“I’m like, ‘You have trained for this. You have run thousands of miles to go this distance in one go,’” said Stefanie Flippin (née Elitharp), DPM ’15, AACFAS, who set the fastest time for 100 miles run by any woman in the world since 2017. “Endurance running helped me discover that as tired as you may be, if you can keep your mind under control, you probably have at least 15% more to give. We are so much stronger than we think.”
Seven laps to finish and Dr. Flippin, “was in a zone and didn’t appear to be breakable,” according to a witness of the USA Track & Field (USATF) 100 Mile Road Championships, held April 23–24, 2021, in Henderson, Nevada. Despite temperatures in the high 80s, serious cramping and a “chin-splitting” fall in her final lap, Dr. Flippin beat then-current world record holder Camille Herron to take the national title. She set a new course-record time at 14:35:21 and finished third overall among men and women.
A board-certified foot and ankle surgeon, Dr. Flippin has earned acclaim and followers in the world of professional ultramarathon racing. She leads a team of 40 to 50 athletes as a coach for Lift, Run, Perform, LLC. She consults for Runners Roost, ProActive Physical Therapy and the athletics department at Colorado Christian University. She’s a writer for the media company Believe in the Run. She has signed sponsorship agreements with HOKA and Spring Energy, and she has been featured on at least a dozen podcasts. But running has given her so much more.
“I’ve always kind of felt like running is something that I was meant to do,” Dr. Flippin said from her home in Evergreen, Colorado. “I’ve learned that I’m a better physician, a better surgeon, a better coach when I am staying regimented with my own training. It keeps me in a healthy mind space. It sets a good example for my patients, as well as my athletes. And not just from a health perspective, but from a self-belief perspective.”
I don’t think that I would be the healthcare provider I am without the lessons that I’ve learned from racing: How far can I push myself? How deep into my soul can I reach to get the best out of myself?
Dr. Flippin looks at a patient with diabetes who walks three miles a day, and she sees an athlete. “That’s incredible,” she said. “I want to keep my patients active. I encourage everyone, regardless of age or health condition, to do something every day that gets them up and moving. Going after my own dreams and goals, professionally and in the running space, sets a good example in terms of, ‘You’re never too old to work toward a goal’ — that nothing’s impossible.”
Dr. Flippin began distance running as a child with her father in her hometown of San Diego, playing soccer and primarily focusing on competitive ballet. Regular visits to a podiatric physician helped keep her feet and ankles healthy, and sparked early interest in the profession. After graduating from UC San Diego, she was weighing doctoral programs in her home state when she was accepted by the Dr. William M. Scholl College of Podiatric Medicine.
“I loved the school,” she said. “I made a last-minute decision to change course and moved across the country. I knew I had to ground myself in something that was healthy, a stress reliever just for me.”
She hit the treadmill in the RFU gym after long hours in the anatomy lab, where she was assigned to the same rotation group as her future husband, ultra runner Mitchell Flippin, DPM ’15. In 2011, she volunteered to help staff a medical tent at the Chicago Marathon — a tradition for Scholl College faculty and students. The marathon kick-started her interest in distance, just as the trend in trail or ultra running was gaining in popularity.
RACING TO THE TOP
- 2021 USATF 100 Mile Road National Champion: Jackpot Ultra Running Festival, course record holder, 1st woman/3rd overall; 6th fastest all-time for American women in the 100-mile distance: 14:35:21; fastest 100-mile time for American women in 2021
- 2020–21 Tunnel Hill 100 Mile Champion: Consecutive 1st place finishes among women; 3rd fastest time on the course in 2020 (15:55:03–4th fastest 100-mile time for American women in 2020); lowered time nearly two hours in 2021 (14:04:16)
- Sub-ultra distance wins: Canyonlands Half Marathon (2019), Arches Half Marathon (2019), Colfax Urban 10 Miler (2019), Colorado Springs Half Marathon (2019), Brazos Bend Trail Half Marathon (2019), Liberty 5k (2019)
- Other notable performances: 3:45:52 trail 50k (unofficial; Highline Canal Trail, 2020), 2nd at Glacier Ridge 50 Miler (2018), 5th at Continental Divide 50k (2018), 9th at the USATF
- Colorado 10k Championships: (2019; professional field), 7th at the Birmingham Wine 10k (2019; professional field debut)
“Mitch really encouraged me,” she said. “We barely had any time. We were studying a lot. And he was like, ‘You’re able to blow these distances on pretty minimal training. Let’s go for this 50-mile race.’ I remember thinking, ‘I’m never going to be able to finish this. This is crazy.’ But we did. From there he was like, ‘Why don’t we run this 100-mile race out in Arizona?’ I couldn’t believe it. I couldn’t understand why he was so passionate about it until after the race — when he proposed to me.”
