Last updated: 15-Nov-18
By Luke Jarmey
With International Women’s Day fresh in our minds, we thought it apt to have a chat with one of the most impressive and adventure driven female ultra runners around. Now a few months down the line, we’re bubbling with excitement to share this piece with you all.
It’s not all about personal exploits here though. If Stephanie Case’s running wasn’t impressive enough, she also happens to be a human rights lawyer, working for organisations such as the UN. Furthermore, she combines her expertise in this field, as the Founder of Free to Run, a non-profit organization which uses sport to empower women and girls who have been affected by conflict.
Q. Thanks for jumping into this with us Stephanie. Now where on earth do we start… tepidly put, you’re a wealth of wonderful running and humanitarian exploits! But let’s kick it off with a brief synopsis about who you are and what you’re all about?
A. Ha, thanks – life has taken some pretty interesting turns so far! In a nutshell, I’m a 34-year-old human rights lawyer from Canada who trains for ultramarathons in war zones. But before people start getting too excited that this is some kind of secret training technique, let me clarify that this is not a recommended strategy!
I specialize in human rights and humanitarian emergencies, which has brought to some of the most difficult places on earth in which to live and work… and definitely to train for ultramarathons. I spent a year living inside an armed compound in Kabul, six months living in a tent in South Sudan, and another two years living in an apartment in Gaza, where I wasn’t allowed to walk outside.
Each of these places brought different challenges and threats, from potential terrorist attacks and kidnappings to health risks, such as cholera and typhoid. But I never stopped running. I currently work for the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in Geneva and am the President and Founder of a charity I started in 2014, Free to Run.
Q. Ok throwing it back to the beginning, where did you grow up and what’s your background in running?
A. I grew up in Canada just outside of Toronto, although I claim I’m from Vancouver, which is where I discovered my love of running! My parents birthed me in the wrong place (ha). I didn’t start running until my mid-20s. In fact, growing up, I wasn’t very sporty at all. You’re looking at the band camp geek right here.
It isn’t that I wasn’t interested in sports, but I just didn’t have the confidence. I assumed that I was just not a sporty person – I mean, I played the flute. However, in high school, I got into sailing and became a coach, and then in University I made the varsity rowing team. That was when I realized that we aren’t intrinsically made sporty or unsporty – we all have the potential to become athletic if we allow ourselves to try.
In law school I decided to try a marathon. It seemed like the ultimate challenge and I trained diligently. However, when I finally completed the race, I was just left with a feeling of disappointment. I couldn’t understand why I had trained for so many months for a race that was over in just a few hours. Did it matter whether I finished in 3 hours or 4 hours or 5? To me, it didn’t. I wanted something more – more variety, more camaraderie, more challenge and more of the unknown. The marathon seems too predictable and tidy. I went in search of unpredictable and messy. What’s the point of starting something you know you will finish?
Q. When did ultra running enter the foray?
A. In 2007, I started looking for other types of challenges. I found RacingThePlanet: Vietnam, a 250km self-supported footrace in Sapa in the North of the country. It was exactly what I was looking for: gnarly, unpredictable and remote. That kind of distance was unfathomable to me at the time. I wasn’t sure my body would be able to hold up, so I trained like a beast. I don’t think I’ve ever been as fit since! Oh, to be 25 again.
I went into the race just hoping to finish. I really had no idea what I was doing. Day one was over 100km off the bat through mud-covered trails, rivers and rain. I was second at the end of the day (first female) and ended up finishing third overall, first female by the end of the week. That’s when I realized I had finally found my sport.
Q. Just diving over to your working background, when and how did the interest in law, human rights and humanitarian issues take hold?
A. I have always wanted to learn more about the world – other cultures, landscapes, backgrounds and religions. I feel quite lucky to have grown up in Canada, but it was a sheltered existence. How can we possibly have opinions about, well, anything if we only know an infinite fraction of how the world really works?
