Solar Flair: An Interview With Sally McRae

An in-depth interview with ultrarunner Sally McRae.

By on February 24, 2014 | Comments

Run TrampSally McRae’s nickname growing up was ‘Sunshine.’ After talking with her, it’s very easy to see why. The Orange County-based runner and Nike Trail Team recruit radiates with genuine warmth and literally fires off good vibes, constantly, in all directions. The girl can run, too—her recent second place at the Sean O’Brien 50 Mile green-lighted a Western States 100 appearance for the summer. I caught up with Sally recently and was treated to a fun chat on tenacity, trails, tribulations, and triumphs.

iRunFar: Sally, you live in California. Tell me a little about that.

Sally McRae: I’d say California, the state alone, is so big that it would take in about 10 states on the East Coast. On the East Coast, if you go to New York and then you go Georgia… completely different people, lifestyles, and climate. It’s kinda’ like that in California, too. In southern California, we get a lot of sun and there is definitely the beach community and that’s where I’ve grown up. So I surf and stand-up paddle.

My buddy, Billy Yang, did a great video short showing that, living in southern California, you can be hanging out at the beach in the sunshine and then an hour later be snowboarding at 10,000 feet. They did this little video of them getting up at six in the morning, driving, climbing Mount Baldy—which is 10,064 feet—and it was just snow and wind. It’s really cold and their in beanies and long tights. Then the video shoots back over and they are sitting out the patio of some diner, down at the beach—there’s sunshine and people are playing volleyball in the sand. It’s all in one day. So I’m definitely very grateful to live here for reasons like that.

iRunFar: Sweet. How are you feeling after your second place at the Sean O’Brien 50?

McRae: I’m feeling really good! I tried something new after the TNF EC 50 in December and that was taking a week after the race to do nothing. I did that this time, too, and typically I wouldn’t do that. I’d usually take a day or two off and then get out for some lazy jogging and kinda’ shake the legs out. I thought this time that I was going to try and do a really solid recovery because I wanted to get back into training feeling strong. So I did that after Sean O’Brien. I did a couple of gym sessions. I have some self-physical-therapy routines that I do to keep my body balanced and strong. I did a little bit of that and then I started training again a week after Sean O’Brien. It’s been good, I have seven weeks until Lake Sonoma, so I’ve been focusing on more anaerobic workouts. I’ve built up a good aerobic base so I’ve been doing a lot more tempo runs and just faster workouts.

Sally McRae and friends

Ethan Newberry, Billy Yang, Sally, and Chris Vargo after the Sean O’Brien 50. All photos courtesy of Sally McRae.

iRunFar: You got yourself a ticket to Western States, too, after your performance at Sean O’Brien. I’m guessing that’s your big focus now for the summer?

McRae: It is, yeah. That’s definitely my A-race. My plan was to qualify at Sean O’Brien… if that didn’t happen my plan B was that I had to qualify at Lake Sonoma. So Lake Sonoma was then going to be my focus. Now I just want to race well there. That race is so stacked; it’s probably going to be one of the most competitive 50’s of the whole year.

But my main focus is Western States—trying to get my body strong, staying injury-free, and just trying to gain an edge wherever I can. I think trail running in the past two years has become incredibly competitive. We’re seeing a lot more fast road runners coming onto the trails and they are just obliterating the course records. It’s exciting. I think they’re raising the bar and more people are becoming aware of trail running as a whole. I’m very thankful to be a part of it during the boom, to be a part of these races.

iRunFar: Okay, great. You mention the ‘boom’ and it’s attracting the big guns into the sport. You’ve recently became a part of the Nike Trail Team. That must feel fantastic. How did that happen?

McRae: Yeah, it is. Right off the bat, my initial reaction was, ‘Why in the world is Nike contacting me!?’ [laughs]

iRunFar: Was it a phone call or email? How did it happen?

