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  • Writer's pictureKarla

Meet the runner - Susan McCartney

Susan and I will compete together at the Anglo Celtic Plate 100k in September, assuming it goes ahead. As you'll read she works and trains incredibly hard. This interview really inspired me!

I am a mother of two and work part time as a teaching assistant. I run for Northern Ireland in the 100k distance and in the past have represented Ireland at the 24-hour distance. Ryan Maxwell has been coaching me for the past year and a half.

I used to do cross country running in school and loved it. Then I moved school, moved country, made different decisions, got out of the way of it, messed about (I’m not proud of that), life happened and it wasn’t until after my second baby was born in 2005 that I got back into it. At that time all I wanted to do was lose the baby weight and get a bit fitter. I dragged myself round a three-mile loop near our house, absolutely hating it!! Slowly I built up the miles and the resilience and somewhere along the way I fell in love with running. A year later I decided to do a marathon.

I’d never heard of ultra-running at the time, didn’t know it existed and I genuinely thought a marathon was the absolute peak of what the human body could endure. It was a probably a couple of years later that I read ‘Ultra marathon man’ by Dean Karnazes and my mind was blown!!! His feats of endurance and clear message that it was all in the mind, that you could always go further than you thought, and it was your own mind holding you back really hit me!! This was a huge revelation to me and opened me up to a whole new world. It was like a wall had been knocked down! Shortly after that I ran all night (that’s a story in itself!) and started doing ultra-events.

All my races from the start of the year were to build up to and prepare for the Anglo Celtic plate 100k which was originally planned for the 16th May. So, I had raced the Donadea 50k in February and pretty much the weekend before lockdown started in March, I raced in the Amersham 50k where I came first female.

Last year started off with me coming back from a stress fracture in my foot so I was only running 10 minutes at a time in December 2018. I got selected for the Northern Irish team for the Anglo Celtic Plate 2019 from a 100k the previous year (8:35:36) but as the Anglo-Celtic Plate was in March I knew my fitness wouldn’t be up to where it needed to be in that space of time. Still, I did what I could, and we came away with a third place team win and a time of 9:04 for me.

In May 2019 I ran the Belfast Marathon (3:10:27) and in June I ran the Energia Belfast 24 hour with hopes to get a qualifying distance to represent Ireland in the World Championships in September, but things didn’t work out that way on the day and I only reached 104 miles. Then in August I won the Round Reading 50k (4:11) and then a small race in Belgium when we were on holiday there and in September I ran in the Maidenhead Half Marathon (90 minutes). After that I came first female in the Thames Trot Ultra - 7:08:04 in October and in November, I competed in my first multi day event, the Druids Challenge 3 day - 13:16:31 - and came 1st female.

My training schedule differs depending on where I am in a training cycle or what race I’m training for. But generally, they pan out like this:

Monday: 8 – 12 miles steady or hill work (depending on upcoming race)

Tuesday: speed work or 8 – 12 miles steady

Wednesday: 10 – 15 miles steady or hill work

Thursday: 8 – 20 miles depending on training or another speed session

Friday: long run 15 – 30 miles or more, depending again on where I am in training cycle and what race I’m training for.

Saturday: same as Friday though usually longer by a couple of miles.

My favourite session is a tough question! I’m an ultra-runner so I do like long distances and that’s generally within my comfort zone but recently I’ve been doing more speed and speed endurance work which I’ve actually and unexpectedly enjoyed! I guess some of the longer speed stuff like 4 x 10k at 7 min/mile which is so, so tough at the time and you do think you’re going to die; but the sense of accomplishment and achievement gives you a real buzz at the end. (Don’t tell Coach Ryan I said that - he’ll make me do it again!!!)

It’s a strange time to live through. On the one hand I feel incredibly blessed and lucky because we’ve had so much family time together which we’ve really enjoyed. I’ve got lots of stuff done around the house and garden and focused on things that normally don’t get prioritised. It’s been a nice break from the busyness of life. On the other hand, I’m very aware that we are in a bubble and outside is this global pandemic and people are dying and lives are being pulled apart. I have so much love and respect and gratitude for all those who work in the NHS. And other frontline workers. I do miss getting out, I miss the children from school, meeting people and races. But on the whole my experience has been positive. If we hadn’t been able to exercise once a day that would have been a different story!!!

It’s really, really difficult to pick my best performance. Every time I line up on the start of an ultra-race, I don’t know how it’s going to go. Sometimes I can’t even be sure I’ll finish. So, every time I do and every time I do well it feels like the best one. Overcoming those particular challenges in that particular race. Usually the build-up hasn’t gone completely to plan, often you’re carrying a ‘niggle’ or injury. Maybe it’s the weather, or the underfoot conditions, or your tummy goes – there’s always something. Sometimes I look back on a race and I can’t believe I actually did that!!

