Meet Ultra Runner Girl– Stephanie Case. Case runs ultra marathons. What is an ultra marathon you ask? An ultra marathon is a race of any distance longer than the marathon (26.2 miles). To start, Case has raced 100 mile runs. Yes, you read that right- 100 mile runs! She has gotten lost on courses, she has won races, she has raised money for important causes and most importantly she is loving every minute of her running. Below I have provided my question and answer session with Stephanie Case. To follow Case’s ongoing running adventures, be sure to visit her blog (noted at the bottom of the article).
ME: When you ran your first ultra, what obstacles did you face? What were your greatest challenges? What kept you motivated to finish?
Stephanie: I had no idea what I was doing when I started training for my first ultramarathon, RacingThePlanet’s 250 km self-supported footrace in Northern Vietnam. I ended up overtraining and spent most of my time before the race injured, hopping from one sports doctor to the next. It was a really frustrating time – it seemed like the more I tried, the worst I got! My motivation and desire to run ultra distances was way stronger than my body at that point and I simply was not patient enough to let my legs catch up with my mind.
However, all of the obstacles I faced in training seemed to disappear when I arrived in Vietnam. There is something magical about race day when all of your aches, pains and worries disappear and you are able to just focus on the trail ahead. Due to some mudslides on the course, the race organizers made day one of the race the longest stage: over 100 km! I was terrified of covering that distance, but wound up in 2nd place overall and 1st female. It was a pivotal point for me. I learned then that I could not only complete ultras, I could kick some serious butt while doing them!
ME: What are your ultra goals for 2013 and beyond?
Stephanie: I’m always looking for new challenges, whether it is a different location, distance, or format. Over the last five years I’ve completed six multi-day, self-supported races all over the world and what I would really like to focus on now is testing my endurance in single-stage races. Last year I competed in the extremely competitive Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc (UTMB) event in late August (100 miles non-stop through France, Italy and Switzerland), but unfortunately, the course was shortened to just 100 km at the last minute due to weather. I gained another lottery spot for the race again this year, and I’m hoping to complete this once-in-a-lifetime challenge. I will be starting the race on a Friday night and hopefully finishing by Sunday morning, covering 60,000 feet of elevation gain and loss. It is an epic event and a real privilege to participate amongst an elite group of runners.
Beyond UTMB, I am still sorting out my race plan. I competed in three major ultras last year while training inside my armed compound in Afghanistan, and the experience left me pretty burnt out. I am just now starting to get back into my routine. I managed to raise $10,000 in support of a women’s organization in Afghanistan providing shelters for abused females, which was a huge motivator, and it would be great to run in support of a cause again this year.
ME: What do you think attracts runners to ultra events?
Stephanie: Ultras provide the ultimate physical and mental challenge. I think it attracts people who are searching for something ‘more’ out of life – something beyond going to work, relaxing with friends and family, and other regular day-to-day events. Anyone can finish an ultra with the right mindset and the experience is truly empowering. Ultras offer the chance for every one of us to discover what truly extraordinary abilities and strengths we carry within.
ME: Do you have a favorite ultra marathon distance?
Stephanie: So far, the 100 miler is my favourite. It is such an epic distance to run that it truly seems impossible to complete… until you do! The human body is truly incredible. When I ran my first 100 miler in 2009, I wasn’t sure what to expect. The longest distance I had ever run before was 100 km, so I was breaking that by a good 65 km more. I can remember standing on the start line at 4am and thinking, tomorrow it will all be over – so let’s make today count. I know it was painful at the time and I went through some really dark moments that I didn’t think I would come out of. However, when I look back on the event, all I remember are the euphoric highs. Running past the 100 km mark into unknown territory, seeing the sun rise and set throughout the day as my legs kept pushing forward, and finally soaring into first place at the 93 mile mark. The sense of relief and accomplishment when I crossed the finish line was unlike anything I’ve ever experienced before.
My dream is to take things to the next level and go beyond the 100 mile mark. There is a 247 km non-stop race in Greece called the Spartathlon, a 222 km non-stop race in the Himalayas called La Ultra – The High, and Tor des Geants, a 330 km non-stop race through the Italian Alps. All are on my bucket list!
ME: Have you ever gotten lost on an ultra marathon course?