After completing residency in suburban Detroit, the couple opened Flippin Foot and Ankle, LLC in Lakewood, Colorado, growing the surgical practice from the ground up, integrating their lives as a couple, as physicians and as athletes.
“I see all of the things that are important to me as pieces to my personal puzzle and how I can put them together,” Dr. Flippin said. “I don’t think that I would be the healthcare provider I am without the lessons that I’ve learned from racing: How far can I push myself? How deep into my soul can I reach to get the best out of myself? I can think of days where things have gone totally south and I just want to get away. But I have to keep going. I have to attend to the task at hand. I have to continue to be there for my patients.
“I approach things the same way with my athletes. I can’t tell them to toughen up — just get through this. I have to set the example of a healthy female athlete.”
DEALING WITH PRESSURE
While running helps Dr. Flippin prioritize her well-being, push her mind and body, and root herself in purpose, achieving elite status has come with pressure to compete and to win. She began working with a mental health therapist in 2019 when she experienced anxiety while training to earn an Olympic Trials Qualifying time. She came up short during a brutally cold and windy Indianapolis Monumental Marathon. A few months later, COVID hit.
“I felt so stressed out,” she said. “The year 2020 was supposed to be a huge growth year for our practice. It ended up being a loss. Therapy helped me get back into a better mind space with things.
“I started running because I loved it,” she added. “It brought me stress relief and joy. But once an athlete starts to have success — each time you wind up for a race — everyone watching or following expects you to have that same pattern of success. No one’s immune to that kind of pressure. I tell all my athletes that there are significant physical and mental risks to pushing yourself without acknowledging the anxiety that can come with pressure.”
Dr. Flippin dialed back from social media. She dialed back her mileage. She pulled out of the Houston marathon, scheduled for early 2020. Long conversations with her husband helped her take stock of her purpose and re-focus. The strategy led to her national title and a professional running contract with the athletic shoe company HOKA.
“I’ve built this kind of aerobic engine,” Dr. Flippin said. “But I am not a robot. There’s a time to push and a time to pull back. I have to be fueled by more than, ‘I want to finish this race.’ The accolades at the end of the day are not what it’s about. I always have to go back to, ‘Why am I doing this? Who am I doing this for?’ When you can be really rooted in those reasons, you can get through anything.”
Peak Training Log
- MONDAY — AM: 6 miles at recovery effort; PM: 5 miles at easy effort.
- TUESDAY — AM: 8 miles at easy effort followed by 10 x 30-second strides with 30-second recovery; 10 miles total. 20 minutes of core strength training. PM: off.
- WEDNESDAY — AM (quality session): 3-mile warmup, drills and 4 x 20-second strides with 1-minute recovery; 1 x 2 miles at 50k race effort (6:25 minute-per-mile pace) with 3-minute jogging recovery; 2 x 2 miles at marathon race effort (6:15 minute-per-mile pace) with 3:30-minute jogging recovery; 2-mile cooldown; 12 miles total. PM: 4 miles at recovery effort. 30 minutes of strength work.
- THURSDAY — AM: 6 miles at easy effort. PM: 4 miles at easy effort; 20 minutes of core strength training.
- FRIDAY — AM (quality session): 7-mile warmup, 4 miles at moderate effort, 12 x 45-second strides at half marathon race effort (6:00 minute-per-mile pace) with 45-second recovery, 1.5-mile cooldown; 15 miles total. 30 minutes of strength work. PM: off.
- SATURDAY — AM: 10 miles at easy effort. PM: off.
- SUNDAY — AM: Long run — 23 miles at easy effort. PM: 30 minutes of strength work.
- TOTAL MILEAGE FOR THE WEEK: 95 miles; 10-minute mobility routine performed every day.
Judy Masterson is a staff writer with RFU’s Division of Marketing and Brand Management.