The Process

Shona Stephenson winning Run Larapinta 4 day stage event in Alice Springs NT

This blog is about following the process and seeing where it will take you. 

This will be an open an honest account of how to come back from a major set back in your training and your life and how to drag yourself out of a dark hole. I hope you like it. 

When I raced, I’ve always loved a crowd, I will run faster if I think people are watching, I also feed off the energy of those around me. Of course I share my training programs with my clients but no openly with the public,  it’s a big deal to me to share what I do with readers weekly. Not because of what others think of me but because I don’t want to put extra pressure on myself to perform to a crowd and push myself hard in training session than what is required. I’ve over trained in the past, so it will be a really great experiment for myself to see if I can control myself emotionally throughout this process. Hopefully in about 12 weeks I will be ready to race again.  I hope you will like following my journey. 

The Process. Why do we need “the process”

The process is what keeps us on track, focused and achieving our goals. It is the formula to success in your training that will then reflect through to your career and your private and family life. If your formula to success is being followed then you will have a beautifully balanced life juggling all your balls of importance, making time for each one and keeping those who you love happy. Most important keeping yourself happy through the self love that is given to yourself by yourself from following the process that you have designed for you or have had a coach help you with a personalised training program. You can only love others fully when you are loved yourself. The number one person you have to love in you.

My process has over the past 10 year revolved around racing trail running events. From UTA, UTMF, UTMB, B100, Oxfam TW Sydney and Brisbane, Kokoda Challenge, Coast Trek, 6 Foot Track, Tarawera Ultra, Darkness to Daylight and more. The racing was what left me focused on short, medium and long term goals.

When I was 18, I just wanted to finish Oxfam Trail Walker in twenty-four hours some day. It was a massive long term goal. This goal went on the back burner for almost 14 years, but when I was 32 I finished my first Oxfam TW Sydney in 18 hours. In 2012 I was lucky enough to be in the overall winning team 12 hours 18.  In 2010 I set a goal for myself to come 10th in the UTMB and to be ranked in the top 10 on the Ultra Trail World Tour (UTWT) and in 2014 I achieved that goal, placing 10th in the UTMB and ranked 8th in the world on the UTWT. I also won 3 Blackall 100 (B100) in a row, 2nd, 6th place in the UTMF, 1st place Northburn 100 Mile and 1st place Hakuba International Trails, 9th Place Mont Blanc Marathon, 3x 3rd Place at UTA and 1st place at GOW, GNW, x21st Coastal Classic etc. . Racing is what I love and lived for. 

Shona Stephenson in the last 400m of the Mont Blanc Marathon finishing 9th female

I love competing and will push myself way harder in an event than in any training session.

Loving the focus of an event every 4-8 weeks.

My process was the following;

  • Set a long term goal of a special event. 
  • Then find other lead up events to prepare me for this goal. 
  • Put together a training program to prepare myself for these lead up events. 
  • Then eat, sleep, stretch and hot bath myself, and treat my body with love and care so I will be able to make the training sessions, then the lead up events then my end goal event. 
  • Fit in partner time with a date night every week,
  • “partner training session on a bike” 
  • kids school sports
  • Family movie time
  • weekend family day together. 

If I wasn’t peaking when I raced I did not care I just raced myself back into form one race at a time.

The social aspect of racing is what also kept me fulfilled. I have made so many close friends whilst out racing that I have kept for over a decade. It’s a caring community made up of driven but down to earth people. For me it is a place where I connect with others easily as trail runners are a special breed of people. I’m found humility amongst trail runners, and know that the mental process of having to stay positive throughout your racing is what helps develop certain type of brain waves that is beneficial to mental health and character.  If you let that negative thoughts take over you are no longer running you are walking up that climb.

The maximum amount of vertical gain in ultra trail running events is what I have found helps to train my brain like nothing else I know.

Racing for me is an awesome excuse to catch up with friends, smash yourself physically and mentally and load up on those amazing endorphins that come with achieving a massive goal. This was what has driven me for over 10 years. It’s what helps keep me healthy mentally and physically for 10 years. 

Racing regularly forced me to stick to a training program. Watch your diet, do not drink any alcohol and really look after your mind, body and soul. My racing meant that I got to my intervals, stairs, hills, bike, tempo, long runs , strength and yoga session in the week, knowing that this formula is what leads to success.  Only yesterday when I was forced by my partner to stop and think was I bought to tears with how much I really miss racing and the freedom of being able to train and really push your limits having full confidence in your body.

It is impossible for me to talk about my process without discussing why my formula went off the rails and made me totally rethink my own identity in 2018-2019. My beautifully balance juggling act came crashing down with one simple decision.

