Liza Howard

A year ago, I sat in a room full of strangers. An odd lady with a squid hat stood at the front of the room. She explained that the things I would learn and the people I would meet over the next few days would change my life. What did she know? I mean, she obviously could not discern good head wear from bad, how could she know that the people in that room would change the course of my life?

That lady with an odd taste in hats was Liza Howard. She was the reigning champion at The Leadville 100. Most importantly, she was the person who had brought all of us together. She had assembled a team of trail and ultra runners in a camp outside of San Antonio. The purpose was to teach trail running to members of Team RWB.


Liza, the Squid hat and myself

Not only was she right, but she, herself was one of those people who helped shape my trail running future. Her love for teaching others has inspired me and helped me discover a love of sharing the knowledge that I gained from her and her team.

Knowing that you have made a difference in someone’s life is, perhaps, the most satisfying thing one can know. This is probably why you will almost always see her smiling.

But still, a squid hat? Why? Well, according to Liza, her friend Nikki was shopping for Halloween costumes and brought over some prospects. She accidentally left the squid hat behind and it was never returned. She wore it to camp because she thought it set just the right tone. As Liza put it “There’s room for everybody under the ultrarunning big top. Also it made me more visible.”

Ok, I will give her this, it does command attention in a fun way. Whomever was wearing the hat had the floor, one had to respect the squid hat. It does fit in with her personality. She has this fun way of teaching, where we ended up laughing our way through the planned lesson. This was usually due to bad acting or missed cues from the students she had chosen to help. Her teaching method involves anyone and everyone. Even bystanders are not immune to  becoming object lessons.

As someone who spends so much time giving advice, I was curious, what was the best advice she had received. She said that when she was at the 50 mile point of a 100 miler, a friend asked how she was doing, she replied that she hurt. He told her that everyone was hurting. According to Liza, “It was the perfect reminder during that race and during training, that, of course, it’s hard. Don’t expect otherwise.”

Since she told me about this several weeks ago, I have turned to it during my training. Yes it hurts sometimes, but if it didn’t hurt, everyone would do it. The pain we are willing to endure is what makes us. Even when I am trying to learn more about her, she somehow has taught me.

With so many wins and podium finishes, I thought she would have this great story of how she got into running. Alas, it was just a simple choice, she wanted to run a marathon. The training group was so much fun that, as she put it, she kept going and never looked back. Going is somewhat of an understatement, her favorite race distance is now 100 milers. She claims it is due to her love for belt buckles.

I asked her what her most memorable finish was, she said it was the 2011 Javelina 100. It involved being hauled off to the hospital with a case of rhabdomyolysis. This is basically when the muscle tissue breaks down and releases their contents into the blood stream. This can be a very serious condition that can lead to renal failure. You can read her account of that race here.

In addition to running, she coaches for Sharman Ultra. She also teaches first aid having instructed at the Wilderness Medicine Institute of NOLS and National Outdoor Leadership School.

Still somehow she finds the time to mentor me, answering even the smallest question, whether a running question or helping me plan a day long clinic based off of her trail running camp. Once I sent her a message asking for some input, her reply was that she would love to help me, but it would have to wait a couple of weeks since she was on her way to Morocco for a race!

I am sad to report, this will be the last year that she will wear the squid hat at trail camp. An operation like this cannot be an easy task. Her energy to teach and training as a world-class runner on top of being a mother to 2 small children is amazing, but she feels it is time to move forward.

Her impact on trail running will last for years to come, both through the one on one teaching 12096110_968416266532786_2936749125802329052_nshe does and through those she has taught at trail camp. My personal aspiration is to live up to her example as a mentor. While I may never achieve the impact that she has, I will still strive to. Even if it hurts, we all hurt so I might as well enjoy the pain and smile through it.

Brutal Truths

We all pick up little tidbits of advice along the way. Probably one of the best and most honest pieces I have ever heard was while I was in  marathon. I passed a lady who looked distraught. She was obviously struggling to make it through. What I assumed to be a friend of her’s was a few paces ahead. I say that I assume she was a friend due to the bluntness of her advice, because we tend to be more frank with someone we have ran and trained next to for hundreds of miles.

We tend to build up our shared experiences through the hardships of training, causing us to be more open and honest with each other. Like the Band of Brothers, we gain shared struggles, we’ve battled a common threat together. When one’s weakness is apparent, the others will step up and help overcome and as a group the challenge is conquered.  It’s through these shared tragedies, victories and just plain everyday drudgery that a bond begins to form.

Before you know it, you’re sitting around telling “war stories” about this race or that training run or how you helped each other. Much like the church scene in “Saving Private Ryan” where Captain Miller and Sergeant Horvath are discussing the battles of the past and soldiers they have lost. You shed tears and laugh together.

You’re building a story with these people so you tend to get very honest. So honest, that to the casual listener, you sound brutal. When you are on the receiving end, you know that it is not personal. They are just pushing you to be your absolute best. You know someday the tables might turn. Who else can you be so vividly honest with? There are not many people who you can do this with.

My two temporary running partners had obviously put in some miles together. The lady in front turned around and said “Well, some days are sugar and some are shit. Today ain’t really sugar for you.”

The advice, while blunt and somewhat comical, has a layer of truth to it. Many days since then I have thought back to that advice I heard on the course. Not all of your days can be sugar and when they aren’t, just roll with it and hope for some of that sugar in the future.

I wish I knew how they did that day. I didn’t get their bib numbers or remember their faces by the time I finished. Wherever they came in that day, I bet they are telling their war story and laughing about that day, having learned and moved on.