If I had to single out one, I guess it would be 10 years ago, my first 24-hour race. Not because I did well - I didn’t even reach 100 miles. But because after about 12 or 13 hours in I lost consciousness and collapsed. I was put in a tent and everyone thought my race was over. My husband started packing up to take me home. I lay there and thought how many more hours there were to run, and how if I went home now, everyone else would still be running. I wanted to be there running too, so I got up and got going again. It wasn’t fast, just walking to begin with and it wasn’t pretty but eventually I was able to jog some laps again and build on that. I ran eighty something miles, on paper not a great performance, but the boost I got from knowing that I had been unconscious – physically you can’t get much lower than that – and yet I had been able to go on was amazing. It gave me a great confidence in my mental strength.

Like I said, every ultra, even the same one, run the next year presents different challenges. I’ve DNF’d (did not finish) a few and I hate that. That to me is the worst because there is always a reason to quit. You can always think of something. And it’s always there, that possibility, that your mental strength won’t carry you past all the pain and excuses and possibly very good reasons to stop. The worst is when your mental state lets you down, because physically things can happen you can’t control injury or sickness but mentally it’s all down to you. When I represented Ireland for the first time in the 24-hour world Championships in Turin 2016 I got a lot of things wrong; my running plan, my eating and drinking strategy and things fell apart badly! And part of that and part of the knock on was a deep, dark black pit mentally. It was awful. The only thing that kept me moving was the fact I was wearing an Ireland vest, any other race I’d have been out. And I say moving but I was shuffling along, barely even walking. I can’t describe the blackness of that but it was terrible. I learnt a lot from it. I learnt to start much slower especially in the heat. I learnt to eat and drink by the clock not by feel because you’ll never feel like it. I learnt the value of team mates and expectations to motivate. I learnt to trust my own judgement in race plans and then trust the judgment of my support team when executing them. Some of these things I knew already – but I really learnt them that day.

I love trainers. There are three brands that I love and wear at the moment: Hoka, Adidas UltraBoost and most recently, Nike Vaporfly which have blown me away but are back in the box for race day.

I love reading, I love reading running books and I have read a lot of them. But without a doubt my favourite is the one that got me started on Ultra-running and it remains the best book ever, ‘Ultra marathon man’ by Dean Karnazes.

I haven’t ever really lost my running mojo. I’ve been injured and miserable and frustrated and grumpy without running. And I had anaemia which brought my energy levels so low and kept my mileage really low for about six months. But mostly I love running, it’s as essential to me as breathing. At times you can get a bit bored, so I try find new routes, and I always like to have a race or some other goal to be training towards to keep me motivated.

I don’t follow any specific diet but I try to eat healthy plenty of dark green leafy veg and not much sugar. I’m always reading about diet too. I went vegetarian for a year after watching ‘What the health’ on Netflix and felt great, but I got a lot of injuries culminating in a stress fracture. And it was explained to me by three different medical professionals that for ultra-running, meat was important. So, I reluctantly eat meat now and then. But I still consider myself vegetarian for the most part. I don’t take any supplements. Recently I read ‘How not to die’ by Dr Michael Gregor and that has influenced me to take a closer look at my diet. I’ve introduced more beans, turmeric, berries and flaxseeds.

No, a running philosophy is not really something I’ve thought about. But, if I try to frame all that running is and means to me, I would say running has empowered me and made me a better person, it has been my saviour from a life lived badly. I run to be fit, I run to de-stress, I run to see new things or the same things in new ways. I run because it’s an adventure. I run because it brings vibrancy and interest in to my life. I run because when I don’t, I’m irritable and difficult to live with. I run because it gives me space to be alone and also to build friendships with people. I run to free my mind from limitations. I run to get outside into the fresh air and out into the countryside or up into the hills. I run to explore. I run because I like the challenge it brings, I like to push myself. I run to clear my mind and also to think things through. I run because it feels like I’ve found a niche somewhere I belong. I run to be engaged in life not just a spectator. I run to face my weaknesses and failures and keep moving forward.  I run because I love it and the feeling of strength it brings. I run because it is hard and demanding and painful and at times I hate it but there is something about pushing yourself that is so ultimately rewarding. And because it is part of who I am, and I can’t imagine life without it.

I think of the things that make you a better runner; discipline, patience, the ability to take knocks and disappointments and keep going, positivity, resilience, perseverance, courage, dreams and hope, dogged determination, creativity, a zeal for life - and these are also the things that make you a better person and that also seems to be a good reason to run.

I’m not passionate about other sports in the same way. I enjoy many sports, both watching and taking part and I love being active and being involved but nothing is at the level of running.

We’re all carrying some sort of niggle I guess. At the moment I have a bit of a heel pain. Very painful first thing in the morning when you first put your weight on it but alright soon after. Rolling, stretching, ice baths, and my wonderful husband massages it for me. Hopefully it will do the trick (finger’s crossed!)

You can follow Susan on Strava!

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