Sally McRae’s passion shines brightly
Even for professional ultra runners, there were plenty of lessons to be learned during the year 2020. Races were canceled, or turned virtual. Runners faced obstacles in their training. And traveling was limited, at best.
For Sally McRae, it was the first time in about six years that she did not travel from home. Although her family moved their home base from California to Oregon.
“Nobody’s schedule was the same or normal,” she says. “I really spent all my time at home. That's why we ended up moving to Oregon. My husband and I were able to pick up a conversation that we've had throughout the years, but we never really took action on. Being at home, you have more conversations, time and opportunity.
That was definitely a big blessing that came out of it.”
In most years, McRae travels every three to four weeks. Sometimes domestically. Other times internationally.
“The pandemic just allowed me, like everyone else, to slow down,” she explains. “I was really committed to staying positive because I feel like whenever there's a big challenge, I will always want to try and find the positive side of it.”
And that encapsulates who Sally McRae is – a beacon of positivity with an infectious laugh and an extra-large heart for the ultra-running community.
‘Running is a gift in your life’
McRae’s challenging upbringing is well-documented elsewhere. In our conversation, I wanted to focus on the lessons learned during 2020 and how they can be applied going forward for one of the sport’s top athletes, coaches and ambassadors.
As she talked about 2020, she reflected back on the lessons she learned as a girl.
“There was a lot of devastation and sadness, and a lot of people getting sick and losing their jobs,” she says.
“When I look back, I've had a lot of really tough seasons in my life since the time I was young. In some ways I was able to call upon that and really use that as a strength of mine. Because what I do know is that nothing lasts forever and no matter how terrible a trial may have been in my life or how painful it was at that time, I knew there was always an end and that something good was going to come out of it. I just tried to keep that perspective throughout 2020.”
McRae not only needed to keep herself and her family positive, she also needed to shine a light for her athletes.
“Just because you're not racing doesn't mean you're running is meaningless,” she would tell them. “Running is a gift in your life and lets you know all the ways that it's a gift. Take care of your body and appreciate the gift that you have to run.”
Athletes who stuck to training during 2020 will likely be in prime position to have successful races once they return to the start line.
“Through adversity comes great things,” she points out. “It really depends on the individual. We're talking about how people respond to adversity and everyone is different. I really believe that there's going to be two sides of it. There's going to be the people who refused to stop training and really took care of their bodies and are just chomping at the bit to get on that start line and race again. And then there's going to be the other athletes that may have taken more off days than usual, training took more of a backseat and focus was put elsewhere. They'll be using more of the beginning of this year to build up and to really get back into that groove.”
Strong bodies, strong minds
When the pandemic zigged, McRae zagged. Or zoomed may be the better description. To keep her athletes engaged and focused, she set up regular Zoom calls
“I used that time to encourage them, see their faces,” she says. “They're able to see each other too and encourage one another. Gathering them together helped them feel like they were a part of something that had nothing to do with a race, truly. I would just take the time to talk about what running is when there is no racing, when there is no big goal at the end of two, three, four months of training. What is it that we're doing?”
Like all running coaches McRae regularly updated training plans when races were canceled, or rescheduled or went virtual. She also took advantage of the unusually long down time for her athletes to steer them toward keeping their bodies strong, fit and injury-free.
“It was like going back to school in a sense,” she explains. “As athletes, there's so many things that we can work on. It doesn't matter if you're a back-of-the-packer or a front-of-the-packer. Whether it's your off-season or build-up or getting close to your race, there's always, always something that we can do to improve ourselves.”
McRae also points out that athletes need to work on physical and mental aspects.
“On the physical side, we focused a lot more on strength training, on being injury-free, on staying consistent with our workouts,” she says. “On the mental side, I really just honed in to the heart and soul of running and how running just doesn't fulfill us because we set a PR in a race. It fulfills us because our feet take us to beautiful places whenever we run. We have this ability to connect with people around us because of our run. We get the quiet time, the therapy time. We are able to improve our fitness. There are so many things that we can be grateful for in running that have nothing to do with the race.”
A social media pause
McRae joined others who took a hiatus to briefly escape social media during 2020. She stepped back for about the last five weeks of the year.
“The whole year was very loud. Social media was very loud,” she says. “I don't think I've ever interacted with so many people who were just stressed out and felt like, ‘Man, everyone is judgmental and critical. It's like I can't say anything right or do anything right. Everything is just so stressful.’ I'm just a big believer in taking a step back out of social media and doing things in life that don't need to appeal to social media, that other people don't need to know.”
Her break allowed McRae to have much-needed quiet time and rest. On social media, she is engaged with others, encouraging them, listening to their troubles and building them back up.
“The good/bad thing with social media for me personally, is that I really try to use my account to encourage and just love on people,” she says. “I could probably sit all day long and just be corresponding with people. They are sharing very hard stories about their lives and personal stories. A lot of people feel like they're stuck or they're hopeless. So they reach out to me. In December, I just needed to take a break from that too. I pour so much of myself out into people I know that if I want to be able to help and serve other people, that I also need to make sure that I'm rested and rejuvenated myself.”
