Stephanie Case’s Secret Weapon
How ultrarunner Stephanie Case finds balance in extremes.
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Stephanie Case just finished third overall and first female in the Tor des Géants, a multi-day ultra race in Italy’s Valle d’Aosta. This comes after a harrowing summer dealing with the predicament in, and evacuating from, Afghanistan. This story originally appeared in a 2020 issue of Trail Runner. Learn more about the current situation of Case’s Afghanistan-based nonprofit, Free to Run, here.
On New Year’s Day in 2017, the ultrarunner Stephanie Case was on a solo snowshoe mission from one alpine hut, Rifugio Bonatti, to another, Rifugio Bertone, in the Aosta Valley of Italy. She started with a headlamp to light the way, then marveled at alpenglow flaming orange on jagged peaks as the sun rose in crisp mountain air. She says it was her ideal way to ring in the New Year.
She lost the trodden path in the snow after crossing a creek but found intermittent tracks that led her to believe she wasn’t too far off course. As the terrain steepened, she traversed across an exposed section and slipped. She grasped at a tree root, missed and tumbled 35 meters down the snowy hillside, eventually crashing into a tree that arrested her fall. Case was unable to move, with troubled breathing and fading vision. It was cold, around 20°F, but she couldn’t access her extra layers in her pack. She let herself slide to a flatter spot and rolled onto a branch to keep her body off the snow.
Even in a semi-conscious state, she knew she would die if she didn’t get help. The frigid temperatures drained her phone battery, so, when she called a friend, they kept the conversation short. She rattled off the coordinates on her GPS watch: “45.82845N, 7.00334E.”
Twenty-four freezing minutes later, a helicopter swept into view, but the rescuers couldn’t see her. In agony and short of breath, as the helicopter spun above her, she tried relaying her location to the dispatcher, who called to confirm her location. She strained to wriggle her left arm free from under her body and wave. They spotted her.
“Once the rescuers came, I didn’t really care what happened after that. My main my concern was just not dying alone,” she says, reflecting on the accident—which left her with six broken ribs, a punctured lung, a lacerated liver and severe hypothermia (her internal temperature got as low as 89.6°F). “I just wanted to be around people.”
The Extremes of Work and Play
It’s ironic that Case came so close to dying on an easy run in Europe. Her career in humanitarian aid brings her to dangerous conflict zones, from Afghanistan to Palestine, and she competes in extreme running challenges in the Alps and around the world.
While she didn’t grow up as a runner, Case, 36, of Ontario, Canada, has sought out some of the world’s hardest trail races over the past 13 years, including Racing the Planet stage events in Vietnam, Namibia, Australia, Nepal and Mongolia between 2008 and 2012; the grueling loops of Tennessee’s Barkley Marathons, arguably the toughest 100-mile race in the country, in 2018 and 2019; and the formidable 230-mile Tor de Géants in Italy, which she’s repeated four times since 2015. Still, she is hesitant to call herself an athlete.
“She has the mental fortitude to keep pushing and sticking to her plans, so she usually ends up coming out near the top,” says Amy Sproston, an accomplished ultrarunner who has crewed Case in the Tor de Géants.
At 5’7”, Case sports a sparkly nose stud and a sienna side-swept pixie cut that she stuffs under a sweaty buff when she runs. Or, while sipping prosecco at a New York hotel bar before catching a 14-hour flight to Kabul, Afghanistan, to return to work, she appears poised, with dangly earrings peeking from behind a tailored coat.
Since 2018, she’s been in charge of protection of civilian- and child-protection teams as a human-rights lawyer with the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA), where she documents incidents of the armed conflict involving civilian casualties. Case advocates with warring parties to change the way they conduct hostilities to better protect civilians. The UNAMA reported more than 10,000 civilian casualties in 2019.
Combining her interest in assisting people in war-torn countries with her passion for running, in 2014, she founded an international nonprofit, called Free to Run. Through running and outdoor sports, the organization empowers women in areas affected by violent conflict to overcome gender, religious and ethnic discrimination.
“If somebody tells Steph it’s not possible,” says Leah Anathan, a board member for Free to Run who has crewed for Case, says, “it’s literally like waving a red flag in front of a bull.”
