Great Escape

Relentless Forward Motion

The incredible journey of U.N. lawyer and ultra-runner Stephanie Case, who finds solace where others find hell

Stephanie Case approaches the 150-kilometer checkpoint on the second night of the 2017 Tor des Géants race. She has still not taken her first sleep break. Photo: Stefano Jeantet

1. It was after 11 p.m. when Stephanie Case returned to her apartment in the United Nations compound outside Kabul, Afghanistan. To get there, she had to travel through the barbed wire and gates and past the ID checkpoints and bomb-sniffing dogs. She’d been celebrating with a colleague at a nearby embassy event, and when two glasses of wine turned to four, an 8 p.m. planned departure slipped deeper into the night. Case was tired and could have slept — content and a bit drunk. It was, after all, her birthday. She’d just turned 36.

Instead, Case changed out of her formal wear and into shorts and running shoes. She put on a headlamp and went back out into the dark. Case had vowed to run her age in kilometers, so she started a near-marathon 30 minutes before midnight, dehydrated but blissful from the wine. She ran past the apartment blocks and guard towers and parking lots again and again, through shipping containers and dormant construction areas with newly upturned mounds of dirt. As she ran, the compound slept, save the Nepalese guards who patrolled the perimeter, scanning for threats. Now-familiar snaps of gunfire broke the silence of night, not registering as they had five years earlier when she’d first arrived in Afghanistan. Case kept moving forward, battling the burn in her legs and the monotony of the hypnotic loops. At nearly 3 a.m., she circled back to her apartment — eyes blood-red, nose black from soot, teeth gritty from the war zone’s pollution. Finally, she settled in for sleep.

Case, a human rights lawyer and women’s rights activist, has found her tribe in the ultrarunning community, where a midnight marathon is less outlandish than it is the norm. Thousands of trail runners from around the world take on races of dozens, sometimes hundreds, of miles; some races last for days. Many have the same birthday running tradition. Case has spent the past half-decade in conflict zones, from Gaza to South Sudan, and now for a second time in Afghanistan. And yet she runs the same races and completes the same mad traditions, without excuse.

Ultrarunners travel to remote locales — the Gobi Desert, the Peruvian rainforest, Death Valley — to put themselves through the hardest days of their lives. But for Case, for a time at least, the races functioned differently: They were an escape from a much more taxing normal. She found sanctuary where others find hell, until a deadly accident threatened to puncture her unique brand of excruciating solace. Today, the fact that Case can run these mind-numbing distances at all is a bit of a miracle. To do it, she’s had to tap another well of toughness, or perhaps obsession. And she’s repeated, over and over, the ultrarunner’s mantra: relentless forward motion.

2. The end of 2016 brought with it a strange winter for the Aosta Valley, which sits on the northwest edge of Italy. The valley is idyllic and quiet, with most of the locals living in Courmayeur, a small village on the base of Mont Blanc that is a capital of freeride skiing and snowboarding. As that New Year’s Day approached, Courmayeur had barely seen snow. It was freezing, but the mountainsides were icy rather than piled with powder.

Case had been out of Gaza for almost six months and was falling deeply for the Alps, which were just an hour from her new placement in Geneva. Throughout that summer and fall, she’d been cognizant of every breath of clean air bathed in pine; a stark contrast from what she’d breathed for years. Running had always given Case a sense of home, but exploring these mountains and foothills now in her backyard felt different. She’d been a nomad since 2012, but finally she felt grounded. This could be her place.

She’d spent plenty of New Year’s Eves sipping champagne and wanted something more meaningful to ring in 2017. So Case booked herself a spot on an overnight guided snowshoe tour at the Rifugio Alpino Walter Bonatti, a three-hour climb from Courmayeur. Case invited friends, but everyone had plans, so she knew no one else as she set off.

Jumping in the Valley — Case trains in the Aosta Valley for the 2017 Tor des Géants, a 205-mile footrace that includes 24,000 meters of climbing. Photo courtesy of Stephanie Case

Case left a note with her guides the next morning, explaining that rather than return the way they’d come, she’d head toward the Rifugio Giorgio Bertone and cut back down to Courmayeur from there. The night before, she’d asked a guide if the path was safe. He explained in broken English that it was safe as long as she had snowshoes and crampons. Case headed out before the sun rose on New Year’s Day.

As she hiked, Case followed a trail of snowshoe prints, stopping often to take photos on her phone. The cold drained the battery, which died with 22 percent left, but Case knew body heat could recharge it. She put the phone in her sports bra and continued on, after an hour reaching a river she recognized. She couldn’t find the bridge she’d always crossed on, which had been taken down for winter, so Case walked along the bank until she found a shallow section where she could make it through the water. When she reached the other side, the snowshoe tracks were gone.