I went into this field aiming to learn as much as I could, and to show solidarity with others facing difficult circumstances. I wanted to help people, of course, but I was conscious of trying to avoid the ‘white saviour complex’ that plagues so many young humanitarians from the ‘West’. I consider it a privilege to work in human rights and humanitarian emergencies. To be let into people’s homes, their lives, and their struggles, and bear witness to atrocities they have suffered and disasters they have been forced to endure – it is a responsibility that I do not take lightly.
Q. Tell us about your work with the UN.
A. I currently work for the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in Geneva after almost five years in the field. Previously, my work was very hands on, including monitoring and reporting on human rights violations by government actors or non-state armed groups, visiting detention facilities, interviewing victims of violations, and coordinating humanitarian services. Now, my work is much more desk-based, but it is challenging in a different way.
I have more frequent contact with diplomats and can stay on top of wide-ranging issues being discussed at the UN Human Rights Council and other inter-governmental fora, which is a nice change. It is a nice break being able to use my brain in a more relaxed setting, rather than having to constantly rely on my ‘fight/flight’ reflexes to react to circumstances as they occur.
Q. I’ve heard that your exercising space was rather ‘limited’ whilst out in Gaza. Now most people in those circumstances would have shelved any grand designs on entering and therefore being able to train for the infamous Tor des Géants (TDG). So how did you go about training? And who was this novel exercise buddy of yours?
A. When I moved to Gaza, I knew what I was getting into. Having lived in Afghanistan before, I would be under the same restrictions: no walking outside, only travel by armoured vehicle, and night-time curfew. In Afghanistan, I at least had an armed compound which I could run around in, but in Gaza, I was stuck in an apartment building. I would run up and down the stairs in my building and around the rooftop.
When I could get an armoured vehicle, I would go over the UN office complex, where there were two small parking lots in which to run around (and one more rooftop!). With such limited space, I started training with Tyrone…. My tire! He was small, but mighty as he was laced with steel. We spent hours together doing loops around the parking lot. I miss him.
I also got out of Gaza every second weekend or so if I could and would train in Jerusalem. Jerusalem is quite tense though, and it isn’t uncommon to hit a checkpoint with soldiers, or the Wall. It is hard to get in the zone in that kind of environment. During my last year, I got approval to drive my own armoured vehicle, which allowed me to go to and from the gym more easily. It wasn’t great training conditions for a tough mountain race like TDG, but you have to work with what you have!
Running in South Sudan.
Q. For those of us unaware, why has the TDG got such a fearsome reputation?
A. TDG is, at least for me, everything that I love about ultramarathons. It is a non-stop course around Aosta Valley in Italy, total 330km with 24000m of cumulative elevation. The highest point on the course reached 3300m, but there are several passes over 3000m. It can hardly be called a race – it is so much more. You can see it on the faces of anyone who crosses that finish line. You simply are not the same person at the end as you were when you started.
In TDG, the raw landscape and mountain climbs are equally as terrifying as they are thrilling. It is a race you can prepare for to a certain extent, but it really requires mental strength more than physical strength. You have to be ready for anything that comes your way. The race may start off sunny and warm, and then you can find yourself in a snowstorm less than 24 hours later. But no matter what you encounter, you can count on having just the best – the BEST – support along the way.
TDG is a huge source of pride for people in Aosta Valley, and if you are attempting to become a ‘giant’, you are guaranteed to earn the respect of anyone with whom you come into contact there. The climbs are unreal – they make the hills at UTMB look like rolling meadows. Competitors have 150 hours to finish, which is about six days. You can sleep whenever you’d like, but the clock keeps ticking…
Q. Now let’s talk about your first crack at the TDG, the 2015 edition. How did that go? I believe there were a couple of mishaps along the way…?
A. We all knew it was going to be a rough year as the weather was predicting multiple days of rain, thunderstorms and snow. The first night the organizers stopped the race for a few hours while they checked the conditions of the course. They actually had to cut out steps in the ice on the way up one of the higher mountain passes to make it possible to cross. That year, crampons/micro spikes weren’t yet part of the mandatory kit, so it made for pretty tricky footing.
I remember pulling the muscles in my arms and sides, gripping onto my poles as I tried to stabilize myself up the pass. I think running in wet and cold gear for multiple days on end really took its toll on my skin. I wound up fretting about having to pull out of the race – not because of any muscle problems or injuries, but because of butt chafing!