Finding Running and Human Rights
Currently living in Kabul, Case grew up in Canada with an older sister and a younger brother. Her parents, Anne and Peter, say they raised their children to follow their dreams.
In sixth grade, one of Case’s teachers urged her to run on the track team, but her father says she was too shy, didn’t want to be seen looking sweaty and didn’t join.
“We have often wondered where she got her athleticism from,” says Anne, though Case swam, danced and coached sailing through high school. But she always thought of herself as a nerd. She spent half her lunch hour practicing the flute and thought getting good grades was the most important thing.
“When I was in kindergarten, I remember not being able to fall asleep at night because I was worried about what university I would get into,” Case says.
While attending Queen’s University in Ontario, Canada, in 2000, Case joined the rowing team on a whim. There, she finally realized her athletic abilities and soon landed a spot on the varsity squad. As an undergraduate, she also got her first taste of humanitarian work while volunteering for three weeks in a medical clinic in Ghana.
In 2004, she began studying law at the University of British Columbia, and took summer stints with Lawyers Without Borders (LWB) in Ethiopia, Rwanda and Liberia. In Liberia, on a day she was in court assessing the main prison in the country, a line of detainees, linked together with handcuffs, were brought before the judge. Case noticed two boys in the line who looked too young to be held in an adult detention facility.
Even though it wasn’t her formal volunteer assignment, she persistently pursued their case and eventually got the boys released. As they were unshackled and ran out of the courthouse, she remembers thinking, “That was something very small, but very concrete that I was able to do.”
To celebrate finishing her first year of law school, Case decided to try a marathon. She was curious about the “wall” that she heard people hit.
“The marathon seemed to be the ultimate challenge,” she says. “I wanted to see what that felt like.”
So, in 2005, Case ran the Mayor’s Marathon in Anchorage, Alaska, finishing in 3:45. However, she didn’t hit the wall and felt disappointed. She sought out a bigger challenge, and, in 2008, entered the Vietnam edition of the Racing the Planet series. Case tried to get friends to join her for the 250-kilometer, self-supported adventure, but no one bit.
At 25, she went for it alone. To her surprise, she finished first female and third overall in just under 33 hours. It was the first time she had run more than 50 kilometers, and all with a substantial pack on her back. That race provided the confidence that she was well-suited for endurance events.
“Ever since then, it’s been this constant search for the next wall,” she says. “I crave that experience of hitting what you think is the end and then moving past it.”
After law school, Case got a six-figure salary as a mergers-and-acquisitions lawyer in New York, and continued to contribute to humanitarian aid through pro-bono work. In 2011, she also earned her masters in International Human Rights and Humanitarian Law. During that period, she ran a dozen races 50K and longer, always placing in the top 10, and finished first in the Vermont 100-miler.
Since then, Case has become more selective in the races she enters. Now she rarely races less than 100K, and more often seeks out races with huge elevation gains, difficult terrain or low finishing rates.
“I don’t see the point of entering a race I know I’m going to finish,” she says. “You don’t get the benefits of finding the strength you have inside you and where your reserves are.”
As Case developed as a runner, she also pursued career goals beyond her cushy office in New York. In 2012, she finally got the hardship posting she had been hoping for, working for the United Nations Assistance Mission in Kabul, Afghanistan.
In April 2012, Case made the move to Kabul, a city of more than four million people that sits in a government-controlled region of Afghanistan, where Taliban still control a portion of the provinces. She provided legal advice for UNAMA, and worked on a side project for U.N., helping to create emergency-response systems for women subject to gender-based violence.
Living in Kabul was indeed hardship duty. Wearing body armor Case shuttled to work in an armed U.N. vehicle. She wasn’t allowed to walk outside the compounds where she lived and worked, and most of her days were spent inside the fortified walls of the “green zone,” a high-security region in the middle of the city housing international-press, embassy and U.N. headquarters. Layers of concrete walls capped with barbed wire separate those inside from the unpredictable existence of the general populace living outside.
Figuring out how to train in Kabul was one of the trickiest walls in Case’s running career. Sure, there were treadmills, but they overheated. So she typically ran laps around the compound where she lived, where the longest road only extended 550 meters. She patched together a 2.5-kilometer route running around buildings and guard towers, through a junkyard and back and forth behind stacks of multicolored shipping containers, all while waving to the armed guards stationed at every entrance.