3. A trip to Ghana during her time at Queen’s University in Ontario first imbued Case with a passion for humanitarian work. She switched her major to development studies and volunteered at Lawyers Without Borders throughout law school. She did a stint at a corporate firm in New York City before taking a buyout during the 2008 crash. After completing a postgraduate degree at the University of Essex in International Human Rights and Humanitarian Law, Case landed at the United Nations. In 2012, she accepted a post in Kabul.

In law school, Case first discovered her love of running. She wanted to escape the stress of her studies by “seeking the void.” She watched YouTube videos that promised a marathon would be “epic,” that she’d crawl across the finish line. But she didn’t. She finished her first in under 3.5 hours. “I wanted to be challenged and to be brought to the brink and to see if I could overcome it,” Case says. “And there was no brink.”

And so Case started Googling. She’d never run more than 26.2 miles but signed up for a self-supported 250-kilometer (155-mile) event through Vietnam. On day one, carrying a 25-pound backpack, she ran more than 100 kilometers — Case was in second place, beating all but one male runner to the checkpoint.

Case finished the race first among female runners and was hooked on ultras. She wasn’t the fastest or the strongest, her gait wasn’t pitch-perfect, but she learned that she could suffer at a world-class level. “It’s that mix between vulnerability and strength that’s really quite powerful,” Case says. “I’m always searching to find a new low so that I can find a new high.”

In the decade since that first race, Case has made a name for herself in the trail-running world. She’s won a 100-mile ultramarathon through Vermont, a 155-mile run through Nepal, and a 143-mile snowshoe race through Sweden. She’s written articles for Outside and shared beautiful accounts of her running life on her blog, Ultra Runner Girl. She began a nonprofit, Free to Run, which brings sports to women in conflict zones. In October 2016, Case gave a TED Talk about Nelofar and Zainab, two Afghan women who finished a 155-mile stage race through the Gobi Desert with the help of Case and her nonprofit. Runner’s World dubbed her “The Ultra-Activist” in 2017.

When I first spoke with Case, she quickly dove into her lowlight reel: stories of gaining 20 pounds of water weight, puking at every checkpoint, and a manic search for anal lube. She’s wary to talk about success but gleefully bathes in the suffering. From what I’ve found, it’s a recurring trait in the ultra community, a sport defined more by will than talent. But Case is exceptional in her horror stories, perhaps because of her tendency toward self-deprecation and radical transparency, or perhaps because she’s actually just suffered a lot.

Case’s other advantage is perspective. Both marathons and Ironman Triathlons are races built for Type A personalities — training is precise, and pacing is dissected down to the second. But in the multiday ultras where Case thrives, planning takes a back seat to adapting. And her life in war zones has changed the calculus on her struggle. She’s seen so much worse. She’s lived so much worse. And so she welcomes pain and discomfort with a smile (and, okay, a fair amount of tears). “You have to have enough of a sense of yourself to know what’s safe,” Case says. “But other than that, it’s just about submitting to the chaos.”

4. Across the river, Case continued on toward Rifugio Bertone. Without the guidance of a marked route, it became a struggle to find footing. She approached a steep section and took a step that didn’t register as especially dangerous. But then her right foot slipped, and she lost her balance, lunging for a tree root as she began to slide. Her hand missed the root. Case tumbled down the icy mountainside.

Case had time to think as she fell, head over foot, down the increasingly steep slope. She was disoriented, certainly, but her mind slowed in the panic. She thought of Dave Mackey, an ultrarunner who lost his leg after a boulder fell on it during a run. She thought of Adam Campbell, a trail runner who broke his spine in the mountains of British Columbia. But other hikers on the trail had found Mackey, and Campbell was with friends. “For me, I knew as I was falling, that there would be no one around if anything happened,” Case says.

After tumbling for what felt like an eternity, Case’s right side slammed squarely against the trunk of a tree. The pain was acute, and each breath was a struggle. She knew the damage to her right side was serious, and she could hardly move. But her brain, fueled by adrenaline, went on autopilot: Grab your phone. Call Corrado. Tell him your GPS coordinates. Even in survival mode, Case understood that if her phone would not turn on, she would die in the snow where she lay.

5. In 2012, during her first weekend in Kabul, Case was outside running when she heard a blast. She thought the sound was from a truck, until a Nepalese guard told her to get inside, that there’d been an assault on a nearby building. Throughout the year, in the course of her work, Case had taken stock of the aftermath of atrocities by the Taliban and the Afghan army, but she never felt at risk. She had arrived with the bravery of excited naivety — and even after seeing what she saw, first in Kabul, and then in South Sudan and Gaza, the bravery remained. In a way, that meant some of the naivety must have as well.

