Photo Credit: Sally Hornung
Ultra marathon runner Susie Chan fell into running six years ago, when her brother persuaded her to enter a half-marathon. Today, she’s one of the most recognisable faces in the British running community, a three-time Marathon des Sables finisher, and a former 12-hour treadmill world record holder.
In my chat with Susie we cover heat training, Strava segment sprees and ‘unravelling’ during her third Marathon des Sables.
Let’s start with this year’s Marathon des Sables event*. It was your third MdS event, but it didn’t go quite to plan?
[*The Marathon des Sables is a 6-day ultra running event covering 251km across the Sahara Desert]
Yeah, so I’ve done it three times and all of those have been very, very different. But this one, the third one, was probably the hardest I’ve done. Day one, I had an OK day, day two, I didn’t get my race nutrition right and had a poor day. And it just kind of fell apart – I unravelled a bit from that point.
If you could plot it as a story line, I had an okay day one, day two wasn’t very good and then I started to blame lots of other external things: ‘I haven’t fuelled properly’, ‘I don’t feel very well’ – although I genuinely didn’t feel well. But after a bit of self-analysis I realised there’s a lot of ego and expectation weighted with my performance – I wanted to do well and people were watching me. I just wasn’t doing well. And I was trying to find lots of other things to blame it on.
Was there a turning point in your Marathon des Sables running experience?
There’s what’s called the ‘long stage’, the ultra-marathon stage of the race – 55 miles or something like that – and I trudged that out while feeling sorry for myself and came to the conclusion that I was probably being a massive child. I pulled myself together really, after that stage. I realised that I didn’t have a particular goal for that race; I was invited to do it quite late. Previously I’d really wanted it with my first MdS, and for my second one I was racing and was in with the elites – it was a fantastic race and it kind of snowballed. The third time, it kind of went the other day. I think I was very cavalier about it.
There was a lot of self-analysis in that race. That was a good lesson: I could still turn it around in my head, although not in my standings, and I really pulled myself together. I ran as hard as I could in that very last marathon stage – I wanted to cross the line having felt that something had been achieved and I’d done something right. So I ran really hard, and I felt like I made peace with myself as I went across the line [laughs]. I did feel a sense of achievement, and actually it was a very important race for me, mentally, because I’ve never got to the point where I’ve thought ‘I have no idea why I’m here’ before. I’ve had tough races, harder races, harder situations, but I’ve never had to fight my own head so much like that.
How did you pull yourself out of the mental low?
In the desert you’re cut off from all communication but what you do get is messages sent in. They become a real focus point for you: ‘Oh, I’ll get my messages tonight’ from family and whoever. [After the long stage] I came back to literally hundreds of messages from people who were watching and thought there was something very wrong with me [laughs]. So, ‘Pull through, you’re so strong’ – there were just hundreds of messages from these wonderful people, family, from my friends, social media, saying really, really lovely things. They all believed in me and I thought, you know what, I’m sitting here in this lovely place in this iconic race feeling sorry for myself because I’d had a couple of bad days’ running. Petulantly feeling that I should have finished higher. But it was just a bit of a wake-up call. A real motivator.
At the MdS, weight is everything, and I had this wad of messages and I put them all in my rucksack and carried them with me to the finishing line [laughs]. All these people who had taken the time to write me a nice message, it was that real motivator and made me realise people meant well and no-one is judging me. I knew my heart was in it and then I found heart in the messages people had sent me.
Was there much camaraderie in between running?
In that particular race, you become very close to your tent-mates, the people who share your personal space with. They’re so supportive, really understanding. Wonderful. Lots of banter. There were people in much more difficult situations than me – especially two of my team mates. One had really chronic arthritis and was in absolute agony, and there was me moaning about being 2 hours slower [than last year]. We had that kind of banter between us; all of us would finish or nothing, because a couple of them had had really hard days. That really helped. Those two things really helped.
Was that the first time you’d had such a mental battle in a race?