McRae: Nike contacted me through my website. It was a very, very brief sentence. In fact, when I first got it I thought it was spam! [laughs] I actually forwarded it to a couple of buddies and was like, ‘Is this real?’ And they were like, ‘YES! Respond to it! You really need to respond to it!’ [laughs]

It was Nike asking if I had a sponsor yet. We went back and forth for a couple days after that, just chatting. Then we had a phone interview and one of my first questions was, ‘How did you find me and why did you choose me!?’ In short, they just said we’ve been watching you and watching the whole trail running scene and we’re getting our team together. Somehow or another I just caught their eye. I guess it’s a little bit of good timing and luck. There are a lot of phenomenal women trail runners right now that don’t have sponsors and who I think, performance-wise, are better than me.

At the same time, being able to be picked up by such a main brand, one of the most popular brands in the world, is such a dream come true, to be a Nike athlete. It’s exciting and knowing that, my training has taken a different focus and it’s instilled a little bit more confidence in me.

I took all that going into the Sean O’Brien 50, because there were some stellar chicks that I was racing against there, that I’ve raced against before and who’ve beat me, and I think I just toed the line and thought, ‘Man, I have this great brand who believes in me and I have this great crew!’ That race ended up being a breakthrough for me, being able to be in a Nike outfit, to have them as my sponsor, and to win the WS100 spot… it’s pretty exciting!

Sally McRae - Nike

Racing in the Nike kit for the first time at the Sean O’Brien 50.

iRunFar: That’s fantastic, Sally. It’s interesting you mention that it’s instilled extra confidence in you. I guess in some people it could bring extra pressure to perform but in you it’s worked the other way and you feel now like you can step it up and bring your running to the next level. That’s cool.

McRae: Yeah, for sure! I’ve been an athlete my entire life. Very competitive for most of my life and kind of a dreamer. I played soccer for like 22 years and I made it my goal to go to North Carolina, Chapel Hill and the World Cup. I was also a gymnast and wanted to go to the Olympics. I’ve always had this thing in me—I love training, I love competing, and I like to be challenged.

Sally McRae - soccer

Sally as a midfielder at Biola University.

Also, my life has been filled with a lot of trials, a lot of pain, and a lot of people that have told me things—when I was younger, it was that I was way too small, or I’m too poor, or there’s no way I can make it. It’s amazing how bold people are to put you down. Since I was a young child, I’ve taken that and turned it the other way. Like, ‘Okay, if you tell me I can’t then let’s see what I’m really made of.’ I’ve always had that fire in me to prove that, regardless of what we have, we can be resilient and chase our dreams, to keep that hope and not give up. Nike coming in was the boost that I needed and a reminder that we have to use all our opportunities in a positive way.

iRunFar: Where did your love for sport and your love of battling and competing come from? Was it from your folks, or upbringing, or has it just always burned in you?

McRae: I come from a big family. There were five kids—I have three sisters and a brother. Our family, at least from the standards around here, were pretty poor—I mean, I shared a room with all four of my siblings. Growing up, I didn’t see anything wrong with that; it was more fun! But along with that I also started working very young, too. I’d go and work with my dad when I was eight, whether it was stamping papers, or helping him lay tile flooring, or painting, or things like that. I learned to have a really good work ethic as a child. Then I started having proper jobs by the time I was 14.

Sally McRae and siblings

Sally and her four siblings.

Since then and right until now, I have always had at least one job, sometimes it was two, sometimes three. I think I’ve just always had that in me—whatever I wanted from life, I would have to work for it. My home life was a little rough around the edges too, a little crazy sometimes, so I had to figure out a lot of things at every level. My mom died when I was 17. Some other stuff happened, too, and I ended up being the guardian to my two little sisters by the time I was 18. I had to grow up really young.

I’ve always been infatuated with how strong the human spirit is and how resilient we are. I guess it’s always been in me. It’s just a part of who I am. I feel like, as I get older, that if I can do something in my life that’s not all about me—you know, just about crossing the finish line first or getting medals—but if I can pursue what I’m passionate about and in turn that inspires other people, then that’s a life worth living.

