by Alex Wolf-Root
by Alex Wolf-Root
I am not sure life was ever going to be long enough for Sarah Sumpter.
It is not so much that she died too young or that the cancer moved too quickly for her. Sarah’s life—regardless of time spent, friends made, miles run, or runners inspired—could never satisfy her. There was just so little time…
When I first met Sarah, it became immediately apparent that the road before her was always going to be too short. Every finish line would be far too near. However, she also believed that the thrill of the race was not in its completion, but in the struggle. If it was up to her, the run would never end. She loved the grind.
I began recruiting Sarah to run at UC Davis back in 2007, and it was that fall in which she torched courses, shattered records, collected championships, and became a sensation. It was just months later in early 2008 when she publicly shared her struggle with disordered eating, and she had to begin all over again.
She would have several new beginnings over the remaining seven years of her life, and these victories and challenges have been documented ad nauseam, and by far better writers than me. Suffice to say, Sarah did as Rudyard Kipling challenged all of us—runners especially, I believe—she met with Triumph and Disaster in her life and treated those two impostors just the same. There was no vertical oscillation in her emotion regardless of occasion—simply forward motion—a tireless pursuit of something untouchable for most of us in this life. It is something beyond courage that outranks any nobility, and believe me, there is nothing valiant in the death of someone so beautiful. For lack of a better term, it was Grit, and she was its most precious vessel.
Sarah Sumpter did not beat her cancer back with fists balled in rage. Instead, she loved her place as its opponent and ran toward it—she ran through it—and she did this with a heart full of faith and spirit of indomitable passion for the community of people she held most dear—her fellow runners. She truly filled “the unforgiving minute with sixty seconds worth of distance run.” She welcomed the struggles set before her and those that bombarded her body as simply the demands of the race in which she was entered. There was nothing else to do but to keep going.
So when Sarah called me back in May and said we needed to talk, I could feel the intent in her voice. By this time, she was back home in Cloverdale and nursing herself through a nagging injury that kept her running restricted. We met the next day in Healdsburg.
“I need to do the marathon now, Pup.”
At the time, the doctors were pleased with where she was with her cancer, so this was not a notion prompted by any outward indications of what would come to pass in short time. However, they do say that the great ones have a nose for the finish line, and in Sarah’s case, it seemed that she could sense the line accelerating toward her even then.
“Will you coach me?”
It was in this moment that I became aware of a piece of coaching I had never considered before.
Through the years, I have always been concerned with getting the athletes in my charge to the finish line as quickly as possible. In its crudest light, the idea was to build them up, callous them, sharpen them and set them in motion. To the finish line or bust.
With Sarah, in this pastoral setting outside the coffee shop on the square in Healdsburg, I realized our goal was to just get her to the starting line. The running would be the easy part, I recall thinking. If we could just give her a chance to start the one thing she always wanted to finish…
That is when the words of the great Kenyan cross country champion, John Ngugi, pooled in my mind before they spilled from my tongue.
“Don’t waste good time,” I mumbled.
“Good or bad, I can’t waste any of it,” she said. “It’s time.”
We would adopt this as our training philosophy moving forward—before we knew about the offer from the New York City Marathon—before she won at Kenwood on July 4th despite a nasty fall—before we discovered why she fell in the first place and never ran again just three weeks later. We would remind each other over and again…if you feel good, go.
There were long runs, hill sessions, tempo runs, long intervals, blended sessions, special blocks, strides and recovery runs—all the usual menu items for your marathoner, and Sarah devoured them in her typical understated fashion. There was also the stifling sickness brought on by each round of new treatment—an overwhelming lethargy rooted in her disease—a battery of unpredictable days Sarah fended off with whatever she could muster for that day…even walking. If she could go, she would go, and go hard.
In mid-June, when she heard from the New York City Marathon, Sarah was offered two things—entry into the professional women’s field for the greatest American race and a promise that her acceptance of the offer would remain private until we could be certain she would make it to the start. She finally had her marathon and it was just four short months away.
