It’s no wonder why ultra runner Wally Hesseltine is enamored with the pursuit of Western States 100-Mile Endurance…
Stephanie Howe: Committed to a Comeback
A longer-than-expected, and somewhat windy path back to success after injury has given this ultrarunner a new, welcomed perspective.
Stephanie Howe doesn’t take running—or being outside—for granted.
For much of 2015, the 33-year-old ultramarathoner suffered severe pain in her left heel—a Haglund deformity and a bursa. “It got to the point where it would affect my quality of life,” she says. “I decided to not suffer through it and get surgery.” So in December of 2015, Howe flew to Sweden to, as she says, “get my foot cut open.”
Howe, who had won the Speedgoat 50K in 2013 and the Western States 100-Mile Endurance Run in 2014 (as her debut 100-Miler), says undergoing surgery was daunting. “But it was a good feeling,” she says of the decision, “a weight lifted off my chest. It was also the beginning of a long journey to recovery.”
That journey was longer and more full of detours than she had anticipated. But those detours gave her new perspective—as detours often do—that she appreciates to this day.
Following the surgery, Howe was motivated to cross-train enough to be ready for Western States in June, her favorite race. But two weeks before the event, she had to pull out due to a stress fracture in her right leg, which she got from overcompensating for her post-surgery left leg.
“That reset a lot of things for me,” she says. “It was really hard at first. But then I thought, ‘Running will be there.’ I couldn’t even walk, so I let it go. I put running on the back burner."
Howe explains how she refocused her attention on other parts of her life and had “a really good summer, actually.” She painted, cooked, and traveled. When she was healthy enough, she went hiking and camping with her dog. “I did things outside that were stimulating. It was fun.”
By fall, Howe was feeling good and ready to start running again, and she did so with a new sense of vigor and appreciation for every step. “My mind was rejuvenated, and I was happy,” she explains.
After a couple months of training, she toed the line of The North Face Endurance Challenge just north of San Francisco. But her great comeback story didn’t happen there; the race didn’t go as well as she’d hoped. Her body “fell apart” at mile 35, and she persevered to finish in 9th place.
Again, it was a shift in perspective—this time in the form of traveling to New Zealand and running long tracks with her husband, plus a couple treadmill runs (two of seven or eight total in her life, she says) upon returning to the states for leg speed—that prepared her for the next event on her agenda.
And at the Bandera 100K in January, Howe ran healthy. She won the race outright, finishing first among both the women’s field and the men’s. “Normally, I like to downplay things,” she says. “But this one was kind of like, ‘Wow, that was incredible.’ I finally felt like myself. I’m still smiling about it.”
Through the ups and downs of the last couple of years, Howe seems to be back on track, running and racing on two good legs. But she explains that in ways, she’s glad she was forced to take time off last summer. “I realized that there are other things that make me happy,” she says.
Howe, who has a PhD in nutrition and exercise physiology, also explains how she’s learned how not to take advantage of her body, and to respect it. “I ask a lot of it, and I have to give back to it,” she says. She does yoga daily and focuses on nutrition, eating “real food” and being “very particular about quality.”
“And I’m more committed to being healthy and integrating running as part of a lifestyle,” she says. “I’m not being more dedicated to training and racing. It’s more that I really love feeling healthy and moving without hurting.”
Howe also appreciates the outdoors even more than before. She’ll run in snow, sleet, or rain, and is outside all winter long in Bend, Oregon, where she lives. “A lot of the times, it’s not so much for the workout,” she says, “but because I love being outside.”