Where it all went wrong was April 2017 when I had the Mirena put in. The Mirena is an IUD with a low dose hormones, used as contraception for women. I was 39 and already had two children and was then entering a steady relationship with my now current partner of over 2 years, who already had one child of his own. We had “the talk” at the beginning of our relationship and we decided that having more children was not ideal for both of us moving forward. I was told by a fertility doctor that the Mirena  was a wonder form of contraception as I worked out I was allergic to latex, and that I would not even feel any of the effects that usually go hand in hand with the contraception. No weight gain, no mood swings, just the smallest amount of hormone that will only stay in your uterus. 

For me this was very wrong.

I was on top of the world with my racing, in love with an amazing man, the love of my life, setting a new record at Mount Mee marathon by 20 minutes, then two days later I had the Mirena put in without any issues. I was told that I should feel pelvic pain but that pain should go away after a few months. 

if you let an ultra runners know that you will have to put up with some pain then that is what we will do. 

My pain threshold is insane. I am still walking around with a broken left arm as it has never been reset as the doctor thought I wasn’t in enough pain when I was 10 and that the injury must have been an old break. He was incorrect. It was a fresh break. I was just really good at pain management. My elbow is still massively deformed. 

Before I was an ultra runner, or an athlete of any type, my two pregnancies were similar too as in I looked like I wasn’t in enough pain to be in labour. I had to lie about how much pain I was in so they’d let me into hospital for my first baby. “What are you doing here?” they asked me when I turned up at the birthing centre. 

“Just look after everyone else first and when you are ready to come back and examine me”. I replied. My contractions were then 2 minutes apart, but I could always talk through them. I’d only been in labour for about an hour. 

When they examined my I was five centimetres dilated, so they let me stay. I gave birth within an hour after they gave me the all clear to give birth. The next morning I was up walking around asking for food and they thought I was some random in the birthing centre. “What are you doing here?” they asked. 

“I gave birth last night, can I have some toast?” I replied. 

“Oh you were that girl (I was 26 at the time) who gave birth really fast.” The midwife replied. 

Luckily, for my second baby they knew I was going to be fast and when I said I needed to come in they let me in straight away. My first was two hours and fifteen minutes my second was 1 hour and twenty minutes. I was only at the hospital for 20 minutes before I gave birth to my second child. No time for happy gas, no bath births or even panadol, I didn’t have the time for such things for both my pregnancies. Just working with my mind and my body in connection and dealing with the contractions as they came, and enjoying the recovery for 30 seconds later. Just like fartlek training (I wasn’t a regular runner when I had my girls, I was just good at utilising times to rest and recover, it was naturally built into me).

So when I was told to put up with the pain of the Mirena for 7 months I did. 

The Mirena pain was so bad that I went from breaking records running mountain marathons to not being able to run about an oval first thing Monday morning with coaching clients. I was also putting on weight too. The Mirena tricks your body into thinking it is just about to have a period. For most women this is the you feel the weakest not your strongest.  This was what my body was told for 7 months. I went from feeling strong to feeling weak. 

When I ran Darkness to Daylight, I ran it with 2 nurofens, 6 hours before I started with a meal (massive no, no in ultra running), when I ran Brisbane Trail Marathon and broke the record by 30 minutes, I ran it on 2 nurofen the day before. When I ran Kokoda Challenge again 2 nurofen the day before. The nurofen made me feel so much better with my pelvic pain. I felt free with this pain killer. When I look back at it, I was putting up with a fair bit of pain.

Ask an ultra runner to put up with pain and we will.

For how long?

Until it affects our racing. 

The massive turning point for me was the infections. First was a throat infection post Kokoda Challenge. Sure it was wet, cold and miserable but it was the start of 5 courses of antibiotics. Between August and October 2017, I had five urinary tract infections (UTI). Happy 39th birthday! Guess what, you get a UTI, your first one in almost 20 years. A proper pissing blood type. It felt like I was pissing glass. The nurse asked how I could not be in massive amounts of pain. I guess I dulled it out as I was so used to being in pain with the mirena that I did not notice the extra UTI pain. I fogged off the first UTI as being an outcome of being in a relationship with a new partner and thinking it was normal. I pulled out of the Coastal High 50. I then attempted to train again but I just kept getting sick. I ran Lantau Island vertical and came 3rd but I looked at my photos and I had an insanely red face, it was the start of another UTI, after UTI, after UTI, after UTI. By the time I was about to race the Blackall 100 (B100) in October for the 4th time to try and make it four wins from 4 appearances I was on antibiotics again. I started to research the Mirena and the link with UTI infections. There seemed to be a link. 