The next day, her newest chemo drugs arrived. Two days later, her body was “a toxic waste dump,” she said. Two weeks later, she won the 10k at Kenwood in a new course PR. She would not run for another week, but when she did, she closed her run with miles so fast that we really began to see her goal of a 2:37 marathon as a real possibility. Three days later, the chemo took her away from training yet again for another 48 hours. By the 19th of July, she had lost feeling in her left foot, calf, and hand.
The very next day, on July 20th, despite the loss of feeling on her left side, Sarah said she decided to go the Ngugi route and ran 100 minutes “because I can,” she said. Despite closing the run with several successive miles just a shadow over six-minute pace, Sarah felt it was slow.
“I needed to do something, so I’ll take it.”
It would be the last run of her life.
Not all of life’s miles are completed on the road or trail, and while Sarah Sumpter logged thousands of miles under the power of her own two feet, the distance covered by her story has not been measured because it has not yet reached its conclusion.
Sarah’s nickname, “Stump,” came to her initially by folly—a misspelling in a list of meet entries. In time, however, this name became a fortuitous moniker—a testimony to her ability to not be uprooted.
I never called her Stump because I used to think it meant “cut down,” and that was not how I knew her. To me, she was too big, too much–a giant wrapped in a feisty pixie shell. Now, however, in the wake of her passing, I find myself examining the nature of this nickname.
Stubborn. Tough. Unwavering. Of course, she was all of these things. However, she was not just these things.
A Stump marks the passing of time with an open face and honest rings. A Stump shows its scars because those scars are what created it in the first place. A Stump stands as a monument to the great heights of the past. Most importantly, a Stump is the source of new life. Its deep roots provide the means for new sprouts to grow into new trees.
What Sarah has done is leave us the gift of herself. Her death is not an ending because I don’t believe she ever finished. She is leaving us not to finish the race, but to begin anew. And each time we lace up our shoes and put foot to pavement or tread to trail, we celebrate Sarah Sumpter. We are the keepers of her legacy.
The run continues. We champion the grind. I promise you, Sarah, we will not waste good time.
(Editor’s note: Chris Puppione, the former head cross country coach at UC Davis (2004-2008), is the head cross country coach at Cardinal Newman High School. He continues to coach professional athletes and develop corporate fitness programs for local Sonoma County businesses.)
(Lead photo courtesy of Sarah Sumpter-formerly of Healdsburg HS and pictured above and UC Davis coach, Drew Wartenburg and his twitter account: pic.twitter.com/cggT1IL9 )
Sacramento del Corredor (Sacrament of the Runner) By Sarah “Stump” Sumpter, 2014
The road is a cruel mistress, but she rewards earnestly those of earnest and diligent heart.
Be warned, for her demands are steep, and her sacrifices are best received in blood and sweat and the weariness of limbs. What she gives, however, is the sweetest of ecstasies. What you pay in blood she returns thrice-fold – strength of mind, strength of spirit, strength of flesh and bone and breath. Make yourself naked to her, and she will bare before you the faces of death, the marrows of courage, the dark crevices from which hope is born.
She is fickle with man, but bears for him a certain affection, for it was man who made Her, and pays homage to Her daily.
She requires no chapel and no prayer save the open air and the cadence of flurried feet. A desperate breath is as pure as any verse or hymn. The world is her altar and Her laws are made known not by stoop-backed scholars/scribes/wise-men but by address to her alone. There are no mediums, no prophets or seers or psychopomps. You must ride the Mount yourself, and venture all the layers of heaven and hell without compass.
Pay no mind to what others see or do not see, for she always sees, and you may share the thrill of the hunt and of victory with Her even when the mob has turned its back. She will teach you who and what you are, and no one can deprive you of that lesson/knowledge.
Do not think to rule Her. No crown or title makes you any less vulnerable to her might. There is no royalty, no classism on the road as there sits in the human thought-bubble. You must put yourself above the rest, you must prove it in the moment. There is no throne set aside just for you. If you must rule, you must prove yourself fit to conquer, and to hold that reign, if only for the day.
