Runner Mom Feature: Coach and Runner Stephanie Harboe

Exploring the Importance of Self Care and Community 

As an athlete and coach, Stephanie Harboe often sees parallels between endurance training and the process of achieving other life goals. Growing a career doesn’t happen overnight. Nor does building a relationship. The same goes with preparing your body for the demands of intense physical activity. Push anything too far, too fast, and you’re prone to fall flat.

“In endurance training, we’re chipping away at something every day that we know is far down the road and sometimes things just don’t go according to plan. That’s very much how life is,” said Harboe. “When you fall, you pick yourself up, adapt if needed, and you move on. That applies both to endurance training and to life in general.” 

Having moved 7 times since 2006 with her husband’s military career, Harboe has perfected the skill of adaptation. Her secret? Get involved, join the local running community and connect with other women. 

“You gain lifelong friends running with other women because you’re joyful together, sorrowful together and you see each other struggle,” she said. “There’s usually no makeup and a lot of sweat. There’s no mask and it’s very empowering to put down our defenses, let others see the side we usually try to hide and just work together toward being better. A better runner, friend, spouse and a better mother.”

A mother of three, Harboe welcomed her first two children as twins in 2007. The importance of community was heightened at that time, as her husband deployed for a year just six weeks after the twins were born. They were stationed in San Antonio, Texas, and didn’t have family nearby to help. She relied on the support of other military spouses and cut her priority list to the basics to get through it.

“My priorities had to change at that time. I wasn’t allowed to run while pregnant and didn’t even contemplate getting back to running after the twins were born because I was just trying to survive,” she said. “But when that deployment ended, I knew it was time to get back to fulfilling myself outside of being a mom and a military spouse. It was time to put myself back on the list.”

They moved to Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, shortly after the deployment ended. She found a gym that offered childcare and signed up for a yearlong membership.  

“I could work on myself knowing my kids were happy and well cared for,” she said. “Whether it was half an hour, an hour, or whatever I could get in, it was refreshing to process what was going on around me with clarity because I wasn’t bombarded with distractions. I think any mom craves that.”

She also started running again, which meant waking at 4 a.m. to run before her husband left for physical training. 

“It was great. It was just me, the quiet, the dark and my thoughts,” said Harboe. “After I walked back through the door, I had to take off the runner persona and put back on the mom persona. But I was fully prepared for anything the day would bring because at least I got something for myself first.” 

Through the deployment experience of just surviving and the post-deployment process of rebuilding her athlete persona, Harboe said she learned to honor her current abilities and not hold herself hostage to her former self. 

“It’s important for mothers to understand and accept that you have different running lives,” she said. “You have a running life before kids and another after childbirth. You have a running life when they are in preschool and then it changes when they go to school. It’s constantly adapting.”

The twins are now 12 and the Harboes welcomed their third child into the family three years ago. Harboe was 39 and said the experience of caring for one baby at that age was harder than caring for two at age 30. 

“I really had to step back and put myself together again,” she said. “I was really intentional about pelvic floor recovery, which was a game changer for me. When I got back to training, I also gave myself permission to take a day off or to choose sleep over running if my baby was up frequently through the night.”

Harboe carries that philosophy into her role as a coach, giving people permission to adapt their training plans when things go off course. She said she often sees women limiting themselves to thinking there’s only one way to achieve a goal whether in endurance training or approaching life in general. When their restrictive path brings a roadblock, far too many give up rather than adapting and continuing on an altered course. To help others overcome this, Harboe builds individual plans with her trainees. 

“I want to create something that’s achievable and works someone toward their goal in the timeframe they’ve specified, not add more stress to their day,” said Harboe. “It’s about working smarter in the time that you have. It’s also about having the grace with yourself and the open mindedness to realize that there are many paths toward achieving your goals.”

Harboe is careful to not play the role of coach with her kids but hopes that her active lifestyle is positively impacting them. The twins are involved with a variety of sports, from baseball to swimming, and Harboe said a main goal with the activities is to keep her kids active and teach them the importance of interacting with communities and in building bonds with others. 

“I want my kids to understand what it’s like to really struggle and work hard for a goal,” she said. “They’ve been conditioned to not have the priority of being first, but to take the mindset that they just want to improve. It isn’t about being the best, it’s about being better than you were the day before.”

Harboe is a National Academy of Sports Medicine certified personal trainer and holds a Road Runner Club of America (RRCA) level-1 certification. She has completed three ultra-marathons, 16 marathons and numerous half marathons throughout the United States and Europe. She won the 2012 Equinox 40-mile Ultramarathon in Fairbanks, Alaska, and also took first in the 2013 Capital City Marathon in Olympia, Washington. Running is clearly a large part of Harboe’s identity, but she doesn’t want it to define her. 

“If running were to end, I would mourn the loss of it but there would be something else in its place. I don’t want to be defined simply as a runner but as an active person. My life is so much more enriched by the other activities,” said Harboe. “One of the dangers I think women face is we define ourselves so narrowly. When the singular identity disappears, we aren’t sure who we are anymore.” 

The family is currently stationed in Williamsburg, Virginia, and will remain there longer than in previous locations. Harboe said she’s thankful for the longer timeframe in Williamsburg because she can embrace more opportunities. She is also hard at work yet again building connections with the local running community. That personal community will be an important outlet soon, as her husband is set to deploy again for a year. Harboe said she often looks back on the help she’s received from women over the years and hopes she can pay it forward to others. 

“The more vulnerable women can be with each other and learn to trust and support other women in their different journeys, the better off all of us will be,” said Harboe. “There is nothing glorious in battling life by yourself. Ask for help, accept it if it’s offered and build a community around you.”

Want to learn more about Stephanie? Visit her website: http://ssfrunning.com

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