Stephanie Howe is one of the women’s favorites at the 2015 Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc. In this interview, Stephanie talks about the deep period of recovery she needed after finishing third at Western States in June, what she has thought of her time in France and preparing for this mountain course, and the sort of strategy she’ll use this weekend.
To find out who else is race UTMB this year, check out our women’s and men’s previews.
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Stephanie Howe Pre-2015 Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc Interview Transcript
iRunFar: Meghan Hicks of iRunFar, and I’m here in Chamonix, France, at the starting line of the 2015 Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc (UTMB). I’m here with Stephanie Howe.
Stephanie Howe: Hi.
iRunFar: Hi. I just got here, but you’ve been here all month.
Howe: I have. It’s been really nice.
iRunFar: How are you doing?
Howe: I’m recharged. I’m happy. It’s been really good.
iRunFar: The last time we saw you was at the finish of Western States about two months ago exactly after you had to work really hard to finish third that day.
Howe: Yes. I had to work really hard that day.
iRunFar: Talk about the last two months. What’s been going on?
Howe: I’ve been basically digging myself out of the hole that I put myself in at Western States. I arrived here August 1. Kind of my plan was just to take July to recover, and then once I got here, to do some training for a couple weeks and then kind of taper into the race. That didn’t happen. The race took a lot more out of me than I thought mentally and physically. I kind of just turned a corner a week ago. Now I’m feeling great again, but it took me kind of that long to get back to baseline. So, I’ve been doing a lot of resting and eating croissants and some runs, but nothing real long just kind of familiarizing myself with the terrain.
iRunFar: I want to ask you more about digging yourself out of that place. I think that that’s a familiar place for a lot of people after a 100 miler. You take your month of recover. You think you’re starting training, and you realize that mentally and physically you’re not ready for it. Yet you have this impending goal, this next race. How do you mentally process it? How did you deal with it?
Howe: It was kind of… I wasn’t really sure at first. I was like, Maybe I should just train through this and I will come out on the other side because I have this huge race coming up and I don’t think it’s smart to not train for. But I thought about that, and I wasn’t going to feel any better by running, so to me it was like, I just need to rest until I feel good. I kind of just let myself get into that headspace where I was like, I just need to let my body feel good. It was hard at first. There are some people here from the U.S. that were doing these huge training runs, and I just had to say no. There were a couple days where I didn’t leave my apartment. I just rested. I put my feet up and kind of just let my body do what it needed to do. Once I just kind of accepted the fact that this is where I’m at. I can’t train to get over this. I just need to get healthy basically, it was okay. It’s kind of been really freeing this whole month because I just kind of go off feel. I wake up in the morning, and I’m like, What do I want to do today? Do I want to go for a run? Do I want to do yoga? Do I want to sit and eat a croissant? It’s just kind of been dictated by how I feel. That’s very different than how I normally train. It was a little bit interesting thinking about, Okay, this is my preparation for this big 100 mile race, but I think it’s been good. I think it’s been good to take that approach rather than to try to just push through it. I think a lot of people do that and they just dig further and further and then you get a really long, maybe six months to a year of just feeling fatigued. So I’m hoping that I avoided that by taking it really easy.
iRunFar: So you’ve had a month here in the Chamonix valley. Many trail runners, when they think of this valley, they think of coming here to do work, to play hard, to run up and down mountains. But this is also a vacation destination for people from all over the world. Once you converted to that mindset, did you embrace the vacation qualities of this place?
Howe: It’s great. I’m working while I’m here, but it’s so nice. I can work from a café. The vacation part is really nice. It’s a different pace of life here. Everything is just much slower and more relaxed. I really enjoy that. I think I get caught up in go-go-go. Being here and knowing that I’m sort of on vacation, it’s just been really like, “Ahhh.” I can really take this in and not worry so much about training and recovery and just be.
iRunFar: Just be a little bit. So you had a little bit of time to just be and relax here, but now it is race week. There are runners accumulating in the streets of Chamonix. The energy is increasing. The Petit Trot a Leon started yesterday. One of the UTMB sister races started off. Can you feel the energy increasing?
Howe: Oh, yeah, just in terms of the number of people. When I first got here, there were a lot of people, but I could walk down the street and I wouldn’t know anyone. It was kind of great. But now, everyone is here. All the runners are all over. It’s exciting. There’s definitely a buzz in the air. There’s this week of festivities and races. It is really exciting. It’s a little nerve-wracking as well. It’s kind of like, wow, it’s actually here. But yeah, it’s good. I feel like I can now comprehend doing this race.
iRunFar: Like being here, there’s the tangible element that came around in some way?
Howe: Yeah, the first couple runs I did when I arrived, I was just like, There is no way. This is going to just destroy me. Now I’m like, Okay, I can see it. It’s going to be really, really hard, but I think I can do it, which is good.
iRunFar: You are one of the women who, on paper, I think could win this.
Howe: I’d like to think if I had a good day…
iRunFar: The women’s competition this year is… every year it goes up a little bit. It’s a really great field.
