Stacy Dittmer is officially the queen of the mountains.
The 41-year-old mother of two finished the Scout Mountain Ultra in 28 hours, 49 minutes, 59 seconds to claim first among the six female competitors in the event, held south of Pocatello, Idaho on June 1. Her time placed her 17th overall of the 36 finishers.
Dittmer admits that when she arrived, she was gripped by the fear that as someone who lives on the Prairies, she may have overreached her limits dealing with the two mountains on the course, Old Tom and Scout. When someone with more ultra experience essentially told her that, he unknowingly solved her problem for her.
"Just by him saying that, it kind of spurred me to go ‘I’ll show you,’" Dittmer said. "If you tell me I can’t, I’ll show that you that I can."
Fittingly for a long-distance runner who has now finished six 100-milers, she took a long and winding path to the sport.
She did her first half-marathon in 2005 when a friend she was playing soccer with asked her to come along. She picked a good test right away, running in the Hypothermic Half Marathon in Winnipeg, which is held in the dead of winter in February.
"It became a passion," Dittmer said. "What’s the best fuel to put in my body? What are the best races and the best recoveries, and it was trying to get personal bests so my workouts became purposeful. I wanted to have hill training sessions and speed sessions and long runs."
That led her to the Manitoba Marathon in 2008, where she finished under four hours.
Around that time, she had son Carter, 13, and daughter Kaylee, 11, with husband Cory. She wanted to stay at home, so she earned her trainer certification through Canfitpro. For the last 11 years, she’s conducted fitness and running classes.
She currently runs about 13 classes per week, working with people ranging from 11 to into their 70s, something she thinks has helped her avoid injuries.
"I want people to know that it doesn’t matter if you haven’t run a block or lifted a weight or done a pushup," Dittmer said. "I’ll help you get there."
Her clients certainly don’t have to look far for inspiration.
In 2010, Dittmer met the qualifying time for the prestigious Boston Marathon. She ran the most famous of all 26.2-mile (42.2-kilometre) races in 2011 in a time of 3:29:30.
"It’s the Stanley Cup of marathons," she said. "I had a perma-grin for 26.2 miles. I took full advantage. I thought this is my victory lap."
In search of a new goal, she did Sprint and Olympic distance triathlons in 2013 and 2014. The time she devoted to swimming and cycling unwittingly led her to fall in love with running again, and she finally found her niche in trail running.
She did her first ultra distance event in May 2015, completing the 50-mile Spruce Woods Ultra in 10:00:41.
She was instantly hooked.
"I absolutely fell in love with it," Dittmer said. "I love the nature part of it, I love the trail running community, which is really amazing. When you go to a race, everyone who passes you is encouraging and wanting you to finish and do well."
She did the same race again a year later, knocking nearly an hour off her time, and six weeks later did the Black Hills 100, her first attempt at the longer distance. Dittmer placed third in a time of just over 32 hours, the longest time she’s ever spent on a course.
In the ensuing three years, she’s done five 100-mile races, another 50-miler, a 50-km outing and a six-hour event.
To avoid having her training cut into her family time, she gets up for longer five-hour runs at 4 or 5 a.m. She trains all winter and tries to do spring races so that she can enjoy lake life in the summer without the burden of training.
While 100 miles is a frightening distance taken in its totality, Dittmer approaches it differently.
"I never go into it feeling like I’m running 100 miles," Dittmer said. "I segment everything and go ‘OK, I’ve got 10 miles to my first aid station and 10 miles to the next aid station.’ I never go ‘I’ve got 100 miles to do because I know that’s intimidating. I go into things without thinking how big they are."
In Pocatello, she was joined by her family and friends that included Brandonite Connie Simpson, who ran the 21-mile race, and Sarah Erickson (50-mile race), with Kyla Crockatt serving as their race crew.
The Idaho course is essentially in a figure-eight shape, with less than two miles on pavement. The rest is on single track trails that wind their way up both Old Tom and Scout.
The area had two weeks of rain before she arrived, so the course was muddy and some of the water crossings were up to her calves. The two 8,500-foot climbs were both snow-covered. There were some markers on the course to keep the runners on track but they otherwise had to keep themselves on track.
The first test, and the darkest part of her race experience, came quickly.
When she reached Old Tom near the start of the race, she wondered if she would meet the first cutoff in time. On the mountain, she would sometimes power hike 50 steps, look around, and then repeat the process. Her heart was pounding and she was having trouble seeing correctly.
