Australia’s Shona Stephenson finished second at last year’s Ultra-Trail Mount Fuji, making her the fastest returning women’s finisher to this year’s race. In the following interview, Shona discusses her strengths and weaknesses as they apply to UTMF as well as her preferred types of running terrain. She also gives us a great description of what runners should expect on the course.
[Editor’s Note: Find out more about the full women’s and men’s fields in our UTMF race preview.]
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Shona Stephenson Pre-2014 Ultra-Trail Mount Fuji Interview Transcript
iRunFar: Bryon Powell of iRunFar here with Shona Stephenson before the 2014 Ultra-Trail Mount Fuji. How are you, Shona?
Shona Stephenson: I’m good, really good.
iRunFar: This is not your first time to Japan. You were the second-place woman last year.
Stephenson: Yeah, I really like Japan. The terrain suits me. It’s either really crazy steep with gnarly descents or just nice, clean, flat running. So it just seems to work for me. I like it really technical and maybe a little bit softer on the foot than in France. It really works for me. I like it here. Potentially, the other different thing between here and Europe is the altitude isn’t as great. I’m from Australia, so it’s not as bad for me. I’m also asthmatic, so it’s always nicer for me to be closer to the ground.
iRunFar: There is really no high point. It goes to below 2,000 meters.
Stephenson: Yeah, I think maybe 1,800 meters max.
iRunFar: And you’re not up that high for that long.
Stephenson: No, and we get on down, so it’s not too bad. We don’t really feel sick for that long unless we pushed it too hard.
iRunFar: So you feel like you have strength both with really steep, gnarly terrain and on the roads?
Stephenson: Yeah, I’ve just moved from Sydney to Brisbane. In Sydney I was a personal trainer, so I was just running around on roads all the time with people. Then I’d go to the Blue Mountains and train which is just really crazy and steep in and out of the Blue Mountains which is really a canyon. So now I’ve moved up to Brisbane and I’ve found some really cool, steep climbs where I can get 700 meters in a few kilometers which is big for Australia. I’ve got the topo maps out. I’m just really trying to tailor my climbing and descending for this kind of terrain. I know what I’m in for, so I knew where to train in my hometown.
iRunFar: So you’re one of the few runners and top contenders on the women’s side who have run this before. What is this course like in its entirety? It’s backwards or reversed this year.
Stephenson: Yeah, I didn’t run it this way last year, so that in itself is really cool to me, so it’s a totally new course. I’m really excited about that. The first part of it will be long climbs mainly either on what we call fire trail or gravel road, so the climbs are not so steep. I find it climbs up in the first section of the course. Then, however, you’re going to have this gnarly descent where you will have to—I’m pretty sure there’s chains and on down rock. So that is going to be extremely challenging. You just want to look after yourself. I think that’s at 30-odd kilometers there’s that crazy descent.
iRunFar: So still when there’s going to be a lot of people around.
Stephenson: Yeah, potentially. So I guess you want to make sure if you’re a front runner that you’ve got clean air and you’re not going to be held up by anyone. I’m usually pretty good on the technical stuff and quite often I hate standing behind a bloke going, “Oh, if you’d just let me go in front of you I can do this.” But hopefully I’ll have enough clean air in front of me that they won’t hold me back. The difference between this year and last year is the ascent to Mount Fuji we ran down it; this year we run up it. However, it’s volcanic soil, so it’s going to be definitely soft. For me, I’ll be working on a high cadence all the way up there. I’m from Sydney initially, so lots of sand running, so I know how to run on a surface that’s just falling away from you.
iRunFar: It definitely is.
Stephenson: Running on something like that is different from running on snow because your shoes will get heavy and fill up with whatever is there. So I’m sure you guys have dirt and stuff to run in, but you really can have the danger of your shoes filling up, so I’ll be wearing gaiters.
iRunFar: You will be wearing gaiters.
Stephenson: Yeah, I don’t want any stuff coming in. I don’t want to have to carry it up a hill. I’ve probably got enough weight on me to carry up a hill.
iRunFar: So last year you were leading for a good portion of the race?
