RUNNER’S HIGH: Stanley Started Off as a Hobby Runner and Has Transformed Herself Into One of the Top Women Ultra Runners in the World
Sabrina Stanley stood at the Blanks Gulch Trailhead, 150 miles southwest of Denver, at 4 p.m. on Oct. 1. The sun was already falling low in the sky. She wasn’t preparing to take a pleasure hike through the Colorado Trail. She was here for one reason only: to again break a world record that was taken from her 54 days earlier.
Stanley, a 2008 Onalaska High School graduate, had spent the past five years transforming herself from a novice hobby runner into one of the most formidable women ultra-marathoners in the world, racing distances of 35 miles and beyond. On Aug. 10, she became the third woman to break the Nolan’s 14 Fastest Known Time (FKT) this summer, snapping the previous record by two hours, in a time of 51 hours and 15 minutes.
Nolan’s 14 is a grueling 95-mile-or so trek — depending on which route a runner chooses to take — that winds through the Sawatch mountain range in Central Colorado. It consists of summiting 14 14,000-foot-plus peaks with over 44,000 feet of elevation gain, and a final peak appropriately-named Mount Massive; The perfect test of a person’s physiological limits.
Stanley held the record for the first time for a mere 28 days before Meghan Hicks, who previously held the record for four years until this summer, beat Stanley’s FKT in a time of 50 hours and 32 minutes on Sept. 5.
Stanley wasn’t about to be bested heading into the offseason. So with less than two months rest, Stanley hit the trail for a 95-mile escapade with fewer than five pounds of gear and a goal of taking back what was once hers. The clock was ticking.
Stanley never turned out for track or cross country in high school, instead playing fastpitch, volleyball and basketball. It wasn’t until a few days after completing her first road marathon in Tacoma in 2010 that she received her first taste of runner’s high.
The 20-year-old didn’t eat or drink any water on that 75-degree day, eventually hitting a metaphorical wall at mile 20 that was so painful she wasn’t sure she could continue the race walking. She willed herself across the finish line and collapsed on her couch for two days, barely able to even crawl to the bathroom.
“It was the most painful thing I had ever done,” Stanley said. “For some reason, once I was OK, I was like, “Oh, that’s it. That’s the feeling. I want to chase that for the rest of my life.’ It was so magical and glorifying. To dig that deep and still finish, there was something that I wanted to feel again.”
She ran her first ultra marathon at 25 years old, in February 2015, a 50-mile race in Arizona where she finished middle-of-the-pack. It was that next summer in 2016, after she had taken an eight-month break, that she began taking running seriously.
Stanley soon discovered she excelled at trail running; the longer the race, the better she performed. So she decided to put everything she had into it and see where it would take her. She began looking at the top women in the sport and sought them out in competitions.
“I was able to find my niche and really, like, hone that in and become even better at it,” Stanley said.
Stanley won her first ultra marathon in just the fifth race of her career, a 50-miler, at the Bryce Canyon Ultras in June 2016. She would go on to place top-five in her next six races, eventually quitting her day job as a manager at Bubba Gump Shrimp Company in spring 2018 to dedicate herself solely to running. She and her boyfriend, Avery Collins, who is also a runner, decided to live out of a camper and live rent-free at Hardrock Race Course near Silverton, Colorado.
From April to July 2018, Stanley won three consecutive races, the third being a surprise victory at the Hardrock 100 that put her name on the map. By the end of the summer she earned a sponsorship with Denver-based running-shoe company Altra Running.
Stanley followed that up with a victory in Hawaii’s HURT 100 in January 2019, and two months later was victorious again at Never Summer 100k in Northern Colorado, finishing with the second-fastest time ever by a woman in the event’s five-year history.
But it was a victory at the 2019 Diagonale des Fous, a 103-mile international circuit race on Reunion Island in the Indian Ocean, that catapulted her as one of the top women ultrarunners in the world. She is the only American woman to finish top-five in the event in the past 20 years.
Stanley has now competed in 24 races since 2015 and hasn’t lost an ultra marathon since January 2018, a win streak of 11 consecutive races.
“I intentionally pick races that are really, really challenging because I think that’s what I excel in,” Stanley said. “I know if I were to do a flat 50k I would get my (butt) kicked.”
She was ranked fifth in the world in 2019 and considers herself in a class of two or three women in the world in 100-mile mountain races. It’s a subjective thing, she admits, as there is no real points system that includes all races.
The one true measurement is the Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc (UTMB), which is basically the World Series of 100-mile ultramarathons. Stanley was set to compete in it for the first time this August before it was canceled due to COVID-19.
“If I won that, I would confidently say I’m the best in the world,” Stanley said. “I had intentions of winning it but I can’t really say that without racing it.”
All summer, Stanley had dreamed of holding the Nolan’s 14 record. To achieve that goal and then have it stripped away after less than a month was a deflating blow. The minute she heard it was broken by Hicks, she began constructing a plan to reclaim her stake. She had just 26 days to prepare. Typically she takes a six-month — and up to one-year — break in-between 100-mile competitions. The start of her first attempt to the start of her second attempt was 54 days.
Still, she knew she was going to beat the record, the biggest question was if her body was going to hold up. She was still fatigued from her previous attempt.
“I had never done anything that huge, that close together,” Stanley said.
Not only that, but she would be dealing with factors in early October that she didn’t have to worry about back in August. Running the Nolan’s 14 is akin to threading a needle. In early summer, there is still a lot of snow on the ground, making passage slow. Monsoon season begins in July and August, along with being the hottest time of the year. In early October, there is much more snow, and it’s dark for 11 to 12 hours per day, compared to just seven or eight hours of darkness in June. By Halloween, the window is pretty much closed.
