More than three-quarters of the way through her late-July run, Sabrina Stanley hit a wall.
“My left knee was just not having it,” said the Onalaska native. “Because of that, I felt like I was moving slower. Mentally, I just got really down on myself.”
As hard as it was, Stanley didn’t really have the option to stop. She was 80 miles into the Hardrock 100, one of the most prestigious — and grueling — races on the ultramarathon circuit. She’d spent her entire summer camped out in Colorado’s San Juan Mountains, running every section of the course over and over. She’d told everyone she would win. She was in first place.
“It’s just gritting your teeth and making it to the finish line,” she said.
Stanley pressed on, finishing the race in 30 hours, 23 minutes. The next-closest female competitor was nearly two hours behind. With the July 20 victory, the rising star made herself a household name in the sport. Those who know her aren’t surprised.
“If you’d told me that about some other kids, I wouldn’t have believed it,” said former Onalaska High School softball coach Frank Petrino. Petrino’s Loggers, with Stanley starting at third base as a freshman, took home the state title in 2005. “With her, I smile and say, ‘I can visualize that.’”
Petrino remembers his former player as fiercely competitive, which is no surprise to anyone who’s spent much time in Onalaska. She is, after all, a Stanley.
“Everything we did was a competition,” said Stanley, who grew up with five siblings. “Every little thing was, ‘Don’t get beat by your little brothers’ or ‘Don’t get beat by your older sister.’”
Stanley played softball, basketball and volleyball for Onalaska, and went on to play softball and basketball for Lower Columbia College. Her brother Tucker is currently playing pro football in Europe, and her brother Wyatt is pitching for the Cowlitz Black Bears in the collegiate summer baseball West Coast League. Another brother, Dawson, is a multi-sport athlete at Napavine High School.
“All six of them have that confidence,” said Skeeter Stanley, who raised his kids at the gym and ball diamond. “We’ve had arguments in my house about who was the best athlete. They all think they are.”
After her win at Hardrock, Sabrina might have a claim to that title. Her drive to be the best athlete in the family has carried over to her sport — and she’s not shy about her ambitions.
“I’ve said from day one I want to be the biggest name in the sport,” Stanley said. “When people think trail running, I want them to think Sabrina Stanley. … I want other people to look at my name and be like, ‘Damn, she’s running,’ and be slightly disappointed they have to compete against me.”
That no-holds-barred attitude is one Stanley brought to Hardrock, moving into a camper with her boyfriend Avery Collins, also an ultramarathoner, to spend the summer training and learning the course. She wanted to back up her proclamation that she had joined the race to win, and knowing the course by heart gave her an advantage. She knew when to push on a short climb, and when a longer ascent called for a measured pace. Knowing each twist of the sparsely-marked course gave her no risk of taking a wrong turn.
Though she hadn’t intended to, Stanley started the race with the lead, setting an “obnoxiously slow” pace to conserve energy. She kept waiting for someone to pass her. No one did.
“I think mentally I prefer being the hunter than the hunted,” she said. “I wanted somebody to set the pace in front of me.”
With no one challenging, she was content to settle into a comfortable rhythm and keep her body rested. That pacing, for an ultrarunner, is part of the challenge, and one that takes some time to learn. Stanley picked up running in college, when a friend asked her to do a half marathon with her. From there, she progressed to full marathons, gaining endurance but never elite speed.
“In road racing, halfs and marathons, I was definitely middle of the pack,” she said.
After moving to BreckenridgeColorado, she took to the trails, mostly due to a lack of safe road surfaces to run on. For a year, she ran alone, embarrassed at her slow pace. Eventually, she realized that trail running is about endurance — “you go slow to go fast.”
“The more you run with other people, you realize you’re not that slow,” she said. “Everybody runs trails slow. Everybody hikes the uphills. … A lot of people think that when you’re doing 100 miles, you’re running 100 miles. There’s a lot of hiking involved. There’s a lot of stopping and eating and going to the bathroom. There’s a lot of patience involved.”
In 2015, Stanley signed up for a renowned long-distance trail race, the Leadville Trail 100 in the Rocky Mountains. Early on, she was setting personal-best times, entertaining “grand visions” of a triumphant race. Instead, she failed to finish, having expended too much energy early in the race.
She vowed to learn from the experience, deciding to “give up everything and train.” Last year, Stanley placed third in the Western States 100 in California’s Sierra Nevada Mountains, part of a series of breakthrough performances that saw her finishing near the top.
This year, she had the option to run Western States again to try to improve on her performance, but she longed to compete in Hardrock, with its 33,000 feet of climbing and average elevation of about 11,000 feet. It’s considered one of the top two or three most difficult ultras, and one of the most prestigious. As her name crept up the waitlist of Hardrock, she decided to withdraw from Western States, fully committing to her dream.
“You can’t train for both and expect to do well at both,” Stanley said. “I would rather go into Hardrock knowing I’m going to win. Nobody remembers top 5. Nobody remembers top 10.”
After securing her place in the race, Stanley and Collins quit their jobs and threw themselves into the challenge.
“We camped on the course and just ran every day, all day, all summer,” she said. “We’re going to look back on this summer for the rest of our lives.”
Having the support of Collins — he also served as her pacer, running alongside her for the final stretch of the race — has been crucial, Stanley said. She’ll be accompanying him to one of his races in Italy this September, then running a 72-mile race of her own the following week.
“I don’t think I could have any other kind of partner,” she said. “I don’t think they could understand the amount of time that we each put into our craft. We do 40-plus hour weeks running.”
As she grew her lead in Hardrock this July, family and friends watched eagerly, some along the course and others following online. Skeeter Stanley met his daughter at aid stations along the course. Even after watching her compete for years, he’s still amazed by what she does.
“It might be the hardest sport I’ve ever seen,” he said. “I still can’t believe that anybody would even want to do it. … There’s nobody to blame on this one. It’s just you and hard work and determination. You can quit at any time, but she don’t have that in her.”
Just four miles into the race, she had snapped one of her trekking poles. She took advantage of a rare spot of cell service to tell her crew to bring a replacement to the next aid station, finishing out the section with one pole.
“Mentally you’ve got to tell yourself that’s your one stroke of bad luck for the day,” she said.
Petrino knows how hard it is to faze Stanley. He remembered looking out from the dugout in the state championship game, wondering if his freshman third baseman was feeling the pressure.
“She wasn’t overwhelmed by the moment,” he said. “I looked out in the first inning and there she is at third base, and she’s just playing like she’s playing sixth grade softball.”
Though he still finds the physical aspect of the sport mind-boggling, Petrino sees why it’s a perfect match for Stanley, who couldn’t always understand why her teammates lacked her competitive fire.
“What she’s doing now is totally reliant on her,” he said. “You either succeed or fail all by yourself. I think she thrives on that.”
With an aching knee and doubts creeping in, Stanley had to tell herself not to relent, not to sacrifice her hard-earned lead and the months of training that had gotten her there.
“There was a chink in the armor,” she said. “Every race, you learn a little bit more and you get a little bit stronger.”
She pressed on, pulled away and won. She’s not done, though. Next year, she wants to come back and defend her title. She wants to compete one day in the Bigfoot 200, which finishes in Randle, not far from where she grew up. She wants to claim the record for the fastest time running the Wonderland Trail, which circles Mount Rainier.
“(Hardrock) is probably the biggest achievement of my life,” she said. “I would hope it doesn’t stay that way.”