Case’s colleague Rupert White has spent almost two decades doing human rights work in conflict zones. He says the acceptance of risk becomes a necessary trait. Most mornings in Afghanistan, he and Case commute along the Jalalabad Highway, considered one of the most dangerous roads on the planet. “Do I wake up in the morning feeling worried that on the route into work there might be an IED?” he says. “No, because it just becomes a part of the wallpaper, really, a part of the scenery.”

There is a cumulative effect to brushes with danger. We can more keenly understand our limitations but also more easily accept the risks. White explains that after being transferred from Kandahar in 2006 to a safer post in Kabul, it took months for the baseline stress he’d become unaware of to release from his muscles. Case told me she cries every time her plane leaves the runway in Kabul. “I think it’s that you can just let your breath out,” she says.

Over these past six years, Case has consistently chosen her work over her personal life and safety. In 2012, she came to Afghanistan and worked as an in-house counsel for the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan. In South Sudan in 2014, she lived in a tent set up under a lean-to of tarps, providing emergency aid to 100,000 people displaced by the country’s ethnic conflict. From 2014 to 2016, Case lived in Gaza, in the shadow of the Israeli border wall, investigating human rights violations by both sides of the conflict. And this March, she returned to Kabul to lead a team focused on protecting civilians, specifically children, from the impacts of the ongoing war. She’s worked tirelessly, managing to progress through the bureaucratic and male-dominated field with her quiet grit and fierce positivity. Relentless forward motion.

In 2013, Case wrote in a blog post that she understood her years of travel, relationships, and humanitarian work as an unremitting search for “more.” It felt like a chase of sorts; thrilling, meaningful, but also draining. A friend had given her Haruki Murakami’s running memoir, and Case connected with the idea that the Japanese writer ran “in order to acquire a void.” Random thoughts would arrive to Murakami, but they could not take hold in the mental void his running created. “By moving forward in space, I allow myself to stand still in time,” Case wrote at the time. “Ultrarunning allows this to happen in the most extreme form.”

Case had found a tool to force her restless mind to be present. She’d found a place where difficult thoughts could not take hold. Throughout her time in Kabul, in South Sudan, and in Gaza, however onerous the logistics, Case had always found a way to run. White uses sailing to a similar end — the activity is intense enough to allow him the space to process. “All of us find ways of just leaving this world behind for a minute,” he says.

6. Corrado Borghesio’s phone began to ring at 9:34 a.m. When he picked up, he was shaken by the sound of Case’s voice. “She was really struggling,” he says. “She was suffering.”

Borghesio was born and raised in Courmayeur and knew how difficult a search would be in winter. But Case, through pinched breath, used her smartwatch to recite her GPS coordinates to him, down to the fifth decimal. He called search and rescue, and a helicopter was deployed.

The search and rescue team took nine minutes to find Case after reaching her by phone. They asked her to wave, but she couldn’t move. They asked for guidance, but she could only see the chopper when it passed through the small slice of vision created by her hood. She kept telling them, “I can’t breath.”

Finally, they spotted her orange jacket, landed the helicopter, and started toward her with a stretcher. It was too painful for Case to draw breath flat on her back, so they secured just her legs and carried her to the helicopter. Case’s body temperature had dropped to 89.6 degrees. She had six broken ribs and a collapsed lung and had lost 40 percent of her blood volume from a lacerated liver. Twenty minutes later, she arrived at the ICU in Aosta Valley, a local news crew already there to film her entrance.

It was then and only then, with an oxygen mask on and in the care of a team of doctors, that Case went into shock. She learned later that she protested as a nurse cut off her new Salomon workout gear and that she complained about the news team shooting her when she was far from camera-ready. But in the most pressing moment of her life, Case had done everything right.

“Everyone reacts to near-death experiences differently, but I would think it would be a lot of emotion and panic, and it was just the complete opposite,” she says. “I don’t know why I reacted that way. I’m really glad I did, because otherwise, I know for sure, I would be dead.”

7. It surprised no one that Case’s first question as she lay in the ICU, still bleeding from her lacerated liver, was “When can I run again?” As she posted about her recovery on running forums, her public Facebook page, and her blog, some questioned if she was pushing herself too hard too soon. “But you know, running is who I am,” she says. “If I don’t have the ability to do that, I don’t know how I would function.”

