For many people, the thought of running 250km through the Sahara Desert in temperatures peaking 50 degrees Celsius, whilst carrying all food and equipment for six days and sleeping in communal Berber tents at night, is not their idea of a fun week off work. But for endurance runner Susie Chan, the gruelling multi-stage race that is the Marathon des Sables is in her diary for the third time this spring and she is very much looking forward to this race she has grown to love.
On 7th April 2017 Susie will begin the legendary Marathon des Sables as the only UK female within a team from WAA, the French manufacturer of hard-wearing sports equipment and one of the race sponsors. Susie will spend the following six days running through the endless dunes, rocky terrain and salt plains of Morocco, facing extreme heat, exhaustion and discomfort in her challenge to cross the finish line. Whilst only 14% of race participants are female, making Susie’s challenge even more admirable, some 30% are returning participants – so we were keen to ask Susie just what it is about the Marathon des Sables that makes it all worthwhile.
“I just love this race,” admits Susie. “I tend to fare ok in the heat, which helps, and it’s a stunning location in which to run. The scenery changes rapidly over the course of each day and it’s very surreal and beautiful. I have also forged great friendships in my previous two races, many of whom I continue to run with now; you’re living in such close proximity, staying in the same tent and sharing such an incredible experience, that is naturally becomes a very engrossing and all-encompassing experience.”
If Susie makes it sounds easy, be reassured that it’s not. “My first Marathon des Sables was just about survival,” she recalls. “I took lots of kit and learned the second time round to take just the bare basics. The second time I thought it would be a lovely holiday with my boyfriend, but he was very sick with heatstroke – although he crossed the finish line as he had planned to propose to me at the end! I however had a great race and finished in the top 10 women in one stage. This time round I am very privileged to be part of Team WAA and my plan is to just go out there and do my best. Anything can happen, but there is a great support team of people helping you to get to the finish as they all want you to do well.”
If there is one thing that Susie is dreading, it’s the hunger. “As you have to carry everything in your backpack, you are limited in what you can take and by the third day the hunger really kicks in,” she admits. “You’re running on a few-thousand-calorie deficit and it’s pretty tough. Needless to say, when I get home I literally eat non-stop – anything! – for about three weeks after.”
The Marathon des Sables would be a big enough milestone for most of us in a year – or lifetime – but Susie has a number of big running challenges before she even sets foot in the desert. Her 2017 calendar stretches out with at least 2017 miles before her, the first major adventure being the 230K Costa Rica Coastal Challenge in just a few weeks. Susie is more apprehensive about this one than the Marathon des Sables, having completed a Jungle Ultra in the Amazon Rainforest last summer which she states was “the toughest race of my life so far”.
Following hot on the heels of Costa Rica is the Tokyo Marathon, and this is a race that Susie does not want to miss – or be too tired for – as it is one of the World Marathon Majors. A series of six of the largest and most renowned marathons in the world, Susie is halfway to completing the Abbott World Marathon Majors and 2017 will be the year that sees her complete them all.
With the Boston Marathon, Berlin Marathon, New York Marathon and London Marathon already under her belt, and the Tokyo Marathon in February, Susie’s challenge will continue with the Virgin Money London Marathon – a week after finishing the Marathon des Sables – before culminating with the Chicago Marathon in October. This represents an extraordinary accomplishment for any athlete, and even more so for Susie as only 120 women have ever completed all six World Marathon Majors.
“Of everything in 2017, my two main focuses are Marathon des Sables and the Chicago Marathon,” confirms Susie. “I’m really going to go for it in Chicago and try to get a PB – my current PB is 3 hours 23 minutes. I’m running with my good friend Sophie Raworth and we have qualified for Good for Age places in every race which is great. We have a good crowd coming out to run with us in Chicago – including my now husband Shaun – and the atmosphere will be superb.
“I’m also really looking forward to running the OPAP Limassol Marathon GSO in March. I’ve not run in Cyprus before and the course looks absolutely stunning, stretching out along the Mediterranean coast. It’s also very flat and fast, with potential for a good time!
“But at the end of the day, it doesn’t really matter what time I run. I remember why I started running, which is for the enjoyment, and I’m not going to beat myself up about my times. The important thing is to always try my best and to remain as positive as possible.”
This healthy attitude is echoed in Susie’s day-to-day routine and recovery regime post-race, and her advice will resonate with many runners. “I really look after myself in between races,” Susie says. “It’s important to be kind to yourself. I sleep well, I eat well, I take lots of baths, I go to the gym spa which has salt rooms, and if I have any injuries I just ease up. I’m religious about rest days between training. I’m actually quite lazy when I’m not running, if I have to be honest!” she laughs.
Laziness is totally allowed, as is lots of chocolate cake, we can’t help but think – but Susie’s idea of laziness still includes plenty of fun weekend runs with friends. She has a much more relaxed approach in the summer and, as many of her friends are runners, they often get together to run and catch up, and enjoy the sport they love.
Humble, inspiring and extremely down-to-earth despite her super-human athleticism, Susie is one to watch this year – and a brilliant icon for anyone considering lacing up their running shoes and giving it a go.
Visit http://www.susie-chan.com/about to find out more about Susie and her upcoming events for 2017. Only 1850 of her 2017 miles to go!
Susie commentated at the inaugural Manchester Half Marathon in 2016 and will be commentating at the 2017 Vitality Bath Half Marathon. She is a regular speaker at expos, seminars and running clubs, conducts television and radio interviews and contributes to fitness magazines, podcasts and websites.