A track of her runs looks like Sisyphean infinity loops and backtracks, all amid terrible air quality. The Air Quality Index (AQI) rating in Kabul often hovers above 300, which is unhealthy for the entire population and exercise outdoors is not recommended.
“Running in a compound in Afghanistan was not fun,” Case says flatly. “It doesn’t give you the release that you get when running in the mountains in Chamonix. But there’s something to be said for putting on your running shoes every day, even if it’s in the worst possible setting.”
More Tricky Training
After a year in Kabul, Case took a break from conflict zones to recover from a breakup, learn French and apply for other jobs. Then, in 2014, she took yet another hardship posting, in Awerial, South Sudan. There, she provided assistance to refugees at a site that eventually received 100,000 people displaced by a civil war. She lived in a tent in the midst of the makeshift city, subsisted on rice and beans twice a day and was allowed a bucket of water for her daily bath (just like the people she was aiding). She kept running—it was her only time to be alone, she says—but decided she wasn’t strong enough to race that year.
“Perhaps the reason she does well in some of these races,” says her mother, Anne, “is she’s willing to suffer more.” Anne ruminates that Case can push herself because she’s lived in and witnessed people living in such horrible conditions.
In 2015, Case replaced her living conditions in South Sudan for two years in a tiny apartment and strict security rules in Gaza, Palestine. She was restricted to one building where she ran on a treadmill, up and down stairs, and even resorted to dragging a tire she named Tyrone behind her. She lapped a loop on top of her apartment building, which took only 45 seconds to complete. She gained enough fitness, though, that she signed up for the Tor de Géants that year, which would be her longest race yet. The race, however, went miserably for Case, who was relieved when it was canceled when she was 60 kilometers shy of the finish.
“Her training conditions are partly responsible for developing her mental toughness,” Sproston says. “She’s put in the time training in environments that are not glamorous or sexy. She doesn’t have access to mountain trails, but still just grinds away.”
In 2016, Case got respite from her streak of tricky training grounds when she landed a position with the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in Geneva, Switzerland. She no longer had to worry about potential terrorist attacks or kidnappings, or contracting cholera or typhoid fever. With the ability to run regularly, she signed up for a full season of races.
Healing to Run, Running to Heal
However, shortly after arriving in Switzerland, she was involved in the snowshoeing accident in Italy, which shut down her ambitious schedule. After being airlifted to the hospital in Aosta, Italy, she stayed for three days in the ICU. Her internal injuries leaked one and a half liters of blood into her abdomen. Fortunately, she avoided surgery, and, after nine days in the hospital, was able to return to Switzerland to recover and work from home.
The doctors told Case she wouldn’t be able to run for six months. Undeterred, she found some Swiss doctors who agreed that she could start running once her liver stabilized: about four weeks.
“I knew in order to feel like me again, I had to get out running,” she says. “It really helps provide an outlet for all the stress and upset that comes from my human-rights work.”
Case bandaged her ribs to keep them from jostling as she took her first jaunt outside, in February 2017. She ran 10 kilometers. Post accident, she says she became more careful about taking risks but continued to run on her own.
“That feeling of invincibility is what I’m searching for in running,” Case says. “It’s an interesting dance between invincibility and complete vulnerability that I’m confronted by on a minute-by-minute basis in training and racing.”
By May, Case was racing again, finishing fifth in the Madeira Island Ultra Trail, a 115K race that passes between waterfalls and seaside cliffs on an island off the coast of Portugal. In June, she ran in Western States 100 and earned a silver buckle, given to racers who finish in under 24 hours. Then came the Tor, a grueling 230-mile race that crosses 25 passes for a total of 78,700 feet of elevation gain.
Free To Run
Part of Case’s motivation originates in her desire to dismantle the walls that hold women back. She holds a leadership position in her work, where women are underrepresented at higher levels, and runs races where most of the participants are men. Only 23 percent of ultra participants in races shorter than 50 miles are women, but that number decreases to 16 percent for races longer than 50 miles.
Case has written a number of articles for Outside about the underrepresentation of women and the barriers faced by women in ultrarunning. In one article she writes, “If we all had the same opportunities to get to the starting line, we wouldn’t need to take gender into account.” She promotes the idea that ultras should reserve a percentage of lottery spots for women. In another article, she criticizes UTMB for not allowing deferrals to pregnant racers.
