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When Stephanie Howe Violett crossed the finish line of the Bandera 100K in Texas on Saturday, a friend who was crewing for her greeted her excitedly.
“You won!” she said.
Howe Violett, 33, of Bend, Oregon, knew she led the women’s field. No, someone told her, she had won overall. She had passed first-place Justin Ricks in the final 10 miles, but hadn’t grasped that he held the lead.
“What?!” she remembers thinking. “That’s amazing!”
As excited as she was about the result, the bigger victory was her successful return from a long struggle with injury that kept her out of racing for more than a year.
“I’m just so thrilled to be healthy and running again, and just feel like myself,” she says. “It’s been such a long time since I went through a race and was able to execute and push my body.”
Gain, With Pain
In April 2015, Howe Violett won the Lake Sonoma 50-mile, a yearly battle of elites in northern California.
She was coming off a strong year: second at Lake Sonoma in April 2014, first at Western States 100 in June, third at The North Face 50-miler in December, second at the Way Too Cool 50K in March 2015.
For some time, she had had a “nagging pain” in her left heel. It would flare up after a race or long training run, though it always faded after a few days.
Except, after Lake Sonoma in 2015, it hung around. That summer, she gritted out a third-place finish at Western States and, after two months of curtailed training, eighth at the Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc. But it was clear she could no longer run through it.
Howe Violett was suffering from something known as a Haglund’s deformity. “I have this bump on the back of my heel,” she explains. “It’s like this bone that sticks out. And if it’s at the wrong angle or really sharp it can rub against the Achilles, and the body then creates a bursa”—a fluid-filled sac—“to protect it.
“But then the bigger the bursa, the more it rubs,” she continues. “So it’s just a snowball effect.”
That fall of 2015, she underwent various treatments—physical therapy, plasma injection, electrical stimulation—without success.
Finally, she opted for surgery. She researched a specialist in Sweden who had operated on other runners and, in December 2015—two days after defending her Ph.D. dissertation in Nutrition—she boarded a plane.
A Bumpy Recovery
The procedure went well. Howe Violett turned her focus to the 2016 Western States—“this race that meant the world to me”—then six months away.
Her surgeon outlined a recovery process: six weeks of near-complete rest, then PT, upper-body strength work and biking. After three months, she returned to running.
But just two weeks before Western, she developed a stress fracture. As she sees it, her right leg was “compensating” for her weaker, left side.
“It was just a sign of, ‘What are you doing? Slow the F down,’” she adds. “It was crushing.”
So all last summer, she took it easy and truly recovered. She visited friends and went canoeing with her parents in Minnesota’s Boundary Waters. She swam outside for pleasure—“I stopped when I wanted to and worked on my tan”—rather than cross training. For an admitted perfectionist, it was an achievement.
In September, she eased back into running, pressure free. Looking ahead to the high-profile North Face 50, she told her physical therapist, “Hey, there’s this race in December. If I can’t race, cool. If you don’t think I’m ready, fine.”
Anyway, it was too early to tell. “When you’re coming back from something like a new foot, you have to relearn how to run,” she says. “So, like, a mile is a long way.”
In October, after building her mileage, Howe Violett jumped into the Elk-Kings 50K in Tillamook, Oregon, as “a training run.” (She set a course record.)
The North Face 50, on December 3, went less well. “After 35 miles, my body was just done,” she says. “I had to walk, I was emotional and crying, and it was kind of embarrassing.”
Still, her injury felt completely healed. With a month till Bandera, she had enough time for a quick recovery; some easy long runs with her husband, Zach, during a trip to New Zealand; and a couple workouts back home in Bend.
Returning to Form
The Bandera 100K takes place outside San Antonio, in the rolling limestone topography of the Texas Hill Country. On paper, the ragged elevation profile might not impress a Westerner, but the course—two 50K laps—is full of “little punchy hills and technical descents,” in Howe Violett’s description. Rocks stud the trail and the desert plant sotol—a bloom of sharp, sawtoothed blades—grows everywhere.
Howe Violett hoped for first or second place, which guarantees a “Golden Ticket” entry to Western States—but also “just to toe the line again and start getting some confidence back.”
With temps below freezing, she ran in four layers and mittens with hand warmers. The day started off “solid, steady.” She nailed her nutrition—it’s her field of expertise, after all—eating two gels an hour and a candy bar or Clif bar at every aid station.
The relentless up and down made it “hard to really get into a good rhythm,” but Howe Violett says that played to her post-injury strengths: “the sustained faster running is maybe not my forte right now.”
Ten miles from the finish, Howe Violett came into the YaYa Aid Station around the same time as Justin Ricks, a Colorado-based runner with a long resume of podium finishes.
Prioritizing efficiency, Howe Violett was in and out quickly, leaving just ahead of Ricks, not bothering to inquire where she stood in the race overall.
In the end, she beat Ricks by four-and-a-half minutes.
In ultrarunning, unlike most other endurance sports, it’s not unheard of for women to compete at the highest levels, from legends like Ann Trason and Diana Finkel to current stars like Caroline Boller and Maggie Guterl, respective winners of the Brazos Bend 50-mile and 100-mile last month. In fact, at least 28 women won ultras outright in 2016, according to statistics published by Ultrarunning.
Still, Howe Violett’s feat is unusual and impressive, especially at as high-profile a race as Bandera, which serves as the National Trail 100K Championships.
“In some ways it feels the same [as any other win], because I know I did my best,” Howe Violett says, reflecting one day later. “But in terms of for women in the sport, I think it’s huge. Something that’s really important for me is showing that women can be badasses, too. So that made me smile really big.
“It goes to show that there’s more to trail racing than just your time on paper, your speed, your physiology. It’s really about managing yourself out there. To me, it’s cool to have so many variables, because then things like this are possible.”
Still, as she looks ahead at 2017—training for Western States and UTMB, but not before a well-earned skiing-and-yoga break—she emphasizes that the personal accomplishment tops any broader meaning.
“Yes, it was so cool to win a national championship. And yes, it was cool to win overall and get a Golden Ticket,” she says. “But it’s even a bigger thing to me to feel like I can trust my body again.”
Paul Cuno-Booth (@paulcunobooth) writes from Glenwood Springs, Colorado.