(Editor’s note: thanks to Sarah’s mother, Shawn Sumpter, for allowing us to publish this.)
Today I sat down with Maria Carrillo ’07 grad at one of her favorite Boulder coffee shops, OZO Coffee. Despite not starting her competitive running career until well into HS, Gray has worked her way up to the top of all-time Empire lists. She’s currently the Empire Record-Holder in the marathon, thanks to a 2:39:43 at NYCM, where she was 16th overall and 5th American. Other PR’s include 15:35.86 for 5,000m, 32:57.85 for 10,000m, and 1:13:34 for the half marathon, and she has placed in the top-10 at USATF National Championships for Cross Country, the Half Marathon, and 10,000m.
Thanks for taking the time out of your busy schedule Alia! While you’re one of the top women in Empire history, many reading this may not know about you as you weren’t a prep super-star. Can you tell us a bit about that HS career of yours?
I ran cross country my junior and senior year, and only ran track my senior year. I got a stress fracture in what would have been my junior year. I think I got a stress fracture because I got really excited about the sport, but I had next to no lifetime miles on me.
Before I started running, I was a soccer player. I had a couple knee surgeries, and I started running because my friend Michaela Baer, encouraged me to come to some runs. I just loved the people and wanted to be around the people. I joke around that I joined the team because I wanted to go to the team pasta feeds. It’s partially true and food is a big part of my life! But I liked the people and as many runners know the running community can be such a positive place in spite of being so directly competitive that as a highschooler it’s partially a social decision.
While it may have started as a social event, you did become a very successful, competitive runner. How’d that change come about?
I think I got really lucky having people like [coaches] Danny [Aldridge] and Greg [Fogg] and Richard Flores around early in my running career. I didn’t realize at the time how knowledgeable they were. They were all so encouraging, but they weren’t pushy, which is a big thing with young athletes. They know that the athlete has to love it first. They were there to give me the work when I wanted to do it.
I remember Danny a couple times telling me I could be good. I got into it because of the people, but I ended up loving it and wanted to be really good at it. I remember Danny telling me after one race I was in a lot of pain and on the verge of tears and he’s just laughing and he’s just like “oh my god you don’t know how good you can be”. I didn’t realize it at the time, but looking back you realize how valuable it is having people who can see things you couldn’t yet see for yourself.
And you certainly got good at Chico while under the tutelage of Gary Towne. How did you end up a Wildcat, and how did that influence your trajectory as a runner?
I knew I wanted to keep running and that I had a lot of development to do, but I was hesitant to go D1 because it could chew me up and spit me out. Greg [Fogg] brought up Chico, and mentioned something about me to Gary. What stuck out to me about Gary was that we talked for over an hour in our first conversation. The time that he took with me was just so valuable, especially knowing I wasn’t a big deal. That gave me a lot of faith that he had built something that was a good place to grow.
Gary knows how to develop runners, and his ability to give so many kids individual attention, I have no idea how he does it. Each of us would sit down at the beginning of the season to lay out mileage, races, etc, and then do a meeting at the end of the season too. I was always looking forward to those; that was the equivalent of going to a teachers office hours. Getting that one on one time with the coach was really valuable and having someone in your life who could foresee things that you’d want to see but don’t have the courage to see quite yet.
I remember him telling me “I think you can run sub 17 in the 5k” and at that time in my head that was like a huge, huge deal, and now I look back and like, of course I could! Goodness!
Even from a young age, before I was ready for the marathon distance, he said I think you can be a really good marathoner. He was great at developing athletes throughout the collegiate career but he obviously loves running and that naturally becomes instilled in a lot of his athletes. He has you thinking about running not just as a college athlete but as a person as your lifelong love.
And a lifelong love it’s become. After bouncing around a bit, you’ve now found yourself in Boulder running for Brooks, coached by the legendary Joe Vigil. How’s that new relationship been working out?
The first couple weeks I had to get over being a bit star-struck to be honest. He notoriously prescribes really difficult work, and I’m notoriously my harshest critic. What’s been really great working with him is that he’s the first one to lift me up after a hard session. But, he’s not one to hold your hand; he’s not going to give you work to make you feel good about yourself. But he’s very uplifting and he loves his runners and he knows that them being excited is a big part of the work.
