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Physical therapist Kristen Driscoll Vollaro draws on her success in running and coaching Spartan races for helping those of all fitness levels recover from injury. (Photo by Rita Christopher/The Courier | Buy This Photo)
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Carry a burlap sack filled with 100 pounds of wet sand one-third of a mile up a hill? Shimmy across a slack cable suspended 25 feet above water until the halfway point and then jump in and swim the rest of the way? Crawl on hands and knees beneath 50 feet of barbed wire, strung only 18 inches from the ground?
Game to try it? Chester resident Kristen Driscoll Vollaro was, and she did it all for fun! And, what’s more, she did it well.
At her racing prime, Kristen was in the top one percent of all finishers in competitions sponsored by Spartan, an organization that specializes in obstacle course racing. She never finished lower than third place in her class. She has raced through mud so thick it would suck off competitors’ sneakers, gotten herself over walls nine feet high without a ladder or any other assistance, and in the middle of a swim, shinnied up a rope suspended from a bridge midway through the course.
Failing to complete any obstacle meant doing burpees, an exercise that requires a jump into a squat, next kicking out into a full body plank, and then kicking back into a squat and standing. It was not just one burpee, either. Competitors had to do 30.
Kristen has vivid memories of the wet sandbag carry with “dozens of people just sitting by the side of the course, some crying because of fatigue and the physical difficulty of the task,” she recalls. “It was so difficult that at one point I thought I might not make it up the hill and then I asked myself if it was the worst thing I had ever faced and I decided it was not and I slowly made my way up.”
Kristen, who has coached Spartan competitors as well as raced herself, says despite the difficulty of the obstacles, she was never hurt.
“Scraped, bruised, but never injured,” she says.
What’s more, her success in racing carried over into other aspects of her personality.
“I was very shy and it gave me self-confidence; going over the obstacles made me feel strong and capable, a feeling of empowerment,” she says.
Kristen first learned about Spartan competitions when she began training at Squared Circle Studio in Deep River, which formed a team to compete. She now teaches occasionally at the boxing gym, and is particularly enthusiastic about working as an instructor for Rock Steady Boxing, a program designed for people with Parkinson’s disease.
“It’s an amazing program. I love working with it,” she says.
Growing up in Brunswick, Maine, Kristen says she was always a tomboy; she ran cross-country and track in high school, but despite her height, 5 feet 9 inches, she says she was terrible at basketball.
“I was so tall I was very awkward,” she says.
As an undergraduate Boston University, Kristen focused on a career as a writer. After graduation, she worked in marketing and communications, focusing on articles and promotional material for the construction industry. At the time, she lived in Denver before relocating to Connecticut.
Kristen still likes to write, but a running injury changed her professional life. It didn’t come from the exertions of Spartan racing; rather, she fell and injured her knee on a training run, tore ligaments, and dislocated her patella. Surgery and then physical therapy followed.
Her athletic background gave her a particular interest in the therapy. She began to work as an aide at a physical therapy practice before deciding to go back to school to study physical therapy herself. She attended the New England Institute of Technology in East Greenwich, Rhode Island.
“Every day it was a 2 ½-hour commute,” she says.
To manage both full time school and raising three sons, Kristen relied on a mix of sitters and friends.
“I’m so fortunate to live in a great community where people really helped me. I felt guilty about going to school, so now I work just 15 minutes from home,” she says.
Kristen is a physical therapy assistant for HealthPro Heritage, the company that provides therapy services for the Essex Meadows Health Center.
“People think of physical therapy as something that works or doesn’t work, but that’s not it. It is a process, teaching you how to move properly and how to exercise; it is ongoing. In the end, you have to get yourself better,” she says.
And she adds a bit of general advice.
“Regular exercise is so important,” she says. “It doesn’t have to be crazy; walking, finding something you like doing, as long as you are moving.”
Kristen is still going to school, this time studying for a master’s degree in clinical nutrition at the University of Bridgeport.
“Nutrition is part of rehab,” she explains. “Health issues are created by nutrition.”
The secret to good nutrition, Kristen says, is to avoid highly processed food. She adds that organization helps good eating. Planning meals in advance and having food in the refrigerator means less reliance on snack foods, and grab-anything-and-go eating. Still, she realizes that food often has a way of popping into the mouth before people think about it.
Her advice: Aim to eat well at least 80 percent of the time and if a cookie or a glass of wine slips in once in a while, don’t stress over it.
Living by her own advice, Kristen never goes anywhere without a package of almonds and a bottle of green vegetable juice.
Kristen still runs but not at the pace she did before her injury. She plans to compete in a 10K race sponsored by the Boston Athletic Association in June.
Recently remarried, she often runs with her husband Chris Vollaro. He is a champion master runner but also a man who knows what makes a marriage work.
“He never gloats when he beats me,” Kristen says.
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