Case checked herself out of the hospital early, against the doctor’s recommendations. She loaded into her parents’ rental car (they’d flown out to be with her) and drove back to Geneva. It was risky, as her liver was not fully healed, but she had found a doctor in Switzerland who believed in her method of rehab. He said movement would help her mend. A week and a half after the accident, Case walked her first half-kilometer with her mother. On January 26, less than four weeks after falling, she went for her first run.

Surviving with tenacity intact would be miraculous enough, but Case had other plans. Before her accident, she’d booked a brutal slate of races for her first year based outside a war zone. And she wouldn’t be rescheduling a thing. On April 22, Case arrived at a start line off the northwest coast of Africa for the 71-mile Madeira Island Ultra Trail. Getting there hadn’t been easy: Case had mainly run in the valley soon after the fall, but before Madeira, she had to relearn to run in the mountains.

Prerace training for the Tor des Géants, 2017. Photo courtesy of Stephanie Case.

To do it, Case gathered a group and took her first trail run in February. She felt confident for a moment, until suddenly she did not, collapsing, grabbing dirt for dear life, panicking, crying, unsure how to move up or come back down. Her friends sat with her and waited as she caught her breath. She crawled back to the level trail. For years it had been safer to process trauma on the move. Now her coping tool was also the source of anguish.

It was even harder when she wasn’t in motion. Case had always been outgoing, but being social became a struggle. She went back to work too soon and couldn’t focus. She put on a positive face, posted smiling selfies, and wrote hilarious race reports. People thought it was no big deal. She struggled to communicate her feelings, because who could relate? “The more you verbalize something that someone else can’t possibly understand, the worse it makes it,” Case says, “and the more alone you feel.”

She finished Madeira fifth among all women. Three weeks later, Case raced the 46-mile Transvulcania Ultramarathon. And on June 24, she began one of the hardest races on earth: the Western States 100-Mile Endurance Run.

Case had an injured knee from a fall during the Transvulcania that affected her training, and she was vomiting throughout Western States. But even without an ability to hold down fluids, she climbed 18,000 feet during the 100-mile run and finished in just under 24 hours (23:58:25, to be exact). It was a herculean feat; Case was awarded the last of the silver belt buckles, given to runners who finish in less than a day.

8. One race loomed largest in Case’s mind as she recovered: the Aosta Valley’s Tor des Géants. First held in 2010, the 205-mile mountain endurance test — which includes 24,000 meters of climbing, the equivalent of three summits of Mount Everest — attracts 800 runners each year. There are no stages; runners are forced to steal an hour or two of sleep at mountain refuges as the 150-hour time limit trickles away. Case, who’d run the Tor twice before, accepted her invitation to the 2017 race on January 5 from her bed in the ICU.

But now, as September 2017 arrived, Case was drained. Her life in the field had never afforded her the time to attempt a slate of races like the one she’d taken on. She’d never been in better shape, but Case’s advantage had always been her mind. When she told Corrado that with her training she expected to suffer less this time, he responded, “Stephanie, if you didn’t want to suffer, you should have just done a half marathon.”

We all tell ourselves stories, but the ultrarunner’s internal story must be closer to a novel. It must be compelling enough to get her to the start line but sturdy enough to get her out of the checkpoint at mile 100. It also has to be flexible, because as legs start to swell and temperatures drop, any simple narrative will begin to crack.

During the 2017 Tor, Case believed that her tale of recovery would be enough to fuel her through the mountains. But it wasn’t. Throughout the first 100 kilometers, she kept thinking, “I don’t need to do this. I’ve finished before. I don’t need to prove anything.” The Tor had been the pinnacle for her, the race that drove her to get strong again after her fall. But now that she was back in the Aosta Valley, it was cold, she was tired, and it was hard to go on.

Case’s friends Kate and Fergus Edwards crewed her, along with Corrado Borghesio and his wife. At each checkpoint, they tried to help Case find her motivation. Why was she here? What was she running for? Corrado tried tough love; Fergus, ever the rational man, asked her what she needed to continue. But it was Kate who had the greatest effect.

Before the Tor, she’d asked Case, “What, aside from an injury, would be enough to pull you from the race?” and Case had responded: “Nothing.” So, halfway through, at a checkpoint Case had convinced herself would be her last, Kate said, “If you think you’re gonna do permanent damage to your body, you should drop out.” Case knew that she wasn’t, and something clicked. “That’s when the race took on a broader meaning, because it wasn’t just about the accident,” Case says. She realized she was privileged to even have the chance to run and struggle along with everyone else in those mountains.

Case left the checkpoint, ran up the hill, turned around, steeled herself, and then left again. She was determined to complete all 205 miles. Somehow, she was in third place.