He constantly reminds me that I’m still a work in progress. He tells me “you’re just a puppy,” at 26 years old! He reminds me that this is something that I’ll be doing my whole life.
Great though Vigil may be, he doesn’t live in Boulder, so you’re being coached day-to-day by someone else. While many may know Richey Hansen as a great chiropractor, you not only know him as a coach but also as your boyfriend. How’s that whole combo-relationship working out?
He deals with wearing many hats really well. He’s been able to be that in-person coaching influence as well as the emotional support. Not easy to balance! Lots of coaches may be happier if it was just black and white and numbers and that was that, but Richey manages me on the emotional side of running, which can be one of the more frustrating and challenging things in the world of running. He’s kinda there to tell me when something should be better when I don’t want to hear it and I’m hurting and ¾ into a workout and I’m slipping and need someone to get me back on it. Not an easy position for someone with that sort of emotional tie to do. He’s also the first one to build me up when I do something really worthwhile and the first to build my confidence. It’s just been an incredibly positive experience. It’s amazing, I used to say I’d never date a runner, that I wanted those lives totally separate, but I’m surprised the impact of someone so close to you and someone so incredibly supportive can have. I wouldn’t be able to do what I do without the way that we work together.
Well I’m excited to see where that partnership continues to take you! So tell us, what’s on tap for the rest of 2015 into 2016?
It’s gonna be so busy. I’m really excited but I’m at a point where I took some time off after USA’s [Alia finished 10th in the 10,000m and 12th in the 5,000m), starting back at Minneapolis for the USA 10mi Champs, and there’s gonna be a fall racing campaign. The Olympic Trials are in February in LA; that’s the big one. It’ll be my first time at the Olympic Trials, which is really exciting. And then I’ll turn my attention to track and try to knock out some qualifiers for the track Trials, and hopefully compete in some track Olympic Trials at the end of July. It’ll be a fast moving next 9 months. But it won’t lack excitement!
And if all that excitement isn’t enough, you work quite a bit outside your running. Why not just stick with training?
Everyone finds a different way to piece together life and running. I’m really proud that I still work and that I’m pursuing a freelance career. In some way pursuing a freelance career is like trying to start a small business, which has its ups and downs, absolutely. I’m proud of the hard work I do running, but I’m also proud of my steps forward as a professional while pursuing running too.
I think my dream situation is to have a sponsorship to do with running that would allow me to only pick up work that I really want to do. I do enjoy having work and that does help keep me a little more sane.
So with this well-balanced life you’ve found yourself in, what should we expect from Alia Gray the runner in the future?
As cliché as it sounds, I just want to be the best that I can be. I think I’ve kinda been surprised by how much I loved running. The last time I was home my mom kinda jokingly looked at me and said “will you just admit you’re a runner already?! I feel that you spend so much time pretending that you’re something else.” It’s fun to embrace it a bit more. I don’t have an end goal in sight, and my goals keep changing and growing bigger as I get more mature in the sport. I don’t know what my cap is, but I know when I’m working hard and when I’m doing all that I can with my capabilities to be the best runner I can be.
Any last thoughts or advice for the next generation of runners reading this today?
I would just tell them that if they love it, there’s always a way. Not to be super cliché and cheesy, but that’s gotta be at the heart of it. You really have to love it and different challenges come up in the pursuit of that; in college it’s classes, and maybe social life sometimes. For me running is what I always came back to. If I was stressed out running is what made me feel better. A lot of the most positive, influential people have been those that have supported me throughout running.
When I was a kid I loved movies that showed time machines like Time Bandits and Back to The Future, because I wanted to travel in time. And yes, I also loved the first Hot Tub Time Machine movie, because it took me back to when I was a young adult in the 80’s.
