360 YOU: How Sally McRae Defines Success and Strength For Herself
In life, McRae has gone ‘off-road’ to find her strong on the trails and beyond.
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This summer Women’s Running is taking 360 YOU off road. Literally, we’ll be taking to the trails and learning about how to become more well-rounded runners. In a more figurative sense, going “off-road” is a way to push us outside our comfort zones, to embrace the unknown, and discover a new perspective on the present.
Sally McRae is joining as an athlete mentor for summer 2022. As a professional trail and ultra runner, she has traversed her own journey off road. From being the first female trail runner sponsored by Nike, to forging her own path as an athlete, she has found her own unique voice as a mentor to athletes who are looking to Choose Strong.
Sally McRae is an expert at carving her own path as a professional runner for Nike and a mother of two, based in Huntington Beach, CA. With two top-ten finishes at the Western States Endurance Run and wins at the Tarawera 100-mile and Badwater 135, McRae could rest on her laurels. Instead, she’s dedicated her career to a new definition of strength and success.
As a professional trail runner, McRae refuses to be defined by a single surface or distance, instead aiming to be a lifelong learner who aims for consistent progress and joy on both roads and trails. In a world that often portrays female athletes as small, McRae empowers women to take up space and embrace their strength, both mentally and physically. In addition to competing at the highest level of the sport, she’s also launched her own strength training app and is currently working on a memoir.
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McRae grew up running around Costa Mesa, CA, part of a family of seven. She fell in love with soccer at a young age, but paying for the fanciest cleats and club team entry was out of the question. Her mom was supportive of her athletic ambition and encouraged McRae to not let their financial situation dictate her dreams.
“My mom told me, ‘don’t ever let anyone tell you that you can’t do something based on what you do or don’t have, based on what you look like, or the gear you have,’” says McRae. “She taught me not to feel sorry for myself at a young age, and I just developed a work ethic and belief that if I worked hard, good things would come my way.”
Determined, McRae got a job and saved up enough money to buy the nicest cleats she could afford. Then, she nabbed a scholarship to play on a more competitive club team with some of the best players in the state.
When McRae was 14, her mother was diagnosed with terminal cancer. McRae had always been close to her mother and distant from her father, who was emotionally and physically abusive. Sports were one way she was able to earn approval in a troubled home.
“That’s when I was forced to grow up,” says McRae, who assumed the role of her mother’s caretaker in addition to working multiple jobs, playing soccer, and finishing high school. Stepping into the role of primary care provider for her mother forced McRae to be strong at a young age. She would have to often physically lift her mother, assisting with everyday tasks like getting dressed and going to the bathroom.
“I realized that that was what I had been training for my whole life. I made that decision. I’m going to work really hard,” says McRae. “I worked hard because I wanted to be a professional soccer player. But this made me realize that training my body was for a more powerful purpose at that moment: to lift my mom out of her wheelchair. I really believe that when we attach our running and our strength training to helping others around us, we can do some pretty profound things.”
McRae’s mother passed away while she was still in high school, but her philosophy of no self-pity and a strong work ethic, in service of others, influenced much of McRae’s athletic career.
Then Came Running
After playing soccer on scholarship at Biola University, McRae fell in love with long-distance running. She was teaching English in Tianjin, China, working six 12-hour shifts a week. McRae would get up early and lace up her shoes for a 5 a.m. run, to get to know her surroundings.
“I would just leave the school where we were living and I would run around for an hour, hour and a half every morning and watch the city come to life. And I learned about that community. And then when I got home, I thought, ‘Man, I’ve been running every day. I guess I’ll sign up for a marathon,’” says McRae.
So, she signed up and trained for the Los Angeles Marathon. After a grueling 4 hours and 25 minutes, her feet were blistered and bloody.
“I absolutely loved it,” says McRae.
She loved the freedom running gave her. Without the constraints of a coach or a team, she could run and train at any time of day. She became obsessed with the marathon distance, eventually qualifying for and racing the Boston Marathon.
“I think because it sucked so bad the first time, it became a project to me. I was so focused on getting better.”
After marathons came ultramarathons. First, a 50 miler. Then, 100’s. McRae was hooked.
Hitting Her Stride
McRae was surprised by a lot of the advice she received from fellow trail runners when she first dove into the ultra scene.
“I couldn’t train the same way everyone else was. A lot of times I was one of the younger ladies out there, and one of the only moms of little kids,” says McRae. “There was this perception that if you have little kids, you shouldn’t be out there running ultras. I wasn’t buying it.”
McRae started chasing increasingly ambitious goals and podiums, racking up internationally competitive wins at races like Tarawera 100, and the Cuyamaca 100.
“I had some success early on because I wasn’t afraid to fail. I was widely curious and I wasn’t afraid to create my own pathway,” says McRae.
In 2014, McRae signed with Nike, excited to expand her platform. While many athletes waited until after their careers wound down to pursue parenthood, McRae’s adventure began well after having children.
“I didn’t want to take it for granted. I wanted to dig in and really do something with it. My running is about so much more than standing on a podium.”
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After earning a Golden Ticket to the Western States Endurance Run at the Sean O’Brien 100K, McRae wanted to keep channeling her passion into bigger performances.
“That Golden Ticket changed my life because it showed that I belong here, and it’s OK to be a bigger runner. People always comment about my body, and this showed that it’s good to be strong. We’re all made differently. We all have different body types. This is mine, and it’s awesome to be strong.”
Now, McRae’s running is about redefining what strength looks like, inside and out.
Finding Her Strong
McRae hopes her success, and all the obstacles she’s overcome, will inspire other athletes, particularly for women to embrace what strength looks like for them. When McRae first announced that she had joined the Nike athlete roster, her social media feed filled with comments about her body, saying she was too muscular, or didn’t look like a runner.
“At first, it really hurt. But now, I take it with a lot of grace. I was made to be strong.”
Strength training is an essential part of McRae’s off-road running. But her definition of strength goes beyond what she can squat, to form a philosophy that drives much of her decision making in life.
“When we are in pain, we can choose to be strong. We can choose to be strong when something matters to us. We can choose to be strong when we love something so much, when we have meaning in what it is that we are doing. We don’t have to be physically strong, but we can choose strength in how we respond to life,” says McRae.
McRae encourages all athletes to embrace what strength looks like for them, whether it’s choosing the challenge of a 100-mile race, being a mom who’s unafraid to compete on the trails, or adding a bit more strength training into their regimen.
“So often, we don’t even get to the start line because we beat ourselves up with the training we didn’t have, or because life got busy. But, if you just tried and you didn’t worry about how you looked, you can do anything,” says McRae. “I’ve overcome so much, and it’s just showed me that we all have that strength inside of us. I want every athlete to find that in themselves.”