That someone from Dallas’ flatland would dominate a sport that involves running insane distances across rugged terrain tens of thousands of feet above sea level seems unlikely. But two White Rock-area women are doing just that — claiming records, breaching usual gender barriers and winning races that cover mileage most of us find wearisome to drive.
Nicole Studer, a 33-year-old attorney, recently clocked the fastest time ever recorded by a female in a 100-mile trail race.
Shaheen Sattar, a 30-year-old Bryan Adams High School graduate, two years ago was the second female finisher at the Leadville 100, a race through the Colorado mountains made famous by the 2009 bestseller “Born to Run” (Matthew McConaughey recently was cast as the lead in the movie version).
In 2014 Shaheen placed among the top 10 women at Western States 100-Mile Endurance Run. Few humans ever even meet the standards to enter Western States (entrants must first place among the top finishers at an approved qualifying 100-mile or 100k race, one “of significant difficulty”; others can secure a place via the Western States lottery). It is the race to which the world’s best ultrarunners flock. Both Nicole and Shaheen will toe the line there this month.
They will start running before dawn June 27 in Squaw Valley, Calif., climb more than 18,000 feet, descend 23,000 feet, cross a cold and rushing waist-deep river and, after 20-something hours on their feet, finish on a high school track in Auburn.
Nicole and Shaheen are friendly rivals who admire one another. They sometimes run together; at a Western States training camp they logged 30 miles side-by-side one day and really got to know each other.
But on June 27, it will be every woman for herself.
Each is close lipped about her specific goals. Shaheen says she hopes to beat her time from last year. Above all, she races against the clock and her own past performances, she says. Her bib number is F9, indicating to all that she placed ninth last year, so she knows they’ll be gunning for her.
Nicole qualified for last year’s Western States, but an injury prevented her from competing. However, as the 100-mile record holder, she too has a target on her back.
Nicole and Shaheen are so good that they frequently rival the sport’s best men.
Take, for example, last April’s Possum Kingdom Trail Run, which included both a 56-kilometer and 52-mile event.
Typically, the winner of an ultramarathon is a sinewy, bearded male. But at this event, Shaheen was the first to emerge from the woods; her dark ponytail bounced as she waved at her sister, Shama Sattar, who cheered at the finish.
“I did not know she was leading. She had been running with a pack of guys. When I saw her, I was so excited,” says Shama, who also is a runner.
Later that day, Nicole won the longer race, beating the first-place male by more than 18 minutes and the second place female by three and a half hours.
David Hanenburg, who directs the Possum Kingdom trail races and other ultrarunning events, says it is unusual for a female to win outright over all males. But these women regularly defy the odds.
“They are doing amazing things and helping raise the bar of excellence for all runners,” he says. “They are both badasses on the trail with huge hearts.”
So how is it that these two women from our sea level neighborhood are killing it on the trail-running scene?
Both are crazy tough and competitive with a freakish immunity to the typical effects of fatigue, averse weather conditions and high altitude.
Both will go mad if they can’t run at least 80 miles a week. Both, like the sport itself, seem on the cusp of being discovered by the more-mainstream athletic world. But how they arrived at this point, for each, is different.
Nicole picked up running in middle school after the basketball coach denied her a spot on the team and introduced her to cross-country.
The young Chicago native was fast enough to earn a scholarship to Northwestern University, but she was no Olympian, and once she graduated, she did not expect to continue her athletic career.
“I figured that I was retiring from running when I finished school,” she says.
Shaheen only tried it while working the early shift at White Rock Athletic Club (now Gold’s).
“You know that inside track? It takes like 11 laps to make a mile. That’s where I started running.” She says a group of senior citizens eventually persuaded her to run with them outside.
Nicole finished law school at Baylor, where she met husband Eric Studer, joined the consulting firm Towers Watson and adopted a dog, Stella. “My running changed a lot when we got Stella. She was so hyper, so we ran all the time.”
To satisfy her competitive streak, Nicole entered races. Without considerable effort (she had tossed the watch, the training log and the pressure that went along with competitive running) she qualified for the Boston Marathon, won the Fort Worth Cowtown Marathon and broke the elusive three-hour barrier at the Houston Marathon.
Shaheen entered races too, her performances a bit more pedestrian.
