So how did Stephanie Howe win Western States 100, her debut 100-mile race? I wish I had a story as great as Pam Smith’s 2013 win, or a comeback story like Rob Krar, but my story is much more simple. It does, however, have a long saga behind it.
There are many 100-mile races to choose from. So why did I pick Western States for my first 100? Well, to me it began a few years ago. 2010, to be exact, the year I did my first 50k.
I was drawn to Western States when I first saw the movie Unbreakable. (Yes, corny but true.) Sure I knew about the race and I knew Hal Koerner, but I had only run one 50k and was hardly an ultramarathoner. Western States wasn’t a race that I could really even really wrap my head around. 100 miles? No way could I ever run that far. Watching the movie, though, truly inspired me, along with the fact that about five people in the room were wearing their Western States silver belt buckles.
Fast forward a couple years to 2012 and I had now completed three 50k’s and one 50 miler and had joined The North Face team. I was making a step toward becoming an ultrarunner. I’d had some good success but was still very much a newbie to the sport. That year I had the opportunity to pace Nikki Kimball at Western States, where she went on to finish an impressive fifth place! I was blown away by the determination and level of suffering it took to cross the finish line. Running around the track in Auburn was one of the coolest things I’d ever done. I knew I wanted that someday.
The following year in 2013 I had my goal set on qualifying for Western States. My plan was to race my way in at either Lake Sonoma or Leona Divide. I had placed third at Lake Sonoma the previous year in my first attempt at a 50-mile race, so I thought it was a reasonable goal to earn one of the coveted Montrail spots. Unfortunately things didn’t go as planned, and I was sidelined with an injury. I had to sit out all of April, May, and most of June. I was completely bummed, but I learned a good lesson. The silver lining was that I was healthy enough to have the opportunity to pace another incredible runner, Denise Bourassa, at Western States. Again, I was blown away by her performance and determination to get to the finish line. It reiterated my desire to run Western States one day.
Moving into 2014, I had my sights set on Western States once again. I put in for the lottery and low and behold, was chosen! It was quite a surprise to me and I was instantly excited and terrified. What did I just get myself into? Since I didn’t have the pressure of racing in, I planned my race calendar to include very little racing in my build up to Western States. Part of what I learned through my injuries is that I’m a relatively low-mileage runner. I perform best and stay healthy when I feel like I’m a bit undertrained. I didn’t start really running until late January or February. My plan was to ski the early months of the winter, but unfortunately we had poor early-season snow and I only got on my skis a couple times. I did manage to race one Nordic ski race though!
Working with my coach, Ian Torrence, my race schedule included Chuckanut 50k in March, Lake Sonoma in April, and Western States in June. My training consisted of a lot of cross training to begin with. I had no intention of repeating last year, so I wanted to be very careful as I started running again. A typical week for me was running three or four days a week plus two days of cross training.
Right before Chuckanut I came down with a bad cold (or stress-induced illness?) and was not able to race. I was bummed, but rallied and went down to Pheonix, Arizona for the Mesquite Canyon 50k. It was a great first race back and definitely kicked my butt!
In the weeks leading up to Lake Sonoma my mileage hovered around 50 miles/week. I was still cross training a ton and trying to be smart. I went into Lake Sonoma feeling good, but not 100% fit. I had a great day and it was very encouraging to finish so well! Plus, who doesn’t love Lake Sonoma? The race is fantastic and there is wine tasting the next day!
After Lake Sonoma I fell off the radar. It was time to get some good miles under my belt. I was focused and determined to do the best I could to prepare for Western States. My training plan focused on slowly increasing my mileage while maintaining some speed. Increasing both intensity and volume is a recipe for disaster, so when my mileage went up my intensity went down. (This sounds pretty intense and serious. And while I do follow a training plan, I’m constantly changing things depending on how I’m feeling. I’m a type-A personality and like perfection, but I tend to be a lot less serious about training in some regards. I like to maintain an element of fun.)
I responded very well to the plan and felt pretty dang fit. I had a couple very key runs in the months leading up to Western States:
Ice Cream Sandwich run. A 52-mile run with friends on the Western States Trail. I was the second-longest run of my life. It was a casual training run with wonderful company. The key, though, was that the last eight miles were fast… after eating an ice-cream sandwich and drinking a 16-ounce soda. After putting all of that down, we ran from Foresthill to Cal 2. It was huge confidence booster for me!
