I met Rob Steger before Training for Ultra was born. It was the day before we each raced one of the North Race Endurance Challenge Series events in Wisconsin a few years ago.
That was before Steger’s weekly podcast. It was before he had ascended to running 100-milers. It was before he emerged as one of the well-known voices of ultra running.
But his goal then — as it is now — is to inspire runners of all shapes, sizes and experience levels.
To understand his motivation, his relentless passion, for inspiring others to challenge themselves stems from his own personal experience. It’s why he was at the North Face. It’s what drew me to him as an interview subject. It’s why I am among those who regularly listens to his podcasts and follow his impressive progress on social media.
Spurred on by a sense of urgency
In 2011, Steger bought Dean Karnazes’ book, “Ultramarathon Man,” some running sneakers and gear. “I went out for one mile and it was extreme pain,” he recalls. “I did that again — extreme shin pain. I think I tried it one or two other times and it was just like, this is not working, I'm not a runner.”
Four years later, a flurry of events combined to instill a sense of urgency in Steger.
At about the same time that Steger’s father had a serious heart issue, Rob broke his left ankle and his first son was born.
“I initially got into running because my dad actually had some heart issues,” Steger says, noting that the condition runs in his family. “It coincided with some other stressors in my life. I found myself not even being able to walk. And I had taken walking for granted. So I took a good look in the mirror.”
Steger started out slowly, this time, working on his diet first.
“I'm trying to make adjustments in my life, just relate to my dad, and started eating super healthy and lost 30 pounds, 40 pounds, juicing,” he says. “I made the same juice drink, and I was only gonna do it for a week. It led to two, three … I was like a month into it and I had all this energy. I didn't know what to do with myself. I actually got the same shoes that I purchased in 2011 — they were still in the box — and just went out for a run.”
From there, Steger bought a bike and a treadmill. “I knew I wasn't a runner actually then,” he says. “My very first run was like a mile. I broke through the one-mile barrier I would say.”
That one-mile run became four miles, then 10 miles and eventually ultra distances.
“I'm the type of guy that if I actually think I can do something, if I put enough might into it, I can figure out some way to do it,” he says. “I just liked testing new distances. It was just fascinating to me experiencing going out, running non-stop for 15 miles. Back when I first started I was really excited about that, it was just exhilarating.”
Learning from a tough race
Steger set his eyes on the goal of running the Athens, Ohio, marathon in April 2016. But first he had to overcome some early runner jitters.
“I didn't even know how to pin a bib on,” he remembers. “I didn't know anything at all. I was scared about the water cups — I didn't know how that worked.”
He decided to do a half marathon first to learn the basics. It did not go well.
“It was like the worst half marathon ever,” Steger admits. “I tried carb loading. I completely botched that. To get rid of the headache before the race I took a hot bath. Went real fast at the start, got halfway, and my knee was in an incredible amount of pain. It had got so bad to the point where I was probably like nine miles in of the 13 and just had to walk.”
He grew concerned about his knee, but kept pushing through. At this time, Steger began his ascent from struggling runner to inspirational runner. With the finish line in view, Steger noticed the last-place runner approaching.
“I'd been congratulating, rooting people on, and then they were rooting me on as I was walking,” he says. “I turned around and saw the guy in last place and was like, ‘OK, I'm gonna go to the finish line, I'm just gonna do this.”
A cure for inflammation, wrinkles
Steger kept his commitment to the marathon the following spring. As he healed his wounds from his half marathon debut, he educated himself on all things running. By his count, he read about 20 books.
“I was seeing that diet and eating healthy is important, but you gotta take it even further to control inflammation,” he says. “Certain foods, even though they’re good, like a bunch of strawberries, the amount of sugar just gets converted. I feel like I got a major, like I went back to college.”
Armed with experience and new-found knowledge, Steger applied those principles — proper running technique, healthy dieting, smart race strategy, etc. ”I ran a really good marathon,” he says. “It was my very first finish, like finish-finish. And I got the medal.”
Not only has Steger come a long way as a runner, he has become a more healthy eater.
“I keep getting closer and closer to just becoming a vegetarian,” he says. “At first I was eating a bunch of crap back in the day, throughout college, throughout all of the first five years of working. Ever since my dad's incident when I started running, I took out wheat. Wheat definitely got rid of my migraines, my inflammation like crazy. The wrinkles under my eyes got better.”