Howe: It is a good field.
iRunFar: And it hasn’t lost any of its top runners. Pre-race-week losses aren’t there.
Howe: Yeah, everyone is racing.
iRunFar: How do you face a field like that? This is a good field.
Howe: It is a really good field. I have a little bit of… I’m naïve going into this. I kind of like being in that position. I don’t really know what to expect, so it takes the pressure off me a little bit. A lot of these women I haven’t raced before, so it’s also that I don’t know how I’ll stack up against them. It’s a very different race course. Honestly, I haven’t thought much about the competition. I’ve been focusing on me and the course and how I’m going to get myself around this mountain because that in itself is going to be a pretty big journey. So I’m excited to go out and race with some of them. I think my race tactics are slightly different. I don’t think I’ll be at the front early on. That’s just not my style. Especially in something like this where there’s a lot of unknown, I don’t want to blow up. I just need a happy race. Western States is still a little fresh. That hurt. I just don’t want to do that to myself.
iRunFar: Taking your traditional style to kind of sit back and let things play out a little bit and then do your thing later in races is a little bit easier to in the American racing environment. It’s just less intense and there are fewer people rocketing off the front. How are you going to actually do that when it comes to Friday night and you’re running that first basically road 5k and people are running at 6:20 pace? How are you going to say, It’s okay to be in 100th place or 80th place?
Howe: I think I’m just not going to bite on that. I think in my mind I’m a little bit terrified of this race… or healthy respect is a better way to say it. To me, I think if I was running that fast, I would know that… I wouldn’t be thinking. It would just be me going. I’m not that kind of person. I do think when I race a little bit. I don’t get caught up in the excitement. So, I’m totally fine with letting people go. But there is going to be a part of me, you know I want to be able to race later on, so it’s how much I’m going to let them go because like you said, it’s different. They’ll be up there and they’ll be racing together, and that’s going to be hard for me to catch back up to later on. I’m going to have to feel it out a little bit. I definitely won’t go beyond my comfort zone. If they’re taking off too fast, I’ll just sit back. I’m going to try to be within contact. We’ll see.
iRunFar: You’ve had some time to get to know this course probably in person, on paper in some places, hiking, running, all of it. What are some things you’re looking forward to?
Howe: I’m looking forward to the hiking. It’s maybe not my strength, but to me it just breaks it up. I’m looking forward to not just being on the whole time—taking breaks, not a break, but hiking and changing up the pace. I’ve only done about 20 miles of the course, two sections, so it’s all going to be kind of new. I wanted a little bit of that. I’m familiar with the terrain. I’ve trained around in the valley here in Chamonix and in the mountains, but the course is going to be a little bit new. I wanted that element of surprise because when you get to the top of a peak, that’s a really cool feeling to be able to see the views. If I already know what’s coming up, it’s a little bit less exciting during the race, so I’m looking forward to that as well.
iRunFar: Let’s talk a few moments about gear because this gear-heavy race.
Howe: It is.
iRunFar: Poles or no poles?
Howe: No poles. Nope.
iRunFar: There’s a lot of required kit. Are you working to pare your kit down as light as possible, or are you just taking what you think you’ll need?
Howe: A little of both. I’m picking the lightest options that are still functional because if I get stuck in a rain storm, I don’t want something that’s not going to work. I don’t want to get cold. I want to have everything I need. So I tend to pack a little heavier than other people, I guess. So I’m probably a little on the heavier side but lighter for my choices. I have light stuff, but it’s going to be functional, too.
iRunFar: Your rain kit—you’re a The North Face runner, so are you using the Featherlight or the Stormy?
Howe: I have the Stormy, and I love that. That’s what I’ll wear. Then I have the Verto jacket that folds up, and I’ll have that in my pack as my extra jacket. Then I’ll have capris and arm sleeves and lots of stuff just in case. I’m going to carry hand warmers in case my hands get cold.
iRunFar: I always like hearing from you with regard to your nutrition plan and the food that you eat. Racing in Europe, there are some interesting offerings that are going to be at the aid stations. Are you going to partake or are you going to use your own stuff, all the Clif delicious products?
Howe: I’m still trying to figure out the exact plan, but my tendency is to carry Clif products in my pack. That’s going to be the bulk of my nutrition, but then at the aid stations I’m going to take whatever looks good. I’m kind of excited about that. It’s going to be a cooler day and—knock on wood—I usually have a good stomach unless it’s hot, and then I seem to have trouble eating. If it’s cool, I think I can eat pretty much anything. I’m excited to see the buffet and to use that as a supplement. I think that will be a good combination. I’m hoping that a croissant sounds good because, to me, it sounds good right now.
iRunFar: It sounds really good right now.
Howe: So racing might be a different story, but, I don’t know, I think I’ll have some of the weird stuff. I kind of like it.
iRunFar: Best of luck to you this weekend. We look forward to seeing you make the loop around Mont Blanc.
Howe: Thank you. Me, too, and hopefully with a smile.
iRunFar: I hope so, too. Thanks, Stephanie.
Howe: Thank you.