No, I’ve had lots of low points mentally. Two other things I’ve done were really, really hard but I had a tangible goal at the end of them. So they were really tough, but there was this thing that I could still get. Whereas in the MdS, I already knew I was doing it in 2018; I’d done it twice before, so I was thinking, ‘Why am I here doing this?’
What would you say is the toughest ultra running event you’ve done?
Probably a race called the Jungle Ultra which is really bloody tough (a self-supported 250km race in the Amazon). I didn’t really go into it properly trained or understanding what I was about to do. The terrain was extraordinarily tough to get through and I got physically sick because my race admin wasn’t spot on. I couldn’t hold any food in me. Physically, there’s a lot of mud so you’re just sliding around, and big elevation. And I got bitten – death by bugs!
Because it’s self-sufficient, after each stage you have to pitch a hammock and I’d never practiced that ever, which seems crazily foolish, so I ended up on the floor of the jungle, wet. Getting into a wet sleeping bag for the night… it was really tough. But I was chasing a podium place (Susie actually went on to come third lady). It was so physically tough, so, so physically tough, but I was kind of like, ‘I’m here, doing it’. I was still fighting but I was in bits at the end, absolutely wrecked!
The Jungle Ultra is pretty humid, isn’t it?
Humid and hot and it starts at 12,000 feet, so there’s a bit of altitude. For me, the heat and humidity were okay, but the terrain was just unforgiving. You’re doing huge 6000ft climbs, literally up slippery mud where you’re clinging onto roots and things and pulling yourself up on all fours. It took me an hour-and-a-half at one point one day, and if you slide down two metres you’re like, Oh god!
Did you do any heat training in preparation for running the Jungle Ultra?
Yeah, I always go for heat training. I heat-trained for that and a big multi-stage race I did in Costa Rica, and I always do heat training for the MdS, just to prepare myself. I’ve never come a cropper in the heat and I put that solely down to something I actually do well – prepare my body for the heat.
I have a good working relationship with Kingston University and they have a heat chamber so I’ll use that and they’re able to set it to whatever my conditions will be. So the Jungle Ultra wasn’t too hot, it was 30-degrees, but it was 90% humidity. In the heat chamber, you start off with a little bit less [heat] and go back day on day and they gradually increase it and your body acclimatises.
Another way I’ve done heat training in the past is to supplement that with Bikram yoga – I have a very good Bikram Yoga studio near me. That’s actually quite good because to heat train you have to do that in the lead-up to the race and you have to taper at the same time, so you have to get that balance right.
What kit did you wear for the Jungle Ultra?
Because it’s self-sufficient, I wore the same clothes all week. I wore what I’d wear in the MdS, which is a tech top, a tech skort and trail shoes.
Would you ever do a cold ultra running event like the Arctic Ultra?
I am not good in the cold – I’m cold right now! [laughs] My husband has done one, similar to the Jungle Ultra, in the Arctic, but I was like, ‘Never!’ But I have to be honest with you, there’s one particular race which you have to do as a pair and carry all your stuff with you on your sled and I think we would probably do that as a couple… perhaps one day! The thing is, they’re expensive.
Which cold weather race is it?
It’s a race called the Yukon, which has different distances. I would go for the much easier one which is 110 miles. People do 300/400 miles of this particular race, but I’m not that strong. You have to carry your sledge. I think I will do it at some point… when I’ve got all of the hot ones out of the way!
What kind of running do you do in your training at the moment? Is it tough fitting everything in?
So, I was working fulltime up until 6 weeks ago and I am now – amazingly! – sponsored. I can’t believe it’s happened to me, a woman of my age [laughs]. It’s probably more useful to talk about how I did my training beforehand, when I worked fulltime.
So I’m a mum, I have a daughter as well. Training would involve getting up early a lot, and I used to commute to London so I used to embed my training into my commute. I would cater my mileage according to particular races, so some weeks I’d be running 30-40 miles a week, other weeks 50, 60, 70 miles, depending on my training. But it would be a lot of getting up very early, going for a run, getting on a train, going for a run and then maybe also going for a run at lunch, building up the miles that way. And then on the weekends, going out for those long runs back-to-back.
Was it hard to fit other training in alongside running?
