This article originally appeared on Trail Runner
A few years ago, Sally McRae wasn't sure she'd ever run a 200-mile race.
"I've said no to them for many years," says McRae. "I don't pick my goals according to what everyone else is doing. I really like to pick my challenges according to what sets my heart on fire."
After years of mulling over the idea of a 200-mile raceMcRae jumped in headfirst, signing up not for just one 200 but four--running the Cocodona 250, Bigfoot 200, Tahoe 200, and Moab 240 all in a single year, 2023, in a push called the "Grand Slam of 200s." Only nine people have ever completed the grueling circuit in a single year, and McRae is the second woman ever to finish the slam. McRae also won the Triple Crown (Bigfoot, Tahoe, Moab) with the lowest cumulative finish times of any female participant, in 247:42:52 total.
McRae was inspired to tackle the challenge after her "Choose Strong" project in 2022, where she raced five 100-mile races in a season.
"I love the idea that we can try something hard, and we can go after and complete a big goal, but even when we accomplish that thing, it's important to understand that it's just another step," says McRae. "We have our whole lives to keep building on our goals and reaching for new things. What's so exciting is everything I still haven't done and everything I still haven't learned."
McRae had long been curious about the 200-mile distance. She says she always approaches her training and racing as a "student," with a primary goal of learning and growing from each experience. The "Grand Slam" offered a fast track to learning with repeated exposure to the daunting distance. "I wanted to get better as I moved through these races, hoping that, by the last race, I'd be able to put together a good race strategy and be successful," says McRae.
The Triple Crown of 200s, Plus One
The traditional Triple Crown of 200s combines Tahoe, Bigfoot, and Moab, but McRae, never much for tradition, wanted to start her season with a bang by lining up for the third edition of the Cocodona 250.
McRae has long been a proponent of strength training, and she logged extra time in the gym leading up to her race season with the goal of getting as strong as possible for the specific demands of 200-mile races. She also incorporated training with a heavy pack to simulate race conditions and continued to build speed and endurance with tempo workouts and hill intervals. On weekends, McRae would set out on four- to six-hour mountain adventures, pushing her body with the heavier pack. Cocodona was her first 200-plus mile race, so McRae approached it strategically, knowing it would run differently than previous 100-mile competitions.
"My mantra was to be patient," says McRae. While she battled blisters and painful feet, McRae finished as the fourth female in just over 87 hours. With only seven weeks between Cocodona and Tahoe, McRae's feet never fully healed. Instead, she prioritized recovery and honed in her mental game.
"The whole Grand Series was a lot about learning how to respond to physical pain," says McRae. "And learning not to beat myself up about one small mistake. It's easy to let yourself off the hook and say, 'This isn't my year' or 'I'll do it later,' but I flip the story on that and say, despite my flaws and the mistakes I made, I can keep on trying."
She went on to finish third at the Tahoe 200. Just 17 days later, McRae toed the line at the Bigfoot 200, where she finished ninth, an impressive top 10 finish after racing 650 miles in four months.
Making It to Moab
While McRae focused on process-oriented goals around learning for her first three 200s, she pivoted her ambitions to focus on putting those lessons into practice and eventually winning the Moab 240.
In the buildup to Moab, McRae did her best to focus on recovery, but she also "had to be a mom," accompanying her daughter, Mackenzie, on recruiting trips to scout college cross-country teams.
"I never had a full seven days at home during this time," says McRae. "But I just focused on what I could control and made sure my recovery and workouts were all high-quality and that I was present for my family."
She also focused more on speed going into Moab since the relatively flat and undulating terrain demanded more running than power-hiking.
"There's not really a reason to hike," says McRae. "So I knew that focusing on running would be a major part of my strategy. In order to put myself in the competitive position,, I needed to be able to run well in the middle of this race."
McRae's mantra was "patience and wisdom," and after running in second place for the first 140 miles, McRae moved to the front of the pack and held the lead for the last 100 miles.
McRae says it wasn't smooth sailing as she navigated pain from her already damaged feet.
"But I've gotten really good at knowing what pain is okay and what isn't to push through," she says. "Moab was all about enduring the pain, which was just superficial and not giving that pain life. I kept telling myself to focus on the goal, not the pain, because the goal is far greater than the pain I'm feeling right now, and the pain will end when you get to the finish line."
Always a Student
This mindset worked. McRae won the Moab 240, finishing in 86:18:33, with a low enough cumulative time to win the Triple Crown by more than 40 hours, finishing first woman and fourth overall out of 18 contenders. She says that, even after years of racing ultras, the Grand Slam taught her more than she could have ever imagined. She says staying true to her values and not letting sponsors or social media dictate her goals also paid off.
"Social media is really powerful in endurance sports, and we are living in an age where people sometimes feel that they need to run 100 milers or do whatever everyone else is doing to have a purpose, get something meaningful out of life, or their fitness," says McRae. "But, I've found that my purpose always comes from staying true to myself, finding goals that excite me, and being intentional about making sure all my goals are aligned with that."
McRae recommends athletes reflect on what excites them, even if it's not flashy on Strava or Instagram.
"After each race, I was surprised by what we're all capable of pushing through," says McRae. "I had so many moments of wondering: how on earth am I going to do this? But the biggest lesson was how powerful our minds are. Your brain has so much power to propel you forward, even when you don’t have feelings that are good. When you have emotions that are low or sad, or you’re feeling kind of lost, your brain has the ability to turn all of that around. That's helpful in 200-mile races, and it's helpful in life."
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