Inside Trail Chat With Liza Howard

Liza cruising at Rocky Raccoon 100 2011. Photo: Lynn Ballard

Liza Howard lives in San Antonio TX with her husband, Eliot, and their firefighter-aspiring son, Asa.  Stop by her website/blog, and you’ll be smirking and outright laughing at times being entertained with mundane observations of Lego construction, yard plant mutilation, and then there’s the running.  Liza is currently the USATF National Trail Champion at both the 50 mile and 100k distance.  Unfortunately, after those wins and her win at Rocky Raccoon 100 (in 15:33!) the last several months have been mostly idle ones for her due to a broken foot.  Now, after wearing her “boot” and pining for the trail while doing run-laps in swimming pools and spending hours attached to anti-gravity treadmills, she’s back to training and gearing up for her next race, the Javelina Jundred 100 miler in Arizona.  The Ultra Runner of the Year buzz has begun and her results demand attention even with the 7 months of inactivity.  Other accomplishments include: Leadville champion in 2010, overall winner (men and women) of Cactus Rose 100, and two-time winner of Rocky Raccoon 100.  The fact that she only raced the first 9 weeks of this year and is national champion at 50 miles and 100k is impressive, to say the least.  The lady makes good use of her races when she can.  With her return to racing after the long injury, we wanted to showcase this special lady with an interview.  Enjoy.

IT:  So, Liza, where’d it all begin?  Where does a petite, self effacing young lady who dominates races (over women AND men) come from?  How’d you get to this nice life you’ve found?

Liza:  Army brat.  Navy wife.  I fell in with a wonderful marathoning crowd living in Virginia Beach.  After a mid-course correction in life, I went to work for Outward Bound in Colorado.  I worked out of Leadville and Silverton and became aware of the 100-mile race.  Eliot, my husband, was my co-instructor on a 30-day mountaineering course in the North San Juans.  (You know someone truly loves you when they think you’re great even though you haven’t showered for 30 days.)  We moved to San Antonio for Eliot’s job.  He runs the outdoor program at the University of Texas at San Antonio.  I started working for NOLS and one of my co-instructors suggested we run the Grand Canyon Rim to Rim to Rim.  It sounded fun and after that it was a pretty slippery slope to my first 50k.  Then it was the usual story: I fell in with the wrong crowd and succumbed to peer pressure.  

Liza pacing her son, Asa, in their yard

IT:  Let’s get started by bringing people up to speed on your racing and injury this year.  What’s been going on in 2011 for you?

Liza:  2011 started out pretty well with Bandera and Rocky in January and February.  I PR’d at both, but GI troubles and wardrobe malfunctions made Rocky a bit of a suffer-fest.  I ran Nueces in March, the USATF 50-mile trail championship.  It was my fourth ultra in four months and it was “character building” for 46 miles.  I was happy to finish and happy for a break from running afterwards.  It’s hard to have an off-season here in South Texas because our big races run from the end of October through the beginning of April — just before the season gets into full swing in the rest of the country.

In any event, I didn’t run for a good two weeks while I worked a NOLS backpacking course in the Gila Wilderness in New Mexico.  I felt well-rested and excited to run again when I got back to San Antonio.  I promptly got a stress fracture in my third metatarsal and I was in an immobilization boot for two months.  It turns out my Vitamin D levels were very low.  I aqua-jogged for hours and hours and even had the chance to run on an anti-gravity treadmill, but I was still in the boot when Western States rolled around.  And I only had a few weeks of running on the ground before Leadville.  I was sad to miss running those races.  I was sad to have used so much of the family budget on the entry fees.  More than anything though, I was sad I couldn’t go out for a run.  Injuries are good for keeping things in perspective at any rate.  I was ecstatic when I finally got to join my running buddies again for a weekend run.

IT:  How’s your foot now?  What’s your longest run been since coming out of the “boot”?