Stephanie: Unfortunately, getting lost in an ultra is not uncommon! I got horribly lost during my first ultra, which was a 250 km stage race in Northern Vietnam in 2008. After the first day of racing, I was in first female and second overall and I think I let it get to my head. I took one wrong turn and ended up running about an hour and a half in the wrong direction. It was completely demoralizing and even a bit scary because I had run out of water. In a self-supported race, you have to carry your own food for a whole week, so you really don’t have the luxury of burning extra calories while getting lost. Luckily, when I realized my mistake, I turned around and ran into another competitor who was also lost. He shared his last few sips of water with me and we forged ahead. I will be forever grateful for the kindness and support he gave me that day!
ME: What is your favorite thing about running ultra marathons?
Stephanie: Stepping into the unknown. In a marathon, the only variables you have to contend with are maybe the air temperature and the wind – you’ve trained for the distance and you pretty much know you can do it. In an ultra, all bets are off. You have no idea what your body is going to do after 50 km, 50 miles, 100 km or 100 miles. Even if you’re an experienced ultrarunner, anything can go wrong and it makes it all the more exhilarating when everything goes right!
ME: How do you find time to train long distances for ultra races? How many miles do you log each week?
Stephanie: I think everyone has time to train for an ultra, it is just a matter of making it a priority. Run to work instead of taking the bus or your car, sneak in a workout at lunch, and swap Sunday brunch for Sunday trail runs. At the same time, I do have more flexibility over my schedule than my friends who are married or have kids. Perhaps it is no surprise that the last couple of people I have dated have been runners as well!
Running is simply a part of my daily life, so I don’t really struggle with finding time. This past year while living in Afghanistan, I have really struggled with finding motivation and energy. Living in an armed compound is quite stressful and at the end of the day, all I want to do is crawl under the covers and go to sleep. However, I try to remind myself that it always feels good when you finish a run, even if it is painful at the start.
I am lucky enough to have a fabulous coach, Ray Zahab of impossible2possible.com, provide me with training plans, and I try to follow them religiously before a race. Generally speaking, I do shorter runs during the week such as hill training or intervals and then save my long runs for the weekends when I’m not at work. Sometimes I end up running at weird hours or during the middle of the night to get my workouts in, but usually it works out.
ME: How do you train? Do you run or do you also lift weights and do other workouts?
Stephanie: I should lift weights, stretch, do yoga, and all of those other things that ‘good’ runners do… but the truth is that whenever I set out to cross-train, I end up running instead. I can’t help myself! When I’m preparing for a big race, I often try to hire a trainer to get me into a weight routine. Strengthening and conditioning workouts make a huge difference to my endurance, but I need to be forced.
ME: What has been your favorite ultra race so far in your career and why?
Stephanie: My favourite ultra so far was actually my worst in terms of my placing. Normally when I enter a race, I’m trying to do my best (and sometimes that means aiming to win, if I’m lucky!). But with RacingThePlanet’s 250 km race across the Namibian desert in 2009, even attempting to win was not an option. A few months before the race, I suffered a pelvic stress fracture during a 50 km training race. It was incredibly painful – I could barely walk or move for weeks and it was months before I could attempt running again. And as soon as I resumed training, I suffered another stress fracture in my tibia as well as tendonitis. It was a nightmare! I decided that I was just going to do the race no matter what and take each day, each kilometer as it came. I was wearing an aircast up until the day I left for the airport, so I was definitely taking a bit of a risk, but it turned out better than I could have hoped. I began day one of the seven day race intending to walk over the sand dunes and see what my legs could handle… but my brain took over and I started to run. After four months of almost no exercise, I ended up running the entire race. Without the pressure of having to compete, I could simply enjoy the scenery and end every day grateful for what I had been able to accomplish. It was perhaps my toughest race, but that is what made it the best. It is in our most humbling moments that we learn the most about ourselves, no?
ME: What is the funniest moment you’ve experienced during an ultramarathon?
Stephanie: I think one of the funniest moments in ultras occurred this past September during the Grand2Grand 250 km ultramarathon in the United States. I was running the race with my boyfriend at the time and unfortunately began to experience some of the worst butt chafing of my life (glamorous, I know). I ended up having to ask my partner to help me cut the underwear out of my running tights to try to reduce the friction. One of the other competitors ran by us on the trail while I was standing there, holding my underwear in my hands with tears running down my face. The moment was so ridiculous that we all burst out in laughter.
ME : Your favorite quote?
Stephanie: “We are not primarily put on this earth to see through one another, but to see one another through.” – Peter De Vries. For me, this quote really captures the spirit of ultras.
***Learn more about Stephanie’s journey by visiting her blog: www.ultrarunnergirl.com