I never imagined that running would end up being my time machine. It’s taken me to a place where I’ve been able to run with teenagers and college students, and not get last place. One of my most memorable races this year was at the Empire Summer Series Track Meet #1, running the mile, with the youngsters. Even though most of them were running the race as a workout, it didn’t matter. I was running free and keeping up with high school students and some college students, feeling light on my feet and crossing the finish line with them. For a few minutes I was able to glide and float on the track and not feel the aches and pains and chronic Achilles tendon soreness that I normally feel. I was young.
Of course, the important variable here is that I turned 50 last February.
Turning 50 has been challenging. At first, it was about body perception and aging issues for me.
At the beginning of the year, I grew a full beard, not only because I hate to shave, but because it had become acceptable in popular culture and I figured this was my chance. My nineteen-year-old son Dylan had some of his friends over to the house, and I asked them if I looked like a Hipster. They paused for a moment and then told me seriously that I just looked old. I looked in the mirror and saw a skinny white guy with a mangy salt and pepper beard on my face. I shaved it off after the Valley Ford Relays, no longer wanting to look and feel like a man lost at sea.
I also had friends and business associates commenting on how skinny I was.
I tried to explain to them that I was running sixty miles a week, including intervals, but it didn’t seem to register with them what happens to someone’s body when you attempt to run at a high level. I went from ”skinny” to “very skinny.” Many of these people knew me as “Fat Doug,” my nickname for myself when I was hovering at two hundred pounds. At that time, the only people that commented about my weight were my father and my wife. But when I got skinny, I received a comment about every two weeks – people wondering if I was healthy or not, or making comments like I should put some “meat on my bones.” One person even asked me if I had cancer. This bothered me. When I was “fat,” no one made comments because I suppose it’s not politically correct, but since I’ve been skinny people make comments all the time. Even though I weigh the same as when I was running in college, at times it has made me question if something is really wrong with me.
Turning 50 has also been about witnessing the changes in my eighty-year-old parents, and realizing that I will be there soon.
I’ve lived long enough now that I feel like I know what it’s like to live a decade and can multiply that in my mind two or three times, and be where my parents are now. When I turned 40, I wasn’t able to project forward decades into the future and imagine being there, and I didn’t have the empathy for what happens to all of us when we get older. I have watched my parents suffer and optimistically endure through stomach cancer, diabetes, macular degeneration, arthritis, cataract surgery – the list is endless. And to their credit or dismay, they don’t tell my sister or I about their problems until after they get out of the hospital – because they don’t want us to worry.
So I am thoughtfully thankful to be running so well and in shape at fifty years old, and I don’t take that for granted.
Some of my high school friends are having a tough time as well.
My high school and college track and cross country friend, Kevin, is dealing with the fact that his father, Elmer, is suffering from a number of issues – hydrocephalus (fluid in the brain), blood clots in the brain, has suffered a couple of strokes, and has had trouble talking. Kevin doesn’t know if he will live through the end of the year. As my friends start to deal with dying parents, I start to suffer as well, knowing that in short time I will be experiencing something similar with my parents.
Another high school friend of mine, Eric, who ran some excellent 10K times while at Sonoma State, broke his back in three places, and combined with knee injuries, can no longer run. We were talking this summer and he told me that I was running “for the rest of us” (who can’t run anymore). That struck a chord.
And the week before I left for France this year for the world masters track championships, I received a group email from one of my high school friends that had been on the track team with me, informing us he had Multiple System Atrophy, and that most likely he would die in the next few years. When I read his email I was stunned – he is 50 as well. And so I ask myself, why am I running so well and yet my high school track compatriot is suffering in a wheelchair?
The obvious answer is a combination of genetics, determination, and luck. But I’m more interested in the abstract questions that lie beyond a purely rational explanation. Why do some people suffer more than others? How do we find meaning in the midst of the inevitability of physical and mental suffering?
When I was young attending Cal State University Northridge, I naively thought that if I went to the Oviatt Library enough then I would find the answers somewhere deep within the rows and shelves of books. Towards the end of college I realized that I was not going to find the answers there, and believed that my life experiences might behold some truths. But now at fifty, with five decades of experience, the answers have not revealed themselves. I know that I’m responsible for applying my own meaning, but I keep procrastinating.
