When you’re planning to run an ultra – say, a five day, 156-mile epic through the Sahara Desert – you want to make sure you get the right people around you. You want runners who are upbeat, friendly, warm; who take the event seriously but don’t seem to take themselves too seriously. Basically, if you end up running Marathon des Sables, you want to end up with Susie Chan as one of your tent-mates.
A familiar – and generally smiling – face on the ultra circuit, even Susie had a bit of a wobble at this year’s MdS, though. “I was a bit too underprepared and a bit blasé about it and I had a shocker,” she says. “And because I wasn’t doing so well, I got in this negative headspace. I actually tried to get them to pull me from the race because I didn’t want to get out of it myself. So I tried going to the medical tent and they were like, ‘You’re fine, get out.’
It was unfamiliar territory for the experienced runner, who knows all too well the value of a positivity in a long race – particularly having completed MdS twice before. “I’ve never had that before where my head went and I just thought, ‘Why am I here?’ I suddenly realised I didn’t have anything positive to latch onto and it’s very hard to climb out of it.”
Luckily for Susie, one thing she did have was great tent-mates (including WR columnist Damian Hall) and – much to the amusement of said tent-mates – reams of messages of support from home, which helped her get to the finish. “When I finished, it was a really good feeling, because I’d learnt a lesson,” she says. And most of the time, she knows it’s important to keep smiling. “In ultrarunning, in particular, you have to be able to focus your mind positively because – like with anything – it makes it easier.”
The search for positive experiences was what made Susie, now 42, first pull on her trainers seven or eight years ago. At the time, she says, she “used to sit around at home smoking and drinking”, until her brother cajoled her into joining him at a local half- marathon. “I was having a really bad time personally and I was like, ‘I don’t wanna run!’” she remembers. “He came round, knocked on my door and dragged me out. I genuinely thought I was going to die – I’d never run that far. Then in the final mile I knew I was going to make it, ran really hard and absolutely loved it.”
This was no overnight transformation into the con dent, happy and healthy runner she is today. Susie only quit smoking after her first marathon, suspecting it might just help her get her times down. But, once her running addiction had taken hold, she quickly moved up in distance, signing up for the Marathon des Sables for the first time just after her first marathon. “I realise now that’s quite a leap!” she laughs. “At the time I just wanted to fill my life with positive things to look forward to. And it worked; I was very absorbed with running.”
In fact, she’d only entered MdS after reading about it and hearing that it was really difficult to get into. She put her name on the waiting list one night, assuming it was a long shot. “The next day I did some research and found out that everybody on the waiting list gets in. And panicked.”
But any self-doubt was quickly swept aside – Susie had paid her deposit, and she was going to finish that race. “Everybody told me not to do it and that I wasn’t going to make it and all these things fed into the determination. I took it very seriously, I trained very hard, I researched the race thoroughly and researched my kit thoroughly. I went into it completely excited to be there and I can remember standing on the start line thinking, ‘Yes, this is meant to be.’ I loved it.”
Perhaps most importantly, Susie met her fist set of brilliant tent-mates and people who she says became “friends for life”. Now fully immersed in the world of running, she was inspired by the people she met and the events they were running. “It just opened the doors to ultra running and it was the start,” she says.
One of the things that appeals to her about ultras (although she doesn’t just race the long stuff) is the switching of focus away from finish times. “In the first year of running everything’s great, you’re getting PBs, and then, maybe a year or two into it, you start getting injured, things start to get harder and you’re not running quite so well. I went through that a couple of times, where it’s made me a little bit sad, not doing the time I want. And then I realised it is a hobby; it’s something I enjoy and that’s not necessarily born out of minutes per mile.
“It takes you a while to realise that nobody cares: nobody cares what my running time is, nobody’s judging me. As soon as you start feeling happy about [running] then you run better and your confidence picks up. The things I remember as good experiences of running are times when I’ve had a laugh with my friends; or really beautiful races where I’ve not been gunning for it… not the time I got a really good 10K [time] where I can’t remember anything about the race apart from being in pain for the whole thing!”
That said, Susie’s had her share of memorable running experiences – and many are things the average runner would find pretty painful. Although MdS is pretty hard going, Susie rates the Jungle Ultra in Peru as – physically – the hardest race she’s done, with mountainous climbs, sweltering humidity and, worst of all for Susie, a bit too much wildlife. “I don’t like bugs, so I expelled too much energy shrieking at the jungle in general,” she says. “I held it together and then the race finished and I didn’t get out of bed for two days.”
At the other end of the spectrum – certainly in terms of conditions – was one of her toughest mental challenges: setting a world record for distance covered in 12 hours on a treadmill. “Runners will know, there are some days when you get up and run and everything feels great! Then there are those days when you get half a mile away from the house and you’re like, ‘I don’t feel like running today.’ And it was one of those days and I had to do it for 12 hours.” To top it off, Susie became ill as the attempt went on. “I was being sick in secret because I didn’t want everyone to know I wasn’t feeling very well. I’d go to the toilet and say to my husband, ‘I can’t do this’ and he’d say, ‘You’re fine – we’d open the door again and have to be like, ‘I’m back everyone! Let’s do this!’”[She did do it – running 68.5 miles in the allotted time.]
Sensibly avoiding both treadmills and jungles for now, Susie currently has her sights set on rounding up the last of the World Marathon Majors in Chicago this October. She fits in training five or six days a week, with mileage running from 30 to 60 miles depending on the end goal. Although she admits to being “not very strategic” about her running (“I probably should be – I might be better!”), for Susie, the main aim has to be enjoyment. “When I started running it was a distraction, and something good to do for myself,” she says. Genuinely, I had no confidence, and it gave me confidence in myself. It’s a real positive focus in my life; I’m a very different person to the one I was before I started running.” As it turns out, just the kind of person you’d want to run a desert stage race with.
Follow Susie’s running adventures at susie-chan.com or on Twitter @Susie__Chan and Instagram susie_chan_.