Sally McRae - on the trail long ago

On the trails with three of her four siblings and her mom.

Every time I’ve done something related to sport—whether it’s as a soccer coach or soccer player or running coach or runner—I feel like I’ve had this opportunity to connect with so many people. You know, if you go out on a trail run for five hours with a group of buddies, you naturally fall into a conversation that you don’t get to have all the time in your everyday interactions with people. So when I think about running Lake Sonoma or Western States, there is so much more that goes into that for me—there’s so much more than, ‘I want to be on the podium at Western States!’ For me, there’s got to be more to it than that. [laughs]

iRunFar: Well said, Sally. How did you go from being a soccer star to discovering running?

McRae: Locally, I would race little 1k, 2k, 3k races. I was pretty fast and would win all the time and when I was seven I had my first article in the newspaper—so I was always pretty fast. I was a big tomboy and we lived in certain cities where they only had boys’ teams in soccer. I grew up playing with the boys and I’d make the all-star team or MVP on a boys’ team. The dads on the sideline would be like, ‘Don’t let a girl beat you!’ [laughs] I was always fired up by that.

Sally McRae and her medals

Seven years old and showcasing her medals.

Then, when I got into high school, I stuck to soccer and in the off-season would do track and field. I thought any distance beyond 800 meters was just ridiculous—I was a sprinter. I tried cross country for one day and thought it was the most boring event out there, so I stuck with soccer all the way through to college and even a year after college. Then when I started working, I really missed the competitive side of things and didn’t really have anything to do, so I started running.

Sally McRae racing at age 7

Racing as a seven-year-old.

I traveled to China and the job I had was to teach these kids. We thought it would be for eight hours a day but it turns out we had to do it for 12 hours a day—it was insane. I love traveling and I was like, ‘Man, I’m never going to get to see the city!’ So what I’d do was get up at five in the morning and run around the city, as far as I could and see as much as I could. Then I’d come back and teach all day.

During that time I thought, ‘I’m doing all this running, I should set a goal for myself.’ I said that I’d train for a marathon when I get home. It seemed like a big goal at that time and everyone was like, ‘A Marathon!? Are you kidding!?’ So after five weeks back at home, I ran the LA Marathon as my first marathon—I finished with bloody feet, it took me four and a half hours and I was in a lot of pain. Shortly after crossing the line, I heard about the Boston Marathon and that you had to qualify for that and that just triggered something in me. I really wanted to qualify for that! [laughs]

iRunFar: And you did, no doubt?

McRae: Yeah, I started training again and at my second marathon I qualified for Boston. My third marathon was Boston and then I had my daughter. So I only had a handful of road races before I hit the trail scene. It was a journey of falling back into being competitive again. That’s really what I was craving.

iRunFar: After the road races, Sally, where did you first hear about trail running? What was your original exposure to the sport?

McRae: It was an article that I read online on Runner’s World. If I remember correctly, it was an article with Jenn Shelton. I was also reading a lot about Ann Trason. It was just all this extreme stuff. It wasn’t at all popular and it was very different. All of that, and the idea that it was on trails, was what really intrigued me. I started talking to a couple of people on Facebook—I knew nobody so I would just type in trail running to see who I could talk to. I would send people questions just like, ‘I hear you run on the trails, is there a training program that you have?’ People were super-friendly and would give me advice.

From there, I started to create my own training plan and decided in 2009 that I was going to start training for American River 50, which was in 2010. Everything I read advised to run a 50k first but I thought, ‘Why?’ I’d already run a few marathons. It’s only six more miles! So I thought I’d go straight for a 50 miler. While I was training for that 50, I learned about Western States and that the top three girls [at American River] would get a spot in Western States. So my goal was to run my first 50 and get a spot for Western in my first race, too! [laughs]

I ended up getting seventh and getting a few things wrong but it was a great experience and I never looked back. That was my first time running on trails though. All my training for that race was on a treadmill and on the beach. Back then I was afraid about running in the dark out on the trails on my own! I’ve changed a lot since then. I now go on night runs all the time in the mountains. [laughs]

iRunFar: Sweet. Being the person you are, it was only natural that you were going to run a 100 miler at some point. Your first time tackling that distance was in 2012, right?

