Take 5: Breck’s Sabrina Stanley takes top-4 at 2016 Leadville 100 trail run
Sabrina Stanley has a thing for lists.
In 2015 at 25 years old, the Washington native and Breckenridge local tempted her first-ever Leadville 100 trail run — the big, beefy gauntlet to end them all, held in the death zone on trails and roads higher than 10,000 vertical feet. And so, for her first year at the 100 and only third year as a serious endurance runner, she wrote a training plan to make sure she was prepared. The plan included everything imaginable: mileage per day, vertical feet per day, speed per day — you name it and she kept track of it.
When race day came, though, Stanley’s lists and training plan couldn’t do much about the unpredictability of running 100 miles on high-alpine terrain. She was forced to drop at Mile 86 when her knee — not her lungs or cardio or calves — gave out. It was a devastating result for her debut at the Leadville 100, she said, something on par with “the worst pain ever.” She vowed to never let it happen again.
And so, for her second year, Stanley made another list and training plan. This time, she had help from her boyfriend (and fellow ultra-runner) Avery Collins. He convinced her to focus on vertical gain, not simply mileage, and the two started training religiously with a revised plan in April — a good five months before the race on
It made all the difference. When Stanley crossed the finish line in 22:29:57, she took fourth-place overall and first place in her age group, not to mention demolished her original goal of finishing in fewer than 25 hours for a spot in the top-10.
Stanley’s stellar finish could be the start of something new. For now she works at Vertical Runner, but she won the Bryce Canyon 50 in June — her very first major trail win — and recently signed her first product sponsor, the recovery drink PhysioPhx. With any luck, she hopes to eventually break into the world of professional endurance running while taking on nasty events like the Ouray 100, which has never been completed by a woman.
About a week after the Leadville 100, the Summit Daily sports desk caught up with Stanley to talk about her training plan, the trail itself and why she was surprised (but not really) to cross the finish line ahead of the pack.
Summit Daily News: First things first: How did you get into endurance running?
Sabrina Stanley: I met a guy in Alaska when I was working there. He was from Denver and did 50 milers, so I moved to Denver for the running scene, but I was primarily a road runner then. When I made it to Breck I was doing a half marathon with (Vertical Runner owner) Molly Mikita and helping to track someone at the Leadville 100. I thought, “That sounds awesome!” It was just something I really wanted to do. In 2015 I signed up for the lottery and got in, but it was a really rough year. I dropped at Mile 86.
This year, I did it right. I knew if I could train right and do it the right way, I’d make it in under 25 hours.
SDN: Talk about your training plan this year and last year. What changed?
SS: I’m pretty anal about my training;. Before I even start I write out a five-month plan. With my original plan, I knew every single day what kind of miles I’m doing and how fast I’m going to run. When I met Avery, my highest mileage was 90 miles in a week. When I started with him, I was consistently doing anything from 80 to 110 mile weeks, and at a way faster clip. He told me the most important thing is vertical gain, not mileage, so we started tackling more peaks than I ever have before. Here in town we do Baldy (Mountain) all the time, so it was a lot of vert with a lot of mileage. Work was also more demanding last year, but this year I had a really chill job at Vertical Runner. They’re really supportive.
SDN: What was your goal this time around? Simply finish?
SS: My goal all summer was top-10. I’d studied the girls, looked at the times from previous years, and I knew it was doable. I just knew how I would approach it. Avery kept saying, “You’re going to win it,” but I didn’t think I could get that high. But, on race day, everything went perfect. Everything was on point.
SDN: When did you realize you were breaking into the top-5?
SS: This sounds stupid, but I didn’t realize how fast I was going until literally the last mile. I told all of my crew and pacers, “I don’t want to know what place I’m in,” because I would get stressed out. At Mile 35 someone told me I was in the top-20, and then I started thinking about it. I was passing others and no one was passing me, so at Mile 50 someone else told me I was in the top-10. You just have to keep it together. In that last 50 (miles) everyone else was falling apart and I was just warming up — I was going by people everywhere.
SDN: So you were eating up terrain and competitors. Did you ever feel like it was slipping away?
SS: Toward the end I was craving caffeine like mad. Avery didn’t have anything on him, but he kept saying, “I’ll get something at the next aid station.” In my head I was thinking, “There are no more aid stations.” I asked for caffeine again and he said, again, “I’ll get it at the next aid station.” He convinced me to push it. We come into town and one of my buddies who lives in Leadville started running with us, and all I could think was, “What are you doing here?” You get disqualified if you have more than one pacer (running with you). I was a mile from the end and didn’t even realize it. That’s when Avery, he said, “In the final mile, you can sprint this out to finish in under 2:30:00.” And so I sprinted — well, what I though was a sprint (laughs).
SDN: Do you think you were feeling the mental effects in that last stretch? You know, you hardly realized you were only a mile from the end.
SS: Well, the last stretch is this really long, long dirt road. I started on it very fresh, but you have to be mentally prepared for it to be miserable and take longer than you expect. I guess I was ready to be in such a worse condition than I was. The year before was just the worst pain ever — I was ready for a complete fall-apart. But that never really happened. When we hit pavement, I thought, “Maybe there’s more pavement than I expected.” But, when I saw that finish, I realized that miserable moment I was expecting never happened. I was putting up those walls to protect myself from the crash that didn’t come.
SDN: Did that stretch feel longer than the rest, or was another stretch worse?
SS: It sounds stupid, but every single mile felt great. The toughest part was the 20 to 25. I had knee problems the year before and that’s why I dropped out. I was crawling — my knee was done. I started getting an ache in that knee this year, so I told myself, “Until you can’t run anymore don’t think about it.” I came into 25 a half-hour ahead of schedule — I knew when I wanted to be everywhere — and there was a girl I trained with who was a half-hour ahead of me. But you can’t do that. If you start too fast, you crash and burn at the end. You can’t panic if you’re behind someone else but still ahead of your personal schedule. That’s the quickest way to crash.
SDN: Your trail training plan this year was on point, like you said. How about nutrition?
SS: That’s the biggest part of any 100. I was eating 250 to 300 calories every hour, no matter what, even if I was feeling nauseous. I would rather feel nauseous for five minutes than hit a wall five minutes from the finish. That’s happened to me at a marathon before, at the Tacoma City Marathon, and I just don’t want that to happen. My weakness is starting out way, way too fast, so that’s why I wrote down the time I wanted to be at every aid station, just to keep myself in check.
SDN: Was the Leadville 100 the final race of the summer, or will you travel for more?
SS: Well, the dream is to become a sponsored ultra-runner, and all the women I’m competing against are 30 to 35 years old. I won a 50-miler in June and that was great, so I think what I want to do now is (run in) more competitive races. The next one I can think of is Sean O’Brien (50 miler in California), and that’s in February. The top two there get invites to Western (States Endurance Run in California), which is like the Super Bowl of ultra-running.
SDN: You’re relatively new to the sport. When and why did you set your sights on becoming a professional?
SS: I just like competition a lot. Whatever I do, I want to be the best at it. When I was training for Leadville 100 (in 2015), I thought my training was going well. I look back on it now and it was kind of a joke, but I kept thinking I would be top-10. As the race got closer I let that slip away.
But, this year, it was the opposite. I started thinking I wanted to finish, then thought top-25, then thought top-10, then thought maybe top-5. The training was just going so well this year. I’ve been following a lot of elite males and females in this sport, and I’ve started thinking, “I can do this — I can be at that level.
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