From a training point of view, there are a couple of key points. I’ve been able to manage my injuries and get them treated so that I can continuously keep running month after month. Prior to this year I’ve had to take days, weeks, and sometimes months off due to injuries. The second factor has been allowing my body to fully recover after a hard workout or a race by doing easy runs until I felt ready for another hard workout, which for me has been three to five full days. Although this has put me on an irregular 8–10 day workout schedule, it has worked for me. I can come up with a full list, like how I increased my mileage to sixty miles per week, the type of intervals I did, etc., but for me it is still not a satisfactory answer as to why I’m running so well as compared to others. Is it because I took 27 years off of running before I started again? My friend John has a theory that masters’ runners that did not run for years and years do better when they’re older because they have not stressed their tendons, ligaments, and muscles for so many years.
So at 50 the reality of aging and suffering has been an emotional blender of self-reflection. My bachelor’s degree in philosophy does not seem to be helping.
But running has allowed me to forget about those things if only for a few minutes at a time. Running a track race is so intense for me that my mind is purged of extraneous thoughts and all I can do is focus on the race itself. Maybe that’s why I love track – the adrenaline rush before the race, the dread of having to push my body to the limits, the single mindedness of the event, and being completely submerged for a few minutes in time. In those moments I feel completely alive and in motion. Once I cross the finish line, reality swiftly returns. I often think as humans we’re simply keeping busy all the time to keep our minds off of our own mortality and the painful things that are right in front of us. Running keeps me busy.
Ultimately I am so thankful simply to be fully healthy and running so well at fifty years old. When I started running five years ago I never imagined that I would run this fast. I’m so thankful at 50, for everything.
And running a master’s personal record means so much more, because you realize that it may be the apex of your career as an older runner. As hard as I may try the following year, I may not run as fast. I may enter the phase of declining times for the rest of my life.
As for running as a time machine, I’m hoping that it will still work for the years to come, because feeling young again is incredible. No matter what my times are, if running can make me feel significantly younger, than I plan to keep running indefinitely, on the longest of runs.
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.
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.
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.
If you’re an Empire Runners Club member, you may not realize how unique our club actually is.
Last year when I ran in the Pacific Association USATF track finals, I was wondering why there were so many people from other clubs at the event, and in comparison so few from Empire at the track meet. So I went online and checked out all the websites for the other bay area running clubs and found out the answer.
The Empire Runners puts on an astounding 17 races during the year! That’s including our five track meets. And we participate in up to 10 Cross Country meets by traveling to a number of places including San Francisco, Hayward, Folsom, Martinez, San Rafael, and Sacramento!!!
The vast majority of the other running clubs encourage their members to participate in races, but either they don’t put on their own running races, or only a couple. The only exception is the Tamalpa Runners, our southern neighbors, whom I believe also put on approximately 17 events as well!
I’m proud of the club and I don’t take what we do for granted. And I’m proud of the increasing participation were getting in our Summer Track Series, boasting over three hundred participants at our Track Meet #2 which was also our Olympic Day celebration.
One of the greatest joys I receive from the club is simply running with kids, teenagers, college students, thirty somethings, and people of all ages. Experiencing this energy from other club members is really remarkable.
And of course there is the incredible support that we all receive from other club members, who are amazingly positive and supportive, despite the litany of injuries and the trials and tribulations of life that we all go through.
So when I toed the line at the start of the Senior Men’s 50-54 division of the 1500 meters, it meant something to wear that Empire jersey. I was truly representing an exceptional club with a long-standing tradition now almost forty years old. A club that has amazing competency and experience putting on races for the whole extended running community to enjoy, and participating in the PA USATF Cross Country program.
The short story of the race is that I was in third place most of the race and with three hundred meters to go I surged and moved into second place, and then finished .9 seconds behind the leader for second place, in 4:23.12.
But this blog post is not about my race. It’s about “representing” the club by wearing the racing singlet in a track meet, a road race, or a cross country meet, and being proud of that. And trying to expand our members perception about what we do as a club.