The locals tried everything to help, including offering up a smushed-up-banana and even some homemade lube (!) to smear across my welts, but it wasn’t until another competitor gave me some ChafeX that I was in the clear. It literally saved my butt. I ended up ordering so many tubes after the race that the company reached out and asked me if I was stocking up for a team.
When the race was finally stopped on the fourth day, it was obvious how much of a toll it had taken on my body. I could barely recognize myself in the mirror because of how much my face had ballooned up. And yet, it didn’t take more than a day or two before I knew that I was going to sign up for 2016. TDG and Aosta Valley got into my blood.
Q. Pretty out there! Ok, so back with some better designed leg wear and chomping at the bit for the 2016 edition. How did that go in comparison?
A. TDG last year was everything I could have hoped for. I think my entire journey in ultra running, like many others, has been an attempt to explore my limits and really push the boundaries beyond what I think I’m capable of doing. I’ve always wondered where I would be and what it would take to truly step beyond myself, not just physically but also mentally – in Tor des Geants 2016, I reached that point.
What should have been a really low moment of the race – waking up falling into a ditch in the middle of the night with no clue of whether I was coming or going – was actually the highlight. It was a really humbling and empowering experience at the same time. I accepted the chaos, the unknown, and the mess. There is something freeing about reaching that state. You can just run for the sake of running, unencumbered by any worry of running well. There was no strategy because I was incapable of strategizing.
Covered in dirt, sweat, slime and delusions, I could carry on just as I was. I knew I was trying my best, so I was happy to accept whatever result came my way. Crossing the finish line was truly the best moment of my entire life, no question. I still get goose bumps thinking about it. Sure, I was happy to have placed well, but it was about so much more than that.
So many people helped get me to the end and I will be forever grateful for the many acts of kindness that got me there. I got the same bursting-through-my-chest feeling watching the other runners finish. I finished on a Thursday, and the last runners came through on Saturday. I hiked up the last section to cheer them down. Some of the runners were actually doing the last 700m descent backwards because their quads had simply given out. The determination, willpower and sense of community is unparalleled in the ultra running world (in my humble opinion!)
Q. Really fantastic result, congratulations! So comparing the two years, what factors do you believe contributed to your success in this edition over the prior?
A. I think it was a combination of confidence and vulnerability. From 2015, I learned that I could do it. While I didn’t get the chance to finish, I knew in my heart that it was indeed possible, and that gave me the confidence to just throw caution to the wind in 2016 and give it everything I had. That has something to do with the vulnerability part… in TDG, you have to be willing to risk failure and just give it all you’ve got, even if it is ugly, messy, and stinky. I’m not sponsored by anyone and I had no expectations about how I was going to do, which I think is what allowed me to do so well. I just ran because I could, and I loved every minute.
Q. Moving away from racing, tell us about Free to Run and what it involves?
A. Free to Run is a charity that provides opportunities for running, fitness and outdoor adventure for women and girls who have been affected by conflict. We work with those living in conflict areas – like Afghanistan – and also with refugee populations who have been forced to flee their homes. We believe in the transformative power of sport and we see the positive effects on a daily basis.
Q. What sparked the idea to set up Free to Run?
A. The seeds for Free to Run were really planted when I was living in Afghanistan and trying to keep up my own training under tight security restrictions. The days and weeks could be quite stressful with frequent gunfire, explosions and attacks taking place around town. Running was, and always has been, my way to relieve stress and feel ‘normal’ again. I couldn’t imagine how I would have gotten through my time there without having the ‘freedom’ to run, even if it was in loops inside my compound.
In my discussions with the women and girls I met there, it was clear that they wanted to have the same opportunities that I did. There I was, feeling sorry for myself at being restricted inside the compound, and these women weren’t even able to do that. I resolved to find ways to create safe opportunities for Afghan women and girls to engage in outdoor sports, and it took off from there.
Photo credit: 4Deserts.
Q. Just to focus in on an example of your work here. Tell us about Nelofar and Zainab and their quest to become the first Afghan women to complete an ultra marathon.
