Published on February 19, 2016
Susie Chan Interview
Susie Chan is one of the UK’s most talented and all-round distance runners. Despite only taking up running in 2010, at what she describes as ‘quite late in life’ (these things are relative), she has gone on to deliver truly impressive results on everything from trail and desert multi-day ultras to ‘conventional’ road marathons.
In January, proving her versatility, she stepped on to a treadmill at Kingston University, and set a new 12-hour world record by covering a total distance of 68.54miles (110.3km).
RunningMonkey caught up with her to talk about the record-breaking run, training, recovery and nutrition (warning: there’s lots of pizza involved)…
Susie Chan: This world record came about from assisting Kingston University in research they are doing into ultra runners. Part of the research involved an experiment running 50miles on a treadmill; I did it and felt okay! It was only afterwards a friend pointed out that if I had kept going I would have broken a world record.
I couldn’t quite believe it, as I am not the fastest ultra runner out there. I realised that it’s not very often that you get an opportunity to break a world record, so, together with Kingston University, we decided to give it a go! We applied to Guinness World Records, and six months later I was there on the treadmill.
RunningMonkey: We can only assume that training involved a lot of work on a treadmill; or was there more to it?
Susie Chan: Nope. The last time I ran on a treadmill was the 50mile experiment, and prior to that it was years before. I didn’t see what the point of training on a treadmill would be as it would only make me realise how boring running on one would be. For example if I ran for 4 hours on the treadmill, all I would think about is ‘I have to do this for another 8 hours!’ That’s mentally harder than running an ultra.
I knew I could do the distance and the time; so I decided to just deal with it on the day. As it turned out, after 50miles, all sorts of things went wrong for me. Who knows if more treadmill practise would have helped?
RunningMonkey: How did you approach pacing yourself on the day and did the plan pan out as expected?
Susie Chan: I just let Chris Howe, Sports Scientist at Kingston University, deal with this for me. In a way I preferred not knowing and just letting them set the pace.
We had the 50mile experiment stats to work against. One of the stipulations by Guinness was that I was not allowed to touch the treadmill – to lean on it in any way. It was a giant one too, controlled by a computer! So I just said if I wanted to speed up or slow down a little if the pace was not comfortable.
RunningMonkey: At what point did you know that you had the record in the bag?
Susie Chan: From the start ;-)
No, it was nerve wracking for a little while. We aimed for 70miles+, which seemed very doable. But I got sick and this slowly chipped away at the buffer I had. My pace was 70miles at 11hrs 15minutes, with a 45minutes space for loo stops. I began to unravel with sickness from about mile 55… it was tough. But, I knew I could do it. It was very stressful at the time though!
Susie Chan: No, I definitely wanted 70+ miles and I’m disappointed I didn’t do that. I’ve run further and longer, but I just couldn’t do it on the day. I did my best though, and fortunately it was just enough!
RunningMonkey: Tell us about how you fuelled during the challenge…
Susie Chan: Pizza, donuts, recovery shakes, bananas, watermelon, Haribo, full fat coke, and lots and lots of electrolytes. All the normal things I eat in an ultra basically! It’s always a bit of a battle once I get past 30miles to eat, but you just have to keep eating!
RunningMonkey: The record was live streamed throughout, did that add to the pressure.
Susie Chan: Yes it did, but in equal measures it encouraged me greatly too. As the day progressed, the amount of people watching increased so much, I was being sent all sorts of uplifting, funny and encouraging messages. It was brilliant, but then as I got more tired, I began to worry about letting everyone down. The pressure grew as I started to get tired… Then none other than Paula Radcliffe started messaging!
RunningMonkey: How has the recovery been? We understand there’s been pizza involved with that too…
Susie Chan: Pizza, always pizza. Yes, recovery has been fine. I felt really unwell for about 24hrs after; the sickness was quite bad, but as soon as that passed I was okay. My legs were not too bad, (I was running four days later)… I’ve not been on a treadmill though.
RunningMonkey: We usually find you in wilder habitats than a performance lab. What’s your preferred playground? Mountain, desert, jungle…
Susie Chan: I like the heat and the sun. I am not good with heights so mountains scare me a little bit. And my first experience of running in the jungle is coming up (Jungle Ultra in June) I’ve never slept in a hammock and creepy crawlies are not my friends…
The heat is certainly my preferred climate. I’m off to the Sierra Leone Marathon in May for Street Child, which will be nice and hot.
