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From Cancer to Ultra-Marathons

by Meghann on June 21, 2013

Recently I had a chance to interview Shannon McGuinn, a Brooks ID member with an incredible story. Shannon is a cancer survivor with a leaky heart valve. She turned to running during treatment and quickly discovered that it wasn’t only good for her sanity, but it helped with her recovery as well. She continued to run as part of her rehabilitation and went on to dominate in ultra-marathons. She has quite and a story and is truly an inspiration.

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Tell me a little about yourself and your history.

Among the many titles I hold, I am a running coach and divide my coaching between volunteering coaching for the Ulman Fund’s Cancer to 5k, Run for the Books“, Team in Training, and my Veteran’s Running Group.  I also work with only a few private in-person and online clients at a time through Creating Momentum, LLC my coaching business.

I am also a Streak Runner, meaning that I run at least 1 mile a day every day.  I happen to have a 9.7 mile per day average but I am just a neophyte streaker at 522 days.  I will be considered “proficient” once i have run for 5 years in a row.

What made you decide to start running? 

I began running when I was in elementary school, but I disliked running far.  I tolerated running longer distances, which I considered to be anything 1 mile or more, but my focus was on the 400-800 meters.  If my coach desperately needed a runner to run something, like a leg of the 4 x mile or the 1000 meters, I would help out but I did not consider myself a long distance runner.  I did run 4 years of cross country, begrudgingly, because I thought it would help me be a better 800 meter runner for winter and spring.   By the time I reached college, I ran about 1 month for my team before leaving the sport because I was having too many running related injuries that started plaguing me during high school.

After college, I went on to graduate school for my M.A. and then to law school for my J.D.  During that time, running was something I did only when I felt I was gaining too much weight.

However, during law school I was diagnosed with breast cancer and everything changed.  After some significant surgeries, and chemotherapy, I started to take a medicine that increased risk of ventricular heart failure.

To keep my heart strong, I returned to running by first walking.  I had begun running a few miles a few days per week just before my cancer diagnoses, to lose weight.  During Chemo, I tried to maintain that schedule, but had to slow down as each round of chemo weakened me.  Over time, I was able to get fitter and started racing 5k’s each weekend during my treatment.

I have run probably close to 300 races since Oct 2006.  I have been able to go from a “run/walker” to a somewhat proficient ultra-marathoner. 61379_2614458377210_2138222531_n-2I am most proud of being able to place 7th at the USATF National 50k Championships in both 2013 and 2012, as well as placing 8th in 2011.  In addition to my 50k successes, I have also run a 50 miler in 7:41, a 41.48 mile 6 hour run, and 110.67 miles in 24 hours, all after cancer.  I have also taken up streak running (running at least 1 mile every day), where I have been able to maintain a 9.7 mile per day average over the last 522 days.

I have a great passion for running and it is something I want to share with as many people as I can.  As a result, I started my LLC called Creating Momentum, where I provide in-person and online coaching.  I also volunteer as an in-person assistant coach to Team in Training, where I work with marathoners who raise money for cancer research.  In addition, I volunteer as an “At Home” Coach for the Ulman Fund’s Cancer to 5k program where I provide online training to cancer survivors who would like to train for a 5k or further. I also ran to raise money for Run for the Books and that money was used to create a library of books for the pediatric oncology patients at Sloan Kettering Cancer Center.  Finally, I just started a running club at the V.A. hospital I work at as a therapist.  This group’s aim is to create a running group of Veterans who find therapeutic value from the physical act of running, and find value in being part of a team.  We train to race well and although I have talented runners in my group, our primary focus is health and wellness, team work, and stress management.

Do you have any big events planned for the future?

I tend to pick my goal races one I feel ready to race well.  I race almost once per week, because I love being a part of this sport.  As a result, most of my races are not goal races but rather races I simply try to run well while making new friends and experiencing as many events as I can while I can.  I do train specifically for 2-3 races each year, and I try to select National Championships races as goals to set my sights on.  The 50k nationals is always an important goal race for me and that occurred this March.

In the past, I spent a lot of time trying to train hard and smart for a good 24 hour performance.  But what I am finding out is that I am really a much better 6 hour runner than I am a 24 hour runner.  As a result, I wanted to spend most of 2013 focused on the shorter distance ultras, from 50k-12hours.  In April, I was very pleased with my 50 mile race results, just 6 days after I raced the Boston marathon. I am now looking to try to beat that 50 mile time at some point in the fall.  As much as I would love to best my 110.67 mile distance in 2013, I feel I have a better chance to run something spectacular (for me) if I focus more on the 50 mile distance.

What’s your advice for anyone who says they can’t do something?

149084_10200432462746526_1567276089_nThis is a tricky question.  I don’t believe there is a one size fits all response for anyone who says they can’t do something.  However in general, I think using both our hearts and our minds can lead us to good results.

My first instinct would be to intellectually assess what is that goal is, what the obstacles are and try to determine why they feel like they can’t do something they want to do.   In some cases, there may be some very real reasons why a person can’t do something (like when my runners want to run through injuries thinking it will help them when all it does is delay improvement).  As someone with some lingering health issues from my cancer treatment, there are many times when I want to run well, but discover en route that I just cant do it that day.

But I do believe that after a good assessment of strengths and obstacles, and a clear understanding of the goal, that most people can actually accomplish more than they realize if they have a plan,  small steps to focus on, and patience. Have a good support systems helps.  For me, much of the successes I experience in life and in running are a result of the foundation I laid out years ago, small intermediate goals, discipline and friends and family who want to see me succeed.

Finally, I would also tell people that we cant be afraid of failure. One we accept that failure is a very real option and it is actually ok to fail, then we can be free to try things out that we otherwise would not.  It is only by starting something that we can surprise ourselves with what we can accomplish!

Thank you, Shannon!

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