Susan we have known each other for a few years now after meeting one another while running the Old Pueblo 50 Miler. It is not the most normal way of meeting someone new, but it sure as hell leads to an awesome story. You are so much more than just a phenomenal runner. I am very excited to share your story with everyone!
I’m so glad we met. You’re an inspiring to me and the kind of person I’m glad to know and hang out with.
So in a nutshell who is Susan Donnelly?
Nutshell? That’s a tough question. I guess for purposes of this interview, I’ll answer with two roles: a long-time ultra runner and a life coach for athletes. Both are passions of mine and I combine them to help other athletically-inclined people change their lives.
Otherwise, a friend described me recently as “Zen and tough as nails,” which is probably the closest I can get to a nutshell. I’m an adventurer, an optimist, a survivor, an athlete, a big-picture thinker, a lover of ideas, and a deeply spiritual person.
If you asked me for my personal motto, it would probably be “What CAN I do?” I learned early to flow like water around obstacles and limits.
I have heard that you regularly run 50-100 miles on the weekends, that is very impressive. Have you suffered any serious injuries? If so what happened? If not is there any specific things that you do to stay injury free?
My spreadsheet says I’ve officially finished 194 ultra marathons of various lengths, 70 of which are 100-milers, my favorite distance.
All in all, I’m blessed to be relatively injury free. It’s not that I’m biomechanically perfect – far from it. One hip is slightly higher than another and one foot was in a cast when I was little.
If I have a secret, it’s that although I race a lot, I don’t “race” every race. I love going to races because I love to see new places, meet new people and experience life. Sometimes I’m just there for the fun of it, or to get a workout for another bigger or more important race, and sometimes to actually race. And sometimes I don’t know until I start. But overall, I’m in this sport for the life-long haul, so that’s how I approach it. I love ultrarunning and I want to be doing this as much of my life as I can.
The most serious injury that has affected my running is actually not from running – a slipped disk in my neck. It put me overnight into chronic, unmanageable pain and I could barely walk or get comfortable. I worried that I’d never run again, much less run trails or 100-mlers. Thankfully, I found a great physical therapist who got me well enough that I could resume my life pain-free though I have to be careful not to re-injure it. So I have to be careful about how I bend my neck down, which is unhandy in 100-mile races when I spend miles looking down at the ground, especially when I’m wearing a headlamp at night. I also can’t lift heavy things like I used to.
As far as re-curring running injuries, I only have two. One is where my sacroiliac joint slips out of place, usually from over-using my glute-hamstring muscles and/or tripping. It slips out of place and limits the power I get from that leg, and knots up my stride. It’s even put me on crutches once. Thank goodness I have a great sports chiropractor. As prevention, I do ab work and lunges to balance the strength of my glutes and hamstrings.
My other re-curring injury is plantar fasciitis. It reappears every 6-10 years and if I don’t take preventive measures when I first sense it coming on, it spirals out of hand and takes FOREVER to go away. I recently recovered from a year-long bout. To prevent it, I wear shoes with good arch support, use orthotics in my running shoes, and stretch my arch and calf muscles on a daily basis.
I’ve fallen a couple of times in trail races and broken/separated ribs and broken a bone in my hand, and I occasionally sprain my ankle sprains but those are all pretty transitory and although they might sound epic, they’re small in the big picture of things.
Ultra endurance training takes quite the toll on your body, what kind of diet do you maintain before,during and after training?
First, let me say that I wish I had you cooking for my me and my boyfriend. That would be the ultimate luxury in my book!
Thanks to my mother, I grew up eating healthy and have a low tolerance for junk. On the odd occasion I think I want a donut or something fried, the reality after a couple of bites is a let-down.
I gave up eating red meat in college over two decades ago. I was eating a lot of it because I worked at a hamburger and I felt bad. I finally connected the two one day and that was that. I just quit. Over the years, I dropped other meats and dairy in the same way – as something inside said I needed to do it – and am now almost totally vegan. I still eat eggs but most days my diet is vegan.
