Olympia’s Karen Steen Shares Recipe For Running Success: Eat, Drink, Sleep, Run, Repeat

By: Anne Larsen

We are sitting at Fishtail Brewery sharing a pitcher of IPA. I am sitting across from a friend, a running partner, an ad hoc therapist, and always an inspiration. The first time I “ran” with Karen Steen I had a 3 month old at home and was hitting the track for the first time. Being one to jump in feet first, I had no idea which way to run around a track, how far 400 meters was, or what a “stride” might be or look like. I was the only runner that day with NONE of the following on my running resume: Olympic Qualifier, Marathon Winner, All American, Athlete of the Year, Decade, the list could go on and on. What I learned that day at  the track is this: the track is the best place to be a slow runner- you see everyone at the start – you get encouragement every time they lap you – and that happens over, and over again all night long! Seven years later I can now tell you how many laps equals  400 meters (1!), which direction to run (counter clockwise), and I can keep Karen at least within throwing distance. I’ve logged enough miles in with Karen to know that a great runner is a gracious runner, that sweating together strengthens a bond more than words, and that suffering seems just a little more sweet in the company of others.

Time after time

What inspires a woman who was Athlete of the Decade at Timberline High School (1980), PLU Woman of the Year in Sports 1986 (Hall of Fame 2005) and continues to train day- in and day- out twenty plus years later? There is no “glory days” talk with Karen. There are people in this world that will tell you ” I use to run”, “I use to bike”, “use to, use to, use to.”  And, there are the Karen Steens that will ask “what are we running this week?” Karen would say running has it’s hook into her because she likes to set goals and savors the satisfaction of accomplishing them.  I would buy that answer from a mere mortal, not from a woman that balances a full-time teaching job, three kids, a supportive hubby, a garden that rivals Martha Stewart, and that is just the basics ( I won’t even get started on the holiday dinners or birthday parties). Karen just doesn’t set goals, she crushes them – never bragging about her accomplishments. She’s the first to brag about someone else’s run  or race and quickly duck out of conversations about her achievements.

Magic bullet

So, back to the beginning. We are sitting at Fishtail Brewery drinking a beer and she starts to pull items out of her iRun tote-bag. She seems embarrassed, but I am fascinated. This is not her first time being interviewed for an article and certainly not the last.  Walk into South Sound Running and glance up at the wall.  You will see  Karen along with fellow Olympia runner Linda Huyck gracing the cover of February 2000 Northwest Runner  the their ” The Joy of Qualifying” edition.  Last January  she was a Sports Illustrated “Face in the Crowd”. What kid doesn’t dream of being in SI?  Sports Illustrated wrote “Steen, won the 45–49 age group title at the 6k club nationals in Charlotte (22:52.8) to help Club Northwest to the team title. For her age group, Steen holds the 2,000-meter steeplechase world record (7:07:49) and broke the U.S record in the 400-meter hurdles (1:08.9) at the masters nationals in July.”

But this interview is different, I’m the lucky one…..I get to see what every athlete wants to show you, but is too humble to drag out. “You’re a runner,” she tells me. “You’ll get this stuff.” Oh I get it. It’s a box of accomplishments stuffed into the back of your closet, never to see the light of day until you get asked by some friend to interview you (so basically never). The first thing I see. A bullet. Perfectly smooth, preserved in a Trader Joes mint box. The gunman  gave it to her at the 2009 Steeplechase National Masters Meet. I wasn’t there, so I looked to Ed Bagley’s article to set the scene.

“Steen bolted to the front at Titan Stadium when the gun sounded to start her 45-49 age-group event. After the first 400 meters of this grueling 5-lap test over 3 hurdles and a water barrier each lap Steen was on world- record pace. Watching her for 3 more laps the fans were screaming words of encouragement as she passed by, and then a rousing crescendo greeted her in the final stretch as she realized the record was hers for the taking, and roared home in 7:07:49 to break the old record by more than 9 seconds. Steen, who averaged approximately 5:42 per mile, is no stranger to world records. In 2005, she set the world mark for 2,000-meter steeplechase in the 40-44 group running 7:05:06.”  You don’t need to be a math expert to realize that is a difference of 2 seconds over a 5 year span. And excuse me, but did he say 5:42 per mile – with obstacles?!

