On the continuum of people who live two-sport lives, Stephanie Gundel occupies a notch somewhere between uncommon and unreal.
Gundel coaches gymnastics (at Ballard, where two weeks ago her squad won the Metro League title for the first time in 19 years), and she runs — and runs and runs and runs, sometimes for more than 24 hours straight, mostly on mountain trails.
“Running in beautiful places is such a cool experience,” she said.
Her two pursuits contrast sharply (fast-twitch athleticism vs. long-haul endurance; artistic precision vs. fatigue management; glitter vs. grit), but they occasionally intersect.
After coaching in the 2018 Metro League championship meet on a Friday night, Gundel squeezed in a few hours of sleep, woke up at 2 a.m. to catch a ferry, and that morning ran in the Orcas Island 50K, a 31-mile trail run. She was the top female finisher (and seventh runner overall in a field of 180), covering the course in 5 hours 40 minutes.
Last month, after hosting a home meet on a Friday night and conducting a kids’ camp the next morning, she drove to Kirkland in time to line up for the 3 p.m. start of another ultrarun, the Bridle Trails 50K. She won there, too, finishing in 4:45.54.
“That,” Gundel conceded, “was a tiring weekend.”
Last August, Gundel won the Bigfoot 100K, a rugged 62.1-mile run around Mount St. Helens, and set a course record for women (16:06.33) despite inhospitable conditions.
“Running exposed on the side of a treeless mountain through wind, rain, fog and lightning in the dark was an experience,” Gundel said. “Winning, and setting a course record, was unexpected.”
Gundel, preparing to coach five Ballard gymnasts in the state meet that begins Thursday at Sammamish High School, is reluctant to call herself an elite runner, yet she has fastpacked (running and backpacking) the Annapurna Circuit in Nepal, has twice circled Mount Rainier on the 93-mile Wonderland Trail (once in three days, another time four) and has run rim-to-rim-to-rim across the Grand Canyon, starting and finishing on the South Rim.
“I’d do that again in a second,” she said.
In December, she met her training goal of running 3,000 miles in 2019. Put that in your Fitbit and log it.
She has yet to win a lottery bid to compete in the famed Western States 100-mile run (she’s applied four times), but in April she will run in the Whiskey Basin 91K (56.5 miles) in Arizona, and in August will return to the Alps for her second go at the CCC 100K, a demanding high-elevation journey that runs from Courmayer, Italy, to Champex-Lac, Switzerland, before finishing in Chamonix, France.
It’s part of the prestigious Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc, and Gundel’s past achievements earned her an automatic berth in this year’s 1,900-runner field.
What has gotten into this Seattle Pacific grad who became Ballard’s gymnastics coach 17 years ago at age 23?
“I really like being outside,” Gundel, 40, said. “I like to go out in the mountains. It’s often prettier than road running, and it’s a lot easier on your body. I like being in all these places that would take you forever to hike to, but running you can get there much faster.
“I like the racing aspect, too. I like the competition, pushing myself. It’s very similar to the reasons I like gymnastics: You can train, you can improve and there’s always something else to accomplish.”
Running was not hard-wired into her DNA. Born in Bellingham and part of Nola Ayers’ famed Sehome gymnastics dynasty (24 titles in 28 seasons, 1973-2000), Gundel’s parents were recreational runners who had little success convincing their younger daughter that running was fun.
“I thought it was so hard, the most horrible activity in the world,” she said. “I still remember my mother saying, ‘There’s only one more hill.’ Four hills later I was not very happy.”
After Gundel joined an outdoor conditioning program in Discovery Park in 2007, she decided running was a good outlet for her athletic instincts. By 2013, her eagerness to push her boundaries led her to focus on trail running, later advancing to ultrarunning.
In 2014 she ran her first ultra, the Beacon Rock 50K in the Columbia Gorge, and she finished sixth among women. It was a revelation.
“I couldn’t really believe I had finished,” Gundel said. “I’m not very often impressed with myself, but at that point I was kind of proud of having done that.”
Junior Lianne Kistler, the defending Class 3A state vault and bars champion, is Ballard’s top gymnast and a two-sport athlete herself, placing second at state last year in the pole vault. With their strength and body-control skills, pole vaulting is a natural fit for gymnasts. Ultrarunning? The idea baffles Kistler.
“What she does is definitely impressive, but I don’t get it,” Kistler said. “I’ve never been a fan of long-distance runs. We’ll ask her how long of a run she did that morning. ‘Oh, just an easy seven miles.’ We just go, ‘Hmm, wow.’ I asked her one day how many pairs of shoes she goes through, and she said 10. That’s crazy. I go through like two per year.”
Gundel, a registered dietitian who works as a clinical research coordinator in pulmonary critical care at Harborview, thinks she is finding her groove as both a coach and an ultrarunner. She’s a keen strategist (Kistler: “She has all these plans. At the start of the year she had every beam assignment planned for the season.”) and has grown more aware of a grand-scheme vision for her athletes. This year she had them collaborate in a ropes course, a cleanup project in Golden Gardens, an escape room, even self-defense classes.
“It took me many, many years to get the technical coaching part down, so I could branch out and incorporate other things that make a coach a good coach and make a team more of a team rather than just being able to do skills,” Gundel said.
“Now there’s more focus on interpersonal relationships and life skills. I’m branching out so they’re learning other things. I like to have them work together in situations that aren’t just inside the gym. I feel those things are really important.”