A. When I started Free to Run, I wanted to start small – getting women and girls exercising outdoors was a big enough challenge in itself! But that didn’t last long. Once the women found out about the kinds of races I did, they wanted to do them too. At first, it seemed crazy, but then I thought, why not? If I can run 250km, there is no reason why they can’t either. And that’s how the first ultramarathon team was born.
We had an open application process and picked Nelofar and Zainab based on their motivation to help open up the way for other women. They weren’t athletes to begin with, let alone runners, but we could tell they were mentally strong, and that you can’t teach. We had six months to get them ready for the 4 Deserts Gobi March, a 250km self-supported footrace across the desert.
We had to get permission from the police in order for the women to train in a local park; they needed chaperones to train in the mountains on the weekends; and private transport to and from training was essential as they were harassed if they practiced on the street. They faced so many challenges, but they showed up on race day ready to go. I was so impressed with their sheer grit and determination. We battled through snowstorms and sandstorms, freezing temperatures and temperatures up to 50C. And no matter what the conditions, they stopped to pray five times a day. It was inspiring.
Q. Amazing. So back to your personal running, we’ve got to talk about your recent, to put it mildly, ‘escapade’ in the mountains… So let’s set the scene; what were you out there doing? Take us up to the moment you slipped.
A. It was New Year’s Day and I was out snowshoeing in the Italian Alps on a path between two rifugios that runs along the UTMB and TDG courses. I knew the trail really well, but I had never been in winter. It is up around 2000m, but it is fairly level until the end (which I already knew was clear from snow).
I woke up early in the morning while everyone else in the rifugio was still sleeping and set out just before sunrise (with a head torch). It was absolutely gorgeous, quiet and still – just the way I wanted to start the new year. I first headed towards Col Malatra, but then turned around as I thought it would be too dangerous on my own. So I took the ‘safe’ route across to Rifugio Bertone, which I had been told the night before by one of the guides was clear.
Q. Now what did the fall entail and how did the rescue go?
A. I got to a steep section of the trail and I just slipped. It didn’t seem dangerous at the time – no alarm bells were going off – and even when I slipped I didn’t think anything of it… but then I realized I couldn’t stop myself on the snow. The slope got steeper quite quickly and I started tumbling head over feet. I fell about 40m, which felt like eternity, and then hit a tree on my right side. I thought it just knocked the wind out of me, but the pain was incredibly intense and my vision started to go dark. When I tried to breathe in, that’s when I knew it was serious.
I had to push myself off the tree and keep falling another 10m until I got to a flat enough spot where I could pull out my phone to call for help. I was so worried that I would pass out before I could communicate my location, and even more worried that my phone simply wouldn’t turn on – it had died in the cold twice already. Luckily, the phone turned on and I was able to pull my GPS coordinates off my watch and communicate them to my friends in Courmayeur.
The helicopter came very quickly – just 30 minutes – but it was quite stressful as I wasn’t sure how long I would keep breathing. My temperature went down to 32C as well. When the helicopter arrived, they couldn’t see me, so it took another ten minutes of me trying to direct them via phone to my location. That almost made me panic as I couldn’t move and was having trouble talking, and the dispatcher’s English was sometimes difficult. But I had to stay very calm in order to keep breathing properly and not pass out.
When they found me, they dropped off three rescue crews who climbed up the mountain to me. They removed my backpack, snowshoes, and shoved some pain meds in my mouth, but it was intense. They had to carry me back down to a place where the helicopter could land. I was so relieved to have help, but it was still quite scary not being able to breathe. After I got to the hospital, I don’t remember the first couple of hours when they were putting in a chest tube and examining me… I think it is better than way! They had to monitor me in intensive care for the first three days in case my liver didn’t stop bleeding, in which case they would need to do surgery.
Q. Flip that was a close call! Not to dwell too much on the what if’s… but in the interests of education, what do you think would have happened if your phone hadn’t switched on?
