Runner Profile:  Susan McCartney

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Our latest ‘Runner Profile’ is a ultra-distance runner, an athlete who has built and maintained a strong reputation for pushing herself to the limit (and beyond it) each and every time she takes to the start line – Susan McCartney.

Susan, a Malawi born Northern Ireland athlete who now lives in England, has won several AAI National 24 hour Championship medals and claimed victory in some of NI’s toughest races, including the Mourne Way Marathon.  Last month, Susan made her international debut, representing Ireland at the World 24 hour Championships in Turin, Italy.

We had the opportunity to catch up with Susan last week…

Full Name:  Susan Mary McCartney

Current Category:  Ladies Vet35

Associated Club:  BARF (Belfast Association of Rock Climbers and Fell Runners)

Given the fact that you are an ultra and mainly an off-road runner, we’ll not dig too far into personal bests as such, but tell me some of your favourite races and your current course bests for them; 

·         Belfast City Marathon – 3:22:39

·         The Mourne Way Ultra (52 miles) – 9:13:15

·         Hoka Highland Fling (53 miles) – 8:26:53

·         Energia Belfast 24 hour race – 122.5 miles

·         The North Downs Way (50 miles) – 8:19:57

·         UTMB CCC, France (101km) – 19:22:34

·         Mourne Skyline MTR (21 miles) – 06:09:05

What is your favourite race in Northern Ireland?  My favourite race in Northern Ireland is the Mourne Way Ultra-Marathon.

When did you start running? I started running back in school when I was about 10 or 11 years old, doing cross-country but stopped during my teenage years.  In University I messed up pretty badly, went off the rails and got into all sorts of things I wish I hadn’t, running was very, very far from the world I inhabited at the time.  After that there were some difficult years, eventually after my second baby was born (9 years ago) I took up running again just to loose weight and get fit. It was awful! I used to struggle round a 3 mile loop near the house in Belfast a couple of times a week hating it! But for some reason I stuck at it.

You have made a strong reputation for yourself in the ultra-running scene with notable performances at the Mourne Way Ultra and the Energia 24 hour race, amongst others.  What made you decide to move towards the ultra-distance events? When I started running again as an adult and as I built up some mileage I thought I would like to do a marathon. To me that was the ultimate in distance running.  An extreme challenge only to be attempted by the super fit.  I managed to build up to that and did the Belfast City Marathon a couple of times. Then in 2010 I read ‘Ultra Marathon Man’ by Dean Kernanzes and something really clicked with me. There was something so freeing about realising these limitations were in my mind – I could just keep going! For me it was like a moment of enlightenment because I realised that the mental attitudes and expressions that you use to define yourself in one area filter across into other areas of life.  So if your attitude to running is ‘I can’t’ that permeates everything.

Until you are so bound up in your insecurities and inabilities that you become unable to do anything, afraid of change and restricted by boundaries that are all in you’re head! I started to run and as I struggled my way through longer and longer runs I was amazed at the effect it was having, not just on my body, but on my head! I was growing in confidence, because I was doing things that I previously thought were impossible. I was achieving something I had set my mind too and that was incredibly uplifting.  That confidence spread into other areas of life; relationships, I was more outgoing, more sure of myself; at work I was more assertive, more sure of myself, I was more fun with the kids, I had a zest for life that I had lost when I lived in the already-defeated-before-I-tried-state.

I’ve been empowered by running – given a new lease of life, I love it.  And for that reason I would love to see more women in the sport giving it a go. I think so many of us get stuck in a rut, life sweeps on with its pressures and anxieties and it’s so easy to think you ‘can’t’.  But so incredibly empowering and uplifting when you do that thing you thought was impossible.

Why do you run?  Hard question and I think I might have partly answered it above because it has empowered me and made me a better person. Running has been my saviour from a life lived badly. I’ve been purged in its pain and lifted by its highs. 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 get out 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 because I want to be in the ring scarred and bloodied and trying-failing often but still trying; rather than on the sidelines timid, safe but only half alive. I run because I’m inspired to do so, by so many bitter sweet stories of challenge and failure and triumph. I run to reach those emotional highs and even the deep lows. 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. But not only that; 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 now I run because its part of who I am and I can’t imagine life without it.

In 2011, during what was possibly your first at a 24 hour race (?), you collapsed after 12 hours, but returned to complete 86 miles.  I can’t help but feel that any ‘normal’ person (in the nicest possible way) would have pulled out of the event in that situation – what made you return and finish!?  Do you believe that that desire is important in long distance races? Yes 2011 was my first 24 hour race. Yes I collapsed, lost consciousness and was in a pretty rough state for a few hours. I thought my race was over. But 24 hours is such a long, long time and when I stopped and started to come round a bit I realised there was still hours and hours still left for running. There seemed no reason not to start moving again, so I did.