Speaking for myself, I totally took for granted all the races the club puts on, and participates in, and in ignorance I thought all running clubs did the same. I’ve been an Empire Runners member now for five years, and it took me four years to realize that the core competency of our club is putting on races.
It’s so easy just to show up at a race and run, and not be aware of the organizational zeal it takes to put one on. But now having had some exposure to the behind the scenes organization of the races, it’s A LOT OF WORK. And the Empire Runners Club has a dedicated core group of people that put these races as well as organize our cross country program that deserve recognition.
So I encourage our club members to wear the Empire Runners jersey proudly, to not only represent an extraordinary club with a long tradition of dedication to the running community, but also to appreciate what the club has done for you personally.
Here is the race video: https://www.facebook.com/dan.monteau/videos/10206680083468059/?pnref=story
(Lead photo courtesy of Zach Hetrick, http://www.zachhetrick.com)
In the second edition of Empire Women All-Stars, we touch base with the Redwood Empire’s most recent National Champion, Lauren Wallace. Lauren captured a historic 1,000m indoor title earlier this year, despite beginning her T&F career as a sprinter while at Ukiah High School. We chat with Lauren about the move up in distance, her journey as a professional, and what lies ahead.
Despite being the Redwood Empire’s most recent middle-distance star, you took a different trajectory than many others. Can you tell us a little bit about your introduction to the sport?
I owe my beginnings of the sport to three people – my mom and dad, Lisa Cortina and Scott Wallace, who both ran high school track and cross country, and my high school coach and mentor Dan Jurado. My mom and dad laid the foundation, and Dan helped develop me as a sprinter. My parents always knew that I would eventually gravitate towards the distances, both being long distance runners. But I loved the sprints, and Coach Dan encouraged me to develop as much speed as I could in those early stages.
The transition happened at the end of my freshman year in college. My coach at the time, Deanne Vochatzer, pulled me aside and asked if I would be interested in running the 800m. I was a walk-on for the program and probably would have done anything they asked, so long as I stayed on the team. I obliged and my mother was thrilled (laughs).
In 2013 you made the jump to the national level, competing at NCAA’s and the US Championships. What was it like performing at such a big stage in such a (relatively) new event?
Both of those events were such incredible opportunities for me. The NCAA championship didn’t end exactly how I wanted it to. I placed 8th but ran away with a personal best. The US Championships were on an entirely different level. I had never raced against women that I had looked up to for so long. To toe the line against those incredible women solidified that I wanted to live this life for some time to come.
What would “high school” Lauren say if you were told that one day you’d be a National Champion – in the 1,000m?
I wouldn’t have believed myself. High school Lauren didn’t envision herself running after college. I didn’t know what the NCAA regional meet was until I was a sophomore in college (the year that I qualified). High school Lauren wanted to join the Peace Corps.
How has this breakout year changed things for you?
Earning the US National Indoor title did change some things for me both on and off the track. Oiselle re-signed me through 2016 and expanded my contract. They made it possible for me to no longer have to work my part time job and instead allocate my time to training and recovering full time.
Despite that 1,000m victory, you’re primarily an 800m runner. The United States is arguably the best country in the world at 800m. How has that depth helped you, and how is it a challenge?
It is an honor to be able to compete with the best in the world right here in the United States. Having this much depth in the 800m always keeps you hungry for more. It’s really easy to refocus during a tough track workout or long run when I think about all the other talented women I get to toe the line with. It definitely is challenging as well though. It’s going to be extremely tough making World and Olympic teams in the coming years when really anyone in the final could run away with a top three spot.
You’ve dabbled in the 1,500m, including a nice PR just this week. Any thoughts on eventually moving up, or at least adding it as a more serious secondary event?
I don’t know if I’ll ever move up permanently, but I wouldn’t write it off by any means. I am already starting to consider it a more serious event for myself. I’d like to be nationally competitive in both the 800m and the 1500m. It’s always nice to have options.