She didn’t want to wait until next year to break it as she is hoping to focus solely on racing competitions in 2021, not FKTs. This had to end now.
Top of the Mountains
As Stanley took off from Blanks Gulch Trailhead at 4 p.m., Oct. 1, her first objective was to start off slower than her first attempt. She didn’t want to burn all her energy in the beginning and blow up in the final stretch. She needed to improve her previous run by at least an hour and 18 minutes to beat Hicks’ time of 50 hours, 32 minutes.
The early evening start time was strategic. Her first attempt began at 6 a.m., which resulted in her crossing the finish line at night. This time, she wanted to start right before dusk and finish in the daylight to stay positive for that final stretch.
Along with a GPS watch that gave her a ton of information, Stanley had seven pacer runners who would take turns scrambling across the rocky, high-alpine terrain with her to keep the needed pace. She also carried an index card that showed splits at the base and summit of each peak for her previous run, Hicks’ record and her 48-hour goal. She was behind her original splits at the beginning, but for 99 percent of the run, she was at least an hour ahead of the current record.
“I knew I didn’t have time to fall apart anywhere or slow down drastically,” Stanley said. “It was just keeping this slow, steady movement forward consistently.”
Positioned along the route were 10 aid stations with her crew members where she could refill her two 18-ounce water bottles and change her shoes and socks. Each station also had a flask of hot chocolate and a bowl of hot soup to counter the cold weather. She wore a big, puffy jacket at least half of the run, along with a long-sleeve shirt and running pants. In August, she ran in a tanktop and shorts for 80 percent of the attempt. Now she had ski mittens instead of running gloves. She carried about two to five pounds of gear, most of it water, including a quarter-pound of food — gel supplements from her sponsor MUIR Energy.
The run wasn’t without its setbacks. When she’s fresh, she normally doesn’t have any signs of injury. From mile one, it felt like she already had 80 miles on her legs. She didn’t have that spring to get after it like she usually does. By peak No. 4, less than six hours into a 49-hour trek, her left knee started to ache. She relied on ibuprofen more than the first attempt — something she doesn’t recommend — from about the halfway point on.
She also had to deal with 14 altitude changes, and it became a delicate balance of trying not to faint from the lack of oxygen and pushing herself to beat the record. She took a 20-minute power nap in her previous attempt — which gave a much-needed boost of energy — but this time she elected not to sleep. It wasn’t until the 14th and final peak when she stopped for a a few minutes to lean on her poles.
“I’ve never had asthma but it just feels like you can’t get deep breaths in,” Stanley said. “You’re hyperventilating continuously, even if you’re just walking.”
After summiting the final peak, Mount Massive, it was a two-hour slow-shuffle jog down to the finish line at Leadville Fish Hatchery. As Stanley came in view of the hatchery she saw 10 to 15 people sitting in fold-up camping chairs cheering her on. She touched the trailhead sign that acts as the finish-line ribbon at 4:49 p.m. on Oct. 3, finishing in a time of 48 hours, 49 minutes. She had beaten the FKT by 43 minutes.
Her brother, Reece Stanley, broke out some champagne he had leftover from his wedding and the celebration began.
“I almost feel like I didn’t do it because I consciously turned off my brain the entire time,” Stanley said. “I didn’t want to think about it; how much further I had to go, how much pain I was in, how cold it was. The first attempt I tried to experience every single mile. This time it was much more of a business trip than a fun adventure. I’m so glad I did it but I’m so glad it’s over.”
What the Future Holds
There’s about a two-week window left, Stanley said, in which a female runner could go out and break her record, so she’s not completely relaxed yet. She’s hoping her record holds for now so she can go into the winter not having to stress about it being beaten. If it does get beaten in the next two weeks, she half-jokingly says she’ll go back out and reclaim her glory. It would take some serious convincing of her crew to agree with all the health hazards that would create.
If racing is back by next year, she plans to go full-steam ahead in that rather than breaking FKTs. Nolan’s 14 was just something to put her name on while she couldn’t race this year.
Stanley signed a sponsorship with Adidas in January and she already promised the company she would kick back and relax until at least January, which means no more races and FKTs.
“I think I’m going to take the next three months extremely easy and then January I’ll jump back into training pretty strictly,” Stanley said.
She might do a little skiing and rock climbing, she admits. She also plans to catch up with Adidas, see which races are slated for next year and set a game plan for which ones the team would like her to compete in. August 2021 is UTMB and she’s hoping to finally compete in it and stake her claim as the top women’s ultra marathoner in the world.
The more she learns about running and the more she trains, the harder it is to reach an endpoint, she says. She thought Nolan’s 14 would be her breaking point. There were rough patches, to be sure, but she never reached that ‘I might die’ juncture. Now she has her eyes set on 200-milers or, to get more mountainous she’d have to go to the Himalayas or down to South America.
Stanley never imagined she’d be at this point in her life, especially coming from a rural town in Washington. She had always dreamed about it, but at the level a little kid dreams they will be like Michael Jordan someday. A pleasant thought, but not realistic. But for Stanley, sometime in the last two or three years, the dream stopped being a fantasy and it morphed into a goal.
“You dream about it but do you really think it’s going to happen?” Stanley said. “There’s so many obstacles in the way and life can take you so many different directions … the goal, as with any professional athlete, is to be the best in the world, and I feel like I am.”