Stephenson: I led for about maybe 20k’s and then Krissy Moehl got me and then I think I jumped ahead of her and then I had some really bad stomach issues for about 50k. So I really suffered I think for about 50k. I didn’t actually eat. I just felt awful. Yeah, so I’m hoping that this year I won’t have that problem. I’ve got weird intolerances. If I don’t have my diet exactly right, then…
iRunFar: So you’ve worked on that some more?
Stephenson: Yeah, well I’m gluten-free, dairy-free, budding vegetarian, so it’s like, “Aarrrghgh.”
iRunFar: There’s lots of rice on course, I’m sure.
Stephenson: Yeah, already written to UTMF race organizers and they’ve told me what I can eat at each of the aid stations, so I know I can eat the soba noodles, and I can eat the rice bowls. There’s heaps of stuff for me to eat, and I’m allergic to peanuts, too, so I’ve just have to make sure that any of the bars I pick up don’t have peanuts in it. But I can eat things with peanuts being around it or whatever. I’m not too bad, yeah. It’s just because I’m asthmatic and things set me off and if I eat something that I react to, I then get asthma, and you don’t want asthma when you’re racing.
iRunFar: Probably not. So last year you had a battle with Krissy for awhile and then you were in second place pretty solidly, and then…
Stephenson: And then Hitomi [Ogawa] popped up. She was exactly what I needed right then and there. I’m a real racer. I love racing. I knew that all the girls… it’s a tough course. We can’t underestimate how tough it is. I heard people saying who had run the UTMB that it’s tougher and harder than UTMB. So people were just hurting and they were dropping out behind me. I was kind of a bit like, “Oh, where is… I need a race here.” Then lovely Hitomi… I think without Hitomi there I would have been coming in with a head torch on.
iRunFar: How far into the race did she catch you?
Stephenson: About 130k. Then I think I ran… so she got me at the final checkpoint, and then the last 18k I gained 20 minutes on her. I just skadoodled. I think I ran it as fast as Brendan Davies did. You have to check it. I never go back and check stuff, but check it. My last leg was actually really quick. If my brain is right, I can pull it out if necessary. I had my lovely Descente sponsor standing there and I was like, “#$*%, I’ve got to run this.” So if my will is there, I can run.
iRunFar: This is the first time we’ve interviewed on camera. Tell me a little bit about your running background.
Stephenson: Okay, I guess I was always on the athletics team at school—net-ball player, so a little bit like basketball player but like the center. So all day long I was a net-ball player and maybe play 13 games in a day, half games in a day, so eight hours of running up and down. I’d do that back-to-back on Saturday and Sunday. I was also an elite gymnast as a kid, too, where I was doing 20 hours of gymnastics a week. So my body is used to a big training load. I guess the reason why I love the technical trail is the agility that I really enjoy and the downhill descending. That’s usually my strength. I’m never going to be known to be the best climber, but I really enjoy the descending the most. I think that’s why Japan is fun for me. But when I actually got back into running, in my twenties I couldn’t run for more than half an hour. Then I had two babies. After having my second child, I decided to shave all my hair off to raise money for cancer and in doing so I then got an email from someone saying, “Oh, I’m going to do the half marathon.” “Oh, I’ll do that. It will be a great way to lose some weight while I have a shaved head.” If you’re going to shave your hair off, you want to feel good about yourself. So I went about six weeks of training and I did my first half marathon and I ran about 1:46 I think it was. It killed me. It really hurt. My baby was only about a year old, so my hips, my knees, everything was just killing me. I just wasn’t at all strong. Then I went, “Oh, how can I feel stronger?” About three weeks later I ran my first trail run. It took me about two years to go back to that trail run because it was just so painful. But three years after that I won that trail event, so that was really cool.
iRunFar: What keeps you coming out to the trails?
Stephenson: I just love the little adventures. I think that’s it. I like planning adventures. I like going out with a map in my hand and just discovering a new trail. That’s what really keeps me motivated. I rarely… I hate running the same trail twice, so anything where it’s doing something new, then I’m onto it, unless it’s just me and my dog doing my thing that I like to do in my local backyard, in my neighborhood. I really love setting a course and going for it.
iRunFar: Well, you have run Fuji before, but this is a new direction, so best of luck out there tomorrow.
Stephenson: Thank you, Bryon. Cheers.