Liza:  The foot is solid.  I ran 67ish miles on it over the weekend for a 9/11 memorial run with Team Red, White & Blue — on highways and country roads and sidewalks. Not a whisper from the foot.  🙂

IT:  You’re racing the Javelina Jundred 100 miler in Arizona on November 12th.  With two months to go, how do you feel for that one?  Think you’ll be 100% for it?

Liza:  I’m very excited about Javelina.  As much as anything, I’m excited that the terrain is similar to what we have here in San Antonio.  It’s frustrating trying to simulate mountain terrain.  I’m also a bit nervous because I haven’t raced anything since February, but my four year-old keeps me too distracted to dwell on that too much.

I’ll certainly be as fit as I was for Rocky come November 12th.

IT:  You excel on flatter, long courses, as seen at Rocky Racoon 100 (two wins 2010/11 with a pr of 15:33) but then you showed up to Leadville that climbs up to 12,600 ft. and took the win there in 2010.  How in the world do you find places to do your hill training?  Do you suplement your normal running with any strength work?  I read somewhere that you completed a one-day push up dare.  Tell us about that.

Liza:  My former coach, Amanda McIntosh, won Leadville twice and she trained for it here in San Antonio too.  Honestly, I didn’t do all that much steep hill work.  I ran some moderate 3 mile repeats a handful of times on a smallish grade hill.  And I did train on the treadmill some, but I think I really just reaped the rewards of my time working for NOLS as a mountaineering instructor carrying a heavy pack.  I’m a good hiker — and that’s mostly what I did up Hope Pass.  Ultimately though, the key for me was going early to acclimatize.  I was in town twelve days before the race.  I would have been crushed otherwise.  I also doubt I’d be successful at a mountain race with significant climbing like Hardrock or Wasatch if I had to train here in San Antonio.

I wish I could tell you that I am consistent about strength training.  I certainly want to be.  Other than a 30 minute core workout I do about 4 times a week, I really just run.  Obviously I think I would benefit from a good leg workout.  If I get to run any mountain races next year, that will become a routine.  Right now I’m concentrating on increasing my cruising speed for Javelina and Rocky.

The summer push-up challenge was something to keep things interesting between me and my co-instructor on a NOLS course up in Alaska.  I believe the goal was a thousand throughout the course of one day.  My arms would fall off if I tried that now.

IT:  You and I joked about the density of men’s thinking and general knowledge of women in ultrarunning.  Why do you think that is?  I mean, do women need to start winning races overall (like you did at Cactus Rose 100) to demand notice?  Seriously, what causes women to be overlooked in our sport?

Liza:  I talked to my friend Chris Russell about this.  We came up with three reasons.

1. Lack of competition.

Besides Western States and a couple of other races like Miwok and TNF 50 in San Francisco, the women’s fields at races just aren’t that deep.  I won by 7 hours at Rocky last year.  There’s just not as much racing going on on the women’s side; And it’s the racing that draws interest and coverage.  There was a good amount of coverage of the women’s race at Western States with its deep field.

2. Time gap difference.

It’s logistically difficult to cover both races unless you have a loop course.

3.  Ann Trason factor.  (Chris’ insight)

“A lot of her records still stand whereas the men are setting new marks.  If someone started shattering Ann’s records, it would cause notice.”

IT:  Even though you look like you’re in your late twenties, you’re hitting a milestone birthday this year.  What do you think about Meghan Arbogast’s performance at the World 100k Championship?  She lead the US team with her 5th place in 7:51… at 50 years old.  Do you see yourself running ultras competitively in ten years, 20 years?

Liza:  (Very nicely done with the intro there. Strong work!)  I think Meghan exemplifies what’s possible for female ultra distance runners.  She inspires.  I certainly don’t see why I can’t improve over the next decade.  I’ve only been running ultras for about 3 years now.  Maybe by the time I’m 50, I’ll be as fast as she is.  It would be pretty darn satisfying to lay down a super speedy time at Rocky right after my 40th birthday.  Good present.

IT:  Thank you.  My mom taught me how to soften women up (likely why I’m still single)..  Any interest on your part in running the 100k worlds?  I think you could do very well in that format.

