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In rainy, windy, bone-chilling conditions in April, American Sarah Sellers came across the finish line at the Boston Marathon in second place—as an amateur. She finished the race in 2:44:04, and it was just her second marathon—she only signed up because her younger brother was running it. A former running standout at Weber State University in Ogden, Utah, she works full-time as a nurse anesthetist in Arizona. Since April, she’s become a pro runner, having signed with two sponsors, and she will be racing the New York City Marathon on Nov. 4. It’ll be the 27-year-old’s first time racing New York (and only second visit to the city—she raced a 10K in Central Park over the summer). We caught up with her on her drive to the hospital to start her nursing shift one weekday last week to find out more about how she feels going into her first marathon as an elite runner, how life has changed since April and how she plans to tackle the 26.2 miles through New York’s five boroughs.
How has life—both personally and professionally—changed since Boston?
Lots of exciting changes have happened since Boston. I’m now sponsored by Altra Running and Generation UCAN, I’ve rearranged my work schedule to better accommodate training, and I’m entered in the elite field for New York. I’ve had a lot of new opportunities open up since Boston, and I am extremely grateful for that. I have also had more doubts than ever, though. At times, I’ve felt completely undeserving of these opportunities and doubted everything from my talent to my work ethic. I don’t think I’m unique in this regard; I know all athletes struggle with self-doubt and confidence to varying degrees. But getting second place at Boston has brought those struggles under the glaring spotlight of public scrutiny. This has been a huge adjustment. But at the end of the day, I love running because I love running. When I start feeling overwhelmed by the pressure to perform since my second-place finish at Boston, I try to bring myself back to the reasons I run. I run for the intrinsic joy found in running, for the friendships and relationships made through the sport and for the challenge of pushing myself far out of my comfort zone. None of this has changed since Boston.
What most surprised you about the professional running world since you joined it this spring?
I have been so impressed at how genuine and down-to-earth other professional runners are. If Desiree Linden weren’t one of my running idols before Boston—and she was—she certainly is now. I ran the Philadelphia Rock ‘n Roll Half Marathon … and cooled down after the race with a group of elite women, including Desi. I was kind of disappointed in my performance and talked to Desi for a couple miles of the cool-down. She gave me some great advice which really changed my perspective from short-term disappointment about one race to long-term progression in the sport. Kara Goucher has also reached out in an incredibly supportive way on social media, and I’ve looked up to her ever since I started running. I think distance running is a very raw, humbling sport. The elite women who have had long-term success in the marathon seem to share some common traits—they are genuine, hard-working, relatable and optimistic.
Why are you racing New York (versus another race)?
I planned on doing two marathons a year, so New York made the most sense timing-wise, but probably the biggest reason was I feel like I want to be in the most competitive races I can just to get that experience and be in really high-level fields. New York has the most competitive field of the races within the time frame I was looking for, and it’s just kind of an iconic race.
What was your training like before Boston, and how has that changed after your second-place finish?
My training has honestly not changed a great deal. I trained pretty intensely for Boston, running 90 to 100 miles per week with one or two speed workouts and typically one run over 20 miles. I don’t believe in making drastic changes to training. I prefer to make small adjustments and then evaluate the effect those adjustments have. The biggest change I have tried to make in my training since Boston is an increased emphasis on recovery. Hard workouts are pointless if they’re not followed by proper recovery. You don’t get faster during hard workouts; you get faster during the recovery following intense workouts. I’ve gotten in some very solid training despite weeks where things didn’t go smoothly. I think getting second at Boston gave me a glimpse into my potential if I’m able to stay healthy and put in solid training, so I’ve tried to keep a long-term perspective and let my body recover and heal when it needs to, rather than keep hammering when I’m breaking down. I don’t know what my ultimate potential is in this sport, but I know I won’t reach it if I don’t consistently recover and rebuild.
How have you prepared for this race specifically?
I’ve tried to run more hills this time because I know New York’s a hilly course. And then honestly a lot of it has been very similar to Boston—just trying to work on a lot of strength training. I think lifting and that strength can help a lot on the hills. I really haven’t changed a ton since my Boston training. It’s more been just building on top of that. It’s kind of been a bit of a rocky buildup—I’ve had some sicknesses and injuries in my buildup that made it kind of challenging. I don’t think anyone’s buildup is ever perfect—I think I can still have a really solid race even though it’s been rocky leading up to it.
What are your go-to strength-training workouts?
I try to go to the gym twice a week and do a lot of bodyweight things, like pull-ups, squats and free weight things. I don’t like using the machines—I like the balance and core strength that you get from doing free weights. And then on the days I don’t go to the gym, I try to do core and hip work at home.
What are your goals for New York?
