(An ongoing series of interviews of redwood empire runners by Alex Wolf-Root)
The Redwood Empire has been familiar with Sara Bei (Hall) since her earliest days as a Montgomery HS Viking. She was the first girl to win four CA XC State Championships, she was the 2000 Footlocker National Champion, and still holds the Empire 3,200m record. As a professional, she’s represented the USA in cross country, indoor track, and outdoor track (including a PanAm Gold), and has now turned her attention to the roads. She’ll be racing the Marathon at the upcoming Olympic Trials on February 13th, so be sure to tune in to watch!
Thanks for taking the time to talk with us today Sara! I know you’re busy, so let’s get right to it: In just about two weeks you’ll toe the line at the US Olympic Trials in the Marathon. When did you know you wanted to be a marathoner, and why do you think it took so long for you to turn to the marathon?
Trying a marathon was always something on my bucket list, but not something I felt I would really be good at until I ran my first half marathon back in Sonoma County in Healdsburg. It was just for fun, not a fast course, but I loved it and made me wonder how much faster I could go! Then I started the training for it later in the year and really loved the training. Unfortunately my appendix burst and I had to delay my debut but it affirmed in my mind I wanted to try the distance.
While your debut at the LA Marathon didn’t give the results that were expected, you bounced back incredibly well in your next attempt at Chicago. To what do you attribute this change? And should we expect to see similar improvement at the Trials?
I’m not sure if it’s possible to take that much time off again 🙂 but I felt I finished Chicago curious how much more was there. The Chicago course and conditions were much more forgiving, and I learned that I do really love the distance as I thought I would. I just had too many weakness exposed in my first one. The LA Marathon was the most I’ve ever hurt, and I’m stronger for it.
And it’s not just the marathon that you’ve excelled at. If anything, the roads may be your least successful terrain thus far. You’ve won a national title in XC and earned PanAm gold in the steeplechase, so you’re clearly a very versatile athlete. What is it about yourself that makes you excel across the disciplines?
I played a lot of sports growing up and feel like I have more of a general athletic gifting by God than having a specific endurance pedigree. I’ve always been willing to work really hard and not be afraid to try new things. All those successes came with an equal number of failures of events I tried that didn’t go well! I’m not afraid to fail and I enjoy mixing it up.
On that topic, if you could be a legitimate contender for the best in the world in any event in Athletics, which would it be?
Good question. I don’t think I’m near that in any event but my best may be the half marathon… With a few hurdles and mud thrown in 🙂
Stepping back a bit, let’s talk about your (Montgomery HS) Viking days. You made history by being the first athlete to win the CA State XC meet all 4 years. Additionally, you were a Footlocker National Champ. What do you think led to such incredible success during your prep career?
I had great coaches at Montgomery in Larry and Tori Meredith and later help from Shannon Sweeney that gave me a good foundational base. Larry gave out summer schedules before my freshman year that were “beginning, intermediate, advanced” so being the over-achiever personality I was I followed the “advanced” to a T even though it had me running 15 mile long runs, etc. I’ve always loved challenging myself. Plus living across the street from Annadel didn’t hurt! 🙂
Beyond your coaches, was there anyone else who had an extra special impact while in HS?
Early on, Julia (Stamps) Mallon set the bar high for me in all my races from local to national, so I’m grateful for that. Later my Stanford teammate Lauren Fleshman really mentored me thoroughout my college career, and after that Deena Kastor in the 5 years I spent in Mammoth Lakes was very influential.
What about any favorite memories or races from your time as a Viking?
It’s hard to top winning the state championship as a team! It began as kind of a pipe dream and I almost couldn’t believe it when it happened.
And while you had a great career at Stanford as a many-time All-American, you weren’t quite the world-beater you were in HS. How was this transition back to being great, but not the best?
The level of competition is much higher. It’s easy to succeed in high school just by working really hard, especially because when I was in school that wasn’t the norm. I think I placed 2nd at NCAA nationals like 4 or 5 times. And the time I was most likely to win I got tripped in the final sprint. There just wasn’t a lot of room for error and yet I am thankful for all the 2nd place finishes and leading our team to a NCAA XC title.
I would definitely not still be running if it wasn’t for Ryan’s inspiration and support. He has believed in me at times when I gave up on myself and he is my biggest fan. Now he coaches me, which has made for a fun new season! Of course there are times I’ve had to sacrifice my career for his and vice-versa, but we are a team.
While obviously Ryan is a marathon great, some were surprised to hear of this coaching change. How did that come about?
Yeah, it just made sense when we were taking on the adoption of 4 girls from Ethiopia. I would need to be more flexible and have someone present to adjust things. Plus, he knows the marathon inside and out and now that he took a step back from competing has more time to be present at my workouts.
The biggest news there has to be your starting a new family. Congrats! What led to the decision to adopt, especially as you’re in the prime of your athletic career?
It was a leap of faith and far from a career move, but one we felt called in our hearts and have not regretted it for one minute. We wanted to grow our family through adopting kids that may not otherwise have a home and that are typically older kids and are special needs kids. Our girls are amazing and have added so much joy to our lives! For more details on our story becoming a family, see the Press Democrat article 🙂
And that’s hardly the first way you’ve done good for Ethiopia and her children, thanks to your Steps Foundation. Can you tell our readers a little bit about how this came about, and about it’s current mission?
Seeing extreme poverty first hand in Africa and other areas totally changed me as a person and the trajectory of my life. I thought I’d go straight into development work after college but had the opportunity to still run and here we are 10.5 years later, enjoying it more than ever! But I haven’t forgotten about the calling I feel is on my life to bring justice in these areas, and engage the running community to do the same. Currently our funds are focused on famine relief and orphan care in Ethiopia.
Well thank you for doing your part to help those in need. Hopefully many of our readers will check out the Steps Foundation website and do their part, too.
Now, some flash questions:
Favorite trail in Annadel: Spring Creek
Favorite workout: Hard long runs
Favorite race distance: Half marathon
Favorite post-workout meal: Chocolate Muscle Milk pancake
What final words of advice would you have for those reading this, especially for current Empire Prep’s gearing up for their T&F season?
Enjoy the team aspect of the sport! That is one thing that changes after school. Eat well – don’t look for shortcuts by losing weight – or you may not be able to enjoy running later in life. Be “you” to the fullest rather than comparing yourself to other people. Find your identity in who God made you to be; root yourself in that and you can run free of fearing failure.
Thanks for the chat Sara, and good luck in LA! All of the Redwood Empire will be rooting for you!