I am also happy running round in muddy trails.
RunningMonkey: You took on the Marathon des Sables again last year; can you tell us a little about that?
Susie Chan: Yes, that was my second go at the MdS. The first time I went was in 2013, and it was all about finishing and getting the medal. I loved the race, but found it very tough.
Going back in 2015, I put into practise everything I learnt from the first time; I ditched everything that wasn’t compulsory, and dug very deep on the long stage (96km). It all paid off, I managed to work my way up to the elite field and I was so happy with my performance. I’d like to go back again and try to improve.
RunningMonkey: Obviously the MdS is famously tough. Is it the fiercest thing you’ve tackled?
Susie Chan: It’s tough, but I find that races can’t be compared too easily. Terrain, weather, distances all make them not that easy to compare. You get a bit of rest in the MdS, but the lack of food is tough, and I’ve seen people really suffering with the heat.
I find non-stop 100’s tough for different reasons; you get so tired! The treadmill was essentially the toughest though – feeling sick and running against the clock was difficult. It’s not like when you have a bad race and you can still finish, but in in a slower time than you would have liked. On the treadmill there was no Plan-B; it was break the record or failure.
RunningMonkey: You have completed Race to the Stones too – that’s an impressively popular ultra that’s really grown over the years. What do you think the secret of its appeal is?
Susie Chan: It is the biggest ultra race I’ve done! It’s very well supported, and can be broken down into two stages if you wish. Maybe that’s why. It’s also well marketed. I loved that race and ran it with my best ultra running mate, Cat Simpson. We scraped top 10!
Susie Chan: My brother asked me to join him in a half marathon, as he was training for his first full marathon. When I finished I went up to marathon distance and two years later had graduated on to ultras. I’ve found it really interesting pushing myself and seeing how much further I can go.
Ultras can be very different one race to the next. The experiences I’ve had, places I’ve seen, and people I have met running, have been just fantastic!
RunningMonkey: If you could give one tip to runners thinking of stepping up to ultra distances, what would it be?
Susie Chan: Get out on the trails! Don’t worry about your pace too much, and enjoy it.
RunningMonkey: And you’re nutrition top tip?
Susie Chan: Pizza and full fat Coke.
RunningMonkey: You still seem to enjoy plenty of ‘mere’ marathons though. Your favourite?
Susie Chan: Boston. It was on my original bucket list when I started running. When I made it to the start line in 2014, it felt like a huge privilege. The race was just everything I expected it to be, and the crowds were just fantastic. One year after the Boston Bombings made it an intense, experience. The whole city of Boston was behind the runners. Every shop, hotel, and person in the street were all so welcoming and encouraging and, on race day, celebrated with the runners as the finish line was reclaimed back to the race.
RunningMonkey: And you’re pacing the masses again this year at the London Marathon. That’s a privileged and fun thing to do. Your thoughts?
Susie Chan: Ah, the VLM is a great race! It’s a huge privilege to be a part of it and I’m very lucky to be a pacer. Seeing people go through all the emotions that you go through in a marathon is a special experience.
RunningMonkey: Look’s like you are pacing the 3hr56min group so it’s going to be full of pretty keen sub-4 ambitions. That adds to the pressure?
Susie Chan: No, it’s no pressure! :) Pacers are running below their PB. I’m very much looking forward to it.
As pacers we have to keep it even across the race, so people come and go from the pack. People don’t necessarily run with you for the whole race. Although I hope some will be! I’ll be live tweeting from the course too.
RunningMonkey: Is there any such thing as a typical Susie Chan training week or do you like to mix it up?
Susie Chan: I usually hit around 50miles, some weeks more, some weeks less. I try to mix it with trail, fast stuff, hills, road. Sometimes it’s not easy fitting it around my job (I work full time) so often I get the miles in on a run commute (rucksack training!) Some weeks if I don’t have races lined up I take it a bit easier.
RunningMonkey: Finally, what’s on your wish list for 2016 (and beyond)?
Susie Chan: 2016 is now fully booked, so I’m looking forward to 2017. Badwater is my dream race! One year…
I’m also hoping to complete the world marathon majors very soon. Only 116 women have done it! So Tokyo and Chicago marathons need to be ticked off. I have New York this year. Comrades too…
Honestly, the list is endless…
Images courtesy of susie-chan.com – please see website for individual photo credits and ©