Interview with Outdoor Buzz
Reposted from Outdoor Buzz, a new website for action and travel junkies with an eco edge. Thanks to Gareth for the chance to chat!
An Inspiring ‘Case’
Stephanie Case began running ultras six years ago, completing the likes of six 250km self-supported footraces around the world (she came 1st in Vietnam and Nepal and 2nd in Australia and the Gobi) – and winning Vermont’s 100-mile endurance race for good measure. When she’s not running, she focuses on her other major passion – her Human Rights work. We caught up with her about her inspiring life.
You once hated running – what changed?
When I was training for my first marathon, running was a chore. It was a means to an end, and that end was simply crossing the finish line. However, once I completed that first marathon, I was still left with the question: “was that it?” I felt like I had missed out on something. In the weeks that followed, I started to go out on runs simply for pleasure rather than for training. I began to enjoy running for the sake of running. Once it no longer became a chore, I realized that running was an end in itself – this is what I had missed out on when training for the marathon. If you spend months treating your training as an evil necessity, then it will certainly start to feel evil! For me, now running is a necessity, but an extremely positive one. No other sport I’ve tried has given me the same amount of personal challenge, insight, joy, pain, and friendship as running. I truly don’t know what I would do without it.
What has been your greatest running challenge to date?
My greatest running challenge so far has been training for and competing in the Ultra-Trail du Mont Blanc (UTMB), which I finished this year in August. I think most runners would agree that UTMB is the ultimate challenge. We’re talking about a 100 mile non-stop race through three countries covering 9,600m of elevation change. Thousands of people strive to meet the qualification requirements every year and only about 2600 make it in (which is still a huge amount for an ultra!).
The feeling of collective anticipation, fear, and raw passion on the start line was like nothing I’ve ever experienced before. When I set out on this course, I knew I had trained as hard as I could…and I knew that I had covered 100 miles before. But I really didn’t know if I would be able to finish UTMB and survive all of those mountains. I managed to finish 11th female and 163rd overall out of thousands of runners, so I did much better than I expected! That being said, it was simply the toughest race I have ever had. I cried, I vomited, I fell multiple times… but I triumphed. It was epic. And I loved it.
Do you have an ultimate goal you’d like to achieve?
I don’t have any one particular goal – I have MANY! There are so many places in the world to see, so many challenges, and so many opportunities…and I’m lucky enough to be surrounded by amazing friends who feel the same way. For instance, two of my girlfriends recently competed in a race in the Arctic Circle in which they had to run on ice while pulling their own sled of supplies. How incredible is that? Ideally, in the coming years, I would love to run to the South Pole, organize my own ultra expedition in a random location, and run through the high-altitude hills of Central Afghanistan. Ha, but in the short-term? We’ll see!
What are your tips for improving stamina?
My biggest tip would be to not get discouraged. So many people start out running and they either get injured or they experience some kind of setback in their training. When this happens, they assume they are “just not meant to be a runner” and they quit. This is simply not true. I had so many doctors tell me that I shouldn’t run or that it wasn’t healthy… but I refused to give up. Of course, I was over-training and making all sorts of mistakes, but sometimes this is part of the process. If you are patient with yourself and with your body, you can withstand the setbacks. It is normal to experience highs and lows, but the more you keep at it, the better you will get in the long run (no pun intended!).
How does your running fit in with your humanitarian work?
Running is vital for me to relieve stress from my day-to-day work in human rights. I usually say that in order to have a still mind, my legs need to be moving. Without running, I would definitely burn out! In the past, I have also used running as a way to fundraise for causes that I care about. For example, while I lived in Afghanistan, I ran three ultras in support of a women’s NGO that ran shelters for abused women across the country. I love combining my two passions that way and I feel lucky to be able to do it.
How did you get into this line of work?
