Sunny Stroeer knew it was time to quit her job when she started hallucinating about calendar invites from clients toward the end of the Ghosts of Yellowstone 100-mile trail race in 2014.
Born in Germany, Ms. Stroeer came to the U.S. to attend Harvard Business School and after graduation was hired at a consulting firm in Houston. Being an ultra weekend warrior while working 80-hour weeks had caught up to her.
“I was burning out,” she says. “Racers would go home to sleep and recover and I’d go home to hop on client calls.” In 2015, she quit her job, moved into her Chevy Astro van and dedicated her days to trail running.
Ms. Stroeer, 34, describes herself as a high-altitude endurance specialist or, in simpler terms, a mountain athlete. “I was an OK ultra runner but a passionate high-altitude mountaineer, so I combined the two and now I tell people I try to go up mountains as fast as possible,” she says. “I love the psychological challenge and sense of personal discovery. It’s a physical test, but also a mental one to see how much adversity you can deal with.”
In 2017, Ms. Stroeer gained attention in the adventure world when she set the female speed record of eight hours and 47 minutes up Argentina’s 22,841-foot Mount Aconcagua, South America’s highest peak. She is part of a growing number of athletes who eschew race medals for the glory of setting their fastest known time, or FKT. Because it involves no sanctioned race, athletes announce their intended goal in advance so others can follow along and verify their claims via live GPS tracking.
Ms. Stroeer jokes that mountain running is a very slow sport. “The running part is kind of a misnomer, as the majority of the time you’re power hiking,” she says. “It’s taken me nine hours to cover 1.5 miles.” This summer she attempted and failed to set a speed record on Nolan’s 14, a route over the 14 summits over 14,000 feet in Colorado’s Sawatch Range.
She’s training for speedy summits of Denali in Alaska and Island Peak in Nepal and hopes to complete the Ultra Gobi, a nearly 250-mile, self-supported race in China next year that must be finished in under 149 hours. These days she and her husband make money leading mountain expeditions and move their van between Colorado, Utah and California so she can train. She hopes to land sponsorships that will allow her to continue her mountain pursuits.
When Ms. Stroeer lived in Houston, she would run 3 to 5 miles on the road during the week and do longer runs on weekends. To prepare for a high-altitude race, she would use a hyperbaric chamber and do treadmill and strength workouts at a simulated 12,000 feet to 17,000 feet up to five hours a week.
Now her workouts focus on three things: training at altitude, maximizing time on her feet and increasing the vertical distance she covers each week. If she has a record pursuit at 14,000 feet or higher, she moves her van to a location that allows her to sleep and train at altitude. For example, she spent much of this summer in Leadville, Colo., a town at 10,152 feet.
Spending as much time as possible on the trails helps her develop lateral stability in her calves and ankle strength, she says. During a peak training week, she might spend over 30 hours on the trails, covering around 80 miles with 28,000 feet of vertical gain.
Ms. Stroeer’s husband,
quit his job last year to travel with her. He hates running but joins her rock climbing twice a week. “It’s great for building core and leg strength, as well as improving flexibility and agility,” she says. She also does a seven-exercise body-weight circuit three to four days a week. Exercises include planks, push-ups, crunches and Russian twists, where she balances in boat pose and twists from right to left.
“I always have tight hamstrings and calves, so pigeon pose and forward bends are daily rituals,” she says. A lack of sleep was one reason she decided to quit her job. “I was averaging four hours a night,” she says. “I now try to get 10 to 12 and nap when I’m in peak training.”
In the run-up to a big-mountain mission, Ms. Stroeer eats as clean as possible. “I double down on vegetables, salmon, avocados and cottage cheese and I cut out alcohol, caffeine and minimize processed foods and sugar, sometimes for as much as four months in advance,” she says. “I place great emphasis on weaning myself off caffeine so that my receptors are extra sensitive to caffeine stimulation when I get to a point in the run where I want that boost.”
At race aid stations she eats everything in sight, including ramen, quesadillas and grilled cheese. On unorganized runs she relies on energy-dense chews, waffles, gels and drinks. A two-burner stove serves as her van kitchen. “Dinner is pretty formulaic,” she says. “Protein, starch, veg.”
The Gear and Cost
Ms. Stroeer swears by her Leki Micro Trail Pro trail running poles ($200). She prefers to wear an all-terrain mid-top boot made by Lowa rather than trail running shoes. Her running is slow and technical enough that she considers the shoes’ extra weight a necessary trade-off for stability. “I go faster knowing I can charge through ankle-breaking terrain in boots,” she says. For big races, she carries a 12-pound pack with 2 liters of water, a headlamp, a puffy jacket, gloves, rain shell, iodine tablets to purify water and a bivvi bag.
“When I have missions where I am alone in bear country and below tree line in the dark, I will often put a podcast on and play it on speaker to distract myself from worrying about bears and to make noise so that any bears in the vicinity hopefully hear me approaching and scatter before I run into them,” she says.
Trail Running for Mere Mortals
Adopting trail running can feel like learning to run all over again, says Rich Airey, founder of Denver-based BlackSheep Endurance. Mentally, you need to accept that you’re going to be slower, he says.
“It helps to ditch the watch,” he says. “You might run a seven-minute mile on the road and only a quarter-mile in that same time on trails.” Walking during a race is considered sacrilege by many road runners, he says, but on trails, you can often hike uphill faster than you can run.
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Mr. Airey says it’s also easy to overextend your stride running downhill. “Ideally, you want to have your heel under your hip and keep your cadence at around 170 steps per minute, even on the downhills,” he says.
Strengthening the tendons around the ankle will help prevent sprains. Mr. Airey suggests using resistance bands to work ankle flexion and extension and doing calf raises off a step or curb. Samuel Adams, associate professor of orthopedic surgery at Duke University Medical Center, also suggests doing exercises that work proprioception, or body awareness, such as squats or lunges performed on a BOSU ball.
Dr. Adams says runners whose strides land on the outer edge of the foot tend to have a higher likelihood of rolling or spraining their ankles. “A shoe that does not have a high arch can help with this,” he says. He recommends an ankle brace for added stability.
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