The 2018 Chicago Marathon’s top American female finisher has a renewed enthusiasm for racing after a benign tumor diagnosis in late 2018.

Digging Deep

Twenty-nine-year-old Sarah Crouch has been turning in A-grade race performances since 2011, when she first qualified for the U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials. In the years since, the 361 athlete—who trains with her sisters Georgia and Shannon, both of whom aspire to join Crouch at the Olympics someday—has finished in the top 10 at the Chicago Marathon three times. After a benign tumor was discovered above her left kidney earlier this year, Crouch has a newfound appreciation for running that’s already affecting the way she races.

Congratulations on finishing as the top American this year in Chicago! From your perspective, how did that race go?

I found myself with the elite American women from mile 1. That’s never happened for me at Chicago before. I was tempted to feel those intimidation feelings. The three women I ran with for a big chunk of the race would lap me at a shorter distance. My experience at the marathon in particular made a big difference that day. One by one they fell off, and I found myself out front. At Chicago it’s really special: the city is heavily crowd supported, and they respond well to the top American runners. I let that energy carry me through.

The last couple miles of Chicago are tough; you tend to have a bit of a headwind. It’s the toughest portion of the race, where most runners are getting tired. I was able to battle through that. I had a rough last 5K but was able to hang on enough to grab that top American spot. That wasn’t a goal of mine going in. It seems to have been the year of the underdog. Who would have thought someone like Sarah Sellers would finish second at Boston? They best part about that is, for those of us who have our eyes on 2020, there’s a lot of hope that on the right day—or the wrong day—amazing things can happen.

What is it about the Chicago course specifically that keeps you coming back?

After last year’s race, I walked away; I drove a few hours down to Kentucky to visit a friend and I cried the whole way down. It was such a terrible day. I thought the Chicago course had killed a part of me.

I just am not the runner I was a year ago. I have a type of confidence back that I haven’t had since college. For me, it made sense to go back to Chicago to prove to myself that I could do what I thought I could do: to set a PR there and do something special. It felt like closure; I’m not sure if I’ll be back next year. I don’t want to say never, since there’s a good chance I will be. I’ve had a love-hate relationship with the Chicago course for the last five years. It’s been a bit of a gamble.

You’ve been performing at a very high level for several years. How do you avoid burnout with all the mileage you’re logging?

After 29 years, how do I still hunger for food or thirst for water? I have to have it. If I didn’t run, didn’t perform, it would feel very much like something was missing in my life. I describe running as a rope. Before this year, I went four years without a personal best. I wasn’t seeing the times I wanted. If running is this rope, over time if you don’t have a PR, that rope starts to fray one thread at a time. The last thread that holds it all together is my love for going outside and putting one foot in front of another. I promised myself a long time ago that when I no longer love it that I won’t do it anymore. It’s as natural to me as breathing.

In what ways does training with your two sisters help you as an athlete?

It’s so much fun; they’re my best friends. It’s so fun to share running with them. I’m at a slightly different level [distance-wise] than they are. It’s an odd mix of camaraderie and sibling rivalry. “While I love her, I don’t want her to beat me.”

I’d like to ask about your benign tumor diagnosis from earlier this year, if you’re comfortable speaking about it. How has that experience affected your day-to-day, both in general and in your approach to running?

These moments stick out in your life, and you’re not sure why. It was the day before Chicago and I’d gotten the tumor out [two weeks earlier]. [The wound] was still fresh and definitely hurt. I had a moment standing in the elevator bank on my hotel floor, and I was waiting for the elevator. For some reason I felt like something was missing. I realized that, for four years in a row, whenever I had a free moment in that hotel I was always nervous and full of dread. This year, the only emotion that overwhelmed me was gratitude. I stood on the starting line, it was windy, the helicopters were going overhead and I kept thinking, I’m so lucky to be here.

There was no part of me that didn’t want to race. Usually there’s a large part of me standing on the starting line that doesn’t want to be there. Having that feeling gone and realizing how narrowly I escaped that inability to do this anymore….I hope that feeling lasts. We tend to have short memories with things like this, but for right now, feeling like I was this near the death of my career gave me a positive perspective on racing. It’s something I choose to do because I love it.

Looking toward the future, what goals do you have for your professional running career in the years ahead?

It’s tough because the easy answer is to say, ‘I want to be an Olympian’ because it’s the pinnacle of the sport. Ultimately what I want is, when my fastest days are behind me, I want to know that I gave everything. I don’t know how to quantify that. There are certain races, like my 10K PR. If I never race another 10K that’s okay because I went so far beyond what I felt that I was capable of. I don’t think I’ve done that in the marathon yet. If I can walk away from my career feeling like I got every last second I was able to out of that distance, I’ll be satisfied.

What does a perfect run look like for you?

My brain is telling me that the perfect run is 45 degrees, cloudy, 20 miles along the coast in New England. I prefer to run alone most days. My perfect run would be losing myself in the colors of the New England fall.