Relentless Forward Motion

From peak bagging, to distance running, mountain athlete Sunny Stroeer is chasing the next challenge.

January 23, 2017, Aconcagua, Argentina. Two hundred meters below the summit of the tallest peak in the Americas, Suzanne “Sunny” Stroeer, now on her way back down, is alone and suffering from exercise-induced asthma. As if getting enough air into her lungs at 6,962 meters (22,841 feet) isn’t hard enough, her body is working against her, causing her to wheeze and cough violently. Strong winds whip around her goggles, chilling her cheeks and cooling her to the core. She’s scared, but she keeps moving.

For the next several hours, her teammates follow her fight down Aconcagua through their radios at Plaza-de-Mulas basecamp, 2,600 meters lower on the mountain. Though she set the record at 8 hours and 47 minutes, cutting 29 minutes off the time set by Argentine mountain guide Chabela Farías 11 months earlier, now everything has changed.

“I don’t know where I went wrong.”

There were times during her epic crawl down the peak that she felt out of control. “Getting the record was great for exposure, but I don’t know how I feel about that day,” she tells REI. “I don’t know where I went wrong.

“Once the adrenaline wore off on the summit, all of a sudden things turned south. I realized I was still a lot more sick, from the preceding weeks [of acclimating], than I wanted to admit. Maybe I just pushed way closer to my limits on the way up than I realized.”

Stroeer explains that she speed climbed Aconcagua because she likes facing challenges where the outcome is unknown. That’s also why she took up ultrarunning in 2011.

“As a kid, I liked doing things adults said I couldn’t do. I was flunking math because I hated my teacher,” she says. “So I took a nationwide math contest and got second in the country. I was a huge nerd, choir geek and a pudgy kid with no athletic ability.”

Stroeer, 32, from Obernburg, Germany, moved to the U.S. at age 19 to attend Harvard followed by Harvard Business School (HBS). In 2011, as per an agreement with HBS, she moved to the capital city of Antananarivo in Madagascar to work as a consultant, but after a few months there she became bored and restless.

Looking for something to keep her mind occupied, she ran her first 100K (62 miles) after barely preparing. It wasn’t totally off the couch—she’d already completed two marathons, but her last one was three months earlier and she’d hardly run since. The Madagascar 100K was a grueling race through grasslands, mountains and rainforest where temperatures reached the high 80s. At one point, a band played traditional Oom-pah music (using brass instruments) out of the back of a blue pickup truck to energize the sluggish runners. Her time was 25 hours and 14 minutes.

“You run as fast as you can, then you power walk, then you death march towards the end if you have to.”

Over the next 5 years, she competed in 20 ultras up to 100 miles in length.

During races, she’s seen people drop from exhaustion and others have had to throw in the towel because they were fearful of injury. But Stroeer believes the slow speed that comes with endurance running, versus climbing (where falls happen quickly), is what makes it comparatively safe.

“When most people think about running, they think of running consistently and as fast as they can,” she says. “To me, distance running is relentless forward motion. You run as fast as you can, then you power walk, then you death march towards the end if you have to.”

In 2015, she burned out from the business world, sold many of her belongings and downsized to a minivan. After four months on the road, she fell in love and ten months later they moved in together.

She and her boyfriend, Paul Gagner, thrive on what she calls “different forms of craziness—but the same direction of craziness: outdoor, pushing hard, risk taking. But not going off the deep end and losing touch with real life.”

On the weekends, they drive from their home in Boulder, Colorado, to the desert and climb giant, rotting towers and big walls.

Over the past few months, Stroeer has cut back on sanctioned races, choosing instead to take on new challenges. Her reason for the change is that she knows she can complete races 50 to 100 miles in length. Now she’s got her eyes on “challenges that introduce new uncertainty.” Think multi-day adventure runs and speed ascents in extreme mountain environments, always pushing harder, always moving forward.