But make no mistake. It was not an idle time for McRae. She fed her passion of volunteering, assisting with orphan care and at homeless shelters.
“It was a time to remember that my value and my life's purpose is so much more than having a social media account,” she says. “I just like to keep that balance. It was a really, really good time for me. And then coming back in January, I'm really grateful for the community that I have. The community that I interact with through my social media accounts is absolutely incredible. I did miss talking with people. I am happy to be back again, I feel rested and ready for the year ahead now.”
A new day of promises
Anyone who has listened to McRae speak, either in person or on a podcast, has likely been impressed with her relentlessly upbeat attitude. So how does the bubbly Sally McRae consistently pump herself up with positivity?
“I do start my day early in the morning, which is personally a really peaceful way to start the day just before the sun rises. I'm able to really graciously enter in to what the new day has for me,” she explains. “I really take my faith seriously. I like to pray and just really think about what a gift it is to be able to wake up and have a new day. There's so many times when I look back at some of the most exciting events in my life, I didn't know that those things were going to happen. I just thought it was an ordinary day. I like to take time and just really sit with a hopeful heart and wonder, ‘What are the good things that are going to come from today?’"
Those early peaceful mornings set up McRae to handle whatever the day throws at her, good, bad or somewhere in between.
“It could end up being a totally terrible, horrible day, which we all have those,” she admits. “But I know that I'm well-equipped for it when it happens. So, that practice came to me when I was a teenager, when I was going through some really rough seasons in my life. I was 17, watched my mom die and I became a guardian at 18. There were just so many things that changed my life at a young age, and faith was such a big part of my mom's life and seeing how strong she was in some of the most painful, sad situations, that really inspired me to live my life the same way.”
From her early losses, McRae has built hope, resiliency and so much more.
“Due to losing a lot of people when I was young, I always have this at the forefront of my mind of just how truly precious life is,” she says. “At any moment mine could be over. I know there's that idea of life should be fun. I understand that. But I also have this sense of strong responsibility that I feel for my life. I want to live it to the fullest. I want to live out my purpose in the strongest, most powerful and impacting way. I really believe every person on the planet has a unique purpose for being here. I've always wanted to know what that is and how I can do it the best way that I can. I've found that over the years, even from the time I was a little girl, I really love people.”
From the time she awakes each day, her heart is full and focused on others.
“I have a big heart for the lost and the broken-hearted, and those that feel forgotten and unseen,” she says. “That resonates with me so much, having grown up in the kind of house that I grew up in. Starting at a really young age, I just started going into those areas around the world and seeing how I could reach people. That is really always my mindset when I get up in the morning. What keeps me positive is knowing that, despite everything going on in the world and how dismal things can feel at times and how out of control we can feel, we can always, always take up time and be effective just by loving people. There's nothing more fulfilling than that for me. I love trying to look for ways that I can do that. That's my passion.”
The pandemic’s impact
For some of those who have overcome major challenges, getting through the pandemic may seem less formidable than for others.
“Being a coach for a while has shown me that people who have had real-life trials, not so much challenges like in a race or in their training, they do tend to race a little bit differently than people that maybe haven't had significant challenges in their life,” she says. “I learned that something like a pandemic brings a lot out of us. It put fear in front of us and really forced us to ask ourselves, ‘Where do you find your value in your life and who you are as a person?’"
For runners who have not faced challenging real-life obstacles, the pandemic was rough, she says.
“It made people feel lost. It made people feel like they didn't have a purpose,” she explains. “But then I would see other runners that, man, they were just taking it in stride and doing all they could in their communities and staying positive. As far as the ultra running community, what was so beautiful is that the community came together, encouraging each other online.”
The year ahead
This year McRae is hopeful to get back on the road, er trail, and compete at races like Badwater, which she was supposed to run in 2020 but was canceled. She also hopes to compete at UTMB this summer.
“We shall see how the rest of the year goes, but right now those are the two primary ones,” says McRae, who is also considering races in Iceland, Italy, Switzerland and a couple in Canada.
Like many runners, she is ready to get back to racing.
“I'm excited to see what happens as a result of not being able to race for a year,” McRae says. “I think we'll be surprised on both sides, both seeing new athletes come up or new athletes do things that they've never done before. Because 2020 has allowed people to really think about what running means to them and the importance. Like any challenge it's going to challenge you mentally more than it is physically. The brain is so powerful in the sports. Whether you wanted to or not, the year of COVID tested us mentally. Some people got stronger because of it. Bring on the world records and PRs.”
Name: Sally McRae
Hometown: Costa Mesa, Calif.
Number of years running: 30
How many miles a week do you typically run: 90-110
Point of pride: I love being a mom.
Favorite race distance: 100 miles
Favorite pre-race or training food/drink: Peanut butter toast, topped with sliced bananas and cinnamon.
Favorite piece of gear: UltrAspire Race Belt and Nike Trail Pegasus 2 Gore Tex shoe
Favorite or inspirational song to run to: First Love, Kari Jobe
Favorite or inspirational mantra/phrase: Keep Your Heart Up
Where can other runners connect or follow you:
• Website: sallymcrae.com
• Instagram: @yellowrunner
• Facebook: Yellow Runner