Stephanie Auston: 5 lessons from a top Australian trail runner

From relishing failures and constantly seeking out wisdom and motivation, to surrounding yourself with a team, here are some expert tips from the tough-as-nails Stephanie Auston.

Stephanie Auston is determined. She’s tough-as-nails. And she’s not afraid to hideout in the hurt locker when it comes to racing very, very long distances.

Over the past four years, Auston has undoubtedly become one of Australia’s best — and most accomplished — trail and ultra-marathon runners.

She’s twice won the Six Foot Track Marathon (2018, 2019), the Surf Coast Century 50 (2016, 2017) and the Ultra-Trail Australia (UTA) 22 (2016, 2019). 

She’s also scored podium finishes at two major international 100 km races: New Zealand’s Tarawera Ultra Marathon (2019) and the Black Canyon Ultra in Arizona (2020). *Her third place finish at the latter secured her a coveted Golden Ticket to race in the 2021 Western States (100-Mile) Endurance Run.

A force on the roads as well

But Stephanie Auston doesn’t confine her running to rugged terrain, nor does she strictly define herself as a trail runner.

She’s proven she can compete on the roads, winning the 2018 Canberra Marathon in a personal best tome of 2:43:33.

Stephanie Auston plans on taking on more road races in future.
Stephanie Auston plans on taking on more road races in future. (Photo supplied)

And shortly after we published our December feature on Auston, she went out and broke the Australian 50km road record, clocking 3:17:26 at the GC50 Run Festival on the Gold Coast. It was a near-2-minute improvement on the previous mark, held by the late Jackie Fairweather.

Auston may already boast plenty of accolades, but she’s still very humble — and hungry.

Chasing big dreams in 2021

Two things about Stephanie Auston came across very clearly during our interview: she’s capable of honest self-assessment, and isn’t scared of identifying or talking about her weaknesses. Neither is she afraid to dream big or chase truly audacious goals.

There are two such goals flagged for 2021. Auston wants to run the Olympic marathon standard (2:29:30) and she plans on running sub-20 hours at the iconic Western States 100-Mile Endurance Run (WSER). We wouldn’t bet against her.

Either way, her legend will almost certainly continue to grow. And until then, there’s definitely a lot to learn from her career-to-date, her approach to training, and her outlook on life.

Here are five lessons from trail-runner extraordinaire Stephanie Auston.

1. Failure can often be more beneficial than success

In the moment, and even in the aftermath, failure can feel devastating.

When you’ve spent months training for a race, preparing your body, and getting mentally tough; working out the logistical challenges of things like travel, accommodation, race-day nutrition and support crews, you want to perform well.

But things don’t always go to plan, especially in extreme endurance events. Failure can strike, and if it does, you need to leverage the experience to learn from your mistakes and improve.

Stephanie Auston has had lots of success as a runner. But she’s also failed. The 2019 Trail Running World Championships in Portugal is case in point. It was Auston’s first time representing Australia. She finished 18th in the 44km race, which is a pretty phenomenal result, but she was disappointed.

Auston felt underprepared: None of the trails she had practiced on, or encountered, in Australia seemed technically comparable to the race terrain. There was also the issue of shoes: she says she wore the wrong type, which likely cost her several minutes. She also says went out way too fast — a product of getting excited by the big-stage and world class competition.

Seeing the upside is essential

In Auston’s view, the race was a failure, but she says that’s a good thing.

“It’s so important to fail and to fail a lot — to be out of your comfort zone, in over your head, and to have experiences where you are humbled by the terrain or the competition. That’s what makes you better. I’d much rather be in an event and finish last, but learn something from the experience than just do an event and win it easily.”

Rather than dwelling on the disappointment, Auston has turned the failure into a valuable learning experience. In future, she says she’ll be much more thorough in terms of her course and terrain reconnaissance, and her footwear selection.

She’ll also be better prepared to line-up on a big stage, and will resist the urge to get drawn away from her race-plan by big-name competitors.

2. Surround yourself with a team and focus on sustainability

It took a significant injury setback in 2019 for Stephanie Auston to come to the realisation that she needed to take better care of herself, and change her approach to training and racing, if she wanted to continue to perform at a high-level long-term.

She had started the year entering virtually every race under the sun. It was a frenzied few months. “I was doing races because I wanted to do them,” she recalls, “rather than asking, ‘is this the best thing for me long-term?’” 

She wanted to begin treating herself like a “proper” athlete: “I was going to look to perform, not just to do,” she says. In practice, that meant seeking advice from external parties and surrounding herself with a team.

“Every story you hear about [top athletes], it’s not about one person who does it by themselves — it’s about the team around them, and it’s about a longevity approach.”

Auston methodically set about contacting and working with health professionals and hired Julian Spence (co-host of Inside Running Podcast) as her coach. These new ‘team’ members collectively helped Auston learn more about her body, her diet, how to maintain her physical and mental health, and how to train more intelligently and sustainably.

“I changed my mindset,” she tells RunCreature. “I went from being a runner thinking, ‘No, I’m fine, I can do this all by myself,’ to saying, ‘I want to surround myself with the best team possible so I can be my best’.” 

