2019 Superior 50 Women’s winner Colleen Macdonald- Photo Credit Dan LaPlante
An interview with 2019 Superior 50 Mile winner Colleen Macdonald (CM). Interview conducted by Kevin Langton (KL)
KL: Hi Colleen. Congrats on your win at Superior 50. It was Please tell us a little about yourself.
CM: First off: Thank you, Kevin, for doing these interviews! Everyone has a story to tell, but the stories from ultra runners are especially fascinating. Reading your interviews is one of my favorite post-RSR race activities.
After living abroad in Azerbaijan, Russia and China, I moved back to the states to finish my master’s thesis (it looked at the motivations / barriers to Chinese college graduates accepting jobs located in or associated with Central Asia. At the time, I was hoping to have a Foreign Service post in one of the ‘Stan Countries, focused on economic development and business. So I wanted to understand—with China investing millions of RMB in Central Asia—if that was a place graduates would work and why/why not and the associated factors). Adjusting back to Minnesota was quite difficult and I felt like a failure since my goal of becoming a diplomat had fallen through. I needed a challenge and something to give me structure. Ultrarunning had always intrigued me and playing outdoors has always been my answer for most things in life. I decided to give trail and ultra running a try. Then came a lot of hard work, many failures, and even more adventures, all topped off by lots of joy.
And here we are!
I currently run my own outsourced digital marketing firm – which is far less exciting than it sounds and is also far more work than I’d ever admit.
KL: Please tell us what your plans or goals for the race were and how did the race play out for you?
CM: My running specific goal was to win. At the first aid station, Emily passed me, so I decided to settle in, let my legs warm-up and get a plan in place. I turned on my headphones, got into a groove (thanks to some embarrassing dance remix) and focused on staying on top of fueling. For me, I race better in the second half, so I knew that by mile 20-ish I’d be able to gauge what my legs were willing to do. And I knew, the correct fueling choices made in the early miles would pay back later on. I felt surprisingly good at Sugarloaf and even better at Cramer Road, and took the lead. The thing about ultras is that, it’s not over until it’s over! I felt calm and confident, but the work in the last half of Superior is all about focus and not getting sloppy on the roots and rocks.
The burst of energy from seeing friends on the trail, my fantastic crew, and the delightful volunteers, gave my legs some speed…though it wasn’t until right before the Poplar River that I let myself feel excited about what was happening. I ran the last mile very thankful and thinking expletive-laden thoughts of happiness. Ha!
There was a great group of ladies on the trail that day, and I’m thankful I was able to share the trail and compete with them!
KL: You stated that “it took two years, but it was worth it to be able to celebrate life and hard work in this way.” Can you explain what you meant by this?
CM: I’ve always said that running and racing is about more than just times and podiums. Over the past two years I had the chance to truly learn what that meant. I had my sights on winning Superior 50 mile for all of 2018. After last year’s 2018 race, I was disappointed in myself and struggling with embracing the joy of just being out there running.
Shortly after the 2018 race, a friend from my time in Peace Corps suddenly passed away. Then I miraculously walked away from a traumatic spinout that totaled my car. And then, Rhod (my partner) and I spent 4 months trying to save our dog, Josie, from dying. Finally, this past March, it hit me. That the challenge and the calling was to be able to celebrate life because of and inspite of all that. That the opportunity to race, to be healthy, to show up, to even reach the point where I can CHOOSE to run 50+ freaking miles is so ridiculous in the larger context. That all the pressure I’d put on myself was dumb. It was like a lightbulb went off. The times or finishes didn’t matter. When facing the eventuality of death, I realized how truly wonderful and improbable it was that I had these opportunities to race, to grow, to show up, to become a better version of myself. I could finally really see what mattered. And my podium spot was low on the list. What mattered was being thankful for life. What mattered was doing what was put in front of me. What mattered was appreciating the hard work. What mattered was celebrating life and all the glorious shit it brings.
So when I decided to run Superior this year, I knew I wanted to win. But in my gut, I finally understood what it meant to celebrate life—and I knew I was ready to have that celebration include a win.
KL: What best prepared you for such a race?
CM: Strides on strides, on strides on strides! For the past three years, the focus has been on learning how to run fast. I’ve reduced my overall run volume, emphasized quality over quantity and put in countless Wednesday workouts. This has all been under the direction of my coach, Megan Roche. Early on when I first started working with her, we realized I had no idea how to run fast, and we set out to change that!
The thing is though—that even with doing everything right, a race is a roll of the dice. Things go wrong. Things go right. While I’m certain there are a few more wins for me, I’m also certain of a few more races that won’t go according to plan. Accepting that makes ultra running so appealing and helps put training and race preparation in perspective.
KL: What’s something non-running that helped you at Superior?
CM: What set me up for success at Superior was mentally deciding in advance that no matter what I was going to believe what Megan and the community believed I could do—which is run a damm good race!
Physically, my training included a solid amount of plyometrics, explosive power movements, traditional strength training and 2-3 hours of yoga a week. The credit for the strength training goes to Kristine Becker—there were a few times when I’d look at the workouts she’d send me, and think “I don’t know how I can do this, but it’s going to be so much fun to try!”
KL: Did you have any low points during the race? If so, what helped you through it/them?
CM: I was lucky in that my low point was early on! I was running a bit ahead of schedule at Crosby Manitou, passed my crew on the gravel road and beat them to the aid station. That was mentally tough. But, I just resolved that it was not going to impact the rest of my race. I took a few deep breaths, focused a bit more and decided to stay calm.
Side note: My crew of Madeline and Kristine are the best. They are wonderful humans and I trust them completely!
KL: You volunteer at these races as much as you run them (and I always enjoy our chance encounters in the woods at them taking pictures and such). What do you get out of the volunteering?
CM: Thank you! Yeah, it’s fun to see you on the trail taking photos and finding a moment to chat. Honestly, racing is almost as fun as volunteering for me!
I firmly believe that everyone has a story to tell and I’m fascinated by those stories. So volunteering is a way for me to help others and learn a bit about their story—and hopefully, share of bit of that via social media.
The ultra running community—specifically John, Cheri and the RSR races—has given me so much that it would take years to balance out the debt, so when I can, I give! On a more selfish level, it’s truly life-changing to help others and see them reach personal goals, slay their demons, and find joy on the trails. Like, how neat is it that we can be a part of this community? Pretty dang amazing!
KL: Can you please tell us about running when you were in the Peace Corps?
CM: Oh gosh, there are so many fun, scary, amazing stories from running in the Peace Corps. Specifically, when I was living in Ismailly, Azerbaijan it was like running was a full-on, danger ridden, risky activity with little reward. I was chased by massive sheepdogs (and came very close to being mauled once), evil water fowl, drunk men, sober men, bored men and men who thought they could catch me. I was followed by cars,and even had a week where a few cars tried to run me off the road, and then an even more frightening encounter when a car stopped and the drivers tried to stop me and get me in the car. All that being said, I did manage to convince a few of the young women I worked with to pick up running!
KL: Bonus question: Please make your own question (and answer) that reveals something you think we should know about.
CM: I actually wanted to end the interview with a reminder to readers, runners and myself. I have this written on my daily workflow as a note to self and it helps me show up in work, running and life.
You are worthy. You are enough. The internal critic might tell you otherwise. Friends, family, strangers, the world at large might say otherwise. But know this. You are worthy to inhabit your space, your calling and what you are doing. You are enough and so wonderful; what you bring into this world, we, I, everyone needs. So know this, especially when it gets tough, especially when it is dark: You are worthy. You are enough.
KL: Thanks so much for taking the time to do this. And congrats again on an amazing race and much deserved win.