Instead, he focused on kale, ginger and other natural anti-inflammatories. “I'm feeling really good. I don't need to go take an Ibuprofen if I'm sore, I now have a naturally remedy.”
Steger has also experimented with a paleo diet and a fat-adapted approach, inspired by ultra runner Timothy Olson. “I saw him eat an avocado on a trail, and I heard on a podcast he ran like five hours on a spoonful of coconut oil,” he says. “This guy's up to something, and he's a really good runner. So I looked into it and tried this for a few months. It's really helped my running.”
When it comes to ultras, all runners face nutritional challenges. For those with specific diets — especially gluten-free athletes like Steger and me — the challenge is amplified.
“I've just trained myself to take out all the variables,” says Steger, citing Burning River in Ohio as an ultra that had really good gluten-free options. “I try to stock everything myself. I don't depend on the aid stations unless they're Hammer Nutrition products. They're low sugar. I took wheat and sugar out of my diet.”
Steger relies on Hammer Nutrition products, from its gels to Perpetuem. “I don't even know how I came across Perpetuem, I think I heard Rob Krar talk about it on a podcast, and I think he had just won Western States. That's worked really well for me.”
Advice for ultra beginners
When I met Steger, we were both ultra newbies. We had finished ultras but were by no means experts. For those looking to add the title “ultra runner” to their racing resume, Steger has formulated some advice.
“I'd say pick your race carefully — a 50K is doable, if you've done a few marathons,” he says. “If you modify your training just a little bit, if you get a little comfortable going on the trails, a 50K is easily within your abilities. If anything, it's just probably more mental than anything. Do some training time out on the trails, understand you're not gonna have negative splits or anything like that.”
And the training blocks are longer for ultras. That just means you get to enjoy the journey longer.
“There's gonna be more miles,” he says. “I'm big on just enjoying the journey. Go out and make every training run enjoyable, because come race day who knows what can happen. And once you start getting into 50-, 100-mile races, you don't know what's gonna happen. It's just one day of running, maybe two, but you're gonna spend the vast majority of your time working up through the training process.”
A fear of falling is a big deterrent for those unsure of they can handle trail running.
“There's definitely a risk when you're running on the trails,” Steger acknowledges. “But I think the experience is worth that risk. And of all people, having just coming off a broken ankle in March of '15, to then hit the trails, I was really seriously concerned about it. And you do have to slightly modify to like a foot strike, slightly, just for stability purposes, so you're less prone to rolling an ankle. But I'd say explore, go hike and see how your hiking is, and then just speed it up from there.”
Once runners get out on the trails, the beauty of nature and the serenity will lure them in for future runs.
“Live in the moment on the trail,” Steger advises. “You go into this weird state of mind where you're living for every footstep, and that's the most important thing in the world at that moment.”
Setting and meeting challenges
From his first runs on the trails, Steger has quickly progressed to running challenging ultras (15 and counting). Among those he has accomplished to date: the Leadville 50-miler, as part of Silver King; Bandera 100K; Black Canyon 100K; Kettle Moraine 100-miler and Javelina Jundred 100-miler.
“Just to be clear, races motivate me,” he says. “I'm real goal-oriented and if I have a horrible race, it doesn't ruin anything for me. I just like the training blocks up until that ... it gets me out the door. I love having that goal and that challenge in front of me.”
Later this summer, he will be running CCC, his "A" race for 2018.
“CCC means a lot personally; I know the sacrifices made to make this dream a reality,” Steger says. “My wife has been a huge supporter of my efforts and she and I both know how running has made me a better person, husband and father.”
The upcoming race in the Alps will mark his third year of running.
“On a different level, CCC is important to me to show people you too can do this,” Steger summarizes. ”Change is possible. I feel like just yesterday my doctor was about to put me on Lipitor and was truly concerned for my health. By making small daily changes for the better, I have found myself making steady improvement. Slowing down and putting ultra running in perspective had made my journey enjoyable. By making my training fun, I'm much more motivated to get in the miles. You too are capable of going after your dream race and it all starts by making the decision today to change.”
