Stephanie Violett returns to the 2018 Western States 100 as the 2014 champion and with three previous finishes. In this interview, a part of the iRunFar Live at Western States show, Stephanie talks about what this race means to her, how she’s struggled with nutrition in her more recent 100 milers and what she’s relearned from those challenges, and her training lead-up to this year’s Western States.
Stephanie Violett Pre-2018 Western States 100 Interview Transcript
iRunFar – Dylan Bowman: Welcome back, everyone. Of course, this is iRunFar Live at the Coffeebar in Squaw. I’m here with Meghan Hicks and the one-and-only Stephanie Violett. Stephanie is a three-time finisher of this race and the 2014 champion of the Western States 100. She’s the first former champion we’re speaking with. So, my first question, for those of us who will never win this race, what’s it like to be the Western States champ? Looking back, what do you remember from that day and what has it meant to you?
Stephanie Violett: That win meant a lot to me. It was my first 100-mile race. Western States in general means a lot to me, so it was like double [the thrill]. I have a hard time putting into words what that meant to me but coming through on the track, I felt like I was floating. It was literally one of the coolest things I’ve ever done. Leading up to the track, I don’t remember that much. Honestly, it’s kind of a blur. I know there were some high points, some low points. Getting through Green Gate and now knowing what my body was going to do over the last 20 miles, it was a lot of surreal, what-am-I-doing moments, but it was really cool. Looking back, I haven’t quite performed that well but it’s still as if every finish means that much to me. I love this race.
iRunFar – Meghan Hicks: At last year’s race, even though it obviously wasn’t your dream race, I loved seeing the emotion and that emotional component. It was so obvious at the finish line as well as at different points on the course. Even when you don’t have your best race, it seems like there’s a lot of emotional positive energy in there.
Violett: There is. I’m almost more proud of last year than the year I won. I don’t quit. I knew I wasn’t going to quit, it was just a matter of working through it. It got really hard, but the feeling is still the same when you cross the finish line. That’s something that has been important to me. When you have a new situation where things are falling apart, to not give up. That’s kind of been my motto to get me through these races. It’s really meaningful, really emotional.
iRunFar – Bowman: In the same vein, after you won, you got third the next year, in 2015. Then you had an injury that kept you out for a year or more if my memory is accurate. Since then, in 100-mile races, you’ve had a bit of adversity.
Violett: That’s a nice way of saying it, yeah. [Laughs]
iRunFar – Bowman: As an outside observer, you have the potential to win any race that you’re in. The last couple 100 milers have, I think, been a bit challenging for you. Was it just bad luck? Was it a return from injury and gaining strength again? Or is there something specific that you’d attribute it to?
Violett: I think it’s a combo. I’ve had a bit of bad luck, but I also wasn’t super-confident. Coming back, I didn’t trust my body, I didn’t trust my instincts with fuelling and pacing. I was not quite a confident runner again. I think last year I had a lot of trouble with the 100s. There’s a bit of a learning curve. I got back into it and realized things like, and I’m embarrassed to admit this because I do nutrition, but I made some nutritional errors in both my 100s. So it was about re-learning that, it was like, not starting from zero, but I had been so comfortable knowing what to do that when I got back into racing, I had to remember those things again.
I think I have now. I’ve really been thinking about it. Another thing that really impacted me last year was that during the year of injury, I cross-trained as much as I could. I used up a lot of mental energy getting through that. So when I got to the start line of Western States last year, I was pretty burned out mentally. I had been fighting for so long. In hindsight, I don’t know what I would have done differently, but it was pretty tough to get there and feel like I had already given so much in order to even be healthy to get there.
iRunFar – Bowman: So this year you feel more like yourself, more energetic?
Violett: I do! I’m psyched. From a training standpoint, it’s a lot easier when you’re not injured [laughs].
Bowman: [To the audience] That’s a good lesson.
iRunFar – Hicks: We want to ask you about that nutrition part. You are a nutritionist, and nutrition is one of the hardest nuts to crack when running ultras in general, let alone when running the 100-mile distance. What have you learned and re-learned? There’s got to be an awesome knowledge drop right there.
Violett: I’ve learned that even if you have your nutrition and fueling system down pat, it changes depending on the heat, the time of year… I think everyone has a range they fall into and it’s not a simple equation. That’s one thing I had to remember: even though this formula worked in this race, in this other race it might be slightly different. So having that ability to adapt.
Plus, and this is my big takeaway from last year, I got so confident in my fueling that I was like, “I know how to do this, I know how to take gels.” So when I’d go out to train, I’d take a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and real food because it tastes better–who wants to eat a gel? But then I got into the races and my body is rejecting these things. I couldn’t eat blocks, I couldn’t eat gels. I realized, “Oh yeah, you need to practice with these race foods.” So that was a good reminder to me that you want to use some of your long runs to mimic what you want to do in a race. Because otherwise it doesn’t work.
iRunFar – Hicks: So in terms of Western States on Saturday, knowing and re-learning that fact that we all have these ranges of what’s acceptable and the conditions for keeping your stomach going are really not ideal here at Western States, have you given yourself a Plan A and a Plan B?
