*Original interview posted on MadAthlete.com. Thanks for the interview, Zandy!*
INTERVIEW WITH ULTRARUNNERGIRL, STEPHANIE CASE
It is impossible to summarize the phenomenon that is Stephanie Case. Hollywood take note – this girl’s life is already worthy of a riveting memoir or feature documentary. We are interviewing Stephanie because she is not only an ultrarunning, stage-racing, Madathlete, but she is also a champion of human rights, a writer and an artist.
I met Stephanie while sharing a tent at RacingThePlanet’s 2010, 250km Australia race. A volcanic eruption resulted in many flight cancellations thus causing several runners to miss the race, but not Stephanie Case. She took a train from London to Paris, chartered a taxi from Paris to Madrid, rerouted her flights to Australia through the Middle East and somehow made the start – allbeit sans gaiters. Undeterred, she painstakingly crafted a pair of gaiters out of her buffs, safety pins and spare needles and thread, ultimately finishing as 2nd woman and 8th overall.
Her racing resume includes 1st and 2nd places in five 250km multi-day events, including most recently 1st place at the ICE Ultra in Swedish Lapland, which she completed on snowshoes. She has also excelled at single stage races, placing 1st at the Vermont 100 mile endurance race in 2009, 4th at the Ultra Race of Champions in 2011, and 11th female and 163rd overall at the formidable Ultra-Trail du Mont Blanc in 2013.
In between racing, Stephanie works tirelessly to improve the conditions of people around the world. She has been stationed in such hotspots as Kabul, Afghanistan where she worked for women’s rights. Stephanie is currently carrying out aid work in South Sudan, where she lives in a tent in a remote location that has become home to almost 100,000 individuals displaced by recent conflict. You can follow her on Facebook or at ultrarunnergirl.com for an up to the minute report of experiences in South Sudan, in addition to her experiences as an international ultrarunner.
MA: You are currently living in a camp for internally displaced persons (IDPs) in South Sudan. Could explain how you ended up there?
SC: I wish I knew! Just kidding. The short answer is that I had been unemployed for a number of months and was desperate to get back to work again, so I took the first job offer I got. However, the longer, real answer, requires a bit more explanation. Last year my life was filled with a lot of change and sadly turmoil. In an effort to try to build a ‘normal’ life, I gave up my job and eventually moved to Hong Kong to be with my partner at the time. I had everything a ‘normal’ person would perhaps want, but something was seriously lacking. It looked great from the outside, but inside I was miserable. I missed the adventure, the passion, and the challenge in my life. Within days of relocating to Hong Kong, the relationship crashed and burned. It was a huge shock, but in hindsight, it was the best thing that could have happened to me. I needed something ‘more’ and the path I was on was never going to get me there. In the months prior to coming to South Sudan, I spent a lot of time thinking about the Big Picture: what defined me as a person, where I wanted to be, and what kind of life I wanted to lead. I decided that there was no such thing as a ‘normal’ life – especially not for me. I wanted extraordinary and was going to do whatever it took to find it, even if that meant temporary hardship. In February, as I was flying out to Sweden for the ICE Ultra, I received the job offer in South Sudan. I was terrified, but I took it – and I’m so glad I did! This is just a temporary move for me, but it was a necessary one. My friends keep telling me how happy I sound, which seems strange given where I am – but I’m back to where I need to be. I am so grateful for everything that has happened to get me to this point. It’s a pretty special thing to know what you want to do in life – actually doing it is the easy part.
MA: Your FB page has some of the most amazing running updates from South Sudan. Could you elaborate on your experience running there? How do locals respond? Do you feel conspicuous or in danger?