With a taste of some bucket-list races already, Steger has his eyes on some of the sport’s cherished challenges such as Western States 100, UTMB and Hardrock.
“It's a hard distance!,” he says of 100 miles. “I love big audacious goals to set a fire deep within me to train daily and train smart. It has to be hard enough and scary enough to truly motivate me. I haven't told anyone about these bigger long-term goals I have. Here they are in no particular order: The Ultrarunning Grand Slam. Leadman. A 200 Miler. Thru-hiking the Colorado Trail, maybe even a FKT attempt in a few years. An awesome adventure race, something like those classic Eco-Challenge races. I'd like to run across a state and maybe a country.”
And, while we’re talking stretch goals, why not include the man who set the initial spark.
“Ordering a pizza (gluten free for me) on the run with Dean Karnazes would be epic!” Steger says. “I've reached a point where no goal seems unreasonable, if I have the time to train and accomplish it.”
Generations of inspiration
And it’s just not his inner motivation or Karnazes that drives Steger. He receives motivation by encouraging others to hit the trails, set ambitious goals and try something new and challenging.
"For me it's never been about speed, it's always been about testing my limits with distance," he says. "The more I run, the more I realize how we are capable of so much more. Part of the reason I do these bigger name races is that many people see them and might write themselves off as ever being able to do it. Then they see someone like me, just a fairly normal guy getting after it and hopefully it plants the seed that they too can change their lives and enjoy running."
The "fairly normal guy" brings a weekly podcast to the masses, often inviting top ultra runners to share their stories and advice. He also has a book in the works.
"There are lots of different ways to motivate people and I see the Training For Ultra Podcast as just another way to reach people," Steger says. "I have a deep desire to give back and motivate people to run, just as so many have done for me. My races and training motivate myself to never get back into those bad habits, but all of this is also designed to motivate people to make a few more healthy choices in their life. I'm not afraid to stick my neck out and try to provide content I wish I had when I first started. The podcast is designed to interlace running and nutrition tips along with hearing from runners that inspire me — regardless of their ability."
As Steger grows his audience of followers and spreads his inspiration, there are some special individuals who he has inspired. His 3-year-old son, Ben, literally dreams of running a 100-mile race. He may not be ready to conquer a full day race, but father and son enjoy the trails together.
“One of the happiest days of my life was when my 3-year-old son asked if we could go trail running together,” says Steger, who also has a newborn named Matt. “We went out for a one-mile run, with about 250 feet of gain in the heat of the day. It was a truly amazing experience to see the determination and sense of exploration on his face. That's my goal in raising him, for him to never lose that sense of adventure in life, regardless if he chooses running or not.”
Steger’s father has been a huge inspiration throughout his entire life. It was his father, after all, whose health condition motivated Steger to literally get his running shoes out of the box. Now, the inspiration has been returned.
My father had never in his life been a runner, but once I started showing updates of my runs on Instagram, he started asking more questions,” recalls Steger. “He commented to me that he didn't want to run and started walking daily. I'm not sure when he took the leap, but one of the major ironies of Training For Ultra is that of everyone inspired to run, my father was one of them.”
Last year, they shared the Columbus (Ohio) Marathon. Rob ran the full; his dad the half. This fall, his dad will run the full at Columbus.
“We continue to inspire each other and he recently crewed me for the first time as I went for the Leadville Silver King,” Steger says. “He runs daily and trains very smart. I couldn't be more proud of the progress he has made!”
Name: Rob Steger
Hometown: Columbus, Ohio
Number of years running: Three years
How many miles a week do you typically run: 35 Miles
Point of pride: Inspiring others to run and eat healthy. Enjoying the ultra journey just as much as race day.
Favorite race distance: Ultramarathons
Favorite pre-race or training food/drink: Sweet Potato Chips, Hammer Perpetuem, Hammer Recoverite
Favorite or inspirational song to run to: "The Lessons We Learn" The Ginger Runner
Favorite or inspirational mantra/phrase: "If we could just free ourselves from our perceived limitations and tap into our internal fire, the possibilities are endless.” Dean Karnazes ~ ULTRA MARATHON MAN
Where can other runners connect or follow you:
• Instagram and Twitter: @trainingforultra
• Blog: www.trainingforultra.com