9. Case bought a home soon after the fall. Her mother, Anne, never entertained the idea that it would have a white picket fence, but she was happy that her daughter had put down roots. It was in Chamonix, the twin city of Courmayeur, which sits right across the border, on the French side of Mont Blanc. Those who knew Case hoped the mountains would be enough to keep her from the field.

Humanitarian workers arrive in conflict zones — usually on one-year contracts — coming face-to-face with hunger and violence and suffering. After some time, the lucky few may secure a desk job at the UN headquarters in Geneva. In July 2016, Case earned a spot in the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights; she’d made it out of the field and into the next stage of her career.

But then, this March, Case headed back to Kabul, to the same compound she’d left in 2013, and took up her current post as head of protection of civilians and child protection. On her blog, she questioned whether the move was the right one. Many in the field avoid posts in Afghanistan these days, but Case welcomed the chance to make a real impact. “So next week I return to Afghanistan,” she wrote. “To a country I love, to work that drives me forward, and to that old and unrecognizable trail.”

There was none of the nervous excitement or naive invincibility of the first time; Case’s years in war zones had taught her what danger really meant. And more than that, her accident had shown her what it was like to face down death. “I thought that what I was seeing in that moment would be the last thing that I would ever see,” Case says. “I always had told myself that, yes, Afghanistan is a scary place, but it’ll all work out and I’m gonna be okay. I had this faith that nothing was really gonna happen to me. And that has been shaken.”

Lately, Case has hardly found the time to run at all. It’s been four months since she’s moved back to Kabul, and she’s spent every waking moment getting reacquainted with the situation on the ground. Afghanistan has changed for the worse in the five years since she’d left. With the rise of the Islamic State and their targeted assaults on foreign aid workers, Case is more restricted than ever by security concerns.

But during her first break from fieldwork, she spent every day in the mountains by her home in Chamonix. Case climbed Mont Blanc and ran the trails around Courmayeur. And she never once felt frightened. She’s since begun to drag a tire she’s named Tyrell around the too-flat roads of the compound. Her legs are getting stronger every day. She runs the same hypnotic loops again and again.

Case knows that when she arrives in Courmayeur next month, she’ll be in far from the best shape of her life. She’ll be racing against runners who’ve spent the year climbing peaks to prepare for the Tor. But strong legs can take you only so far in an ultramarathon. Case’s edge has always been her stubborn mind.

10. With just over 20 kilometers left in the 2017 Tor des Géants, Case began a climb toward Rifugio Frassati in the pouring rain. Her legs ballooned, constantly adding water weight until she was forced to cut her pants into a skirt for circulation. Her stomach began to bloat, and her right shin became muddled with bruises. As she continued her ascent, now past 8,000 feet, the rain turned to sleet and then to snow. She was alone on the mountain. She began to panic.

Case pushed on to the checkpoint, which she entered soaked in freezing water and in tears. An Italian volunteer helped her out of her waterlogged clothing and wrapped her in an emergency blanket. He held her as she cried. She’d slept only four hours during the four days of the race, and she’d willed herself to third place. But she was exhausted and fell asleep. “I just stopped giving a shit about the race,” Case says. “All I wanted to do was just feel safe and feel okay.”

Stephanie Case sets off from Rifugio Frassati more than four days after starting the 2017 race, bloated, bruised, and battered but determined to finish. Photo: Stefano Jeantet
Case is held by an Italian volunteer at Frassati during the Tor des Géants, 2017. Photo: Stefano Jeantet

When Case awoke, a nurse saw her leg, bloated and black and blue, and tried to pull her from the Tor. She feared Case had deep vein thrombosis, a potentially fatal blood clot. As the doctors and nurses argued in Italian, Case dressed herself. She was a little over 12 miles from the end. There was no way someone was taking this finish from her.

Case left the checkpoint with a group to help her feel comfortable enough to traverse the Col de Malatrà, a rocky, snow-covered passage that had terrified her the year before. Not long after, she arrived, battered and bruised, at the finish in fourth place.

Case often looks at a photograph snapped of her as she crossed the line. She holds two ski poles in her right hand, and her left is pressed against her forehead. Her legs are bloated; her face emanates fatigue. Even today, she can’t see the picture without crying. But they’re tears of gratitude. Running races through the mountains had finally started to feel like home again. “Someone just asked me at the airport in Kabul, ‘Why do you do it?’” Case tells me. “I said, ‘It’s because it allows you to feel intensely vulnerable and invincible at the same time.’”

An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated the UN mission Case worked for in 2012. It was the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan.

An LA-based journalist, with writing in Wired, Medium and New York Magazine.

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