Exclusive Interview: Ultra Runner Stephanie Howe

You may not know her name yet, but ultra runner, and PhD-holder!, Stephanie Howe is one of the top athletes in the sport today - she WON her FIRST 100-mile race! We are so impressed with Stephanie, we had MHRC Coach and fellow 100-miler Jes Woods sit down with her when she was recently in NYC.

Read on to get the full scoop on how Stephanie got into running, what it’s like to WIN an ultra marathon, how to fuel properly, and more, as told by one ultra runner by another.

You obviously have a passion for exercise and endurance sports as you went on to study Exercise Science and eventually Nutrition & Exercise Physiology. Was there one moment growing up or in high school where it hit you and you realized THIS is what I want to do, this is what I was meant to do?

  • There was not a moment where I realized THIS is what I wanted to do. Honestly, I had a difficult time in high school and undergrad deciding what I wanted to do for a career. I knew what I liked, but I had a difficult time envisioning what that would look like as a career. In college, I change my major about 7 times, varying from Biology to Math to French to Physical Education. I was all over the board.

  • I DO remember the day I was introduced to Patti Hogan, who took me under her wing and introduced me to the field of Health & Fitness Management. I was so lost until that day I walked into her office! She really opened up my eyes to the many opportunities within the field of Exercise Science and encouraged me to continue on to Grad School. I think her words were “It’s not if you will go, it’s WHERE you will go.” I credit Patti Hogan for helping shape me into the professional I am today. I’m so thankful for her mentorship.

  • I studied Exercise Physiology at Montana State University, where I earned my Master’s Degree. At that point I was on the academia track and wanted to be a full-time professor. After graduation I began a PhD program in Human Physiology at the University of Oregon. Honestly by that point I was on auto drive. I didn’t really stop to think about if that was the correct path for me. I had this goal, to become a professor, and that was the next step in reaching that goal. However, after a year at U Oregon, I found that I wasn’t loving school. I was burned out and missed being an athlete myself. I had no time and was in need of a reset. So I took it.

  • For the first time in my life I went outside of the normal path and decided to follow my heart. It took me to Bend, OR where I began to thrive again. I started running again, got a position teaching as an adjunct professor at the community college, and met my future husband. It was like once I let go of what I thought I had to do, I was able to find my place. It was freeing.

  • But, because of my perfectionist and type A personality, I wasn’t satisfied with not having finished my PhD. I really wanted to complete my degree. So after 2 blissful years off, I got back in the game. I transferred to Oregon State and resumed my PhD, this time focusing on nutrition. During that time I also began my running career on a more professional level, training and racing as a sponsored athlete. I also got married during this time too. I never make things easy :) .

  • It all worked out though, and I grew my running career each year to where I am now. After I finished my coursework at OSU, I was able to move back to Bend to complete my study. During this time I also started a coaching and nutrition business. I felt there was a need for someone who had the educational background and the experience to bridge the gap between training and sports nutrition. There are not many professionals who overlap in both areas - they are either coaches or dietitians. I realized as I built my business that I LOVE working one-on-one with people. I feel I can make a much bigger difference than lecturing in a classroom. So for now the professor hat is on hold to allow me to chase my dreams of running professionally and working with athletes of all abilities, helping them achieve their racing, fitness, and nutrition goals.

After college, you quickly transitioned from Nordic skiing to trail running and ultra trail running. What inspired you to take the leap? What are some of the similarities you see cross over from your Nordic skiing experiences to now ultra running successes?

  • I’ve always been a runner. Whether I wanted to admit it or not. My body was just made to run. I absolutely hated running growing up, but warmed up to it as I got older and matured mentally. I was a decent Nordic skier, but running just came so much more naturally to me.

  • We tend to be drawn to the things we are good at, so it was an organic progression of Stephanie the Runner. I dabbled in trail running because I loved being out on the trails, and due to my competitive nature, I jumped in a few races. And they went really well. The rest is history…

The world just watched Galen Rupp win the first marathon he ever entered. You are equally as inspiring as you won your first 100 mile race you ever entered. Were you expecting to win? At what point in the race did you think 'I’ve got this’?

