Choose Strong, Don’t Focus on Outcome
360 YOU ultra athlete Sally McRae shares how she has approached the first three races (335 miles over 6 weeks) in her #ChooseStrong project.
This year, professional ultrarunner Sally McRae is undertaking one of the biggest challenges of her career. She is sharing her journey with as one of 360YOU’s athlete mentors.
Her self-made #ChooseStrong project includes five races of 100 miles or longer and a half marathon between July and November. The line-up includes the 135 mile Badwater, Angeles Crest 100-miler and Leadville 100 miler this summer. But there’s a higher purpose than competing or finishing for the 43-year-old Nike-sponsored pro from Huntington Beach, California.
“I’m not approaching my racing this year in the same way I have in the past. For many of us, the challenges and pain come to us in life without warning; and sometimes, without mercy. And time and again, it is there in our struggle and weakness that we must make a choice: to succumb to disbelief that we can’t go another step or to choose strength. You don’t have to be physically strong to be strong,” says McRae.
The project is designed to honor her late mother, who passed away from cancer at McRae’s current age. The project is a way of recognizing that McRae has lived longer than her mother, and a way of reflecting on the strength her mom chose. So, McRae will race one mile for every month her mom had been alive.
“Choosing Strong is a choice; and so I am dedicating my racing this year to those around the world who wake up each day with no option but to be strong; for those of you who relate to this, you know very well that we do not know exactly how strong we are, until it’s our only choice,” she says.
McRae says more events might get added to the calendar, and that she’s already learned a lot since her first three events.
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For McRae, one of the biggest challenges of the project has been her competitive mindset shift.
“For years, going into any race, I am competitive and I want to get on the podium,” she says. “So I’ve had to shift my mindset and remind myself that the goal is to finish the project. I want to tell a story and spread a message.”
She says this gives her enough flexibility that she’s not afraid of an injury or a DNF because those are both realities. But, it’s about making the choice to be strong again and again.
“I want to be really clear that choosing strong doesn’t mean you abuse your body, or you ignore the reality of what a setback and a challenge can do to help us grow,” says McRae. “We all envision the joy and wonderful things that come with achieving a goal, but if we don’t also consider the fact that there are going to be storms, hard times, heartbreak and failures along the way, we’re missing out on a lot of the journey.”
Badwater 135 & Finding Purpose in Pain
McRae won the 2021 edition of Badwater and was back in 2022 looking to improve her time and possibly set the course record.
However, McRae encountered an issue with her leg that caused her hip to lock up, making every step painful and forcing her to walk the last 70 miles of the race. But finish she did.
“Knowing my focus for this race was part of a bigger picture, kept me dialed and moving forward. I was going to cross that Finish line no matter what,” says McRae. She ended up finishing in the top ten for women, in just under 35 hours.
McRae carried a picture of her mom in the final miles of Badwater, drawing on her strength to complete the race.
“When I looked at the photograph with a half mile to go, I realized in that moment that the race I was about to finish was painfully similar to the life Mom lived. Mama was struck with terminal cancer in her 30s- a shocking truth she could never change. Mama smiled through her pain. Mama let go of her expectations & showed up to the one life she was given despite the ache,” says McRae. “When I committed to the #ChooseStrong project, my greatest desire was to spread a message of hope. A message that transcends races, medals and accomplishments. These are just races, but the parallels to life are many.”
Three days later, McRae was back in the gym working on strength and mobility to facilitate her #ChooseStrong project. McRae focuses on mobilizing her joints, and gentle movement to help with muscle soreness and stiffness. She also says she’s been incorporating light, post-ultra lifting in past years and a gentle shakeout four days post-race.
“The big focus is on recovery,” says McRae. “I’m really looking at my sleep, and getting my energy and mind in a healthy place.”
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The Angeles Crest 100 and Letting Go of Expectations
The second race in the #ChooseStrong project, Angeles Crest 100 (also known as AC100) is a tough mountain race (famous for being a double qualifier for Hardrock and Western States) that tops out over 9,000 feet above sea level and includes more than 23,000 feet of ascent.
“Like Badwater, each race represents a period in my mom’s life as I race a mile for every month she lived. This race represents up until age 20, which also happens to be the year she became a Mom-a very special year,” says McRae in an Instagram post.
McRae was in the first or second position for much of the race, until dehydration and blown quads slowed her down around mile 75. But, she was able to hike it in and finish — which had been her goal from the start.
“Sometimes, really big goals mean you need to let go of expectations and adjust,” she says. “This isn’t about accomplishments and recognition. This is about something greater.”
She didn’t set out to climb to the top of podiums, but to build real, authentic community.
“That story doesn’t resonate. There are no roots in that — in just focusing on outcomes and achievement,” she adds. “I want something more out of this experience. I’m looking to build community.”
Thin Air and the Leadville 100
When McRae was just five weeks old, she stopped breathing.
Her tiny body quickly turned blue in her crib, located in a hospital recovery room after she had had surgery. McRae’s mother, realizing something was wrong, cried out for help. Doctors were able to revive her, and soon, McRae’s mother was holding the tiny baby Sally, and they were both crying, and breathing in deep, gulping, life-giving breaths together.
The Leadville 100 represents the period in McRae’s mother’s life when Sally was born, and when they were able to breathe deeply together.
With most of the race taking place at over 10,000 feet, the challenge is emblematic of McRae’s early breathing struggle. The course climbs more than 15,000 feet from start to finish and traverses 12,600-foot Hope Pass twice.
With just 13 days between two 100-mile races, McRae knew she’d be under-recovered and would further adjust expectations. Nonetheless, she persevered and finished in just over 28 hours.
“Sometimes we don’t do things just because we’re afraid of not doing well. And I think Leadville is a race I know I’m not going to do well in. I know that it will be difficult, but I am very excited about the journey. The community is incredible,” says McRae. “There’s a lot of great things that are going to happen this weekend, a lot of amazing friends that are going to be there. But I wanted to pursue it not because I knew I would do well, but because I knew I wouldn’t. And that’s how you choose strong.”
This article first appeared in Women’s Running