I had to choose between doing something that was probably better for me in some ways, like going for some strength training or doing some yoga, and going for a run and getting the miles in. Sometimes, like everybody really, I’d get injured by not stretching properly or doing the right strength training, so it kind of all impacted and it just got to the point that I don’t think I was really applying myself properly and that’s when I went out to the MdS this year – I hadn’t trained properly and it all went horribly wrong [laughs].
I’m fortunate enough to be in the situation now where I can be more strategic about my training because I now have the time.
Do you include things like hills, intervals and sprints in your running training?
It depends on the race, but I always run six days a week then I try and supplement that with some gym work. I’m terrible in the gym, I need some structure and to be told what to do otherwise I’m lazy. So I go to classes and do like, 25 squats ten times over, and yeah, I do speed work. I try to do speed work once a week with my run club or with friends. And then hills, I try and do some hills… I should probably do more! I do live somewhere quite hilly, so my trail running includes hills, but it depends on what kind of runner you are as to how you define hills. I don’t do specific hill training, but living in a hilly area, I have to run hills.
Photo Credit: Steve Brown
How do you track your runs? Do you use a watch?
I’m on Strava, I track everything on Strava. I have a watch and then upload it.
Which running watch do you use?
My watch has literally just died. It’s a Garmin Fenix, but I might switch to Suunto. I had a couple of watches. I normally use just a basic one for running round in the day but for ultras I use one which has a longer battery life.
Has your watch ever died on you during an ultra-running event?
No, amazingly. I’ve had a Garmin that wouldn’t start when I was on the start line about to run a marathon. The girl next to me leant over and said, ‘That’s my worst nightmare!’ But actually, I ran a PB which stood for four years! I ran how I felt, but it was very interesting because I took six bloody minutes of my marathon PB. My 10k PB also still stands and that was when I had the same issue, my Garmin wouldn’t start and I had to run without it. I still have that PB and I had no idea how fast I was running. All I knew was that it hurt [laughs].
Going back to Strava, do you join any of the Strava challenges?
Yes, every month. Whatever there is to do with running, I’ll join them all. Distance, climbing, 10k, half-marathon, I do them all. I love it. I’ve got a kind of challenge streak going, so I feel like I’ve got to keep it up now, the trophy cabinet [laughs].
Do you ever set out to take a crown or Strava segment?
I’d be lying if I said I didn’t. Round Farnham, we have a kind of no man’s land between me and a friend where we goad each other. She’s faster than me at the moment – I’m very off-pace at the moment – but we’ve kind of had a thing going. We’re really good friends, so I’ll get a notification she’s stolen one of my segments and I’ll then go straight out and try and get it back from her!
A couple of weeks ago, I was running around my childhood village where I grew up. And there’s this hill we used to play on as kids – it’s a big hill, about half a mile and very steep – and I thought, I bet that’s a [Strava] segment. So I was on a normal run and then I got to the bottom of this hill and then I went as hard as I could. And of course it was a segment and I managed to get the crown [laughs]. In my head I knew it had to be one.
I don’t normally go out to get one, though. Sometimes it happens.
Have you used Strava from the beginning of your running career?
No, I didn’t used to it at all. My husband was using it and he kept on going ‘Get on Strava, get on Strava.’ But I’ll be really honest with you, I was like, I’m not really sure I want people to be able to see my running. Because there are some of those runs where you go out with your mates and you’re two minutes slower, or you just want to have a plod that day. And I genuinely felt like that. Then as soon as you become part of the Strava community, you realise that everybody’s the same because they run with their mates and it’s all about the chatting; or they have a recovery run. Because not every day’s a race day.
It’s very, very supportive and encouraging. I’ve worked collaboratively with Strava because we share the same goal – to inspire more people to get active. And what I really like about it is that you can completely geek out about running on Strava, because that’s where you’re ‘allowed’ to do it! You can go into conversations about minute-miles. Literally, I think I was on it for one week before I went Premium [laughs].
So tell us about running for 12 hours on a treadmill and breaking the distance world record?
