Endurance runner, Susie Chan has become one of the most recognisable people in the UK running community, with several ultra-marathons and endurance challenges under her belt. She has broken records and holds the achievement of having run the infamous Marathon Des Sables more times than any other UK female.
We’ve followed Susie for a while, and when she started to include her Romanian rescue dog Manny along with her training we were pleased to see him enjoying free running alongside – and in a DogFit harness too. An inspiration to many, we were delighted to chat to Susie and hear first hand about her run training and trail adventures with Manny.
How did you first get into running? Tell us more about discovering a love for running?
I only really got going in my mid-30s when my younger brother decided to run a marathon as part of his ‘bucket list’ of things he wanted to achieve in his life. He had booked himself into the Athens marathon, but also signed up to a local half marathon beforehand, putting my name down for it as well! I was surprised at first, but agreed to join him because I was in a bit of a rut, healthwise. I was probably smoking and drinking a bit too much from time to time and I figured that I ought to start looking after myself a bit better.
So, I started training and that’s where it all began. I turned up to the half marathon on the day feeling absolutely terrified. I had no clue what I was doing and wasn’t even wearing the right clothing for a run of that distance. I had on some basic gym shoes and sports kit from my cupboard. I finished the race quite far back. It was a trail half marathon – I didn’t know what that involved back then. I had become used to just running along flat pavements and roads. I ended up having to navigate lots of stiles and muddy puddles.
About nine miles in, I realised that, although I felt very sore, I was going to make it. When I crossed the finish line it was, and still remains, one of the highlights of all the running I have ever done. I dined out on the fact that I had done it for ages afterwards!
After finishing that event, what happened next?
I moved on to a 10K first, followed by another half marathon. Then, everything changed again when I joined a local fitness group that had me doing lots of burpees and running up and down hills. I enjoyed the buzz that exercise gave me. It was with other people from that group that I ran my first full-length marathon.
After that, I looked for more marathons and it escalated from there. I discovered ultra-marathons and read a magazine article about Marathon Des Sables, one of the world’s toughest races across the Sahara Desert. I thought to myself, who would want to run in all that heat? I remained fascinated by the idea and thought maybe, if I sign up to the wait list I can get some more information about it and then decide what to do. I assumed that I would spend ages waiting for a place, but in actual fact, I found out that most people actually get in from the wait list quite quickly due to so many dropping out. That was a scary moment, knowing that I would actually have to go through with it.
Why did you go for that particular race?
Put simply, I was intrigued by it. I started my training for it by doing my first ultra-marathon, running round the Isle of Wight. I figured that if I couldn’t run round the Isle of Wight, I’d probably not survive the Sahara Desert! The beauty of doing ultra-marathons is that they aren’t actually as hard as you might imagine. It’s all about pacing yourself and learning how to use your time to get round. It’s a great day out!
I had to get special kit for the Marathon Des Sables, including gaiters, which were stitched onto my shoes to stop the sand coming in. I’ve done the race four times now and having the right kit is essential. I am currently the UK female who has done it the most times, although there are other people from around the world who have done it more times than me.
Do you hold any other records?
I broke the Guinness World Record for running the furthest distance on a treadmill in 12 hours. My results went viral, so I didn’t hold on to the record for long, but it was an amazing experience. The first nine hours were fine and then I got seasick from the motion of the treadmill. I got through it though, just like my very first half-marathon. Endurance events like these are not just about physical strength or fitness; they’re about mental endurance as well. There’s a lot to be said about how your brain and mental strength can carry you through.
Another challenge I really enjoyed was running round a 400-metre track non-stop for 24 hours, which sounds rather strange, but it was good fun. It was in London, and my husband and friends came along to support me. They stood by the track handing me drinks and food as I ran round and round, cheering me on. It rained a lot, I remember, so I really appreciated them all being my support crew.
Talking of support crews, let’s talk now about your dogs and how they support you while you are out running. Tell us a bit about the dogs that share your life.
My dogs are my world! I got my first dog, an English bulldog, with my husband. We had never had a dog before. His name is Roy and he is full of character. A lovely dog. We call him our ‘recovery dog’ as we both run a lot and wanted a dog that wouldn’t need lots of exercising, so we could enjoy taking him for quiet strolls and walks and have cuddles with him while we recovered from our own runs. He turned out to be quite a nervous dog though, so we thought he would benefit from having a canine companion. We went for a rescue dog who is a gorgeous little Frenchie-pug cross called Peggy. She and Roy are very close. They always sit next to each other.