Two weeks out from the B100 I decided to have the Mirena removed. I was still in pain. Pain I was putting up with for now seven months. On top of this pain I’d had 5 UTI infections. This was extremely abnormal for me as I hadn’t had a UTI since I was 20. I went from feeling on top of the world to feeling like crap, with no energy and sick all the time. The feeling was weighing me down menally and physically. I was 3 kilos above my normal weight. I pushed all the negative thoughts out of my mind as I knew they were not helpful but man I was down! I was pretty depressed and just hiding from the fact I was so unhappy. 

Other symptoms I noticed with the mirena was that I was having trouble with my digestion. It was nonexistent.  I was so inflamed that I was reduced to only 2 meals a day and I was having massive reflux. I was only eating two meals a day and I really could not fit anymore in my stomach. I especially could not eat dinner before as I could not digest it enough before I went to bed even if I had to run around with a 7pm client, I still could not digest my food.  I’d had five UTI infections, feeling sick and having no energy and the prospect of racing the B100 I had to do something different. My micro biome was upset and I was doing my best to restore my natural balance again but I just couldn’t. Let’s not even go into my mental health. I was struggling.

I also noticed that I was ageing. My face changed shape, like I was squarer in my neck area and forming jowls. I felt like I was going into early menopause. I knew I wasn’t ageing but the mirena hormones that were inside of me felt like they were talking my natural superhuman powers away and making me feel older before my time. Maybe I was getting older. I had to change something. Be it the lowering in my natural testosterone that lead to more inflammation in my body, increase my risk of infections, pain response, inflammation in my stomach I don’t know. I just kept getting injured too.

I also had an Achilles tendon that just would not heal. It was so unlike me to carry an injury, I don’t get injured. I’m a healer, my physiotherapist used to joke that you could drive a truck into my body and I’d probably bounce.  I could back up, race again and again, yet at that time in my life when I had the mirena in I was not my super human self. My own body, was sending out inflammation responses, trying to stop me from running. I wasn’t well and I was shutting down. I was getting worried about my kidneys too, with all the UTI’s I was worried I might eventually do damage. I had constant ulcers in my mouth. I was reduced to using only one type of toothpaste as normal toothpaste was too acidic for my skin. With all the reflux I was getting worried about my stomach too.

I am so careful with what I put in my body. I won’t even eat chicken or eggs as I believe the hormones with make me put on weight. I am GF, DF, Land Animal Free and Only eat fish.  I felt so stupid as I let someone put hormones inside of me that I could not control myself. I gave it a go. I tried to remove the Mirena myself and I just could not find the string. Bloody hell.

I booked myself into the clinic and asked for it to be removed. They refused to remove it there and then. Even with all the above symptoms. They refused to believe that the mirena was the problem. They suggested that I had sexually transmitted disease and that I should have a chat with my partner, and they were taking blood tests and samples. This was awful. I loved and trusted my partner and to imply that he’d given me something was terrible. Lucky I am confident enough to trust my partner, believe in myself and push for more answers from the women’s health clinic and to not even suggest that my partner was being unfaithful. I didn’t even ask him. I knew the tests would be negative. It was just such a shame that they let the mirena inside of me for an extra week. 

Instead of just taking the mirena out as I asked, they sent me off to have an ultrasound. The ultrasound showed that I had multiple fluid loops in my small intestines. “Am I still about to go to the bathroom?” They asked.  I was down to two meals a day. No wonder I felt like I could not fit any more food in. My intestines were looped around in knots. If it wasn’t for my amazing diet I would probably have a blockage. I read up on fluid loops and I was always throbbing in my abdomen and it could be really dangerous.  I was pretty sick and with reflux too. I think I was also starting to form a stomach ulcer. My asthma was pretty bad. I was eating an alkaline diet to help with the reflux taking probiotics. I was doing everything I could to stay healthy. 

They also asked me if I was a celiac or had crohn’s disease. I’ve since been tested for celiac disease and it’s been a positive result. I was eating Gluten Free for 6 years prior but it was great to have the confirmation. The Mirena looked like it was in the right spot so it was all fine to the women’s health clinic. It was insane for me to think that they did not link the Mirena to the fluid loops in my small intestines, pelvic pain, inflammation throughout my body, ulcers. I went from being a healthy elite athlete to not being able to run without painkillers. Maybe I was allergic to the mirena?

I went back to the clinic and demanded to have the mirena removed. They reluctantly removed it for me. 

Instantly I felt better. My clients after 2 days thought I’d lost about 5 kilos inflammation off my body. My digestion started to return to normal and my achilles started to heal. Having the mirena inside of me took away what made me such a good athlete. It felt like it took away my super human powers. My ability to heal, recover, bounce back from injuries without any down time. I felt like the mirena took this away from me.

I raced the B100 and finished an hour and twenty minutes slower than my best time. I did not care I was just happy to be able to race again and not to be in pain. It was more a race of rejoicing in my body as I was so happy not to have a UTI for the first time in 3 months and to be able to eat  3-5 meals of food again. Yippee! 