4 second rule

The St. George Marathon is special in more ways than one. It is not only the marathon that propelled her to the Olympic Qualifiers in Charlotte, SC and St. Lewis, MO, but also where she recently won her “Road to Fame” award. Last year was the  35th anniversary of the St. George Marathon. To celebrate, a review of the marathon results throughout the years was done. As a result, it was determined which performances elevated former participants to a “legend” status. Fifty men and fifty women were selected, which based on their efforts during the marathon, clearly separated themselves as legends of the St. George Marathon. “Karen Steen, competed the St. George marathon just twice, however she was involved in the closest overall title finish in the history of the race. Her interest in the 1999 race was a desire to run a time that would qualify her for the 2000 US Olympic Marathon Trials. She did end up qualifying with a time of 2:46:36 and finished 6th overall. Karen came back to St. George in 2002. Once again, she wanted a time that would qualify her for the 2004 US Olympic Marathon Trials to be held in April of 2004 in St. Louis. However, her race in 2002 was more than just earning a Trials qualifying time. She ended up running the 34th fastest marathon in the history of the race in a time of 2:34:48, and finished an agonizing 4 seconds behind the winner. ” That performance propelled her into “legend” status, by having the closest finish in 35 years of the marathon. Now that’s what we call bittersweet.

Ouch that hurt

Now I would be fooling you if I said every run was euphoric, epic, just utterly fantastic. When I asked Karen what run was just plain awful she will mention one from last week. She operates on short-term memory syndrome, most athletes do – otherwise they’d never workout again. But Karen’s was  a track workout, where splits were not hit, the wind crushed her spirit, the rain made it worse, and the cold just makes you feel like crap. What does Karen do about these workouts?  She goes home, sends out an email with the subject line “track re-do” and gets back in the game. Crap workouts build character and strength. I’ve seen Karen get clocked with a baseball in the middle of a track workout, that didn’t stop her. Turn an ankle at Priest Point, kept going. Get lost in Capital Forest two years in a row – in the late Fall, sopping wet (although I think that has finally lost its novelty).  I’m not saying that expletive language wasn’t tossed around, but she keeps going, day-in and day-out. Having your running partners there to drop a few choice words, offer you words of encouragement and just laugh about it makes it palatable. Coffee and beer can lessen the sting.

It’s a family affair

There are a few family mementos in that iRun bag. The first I see is a birthday card from Mike, with the phrase Sassy, Classy and Kick Assy. “Don’t you just LOVE that!” she says. Well of course I do, that describes Karen to a T. And no one knows that more than Mike.  When an athlete trains the way Karen trains,  it is a family affair. It’s the everyday athletes that deserve a round of applause and their families a standing ovation. I’ve been to the Steen house. There is no high altitude sleeping chamber and not a single housecleaner (that doesn’t have the last name Steen). I’ve never seen Karen nap or heard of her visiting a nutritionist. Mike Steen is a saint. I will say that now, Karen would say it too. Supportive husband equals fast wife.

I would imagine that most South Sound residents know of Karen because of her seven wins at the Capital City Marathon. We see her cross that finish line. Pig tails, lean legs, smile on her face – that’s our hometown girl. What does she see? Her hometown race.  Every 5 miles she’ll look down to  chalk writing on the road and sidewalk “Go MOM!” and there is Mike and the kids. Mike’s job is to keep Karen in the loop – to let her know where the other runners are at, how she’s looking, and  gives her Gu.  “She’s 3 minutes ahead of you”  he may say and passes her a Gu. Five miles later – Mike again, kids again, encouragement on the sidewalk “Run FAST Mom!”  Repeat that sequence 4 times. Finally Capital Way   200 meters to the finish- line, she passes the first female that had bolted out of the gate. Rule number one, run your own race. Mike, kids, family and friends screaming in a frenzy. Karen crosses first.  At home there will be posters on the kitchen cabinets, streamers across the ceiling. It would seem too picture perfect, but I’ve seen it with my own eyes. Family is the backbone, the fuel when you feel that first twinge, it’s the fight against the weariness, and the boost that pushes you across the line. Olympia loves Karen – the hometown girl – winning the hometown race. The crowd rallies and supports her in races. It’s her family, that rallies and supports her training – the inglorious part of winning.