Well, you’re unquestionably competitive at that 800m, and you’ll prove it yet again at the USATF Outdoor Championships coming up in Eugene on June 25th. What should your fans expect to see there?
My preliminary goal is to earn a lane in the final. As we talked about earlier, any woman in the final has the ability to contend for a spot on the team.
From time to time I’ll meet someone who is looking for a place to run in the area. Of course my first response is “you have to check out Annadel. It’s this great park with miles of trails and great scenery”. I am surprised when some of them look at me and respond that they are training for a road race, so they would never touch a trail because it is not what they are going to race on, and there’s no telling them different. Sometimes I just want to loudly silence their ignorance by proclaiming all of the benefits that they are missing out on by simply running on the roads. I admit that there is something to be said to doing workouts on the road or track if you’re training for a track race or road race, but there are so many reasons to jump on the trails from time to time.
Mental fatigue – Running day-in and day-out on the same roads, however convenient, may start to wear on you psychologically. It is good to get away to a new location from time to time, and you might as well mix it up somewhere with a view. Getting out somewhere new will help refresh the mind and help reduce the chance of mental staleness. Peanut butter and jelly sandwiches are delicious, but do you really want to eat them for lunch every day? Same thing with running, changing routes up once in a while can keep your favorites fresher and more enjoyable.
OCD – With the invention of GPS, people are becoming so obsessed with the speed and distance of every run. On the trails, you’re up in a rolling terrain, so you can start to psychologically get away from the grind of having to hit a specific pace all the time. On the trails you can relax and enjoy the run. If you normally do 7 miles in an hour on the roads, go for an hour run on the trails at a similar effort. This will help you in your recovery; sometimes we get so wrapped up in the numbers we forget to listen to our body. If you’re not feeling great running free of pace gives you the opportunity to back the pace off and actively recover before the next workout.
Muscle stability and imbalances – Running on the roads is very predictable which is good for workouts because you can approach each one with consistency and gradually watch yourself improve. When you run on the roads every day, your body begins to get very acquainted to firing very specific muscles in a very specific sequence to help with your running efficiency. However, with some muscles firing more than others, it will cause some muscles to become proportionately stronger than others. This disproportioned state of muscle activation and strength is called an imbalance. Usually, it is the stabilizer muscles that are the ones that get neglected the most in this situation. These are the ones that keep the joints strong and stable, when these are neglected and become weaker as does the joints they stabilize. By getting on the trails, where it’s uneven, your body has to react and change with each step. This can help get those stabilizer muscles firing more and help reduce those imbalances and in turn help reduce injuries.
I would also like to mention that I want this blog to be something that you all want to read. So please feel free to leave a comment below with what you thought about the blog as well as future topics that you would like to hear about.
June 23rd is the anniversary date for the founding of the modern Olympic Games by Pierre de Frédy, Baron de Coubertin. To honor what has been the greatest global peace movement by engaging in sport by the World’s youth, the International Olympic Committee and the US Olympic Committee encourage the staging of Olympic Day celebrations on this date. The Empire Runners Club of Sonoma County has as its central mission to encourage exercise and health through running and to provide support through volunteerism and sizable monetary donations to the running programs for Sonoma County’s youth. Primarily this has benefitted local schools and children, but not exclusively. One such set of events is our annual Summer Track Series – this year at Santa Rosa High School. Our second meet is set for June 23rd. As such, we have applied for and been granted by the USOC permission to designate our event an Official Olympic Day event. These open track meets draw several hundred participants, half of which are 18 or younger. It is our objective for the June 23rd meet to draw attention to the Olympic Movement, its high principles and to the Olympians amongst us as inspiration for all who attend. Our program ‐ 30 minutes long – will start immediately after the 1st event, the Mile Run (approx. 6:30 pm):
Please feel free to contact me for info. We encourage a large turnout. If you plan to run in the track series, please pre‐register online. http://www.empirerunners.org/event‐1862604. First event is at 6 pm. Please plan to join us and introduce your children to the Olympic Movement. John Harmon Olympic Day Coordinator Empire Runners Club of Sonoma County email@example.com mobile 707 547 7412