My digestion had been upset for about 7 months. I felt like I wasn’t absorbing any nutrients from my food. I was still exhausted but I was starting to heal again. I tried to race in February 2018 but I was still stuffed. I felt like I still had not zip, no top end power. I’d won the Mount Glorious 1/2 Marathon in 2017, 2018 I was 20 minutes slower. I ran across the line not even sweating. I did not have the ability to push myself any more. I could only cruise up the mountain, I couldn’t race it. I decided that my body needed more time off. It took 7 months to destroy my super human powers, it will probably take a full 7 months or more to get them back again, maybe longer. 

I started to be able to eat again, trays of root vegetables, and loads of them. Yay! I could eat 5 meals a day and still drop weight. 

I jumped back on the bike and started riding regularly again. The bike always improved my hill climbing and with my achilles healing it seemed to be the perfect form of cross training. We had a holiday in Thailand and relaxed. I worked out in the gym every day and swam in the pool and just chilled but I was lost within myself not having a real focus to look forward too. I’m a goal setter. I needed a long term goal.

My process had been disturbed and I had to design a new one for myself. I had a nagging feeling that just wouldn’t go away. This was when I was approached by a coaching client David Eastman to start up an ultra. The Brisbane Trail Ultra (BTU) was born.

The Brisbane Trail Ultra Team Cora Lau, David Eastman and myself Shona Stephenson

The process was introduced again. I could focus on something long term and rest my body and wait for me to fully recover. The Brisbane Trail Ultra was born in May 2018. It had been a 5 year goal of mine to put on a world class ultra running event. I had been researching locations all over south east Queensland, I just needed the right team around me. In December 2018 Cora Lau joined the team and we really started to push the BTU forward into the ultimate ultra trail running event. The Brisbane Trail Ultra became my passion for a year and a way to introduce slowly my training process back to my body by designing and measuring the course for our entrants that was athlete focused with stunning single trails, hard climbs, stunning views and adrenalin pumping descents. The difference between the Brisbane Trail Ultra and other events was it had to finish in the city to connect the trails to a major Central Business District, like in European or Japanese events, Brisbane as a location, has the perfect combination of trails that are close to the city and stunning subtropical virgin rainforest. I wanted the Brisbane Trail Ultra to appeal to the traveling adventure tourism industry. More competition from outside states and countries will boost the standard of trail running locally. I wanted Queensland t have an event where our best runners wanted to come and stay in stunning Brisbane, enjoy our mild winters that are perfect for trail running, be wowed by our amazing logistics for trail running with an airport only 20 minutes away from the BTU finish line. I wanted runners to fly race and stay in a hotel right on the finish line. It is trail running heaven to be able to walk home to a hotel just after you’ve race an ultra trail event.

I started measuring the Brisbane Trail Ultra. First the BTU30 was measured first, then the BTU110, breaking it down into segments of 45km, 35km then 20km and 18km parts. Then the  BTU60 was designed discovering a long lost trail that had to be heavily repaired to link the course to a check point without a boring out and back. When I was showing our race ambassadors Ben Duffus and Alana Vought the BTU110. We then decided to extend the BTU110 to create the BTU100M (BTU100 Mile). Again I was out measuring more climbs, loving the trails I’d been missing for so long because I’d been sick. I start to regain confidence in my body again.

Slowly, slowly I regained my strength, speed and power. The mixture of my training, bike riding and the course measuring brought be back into fitness again. Peak fitness? No, but a place where I am content yes.

I am ready now in 2019 to start to push again and this week is the first week of pushing myself consistently again for about 2 years. 

This was what my training process looked like week 1

  • Saturday – 50km Bike ride with my partner (this will switch up to either long run or race)
  • Sunday – Rest (eaten gluten the night before unknowingly and had a reaction) 
  • Monday – 1 hour Easy jog morning 
  • Tuesday Morning – 1 hour Morning Running Drills,  Intervals 500m x4 Kettle bell swings, sumo squats, single leg deadlifts x 3 sets . 
  • Tuesday Evening – Easy Jog 2 hours with 10 x hill sprints 20 sec
  • Wednesday – 1 Hour easy jog
  • Thursday – 1 hour Easy jog in the morning, then Mid Morning Tempo with stair loops kangaroo cliffs x5 1km loops , Cross Core 180 push up to side planks, single leg squats, 
  • Thursday Evening – easy jog 1 hour
  • Friday Morning – 1 hour Easy jog morning – core work bike crunches, opposite arm to leg back extensions, single leg bridges, step ups,  1 min plank. 
  • Friday Evening – 1 Hour easy jog 
Shona Stephenson,loving the virgin rainforest trails of the Brisbane Trail Ultra.