3. Dare to have audacious dreams

It may sound cliched, but this is one of Stephanie Auston’s greatest traits. She’s not afraid to set herself colossally ambitious goals and to chase them with intense determination.

On the trails, she had the goal of qualifying for the iconic Western States 100-Mile Endurance Run (WSER). To do so, she needed a podium finish at the Black Canyon Ultra, a 100-km trail race in Arizona in February 2020.

In a legendary performance, Stephanie Auston took 3rd place at the Black Canyon Ultra in Arizona, U.S.
In a legendary performance, Stephanie Auston took 3rd place at the Black Canyon Ultra in Arizona, U.S. (Photo supplied).

It was a gruelling, gutsy, utterly exhausting race… but she did it. (If you want the full recap, check out our feature).

Turning her attention to the roads, Auston has an equally — and arguably even loftier — goal. She wants to shave more than 14 minutes off her marathon personal best and run the Olympic standard (2:29:30).

Auston knows — even if she pulls it off —  the “top girls are way too fast” for her to stand a chance of representing Australia. But she’s not letting that deter her goal-setting.

“But just to run a qualifier would be amazing,” she says. “I really hope that… I can have a really good crack [in early 2020].”  

“At the moment, it seems impossible. But so did running 100-K a couple of years ago… We all have to dream, and it doesn’t hurt to have a go. That’s my philosophy. Don’t limit yourself. Don’t let fear, or failure hold you back. Just have a go.”

4. Always be on the hunt for wisdom and motivation

Stephanie Auston tells a great story about her flight over to the United States to run the Black Canyon Ultra (a 100-km trail run that doubled as a Golden Ticket qualifier for the Western States 100-Mile Endurance Run).

She started watching a film called Ride Like a Girl, which tells the story of Australian Michelle Payne — the first female jockey to win the prestigious Melbourne Cup horse race.

A line from the film embedded itself in her mind: the only odds that matter are the ones you give yourself. 

Auston was one of more than 150 female competitors vying for just two golden tickets. But she interpreted that line as a good omen: she was in charge of her destiny. 

“I still had some doubts,” recalls Auston, as she thinks back on the days before the race. “But I was mentally ready to turn myself inside out to get that ticket.”

Finding her motivation

And that wasn’t the only wisdom Auston had absorbed in the weeks and months preceding the race. She’s a big fan of listening to inspirational podcasts, and reading books on high-performance, and she had mentally warehoused a bunch of wise, mantra-like quotes (and ideas) to keep her motivated.

These included ideas from the likes of Australian Olympic gold medal swimmers Stephane Rice (Pressure is a privilege) and Grant Hackett (Preparation counteracts pressure), British adventurer Ross Edgeley (I do my best when I feel at my worst) and former American navy seal and endurance athlete David Goggins (his ‘Cookie Jar’ method for storing memories of things endured, overcome and achieved).

So often, we’re inundated with media — podcasts, TV, socials, advertisements — it’s very easy to let useful information escape from our consciousness. I’ve definitely been guilty, on more than one occasion, of listening to podcasts while running and completely tuning them out.

That’s why I love that Auston actively seeks to absorb meaningful and memorable takeaways from the media she consumes. It’s a great reminder that inspiration and motivation is all around us. Furthermore, even phenomenal athletes (like Auston) can benefit from listening to the advice and wisdom of others.

5. Love what you do and let that be enough

Most runners love racing. That’s the exhilarating aspect of the sport. For many of us, that’s why we put in the hard work in training. Lining up at an event allows us to showcase our talent (and improvement) and test ourselves.

Like most runners, Stephanie Auston was missing mass participation races through most of 2020, particularly “the atmosphere… of all the people striving to do their best”. 

But the uncertainty of the coronavirus pandemic has also put things in perspective. On one level, she enjoys the competitive aspect. But on another level, she knows she runs because it makes her feel good, and it provides her with clarity and a sense of calm.

She likens it to surfing: “Sometimes there are no waves but there are still some die hard people who seek the solace and the calm of the ocean and go out everyday.”

Finding freedom and certainty

“For me the process of running is the grounding freedom I seek when I am not sure, uncertain, stressed and can’t structure my thoughts. The certainty and simplicity of running is why I use it as stress relief as well as training.” 

“Even if there was never another running event, I’d still run because I just love it. I love where it’s taken me, and the people I’ve met… As long as that love remains, that can only be a good thing.”  

This is arguably the simplest, yet most important takeaway from Auston. Your heart has to be in it. You need to love running: the action, the experience, the feeling you get during and afterwards. It’s vital.

Auston is a competitor, and a fierce one. But she wouldn’t be where she is today if she didn’t love the sport. She has excellent, in large part, because of what running gives her emotionally and mentally.

If there was never a race again, would you still get out and pound the pavement or explore the trails every day? Why or why not? I think it’s really important to take time (every now and then) to consciously remind yourself why you run, and what you enjoy about the activity and sport.

Want more? Check out all of RunCreature’s features and interviews.

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