EMPIRE WOMEN ALL-STARS: SARAH SUMPTER, BY ALEX WOLF-ROOT

Today we chat with Sarah “Stump” Sumpter, a graduate of Healdsburg HS. Despite some major challenges on the way, Stump has had much success in the sport. She captured a California D4 XC title while in HS before going to UC Davis and earning some D1 Conference Titles for the Aggies. She’s now back in Healdsburg as she preps for her marathon debut this fall.

Hey Stump, thanks for taking time out of your busy marathon training schedule to chat! Let’s start with that; what’s the plan for the debut, and what was your inspiration for running a marathon in the first place?

I’m geared towards debuting some time in the fall, with my eyes on a U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials qualifier-worthy time (between 2:37 and 2:43). I’ve dreamed of running the marathon since I was a freshman in high school when I caught a televised women’s world championship marathon on ESPN. It sounds incredibly corny, but I remember watching the competitors complete the final lap of the race inside a huge stadium, some nearly flailing as they ground out that last 400m, and I was nearly in tears. I had only recently discovered my love of running long as well as hard, and seeing the kind of heart and commitment it took for those women to pull through…I just said to myself “that’s it; that’s what I want to do.” I’m more than a decade older now, but I still get chills every time I think of that 26.2.

 While I’m sure you’re going to crush the marathon, you’ve unquestionably had success in the shorter distances as well, including your State Championship for Healdsburg HS. Can you tell us a little bit about that experience, both as far as the race itself was concerned, but also more generally about running for Healdsburg HS?

Without mitigating the importance of it (it was a big step up from even just qualifying for state for the first time the year prior), it was more the journey to that state championship race and the opportunities it presented to me afterward that defined that experience for me. That entire season I had only just developed an instinct for competition and where my strengths were in a race or in running in general, so it was both exciting and a little overwhelming to have so much success so late in my high school career. I was a total underdog and while I enjoyed winning (who doesn’t) the truest test for me was pushing myself faster and harder in every successive race that I ran. I didn’t just want to come through the finish line first; I wanted to come through better than I had started. I was blessed enough to have coaches who, though they let me loose come race day to follow those instincts, made sure that day-to-day training during competition season had enough structure and a clearly explained purpose to rein me in a bit and foster those skills.

To John Linker and Carlos Quiroga, I owe you more than you know, and I can always find a little bit of your wisdom in the back pocket of my stubborn Stumpy brain when I am facing a challenge, either in training or in life. And Coach Q, you were right. Running really is “one of the most honest sports there are”– you get from it what you are willing and able to put in, no more and no less.

The Kenwood Footrace, July 4th,  2015. Photo by Douglas Murdoch
The Kenwood Footrace, July 4th, 2015. Photo by Douglas Murdoch

 Unfortunately, not everything in HS went smoothly, specifically with regards to your eating disorder. When did you know something was amiss, and what helped you overcome your illness?
The tricky nature of eating disorders is that they create a very warped perception of body and self in general – I was so convinced that what I was doing in terms of food restriction was simply proper discipline for someone dedicated to my sport – and that it was working for me (after all, I had all of this new-found success to validate it, right?) that it took a serious slap in the face (in my case, a hit to the thing that I was so determined to “stay disciplined/fit” for – my running) to make me come to terms with the fact that I had a problem. I was weak, constantly cold and tired, and the one thing that had given me so much joy, empowerment, and such a powerful sense of self in so many ways (again, my running) had become a chore that I dreaded and only further drained me, rather than an experience that I thrived off of. Something had to be wrong for something so beautiful to turn so sour, and I knew I had to get help. Some people have tried to point to running as the springboard for my disorder, when in reality it was my sport that, while it became entangled in the web of my illness ultimately, as in so many ways then and now, saved me and motivated me to tackle the demons in my life.

 Well we’re all very glad you were able to overcome that illness and be able to share your story with others who may be suffering from something similar. And you’ve proved you were able to come back as you achieved much while at UC Davis. What are some of your highlights from your Aggie career?

I will never forget coming through the finish chute at the 2009 Big West Cross Country Conference Championship race. Beforehand, I’d given our had coach, Deanne Vochatzer, a good-luck hug, looked at her, and said “I’m gonna get it.” And I did, I won the damn race, and the satisfaction of being able to give that to her, let alone prove it to myself… it was beautiful. The feeling was similar if not bigger than being a part of the Women’s Cross Country team’s first Conference Championship win in 2011 and the UCD Women’s Track & Field team’s first D1 Conference title in 2012, especially after myself and two of my teammates swept the podium for the 10,000m on the first night of the competition, and took first and second in the 5,000m the following evening. Shared joy is the best joy, and it was certainly true then.

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 As many know, there was more difficulty lying ahead while at Davis… Can you tell us about first finding out about your cancer, and how that impacted, well, everything?

I’ll be brief about it, because it’s something I’ve talked about publicly many times (and it gets boring hearing myself talk about it, haha). It was terrifying, maddening, frustrating, and depressing in different intervals at different times, but ultimately I was not and am not willing to take a backseat to life (running, school, or otherwise) because a giant wad of angry cells decided to take up non-leased residence in my brain. I’m too damn stubborn to go down without a fight, and true to my namesake, I’m hard to uproot.

What’s the status of the cancer at the moment?

Unfortunately, after having a recurrence in January of last year and some precarious periods since, I’m still undergoing chemotherapy. With patience, balance, and communication between myself, my doctors, and my coach, however, I’m able to run a decent amount (and well!) while making progress my doctors are thus far very pleased with. It can be wearying at times, for sure, and there are times where I have to make peace with being more conservative than I’d like, but so far so good.

Well you have a great outlook on this, and will certainly get through this rough patch as you’ve gotten through so many others!

To cap us off, and given that this is a series about the badass women of the Redwood Empire, I should ask, in virtue of what do you think the Redwood Empire has produced so many amazing athletes?

I think the Redwood Empire fosters a great sense of pride and support in its athletes that extends beyond our time in high school jerseys. Years after the fact, I still have as much an advocate in Bob Padecky, Val Sell, “Starter Bob” (Shore), and any number of coaches (of runners or otherwise) as I did when I first put on a pair of spikes. It makes us humble, and perhaps above all else grateful and motivated to pursue excellence for the sake of those who have given so much to make our careers possible.

Thanks for taking the time to chat Stump. Any last advice for the next crop of Empire runners or your fans world-wide?

Live what you love. Don’t waste your time doing anything short of that, because time we have to live is just that – short.

The Kenwood Footrace, July 4th,  2015. Photo by Douglas Murdoch
The Kenwood Footrace, July 4th, 2015. Photo by Douglas Murdoch

One thought on “EMPIRE WOMEN ALL-STARS: SARAH SUMPTER, BY ALEX WOLF-ROOT”

  1. Sarah is such an amazing role model for every runner, displaying strength in the face of adversity. I was so blessed to meet her at Kenwood – I had admired her since I dove into high school running freshman year. Her Kenwood race was amazing, let alone having been done while on treatment! I hope I can talk to her again before she does her marathon! 🙂

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