Ultra runner proves surgeon's dire prediction wrong
Josh Stevens describes his life as a three-act play.
Growing up in Maine, Stevens was active and played a variety of sports. He ran cross-country as a high school freshman but didn’t find running as a joyous pursuit until the third act.
His second act was serving in a variety of infantry and Army Special Operations Forces based primarily out of Fort Bragg, N.C. Running was an integral part of training, along with mixed martial arts, plyometric dynamic movements and Olympic weight lifting. Still running wasn’t something that the retired Army lieutenant colonel found pleasure in.
His deployments to combat zones and injuries from roadside bombs in Iraq took a toll. Around Thanksgiving Day 2011, Stevens underwent his second neck surgery.
“The lead neurosurgeon informed me that I would never run again,” said Stevens, who had just turned 41. “I had always been someone who was exceedingly active. It was a core component of my work.”
Inspired by hearing that he could not do something, Stevens set out to prove that he could. In less than three years, he improved to the point where he ran his first 50K on his 44th birthday in Pisgah National Forest in western North Carolina. “I have been running ever since.”
Stevens found inspiration in three books familiar to endurance athletes: Chris McDougall’s Born to Run; Scott Jurek's Eat to Run; and Rich Roll's Finding Ultra. “At that point I was unaware that ultra running was a thing. I didn't know people did it. I was unaware of that and I became fascinated with it.”
Going to extremes fits Stevens’ personality.
“I didn't just join the Army, I became a Ranger and then worked in some other special operations units,” he says. “When I started scuba diving, I thought, ‘That's not good enough,’ so I became an instructor and then I got into cave diving, deep ocean wreck exploration. With running I was never going to be satisfied running road 10Ks, or the annual gobble wobble.”
His page on Ultrasignup reflects that propensity to do the hard things. Race finishes include Badwater, and Leadville, which he completed within 30 days of each other last year.
“Of course, I wanted to make it as difficult as possible,” he says. “That was an extraordinary experience, particularly having failed at Leadville in 2017, to come off of the entire Badwater Ultra Cup series and winning the Cup championship. Then 30 days later, conducting a race that's essentially all above 10,000 feet above sea level. Again, easy is not a word that's in my vocabulary.”
On the surface, one would think that training for Badwater and Leadville at the same time would be counterproductive since they are two vastly different races. Badwater is a methodical road race as runners keep pushing forward in intense heat. Leadville is at a much higher elevation, with some cutoffs that are challenging given the terrain.
“It wasn't until I successfully completed both of them that I found the remarkable similarities in that they're both runnable courses,” he says. “Badwater will surprise you in that it has a lot more climbing than people think. And I envisioned this kind of flat, monotonous 135-mile race across Death Valley. It really is just the first 42 miles. You have almost 16,000 feet in cumulative gain in that race.”
Stevens explains that the training was quite similar. “Elevation and heat both put great demand physiologically on your body,” he says. “But elevated heart rate is a byproduct of both of those scenarios. So there was no real change outside of, there were some specific training for going over Hope Pass that I did at Estes And down in Boulder, using trekking poles correctly, just a lot of vertical gain and short kind of punchy segments. But they kind of dovetailed nicely into one another, which was a pleasant surprise, particularly by the time I got to Leadville, because I was pretty cooked after the three Badwater series races.”
Stevens wears — and swears by — his Coros Vertix watch. After all, it lasted all the way through the 135-mile Badwater, which took Stevens over 32 hours to complete.
“That watch is my go-to. That was really based on last season, and Badwater in particular. The battery life in full GPS mode is unmatched. It's an intuitive device, it's reliable, it's not overly engineered. It's durable. It was a game changer for me going into Coros. It was an absolute game changer.”
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High performance as a masters athlete
As a masters athlete, Stevens focuses on recovery. A vegan diet has been “remarkably beneficial” for his recovery.
He started on that journey after his surgery. “I had to do a complete overhaul of my lifestyle. The first thing that I could control in totality was what I put in my body which was food. So again, some of these things all occurring in a spiral progression, reading Jurek's book and Rich Roll's book, they're obviously very well-known plant-based athletes.”
Stevens adapted a pescatarian diet, then became vegetarian and moved on to vegan about five years ago.
