Athlete for Yoga Stephanie Howe Violett just completed her third Western States 100 Mile Endurance Run. For those keeping score, she won her debut WS100 in 2014 and placed 3rd in 2015. This year was a different story, she describes being surprised by her body suffering early, but she pushed through all mounting odds and finished the 100 mile race in less than 24 hours. As she said in her follow up IG, "...an easy day pales in comparison to a day like this. And when everything falls apart and yet you find the strength to continue... THAT is success. And it's tragically beautiful." We were honored to interview her after this race — not a conversation to miss!
Your day at WS100 wasn’t what you’d trained for or envisioned. When did you know things were sliding sideways?
I knew after the high country. I came into Robinson Flat, at mile 30 just feeling a little more worked than I should have felt at that point. I think a lot of runners were in the same place. Running over 13 miles of snow and then lots of mud, brush, and rocks sucked the energy out of me. I knew I was in for a rough day. I just didn’t know how rough...
When did you know it was time to throw race day plan went out the window, how did you stay engaged? How did you adjust?
In a 100 miler things rarely go to plan, so adjusting goals is part of the plan. My ultimate goal in any race I begin is to finish what I start. So, that became my primary goal after things fell apart. As I laid in the medical tent at mile 48 I started to wrap my mind around how I’d physically get my body the next 52 miles to Auburn. That became the new goal. Just to finish. As things progressed and started to get a *little better, I adjusted my goals for a sub-24 hour finish. Then again, to a sub 23-hour as I got closer to Auburn. I ended up finishing 22 hours 52 minutes.
Eventually it sounds like you were literally just fighting to remain conscious, what pulled you through to the finish?
Yes. I was in survival mode. Nothing else mattered except getting myself to the finish line. I drew energy from my fellow competitors, my friends, and all the people following me from afar. I thought about everyone who had reached out before my race, and I didn’t want to let them down. I thought a lot about how I respond when things get really tough: Do I give up? Or do I persevere?
I’m really stubborn and I like to finish what I start. There is nothing worse than recovering from a DNF race. I get a lot of satisfaction in crossing the finish line, no matter how long it takes me. And especially when things get tough, it feels even more satisfying! A lot of “elite” runners pull the plug when they aren’t having a great day. And I really dislike that. I think finishing, despite a really awful day, is respectable.
What mantras (if any) did you employ?
I just tried to keep moving forward. Words going through my head were to just keep doing the best I could. I tried to stay positive, rather than sink into the overwhelming darkness that was trying to suck me in. Instead I kept seeking the lightness, and keeping my goal to not let that slip.
In your pre-race interview with iRunFar, you talked about the gratitude you felt just to be competing. The joy and love you found in the sport was palpable. Were you able to tap back to those feelings when things got hard?
Yes. I had so many opportunities to stop. But one thought I kept coming back to was how much of a privilege it is to be running WS. I thought about that during some of the toughest sections. Despite feeling completely broken, I was still happier to be running than to be in my shoes last year; cheering from the sidelines.
We’ve heard you talk about how you adjust when things get hard, or go wrong, and in 100 mile races of course things go wrong — probably things you can’t even imagine. What was the most surprising obstacle at WS100 and how did you problem solve it?
I think the most surprising was that my entire body fell apart really early. I think it was a combination of things — but a lot of it was the heat. I just had to work through things. At Devils Thumb, mile 48, I was weaving up the trail. Instead of trying to push on and probably passing out soon after, I checked into the medical tent. I spent an hour there bringing myself back to life. It’s really disheartening to do that when you aren’t even halfway. It took a lot of courage to walk out of that aid station an hour later and attempt to continue the next 52 miles...
Any strange fuel surprises? I heard the avocado wraps were a hit with another runner…
Ugh. I struggled with food. All I wanted was salty food and broth. Later in the day, I would sit down in the aid stations and eat as much as I could. I found that soup and cheese quesadillas were the best fuel to bring me back to life. I made it a goal to eat as much as I could to get me through the next hour or so. It wasn’t pleasant, but it salvaged at least part of my race.
You’re still so close to the event, it’s hard to have perspective, but what’s the word you’d use to describe the day right now?
WS100 highest high:
Crossing the finish line in Auburn, knowing I gave my absolute best... and then some.
A close second was spending an hour in the med tent patiently trying to bring myself back to life. I could have pulled the plug, but instead I kept working to get myself back on track. Walking out of Devils Thumb an hour later amidst the cheers from all the volunteers who diligently nursed me back to life was pretty incredible.
WS100 most challenging challenge:
The high country, the heat in the canyons, the long miles in the darkness... I think the whole day pushed my limits.
Probably the toughest thing was laying in the med tent crying my eyes out and shivering, trying to imagine how I’d physically get myself another 52 more miles...
How will you be recovering?
I actually don’t feel too bad right now! I’m in California this week visiting family and just relaxing. The first 48 hours post-race I spent most of the time in bed and eating. I felt a little pathetic, but I feel much better for it.
For my mind, I’m trying to continue to have thoughts of gratitude to my body and mind for getting me through the day. I think the mental aspect of recovery is way underestimated. It’s easy to sink into the post-race blues. It’s something I’ve been working on each time I race 100 miles. It’s easy to sink into a grey lull, after being on such a high for weeks and months leading into the race. Then the race happens and it leaves your body totally broken, which can really impact your mind. I’ve had major post-race let down after previous 100 milers.
And again, so hard to ask this so close to the event finish, but what’s next?
Haha! Great question. I have UTMB later this summer. It’s another 100 miler around Mt. Blanc, starting in Chamonix and running through France, Italy, and Switzerland. Although, one of the first things I told my husband Zach upon finishing WS was, “I’m dropping down to the OCC”, which is the 55k race version of UTMB, a few days before the big guy. He laughed. But I was pretty serious! I don’t think it’s a good idea to make any race plans until AT LEAST one week post-100 miler race. So stay tuned...