When she finally reached the summit, she was greeted by an older man with seven dogs who handed her a bracelet showing she had indeed reached the top.
The worst part of her race was behind her.
Dittmer said the key to longer races is being a problem solver and recognizing potential trouble spots before they flare up out of control. For instance, is that twinge an early sign of a cramp? If so, how will she treat it? Does that sore spot on her foot need a bandaid?
"You’re always kind of assessing and you want to catch it before it becomes a problem," Dittmer said.
One of the keys to her race was her support crew, which included her husband, children and friend Krista Brown. They always knew where Dittmer was because she wore tracking technology.
Dittmer was able to visit them seven times, and each time it followed a familiar routine. She would be guided into her chair and her kids would fill her waterbottles and bring her food.
The other two would pull off her shoes and socks, clean her feet, cover them with vaseline and then put a new pair of shoes and socks on. She would be gone within five minutes.
Dittmer said her positive nature is a big part of why she succeeds. Another is that she is good at pacing herself.
Also, she loves the scenic beauty of the races enough that she’ll pull her phone out to take pictures.
In endurance racing, the hardest thing in the world can be resisting the urge to quit and to simply keep moving one foot in front of the other. She has her strategies for handling the dark moments.
"Praying and singing," Dittmer laughed. "Just keeping positive. I think to myself that I’m grateful that I have a body and mind that I can participate in these things, and looking around at the beautiful Earth and nature that I get to be a part of and experience.
"As soon as those dark, negative thoughts creep in, you’re done."
She ran virtually the entire course by herself, including at night. Runners had been warned about the potential presence of mountain lions and moose.
"I don’t want to think about the mountain lion in the bush so I downloaded a few old comedies that I had seen and I plugged them in and watched my feet," Dittmer said. "It’s almost like you have to dance on these trails. There are rocks and roots and it’s dark. I’ve got my flashlight and my headlamp and I just plug in these old movies and wait for the sun to come up."
Eventually the vegetarian was having trouble keeping food down and they settled on Boost and boiled, salted potatoes, which agreed with her system.
With less than half of the race remaining, she was still in fourth place among the women. Dittmer wanted her sixth belt buckle — competitors get one for finishing every 100-miler — and that was her motivation rather than winning.
But then something else happened.
"When I felt the new light, it was a new day," Dittmer said. "I passed the third-place woman, and after 80 miles I passed the second-place woman, and at the top of Scout Mountain at 90 miles, I passed the lead woman. I was going ‘Keep it together, you just passed the lead woman.’"
She surprised her support crew when she was the first woman down the mountain.
Each racer is allowed to have a pacer at some point in the race, and her son Carter joined her at 94 miles for the final six. She had rolled her ankle a bit on the way down in the snow, but told herself she didn’t have time to be injured and kept running with Carter at her side.
"He picked me up," Dittmer said of the psychological effect. "He said ‘Hey Mom, let’s go’ and we ran into the finish together."
Crossing the finish line first was pure elation and relief, and the support of her family and people at home meant a lot to her, contributing to the emotional impact.
"If I can inspire anybody or help anyone, that’s really important to me," Dittmer said. "I don’t know. There are just so many emotions, plus you’re exhausted because you’ve been up for so many hours. It kind of all goes away when you leave the finish line — it happens to me every time — but when I go home then I get this wave of nausea and I need an hour to kind of be sick and have a sleep."
Her family wrapped her up in a blanket and gave her a bag of chips after she cleaned up back at their rented home.
"I’m maybe a little gritty and determined and stubborn," Dittmer said. "I’m not going to stop. I’m not going to sit on the trail and cry. Yes, it sucks right now, but keep going and I know that it’s going to get better."
Her kids now love the experiences, and were starting to plan where their mom would race next during the drive home from Idaho. Dittmer isn’t sure where she’ll race next, and is just looking forward to spending time at the lake.
But the appeal of 100 gruelling miles will pull her back.
"I like seeing what I’m made of," Dittmer said. "I know going into it that it’s going to be hard, and I know there’s going to be dark times, but then you come out of it. It’s kind of like life. There are highs and lows and in ultra, there are times when you’re going to feel low but I know that I’m going to come out of it again.
"With my kids too, they’re good little athletes and I want them to know that when you put the hard work in, and you don’t get intimidated by people, you have confidence and get it done. You can do it.
"I’m just a hockey mom. I’m no one special but I just don’t quit and I try hard and I’m grateful that I can do it. I want them to know that if you put the hard work in, you can reach your goals."
» Twitter: @PerryBergson