Most of Case’s attention on elevating female runners is through her nonprofit, Free To Run. She founded the organization in 2014 after witnessing Afghan women’s severely restricted movement. Most women were not permitted to walk down the street without a male companion. They had to cover their hair in public, and most exercise was forbidden. She met women in shelters who had left abusive relationships, and learned they had no path to start a new life because they were at risk of being attacked by their own families.
“I wanted to find ways to help women thrive in that environment,” she says.
Initially, she raised money for Afghan women’s shelters through her races, then realized she could bring running to them. So Case created Free To Run (FTR) to use outdoor sports, specifically running, as a tool to help them access public spaces, develop leadership skills and bring about community change.
From a single hike in 2014, FTR evolved into an organization operating in Iraq and Afghanistan and involving hundreds of young women and girls. Although FTR doesn’t aim to turn participants into competitive athletes, a few have had opportunities to race. The organization made it possible for two girls to become the first Afghan ultramarathon team. Case accompanied them on a race through the Gobi desert in 2015. In 2020, Free to Run is sponsoring one girl from Iraq and one from Afghanistan to run in an ultramarathon in the Southern Caucasus Mountains of Georgia.
“To understand Free to Run is to understand something about Stephanie,” Anathan says.
Proving to be a Giant
In 2017, following her strong spring of racing, Case toed the line at the brutal Tor de Géants. But, even though she had finished the race twice before, from the start, Case says she simply didn’t feel mentally prepared. She had placed second in 2016 and was putting too much pressure on herself to perform. Plus, the course circles the Aosta Valley, so she had to reconcile with the place she had almost died.
Early the second morning of the race, she began vomiting, forcing her to start the highest climb on the course without many calories. Fatigued, with puke-encrusted clothes, she kept asking herself, “Why should I keep going? Why even bother to finish when you know you’re not going to do as well as the year before? You’ve already proved you can do this—what is the point?”
Case wanted to drop out, but her crew told her she was close to the front of the pack. Then she met nurses and rescuers who had responded to her accident and were ecstatic to see her on the course. She didn’t want to deflate their joy.
“It was because of the strength of my crew and the volunteers, and their belief in me, that I got to the end,” she says. “Without them, I surely would have quit.”
Among Tor racers and aid-station volunteers, Case has developed a reputation for being able to carry on with very little sleep, though she inside says she feels like a chaotic, emotional wreck. In 2016, she finished the Tor on a total of only two-and-a-half hours of shuteye. (Alternatively, Sproston said she slept for 15 hours when she did the race.) Case is able to stay awake, she says, by consuming as many calories as possible. She eats ice cream and swallows olive oil, but her favorite fuel is double cheeseburgers from McDonalds.
On the third day of the 2017 race, Case’s stomach started bloating. She says she looked like she was a few months pregnant. Plus she was constipated. Black and purple bruises mottled her right leg after a fall on night four. Her legs kept swelling, forcing her to cut into her hardshell pants to relieve the pressure. She shuffled through the mountains and sobbed at checkpoints.
In the middle of the night, Case called her friend Anathan and said, “I’m falling asleep. Can you keep me awake?”
It’s not uncommon for Case to reach out to her friends and family mid-race. She has a habit of falling asleep mid-stride, so talking on the phone as she jogs alone in the dark is essential. At one point during the Tor, she woke up, bewildered, in a ditch after one such incident.
“Normally she’s calling me to vent because she’s in extreme pain,” Anathan says. “But I don’t give her a lot of sympathy, and remind her how well she’s doing.”
Near the end of the race, Case found herself alone in the dark as snow swirled down, close to the site of her accident. She had a panic attack and was crippled with tears when she arrived at the next checkpoint. She no longer cared to finish the race, but when doctors tried to pull her from the race, her stubbornness kicked in. “I was like. ‘Oh, hell no!’” she says.
In the end, Case tackled her doubts and discomfort to finish fourth female, even after teetering on the edge of death only nine months earlier.
“That’s Stephanie’s life in a nutshell,” says Anathan. “She makes herself incredibly uncomfortable to be able to achieve something that others can’t do.”