When Stephanie Wattenbarger began her running journey she didn’t know about training. “It was just me and my Timex, really bad running shoes, a wish and a prayer.”
After all the self-professed “marching band geek and the drama/acting nerd” was new to sports in 2007 when she did her first 5K, a crowded Susan Komen breast cancer run/walk — emphasis on walk.
She signed up for that race with co-workers after her dad had a stroke and died. “I found that I could not just walk,” Wattenbarger remembered. “It was crowded, hot and filled with walkers. I think my time was 48 minutes or so. After that, I signed up for more 5Ks so that I could ‘run.’ I did not know what I was doing, I just did it.”
It was a tough time for Wattenbarger, even though it led to her love of running.
“My mom kind of freaked out on me after my dad passed, and I needed to find something to take away the stress and mental pain — besides becoming an alcoholic,” she said. “I guess I was hooked on the euphoria and excitement of the races. I didn’t know that you were supposed to actually TRAIN for races!”
Going faster and longer
As she trained and got faster at the 5K, she started placing in her age group.
“That motivated me to sign up for longer races,” Wattenbarger said. “My first 10K was the Hospital Hill Half Marathon and 10K in Kansas City, Missouri. That eventually became my first half as well. It is a tough, hilly course at a time of year that is hot and humid. The first half marathon was 2011 and I have run that race four times now, finally coming in under two hours in 2017. I think I’ll leave that time right there!”
She ran the Chicago Half Marathon in 2011, then set a full marathon as a goal. “I ran the Kansas City Marathon a week or so later (after Chicago) — terrible time, terrible pain (terrible shoes)! I truly did NOT know what I was doing!”
The following year, Wattenbarger returned to Chicago to redeem her full marathon time. At this point, she set a fairly common but challenging goal for runners: qualifying for and running the Boston Marathon.
“It took me seven years to finally qualify, which I did August 2014 at the Leading Lady’s Marathon in Spear Fish, South Dakota,” she said. “I thought it would be a good idea to run a 50-miler three weeks before Boston 2015 so that I would not ‘hit the wall’ at Boston.”
Her first Boston Marathon was not a good experience due to the weather primarily. However, she requalified for Boston twice in 2015. “I did not have enough cushion for the first one (Nebraska State Fair), but did the second (Twin Cities). I ran them about a month or so apart. I was not trying to BQ at either race, it just happened. Boston 2017 was a GREAT experience as I knew what to expect, where to stay and what to do. Not to mention the weather and company were FABULOUS!”
Wattenbarger’s next quest is to do a half or full marathon in every state, which she aims to do by age 60. This year she aims to check off Ohio, Tennessee, Montana, Indiana and Arkansas. “My big marathon in 2018 is Big Sur, a definite bucket list marathon,” she said. “I would like to qualify for the New York City Marathon or at least get in by lottery. If that were to happen, I would consider trying to get into the other three (London, Berlin and Tokyo) to complete the Marathon Majors.”
Surprise! Back to Boston
As her running resume grows, Wattenbarger reflects on what she considers her greatest racing accomplishment.
“Age group awards are nice, but it is also nice to see where you place overall,” she said. “Beating a bunch of ‘youngsters’ is always a good feeling, but I only race myself. So I would have to say that my most proud moment came 11 days ago when I ran the Montana Marathon and ended up with a Boston qualifying time once again. I never thought I would ever see a sub four-hour marathon again, but it just happened. That was the greatest thrill because I knew 1:11 was definitely not enough cushion to make it into Boston. Well, it wasn’t for 2018, but it just so happens that timing is everything.”
Her Montana finishing time of 3:58:49 puts her in the qualifying window for 2019 with an 11-minute cushion, which should be more than enough for a return trip to Boston. “It looks like I may be going back to Boston in 2019. I guess I just like the odd numbered years!”
Wattenbarger now crushes races and her training. Her dedication to running can be seen as she balances long work days and other commitments. She works as a nurse three days a week, with 12-hour shifts and a three-hour total commute.
“I guess I luck out in a sense that I ‘only work three days a week, so it allows me to have a few more days than others to run,” she says. “However, I do not have a set schedule and I try not to work three in a row as that really wears me out. My rule is to not go more than three days without a run. On non-running days, I try to get some yoga in, gentle stretching or 30-minute Beach Body workouts. Fortunately I walk an average of 5-6 miles a day at work plus I deliberately park on the 5th floor so that I have to walk up 83 steps when I get off work. Every little bit helps!”
‘Nothing is impossible’
As she continues to check items off her running goal list, she wants other runners to demonstrate perseverance.
“All runners should know that nothing is impossible if you want it bad enough,” says Wattenbarger, noting how long it took her to BQ. ”Never give up. Good things happen when you least expect them. For every bad’ run, there are good runs and all runs make you stronger. ‘Too old to run’ is a myth and running really is the fountain of youth. The wrinkles may still come, but you will feel like your 20! P.S. I am much healthier at 53 than I was in my 20s and 30s.”
Just what would Teenage Stephanie think about Adult Stephanie’s running accomplishments?
“I think she would say, ‘I never knew you had it in you to be such an athlete,’” Wattenbarger said. “’I mean I KNOW you always have given 100 percent in everything you do, but running? You HATED running in PE! Badminton and ping pong were more your things! I don’t know exactly what happened to you, but in all honesty, I’m proud of you. That may sound a little arrogant, but you of all people know how introverted you, er, I was. I am hesitant to go for my dreams, but it looks as if you have overcome those barriers. Keep going shy one, keep going.’ ”
Name: Stephanie Wattenbarger
Hometown: Excelsior Springs, Missouri
Number of years running: 10
Weekly mileage: 35-40 miles
Point of pride: Montana Marathon
Favorite race distance: 13.1
Favorite pre-race or training food/drink: Coffee with one tsp each: sugar, stevia, & coconut oil. Oatmeal, banana
Favorite piece of gear: My Garmin 920xt, great battery life!
Favorite or inspirational song to run to: Fleetwood Mac- “Don’t Stop Thinking About Tomorrow”
Favorite or inspirational mantra/phrase: “You’ve got this — one foot in front of the other.”
Where can other runners contact/follow you: Twitter at IRun4MyCrazy, Instagram @stephlynnwatt64, Wordpress @ joyinthefire.com