It’s a chicken or the egg question. Which came first for Howie Stern, his love of running or passion for photography?
“It was definitely running,” says the well-known runner and race photographer who first learned the craft in high school. But after graduating he set the camera aside for about 20 years and found running as a 19-year-old college student as he trained for a triathlon.
Ultras soon followed.
“Oddly enough, when I first started running, even though it was part of a triathlon, we did all our training on trails,” he recalls. “I'm not exactly sure why, but I know we lived pretty close to the hills and it just totally seemed like all the times we went to run, it was just on trails.”
After about five years, Stern dropped triathlons for climbing. Then, thanks to meeting a friend through climbing, he learned about Western States and Angeles Crest 100. In time, he would also fall in love with the Hardrock Endurance Run, which of course, has been canceled for the second year in a row. The 2020 race was scheduled to be held this coming weekend. Stern won’t be running or taking photos at the iconic race but he may well run the course with friends.
Two failures, then back-to-back 100s
But long before Silverton, Colo., captured his imagination, the mountains of California beckoned.
“There was something about the Angeles Crest 100, hearing about running 100 miles through the mountains where I always rock climbed and went skiing, that really is what rekindled my interest in wanting to run again,” he says. “That was around 1997 or 98. And then, in 1998 I moved to Mammoth. I hated backpacking. I just hated carrying stuff. I was not a good mule.”
That’s when he realized that if he ran for half a day he could cover the distance many backpackers do in a week. He was all in, studying topo maps, looking for places to explore and running as often as possible.
Stern did the Bishop Sierra 50 as a qualifier for his coveted Angeles Crest 100. “The Bishop High Sierra went reasonably well. And of course my naive mind figured, ‘Well, if 50 miles isn't that bad, how bad can a 100 be?’"
It turns out, kinda bad.
“My first two Angeles Crest races didn't go too well,” he says. “I didn't finish either of them. This was a world before the Internet and you're just kind of figuring out stuff on your own. And I was really bad at pacing and feelings. So somewhere along the lines as I was getting ready to try for my third time at Angeles Crest, I decided to try Leadville first in 2001. And it's still my 100 mile PR to this day.
“That’s the funny part. Leadville felt really easy to me. And then six weeks later, I finally finished Angeles Crest.”
Conquering a demon
While the DNFs provided Stern valuable experience and lessons, there was another issue that kept Stern from completing those early 100s.
“It's complex. My first two failures at Angeles Crest probably also had a lot to do with battling an eating disorder at the same time. For whatever reason, I managed to keep my eating disorder under control while training for Leadville.”
Once he crossed the Leadville finish line, not only were his past DNFs in the rear-view mirror, so was his eating disorder.
“Four years of hell ended with crossing the line at 5:45 in the morning.”
Stern has never had a relapse of the eating disorders since.
“I can't even tell you why. Maybe it was all the pain, all the doubt and stuff that was in my head and how absurd it was to try to run 100 miles. And despite everything, my body still managed to come through. It was a weird defining moment. My body could still do things. And can do things that just seemed impossible. Maybe it's just all these insecurities or whatever weirdness was going on in my head, somehow I proved to myself that a lot of it was just all garbage and noise.”
Stern believes his eating disorder started when he was a rock climber. “The less you weigh, the easier it is to climb harder stuff. I had a girlfriend at the time who suggested a certain kind of diet, maybe it would help me get a little fitter or a little lighter. And before I realized it, I started measuring all my food and obsessing.”
On the outside, people would see a slimmer Stern who was becoming an excellent climber. Inside, his body was revolting. “I had no energy, ever.”
It was a vicious cycle. Every four or five months Stern would eat everything in sight for several weeks (“and I would feel horrible”) and then he would eat perfectly for three weeks (“I feel better now).” And the cycle continued.
“It was this roller coaster of perfection and then utter gluttony,” he recalls. “It was slowly killing me because obviously it was mentally destroying me. And physically, it was just doing really weird things to my body because my electrolytes would get so wrecked and I'd be just walking and getting cramps in my legs. It was just nuts.”
Stern knew he needed a distraction and sought out endurance training, which eventually led him to the finish lines — at Leadville and for his eating disorder.
Now, he does not follow any diet. If he wants a soda, he has a soda. Same for ice cream.
“I try not to diet because for me it just leads down to this wormhole of feeling guilty.”
108 hours of work, 5 hours of sleep
Well known for his photography, Stern began rethinking life when he went through a divorce in 2014. He decided he was done with being a high school teacher. As he ventured to Hardrock that year, he was single with no job and no condo. A friend of his offered Stern the use of his house in Silverton, and he moved in that August.
“It's beautiful because it was in the summer,” he recalls. “I just found myself taking pictures all the time with my phone. People seemed to like them. And eventually I was like, ‘Maybe I should get a camera again and start shooting.’ I wasn't sure what I was going to do career-wise, but I had a couple of friends who were photographers who were involved in mountain running.”
Stern figured he could pair his experience with mountain races and photography to “capture what I feel as a runner through a camera."
In February 2015, he bought a camera and was off to the races. He shot his first race the following month.
“People seemed to like what I was doing,” he remembers. “You eventually realize your niche. I guess the first thing that really took off for me, that I was really meant to do it, is when I shot Candice Burt's Bigfoot 200 in 2015. I spent essentially 108 hours shooting with only five hours of sleep.”