Group love

Some runners train alone. If for some strange reason you are up at unsightly hours, you could see people running at  4:30AM or 5:00AM every morning by themselves.  On a treadmill at the local gym or on the mean streets of Olympia (they are only mean if you are running by yourself at 4:30AM!) these folks are slogging it away by themselves!?! I know who they are, I respect them for their dedication and I want to cry out “are you CRAZY!”  A fellow preschool mom trains on her treadmill, in her house, watching reruns of Top Model, and she kills it in her races. I would rather have every hair individually plucked off my head…and speaking for Karen on this one, I would say training alone would be torture for her too.  “I get everything from my training partners. I could never have accomplished all that I have without my running partners. You can’t quit knowing that you are depending on each other to help each other through a workout.” Runners and  people in general will quit on themselves before they quit on each other. Karen gets her weary, bone-tired legs out of bed in the morning to meet friends. We all  push up that last hill repeat……….ugghhhhhh……..  across that crack in the road because you have people waiting for you. You dig it out for yourself, you show up because people are waiting.

Do I stink?

“Life is not a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in a pretty and well-preserved body, but rather to skid in broadside, thoroughly used up, totally worn out and loudly proclaiming- WOW, what a ride!!!” This quote is typed on the most worn out piece of paper I’ve ever seen and it’s one of the last items to come out of the iRun tote-bag. “I LOVE this, and the first time I heard it a WOMAN said it.” Karen tells me. This is Karen’s quote of the day, week, month, and year. And she’s living it. Because she’s living it I know she ponders – what exactly is the max capacity of workouts that one can do before taking an actually shower? My guess 4. When you live life with the gusto of being “totally worn out” showers and sleep become a negotiable items.  You begin to function on less and less sleep. You train while your family and the rest of the civilized world sleeps. You invest in baby wipes, sweet smelling body lotion, and trick yourself into thinking that yoga pants are really meant to be worn everywhere. Karen can sneak in a track workout in the time it takes the average woman to get ready, so what gets sacrificed? The shower.

Wind beneath her shoes

There have been two times in my 7 years running with Karen that she hasn’t run. Once, when her sister was sick. The second time was last year when she was injured. When you run in a group, the whole group suffers when someone goes on the injured list. When one of you goes down, the ship losses its course. During our “injured course” — many shipmates stuck together and  went into the pool (some crew members chose to skip that).  Four months later we were back on the pavement, normalcy restored. When Karen was down and out, I thought “is the earth still spinning on its axis”? That is how strange it is for her not to run. It’s the down-and-out times that you realize where an athlete pulls that extra reserve of strength.  Karen’s reserve, her sister. ” She was never a runner but always supported me. She lost her leg to bone cancer when she was 17 and her life to colon cancer 5 years ago. Whenever I want to quit I ask her to give me strength to carry on. She is the wind beneath my shoes.”

The secret is revealed

Recruit, recruit, recruit. Remember that gracious runner thing I mentioned earlier? That’s how you keep it together year-after-year. Week after week the emails, texts are coming. “Here’s what I’m running this week…who’s joining me.?” At a local 10k if someone fast shows up, Karen is the FIRST person to introduce herself and see if they want to train together. So if you are out for a run, shopping at Safeway, or just happen to bump into our very own Karen Steen, now you know. Karen is just a normal person. Just a really fast normal person. Watch out, she may recruit you too.

Olympia is FULL of fabulous runners with incredible stories. We have a wealth of experience, knowledge and amazing performances gracing our streets and local road races. Stay tuned, because there are more local runner stories to come!

A big thanks to Denny Brooks for the pictures. Check out Denny’s website http://www.ontherunevents.com/. He’s a huge part of our local running community, snapping pictures, posting race registrations and results. Thanks Denny!

Also, thank you Fishtail for making a wicked IPA!

Websites:

1. Sports Illustrated, Face in the Crowd article: http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/scorecard/faces/2011/01/31/

2. Ed Bageley’s article on the 2009 Steeplechase Championship http://ezinearticles.com/?Karen-Steen-Shatters-World-Steeplechase-Record-at-the-2009-National-Masters-Meet&id=2648185

3. St. George Marathon Legends http://www.stgeorgemarathon.com/legends/display2.php

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