As a person who finds their passion in running and endurance sports, I find myself looking to other women in the sport who are consistently creating new goals for themselves. I find the confidence, ambition and passion, these women hold to be admirable and inspire me to continue to pursue new goals that I set for myself. I believe it is important that we as women, can help guide and mentor younger girls and athletes to create and fulfill the dreams they have set for themselves or maybe have yet to discover. These thoughts brought me to Stephanie Howe, a leader in the ultrarunning community. As an endurance runner for The North Face, she has been able to pursue her passions and create a platform as a positive role model for others. Most recently, she finished the Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc (UTMB), an incredibly difficult mountain race in France, with several routes topping out at extremely high altitudes. I asked for her insight on recovery, training, motivation and being a woman in sport, while pursuing her dreams. Here is what she had to say.
How is the recovery going from UTMB?
HOWE: I’m still recovering. I think it really takes 4-6 weeks after racing 100 miles to feel back to normal again. Normally, I turn a corner around 1 week post-race and my legs aren’t sore anymore. I actually feel quite good, like I could run again. But there’s a lot of deep damage that occurs, to the tendons, ligaments, etc. You have to let those things heal! So many people jump back in too soon, and end up injured and burnt out. I really try to take my time getting back into training after a big race.
I’m just over 3 weeks post-race, and I’ve been able to do some activities. Minimal running, but lots of biking, yoga, and other activities. I try not to think of it as training, but rather just having fun. Most days I wake up and then see what I feel like doing. Sometimes it’s a mountain bike ride. Sometimes it’s nothing.
Another big aspect of recovery after 100 miles is the mental side. It takes a while to process what you put your body through and I find the psychological aspect to be just as challenging to recover from as the physical. I’ve found it helpful to have other, non-physical things to look forward to post-race. Such as an art project or baking croissants. Something that takes my mind away from the physical. When in doubt a trip to the wine bar with girlfriends always works!
You wrote about your experience at UTMB and the dark places you kept finding yourself in. You used the word, "courage" to really help you through those dark moments. How do you deal with adversity and not let the negative take over time and time again?
The word “courage” at UTMB came from people along the course. I loved it. In the US, people would still probably tell you “good job” or “you’re doing great”, which isn’t always true or helpful. In Europe, they saw me suffering and wished me courage.
I like the suffering. It’s actually something that I want to experience when I run 100 miles. I can’t really explain it, but it’s so alluring to go to that place when I’m totally vulnerable and broken and then to keep going. Completing a task like that is the most amazing experience. I embrace it, rather than overcome it.
Do you have a word or phrase you use to keep you going when times get tough?
Not always. I like to focus on being present. I think awareness to the current situation and not thinking about other things helps me along. Sometimes I will say things like, “Just keep moving forward” but normally I have little internal dialogue.
My mantra is take chances and I do think those words before a race. To me, that phrase means allowing myself to step out of my comfort zone and try. Every time I start a race I’m giving myself the opportunity to try.
You were involved in cross-country and Nordic skiing at Northern Michigan. Is there anything or anyone that influenced you to pursue those passions?
There are so many people who helped shape me into the person I am today. One of the earliest influences in my athletic career was my ski coach, Kevin Brochman, in Minnesota. He coached me when I was in high school and was the first person to believe in me. As a young athlete, it means a lot to have someone believe you can be great.
My parents were also big supporters. They always believed in me and made sacrifices to give me opportunities, whether it was for sports, academics, or otherwise. I asked my dad recently if he was surprised that I became a runner (when I was in junior high I HATED running). He told me “Nah, I always knew you were good at running.” I guess it was in my cards.
What originally got you into running and how did you fall in love with the sport?
When I was younger I actually hated running. I was good at it, but it wasn’t my passion. As I grew up, I found that running just made sense for me. For a long time I really wanted to be a Nordic skier. I tried hard to be good at skiing, but I just was more of a natural runner. In the off-season I would run and race a bit. I tended to do really well at the running races and it was lots more fun for me. As I got into grad school the shift to running happened. I had less time to train, and running takes so much less time than skiing. Plus, I was having so much fun running the mountains in Montana. I fell in love. :)
How did you build a life that took you from cross-country to North Face sponsored athlete (among several other accomplishments)?
I keep things in perspective. I never sought out to be a professional athlete. I sought to build a career and a life that was fulfilling to me. I have found success in running, and much of that is due to a well-rounded life. I know many professional runners who just try to train and race. In my opinion, it doesn’t work very well because there is nothing to balance them out or keep them grounded. It’s too easy to get caught up in all kinds of crazy things and taking yourself too seriously. I’ve found myself getting too invested in all things running, and I have to remind myself WHY I run. It’s because I love it! And having a job or things outside of the sport help keep me loving it. :)
What is an average week of training like for you?
