Sometimes quitting a job is inevitable. It’s unsatisfying work. Or not enough pay. Too many hours. Miserable co-workers. Whatever the reason, it’s just a matter of time before the dam breaks. For Sunny Stroeer, the moment came while hallucinating during a 100-mile footrace in Montana.
Hallucinating during such a physical, mental, and emotional task is normal. Seeing calendar reminders and meeting invites in the hallucinations — not so much.
“When I’ve experienced hallucinations during endurance events before, they’ve been pretty benign,” Stroeer, 32, says. “Rocks and trees will look like people or animals or look a little weird. However, in this case, not only were my eyes playing tricks on me — and I’m not even sure how this is possible — but the roots and rocks on the trails started looking like meeting and calendar invites from my clients.”
NO REST FOR THE ULTRA-MARATHONER
The Ghosts of Yellowstone ultra-marathon took Stroeer nearly 39 hours, which was good enough to be the third woman to finish the race. But because she ran the race on the heels of a promotion at Bain and Company’s Houston office — a stressful week — she was exhausted entering the race. Hence the hallucinations.
There would be no time to rest up after the race. When Stroeer returned home to Texas on Sunday night, she felt obligated to check her email before falling asleep — and she found a message from a Bain partner who was having an emergency. Suddenly, instead of resting after a 39-hour trail race sandwiched between two long flights, Stroeer was on the phone and working until midnight, only to wake up the next morning for the next 80-hour week.
The lifestyle wouldn’t do. Seven months later, Stroeer put in her notice. Half a year after that, she was roaming the American Southwest by herself in a Chevy Astro van.
‘IT WAS REALLY, REALLY HARD. BUT ALSO REALLY, REALLY BEAUTIFUL’
Stroeer was born and raised in Germany and came to the U.S. to attend Harvard College in 2004. By 2011, she had earned her MBA from Harvard Business School. It was during her time at HBS, that Stroeer began her love affair with running and endurance sports. While completing her MBA, Stroeer ran two marathons. After business school, Stroeer traveled to Madagascar for some volunteer work. She made friends with a group of Americans and one weekend they invited her to watch them run an ultra-marathon. Stroeer decided that since she was going to be there anyway, she might as well hop in and run the 100-kilometer (a little more than 62 miles) race.
“So I did,” she says. “And it was really, really hard. But also really, really beautiful and a very different challenge from anything I had done before.”
The uncertainty of whether her body would hold up, combined with the sheer beauty and physical and mental challenge, was enough to hook Stroeer. She was now an ultra-marathoner.
THE MATURING OF AN ULTRA-MARATHONER
When Stroeer returned to the U.S. she decided to work at Bain’s Houston office for the low cost of living and central location in the country. She spent weekends jet-setting to Colorado and California, for the immense trail running scenes. During the summer of 2012, Stroeer completed her first 100-mile race—the Lean Horse 100 in South Dakota’s Black Hills. Stroeer finished in less than 24 hours, good enough for a sixth place female finish. “Not only did I pull off the race, but I did it quite well,” Stroeer says.
Most ultra-marathoners live in towns with easy access to trail running. Instead of a mountain outpost in Colorado, California, Utah, or some other western state, Stroeer trained during the week in Houston. The pavement and heat would make it tough for the most seasoned ultra-runner, but Stroeer was a newb. Instead of running on mountain trails with other ultra-marathoners or a running club, Stroeer ran alone, often at night and on pavement to avoid Houston’s heat.
In 2013, Stroeer took her running game to another level. She completed the Grand Canyon’s rim-to-rim-to-rim run, an out-and-back run from the south rim of the Grand Canyon to the north rim and back that totals more than 40 miles and 10,000 feet of elevation gain. Stroeer also ran the Transvulcania Ultramarathon, which is considered the toughest run in the Canary Islands. Stroeer topped 2013 off by completing the Western States 100. The world’s oldest and arguably most distinguished ultra-marathon, Western States starts in Squaw Valley, California, goes over the Pacific Crest and down to Auburn, California, nestled in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada outside of Sacramento. She completed the 100-mile race in less than 30 hours, making her a bona fide ultra-marathoner.