Liza:  Roads.  Ick.  Perhaps with the right peer pressure…

IT:  You’re sponsored by New Balance.  How and when did that come about?

Liza:  I wrote them and asked if they’d consider sponsoring me.  I was running in their MT100s and I saw that they had “Outdoor Ambassador” team and I thought it seemed like a good match.  Happily they did too.

IT:  It sounds so easy but you have to have the results to back it up.  How has being a big sponsored runner changed your running?  Do they help you out with race/travel costs?  Will it mean you travel more next year to race?

Liza:  New Balance provides me with shoes and clothing and helps with race and travel costs.  This is huge for our family budget.  I would not have been able to sign up for Western States or Leadville this year without that aid.  Their sponsorship has made it possible for me to race outside of Texas.  New Balance doesn’t ask me to run any particular races or any number of races.  It’s very surreal and exciting.  I hope to convince them they should have me travel more next year.  (Me and my son and a sitter.)   Seems like I should concentrate on doing well at Javelina, Bandera and Rocky to make this argument more convincing.

I am also very fortunate to be sponsored with product by GU and Drymax socks and by Team Traverse, a local philanthropic group of runners here.  It’s still a net loss hobby, but we haven’t had to put Asa to work in a sweat shop to fund any airline tickets yet.

IT:  Speaking of next year, you’ve had a lot of time to think about plans.  What are your big races next year?  Are you doing the heavy early season racing like you’ve done in the past?


November: Javelina Jundred 100

January: Bandera 100k

February: Rocky Raccoon 100

March: Nueces 50 mile (because it’s right in my backyard and there’s prize money because it’s the USATF Championship)


Western?  Leadville?  UTMB?  2nd child?  Hard sayin’.  If someone would like to send me and my family — and a nanny — to France for the summer to train —  I promise to do really really well at UTMB.

IT:  I’m going to open it up here.  Anything else on your mind?  Thoughts on commercialization of our sport, like Leadville’s new owner, growth of our sport, DNFs, other nations nabbing wins in America’s biggest races this year, gardening or landscaping at your home?  

Liza:  Trying to understand what caused someone to drop from a race is an important part of becoming a better ultra marathoner.  I try to read people’s race reports with an eye towards anticipating problems and gaining trouble-shooting techniques. (e.g. have emergency supplies of electrolytes on hand for cramps, bring cold weather gear, study the course map etc.)    

Because ultramarathoning is fundamentally about perseverance, however, it’s easy to move from evaluating the reasons someone dropped to evaluating the person themselves. This is especially true when you don’t know the runner.  

“Why didn’t he keep going?  He could have after a little rest.  Ego too big not to place?  Why not walk it in and inspire other slower runners? Why not set an example for tolerance for adversity and uncertainty? Etc.”   

When my thoughts turn this way on a long run, my mantra is: Why-do-you-look-at-the-splinter-in-your-brother’s-eye-and-not-notice-the-beam-in-your-own-eye?  (After 20 miles that usually turns into a breathless: Stop-criticizing-or-you’ll-run-into-a-tree-branch-and-get-a-stick-in-your-eye.)  It helps.  I will say I’m rarely judgmental when I’m giving 100% to my own run.  100% effort usually fills me with all sorts of empathetic compassion. 

DNF-ing myself: I run ultras to practice perseverance.  Hopefully, with enough practice, I’ll have reserves to tap into when the suffering isn’t a choice that I’ve signed up for.  So while I work hard to avoid a suffer-fest, it’s still useful to me.  I imagine a DNF has a lot to teach me that I also need to learn.  I am working very hard to avoid that lesson none-the-less.  Perhaps listening compassionately to others’ accounts will serve instead.  

 PS. You should definitely stop running a race if you are injured and continuing would seriously exacerbate the injury.  

IT:  Liza, thank you and have a great race at Javelina and enjoy the rest of the year!    

3 thoughts on “Inside Trail Chat With Liza Howard

  1. Thoughtful words on learning from other’s struggles, and not judging. She says, “100% effort usually fills me with emphatic compassion.” Thanks for sharing this interview.

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