It’s safe to call long distance runner Sally McRae superhuman. After all, the Costa Mesa, California native, and Nike Trail athlete travels the world to compete in 100-mile races consisting of steep, rocky terrain spanning mountain ranges such as the prestigious Western States 100-mile Endurance Run from Squaw Valley to Auburn.
But the former soccer player at Biola University and now a mother of two didn’t always think she would become a ultramarathoner. She grew up the middle of five children and initially dreamed of a career as a professional soccer player. “I was so passionate about soccer, and if I had any free time at all, I would go out in the backyard and juggle,” says Sally, who took up running seriously after college.
We sat down with her and learned what a typical day is like, why hydration (and one of her staples, Liquid I.V.) is so important, what it takes to train for a 100-mile race, and what advice she has for runners of any level.
When did you first get into running?
When I was little, I loved anything that involved running, like tag and all of that. My parents signed me up for small city races, and later I made it to state. That was the start, but I don’t think I understood racing and I didn’t find it as exciting as soccer. I dreamed of becoming a professional soccer player.
After college I went to China teach English. We had to teach 14 hours a day. I love traveling and culture, and in the early mornings I would choose a direction and run for an hour, or an hour-and-a-half, to see the city. After doing that for five weeks straight, I came back and told my family, ‘I think I’m going to start running.’
Describe a typical day.
Because I juggle being a mommy, wife and homemaker with being a professional athlete, I have learned to approach every day with grace, knowing that at any moment my schedule could be flipped around. However this has also taught me to be more disciplined with my time. There are daily tasks that need to be accomplished, and my day starts early.
4:30-5 a.m.: wake-up call and 1st workout
6:15-6:30 a.m.: laundry, dishes, pack lunches
6:45-7 a.m.: kids up, make breakfast
7:45 a.m.: walk to school
8 a.m.: Pack training bag and drive to strength and conditioning session
8:30-10:30 a.m.: strength and conditioning at ProStack Sports Performance with Coach Steve Newman
10:30-11:00 a.m.: drive home, refuel in the car
11:00 a.m.-1:00 p.m.: home, shower, laundry, house chores, return emails, write, sometimes a quick power nap, and fuel up for next workout
1:00-3:00 p.m.: run, usually somewhere on the trails, beach, or track workout
3:00-8:00 p.m.: kids home from school, sports practice, homework, make dinner, house chores, family time, kids’ bedtime
8:00-9:30 p.m.: return emails, read, tea with hubby
9:30-10:00 p.m.: bedtime
How do you train for Western States 100?
I LOVE 100 mile training, particularly because of the weekly long runs where I’ll spend anywhere from five to nine hours in the mountains. I train very race-specific, so the way I train for one 100-mile race will look different from how I train for other 100-mile races- all depending on the course details: altitude, elevation gain, weather, and trail technicality.
Why is hydration so important?
Hydration is important because it’s necessary. Athletes who become dehydrated during the race start to slow down, and their overall performance begins to suffer. The #1 reason why ultrarunners drop out of a race is because they didn’t get their hydration and nutrition right. If you want to compete, you gotta be well hydrated.
How do you use Liquid I.V., and how has it made a difference in your running and workouts?
I take Liquid I.V. daily just to make sure I start my day hydrated. It’s key to having strong workouts and for my recovery. Three to four days a week, I’ll be in the mountains for long periods of time, so I will take a few single-serving packs with me. They’re easy to stash in the pockets, so when I’m done drinking one I can quickly break open another pack, fill my bottle and keep running. During long runs I’ll drink one to two packs of Liquid I.V.
What is your weekly regimen/mileage?
My peak weeks of running top out at 115 to 125 miles per week, but on average I like to stay at 70 to 85 miles per week, with additional sessions on the ElliptiGo, bike, stairmill and hiking, and then 10 to 15 hours a week of gym work.
Your fitness routine outside of running?
4 sessions/8-10 hours with strength and conditioning coach
2-4 sessions on ElliptiGo totaling 3-7 hours
2-4 sessions in gym: bike, stair mill, stretching, totaling 3-7 hours
How important is nutrition, and what are the best foods to consider for running?