To answer the second part of your question desire is probably the most important element of ultra running. I firmly believe anyone that wants to can run big distances – you just build up to it. Believe me, if I can anyone can!! If you want to and that’s the key, if you don’t want it you’ll just stop, or you’ll not do the training. But if you want to do it – you will. It’s a hugely mental process, especially in the training. Race day is a buzz and you are with people and its easy to want it then; but keeping that desire and focus through the long, dark, cold, wet winter days of training on your own can be hard.

You recently represented Ireland at the World 24 hour Championships in Turin?  Tell us about that! That was an incredible experience.  I felt sohonoured to represent Ireland and be part of a world event. The Irish team were wonderful and welcoming.  I shared a room with Ruthann (my hero)and Eoin Keith entertained us with stories about his adventures and races all over the world. There was an opening ceremony, colorful and bizarre inparts; we paraded behind our flags.  We were cheered by an audience!! There was a bus laid on to take us from the hotel to the stadium! We got teamkit. Turin is really called Torino!

Sharing a track with people I’d heard about like Robbie Britton and Florian Reus was exciting.  And seeing people push themselves so far is really incredible.  There is a sort of raw emotional energy from being involved with people who push themselves to the absolute limit; even watching it is incredibly powerful. So being part of it and seeing the amazing performances, like witnessing Ruthann run until she collapsed was inspiring and amazing.  Incredible! And there were many stories like that a real privilege and honour to be part of it.

There was a solitary Mongolian – no crew, no team just one runner on his own. The Italian Mayor who saved the event from being cancelled after the previous administration embezzling funds, thanked everyone with such warmness and humility and handed out sponges soaked in water in the heat of the day still in his dapper suit and smart shoes. Ruthann collapsing when running in bronze medal position and the heartbreak of that. Small crowds of spectators gathered at various points at various times who got behind you. The indescribable heaven of eating an ice-lolly while running in the heat. The ramp up. The ramp down. The 360-degree turn round a cone in the road. The sunshine, the happy times noticing the dappling shade under the trees and the heat of the stadium. Seeing your crew getting sunburnt over the course of too many hours in the sun. Having two men dress you in the middle of the night.  Those small human connections, a kind word, a smile, eye contact.  My brother’s voice on the phone.  Feeling loved in the darkness.

Competing in a World Championship – yes, me – really! Dream come true.  And painfully, slowly, excruciatingly falling apart. The pain, you forget how much it hurts. Gutting it out. The slow descent into brokenness trying to run and unable to do so. The softly spoken kindness of Eddie the team captain, whom everyone knew and loved. Wanting to cry but smiling instead.  Salt encrusted face and clothes and cold drinks. The cool of the evening beneath the trees. The power going off in the night and the fire engine and the smoke from the nearby fire drifting across the track. Seeing some competitors carried off on a stretcher. The endless night the clock that never moved forward. Brokenness. The final sweet relief of stopping, all expectations over, finished.

After the race everyone walked the same and fell asleep on the bus. Watching the award ceremony and getting emotional for those who had done so well and achieved so greatly. The way the medallist’s hobbled up to the podium and second and third helped the winner climb the steps up onto the top spot and their joy of the. These are some of my memories of the event it was a wonderful experience, I feel really lucky and privileged to have been there.

Where you happy with your performance (at the World 24 hour Championships)?  No. I really was not. I made some rookie mistakes – I went out too hard and I didn’t eat enough and I really fell apart in the second half of the race. I’ve made these exact same mistakes before and I’m so annoyed with myself for repeating them. It’s hard to judge. At world events like that, possibly the biggest race I’ll ever be part of you really want to do your ultimate best. I knew I was running fast at the start and part of my brain was saying ‘this is too fast, slow down’ but the other part was saying ‘well this is what you came to do, you trained for this, its in the plan (I had a plan of what pace to run at every hour and I stuck to it – until I couldn’t) and if you want to get those big mileages you need to try hard’.

I wasn’t going to turn up to a world event and run a cautious race, I was going to aim high and either I would succeed and it would be wonderful or I would blow up and it would be awful and that is in fact what happened. The eating part – I wasn’t on top of it. I thought I was but I needed to have been more meticulous, maybe had a printed out timetable of what to eat at what time to help out the crew that were supporting me.

