Given the increased interest in Western States 100 this year from Australia, with two of our leading male runners taking a shot at the top ten, it was with some sense of ‘hope’, rather than ‘sure fire’ that I sent off an email to the current Western States ladies champion, Stephanie Howe for an interview.
I think you can tell that when you get an enthusiastic response within a few hours of sending the email, you know you’re going to speak with someone who’s not only a seriously talented athlete, but whom is extremely humble, kind and accommodating to give our lil’ old Aussie website the time of day.
So it was with pleasure that I caught up with Stephanie over the weekend, gaining a bit more understanding about what drives her to race, how she’s approached Western States this year and what the future holds too…
For those of you who don’t know Stephanie, she blasted onto the ultra scene last year winning her first 100 miler, which just happened to be Western States – the biggest of the lot – not a bad entrance! I think the impressive thing about Stephanie is the fact that she races everything from 50kms, right up to 100 miles – and she does well at each distance. In fact, she’s never been off the podium in any ultra that she’s raced. Pretty impressive record.
Stephanie is also a student of the sport, studying Exercise Science, ultimately receiving a Master’s degree in Exercise Physiology from Montana State University. Her passion for sports science continues, as she is currently working toward a PhD in Nutrition & Exercise Physiology from Oregon State University.
If that’s not enough, she also owns a coaching and nutrition business, which covers the whole spectrum of racing from weekend warriors embarking on their first 10kms, through to elite athletes. For Stephanie, life is about balance. While she’s a massively talented runner, representing The North Face as a sponsored athlete, she’s also highly active in the community in Bend community, conducting a number of online classes at Oregon State University. She’s not just about being a runner, and it’s the balance that helps her to keep perspective on life. With all this talk of overtraining syndrome doing the rounds right now, it’s great to hear an elite athlete taking a balanced and sensible approach to life.
“Honestly, I’m not overly interested in making a living from ultra running,” says Stephanie. “Yes, sometimes winning the money at races is good, but it’s not going to support me and you only have a limited window of time as a runner. The good news is that I’m still developing as a runner, but I also want to travel too. I’m only 31 and there’s so much to go out and do in the world.”
So what led you to ultra running?
“The irony is that I didn’t like to run when was younger. I was naturally good at endurance sports as well as skiing. I actually got to college on a ski scholarship at Northern Michigan University where I was named a two-time All-American. Fortunately (I guess!) my ski coach was big on running, so I had to do it as part of my ski training. As I moved through school, I then moved to Montana to do masters degree where I just started to run more and more, and I guess you just become drawn to some extent as what you’re good at.
“I dabbled in trail half-marathons, then moved to Oregon doing a bit of everything from riding bikes to continuing to ski too. The one day, my now husband decided he was going to do a 50km race here where we live in Bend. I thought there’s no way he’s doing that and I’m not, so I signed up with no real clue as to what I was doing. It hurt so much, but I really really loved it! I guess I was hooked from there”
(Stephanie finished second for the record, before running the following year and winning it!)
You’re proven over everything from 50kms to 100 miles with great results in all races, how do you keep the balance in your training from the quick stuff to the longer stuff?
“For me, less really is more. While I do the ‘shorter 50km’ races, I don’t use them as training runs per se, every race I do has a purpose and I train hard for it. For example, I know I’m building up to Western States, so I’ll start with a 50km, move up to 50 miler, before the big dance in a few weeks time. Everything is gradual and we (me and my coach), build towards the overall goal.
“As I move up towards the 100 mile distance, the workouts get a little bit longer. I might do a little less speed work, but the key for me is building those essentials before approaching a race like Western States.”
Specifically what do you focus on for 100 milers such as Western States?
“To be honest, last year went really well, and it’s when I’m in the moment that I’m doing my best. I really try to keep that mentality with my racing as the decisions you make in the moment tend to be the ones that serve you best. Before Western States last year, I hadn’t run a 100 miler so honestly, I didn’t know how it would go. I was amazed to have won, so it’s hard to say if I would or need to change anything for this year too much.
“But what I do know is that I’m a different runner this year compared to last. I certainly feel fitter and as a result of having run more ultras, I have more muscle. I’d say I’m doing less volume than last year, but that’s OK as my workouts have been slightly different. They’re that little bit tougher that previously. I’ve got a good balance going into this year’s race.
“In terms of training, I’d probably average around 80 miles (approx. 130kms) a week. There are probably two weeks out of the year where I might be over a 100 miles, but at the same token, there are times when I could be well under 50 miles. I’m far more conservative in how approach mileage now. Typically I would have Mondays off. Tuesday would be a distance run and then the gym. Wednesday would be an intensity run, perhaps some speed work on flatter trail. Thursday another distance run and then some hills on Friday. Saturday and Sunday are both long runs. With a faster finish or some faster miles in the middle somewhere.”
Are you coached at all and do you have a structured training plan at all?
“I’ve had the same coach for the last 3 years, and even though I’m a coach myself, I do feel it’s really important to have someone to talk to about your running that can keep perspective and see the bigger picture. A coach should be someone who offers more than just a training plan. They need to help you build confidence.”
What kind of things does the sport need to do to encourage more women into ultra running? How’s the ratio of women to men in the US?
“I think overall, the ratio is probably a little better than you have in Australia (75:25 male female). Social media has changed all sports if I’m honest, and hopefully as far as women are concerned, for the better. It has certainly helped people (and women) to see that things such as trail running are accessible. There is certainly a movement among women running trails in the US, that we’re just as capable as men.”
Who is your Western States hero?
“I think the one for me is Megan Arbogast. She’s so incredible in her 50s and kicking ass at this race. She’s a great spirit and is the reason why I was so inspired to run WSER100. She’s a real mentor to me. Then there’s also Ann Trason, seeing everything she’s done for the sport and what she’s achieved.
“For the men, it would have to be Rob Krar. I’ve got to know him on a personal level and people wouldn’t believe the sacrifices he makes for his racing. He gives up so much for his goals, far more than I would ever do – he deserves every piece of success that comes his way.”
Finally, you’ve raced predominantly in the US – will we see you traveling around a little in the next few years?
“You will this summer, where I’m racing at UTMB – I can’t wait for that one. I’d love to get on the Ultra Trail world Tour (UTWT) too at some point. I love traveling and racing in Europe, plus I’d love to come to Australia too. I went on honeymoon to Bali and absolutely fell in love with that place, so Asia is also right up there. So many places to go, it is one of the biggest benefits of being a runner and having the privilege of being able to race in so many wonderful places.”
We’d like to thank Stephanie for her time and wish her all the best for Western States in a little under two weeks time.