Professional athletes are very fortunate. They get paid to do what they love and to do it better than most. Professional Ultra Runner Sally McRae is in that elite club. Running up mountains, watching her footing in steep terrain, running the straight aways with burning legs that feel like they can’t go another step. Well hers can!...Step right across the finish line. Sally added another first place win at the Salmon Falls 50K in February. We talked to Sally about being a professional ultra runner, how she got there, and what it takes to balance her busy yet fulfilling life while remaining humble and very appreciative.
Q: Looking at your background, it appears you’ve been competitive since a very young age. What keeps you motivated to be the best at your sport?
A: I have a genuine love for being in the mountains; sometimes I jokingly say that if I could, I would live in a cabin on a mountaintop and spend all day on the trails; so running with abandon up a mountain keeps me motivated to train, but when I approach my training “to be the best” I am motivated by the gifts I have been given. I have long felt that we are all given talents and abilities and how we use them is important. So I don’t take my ability for granted. I train to be the best I can be and to never stop growing toward that. I believe that being the best is so much more than always finishing first and although that is my goal when I step up to the start line, I also work to be the best in all that I am, in how I train, and how I connect with others through the sport.
Q: What was the turning point that turned ultra running into a professional career?
A: This is actually a long story, one I will tell one day, but the switch from ultra running as something I did as a passionate hobby into a professional career, was born from a heartbreak. In short, a few broken dreams, friendships, and heartache set me up to choose who I wanted to be, to do what I truly loved, and to let go of doubting and just be courageous. A year and a half later, I signed with Nike.
Q: You are training for some big races this year; what made you decide to run the Salmon Falls 50K in February?
A: I have my eyes firmly fixed on Western States 100. It will be my third year racing and I want to be better than I was last year; so with that has come some intense training blocks on the Western States course. I stay with my coach Ann Trason in Auburn for a few days at a time and we craft a specific training plan that suits both my weaknesses and strengths--I have much to work on! So my most recent training block was a 2.5 day block with 67 miles of running. We decided to add the Salmon Falls race to the training for many reasons, with the most important focus being nutrition and running on tired legs. The race was close to where I was staying, it’s low-key, and most importantly, was focused on a charity. I loved that! I’ve only raced one 50k-- it’s not my favorite distance--, but I approached this as a great way to ease a bit of the intensity I often bring to my training and give myself a chance to run with people, meet new friends, and just have a good time. I think it’s so important to train hard but to mix fun in and I knew this would be a fun race.
Q: How did the run compare to other 50Ks you have run?
A: I don’t typically run 50ks, in fact, last year’s Sciacchetrail 50k in Italy was the first 50k I actually trained and tapered specifically for. I really loved it, however the 100 mile distance is my true love and what I’m always focusing on. Salmon Falls, regardless of the distance, was one of the funnest, friendliest races I’ve run. It was incredibly well-organized, and the energy at the start line was both relaxed and exciting. It kind of felt like we were just gathering together for a fun long run. I really appreciated that.
Q: You came in first place for female runners at Salmon Falls. How many first place finishes do you have in your career?
A: I have 5 first place finishes ranging from 50k to 100k; the only one left on my bucket list is a title in the 100 mile distance; which I’m training hard for.
Photo credits: Captivating Sports Photos
Q: Many of the other runners who competed were so excited to see you there. Are you used to that?
A: Ha ha…hmmmm, that’s a tough one. Yes and no. I love people. I love getting to know people for who they are in and outside of running; it’s what keeps me inspired and it’s always my hope when I get an opportunity to meet someone new that they see the real me and that we get to connect on a real level. I believe community is powerful. When people are excited to see me, I’m excited to see them too!
Q: What did you think of the Salmon Falls route?
A: I loved the route. Oh my goodness, it was gorgeous; especially those first 6 miles when you’re on the long extended climb. Wow! I kept peering over the trail just to stare at the landscape and the river, it was beautiful. I will have to say that the course is a bit deceptive. The last half of the race is all rollers; which on a course profile map looks fun and fast, but it’s grueling on the quads. It was nearly impossible to settle into a pace because once you descended a bit there was a hard, sharp turn and then you were climbing again. So a lot of abrupt stop and go however, I loved it for that very reason. It forced me to focus when I was tired and keep pushing. It was a beautiful challenging course, my favorite kind of race course.
Q: Would you recommend this race to fellow runners?
A: Absolutely! This is a great race for anyone new to ultra running, or anyone looking to do a meaningful, fun and friendly race (which should be everyone right! ha ha!). I know when trail runners first start out they can feel intimidated by the long distance or mountains, ruggedness or just being alone for so long. This race is stellar for the newbie as well as a great tune up race for those looking to race a 50 mile or 100k shortly after. I highly recommend it!
Q: What advice would you give to someone who is just starting out trail running?
A: I have a few gold nuggets of advice that I like to give out, but my favorite is, “First, love it; then focus on a race.” There is so much more to appreciate about trail running than just the running; and if you discover for yourself the joy and fulfillment for yourself, you’ll do far better in the races than those who look at trail running as a mysterious monster. So, fall in love first. =)
Q: Can you give us a few highlights into the life of a professional ultra runner.
A: Hands down, the people. As a professional runner, I have been given countless opportunities to connect with people all over the world and at the very core of my life, that is what I’m most passionate about. It’s through those connections that so much good and fulfillment is seen. Secondly, running on mountains is something I used to dream about as a child. It still blows me away that I get to do this. I’m very grateful.
Q: You’re a professional athlete, a wife and mother. I’m sure you’ve been asked this before, how do you balance it all?
A: I’m sure I have at least a dozen different answers for this question recorded and written around the web and in print. With every changing season, I approach it differently. I choose to stay focused but flexible and disciplined but gracious. And in that same breath I say it’s a constant lesson I’m learning. When you are balancing family, you’re dealing with people, not inanimate objects that you can manipulate, so it’s important that I stay purposeful with each and every day and hour I’m given, but ready and prepared for anything that comes my way. I’d like to say I’ve been training for this time in my life since I was a young girl. I started working with my dad when I was 7 and by the time I was 15, I had two jobs and haven’t really stopped having 2 jobs since then. I was a guardian by the time I was 18 and have been put in positions several times where I was forced to swim or sink; so Iet’s say I’ve had a lot of practice. I love that life is not predictable, it’s an adventure and I see my precious family as gifts not part of my workload. I know I can do all things set before me because it was given to me…the good, the bad…and the ugly. I know I can handle it and I have a wonderful team around me that keeps me grounded and supported as I seek to do just that.
Q: Tell us about the run you have coming up in Italy in a few weeks.
A: Sciacchetrail is in Cinque Terre, Italy. It is a storybook race! Just writing about it puts a smile on my face. I was invited to race there last year and I can say, I have never been received so warmly and lovingly at a race in all my career. That part of Italy is incredibly beautiful. It’s rich with history and the people there love their land and heritage. I made strong relationships last year and fell in love with the very heart of the land. I am very excited to get back and improve upon my performance from last year, but I am most excited to get back and see my dear Italian friends.
Q: Can you sum up your passion for running in a few words?
A: It’s my most powerful form of communication. There’s so much in me that I want to share with people that I can’t always put into words, and sometimes I feel it’s most perfectly said when I run.