She was thrilled to finish the Chicago Marathon in just over four hours. When she ran the White Rock Marathon in 3 hours 41 minutes, someone told her she was a minute from qualifying for Boston. “That was the first point where I thought about a qualifying time,” she says. After that she focused on speeding up.
Almost every serious runner suffers setbacks and injuries, but Shaheen’s was more harrowing than most.
On an early morning run, a car struck her, hurling her over a 6-foot fence.
“I was running on the sidewalk. I could see it coming. It just hit me head-on and knocked me into someone’s backyard.”
She was hospitalized with a punctured lung, broken ribs and a fractured fibula.
She ran the White Rock half marathon three weeks later.
“The doctor said it would be painful but that I couldn’t further injure myself. I was already registered and the race was sold out, so I went.” By that time she had proved capable of running a half marathon in 1 hour 26 minutes. It took her 2 hours 6 minutes to run one with a broken calf bone and ribs.
Both Nicole and Shaheen arguably could improve at traditional distances (5ks to marathons), but neither is interested in the type of training that would take (intense speed intervals on a track, weight training, regimented mileage — something similar to the rigorous schedule of collegiate athletes, Nicole explains).
Both embrace and thrive in the looser atmosphere of trail and ultrarunning, where instead of trying to get necessarily faster, you go farther.
Nicole’s 5:30 a.m. runs grew longer.
“It got to be 10, 11 a.m., and she still would be gone,” her husband Eric says.
Shaheen started rising at 3:45 a.m. to fit in her daily run.
Because ultramarathoners run 14, 24, 30 hours at a stretch, they sometimes rely on a crew to assist them during competition with food, drink and clothing changes.
In the past few years, Eric has learned — from trial, error and the advice of trail veterans — how to support his wife.
“My job is to be at the aid station when she comes through. I have a kit (bandages, clean socks, water bottles), but she is low maintenance. Sometimes I am just there to tell her to keep going. Tell her if someone is gaining on her.”
Shaheen and Nicole both raced the Leadville 100 in 2013 — that’s when Shaheen placed second. Nicole, having a “bad day,” placed ninth.
Eric admired Shaheen’s support crew at Leadville — which included Shama, her mom Sian, brother Shahid and boyfriend/runner Steve Henderson. “They were like a well-oiled machine,” he says. “And I have to hand it to Steve — he knows what he’s doing.”
In order to train for alpine races like Leadville and Western States, Nicole and Shaheen seek out the hilliest parts of our neighborhood. Lakewood’s Loving hill is a good one, Nicole says. Eric cringes and says he remembers trying to follow her up Loving on his bike. Shaheen says the streets of Lake Highlands, north of Flag Pole Hill, offer surprisingly challenging hills. She adds that northerners don’t benefit from Texans’ heat training.
The real secret might be our area’s running community. “Dallas has some of the best people to run with anywhere,” says Nicole, who is a member of the White Rock Running Co-op (a club open to runners of all levels — see thewrrc.com). “My training partners are so great and such nice people. It makes it fun.” (Stella the dog isn’t so enthusiastic about running during the summer months.)
Shaheen does much of her training solo, but she also has formed relationships rooted in running, like the one with aforementioned Steve Henderson, which began a few years ago when she accepted an invitation to join a co-ed relay racing team. Today they are totally in love and live together in a house on White Rock Lake.
And if you ask most any ultrarunning aficionado — race organizer David Hanenburg, for instance — it is that romance, those friendships and camaraderie, that shared experience on the trail, rather than the qualifications, records, times and trophies, that define the sport.
To him and other ultrarunning diehards, it’s about more than just trying to prove you can complete some “deranged distance.”
“The win is a small part of this sport — community and encouragement are the more predominant themes,” says Hanenburg (who blogs about ultrarunning at endurancebuzzadventures.com).
On the trails you will see frontrunners cheering on the back of packers, he says. He has witnessed Nicole and Shaheen doing so — in fact, he says, they have cheered him on, even in races that they finished far ahead of him. It is their hearts that make them good at ultrarunning, he says, and it is ultrarunning that makes them (and him, and other runners, too) better humans.
See results from the Western States Endurance Run at wser.org
This article first appeared in the June 2015 issue of Dallas’s Advocate Magazine, written by me, Christina Hughes Babb