We got into the confusing situation where they were offering me food every lap. So I was trying to work out when I’d last eaten and what time I should eat again and in my tired race addled brain (which is not good at Math’s at the best if times!)  I got confused and went for several hours (at various times) without eating and ran out of power -that’s what it felt like someone unplugged the battery I was totally drained.

The lack of energy affected me mentally and I got into a very black place. In all Ultra’s you go through highs and lows but this was something very black.  I’ve been in that place before and eating, getting some energy in the system, has always been the way out, but again in my tired state my brain didn’t catch on and I just struggled on zombie shuffle – pretty terrible.  So I’m very disappointed with that performance and more then that I was really ashamed to be representing Ireland and performing so appallingly badly. I wanted to do the team right make them glad they chose me – but sheesh – I was just awful, and let them down badly.

What is your next race and what do you want from it?  I might do the Mourne Way Ultra at the start of June – I love that race. I love being in the Mournes and I love coming back home. It will depend on how my recovery goes and whether I will have built up enough fitness again and enough hills. Then hopefully all being well I would like to do the Belfast 24 hour. Put right the mistakes I made in Turin and try and get a bigger distance at least get over the 200km mark and exorcise the demons from the last very negative race in Turin.

When training for shorter endurance events it’s normal to train up to, or very close to the goal distance.  Obviously 24-hour events are different – tell us some key training sessions you implemented to prepare for the 24 hour World Championships?  I was lucky enough to have Ian Corless coaching me.  My wonderful, generous, super-fantastic family clubbed together and got me coaching sessions with him as a Christmas present – best Christmas present ever! His training was very focussed, so I did several key sessions that mimicked race conditions. I had to run at race pace in laps round the roads near the house, eating regularly as I would on race day. And following the race plan which involved breaking up the 24 hour block into 6 blocks of 4 hours and having 3 hours 45 minutes of running at a set pace followed by 15 minutes of walking.  I did several key sessions like this starting with 4 hours, 6 hours and the longest one was 8 hours. Any longer would have required too long a recovery period to make it worthwhile.

What is your favourite training ‘session’?  My comfort zone is long slow distance, which I’ve had to challenge recently to try and build up a bit more speed in my legs. I love being on the trails and in the hills, unfortunately where I live at the moment is very flat so it doesn’t happen so much.

What is your favourite pre-race and post-race meals?  Chips! (post race).  Pre-race meals tend to be breakfast (when your ultra running it is often an early start) – so usually coffee and toast! That question has made me wonder if I should be putting more thought into pre and post race meals!

During ultra-distance events, nutrition is vital – do you have a specific ‘in-race’ fuelling strategy?  I’m still working this out, still trying to find out what works best for me.  For shorter races gels definitely work but they tend to make me sick.  For 24 hour events I try to start with solid food.  Eating some fats and some protein in the first half of the race.  The second half becomes a matter of what you can stomach and what weird cravings your body throws up. My plan in Turin was to eat every half hour – something small so I was getting a steady drip of energy into the system. Starting with solid food and alternating between sweet and savoury and then possibly moving onto gels later on in the race when I was more tired. As I’ve said that plan fell away, that’s one thing I really need to think about and get right for my next race.

What would you consider to be your greatest achievement in running?  Of course being selected to run for Ireland was a huge achievement for me and a wonderful honour.  To be honest finishing any ultra race feels like a great achievement, because they never come easy you are always battling against your level of fitness, or your demons, or an injury. Or even if everything is going perfectly they are always tough, they always hurt! I don’t always win those battles or get it right I’ve DNF’d several times, so finishing is always a great achievement for me.  Funnily enough that first 24 hour race in 2011 when I collapsed but was able to get up from that and run again felt like one of my biggest achievements and something I draw strength from. I think physically you can’t get much lower then loosing consciousness so being able to get up from that and keep going is quite good.

What is your running ambition?  Tough question, there are so many great races out there. I love to have adventures, see new beautiful places.  For next year my big ambition is a plan to run from Mizen to Malin with my brother and possibly other members of our family to raise money for the Niamh Louise Foundation Suicide Care after a tragedy in our family.  It’s very ambitious definitely the biggest thing we’ve ever attempted and there is no guarantee we’ll make it, so any help would be hugely welcome. The logistics of it are also a big challenge and the raising of money and awareness, which is the most important part of it; we want to make it really worthwhile.

Do you like any other sports aside from running?  I used to play loads of sports when I was younger and had time and opportunity to do so. But now I don’t have time for much else. I did a lot of swimming until recently when I learned that it wasn’t that great for my knees. I do a bit of yoga and gym work and Pilates. I play squash with my son now and then.