From Broadway to the London Marathon
Sarah Bowden, a high-level theater performer, discovered a new source of movement through running. This weekend’s London Marathon will be a true test.
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Tuesday morning flights out of Boston following Marathon Monday are notorious for their hoards of grumpy, sore runners shuffling down the aisles and straining to lift their suitcases.
In 2019, musical theater performer Sarah Bowden, 40, was one of those runners, though she was neither grumpy nor sore. Instead, she hopped off a plane in San Francisco, 24 hours after finishing her second marathon in 4:01, and was onstage that evening in the touring production of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.
“I’ve always been like this,” says Bowden. “I’ve always had this extra energy—my family calls me an Energizer Bunny.”
This weekend, the Australian-born, New York City-based actor will put her boundless energy to its greatest test yet—running the London Marathon in the midst of performing in Moulin Rouge! on Broadway in New York City, eight shows a week, all to raise money for the Make-A-Wish Foundation.
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Bowden admits that many people, including her theater colleagues, think she’s crazy. And yet, if you look at her resumé—both as an accomplished performer and as a runner—the decision to run London tracks. Before 2017, Bowden wasn’t a runner at all. But while performing in a production of The Hunchback of Notre Dame in Berlin, Germany, she was inspired to raise money for an organization that serves disabled adults after they came to see a show. On a whim, she decided to sign up for the Berlin Marathon, and go from zero to 26.2 miles in a few months.
“I didn’t really train,” she says. “I would just go for a run a half-hour before the show sometimes. I thought, I’m a dancer, it can’t be that hard. You just put one foot in front of the other.” The morning of Berlin, Bowden woke up feeling sick, but decided to push through. The race took her around six and a half hours. “That was the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life.”
A Six-Star Challenge
She may have been a one-time marathoner, were it not for the fact that, while on tour with Charlie, she happened to pass through Chicago during race weekend in 2018. While on a boat tour, she noticed two women in their 80s wearing large medals. They had just earned their sixth star for completing all of the World Marathon Majors, after working towards it for 20 years. Bowden learned that, unbeknownst to her, she was already one-sixth of the way to her own fancy medal.
Shortly after, the tour stopped in Boston, where Bowden visited the Boston Children’s Hospital and hatched her next plan: Run the Boston Marathon to raise money for the hospital. This time, she used Peloton’s training program, with a goal of breaking four hours. She found that she loved running in a new city every week, and says that even with the travel and performing, it wasn’t too physically taxing. (She calls Charlie a “relatively easy dance show.”)
On marathon weekend, she had a two-show-day in Los Angeles on Saturday, flew to Boston on Sunday, finished one minute short of her goal on Monday, and flew to San Francisco on Tuesday to get back to the show.
Even for Bowden, Moulin Rouge! is a beast. The nearly three hours of nonstop dancing has her jumping into the splits, leaping into her partner’s arms, and doing countless can-cans. And though she started training for London with a plan, Bowden soon had to abandon it to ensure she could make it through the show eight times a week.
“The plan was stressing me out too much,” she says. “And I’m not doing this marathon to stress myself out. I’m doing it because I want to raise money for a good cause, and I want to have a nice time doing it. So I threw the plan out the window.”
That has meant fitting in runs whenever she can, with whatever energy she has leftover from performing. Sometimes, that looks like running 10 miles in between her two shows on a Saturday, during the short break most performers use to take a nap. Other weeks, she logs hardly any miles at all, like recently, when she was feeling under the weather and needed to save everything she had for the stage.
“I have to be mindful of being able to give 150 percent on stage every night,” she says. “And whatever I have left in the tank is what I can give to this run. The running has to come secondary to the work.”
Her longest run of this cycle will be the 13 miles she ran spontaneously on a recent Tuesday, potentially risky, as Tuesday marks the start of a Broadway performer’s workweek. She was surprised by how easily it came, and how well she recovered—a testament to the fact that dancing for nearly 24 hours a week counts toward aerobic fitness and time-on-feet. Bowden also does yoga every day and takes dance classes one-to-two times a week. For recovery, she hits the steam room, or uses Moulin Rouge!’s staff physical therapist.
“I’m not great at taking care of my body,” she says. “I kind of just thrash it around.”
Bowden’s greatest challenge this weekend in London will be taking it easy and resisting the temptation to take a second crack at breaking four hours, since, true-to-form, she’ll only have the Monday after the race to relax in London before landing in New York City, mid-afternoon on Tuesday, where she’ll be back in costume by 7 P.M.
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Setting herself up for a successful return to Broadway will require smart pacing and a focus on taking in the course’s sights and sounds, rather than the time on the clock. “I want to absorb all the people and open my eyes and look around me,” she says. “I’m trying to have this lovely balance of running the race and raising money and doing the right thing, while still keeping my body in some kind of shape to do a can-can on Tuesday night.”
Her bosses at Moulin Rouge! aren’t worried. “They’re used to my crazy and know that I’m pretty reliable and consistent,” she says. “If I say I’m gonna run a marathon and come to work the next day, then I’m gonna show up.”
On to New York
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Bowden’s path to six stars will likely be a relatively quick one: She hopes to knock out the New York City Marathon this year and raise money for Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS, and then tackle Chicago shortly thereafter, perhaps in 2024. Tokyo, where she lived early in her career, will be “the cherry on top.”
For now, she’ll use London as an opportunity to give back in a way that’s heartwarmingly full-circle: “I made my Broadway debut in Moulin Rouge! last year, and it was a dream come true,” she says. “The Make-A-Wish Foundation grants wishes for kids who are terminally-ill, so I wanted to pay that forward and help somebody else have their dreams come true.”
For Bowden, running is a much-needed outlet from the demands of a performing career. “I’ve been judged my whole life,” she says. “You go to an audition; you’re good enough or you’re not good enough. It’s rewarding work, but it’s work. Whereas with running, I can get physical and sweaty, but there is no judgment with it—no one’s judging how fast I run, or how well I run. It’s really freeing.”