It’s been a long road (and I’m still wondering where it will take me!). From early on, I’ve always had a passion for human rights and assisting vulnerable populations. I also knew that I was extremely lucky to have grown up in Canada and that the world was so, so much more than what I had experienced. So, during my second year of university, I decided to take part of the school term off to go volunteer at a medical clinic in Ghana. From then on, I was hooked. I have since gone on to volunteer in the Amazon jungle in Ecuador and teach english to Buddhist monks in Thailand, work on legal projects in East and West Africa, South-East Asia and the Middle East, and of course Afghanistan and Kyrgyzstan this past year. I don’t know where I’ll wind up next, but as long as I stay true to my passions, I’ll be happy.
What drives this passion?
My favourite quote is one that says we aren’t here on this earth to see through one another, but to see one another through. I bring that same philosophy into my work and into my running. What is the point of being here if we aren’t going to help each other out? I believe that everyone has that part in them (or at least they do if they look for it!), but it can be manifested in different ways. Some choose to work really hard to provide for their family, others choose to donate money to charity. I just happen to do it in a more unconventional way. For me, the way I choose to help others is quite tangible and that makes it rewarding for me. My work does require a certain degree of hardship, but I can’t imagine it any other way. It is more than a passion – I believe it is a responsibility.
With all the travelling you’ve done, where is your favourite place to run and the biggest culture shock?
I’ve been lucky enough to run in so many great places – it is hard to choose! The trails North of Vancouver where I lived for four years certainly hold a special place in my heart, and after completing UTMB, I feel a deep connection with the Mont Blanc route. Aside from those trails, the few other places that immediately spring to mind are Nepal, Namibia and Vietnam. Oh, and Southern England near Land’s End.
In terms of culture shock, I think it is usually the people that see me in other countries running that are suffering from culture shock, rather than me! In many of the places I have worked or run, people aren’t used to seeing women running by themselves – or even walking. So I’m used to the stares.
Was there anywhere you were working or visiting where you have been unable to run? We imagine the Amazon rainforest must have been hard!
Ha! Actually, when I was volunteering in the Amazon, I hadn’t yet found running. I was extremely active though as I was doing wildlife biodiversity research. Every morning, we would head out trekking into the jungle for hours – great exercise!
Afghanistan was probably my biggest challenge in terms of training. I was living inside an armed compound in which the longest stretch of road was only about 800m. When you have to get in a 50 km training run, this poses a challenge! It took a lot of determination (and a huge dose of stubbornness), but I made it through. As long as I have running shoes and it is safe for me to venture out alone, I can run anywhere. And if it isn’t safe, I drag someone out with me.
Have you had any scary moments or near misses on your travels?
Perhaps… but since I know that my mother is going to be reading this, I will dumb down my answer! There was one particularly close attack just before Christmas in Afghanistan that really hit home, but generally I’ve been lucky. I did happen to break my jaw mountain biking in Rwanda while doing some pro bono work there, but that was my own fault. I try not to tempt fate too much, but you have to have a certain amount of fearlessness to do the work that I like to do.
Do you think you could ever go back to a nine-to-five job?
I don’t think 9-to-5 is in my nature. Even if I had a normal job, I tend to work at all hours anyway. Go big or go home, right? That is the blessing and the curse of having my job and my life’s passion combined. It is hard to put it away.
Any exciting plans in the pipeline?
Always! The unfortunate side of my work is that it is very unpredictable, so often I have to change my race plans at the last minute. For instance, I was meant to be competing in the inaugural Lesotho Ultra Trail at the end of November, which would have been amazing, but I’ve now got to be in Oslo for a course related to refugee work. With that in mind, I’m currently signed up for the Tarawera 100 km race in New Zealand in March and Ultra Trail of Mount Fuji in April… but who knows! At the moment, I’m taking a four-week French immersion course in the south of France, but I will have to see where my feet take me next.
Stephanie Case, 31, is a human rights lawyer and Canadian ultrarunner whose passion for long distances is mirrored by her passion for human rights work. Over the past few years, her work and racing has taken her everywhere from Afghanistan to Nepal to the French Alps and back, and she is showing no signs of stopping anytime soon. Some of her running highlights so far include 1st place female in RacingThePlanet Vietnam (2008) and Nepal (2011), 2nd place female in RacingThePlanet Australia (2010) and Gobi (2012), 1st place female in Vermont 100 miler (2009), 11th place female/163rd overall in UTMB.