Nutrition can make or break your race, so I practice different nutrition strategies throughout the season to make sure I’m confident and that my body is prepped for race day. Thankfully I have a strong belly, so I can eat mostly everything in an aid station if needed during a race (potatoes, watermelon, bananas). I like to use Whenever Bars, UCAN Generation nutrition drink mix, dried fruit and if needed, I’ll take in some gels and, of course, Liquid I.V.
You’ve also competed in Molokai (a 32-mile race from Molokai to Oahu). How does that differ from the Catalina Classic?
The fact that it’s Hawaii is pretty epic. Catalina is either a flat water or an upwind race (meaning you’re going against the waves and the current), and in the Molokai race, it’s completely the opposite. You’re basically riding waves.
You don’t necessarily get there any faster, and it is really cool in that it’s all about catching waves. You paddle really hard and ride a wave, and paddle really hard and ride a wave, and you do that for five hours. That race is technically challenging to stay on your board and just to navigate. Since I don’t paddle over there all the time, it’s more challenging.
Your fastest finishing time for the Catalina Classic?
Five hours, 15 minutes. We are always right around that mark; it’s pretty typical. But there are guys in Molokai that are right around five hours.
How did you decide on a career in sports medicine, and what do you love about it?
I was a really athletic kid and played baseball, soccer, swimming. I was competitive in junior lifeguards. Our mantra was: “all sports, all day.” We would take whatever balls and things we could get outside and compete with our friends all day long. I’ve always loved athletics.
When I went to college, I was good at the sciences. One of my mentors growing up was Ron Waters. He’s a beach guy and orthopedic surgeon, and I really looked up to him. I’m super-lucky to have my job. I take care of Palos Verdes High School, Harbor College and the Los Angeles Defenders, and I like treating athletes. I get to figure out what the injury is and what’s stopping them—a torn ACL or meniscus. I enjoy the problem-solving aspect of it.
What does it take to run 100 miles?
Commitment to the training. Support from family, friends and coaches. Discipline to do the training, and to eat right and to take care of your body. One of the greatest obstacles is getting to the start line healthy. And, of course, a whole lot of grit and grace. I really believe ANYONE can run 100 miles if they do it with grit and grace.
Your best advice for runners?
Learn to fall in love with it. Take it slowly. Discover different places to run. Find the joy in it. Allow your body to get strong graciously. Don’t rush it, and then never, ever quit.
Your go-to meals pre-race or pre-run?
Pre-race meal: The night before a race, I keep it simple and typically bland, ranging from brown rice pasta with red sauce and some bread, or just peanut butter sandwiches. Sometimes I’ll throw in a few ounces of hard cheese. And hours before a race, I’ll eat a Pro Meal Bar and a banana.
Pre-run meal: coffee, eggs, toast or just a Pro Meal bar.
When was your first marathon?
In 2008. The Los Angeles Marathon. I finished with a terrible time and bloody feet.
How did you decide to do ultramarathons?
I was reading Runner’s World about ultrarunning, 50- and 100-mile races, and I was s fascinated by these. I thought, ‘I want to try that!’ I love challenges, and I thought, ‘I’m going to do that.’ I started training for one in 2009, when my kids were really young, and I trained mostly on a treadmill. In April 2010 I did my first one, the American River 50. I did three 50-mile races within five weeks, and I think that got the competitive juices flowing again.
What’s your favorite aspect of running?
I love running at its core and love that it’s been able to take me around the world and to inspire people generally. Running has allowed me to travel to places that I have only dreamed of and see parts of the world that are so beautiful, and to connect with people. That’s the most important thing to me.
On June 25th, 2016, Sally completed her third 100-mile Western States Race. Sallymcrae.com.
Ultarunner, Mom, Coach
Sally McRae is an elite professional trail runner, writer, podcaster and speaker. She owns a coaching business for runners and maintains her own rigorous training schedule… when she’s not helping her two young children with their homework.
Champion Paddleboarder Brad Thomas, MD, on Training with Liquid I.V.