I keep a busy schedule and hate being tied down by strict regimens, so I eat what my body wants. Since mid-summer, I’ve been craving lighter food and more vegetables. Now that the weather is changing, it’s the same but with soups.
If I had to describe a typical weekday, it would be:
- Breakfast after running: Vegan shake with almond milk, along with vitamins, and berries or a banana in the morning, in a hurry
- Morning snack: Dark chocolate, the darker the better (80% range). I don’t like candy but dark chocolate is somehow a nice treat.
- Lunch: Vegan wraps (Amy’s) or leftovers
- Afternoon snack: Roasted almonds (and apples now that they’re in season)
- Dinner: Vegan pasta or rice-based dish from scratch, like a stir fry, that’s easy to vary and customize to what’s on hand and the vegetables that appeal to me.
Everyone knows that nutrition is super important when you are doing the events that you are doing, what does your race day nutrition look like?
I’m somewhat causal about race day too, which is okay because I naturally crave what feels good to my body and what’s good for it. I used to start with oatmeal but that can be too difficult and time-consuming when I’m traveling, so I usually have a Bonk Bar and a banana – light but satisfying. I don’t want to start a race when my body is trying to digest a heavy breakfast.
During races, I use GU a lot because it works but I’m really trying to get away from the simple sugars to something a little healthier, and hopefully a little easier on my digestion. I don’t usually have stomach problems during a race but my body can only handle so many hours of sugar intake, including drinks like Gatorade, without side effects. And frankly, after hours of eating sweet stuff, it becomes a chore to make myself eat more.
What works for a long race is to balance the GU and sweet stuff with potato chips or something solid and salty from the aid station table. I’m also experimenting with other gels and portable foods at the moment. There are a lot of new and interesting options out there.
What keeps you coming back to the ultra distance races, whats the appeal to you?
I’m still trying to put this in words that match the totality of it, but it’s some combination of the challenge and transforming experience, and renewal. There’s no way to go through this without being affected in mind, body, and soul. I get so much out of it. Strength, understanding, and an immediate connection with all that is.
When times get tough on the race course how do you stay positive and keep moving forward?
I have a couple of coaching tools that I use. It helps that most of my races are on trail, from Point A to Point B, where I’m too curious about what’s around the corner to stop. Even if I’ve run the race before, I usually want to see the places I remember that are ahead on the trail.
Loop courses are another matter.
I have some good coaching tools that I use routinely, but if all else fails, I remember how it feels to drop out of a race. After an unnecessary drop at the Massanutten 100 years ago, I decided that I don’t come to races to drop. I will either have to have a grave injury or officials will have to pull me from the course. I have enough experience to know that if I stick with it, I can pull out of a low spot.
A lot of people seem to have a pocket full of excuses when it comes to exercising and eating healthy food. What would you say to someone if they had a bunch of excuses for not exercising and eating healthy?
Ultimately, it’s their choice. No one’s forcing them to eat unhealthy food and on the flip side, no one’s going to make it happen for them. Start small, start where you are, but start. At any moment, in any day, they can decide to change. They can do it today. Now. It’s never too late. But they have to decide.
I won’t listen to victim-based complaining about it. Don’t tell me stories about what you can’t do and why. What CAN you do?
Is there any specific food that you regularly crave during an ultra?
Almost anything salty. I’m not a big sweets person. There’s nothing specific that I crave, but tater tots, spicy vegan soups, grilled cheeze sandwiches, and egg salad sandwiches and other unusual race foods have all looked like nirvana to me in races at various times.
Favorite post race meal?
Either my mom’s grilled cheese sandwich or an open-faced fried egg and avocado sandwich on mutligrain sprouted bread. I’m not totally vegan – I still eat eggs.
If you could choose anyone in history to be your mentor who would it be and why?
I learn best from personal experience, so I don’t have a ready answer to this. I guess Lao Tzu, who wrote the Tao te Ching, would be interesting to study from.
Whats the next race on your schedule?
Javelina 100, November 1. Then Duncan Ridge 50k, November 22. I still might squeeze something in between.
How can people follow your adventures?
My blog on susandonnellylifecoach.com, and on Facebook as Susan Donnelly Life Coach.