Rogue River Run. Forty miles in, 40 miles out. This was a fantastic weekend! I was lucky enough to run with a group of folks from Ashland, Oregon for their annual Rogue River trail run. We ran 40 miles in on Saturday, stayed the night in a cabin at the end, and ran 40 miles out on Sunday. Again, it was a huge confidence booster.
Western States Memorial Weekend Training Camp. This was a ton of fun. Not only did I get to run 85 miles in three days, but I also got to catch up/meet so many other runners. I’d highly recommend the camp to anyone racing Western States.
Things I did not do before Western States:
- Heat Train. I tried the sauna about four times. I didn’t love it and it felt like it was just dehydrating me. I did try to get a couple runs in the heat, but I focused more on how I could manage the heat on race day rather than running around in a garbage bag.
- Run a gazillion miles every week. Yes I had a couple big weeks, but they were followed by some very good recovery weeks. That was key. I had plenty of recovery and started the race with fresh legs.
- Run in a weight vest. Nope. Not for me.
- Change my diet. I eat healthy and I eat enough. I didn’t make any changes in the months leading up. I eat all nutrients: carbohydrates, fats, and protein. Contrary to some recent fads, all nutrients are important.
- Get crazy with splits, times, pace, etceteras. I didn’t have a time goal, so I didn’t even focus on splits or pacing. I think those things can drive you bonkers. My plan was to start conservative and run within myself.
On race week I was a nervous ball of energy. I made a last-minute decision to head down to California a few days early to try to relax. While it’s nice to be home, I have a hard time not working. So I packed up on Sunday and drove down to Tahoe Donner where I had rented a little cabin. I had also come down with a pretty bad cold, so I didn’t do a lot of anything except read, hike, and eat. Despite feeling pretty crummy, it was actually a great taper! On Wednesday afternoon I ended my little retreat and headed over to Squaw for the final countdown. It was about to get real.
When asked about how prepared I feel for a race, I usually give the response “Okay” or “Not that great.” This was different. A friend asked me, “On a scale of one to 10, how do you feel your training has gone?” And without delay I responded, “10!” Yep, I was ready. I felt very confident that I had done the best I could and was ready to toe the line. This is very unlike me. I usually second guess my fitness and/or my ability. Not to say I wasn’t nervous, because on the inside I was terrified. But I knew that I had prepared as well as I could. I actually had a dream a couple nights before the race that I won. When I woke up I thought to myself, Maybe that’s not such a crazy thought.
The morning of the race I woke up at 3:25. Feeling rested! I was able to go to bed at 8:00 p.m. the night before (what?!) and woke up feeling pretty darn good. I had my favorite pre-race breakfast, which is a pastry called an Ocean Roll from Sparrow Bakery in Bend. It’s a cross between a croissant and a cinnamon roll, except with cardamom instead of cinnamon. Even when I’m not hungry I can always eat an Ocean Roll. I also had a small bowl of rice for good measure, washed down with a big cup a coffee. I was ready.
The starting line was filled with nervous energy and I couldn’t help but get caught up in it. The day was really here. I was about to run 100 miles for my first time. I couldn’t wait. I was feeling good and ready to try my best. I wasn’t sure how to pace the first part of the course and as the gun went off I found myself looking for a familiar face. It only took me a few minutes to find one of my greatest role models in the sport, Nikki Kimball. We hiked up to the Escarpment together, just chatting and catching up on life. At the top we both turned around to take in the sunrise over Lake Tahoe, which was one of the most spectacular views I’ve ever seen. Nikki and I continued to run together for the first two hours, just having some great girl talk. It was honestly the best start I could have had. At Lyon’s Ridge I started to work my way forward a bit, but still keeping everything in control. I really was just running comfortably and taking in all the views of the high country. That was maybe my favorite part of the race.
I was had a nutrition plan that included fueling early and frequently. I started with Clif Blocks and peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches I had stuffed in my pack. I had made the decision to carry a larger pack with a 1.5-liter bladder. I know a lot of runners carry minimal gear for Western States, but I wanted to have everything with me, just in case. The benefit was that I didn’t really need to stop much. I carried all of my food and only needed to stop every couple aid stations to fill up my pack.
