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If you only knew Sally McRae from her YellowRunner Instagram handle or her training app, you’re probably like me, filled with questions of how: How did she still have the energy to jump in joy after finishing the 250-mile Cocodona race? How did she win the Badwater 135-mile ultra-race in 2021, despite puking in 120-degree weather? How did she twice finish in the top 10 at Western States Endurance Run while most trail runners only dream about getting into the race? How does she strength-train so much while running, raising two kids, hosting a podcast and a YouTube channel?
Her new book “Choose Strong: The Choice That Changes Everything”gives a glimpse into these “how” questions. “So much of what I do now stems from my childhood,” says McRae, 44, who lives in Huntington Beach, California, with her husband, Eddie, and their two young children.
The book, which hit bookstores on June 4, is part one of a two-part memoir chronicling McRae’s early childhood, filled with both love and joy, and also hardship, poverty and physical abuse. As the middle child of five children with a stay-at-home mother and a father with a broken musical dream, her early memories were punctuated with many voids: the scarcity of clothes and name-brand cereal, the lack of a father’s unconditional love, and the ever-present financial anxiety. Fear often gripped McRae as her father flipped from a loving and handsome parent to an unrecognizable monster who threw a table at her mother.
The young McRae learned to survive in a chaotic household by being good: getting good grades, serving as class president, earning awards, playing club soccer–on a boys’ team–and working odd jobs to relieve her parents’ economic stress. When she was placed in a private school on a scholarship, her ID card had a circle with the words “not valid” printed inside it, because her parents couldn’t pay the extra fee for a special sticker that would allow special discounts. It dawned on her that validity was something she had been struggling with and constantly seeking.. It was something she had to earn. It took years for her to finally learn that “you were valuable the day you were born, even if you were born into hardship,” according to the book.
A New Chapter
If you think the book is simply about overcoming hardship and self-doubt, it’s only a good starting point. Sure, the young McRae believed in “work hard, be hard.” That’s probably why she got a boys’ haircut and was willing to win a toughness competition against her sisters by getting beaten senselessly by her brother. In the comment section of her latest documentary, Every Step Forward: Cocodona 250 Ultrarunning, there are plenty of comments on how Sally McRae is the female version of David Goggins. But McRae’s journey is more than simply one-upping hardship, in running or in life. She had to learn all aspects of resilience, rising to challenges while embracing all emotions and accepting help.
Her mother’s battle against cancer was perhaps why McRae’s message is more nuanced than simple “be hard” Because of the lack of routine healthcare, McRae’s mother was diagnosed with late-stage cancer when Sally was only 14 years old. “I wanted to cry and bury myself in her embrace, but I couldn’t,” McRae writes in her book. “Instead, I stood there, nailed to the floor. It felt easier to harden myself against feelings because what I was feeling was agonizing… I lied to myself and I pushed the truth away.”The only way McRae knew how to cope with her mother’s cancer then was keeping herself busy with school, gym, soccer practice and caring for her mom. During her mother’s final days, it was a blur with changing diapers, helping her to the toilet, watching her mom deal with hair loss, and seeing a hospital bed in the house like a sign of pending death.
“With her in my lap, I reminisced about the times she cared for me when I was sick,” McRae writes. “Times when I curled up on the couch beneath a blanket, and she scratched my back or gently played with my hair to help me fall asleep. She was always there, waiting to tend to me. And now, the tables had turned. With her on the couch and me intent on easing her discomfort, I leaned toward her ear and thanked her for all the times she cared for me.”
This tender scene is not unlike what Michelle Zauner wrote in her New York Times Best Seller memoir, Crying in HMart. Accepting the grief of slowly losing her mother to cancer was a lesson, because it requires relinquishing control and realizing our mortality.
Mourning Her Mother
After her mother’s passing, more family struggles came: her father’s brain tumor diagnosis, his subsequent surgery, and his arrest for child abuse. Losing her mother and her only protector already made McRae feel like an orphan. Coming home to an empty house after her sisters being taken away to foster care made McRae borderline suicidal. Yet these lowest moments gave her only one choice, strength. Because that’s the lesson mom taught her.
“I don’t want you to turn bitter. Keep being Sally–keep shining bright in all you do…” her mother had told her. She chose strong by embracing all the pain of losing her mother, drawing a healthy boundary with her father, and all the other imperfections in her life.
“Truly tough individuals don’t mind exploring their weaknesses. They develop the capacity to express vulnerability and pain without fear of being shamed,” writes Steve Magness, in his book Do Hard Things: Why We Get Resilience Wrong and the Surprising Science of Real Toughness.
McRae explored all of her weaknesses and expressed many vulnerabilities in this book. Writing it was a rewarding process, as McRae describes writing as one of her earliest passions.
“I’ve been writing since I was a little girl. I have stacks of journals… My mom gave me my first journal, and I wrote in it with a broken crayon when I was five or six years old.”
Running and writing have allowed McRae to process all her life’s low moments, embrace the pain and grow as a wiser and more optimistic person. Yellow is her color. “Yellowrunner is a message of strength and hope–to keep moving forward no matter the circumstance,” she explains.
In Billy Yang’s 2014 documentary, Western Time: A Western States 100 Film, friends describe Sally McRae as “funny,” “one of a kind,” “super kind,”, with a “loud, fun laugh.” “You’ll hear her before you see her or meet her.” Her latest Choose Strong podcast episode with her husband Eddie is filled with candid reflections, gratitude to her community, and loud laughter–the sort of laughter that ends with guttural sounds.
Many social scientists and performance psychologists have written about making room in our hearts for “both the joy and the pain.” In Susan David’s book, Emotional Agility: Get Unstuck, Embrace Change and Thrive in Work and Life, she wrote, “There is this relentless assumption in our culture that we need to do something when we have inner turmoil. We must struggle with it, fix it, control it, exert brute-force willpower over it, remain positive. What we really need to do, though, is also what is most simple and obvious: nothing. That is, to just welcome these inner experiences, breathe into them and learn their contours without racing for the exits.”
This is why the Sally McRae, now as a writer of this book, has given her younger self this advice:
“I wish she knew it was okay to cry.
I wish she knew she mattered more than drum practice and toolboxes.
And I wish little Sally knew it was okay to feel pain and still be loved.
It was okay to feel pain and still be strong.”
Sally’s writing is very much like her running: strong and purposeful. The pages are a sharp display of raw emotions. She hands her rage, courage, sadness, pride, joy…without a delicate wrapper to her readers.
“Like an out-of-body experience, rage put me on that bike seat, and I pedaled ferociously down the street. I cycled with such fury I thought for sure I’d crash,” she recalls about a particularly challenging scene from her childhood. “My emotions swung like a pendulum from pride for standing up to the monster to choking on remorse, thinking of my dying Mama.”
“It is a heart-hitting book, and I hope people resonate with it beyond running,” says McRae.
She holds the strong conviction that this book is for everyone. When asked where this conviction came from, McRae said, “My belief is that everyone is created strong. Strength is more than just physical attributes. It’s more than big muscles and toned bodies or setting personal records. Strength is an innate part of us… It’s how we learn to get back after falling. It’s how we navigate relationships, career, and everything else in life.”
At the end of this book, you might still not get how Sally McRae does all her routines or her back-to-back ultra races, but you might start to figure out how you can start moving with more strength in your own life.