Ohhh. That was pretty grim, actually. The two things I’ve found immensely tough are the Jungle and the treadmill. We did a practice of eight hours on the treadmill – hopped on, hopped off and I was fine. This one, we had to use a very, very big treadmill because it had to run for 12 hours non-stop. It was so big we couldn’t move it – it was literally facing a wall. I got motion sickness nine hours in. I felt really sick, really not well. I had to keep going for another three hours – that was tough. It had also snowballed in that a lot of people were following me because we were streaming it through social media live, which was wonderful, but I was feeling like death [laughs].
How did you manage to keep running for 12 hours whilst feeling and being sick?
I was doing that thing where you’re trying to convince yourself that you’re fine and you’re telling yourself that you’re OK enough times that you almost believe it. I was doing that until the last half-hour when I couldn’t hide it anymore. That was again at Kingston University, and I had to have adjudicators – students – that I’d never met before. They don’t know who I am. They’d given up their Saturday to watch me for four hours because adjudicating for four hours at a time is all they’re allowed to do. Another rule for the Guinness World Record is that it had to be open to the public, so people came on their Saturday afternoon to watch me run on a treadmill facing the wall [laughs].
I couldn’t fail – it was very black and white. It would have been all for nothing, all those people coming, would have been for nothing. So I told myself I wasn’t going to fail [laughs]. If it had been just me, I would have been like, ‘Ahh, nevermind!’ but there was so much time invested by so many other people, I couldn’t let anybody down. People even came for miles to run and keep me company on a ‘support treadmill’ next to me, so there was no way I wouldn’t have done it. But I felt terrible, so shit.
Mentally, how did you approach the treadmill ultra run?
I usually do this thing in my head where I think, especially with 100-milers, that it’s just one day, and that tomorrow I’ll be sitting in a bubble bath drinking beer or something like that. Taking myself out of the situation by being slightly ahead of where I am. For that one, I knew it was going to be a tough day. You know when you’re heading out of the door for training, sometimes you feel great and sometimes you think, ‘No’? I was actually having one of those days on the treadmill so I was [saying to myself] ‘Tough it out, tough it out. It’s now or never.’ And I could keep all of that under control for all but the last three hours which were through gritted teeth. I was on target up until the last three hours and then my target was dropping, my pace was going down, so I wasn’t doing as well as I wanted, which was also quite hard to deal with, and being sick. It became quite close at one point, so it was all a bit ‘Drama!’
How did you fuel it? Did you manage to eat while feeling sick?
Yeah, so we had a table of food next to me, but as I started being sick that got harder and harder. Towards the end I was having sugary tea, which is one of my favourites when I’m flagging, little bits of fruit, bits of donut, nothing healthy at all [laughs].
Do you tend to favour real food over things like gels during your ultra running events?
Yeah, I do. If I do a marathon I’ll go gels because they’re quite easy to service. But for an ultra… yeah, it’s my Achilles’ heel, my fuelling. I struggle to eat, I just don’t feel like it. I don’t want to eat, but you just have to. Whenever I’m in the supermarket, I’m always trying to find really high calorie food in one mouthful [laughs].
What about a morning of an ultra running event? Can you manage breakfast?
I love breakfast, absolutely love breakfast. Morning of a race? Never fancy it. So I tend to have a really lardy milkshake because they’re pretty easy to get down, and then just a bagel, if I can eat it. Normally, it’s something in liquid form.
Is the not fancying food a nerves thing – do you get nervous before running an event?
Normally, not. With the exception of the shorter it is, the bigger the nerves, so if I were to do a 5k for example, I’d be absolutely terrified. 10ks make me nervous – you’re out there and you’re exposed; your speed, your pace. Whereas with an ultra marathon, no not really. My first hundred miler? Terrified, obviously. You know, you don’t feel brilliant, but it’s only really the short ones where I get nervous.
You did a full ironman triathlon not long ago. Are you tempted by any other multisport events?
