The 2010 Leadville 100 champion returns to the race she loves.
Liza Howard, a National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) instructor and running coach, and her five-year-old boy, Asa, await me on a playground bench. Asa has his head hidden inside the hood of his zip-up sweatshirt and is bent in the direction of his mom. She says he just woke up from a nap, but he still gives me a shy grin when we meet. It is not long before he’s galavanting on the jungle gym while his mom smiles at him. Suffice it to say, if the 40-year-old Texas resident weren’t so lithe, and if this weren’t Leadville, Colorado, I’d never think that this mom is one of the nation’s top ultrarunners.
But we’re at 10,152 feet above sea level and the race starts in two days. And speedster Howard is one of the women’s pre-race favorites. She championed the 2010 Leadville 100, and also has a long list of other 100-mile victories to her name. Included in her collection are dueling wins at Texas’ Rocky Raccoon 100, one win at the Javelina Jundred in Arizona, and another win at Texas’ Cactus Rose 100. Howard regularly wins sub-100-mile-distance ultramarathons, too. Make no mistake: she is a running machine.
“I can hold my own on the flats. And I descend well. Uphills are my weakness,” responds Howard when asked for a self-assessment of her weekend potential. “Fitness-wise, I’m in a great position. So long as I don’t lose ground on the climbing, I feel good about what could happen.” Also vital is that Howard has spent 12 days in Leadville pre-race, allowing her body to acclimate to high altitude. “I live in San Antonio, elevation almost nothing. I know how my body reacts to altitude, and being here all this time is key.”
Half a dozen or so fast women will toe the Leadville 100 line with Howard on Saturday morning at 4 AM Mountain Time, including Darcy Africa of Colorado, Ashley Nordell from Oregon, Jen Segger from Canada, Aliza Lapierre of Vermont, Tina Lewis from Colorado, and others. “I love this town,” explains Howard. “I met my husband here. I first got involved with outdoor education via Outward Bound here. It’s impossible to not love the race, too. I can’t wait.”
When Howard is asked about her relationship with the sport of ultrarunning her response is less certain. “I used to use ultrarunning as a way to practice suffering. You know, so that I was ready when life had real problems.” She pauses. “I’ve learned that. I have that skill now. I’m not entirely sure what ultrarunning and I will look like in the future. At the moment, I’m motivated by the community and by helping people.”
Howard’s an outdoor ambassador for New Balance, and her team members include Anton Krupicka, Brandy Erholtz, Katie DeSplinter, Erik Skaggs, and Dominic Grossman. “They are all the sexy, young runners.” Howard continues, laughing, “I play the mom niche on the team. We had a team summit recently, and I was totally the mom.”
While she jokes about a matronly relationship with her New Balance teammates, being a mother to Asa and wife to her husband, Eliot, are central to her life. “It can be crazy, trying to do everything, be everything. But I wouldn’t change it.” In addition to her roles as mom, wife and ultrarunner, she works part-time as a NOLS instructor. This means that a couple of times each year she disappears for a few weeks into the wilderness to teach young people outdoor skills. “There’s something about the people in the outdoor community that I love. They’re ‘what you see is what you get’ people, so straightforward. Ultrarunners are the same way. I think that’s why I like ultrarunning so much.” Howard likes ultrarunners so much that in the last couple of years she’s started coaching them.
To an outside observer, it’s clear that Howard has a full plate. She agrees and explains that she’s developed a mindset that helps her tackle it all. “I make peace with doing the best I can. I’m never going to be the best at everything, so I’ve stopped trying. In ultrarunning, I can’t run super high mileage. I can’t constantly be tagging peaks. I fit running in when I can.” Howard also says that her husband plays a major support role. When it comes to her running, “Eliot watches Asa so I can go to races or do long training days. And he’s proud of me every time I finish a race, no matter how good or bad I do.”
As we’ve chatted under the swirling puffy clouds and intermittent sun of mid-afternoon in Leadville, Asa has come and gone a couple times, stealing quick hugs from his mom. And a number of Howard’s friends and their kids have found the playground, too. A regular Liza Howard cheer squad has formed. As I walk away, I can see that, with her heart-forward approach to life and ultrarunning, along with this massive support team, Howard will be a woman to beat this weekend.