Just before Duncan Canyon I passed a few more women, chatting with them for a few minutes. Once I got to Duncan I heard I was in second place. Wow, cool, I thought. Not really reading much into it. I chuckled when I heard splits; there was still so much racing left. At Robinson I was greeted by my crew and a whole bunch of cheering. It was such a nice welcome! I was in and out pretty quick (thanks to my rockstar crew and my Nathan pack). As I ran out of Robinson Flat, chomping down a PB&J, I caught a glimpse of Emily Harrison. Not too far ahead, I thought. I wasn’t really worried about catching anyone or being caught at that point, though. I just wanted to run my own race and stay comfortable.
Over the past year I somehow have become a good downhill runner. Funny because a few years ago I was absolutely terrible! I worked pretty hard over the past year to improve my downhill running, and now, I would say it is one of my strengths. When I hit the downhill around mile 33, I felt awesome. I passed Emily, who was also looking really good, and savored the moment of being in the lead. I was thrilled to be leading Western States… even if it was going to be a short stint. I didn’t let the adrenaline get to me; I just kept cruising downhill in control. I fully expected someone to catch me sooner or later, but I didn’t really worry about it. Again, I was just running my race and staying in control.
I kept passing through aid stations, smiling, eating, drinking, and honestly having a great time. When I got down to the river at Swinging Bridge, I was so relived to be done running downhill for awhile. My legs still felt good, but I was ready to change it up. The hike up to Devil’s Thumb was great. It was a time for me to re-group and check in. Everything was feeling good: energy was good, body was good, and happiness level was great. I hiked the majority of the climb, running a few of the flatter sections when it felt good. It took me about 38 minutes to get up to Devil’s Thumb, which I think was just about perfect. I can’t remember exactly, but I think AJW said 36 to 40 minutes was a good time? Anyway it felt good, and I was ready to run downhill again.
I absolutely love the downhill from Devil’s Thumb to El Dorado Creek. It’s super runnable and I can just fly down that grade. I tried to keep it in check as I did not want to fry my quads that early! I did take a pretty good digger about halfway down the hill, right into a luscious patch of poison oak. Dang it! As I’m typing this I’m noticing more little poison-oak spots popping up on my arm and stomach. It could have been worse; I don’t think I rubbed my face in the patch. (At least I hope not!) I also saw the Speedgoat on this decent. He gave me a “yeah” as I passed him on the downhill. (He re-passed very quickly as soon as we hit the uphill.) He also mentioned that it was looking good for me today. I wanted to believe him, but there was so much left to run.
Running into Michigan Bluff was exciting, especially because I was in the lead. I got my first backsplit, that I was 16 minutes ahead, which was a huge surprise to me! I had no idea. I tried not to let the fact that I was leading Western States at mile 56 by about 16 minutes change my running. What a cool feeling, though! I had a pretty quick stop at Michigan Bluff, and then took off running down the road. This is where I hit my low patch. I was tired and warm and was not able to get down fuel as easily. I had envisioned eating real food for the majority of the race, but was only able to stomach Clif Blocks from mile 40 on.
Once I hit Bath Road, I was probably at my lowest point. My right knee was starting to ache really bad. This was an issue I had at the end of UROC that sidelined me for a few months after the race. Great, the knee is back. I ran most of the climb out of Bath Road, stopping to massage my knee a few times. I came into Foresthill not looking very good. It’s unfortunate that everyone saw me there because that was probably one of the few places I wasn’t smiling. Things hurt, I was tired, hot, and not sure I was going to be able to keep running. I weighed in at the aid station and then walked over to my crew. I probably only spent a few minutes standing still but it was enough to have my knee lock up. I was so looking forward to running the rest of my race with Zach (my super hot, awesome fiancée), but as we started to head down Cal Street there was something wrong. I was limping. My knee was absolutely killing me. We stopped for a second so I could stretch it, but it didn’t seem to help. I just decided to run and hope that it would feel better. I think I was grimacing the whole pavement stretch. As soon as we turned the corner and got back on the trail my knee was feeling okay again. Phew! From then on Zach and I decided that I would stop as little as possible at each aid station. Almost try to keep moving through them.
Cal Street was great. It was shady and I knew this part of the course (thanks to the Ice Cream Sandwich Run). I barely stopped at each of the aid stations, only to fill up a flask with water. Zach and I had a great system going: as I took off my pack to weigh in he would fill it with water and then we’d be on our way. I think I only spent one or two minutes max at each aid station. I felt like I ran Cal Street well, smooth and controlled. I think I was moving pretty well, but I haven’t really looked at my splits. Maybe it just felt fast for that part of the day!