It really varies on what I’m training for, what season it is, or what else is going on in my life. It might look something like this though:
Monday- rest day
Tuesday- strength training
Thursday- distance run
Friday- cross train or distance run
Saturday- long run
Sunday- cross train or long run
I always take 1 rest day per week. I think it’s important to reset and absorb all the training. I also don’t run a ton of mileage each week. It’s not necessary to run high mileage to be successful. I focus on quality over quantity.
How do you stay motivated to train? More importantly, how do you consistently find the time?
I don’t see it as training most of the time. Often, I am just out on the trails enjoying the experience. When I think of running as “training” it sometimes conjures up negative concepts. I never want to force out training runs. Of course, not every run is pleasant, but I hardly ever finish a run where I’m not happy. I run because it fulfills me, not because I have to “train”.
I find the time because it’s important to me. I think everyone can find the time; it’s just a matter of priorities. When people say, “I’m too busy……..” I want to roll my eyes. I’m busy too. I find time to run because my health and mental clarity depend on it. I’ll make sacrifices in other areas to have time for myself each day. I think that’s important.
You have an incredible list of accomplishments at such a young age, including 2014 Western States 100 Champion. You have raced and received top 10 finishes in the biggest races in the world. What is the one accomplishment you are most proud of thus far?
Aw, thanks! I’m pretty proud of my races, but becoming an ambassador for the sport and a positive role model is more important to me. I feel lucky that I had great mentors when I first started running and I want to be that for other up and coming runners.
That said, rounding the track under the lights in Auburn and crossing the finish first is a feeling I will never forget. It was pretty surreal to win my first 100 miler, let alone Western States!
Being a woman in sport and having a husband who also runs, do you ever feel pressure to work harder because of this and how have you dealt with that pressure?
To be fully honest, this question sort of drives me nuts. If I were a male no one would ask how I balance the pressures of running, working, having a family, etc. But because I’m female it always comes up. I don’t think I need to work harder to be a successful athlete or person! Why should female athletes need to work harder? To establish themselves? I know there are gender inequalities in ultra running, but I’m not going to label myself in that category. It’s not constructive.
You are a coach, Doctoral Candidate in a PhD program, wife, cook and athlete... often times women will sacrifice their own dreams to attend to the needs of others. How do you find balance in pursuing your own dreams, while also building a partnership with your husband, school and other commitments?
I create balance in my life by not emphasizing any one part too much. I don’t see it as sacrificing; I see it as the right decision to make all parts of my life flow. When you think you’re “sacrificing” to make something work, it can become detrimental in the long run. Like I’m giving up _(blank)_ to pursue my dreams…. I think it creates resentment, kind of like a martyr. It’s not a healthy way to think.
What advice would you give to young women entering endurance sports or with a desire to fulfill their dreams?
I think it’s important to be authentic. Don’t try to be someone else and don’t give up everything to pursue a dream. Make it happen in a realistic way and be open to have that dream morph along the way.
Who do you look up to (personal or athletics or both) and how has that person influenced your life?
I have many people I look up to, so it would be hard to just name a few. I am really inspired by people who take chances and put themselves out there.
What is your next adventure?
It’s a secret……follow along to see!
The subject of identity continues to arise all around me, whether it be in sport, my career, coaching or in conversation. We ask questions about how and why we continue to put men and women in categories. Conversations about the assumptions and expectations we create, the misconceptions and judgments that endlessly arise. For Stephanie Howe, this doesn't seem to be an issue. Although, she recognizes inequality, she isn't interested in placing herself in categories. Which I agree, isn't constructive. Instead, she is focused in a life that feels fulfilling to her, doing what is right, for her life in that moment. I'd say she's doing one hell of a job doing just that.
Follow along with Stehanie Howe's adventures on her blog here. Through her posts and story, I know it will create the inspiration and motivation you might need to adventure well.
The FAQs: Stephanie Howe
Favorite pre-race meal: Totally depends on my mood, where I’m staying, and the race distance. I’m not a picky eater.
Favorite guilty pleasure: I don’t think of food like this. Eating should be a pleasurable experience, not something associated with guilt. (AMEN Stephanie!)
Favorite book: My nutrition & exercise physiology textbooks
Personal Motto: Take Chances
Hobbies outside of running: Anything outdoors (hiking, camping, cycling, paddling, skiing, etc), coffee, traveling, wine, and cooking.
Life-Saver (something you can't live without): My husband Zach and my dog Riley
Legacy you want to leave behind: Hopefully I’ve inspired people to work hard to achieve their goals, whatever they may be.