We have already seen her passion and enthusiasm for physical fitness and running, and the role it can play in social upliftment. In part 2 of her interview, Stephanie Case speaks about how she builds up the resilience for ultra-marathons. Read the first part here.
A practiced ultra-marathoner, Stephanie has won and placed in a number of international running events, ranging from 250km multi-day desert races to 100-mile mountain races, from the Swedish Arctic to the Gobi Desert, and from the French Alps to Hong Kong. The Founder and President of Free to Run NGO discusses her love for ultra-running and what makes the sport so intrinsic to her life.
What got you interested in running initially?
I actually hated running when I started. I was training for my first marathon, which was for charity, and I couldn’t wait for it to be over. I thought that the race itself would be inspiring and life-changing, but at the finish line I felt like I wanted something more. It didn’t seem worth it to train for months, only to spend a few hours in the actual race. But when I found a 250 km self-supported footrace in Northern Vietnam, I knew I had found my match! Once I got out into trails and started delving into longer distances, I fell in love with the sport. I truly believe that trail running and ultrarunning cannot be compared with regular road running. They are completely different sports.
You’re a competitive ultrarunner with several triumphs under your belt. What has personally been one of your most challenging races?
From a physical perspective, the Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc has definitely been my most challenging race so far. I can remember leaving a checkpoint somewhere near the 120km mark of the 167km race, vomiting in front of a ton of people, and then tripping over myself as I made my way down the hill. Covered in vomit, dirt and blood, I couldn’t figure out how I was supposed to run another 40 or 50 km and climb another couple thousand meters. But, somehow, I did. I lost and gained a piece of my soul on those mountains. I will never forget the feeling of crossing the finish line having run through three countries all at once… It is as close as I think I will ever be to feeling like I could live forever; it was like touching the sky with my hands.
Any ultras on your bucket list that you’re keen to take on?
Tor des Geants has been on my bucket list for quite some time. It is a 330km non-stop footrace in the Italian Alps with 24000 meters of climb. Simply epic. I managed to get an automatic entry this year simply because I was applying from Gaza, so we’ll see how far my treadmill training will take me!
Give us a glimpse into your fitness and training routine on a regular day.
When I am in Gaza, I can only work out in the late afternoon or early evening as I can’t get an armoured vehicle early enough to take me to the gym before work start. I either run on the treadmill, around the parking lots in the UN office compound, the rooftop of one of the UN buildings, or sometimes pull a tire around (connected by rope to a weight belt around my waist) for resistance training. I try to get out of Gaza every other weekend, just so that I can do some long runs and clear my head.
Maintaining my nutrition is just as hard sometimes as maintaining my fitness. When I lived in South Sudan last year, for example, I had no fresh vegetables or fruit in my diet, and only a small amount of protein. I lived on rice and beans for six months, which left me very lethargic. In Gaza, it is easier – fruits and vegetables are available and I can get protein from eggs. However, finding time to go to the grocery store can be a challenge. I can’t just pop out to grab something if I need it, which makes it difficult sometimes.
How would you recommend ultrarunning to beginners? What are some important tips to keep in mind on the trail?
I would offer three pieces of advice:
1. Take time to focus on you. Ultrarunning is really about challenging yourself and finding new sources of strength deep within. It is as much mentally challenging and rewarding as it is physically – use it to your advantage to help spur personal growth, fitness and confidence.
2. Always, always, always help out other runners. One of the things that I really think sets ultrarunning apart from regular road running is the sense of connection with other runners on the trail, and with that comes a certain responsibility to help see each other through. While I do believe ultrarunning is a good way to reflect and learn about ourselves, I also think that it fosters strong relationships with others on the trail. If you come across someone who needs water, food, electrolytes, or simply a bit of a chat to cheer them up, you give it. You’ll need it yourself at some point down the trail, so help spread the good karma.
3. Just go for it! It can be easy to convince ourselves that something is impossible. Before I ran my first ultra, the idea of running 100 km without stopping seemed insane. But how could I have known? I had never tried it before! I was shocked to discover that while I hated running 40 km, longer distances actually felt easier. Sometimes you just need to take the plunge and allow yourself to discover what you are really capable of doing.
Main Image: Trail running in Davos