WeRunFar Profile: Sophie Speidel

An in-depth profile of ultrarunner Sophie Speidel.

By on June 16, 2015 | Comments

Sophie Carpenter Speidel recently celebrated her 10-year anniversary with a life partner–albeit one of the non-human variety–that has seen it all. Tears, mud, joy, friendship, and mountains: the relationship between a runner and his or her ultra life never consists of a dull moment. Ten years ago, when Sophie crossed the finish line of her first 100-mile race, she had no idea what she had bonded herself with.

In a graffiti-laden car, spelling out “Girl You Shine,” Sophie pulled into the parking lot of the Massanutten Mountain Trails 100 Mile Run. Hours later she was in a chair begging to quit. “My husband and crew would not let me drop,” she reflected. “They said, ‘Suck it up. Walk it in.’ It was rough. I was the newbie and made all the mistakes.”

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Sophie sitting in the chair at her first 100 miler. All photos courtesy of Sophie Speidel unless otherwise noted.

Newbie then, ultra expert now. Sophie’s 10 years since running her first 100-mile race have provided her with the knowledge of what it takes to be an ultrarunner. The biggest thing she has learned is how to balance between the world of running and her personal life.

As a mother of three, wife, high-school teacher/counselor, and lacrosse coach, Sophie, age 52, says balancing between life and running is the hardest adventure she has overcome. Sophie rather morphs her two worlds into one. Her personal duties and her running go hand in hand, she says, as each identity helps influence the other.

She grew up in Washington, D.C as a lacrosse player, and continued playing while attending The University of Virginia for both her undergraduate and master’s degrees in psychology and education counseling. She was a member of the U.S Women’s National Lacrosse Team from 1982 to 1984, and throughout her career, used running to stay fit during the off-season. By her thirties, her competitive, intense spirit was yearning for another adventure.

“Having played at a high level for so long, I was itching for competition,” she said, but several triathlons and an Ironman did not do the trick. “A friend handed me an issue of Trail Runner magazine with an article about The Barkley Marathons or Hardrock or something, and I realized I was looking for that kind of adventure.”

“Those articles will get ya’!” she added, laughing.

She then found the Virginia Happy Trails Running Club (VHTRC), where she encountered people who “drank the same Kool-Aid” like iRunFar’s Bryon Powell and Gary Knipling.

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Gary Knipling congratulating Sophie after her first 100-mile race.

“That was it,” she said, “Once you find your people, you get sucked into this vortex.”

Her first ultra was the Holiday Lake 50k in 2002 and within three years, she was at the start of the Massanutten 100 Mile.

The night before, her lacrosse players had attacked Sophie’s car, decorating her windows with quotes from the team’s theme song of the year, Aaron Carter’s “Girl You Shine.”

“I was bragging about [the car] to everyone,” she said. “But then I got to the point where I was in that chair wanting to quit. My pacer gave me a long talk about what I would tell my students if I quit. That was it. I had to finish.” She did finish. She crossed the line with a time of 31 hours, an accomplishment for herself and her students. She had acquired a nickname that she will keep for the rest of her life. The song sung by Carter morphed into just “Shining,” the name friends and family now use often, and the name of the blog she keeps as an archive of her running.

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Sophie during a training run in Crozet, Virginia. Photo: Michelle Andersen

The creation of the blog, Shining’s Ultra Blog, was required of her when racing for the Montrail Ultra Team in 2007. Today she uses it as a record book for her training and race reports.

“I enjoy sharing my training with others,” she said. “I posted a lot during my Grindstone 100 Mile training and many people commented saying the posts helped.”

The other comments focus once again on the theme of balance: “When do you get in your runs?” “How does your husband feel about your running?”

“I get a lot of questions about balancing between running and being a wife and mother,” she said. “I am grateful to read pieces on women like me who have children and are working.”

Years of practice and a supportive family make juggling life so much easier, especially when one’s husband is an endurance junkie as well. “He gets it,” she said. Her husband, Rusty Speidel, is a road and mountain biker, and a finisher of the Shenandoah Mountain 100 Mile mountain-bike race. “He is really supportive and understands it.”

The two were recently featured in Trail Runner magazine in an article about how couples cope when one spouse is an endurance runner. Writer Sarah Lavender Smith interviewed Rusty and Sophie about the challenges the family faced when Sophie began training for her first 100 miler. Jokingly, Rusty said the time it took to finally figure out how to do the entire spouse, job, kids, and running gig was about a decade.

“In the beginning, we were really busy with work and small kids, and it was not pretty,” Rusty admitted. “Sophie was training for her first 100, which is about 10 times harder than training for your third 100, and time and energy were tight. We didn’t really agree on it until she finished the first one.”

But of course, once he witnessed what his wife accomplished, Rusty was all in.

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Rusty, Sophie, and their daughter, Virginia, after the 2014 Mountain Masochist 50 Mile.

He and Sophie have raised three kids while living in Charlottesville, Virginia. With her last child recently graduated and on her way to college, the two are planning on exercising together, maybe not biking and running, but definitely hiking she said. “I take him to the AT [Appalachian Trail] all the time to hike,” she said.