I’m really rubbish at cycling. No matter how hard I’ve tried at it, I’m so mediocre at cycling. And I really tried for a good six months, but I was just as rubbish at the end of the training as I was at the beginning. I’m also scared on a bike going downhill fast which I’ve learned is not the done thing [laughs]. I’m quite happy to cycle to a pub, have a pub lunch and cycle back but I’m not really into cycling competitively because I just don’t enjoy it to the same level as I do running.
I really like swimming actually, I’ve discovered that. So maybe a swimrun?
Haven’t you done a big open water swimming event recently?
Yes, it was the Serpentine; that was part of the London Classics. Three events which includes the London Marathon, Ride London –which I was rubbish at – and the swim in the Serpentine, and you get a big medal if you finish all three. Really well organised event, I really enjoyed it. I’ve never been to a swim event so big. It was a really great atmosphere.
Did you do extra swim training and ease up on the running while training for it?
No, I just added it in. Because open water swimming for some ludicrous reason tends to be at the crack of dawn – literally at the crack of dawn, 6am – I just got up earlier and did some swim training.
Would you do another swim-related event – you mentioned a swimrun just now?
I probably would do a swimrun at some point. Out of the three disciplines when I was training for the ironman, the one that worried me the most was the swimming and it actually turned out swimming was much more enjoyable than cycling. So yeah, I’m always up for a challenge, so I’d probably give it a go if I found a really interesting one.
Where’s your favourite place in the world to run?
The desert. I really love running in the desert. There’s something about it. Some people get that sort of solace in the mountains, but for me there’s two places I really love running: I love running in deserts and I really, really love running on coastal paths and somewhere I can see the sea. A lovely coastal path run, to me, is a day really well spent.
What’s your favourite running or endurance event so far?
I keep going back to the bloody Marathon des Sables! [laughs] There’s a bit of me that belongs in that race somewhere and it’s such a pivotal race for me. It was the first ultra I signed up to, thinking I wouldn’t get in, and I got in and then I panicked and then did some ultra marathons in training for it. But it was the first ultra marathon I’d ever signed up for in my life and I thought that would be it, I’d do it once, and would go back to running marathons and half-marathons, but it just introduced me to this wonderful group of inspirational people doing races in amazing places. You just meet some really incredible people in races like that. I’ll always be grateful to that race – this year it showed me that it’s not to be taken lightly. It’s taught me a lesson. I’ve signed up for next year – hooray!
What are your favourite items of kit for your ultra running?
I like running in skorts, I like to look quite nice when I run, although don’t get me wrong sometimes I’ll run with anything in the cupboard. And a visor, always with a visor. I feel a bit weird if I don’t run with a visor. I run with one for a few reasons: one, my hair is terrible and I can never be bothered to do it so it covers that up; two, it cuts out my face quite a lot, and it holds off the sweat and keeps my hair in place. I collect the visors from races, so I have a lot of different ones.
What’s next on your running calendar for 2018?
I’ve got the MdS next year and I’m going to approach it by training this time [laughs] and obviously I have a lot more time to do that better. And then a real dream race has become a tangible reality, so I’m preparing, hopefully, for that – the Badwater 135, a really, really tough race through Death Valley. I’m going to try and do two races which will hopefully put me on the path to Badwater 2019. One of those is called Keys 100 and is a 100-mile ultra run straight line from Key Largo to Key West in Florida, so it’s hot and humid. That’s May next year, and Badwater is the following year.
In March, I’m going to do a race called Badwater Cape Fear which is part of the Badwater race series. MdS is in April. It’s going to be a busy three months.
Going back to Badwater, can’t you fry an egg on a car bonnet there it’s so hot?
You literally can. And if you forget [that it’s hot] and lean on something, you’d burn your hand. I went to crew it this year and I’ve never seen anything like it. I need to earn my stripes to get there to the race. I need to do what everyone else does and get there on experience. I need to give it the respect it deserves because it’s a really tough race. If I stand on that start line, I only want to stand on that start line once and I’m going stand on it and finish.
I need a year to work out what I’m going to eat in the heat, anyway!
You can keep up with Susie’s ultra marathon events and running training via her social media feeds: www.instagram.com/susie_chan_, www.twitter.com/susie_chan and by visiting Susie’s website on www.susie-chan.com