  • Oh boy. Not at all! In a 100 mile race there are so many things that can go wrong. In a way, it’s much easier to predict success in a marathon based on how the training block went. In a 100 miler, even if you are fit, well prepared, and rested things like GI distress, getting lost, getting blisters, equipment failures, etc. can impact your race. In a 18-24 hour race, there is much more time for all of this to happen compared to 2.5-3 hours. So, I think my win at Western States was a much bigger deal than an elite runner winning a marathon. They are, in my opinion, different sports. I can say that winning Western States, especially as my first 100 miler, was the biggest, most important accomplishment I can imagine. I will never forget the feeling of running into Auburn in the dark and rounding the track under the lights. There were little kids who ran with me and gave me high fives. I think I floated to the finish line. It was the coolest feeling in the world!

I also ran the Lake Sonoma 50 miler last year! Though, I finished many many hours behind your first place finish (congratulations). A lot of us runners in NYC are forced to hit the pavement when training for a trail race. Do you have any trail training tips for runners who don’t immediately live near the trails?

  • I think specificity is really important when it comes to preparing for a race. Meaning, if you are going to run on trails, you need to train on trails. Sadly, there is not a good substitute. I found this out the hard way last summer at UTMB, when the course totally destroyed me! I’m good on the trails, but the Alps are a whole other beast. We don’t have the steep, technical trails they have in Europe, which meant I was not as prepared as I could have been.

  • My solution? Go over to Chamonix early and spend some time in the mountains! My advice to runners who don’t live near trails is to plan some key training runs that take place on the trails. Maybe it won’t happen that often, but even 1-2 sessions on a trail over a weekend in preparation for a race will pay dividends! The experience, and physical benefits, are worth the trip to a trail.

  • For the other training days not on the trail I’d focus on becoming efficient at running slower (yes, sounds counterintuitive, but trails require a slower pace), handling steep hills (crank the treadmill up to 10-15% grade and HIKE uphill), and include some plyometric-type strength training. I think any runner who makes a point to include those specific workouts + spend a few weekends on trails, will be well prepared.

What are some of the biggest mistakes you see runners make in terms of their pre and post workout nutrition?

They don’t fuel! It’s so important to eat something within 30-40 minutes of finishing a workout to start the recovery process. Same with fueling during a run, most runner don’t do it. Can you get through a long run without fuel? Sure! But that doesn’t mean it’s a good idea. Seriously, everyone who doesn’t fuel during or after a run has an excuse. And I’ve heard them all. And they are just that - an excuse. To become a better runner, the nutrition piece is just as important as the training piece. To me, it makes sense to set yourself up for success by fueling properly when you are spending so much time training. My best piece of advice for fueling is: DO IT!Even if you’re not hungry, even if your stomach doesn’t tolerate gels, yada, yada… that’s why you do it in training. Just like fitness, fueling correctly needs some time to become second nature. Your body needs to adjust to taking in fuel while running.

What are your favorite go-to foods or fuel WHILE you’re out on the trails?

  • I really like Clif Bar products because of the quality of ingredients and diversity of products and flavors. As an athlete, what I put into my body is really important to me. Since a lot of my fueling takes place out on the trails, I want to feel good about the products I am fueling with during my runs.

  • Clif Organic Energy Fuel is amazing because the ingredients inside are REAL FOOD. When I’m out on a run I find myself craving real foods, like sweet potatoes, or something salty. I used to carry my own sweet potatoes with me in a Ziplock baggy, which was a hassle and often times a mess. Clif Bar actually reached out to me to help develop their line of Clif Organic Energy Food, which has both sweet and savory options, including Sweet Potato! That made my long runs so much easier and I was still getting the fuel and quality of foods that I desired.

  • What I love about the new Clif line is that it satisfies my physiological craving (salty & sweet) and the ingredients are high quality. Also, by offering both sweet and savory options, I’m able to rotate between flavors and avoid palate fatigue. And that, in a long race or training run is so important! A huge part of my success at Western States was the ability to continue fueling. By altering the sweet and savory I was able to ward off palate fatigue and provide my body with enough energy to make it to the track in Auburn.

Can you tell us a little bit about your recent recovery process? Have you started running yet? Is it too soon to start thinking about future race goals?

  • This varies by the day honestly. I’m on track with where I should be at this time. I’ve done a series of blog posts on my recovery that chronicle the phases of healing. Right now I’m 12 weeks post-surgery and just starting to dabble with running! And by running I mean 5x 30-second intervals of running on the AlterG at 50% of my body weight at a 12 min/mile pace. So yeah, it’s a slow process and I have to be patient. I am seeing progress though every couple days, which helps me to keep looking forward. I have some big goals for this year, which keeps me grounded and focusing on the process. I want to heal and run again soon, so doing the little things, as silly as they seem (like running 5x 30-sec) all add up.