“It's done a whole host of things for me in the positive column,” he says. “Mentally, emotionally and spiritually I feel like a much better human being. A lot of my decisions about what I consume and put in my body are driven by my moral and ethical compass in regarding kind, compassionate treatment of animals. The happy byproducts of what it has done for me as an athlete are secondary to those. My choice to be plant-based is based on my moral beliefs, my moral compass.”
The first change he noticed was that he was sleeping a lot better.
“As an athlete that means your recovery is becoming exponentially better,” he explains. “I wouldn't need supplements to get to sleep. I would sleep fairly soundly. Then I noticed a distinct decrease in inflammation based injuries.”
Stevens is quick to point out that there is no single magic bullet. A plant-based diet is an integral part of an overall regimen that also includes proper stability, mobility and flexibility training.
“Rich Roll terms it the cannon of consistency,” Stevens says. “For me it means being smart about how much mileage I'm doing, not getting in junk miles, getting enough sleep, staying hydrated. There's no way to determine using some type of metric system to which one of those is contributing more or less to greater performance or less injuries. But I know that diet and nutrition played a huge part, because that was the first thing that I changed.”
‘You’ve got to be flexible’
As runners challenge themselves with quests such as 200-mile races or running a 100-miler nearly every week of the year, Stevens takes a balanced approach. He’s still somewhat new to the sport and understands full well the toll extracted on his body from his Army days.
Instead of a single epic, long-term epic quest, Stevens plots out quarterly challenges.
Up next: He will be participating in the 24-hour Wings for Life World Run, starting May 2.
“I wanted to add an event this spring to utilize my fitness level that had been intended for racing,” he says. “I’ll run for 24 hours around Lake Estes in conjunction with the Wings for Life World Run. I’m partnering with fellow local and former pro climber Quinn Brett as she rides her hand crank bike. Quinn fell 100 feet while climbing in Yosemite in 2017 and is now paralyzed from the waist down. She’s an amazing inspiration.”
This year’s organized races are, of course, complicated by the coronavirus. Still, Stevens is optimistic that he will return to Badwater in July. Beyond that, he has the Javelina Jundred in October. He also has some personal climbing and running projects to challenge himself this year.
“You've got to be flexible,” he says. “I'm at a point in my life and an age where I have some perspective. I can understand why there's a visceral reaction when a race doesn't go, but it's just foot racing. It's all stardust. There will be another one. I'm still going to get up and train every day and then we'll see how it sorts out.”
Stevens and I are roughly the same age and both group when most adults slowed down as they hit their 30s or 40s. Today is much different for masters athletes.
“We kind of grew up with this belief system that after 30 you're on this basically downward trajectory. That's just not the case,” he says. “I'd say dream big. Catch the bug. Don't make excuses and don't sell yourself short. Don't allow people to create conditions where you believe that you can't achieve greatness in your 40s, 50s, 60s.”
At the same time, Stevens advises masters athletes to think and train holistically: work on stability, mobility, flexibility, tissue treatment, going to use the sauna, eating well.
It represents a dramatic change from when Stevens was in the service.
“All those things seemed just like a means to an end. I had to be at a certain level and the recipe was kind of drudgery and getting to that point. All I cared about was game day. At this point in my life I'm able to be more present. There's always some days that are tough. But I learned to love the process. Race day is just a celebration of training.”
Name: Joshua Stevens
Hometown: Estes Park, Colo.
Number of years running: 5 years
How many miles a week do you typically run: 70 to 80 miles
Point of pride: Running my first 50K distance on the Art Loeb Trail, Pisgah National Park, N.C. after being told that I would not likely run again following my second spinal surgery resulting from wounds received in combat operations in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom.
Favorite race distance: 100 miles
Favorite pre-race or training food/drink: Spring Energy Wolf Pack/ Elecroride
Favorite piece of gear: Nike Terra Kiger 6 Trail Shoe
Favorite or inspirational song to run to: “A 1000 Times,” Hamilton Leithauser & Rotsam
Favorite or inspirational mantra/phrase: "Discipline is just choosing between what you want now and what you want most." - Augusta F. Kantra
Where can other runners connect or follow you:
• Instagram: @tumbleweedultra
• Strava: Joshua Stevens (Estes Park, Colo.)