Sophie says her 10-minute route to the AT from her house spoils her. For years, she has always wanted to trek the entire trail, so in 2011 she and a bunch of women formed the “Dirty Mothers” trail group. Each year, these hard-working moms get together for an all-girls trip hiking south on the trail.

“Our plan is to hike the entire Virginia section,” she said. “We start where we ended the last trip. It is a great time to spend together and talk about life.”

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The Speidel family. Left to right is Carter, Virginia, Sophie, Rusty, and Chapin.

With years of experience under her belt, Sophie has taken everything she’s learned from races, training, and coaches to train herself for her next big race, the Bighorn Mountain Wild and Scenic Trail Run 50 Mile in just a couple days, on June 18.

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Sophie during the Crozet 5k this spring. Photo: Natalie Krovetz

Her training cycle incorporates two rest days, which might include a swim session, and two strength-training days that focus on core and upper-body exercises.

She strives for a hill workout every week and aims for a weekly mileage of about 60 to 75 miles.

She is a member of the Crozet Ultrarunning Team, formed by Crozet Running, a specialty running store in Crozet, Virginia owned by Michelle and John Andersen. John and his wife formed the ultrarunning club almost two years ago, choosing athletes based on their ability to race, but also looking for athletes who had great character and a good balance between being a competitive runner and managing a family and strong community presence. “Sophie is an amazing example of all of the above,” John said.

According to him, Sophie is the walking encyclopedia for Virginia’s trails and races. “If you’re a trail runner in Virginia, you know Sophie. But not because she’s loud or mighty, but because she’s done it all and she sticks around afterwards,” he said. “Andy Jones-Wilkins, who likes to playfully tease Sophie, came up with a saying/hashtag: ‘#WWSS’ or ‘What Would Sophie Say?’ It gives us all a chuckle because she does have something to say about all the running and training we all do, and she tends to be right.”

Apparently, if you have a question in this sport, you ask Sophie. Everything she discovers, she shares with her running friends. “Over the 10 years, I have learned a lot of what my body can do,” she said. “Like mileage. I am really focusing on the quality of miles and not the quantity. I could have gotten away with high mileage at age 40, but not now.”

“I think I am in the minority in that I take recovery very seriously.”

And, she knows what races work well for her strengths and push her weaknesses. “I like runnable trail with lots of climbing!” she exclaimed. Colder weather and distances of a 100k and below are preferred as well. “I don’t like that much technical stuff, and descending. I tend to be a wimp on descents, but I am working on it.” Nutrition wise, Sophie sticks to Hammer Perpetuem and gels, choosing to negate any solid food until late in her races.

Physically, Sophie’s got it down, but a large aspect of her successful training and racing is mental. As a counselor, Sophie relies heavily on motivational speeches and books in both her ultra life and career.

She works at St. Anne’s Belfield School as a school counselor, teacher, and lacrosse coach. For a class she teaches called Life Skills, Sophie educates students about endurance, perseverance, and overcoming challenges, all qualities taken from her personal ultra experiences. “Students ask to hear about my 100-mile races,” she said. “They are hungry for true adventure, not manufactured stories.”

She has brought in speakers such as Jennifer Pharr Davis, the Fastest Known Time holder for the Appalachian Trail and author of Becoming Odyssa, to talk about how their experiences have affected their lives. “I was so inspired by her,” Sophie said. “Andy [Jones-Wilkins] and I invited her to speak with both of our classes one year. She really inspired the kids, and an AT hike became a class project for my senior kids.”

Sophie also listed the novels of Kirk Johnson and his Badwater 135 memoir, To the Edge, Born to Run by Christopher McDougall, and Will Harlan’s biography, Untamed, as sources of motivation for herself and her students.

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Sophie with her son, Chapin, during her first 100-mile race.

“I love reading books in general,” Sophie said. “I just bought Ultra Mindset, An Endurance Champion’s 8 Core Principles for Success in Business, Sports, and Life by Travis Macy. I truly believe the lessons we learn in ultrarunning can apply to work and family life.”

At the end of the summer, Sophie and Rusty will come home to an empty nest. But Sophie has a plan to fill the void. In addition to her big race this weekend, the Bighorn 50 Mile will also be a long-awaited reunion for her and the group that took her in so many years ago. “The [VHTRC] group runs are about two hours away so I only get to see them at races,” she said. “They always pick a race for the [group to attend each] year and this year’s run is at Bighorn.” The clan and Sophie, some 35 VHTRC runners in total, will be cheering and supporting each other at the event’s various distances.

Then later this month, she is trekking out to Western States 100 to pace and crew her longtime friend, Gary Knipling. “In 2006, the VHTRC had a few runners at Western,” she said. “Whenever we get a runner, we go all out to support them.”

“I’m so excited to crew and pace Gary,” she added. “I love crossing the river and the hype and history of the race. It gives me goose bumps. But this year I’m excited to see my extended family!”

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Sophie with her VHTRC friends at the Western States 100 years ago. Left to right is Quatro Hubbard, Gary Knipling, Sophie, Scott Mills, Keith Knipling, and Scott Crabb.

Jessica Campbell
Jessica Campbell began her iRunFar career as an intern. A former 'swammer,' Jessica turned her passion of endurance sports to marathon and ultrarunning. She lives on the shores of Lake Michigan and works as a journalist for a small-town Indiana newspaper.