The ultra-runner shares insight into her extraordinary running life and provides some tips
With her bubbly personality and can-do attitude to everything running and huge social media following, Susie Chan is a bit of a darling of the distance running world.
The Surrey athlete has completed numerous marathons and ultras and has even broken a world treadmill endurance record. This is from someone who smoked and only took up running in her 30s too.
So it’s no wonder that she inspires many to go out and run. AW caught up with her after her fourth Marathon des Sables.
Athletics Weekly: How did you get started as a runner?
Susie Chan: It started about seven years ago when my brother was training to run a marathon. I was not a runner at all but he cajoled me into running a local half-marathon with him.
I was under-trained, under-equipped … I had gym shoes and an underwired bra on … and was hungover. On the start line I was extremely nervous and it was only then that I realised it was a trail marathon.
When I crossed the finish line I couldn’t believe that I had run the whole 13 miles without stopping. It was the start of a love of running.
AW: What’s this year been like?
SC: It’s been busy! I started off this winter with ultra training for my races, I had quite a few within the first few months including the MdS (Marathon des Sables – pictured, right) and needed to get my peak mileage in before March.
However, there was a bit of a spanner in the works, as I found out I was not well and had to have an operation to remove a large tumour from my neck. This put me out of action for a few weeks and I lost a bit of fitness, and missed my first race. However, I’m now back on track.
AW: So, you’ve completed a bit of a runner’s bucket list of races and events?
SC: Yes, the MdS is a race that introduced me to the ultra running world and from there I met so many inspiring people who told me about so many inspiring races.
Then there’s the Boston Marathon. What a race! The oldest road marathon and it was a huge privilege to be standing at the start line.
In the UK, Man v Horse is one of my favourite races, taking place as it does in the rugged Welsh terrain … fell running, mud, river crossings, it’s got it all, and the horses are easier to beat than you think!
Farnham Pilgrims … this is where it all started. It was terrifying and intimidating at the beginning but by the end, when I crossed the finish line I can honestly say it was one of the most exhilarating experiences ever.
On my to-do list is the Badwater 135. I have crewed it and will be doing so again this year, hopefully to one day toe the start line. It’s a non-stop 135-mile race through the hottest place on earth, Death Valley. Witnessing it was almost unbelievable. It was tortuously beautiful. This year I raced Badwater Cape Fear – a 51- mile race – which will hopefully put me on the right course for Badwater 2019.
And then there’s parkrun. Okay, this is cheating the question a bit since it’s not a race, but it is a great opportunity to meet fellow runners, enjoy being part of the running community and have a lovely run with them.
AW: What’s a typical day like?
SC: A typical day would involve getting up to get my training done. This can range from a short four-miler to a 20-plus effort, depending on what I am working toward. Then I usually eat a huge breakfast, take the dogs out for a walk and get on with some work – emails, writing, admin, or meetings/phone calls with people I am working with on various projects or campaigns. I have the odd photoshoot/event to attend every couple of weeks. Races can take up a bit of time too, as well as regular physio, yoga and cross training.
AW: What distance would you recommend people starting with for a serious race/attempt?
SC: A half-marathon is always a good start. It’s a long way to run but achievable. You can take in a 10km race along the way in training. Marathons do take up time and need commitment in training.
AW: What’s your favourite local running route?
SC: A favourite is a trail run. I live right on the end of the North Downs and there are so many great trails. Some of my least favourite sessions are the ones I have to do in order to get ready for races in hot places. These will involve getting on a treadmill in a heat chamber at Kingston University.
They are tough as you are just in a small room sweating. I have trained in 40C with 50% plus humidity. It works but the last few minutes always feel like an eternity!
AW: Tell us about your track sessions.
SC: I love track. They are such satisfying sessions – and short! I try to go once a week with a small group as it is easier to train around the track chasing people or being chased (normally the former).
For me, speed disappears out of my legs very quickly, and with the endurance running, it’s hard to stay quick. I’m not as fast as I used to be – but for me these sessions do really help. I will say though that the shorter the distance is, the worse I am; I don’t even bother with 100m reps as it takes me that long to get going!
AW: Are you thinking of coaching?
SC: I have just qualified as a coach in running fitness, as well as already having the leader in running fitness qualification. I learnt a lot on these courses.
I coach a couple of people (I don’t really want to take on too many) and my focus is on helping people step up to ultras.
AW: How do you stop overtraining?
SC: Because of the events I’m targeting and knowing that I had a lot of miles to do over winter in consequence, I deliberately gave myself a couple of “low” months in the summer where I was doing around 30 miles a week. And I built in regular rest days.
AW: How do you get ready for stage races?
SC: As well as specific heat chamber work, I’ll do three weeks of high mileage and then a lighter week. Last December I ran every day. I believe that running on tired legs builds up endurance.
I would only recommend this for experienced runners though. Otherwise too many miles equals injury!
AW: Do you have a mileage limit?
SC: I do think you need to build up to lots of miles. If you are planning on running a 100-mile race, you need to have some high mileage weeks to train your body, but there probably is a limit … if I start to get niggly I rest a bit more – and maybe swap out some run sessions for gym strengthening workouts or yoga. And there are times when I’m just too tired – and that’s when I’ve over-trained. It’s important to have a few months in the year where you keep things light.
AW: Advice for someone wanting to run an ultra?
SC: If you can run a marathon you can run an ultra. Ultras are much more about your head and attitude during the race. To start with pick a friendly ultra and just keep on with your marathon training.
A good tip is to do lots of day-on-day running and slow trail runs. Also try experimenting with food – you’ll need to get your nutrition right on longer races. Using gels will not get you through.
» For more information, see: susie-chan.com
» This interview was first published in the May 3 edition of AW magazine