I still want to get the Olympic Trials A standard, so under 2:37, and then ideally if I’m in the low 2:30s range, I think that would be a really good race for kind of where I’m at right now.
And what part of the course are you most looking forward to?
I know when you initially come down into Manhattan, people talk about that part of the course being pretty intense with the crowds and cheering. And at that point, you’re still feeling hopefully pretty good in the race so you can kind of enjoy it. I think that’s going to be really cool. And then Central Park—I raced a 10K in Central Park this summer and I think that’s a pretty cool place to finish the marathon. And of course it’s nice that you’re at the end of the marathon when you’re in Central Park.
What challenges do you expect for race day?
I’ve only raced two marathons, so I feel like I still have a lot to learn. And I know that New York is a hilly course, so I’m trying to run a fast time on a hilly course, and I think the challenge is going to be making adjustments during the race considering the course and the conditions of the day. I think on a flatter course, it’s easier to kind of lock into a pace and be confident that you can maintain that pace. But I think on a course like New York, you really have to make adjustments during the race. And even though I have goals and time goals, I need to make adjustments based on the course and conditions to run a smart race, whether or not that means meeting time goals.
What’s your pre-race routine?
On the day of the race I’ll try to eat a decent meal about three hours before the race. My socks—I always make sure my socks don’t match. That’s my only pre-race superstition—I can’t have matching socks. And I try to visualize the race in the days leading up, but then the day before the race and the day of the race, I try to be more focused on other things and not stress about the race itself at that point because the day before and the day of the race, it’s time to just relax and not be focused on stressing about the course.
Do you have a go-to pump-up song?
I like songs that I use during training because it reminds me of the hard work I did during training. There’s a Kip Moore song, “The Bull,” I really like that song right now. I feel like the words are very motivating to me—he’s talking about imagining if he made it big in the music industry, and he’s on the cover of Rolling Stone, the thank-you speech that he would give. The number one thing that he would thank is all the bulls that bucked him off, and I liked that attitude that the challenges that we face leading up to something are really what we have to thank for preparing us for that event.
How do you manage your schedule now between the demands of being a pro runner and a full-time nurse?
Since Boston, I have made some adjustments to my work schedule to accommodate a more consistent training schedule. My training for Boston was definitely more of a challenge to fit in than it is now. Training for Boston, I did distance runs before work and most of my hard workouts after. I’m a full-time nurse anesthetist, so I spend the majority of my time in the operating room. You can’t eat or drink in the O.R., so it can be a challenge to be hydrated and have proper nutrition for a hard track workout after work. My coworkers and my employer, Banner Healthcare, have been very accommodating and made adjustments to my schedule, so I’m able to do my hard workouts before work now. I still run at 4 a.m. about two to three times per week, but my schedule is much more sustainable now than it was before Boston. I don’t always have as much time as I’d like for lifting, massage, sleep or any of the other accessory components of running, but I don’t know anyone who does. I think we’re all trying to juggle the responsibilities of life and training. I feel very blessed to have the support from my husband and my work so I can prioritize training and recovering better.
What motivates you to maintain such a crazy schedule?
I feel very blessed and thankful both for the opportunity to run as a professional athlete and for my job at the hospital. Both of my jobs I love—I wouldn’t want to give either of them up, so even though sometimes it’s a little bit of a challenge to balance the two, I feel fortunate to have each of them.
What advice would you offer first-time marathoners?
Don’t try to bank time during the race. There’s no such thing as banking time. So if you think, ‘The first half of the race, I’m going to be two minutes faster so I have some leeway the second half of the race,’ that’s totally the opposite mindset from what you should have. Think about banking your leg strength. If anything, your effort should be conservative the first half of the race, so even if you’re slower than pace, you have a better chance making up time in the second half of the race.
Are you doing any touristy things while in New York?
It’s my husband’s first time to New York, and we’re probably going to stay a few days after the race and explore the city. New York has obviously so many iconic places to visit, so [we’ll] hopefully try to visit as many of those as we can in the couple days after the race.
Is there anything else you’d like for our readers to know about you or your expectations for the NYC Marathon?
The first few months after Boston, I was overwhelmed by the pressure and feeling like I was going to disappoint people no matter what I did. And now I feel like I’ve moved past that, and this is my life, and I want to have a happy life and not be constantly beating myself up. Realistically, I’m still ranked very low at New York, so a great race to me might look like a disappointment to some people, and I’m okay with that. I’m at a place now where I can focus on progress on my own timeline and less about what the running community might expect. I got second at Boston, but second at New York could very well be a 2:23, and I’m not ready to do that. So I think I’m just excited to be in the sport for the long haul, and I feel super blessed and excited to be at New York and to be racing such a competitive group of women. I think it’s going to be a really cool opportunity.