The river was a glorious sight. I had in the back of my mind that if reached the river in the lead then maybe, just maybe, I could pull this off. I hadn’t heard any splits for awhile, so I wasn’t sure where I was at. The river crossing felt so good. I was tired but very refreshed when I reached the other side. Zach and I had talked about having a ‘mental reset’ on the climb up to Green Gate. Rather than try to run, I hiked most of the climb and gave myself a little break to recollect. At Green Gate, I saw my crew again and they told me I had about a 24-minute lead. With 20 miles left to race, I was feeling pretty good. I just had to keep it together and not blow up. At this point I could not eat anything anymore, except Sprite. I carried a flask full of Sprite in my pack and filled it up at each aid station. Zach was timing for me and made me take a drink every 15 minutes. I’m still shuddering at the thought of soda at this point.
I was looking forward to Brown’s Bar, where I knew I’d see a couple familiar faces. Plus, I heard the music was blaring and it was a pretty good party. I wasn’t let down! We were welcomed to Brown’s Bar with some awesome hip-hop, booty-music song (I can’t remember what it was) that put a huge smile on my face. I was greeted by friends I’d met on the Rogue River run a few weeks earlier and by the always-smiling Hal Koerner. It lifted my spirits. I asked Hal if he knew any back splits and he told me, “Nope, just get going.” And that was that. We headed out of Brown’s Bar, turning our headlamps on for the first time. It was starting to get dark.
I was really looking forward to the climb to Highway 49. I needed a break from running downhill. At this point my quads were pretty shot. Knowing that I was still in the lead, we decided to take it pretty conservative up to the highway. I can actually say I enjoyed the climb. I ran pieces of it, but hiked a fair amount, which felt totally awesome! At Highway 49, we did a quick in and out and kept moving. I hardly saw anyone; I just wanted to keep going. I downed some Sprite and was on my way. I was also looking forward to what I call ‘the meadow.’ I’m not sure what everyone else calls it, but it’s the stretch after you climb out of Highway 49 that opens up into a big clearing. When I had paced previously I loved seeing the stars and the lights from Auburn. It wasn’t quite as refreshing while racing, but still lifted my spirits a bit. You are almost done. Just. Keep. Running.
No Hands Bridge was the next big landmark, and I was greeted by the best surprise ever! Some of my good friends from Bend, Keith and Rebecca Bell, were there at No Hands Bridge with their two young boys. I was overcome by happiness to see these people out supporting me. It made my day, and motivated me to keep going.
The last part of Western States is brutal. I don’t care who you are, finishing with that climb to Robie Point is hard. Again, I didn’t want to blow up so we ran/hiked. It actually went by a lot faster than I had imagined. Although my quads were shot, I still felt pretty darn good for 97 miles (or whatever) into the race.
At Robie Point my crew joined me to run the last mile. I was so overcome with excitement and anticipation. I wanted for so many hours to see the lights from the track. And I was almost there. The last several minutes were a blur for me. I went through so many emotions. I couldn’t really believe I was gong to win Western States! As I entered the track and heard Tropical John announcing my name it was surreal. I gave high fives to so many kids still out cheering. As I crossed the finish line I felt relief, success, and awe. Did that just happen? It started to sink in over the next several minutes, especially the fact that my body just ran 100 miles. About halfway through my interview with [Western States Board] President John Trent it caught up to me. I got a little woozy and nauseous. I put my hands on my knees and was done talking for a little bit. I ended up being just fine but I had to lay down for a bit. Turns out, in hindsight, I was a little low on sodium and probably why I was feeling sick.
Looking back I still cannot believe how everything came together, or maybe I can. I think I was prepared, patient, and listened to my body. I never ran outside of myself or got carried away chasing down the leaders early on. On paper, that was the exact race I had planned. And in my dream that’s how I saw myself crossing the finish line.
And now I can say that I agree with you Speedgoat, 100 miles is not that far.
A big congrats to everyone else racing Western States this year. Sheesh, I just talked about myself a lot, but honestly I’m more inspired by some of the other stories out there. Special shout out to teammates Rob Krar for his dominating performance to take the win and to Jez Bragg for his 11th-place finish.
Also, big thanks to The North Face for standing behind me 100% in all my crazy endeavors; to my coach, Ian Torrence for helping me prepare for this day; to my nutrition sponsor, Clif Bar, who provided me with the 4,000 calories worth of blocks I consumed; and to Flora for their great products which keep me a healthy, well-oiled machine. Above all, thank you to my family and friends, especially Zach, who put up with all my craziness over the past few weeks. You guys are the best!