work out as they are supposed to, at precisely the right time. I may have broken out of my bubble or shell but I won’t let anyone burst my bubble, if that makes sense.
Your childhood was one that seemed void of obstacles. Then obstacles started appearing in your life. What do Spartan obstacles give you? What do they mean to you?
Each obstacle and its degree of difficulty give me a challenge. When I’m training, we work on strategies….Ok, Karen this will help with your Z-Wall…these quad sets will help you on the Olympus (I will get this some day..I swear). Figuring out how to get through each obstacle is just like figuring out any difficult situation in life. If you have the right tools and plan…you can get through anything.
What has been your most unusual spartan experience?
I became heavily involved with the build process. I have had the opportunity to learn about the races from the inside out. I work with the course site managers. I’ve learned to build things. This is incredible as my Dad never allowed my sister and I to touch or build anything growing up – just be the pretty cheerleader or dance team member. I’ve learned things these past months that I would never have had the chance to learn.
Not only has it enhanced my race experience, but I’ve discovered an even greater sense of myself.
Enlightenment is the art of finding your true self. Have you found your true self?
I have found my true self. I had lost the little things that made me happy like driving with extremely loud music and singing at the top of my lungs…going to the movies by myself just because…planning things that I want to do. The best part of this journey is that I found Karen again. She’s back.
I’m going to give you 3 words could you tell me what they mean to you?
Abundant thanks for my blessings from others and life.
A solid plan and blueprint for my life.
Love, respect, and extreme understanding.
If you could have a chat with 25-year old Karen, what would 52-year young Karen say to her?
Kiki, there will be many times in your life when you are going to want to give up. You will want to run away and hide from tough situations. Please remain patient and present every time you are faced with adversity. Do not accept what you do not agree with and never ever discount your gut feelings because they never lie.
Work hard. Play nice but always keep running towards the finish line and don’t stop until you get there.
Karen Eastwood. Mom, School Administrator, Spartan racer and course builder.
Follow her on Instagram @mrsfikar