SC: I try to go running everyday just to get a bit of a break from the chaos of work, but unfortunately it is becoming harder and harder to do, due to the rainy season. The route I used to run through the bush is now flooded so I have to run through the market, which isn’t nearly as ‘zen’. Wherever I go, it always causes a bit of a spectacle. Seeing a ‘kawadja’ (a white person) around these parts is not common, even with all of the NGOs here, and seeing a female kawadja running is even stranger. There’s no such thing as blending in when you glow in the dark! I get a few different types of reactions. Mostly the men act with surprise or amusement. Some of them try to mimic me as I run and giggle at the sight of my white legs. Many of the women frown at me in confusion until I smile and wave, and then they either laugh or join me, carrying their machetes and jerry cans along the way. The kids respond with either extreme excitement as they trip over themselves to come grab my hand, or they run off into the bush in fear. Many of the children have been taught that when they see someone running, it means there is trouble or violence behind them, so their immediate reaction is to run and hide. It is an awful thing to see and a constant reminder of the struggles that the people here have faced.
MA: I read that you started an NGO to promote social change through running? What is your strategy?
SC: Yes! I am delighted to tell you about my new NGO, Free to Run (the website will be up shortly). Free to Run’s mission is to use running, physical fitness and outdoor adventure to empower and educate females in conflict-affected communities to overcome the harmful effects of gender, religious and ethnic discrimination. Starting this NGO has been a lifelong dream of mine as it combines my love of running with my passion for women’s rights. I have seen first-hand the power of sport to effect change in oneself and in one’s community. Unfortunately, in many areas of the world, there are few opportunities to participate in sport or engage in many other aspects of public life. Women and girls are especially restricted as a result of widespread discrimination and traditional cultural beliefs about female roles. There is an overwhelming need to develop and support opportunities for females to become involved in sport in conflict-affected communities, and I’m absolutely honored that I have the chance to do something about it.
I’ve been lucky enough to secure funding for our first project thanks to the generosity of RacingThePlanet, which I’m running in Afghanistan this summer. I have to keep the details a bit vague at this point due to security concerns, but I’m incredibly excited about it. The plan is to run projects in two countries within the first year by pairing with local partners, and then build upon those relationships to expand to longer term programming in a year two. I’m so fortunate to have support in the running community, without which this wouldn’t be possible. [We already have a number of runners who are fundraising for Free to Run by competing in RacingThePlanet Ecuador!]
MA: As a result of work and travel you have had to train whenever and wherever possible, what are other unexpected places you have trained for an ultra?
SC: I’ve trained inside an armed compound in Afghanistan, mountain ranges and walnut forests in Kyrgyzstan, and even up and down stairs in a beautiful old hotel in Syria. When I was on lockdown in Juba a few weeks ago, I was able to workout for an hour simply by creating a circuit in the enclosed parking lot. You can train anywhere, even with just a few meters of space.
MA: Is it a challenge to adhere to vegetarianism while living where you are? Does this affect your training?
SC: I’m not actually a vegetarian – more of a pescatarian. I do not eat red meat and I’ve gradually phased out white meat as well, so I’m avoiding all land animals now! Here, my diet consists of rice and beans, with the occasional can of tuna if I can find it in the market. I normally live on salads, so this has been a huge change for me. It is a struggle and I have really felt the effects of the poor nutrition. My energy levels are at an all-time low. I am the only kawadja in my compound and I’m pretty sure my colleagues think I’m insane for not eating meat. Every day, one of my colleagues orders me, “Today, you eat meat!” And I have to go through the whole explanation all over again. After witnessing a goat slaughter the first month I arrived, I decided to buy a baby goat as a pet. I’m trying to make sure no one eats Majak. Never a dull moment!
MA: Have the challenges of competing in ultras prepared you for stresses of the job?
SC: Definitely. The discomfort and hardship you experience in ultras is directly transferrable to field work. I think the idea of taking things one step at a time, one mile at a time, one day at a time is also useful.
MA: How did you get into ultrarunning?
SC: The way every good plan is concocted – over too many glasses of wine! I was just looking for a life-changing, earth shattering, soul seeking type of adventure. Eventually, I stumbled across a 250 km self-supported race in Vietnam and I thought bingo. For someone who grew up as a completely awkward, non-athletic bookworm, it seemed impossible. As it turns out, my body likes running really, really long distances. So I kept doing it.
