July 2011, Madagascar: After reading about ultrarunning in an in-flight magazine, Suzanne “Sunny” Stroeer thought whoever did races beyond marathon length (26.2 miles) was crazy. Four months later, at 2 a.m., she was standing at the starting line of a 100-kilometer (62 miles) competition, lined up next to French ex-pats and local Malagasy runners.
A marching band played out of the back of a pickup truck.
Although she had completed a marathon a few months before, Stroeer hadn’t approached that distance since. She had learned about the ultra event only three weeks before race day and was utterly unprepared. “I ran the race in repurposed city sneaks and borrowed a running pack from a friend,” she told GrindTV from a climbing gym in Boulder, Colorado.
The borrowed pack didn’t even have a built-in water bladder, and she became badly dehydrated. After 35 miles, Stroeer collapsed on an exposed hillside, too tired to swat away the flies that landed directly on her face. But she got up and kept going anyway.
Her motivation to enter the 100k was the same for running a marathon: She wanted to see if she could do it. She refused to allow herself to quit and finished the race.
In the weeks before the Madagascar event, Stroeer had volunteered as a consultant for Human Network International, which helps connect developing communities to technology, assisting the organization with their business-development plan. As a recent graduate of Harvard Business School, she’d accepted a stipend to work for a non-profit.
“It felt isolated and I hated my empty apartment,” Stroeer remembers. Ultrarunning gave her life new meaning.
Soon after completing the Madagascar 100k, she began running multiple races each season, building up to several hundred-milers, including the iconic U.S. Western States Endurance Run. Over time, mountain running and picking her own objectives became her primary focus instead of sanctioned events.
Since 2011, Stroeer has added rock climbing and mountaineering to her repertoire. She’s climbed big walls in Utah’s Zion National Park and California’s Yosemite Valley and has completed long alpine climbs in the Canadian Bugaboos.
In 2015, four years after her first 100k, Stroeer quit the consulting world. The 90-hour weeks and the disconnection from the physical world were driving her crazy. “The neon lights, constant conference calls and frenzy were too much,” she says.
As a child, Stroeer usually kept her face in a book, but with the end of her consulting life, she made up for that lost time outdoors. She sold most of her belongings, downsized from her apartment to a Chevy Astro van that she could sleep and cook in and set off for a life of full-time adventure.
Today she’s a sponsored athlete for Adidas Outdoor and PowerBar.
On Jan. 23, 2017, Stroeer set the women’s speed-climbing record on the highest peak outside of Asia: Aconcagua, in Argentina, at 22,838 feet. The 6-mile slog from advanced base camp took her 8 hours, 47 minutes — 29 minutes faster than the previous record. A few weeks later, this time teamed up with fellow Adidas athlete Libby Sauter, she set her sights on running up the whole mountain, beginning at the 9,000-foot mark.
After several attempts, they finally threw in the towel — 1 mile shy of the summit. “It was just too much for us to bite off,” Stroeer says.
After Argentina, Stroeer came back to the U.S., moved out of her van and into an apartment with her boyfriend. Her body is still recovering from a total of four attempts on Aconcagua, but she’s starting to climb and run again. She’s still committed to new adventures, determined to come back stronger than before.
“And better,” she says.
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