In a neighborhood recently joined by the paparazzi-loving couple Kanye and Kim West lives an individual the ultrarunning community is more connected with. Shannon Farar-Griefer, 53 years old, mother of three boys, and founder of Moeben arm sleeves, resides in Hidden Hills, California, a small city in Los Angeles County. While her neighbors engage in the celebrity lifestyle, Shannon escapes to her backyard trails of the Santa Monica Mountains.
“Ultrarunning detaches me from the celebrity lifestyle I live among,” she said. “Throw me in the mountains with a water bottle, where I am out there puking and getting dirty. I would rather be that person.”
Shannon was originally from Palm Springs, California before moving to the house in Hidden Hills with her husband at the time and three children: Moe, Ben, and Jet. After high school she started acting and modeling, becoming a fitness model for the sports channel, ESPN2. Her running career began in 1990, at age 35, to help get rid of the excess pregnancy weight she gained with her first son. It was in that year she ran her first race, the Los Angeles Marathon.
“It was pouring rain and I was freezing in that metal blanket while looking for my husband,” she said. “And I kept thinking, ‘Okay, when’s the next marathon?’”
One for endurance, Shannon said she always felt good near the 20-mile mark, whereas her fellow racers began painfully fatiguing. After dabbling in triathlons, she realized running was her true calling, and found herself asking the kid at the local running store what was beyond that 26.2-mile distance.
Shannon finished fourth woman at the Bulldog 50k Trail Run in California, her first ultra. That was 1996, and since then, she has competed in the Rocky Raccoon 100 Mile five times, earning herself the five-time finisher race jacket. She has also finished two Western States, her favorite ultra, one Vermont 100 Mile Endurance Run, three Javelina Jundred 100 Mile races, various 50 milers, and her favorite race over the 100-mile distance, the Badwater Ultramarathon, five times.
Shannon calls running her passion. It is her savior now. Nine years ago, she was forced to drop from the Javelina Jundred due to pain, a different kind of pain than what ultrarunners experience during long races, in her legs and muscles. That pain led to the discovery of lesions forming on her brain, and Shannon was eventually diagnosed with an aggressive case of multiple sclerosis. Her doctors began prepping for immediate treatment strategies.
However, the ‘oops’ pregnancy with her third son at age 45 forced the postponement of treatment, allowing the risk of new lesions to form.
“I had another brain scan and did not have any new lesions,” Shannon said about the scan she had immediately after her son’s birth. “It was a miracle.” With that blessing, Shannon continued her running career and attempted to live as normally as possible.
In addition to her full-time mom gig, Shannon is the founder of the two companies, Moeben, which manufactures arm sleeves and other tech wear, and Jetanna, a new swim, sport, and lifestyle-wear series.
In 2004, while stuck on bed rest during her third pregnancy, Shannon had the idea of the Moeben (the combination of her son’s names, Moe and Ben) arm sleeves. Her beloved Badwater race and the problems runners face while out in Death Valley inspired the accessory line.
“What do runners need for 135 miles?” Shannon asked herself. “It is always hot and windy, we always need a place to blow our nose, and we need UV protection.”
She first launched the company at the 2007 Western States race, providing arm sleeves for each of the participants. The feedback Shannon received blew her away.
“For days after, I was bombarded with emails,” she said, “all saying, ‘Hey Shannon, I work at so and so running store. Can I sell your product?’”
“I was like, ‘Oh my God, I have a newborn baby. I don’t even know where to get that much fabric!’”
Yet Shannon succeeded. The sleeves have been featured on The Biggest Loser, deemed a “must have accessory” from Trail Runner Magazine, and were The New York Times’s “favorite” arm sleeve. The success of Moeben has led Shannon to the creation of the 2013 clothing line, Jetanna (once again the combination of her youngest son and boyfriend’s, Barry Barnholtz, daughter).
After being sidetracked from illness and family issues, Shannon is ready to return to her true roots. She recently reopened Moeben, which was closed for three years due to personal reasons.
“I am running again, launching a new company, and back to Moeben,” she said. “It is like being back at square one. I just have to see where my body takes me.”
May of 2013 was Shannon’s last ultra and in April of this year she laced up her shoes for another adventure. In the MS Run the US, the 3,000-mile run across America from California to New York City, Shannon led off the 16-person relay. On April 13 Shannon had seven days to run about 160 miles, but drawing on her ultra experiences and with the help of pacer, Timothy Olson, she completed the run in 50 hours.
Raising awareness and money for diseases provides the motivation Shannon needs to keep going each day.
“This disease has helped me appreciate each day as a blessing and has helped me with my own running,” she said. Shannon claims that running not only defines her, but is her. She says she is a mom first in being, but a runner in identity. “Ultrarunning is my metaphor in life. I don’t know where the finish line is, but either the race beats you, or you beat the race.”
Some mornings, Shannon wakes up and cannot complete her daily walk through the mountains. She cannot even move her arms, but that doesn’t stop her.
“I put on my brace and do as much as I can,” she said. “It is like a 100-mile race. When you’re at mile 80, puking, blistered feet, and everything hurts. You don’t give up, and that is how I am now with this disease.”
In her hometown, Shannon is known as ‘the woman who runs ultras’ and ‘that desert race’ rather than by her MS status. At a Ronald McDonald charity event in the late 1990s, a boy named Michael, who had lost a leg to cancer, came up to her and asked, “Shannon, are you still running those crazy races?” She answered yes, and continued to reply to the typical ultrarunning questions such as where she eats, sleeps, and goes to the bathroom while out on the trails. He then asked, “What is the hardest part of ultrarunning?”
“I told him, ‘When my whole body hurts and I just want to stop and go to bed.’”
The boy then stated, “Shannon please don’t ever give up.”
“For a little boy with cancer to say that…” Shannon said, trailing off as she described the memory. “As an ultrarunner you can never feel self pity. We volunteer our body and mind. We know the pain we are about to endure, but it is not the same kind of pain as in life. In a 100 you have to overcome so many hurdles, and for me those hurdles make me feel like I am so much mentally stronger in life.”
On August 19, Shannon sat in her car, bumper to bumper in LA traffic. She was on the way to another appointment with her doctor, expecting to volunteer herself for clinical trials for MS research. Instead, she received the disappointing news that she will be back on an aggressive treatment plan, including shots and additional scans of her spine throughout the rest of the year.
“If I get pushed down, I bounce right up,” she said. “I don’t know if I am able to run 100s anymore, but I am going to try.”
If both her running and health goes well, Shannon plans on continuing her involvement with charity events and races. In November, a determined Shannon, most likely donned in her favorite arm sleeves, will be joining her fellow runners at this year’s Javelina Jundred.
“It is hard to talk about,” she confessed while in the car, her voice muffled by blaring car horns. Each race, clothing product, charity event appearance: it is done to show others that they too can live with MS.”
“I am the kind of person who believes you can continue living your life with this disease,” she said, her words choking in the back of her throat. “I am a trooper, at least, I’m trying to be.”