Then, at the very start of the first lockdown in England, I caught my husband looking online at rescue dogs in Romania. He asked if I thought we should get one and I said ‘yes’, not really thinking it would happen as we were literally right at the beginning of a global pandemic with borders closing across the world.
So, he applied, and just five days later, Manny moved into our house! He had already been booked to travel to the UK, so was ready to go! He had obviously had a difficult life in Romania and was terrified of us at first, cowering in our back garden. That was quite hard for us, as our other two dogs had not experienced the same traumas, so we didn’t know how to get through to him to begin with. However, we were determined to help Manny and set about spending lockdown coaxing him out of his shell.
Manny had never been in a house, we think. He didn’t know how to walk upstairs. He had never seen a toy. Quite early on in the rehabilitation process, it became clear that he loved to run. Once we were about four months in and he was more comfortable around us, I contacted DogFit to see how to get involved in canicrossing and free running with him.
What part has running with you on the trails played in Manny’s rehabilitation?
We started off with a short, one-mile run and Manny loved it. I have never seen a dog looking so happy as he did on that day. We slowly built up our distances and he has now become my running buddy. He has made so much progress.
At first, I used to put him on the lead whenever I saw other people about, as I wasn’t sure how he would react, but our runs together have really helped him with that and getting used to having people around him. He barked a lot at first, but now he is much better.
Certainly, the running has created a huge bond between us. He loves us all now, but he responds best to me and I can control him best out of the whole family. He can sometimes run off if he sees a squirrel or something, which was terrifying at first, but he always comes back to me. Manny has a habit of popping back up out of a bush somewhere! Running has become a big part of his life now. It’s great for exercising, as well as building up trust.
What kind of distances are you running with him now?
In an average week, we go out three to four times together. He would go out every day if he could, but he’s only got little legs so he does need to rest. We’ll do a couple of four-mile runs and maybe a six- or seven-mile run as well. Manny has done nine miles in the past, but ended up needing a lot of rest afterwards. I’m particularly jealous of how well he can run up hills. He makes it look incredibly easy! Sometimes, he’ll run up one and I will be taking so long to join him at the top that he will run back down to me again.
I’d love to do a half marathon with Manny one day, but I wonder if it is a bit too far for him right now. We’re not too sure how old he is, although the vet has cleared him as fit for running. We think he is somewhere between one and two years old. It has to be all about the dogs and how far they are willing to run.
What are your routines with Manny around nutrition and feeding on the go?
We do stop for snacks along the way and there are usually plenty of places for him to have some water. Manny usually needs something to eat at around the six-mile mark and always appreciates a drink when we finish a course. I keep a towel, big water bottle and bowl in my car for that express purpose.
How do you stay motivated to keep on running, and what advice would you give other people wanting to push themselves?
For me, it’s Manny who keeps me motivated. He gets me out of the door each time. I can’t go near a pair of trainers without him going bananas. If I am training for an event and can’t take him with me, I have to get ready outside so he doesn’t see me. Seeing him so happy is such a joy for me and my family. Manny and our other dogs have brought us a lot of pleasure during lockdown. I can’t imagine being without any of them now.
As for helping other people to keep going, I would advise just getting out there and having a go. Try to extend what you do a little bit each time. It’s perfectly fine to stop and start and go at a pace you feel happy with. It’s good for the dog to take breaks as well. Be consistent with your training and have set days and times to stick to. Most importantly, take time to look back at how far you have come and celebrate your achievements without comparing yourself to anyone else.
What are your running plans for the future?
A lot of races have been rolled over from last year due to the pandemic, and some dates have now been penciled in for this year or next. I’ve resisted booking too many events yet, as it is disappointing to have things get cancelled. I’m waiting for the summer when things open up further to start getting things into my calendar.
That said, Manny has just done his first event – a virtual challenge hosted by DogFit – and we are hoping to do more of these later in the year. I’m also looking forward to getting back to Park Runs and to doing lots more running with Manny.
We interviewed Susie for our Talk Canicsoss podcast which you can find here on Apple Podcasts.