A. If my phone hadn’t switched on, there’s no question in my mind that I would have died. I wasn’t able to breathe or move, and with a collapsed lung, I couldn’t yell for help. There wasn’t even anyone close enough to me to hear me if I could have. Even after just 30 minutes, my temperature was already down to 32 degrees. My friends in Courmayeur would not have known anything was wrong until late that night, which would have been too late. I had extra clothes with me, water and food, but I couldn’t move to get my backpack off.
It is a hard reality to come to grips with and it has really made me rethink mountain safety. When I know I’m about to do something risky, I take a lot of precautions… but this really didn’t register as something dangerous. I had checked with a mountain guide, who told me the path was clear, and I knew the trail. My phone had over 50% charge before I left the rifugio, but quickly drained out in the cold. It only goes to show that accidents really can happen anywhere, at anytime. It was a real wakeup call.
Photo credit: Lavaredo Ultra Trail.
Q. Back to reality, what injuries did you incur and how’s your recovery looking?
A. I managed to break six ribs, puncture and collapse my right lung, and suffered from a grade 3 liver lacerations, which caused 1.5-2L of blood to pool in my abdomen, which is 30-40% of your total blood volume. Not my finest moment. But I was incredibly lucky as I was able to avoid surgery on the liver, which would have really lengthened my recovery time. Things were looking pretty grim when I was in the hospital as the docs told me I wouldn’t be able to return to sports for six months. I am quite stubborn, so that wasn’t something I was willing to accept.
The accident had really shaken me and I wanted to get back out on the trails as soon as possible. It was quite important for my mental recovery. Luckily, I was supported by some fantastic Swiss docs and I was out running again after just 3.5 weeks. It was aggressive, but it worked. I’ve managed to come back stronger than before, and for that I’m incredibly grateful! Everyone has to approach their own recovery differently, but for me, in this instance, taking it easy would have been the worst option for me. (a bit controversial, but you can decide if it is worth sharing…)
Q. You wrote an incredibly useful blog post on backcountry communication devices. Especially in light of your experience, I think it’s must-read information for anyone with even a vague interest in heading out running into remote areas and/or dangerous terrain. Could you give us a summary of the key points for the each of the 3 types of device you mention?
A. You never know what may happen when you head out on the trail, so having a way to communicate with loved ones and, if necessary, rescue crew is essential. At minimum, you should always carry a phone and a portable charger for any runs outside of the city. I completely understand the desire to get away from it all and switch off, but that’s not a good enough reason to leave basic communication devices at home! After my accident, I realized how inadequate phones are when you really need help. You might not always have a good signal and if you’re injured it can be very difficult to figure out your GPS coordinates or general location.
Personal locator beacons allow you to basically hit an SOS button if you get in trouble, which will send your location to emergency crews to allow for your rescue. It is a one-way communication device only. The best option is to get a Satellite Emergency Notification Device, which allows users to communicate via text message to friends, family and rescue operators at a fraction of the price of regular satellite phones. Many also allow for continuous tracking.
Photo credit: Madeira Island Ultra Trail.
Q. What will you personally be carrying from now on?
A. I will be carrying a two-way communication device like the DeLorme (now Garmin) device. It’s expensive, but I’ve learned the hard way that you really can’t put a price on safety.
Q. So to round this up, what’s next for Stephanie Case?
A. So much planned this year! Too many races, but I can’t help it – all I want to do is get out there and run. I get so much energy off other runners – racing is for me a celebration of all of the hard work we do in training. I just finished fifth in the Madeira Island Ultra Trail, which was a great confidence-booster after the accident, and then I have Transvulcania and the Salomon Maxi Race in May, which comes at the end of the Salomon Ultrarunning Academy Week.
I’m delighted to be a part of the week this year! Then it is Western States 100 in June. I won a spot from Strava, so I feel incredibly lucky to have such a coveted spot. Of course, I will be doing Tor des Geants again… can’t get that race out of my blood.
Awesome, thanks so much Stephanie!
Find Stephanie on:
To find out more about Stephanie’s story, give this episode of Ultrarunnerpodcast a listen: ultrarunnerpodcast.com/stephanie-case-rescue-in-the-alps-and-pushing-our-limitations/