MA: Did you start with the intention to be competitive?
SC: Absolutely not! I started with the intention of trying something impossible and maybe finishing. I had three goals in my first ultra: (1) don’t get lost (which I did) (2) stay upright (which I didn’t) (3) and don’t vomit. I don’t think I vomited that race, but I’m pretty sure I did pee on myself at some stage so I can’t really call that a win. I wouldn’t say I’m competitive with others – there’s no reason to be. The whole point of ultras (for me) is to see what my limits are and try to surpass them. I’m definitely competitive with myself, but I try not to be.
MA: Upcoming races?
SC: I was signed up for the Tarawera 100 km and UTMF as I really wanted to complete a few more races in the Ultra Trail World Tour. However, with my job in South Sudan, it is impossible from a logistical point of view and a training point of view. But that’s okay for the moment. I’m happy taking a break and focusing on this crazy intense job I have for now. I’m planning on heading back to Hong Kong soon and will spend some quality time getting my legs back on the trails! Hopefully I’ll be back to racing this fall.
MA: Could you tell us three important lessons for someone attempting their first stage race?
SC: It’s not about the race. It’s about the friends you make and the experience you have. You’ll quickly forget what place you came in, but you’ll always remember how you felt crossing the line at the end… and who was there to give you a hug! You’re going to hit some low moments. Really low moments. Expect them, embrace them, and know that they will pass (because they will). You will get through them and there is a high moment just around the corner. Some people say that you should save your energy in a stage race for the ‘long day’ (if there is one). I say screw it – if you feel good, run. If you feel badly, walk. Just go with what your body tells you.
MA: You have been able to tell the story of your life, including your love life vis-a-vis running. Can we expect a book or memoir down the road?
SC: You know, when I started my blog years ago, I was totally uncomfortable with the whole concept. I thought it was a bit self-involved and I didn’t think I had anything interesting enough to say that other people would want to read. But over the years, the more I’ve opened up and the more authentic I allowed myself to be, the better responses I have received. The blog has actually kept me honest (with myself and with others). Previously, I might have tried to put on a brave face when going through a rough time. Now, I say hey, this is me! I think everyone can relate to going through a rough time, whether it is in training, in life or in love. Those that try to hide away from their struggles are the ones who end up suffering in the end. The blog has been a great way to connect with people and share experiences. I imagine a book might do the same. While I don’t have any specific plans to write one at this stage, let’s just say it has crossed my mind… I’ve had a lot of fun developing my writing career and there is more in store. Watch this space!
MA: Assuming you’re on a well-deserved break from training and work, what’s for dinner, where and champagne or white wine?
SC: Menu: Something green and crunchy would definitely be on the menu. Having not had a single vegetable for the last six weeks, that is all I can think about. Throw in some oysters, maybe some miso-glazed black cod, green papaya salad, and cold vanilla ice cream for dessert. I know these things don’t go well together, but these foods top the list things I’m missing right now! (No, I’m not pregnant). Oh yeah, and my mom’s cioppino stew. It is my regular ‘welcome home’ and ‘bon voyage’ meal, so as you can image I have it a lot! Location: not nearly as important as who I’m with, but I love eating outside. Drink of choice: Champagne, no-brainer. I may be living in a tent, but I haven’t lost certain expensive tastes (unfortunately for my bank account).
MA: NYC or Paris?
SC: Despite an amazing trip to Paris a few months ago (I was properly spoiled), I would pick NYC every time. Nothing beats the energy, diversity and magic of New York. It is a city that attracts go-getters, dreamers and believers. Anything is possible in New York. I’ve lived there four times already and I have no doubt I will be back there again. It exhausts me and fulfills me at the same time.
Original interview posted on madathlete.com on July 25, 2014. Updates included in this post on July 31, 2014.