Another golden finish for ultrarunner Suzanna Bon
By DIANNE REBER HART / Sonoma Valley Correspondent
Ultrarunner Suzanna Bon doesn’t have a personal trainer, a coach or a sponsor – just the discipline and drive of a champion athlete.
Last weekend the 48-year-old mother of three ran to her most impressive finish yet, clocking 146.7 miles in the World 24-Hour Championships in the Netherlands.
It was a personal best for Bon, who earned an individual bronze medal and a team gold in the women’s division. She finished 22nd overall from the field of 261 international runners.
The International Association of Ultrarunners, which organized the run, posted on its website that Bon was “running perhaps the steadiest race of any competitor in the field.”
Americans dominated the race, which keeps runners on track for 24 hours in an overnight competition through the picturesque town of Steenbergen.
Despite rain showers, thunderstorms and hail during much of the night, both the U.S. men’s and women’s three-member teams earned first-place finishes.
Bon exceeded her record 143.5 miles from last year’s 24-hour championships in Poland and moved up from her fifth-place women’s finish. She first competed in the international race in 2010, running 125 miles for a fourth-place team finish. (The race was cancelled in 2011.)
Bon runs for the pure joy of the sport, which offers little more than personal fulfillment for winning. There are no Olympic Games, Wheaties boxes, endorsement deals or other payoffs for ultrarunners.
“It’s not a great spectator sport,” says Bon. “It’s kind of a little niche genre of running.”
Bon has “just always kind of ran” but never joined her high school or college track teams. She didn’t become a competitive runner until her mid-30s.
“Then it took on a different meaning,” Bon says. “It took on another outlet.”
A former elementary schoolteacher and Peace Corps volunteer to Honduras, Bon ran her first marathon after the birth of her third child, Eleanor, now 13.
Eleanor and her siblings, Ian, 15, and Grace, 18, have made it a habit to send little trinkets as good luck charms for their mom’s races. Bon has competed in more than 50 runs, including some that offer prestige just in qualifying.
Ultrarunning magazine ranks Bon among the top 10 American ultrarunning women in the country.
Marathons are a mere 26.2 miles compared to the longer 24-hour, 50km, 100km, 50-mile and 100-mile runs Bon favors. She repeatedly is a top finisher, pushing her petite 5-foot, 1-inch, 100-pound frame to its maximum potential.
“I love it. I feel like I’m the luckiest person when I’m out there,” Bon says.
She competes in races with level tracks and those with grueling terrain and challenging elevation gains like the 50-mile Tahoe Rim Trail and the Western States 100-mile endurance run in Squaw Valley.
Bon wears Drymax socks that repel moisture and prevent blisters and races in $160 Hoka running shoes, which she replaces each year. She can afford them, she jokes, “Because I don’t buy Jimmy Choos (designer shoes).”
Sometimes she takes her iPod along for 24-hour runs, listening to a mix of ’70s rock and easy-listening tunes. Bonnie Raitt’s “I Will Not be Broken” is a favorite.
Bon pays her own expenses, sometimes getting a few hundred dollars in travel grants from racing organizations.
Among her many championship finishes was the 100-mile H.U.R.T. endurance race in Hawaii in 2008. The course was set through a semi-tropical rain forest over narrow trails with roots, rocks, puddles, mud wallows, exposed ridges and 20 stream crossings.
She took fifth-place overall and was the top women’s finisher in the H.U.R.T. competition rated “very difficult” for “adventurous and well-prepared” athletes.
Closer to home, Bon won her first 24-hour run at the San Francisco One Day in 2009 with a 134.7-mile victory. Only one male runner clocked more miles than Bon.
Bon travels from her Boyes Springs home with her greatest cheerleader and “main crew person,” her husband, Sam Bon. He monitors her progress and mileage pacing, counts calories, watches her sweat rate and hydration and offers support and encouragement.
The runner says there’s mental preparation right along with the physical training.
“The day before a race I really get into a mental zone,” Bon says. “I get my head in a place of focus and quiet. It’s not easy.”
Bon is grateful she’s in top physical condition but admits hard work, discipline and rigorous training keep her ahead of the crowd.
She avoids bread and sweets, eats plenty of protein and “mountains of vegetables,” consuming “a lot of calories at the end of the day but they’re fuel calories, not junk calories.”
On occasion, she’ll allow herself the indulgence of a beer.
When she isn’t training for a race, Bon runs about 60 miles a week. During peak training periods, she doubles her distance, often running for four or five hours after her children head to school.
Although she enjoys training with fellow ultrarunners on occasion, she insists she doesn’t get bored running by herself.
“It’s a little bit of therapy. I love being outside, I love being outdoors,” Bon says. “I never go into a dark place. It feeds my soul. It’s really something I’ve embraced and I never dread.”
The title of Bruce Springsteen’s signature song, “Born to Run,” could apply to Bon.
“I chalk it up to great genetics. My parents have all their original parts,” she quips.
She combats racing pains and fatigue by having an astute awareness of her body.
“You have to mentally be willing to deal with the pain and discomfort,” Bon says.
When she’s on a competitive track or trail, Bon pushes through. She knows when to stop for quick energy breaks to replenish.
“Over the years I’ve tried different approaches,” she says. “My approach is to keep running as much as possible.”
There are aid stations along the way if needed, and she knows her husband is there to guide and support her. Her mother, Elizabeth Kemp, traveled from Sonoma to both Poland and the Netherlands to cheer for her daughter.
Bon says her family and friends provide a crucial support system.
“They afford me the freedom of flexibility,” she says. “This is my passion.”