The reaction was well worth every waking moment.
“To see the reaction of people was amazing,” he says. “The niche became storytelling with the camera. It wasn't just shooting people running, but it was shooting the whole journey of runners’ 200-mile adventures over the course of four and a half days. Seeing all that human emotion, ups and downs and triumph, it hooked me. Then it hooked other people, as they saw race pictures in a way that they had never seen before.”
With the 200-mile adventure in August, Stern was well conditioned to handle the long hours and climbs since in previous years he had run Hardrock in July and Angeles Crest just days before Bigfoot.
That fitness is an asset as he is able to get shots others do not.
“Sometimes when you get race pics, guys are hanging out at the aid station or maybe they walk a half mile from the aid station,” he explains. “I'm an ultra runner. If you need me to hike 12 miles to the top of the peak to shoot in the coolest location, it doesn't matter. You want me to stay up all hours of the night. It doesn't matter because I'm just used to it as a runner. And I want to go to all the places where naturally all the cool stuff is."
Whether he is atop a mountain or beside an aid station, Stern keeps his focus on telling a story.
“For some reason I like to capture suffering,” he admits. “There's always a story there and it’s not about somebody drinking a Coke.”
‘What does this mean for my career?’
Stern went all in to photography as his profession, living out of his truck for four years.
“If you really want to make it, you have to be willing to starve,” he says. “There's no plan B. It's either you're all in or else your plan B is always going to eventually take precedence when things get tough. So, I figured the only way I'm going to make it doing what I do is to go all in and get as good as I possibly can so that people are going to want to seek me out or hire me.”
It paid off as in the past year, his career expand to where Stern was traveling worldwide to shoot commercial assignments. And then the pandemic struck, shutting down opportunities for races and commercial work.
Stern was in New Zealand on a commercial shoot from mid-February to mid-March.
“When I first left, there was a little talk about this virus, and by the time I came home in mid-March, it was right into the full-on where everything started to close down. I've been sitting dead in the water now since mid-March.”
And that’s the real tragic part about the pandemic. Having races cancelled or turned virtual is an inconvenience for runners. But for race directors, photographers like Stern and others who rely on them for income, it’s devastating.
“Obviously, everyone is disappointed because they use racing as motivation to train. It's a big social thing. And it’s my living. But as part of the community, I feel a similar way because I love to be a part of the sport on either side, whether it's in front of the lens or behind it. It's just as disappointing to miss out on seeing my friends or seeing all the stories and camaraderie and everything.”
Stern believes that most race participants don’t realize how much work goes on behind the scenes.
“Race directors work hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of hours, just the same as with photography,” he says. “People can get sad or upset because these races are not going on. But they still have their careers and jobs and they can still train. Sitting where I'm sitting, I worked really hard the last five years to develop this career and there's a big part of me that's scared. What does this mean for my career?”
Stern’s next assignment is at a race in August.
“I don't know about the other ones. What's going to happen next year? Will racing just go back to normal? Will it still be limited? For commercial stuff, what are the budgets that people have for photography? If the economy is really bad, a lot of times photography becomes a luxury item. I worry more about my extended future years. But at the same time, I'm not a quitter. You have to learn to adapt. Maybe I'll have to look at different types of photography. For people in my position or even race directors, it's much bigger than just cancelling races for now. It's more of uncertainty about our careers and our future.”
Longing for Hardrock
Stern had been planning to shoot Western States for Altra.
“The last couple of years at Western States has been super exciting, just all the different people who come out to that race, and the top women and men. Records have been set. I get it, it's a huge deal. Maybe because Western was canceled so long ago, I've kind of accepted it.”
For him, missing out on Hardrock is more devastating. Living in Silverton, Stern passes the famous rock every day on the way to the coffee shop.
“If you know my history, my Super Bowl was Hardrock. The one that's personally toughest for me is Hardrock. It's two years in a row. For Silverton, it's not even that the race gets canceled from a runner perspective, as a small town, it's entirely dependent on tourism. It was bad enough to lose it last year, and then this year with the coronavirus, the economy is already destroyed here.”
In 2018, Stern earned his 10th finish at Hardrock.
“I wanted to take two years off from running the race and shoot the race,” he says. “Because I want to do a big book, like a big photo essay book, a coffee table book on the race. Fill it with basically Hardrock as a view from the inside. There's a lot of people who shoot Hardrock, but there's almost nobody who is a photographer who also runs Hardrock.”
What makes Hardrock special is the people, everyone from the race director to volunteers to the townsfolk who cheer on the runners.
“I wanted to cover that, two years in a row because the race goes different directions,” he says. “So here's another two years now that it's going to take to tell the story. That's the legacy I want to leave to the race. As the race gets closer, that's one thing I always look forward to in July, when the family gets back together.”
Hometown: Silverton, Colo.
Number of years running: 32
How many miles a week do you typically run: In season 40-60
Points of pride: Ten-time Hardrock Hundred finisher, Miki and Joey's dad.
Favorite race distance: 100 miles
Favorite pre-race or training food/drink: Bagel and cream cheese, Coke
Favorite piece of gear: Any shoes without holes that still have cushion.
Favorite or inspirational song to run to: Anything by Dream Theater.
Favorite or inspirational mantra/phrase: The only way out is through ...
Where can other runners connect or follow you:
• Website: www.howiestern.com
• Instagram: howiesternphoto