McRae: Yeah, I ran Angeles Crest. Training for that race was one of my most favourite experiences ever. I learned so much during that time and really fell in love with night running. I was really hoping to finish on the podium of that race and get a sub-24 but I came into mile 74 with a stress fracture—so I ran with that for the last 26 miles. I trained so hard and I knew I didn’t have a race soon after. I knew it was going to hurt but I knew I was going to finish.

Sally McRae - Angeles Crest 100

Training on Mount Baldy for the AC 100 in 2012.

iRunFar: …and it was only 26 miles. It’s only a marathon, right? [laughs]

McRae: [laughs] Yeah, it’s only a marathon. Seriously, suck it up! [laughs]

iRunFar: How do you feel coming into Western States then, Sally?

McRae: Well, last year I signed up for Angeles Crest again but got injured and ended up in a boot six weeks before the race. I trained really well during the injury and did a lot of pool running and then ran Run Rabbit Run 100 but I got disqualified from that race. [laughs] I got lost so bad that I would have had to run an additional 23 miles to make up my mistake. If you run the elite level of RRR, you can’t have a pacer. I got disorientated at 1 a.m, it was snowing, and I was on my own and took a bad turn… a really bad turn [laughs]. So this will be an interesting race for me because it’ll be almost two years since my last 100. I know already that the field is stacked. It’s going to be an incredibly competitive race. There’s a lot of hard training for me coming up!

iRunFar: Cool. I want to ask you about your book, too. What’s the story behind that?

McRae: Yeah, the book is called Mourning Sunshine. It’s an inspirational/motivational book—encouraging people to live a life that ‘shines.’ Basically to live boldly the life they were created to live. It’s fairly raw, and based on several personal stories… some about embracing the letdowns or pain in our life as reason for strength, thankfulness, compassion, and hope as well as a section about the story behind ‘Yellowrunner’ (my name on Instagram). I think a lot of people will be able to relate to it on some level, but really, my hope is that people will be inspired by it. I like the idea of ‘lighting a fire’ in people, to motivate them to live boldly.

iRunFar: It sounds fantastic. I have to ask, where do you find the time to do it all!? I mean, you have your own training and racing; you’re a coach; you have two kids; you’re writing a book. Do you ever sleep?

McRae: [laughs] Well, let me put this out there first—I don’t have nannies! Gosh, I guess it just goes back to habit. Since I’ve been in high school I’ve had two jobs, played on two soccer teams, trying to get scholarship, and then helping out around the house. It’s just how I know to operate.

I get asked this a lot, especially from moms. I guess first you have to cut out things that take up your time—things like sitting in front of the TV for three hours. Three hours is so valuable! We all get 24 hours and I’m just very disciplined with how I spend those 24 hours. I get up every day between 4.30 and 5 a.m. When the kids are sleeping and you’ve no distraction, I can get double or triple the amount of stuff I get done when my kids are up and they both need me, you know!?

So, the answer is that I’m very specific about what I do with my time and who I spend my time with. I think choosing the right people to spend your day with or just hang out with it very wise, because it’s easy to hang out with people that just suck the life out of you. Yeah, so I coach and I train and I’ve got the kids and the house. It’s not easy and I don’t have a set schedule. I basically look at that schedule each week and try and fit ‘me’ into the blanks, whenever I can.

iRunFar: Impressive! I think you have the subject for your next book.

McRae: [laughs] Yeah, ‘How to do it all’!

Robbie Lawless
Robbie Lawless is a runner, graphic designer and the editor of His fascination with the simple act of moving fast and light on ones own two feet – and with the characters that are attracted to it – keeps him both in work and in wonder. He hails from Ireland but now calls Sweden home.