Violett: Sort of. The thing that helps me fuel the most is to stay cool. That complements my nutrition plan. I’ve been really bad in the past, telling my crew, “I don’t want ice! I don’t want water!” I just don’t want water on me, and I know that’s not good. So this year, I said to my crew, “If I fight it, just do it, just [pour water on me to keep me cool].” I’m saying this out loud, which is more for my benefit, to say “Stephanie, listen.” I think that’s going to help me. I also know that I have a plan based on the heat, but as it gets warmer that plan is going to be adaptable. I’m going to gravitate more toward liquids later in the day when I can’t get gels down. My crew knows that I have some options, but I don’t have 20 options. I’ve done that before, too. Then I’ll come into an aid station and my crew will be like, “Do you want this? This? This? This? This?” And I’ll be like, “Oh! Too many decisions!” So, keep it simple–that’s one of my themes. I have three choices, and I’ll take one.
iRunFar – Bowman: Transitioning to your preparation for this year’s race, you’ve done the FOURmidable 50k, which you won, down in Auburn, which is sort of course-specific. You did another race, put on by The North Face, in Peru, I think it was, and you won that, too. How do you feel generally, coming into the race? How has your training been? How did you use those races to prepare for this?
Violett: If I’m being really honest, FOURmidable was awesome. Last year I didn’t have the best race results so FOURmidable was a good confidence-booster. I felt great. 50k races are tough for me, but I felt like I nailed it. Then I went to Peru for a race: The North Face Endurance Challenge – Peru. It destroyed me. It was super-hot, it started at 2:00 in the morning, it took me 13 hours to do an 80k. That was sort of unexpected. There were 10 finishers. It crushed me, and maybe not in the best of ways. It showed me that I’m tough and I suffer well, but I had to take a lot more recovery after that race. I missed the Lake Sonoma 50 Mile this year, which was a big bummer for me because it’s one of my favorite races.
iRunFar – Hicks: For the wine or for the running?
Violett: Both! You know, for the whole scene there, and to see everyone. In hindsight, that might have been good because it gave me some time to recover and have a gradual buildup. It’s been a little nontraditional, my training leading into Western States, but I feel good about it in a weird way.
iRunFar – Hicks: I think Dylan and I have a couple specific questions about your training. First of all, you put your training, at least most of it, on Strava. People can see what someone like you does for most of your training. Your training included a lot of running but also a lot of biking in the leadup. Can you talk about that strategy?
Violett: I come from a more multi-sport background, so I enjoy doing those activities. To me it’s not like forced cross training. We have these windows of time in Bend, in the fall and the spring, when the gravel riding is spectacular. That was one of my favorite things to do was to take my gravel bike out and explore. So that was part of it.
The second part is that I had a little bit of Achilles tendonitis on both sides. That was a way for me to run, but then let it heal. And I just do better with less runs. Honestly, I’ve learned this over the years that if I add in some cross-training, I generally recover better.
iRunFar – Bowman: I feel the same way. Another specific question that pertains to your training–I noticed that you went out to Colorado Springs a few weeks ago with our mutual coach, Jason Koop. What was your thought behind that trip? Was it a special training trip? If so, what did you hope to accomplish there?
Violett: It was great. It was a really hard training camp for me. It was good for a couple things. One was heat, because it was “only” 95 degrees [Fahrenheit] there. The other was altitude, and then just getting on some tough trails. It was honestly my toughest week of training. Not necessarily because I was putting in all these miles, but it was awesome.
iRunFar – Bowman: What was the thought behind it? Did Jason reach out and say, “Hey, I want you to come train here”?
Violett: It was twofold. We had been talking quite a bit about training. I also came there because he had a physical therapist there that I saw. Long story short, I have Achilles tendonitis and I’m trying to find out the underlying cause of that. Just to share this because I think it’s fascinating: I’ve seen a few PTs and it seems it’s related to my vestibular sense of balance–my inner ear. It was super weird. I get carsick and I get nauseous at night when I’m running – that’s been my problem with the UTMB. [To Meghan] Remember when I saw you early on and it was night and I was like, “I’m nauseous already.” So at night with the lights, I get really sick. So the PT was asking all of these questions and we put two and two together, because I can’t balance on one foot. She was like, “You need to work on your vestibular control.” So my training in Colorado Springs was great for a number of reasons. This is good for anyone to know because I don’t think it’s common knowledge that [vestibular control can affect your running] but it’s easy to re-train.
iRunFar – Bowman: That’s fascinating. I want to look into that now. Maybe one last question in terms of your strategy for Saturday. How are you thinking about the race? Are you keying off anyone in particular?
Violett: I’m definitely not keying off anyone. I’m going to run my race. I kind of think back to my first year because I ran it the best [of my three runs at Western States]. I was terrified of the distance, so for the first ten miles, I was really far back. I was just warming up, and it worked out really well later in the day. I think in the last couple of years I’ve felt a little more pressure, just on myself. This year I feel more removed from it. Maybe I’m just more mature about it. I don’t know, maybe it’s because I’m not in the spotlight as much. So you won’t see me up the Escarpment first. You probably won’t see me getting into Robinson Flat near the front. I’m just going to do my thing and take care of myself. I think staying cool is going to be more important for me to run well later in the day. That’s my strategy so far. Oh, and my crew is going to ice and douse me.
iRunFar – Hicks: [To the audience] So if you see Stephanie Violett not watered down, throw some water on her.
iRunFar – Bowman: Well, we’re so excited for you. I know I’m excited to watch the women’s race in general. I think it’s going to be very interesting, very open. It’s good to have you here as a past champion. Good luck getting a second cougar trophy this Saturday.
Violett: My cougar’s lonely, it needs a friend.
iRunFar – Bowman: We wish we could say the same. That’s a good problem to have. [Laughs] Round of applause, please, for Stephanie Violett. [Audience applauds loudly]