The Toughest 20 Minutes

On Thanksgiving morning, as I prepared to race the 3-mile Piedmont Turkey Trot through our community’s hilly neighborhood streets, I asked myself, “Why do I put myself through this?” I have a love-hate feeling toward the 5K, tipping toward the negative now that I’ve become more of a long-distance trail runner. But what I dread about it — the intensity, the self-imposed pressure to meet my goal, the fact that seconds matter, the feeling that I’m going to be sick and my legs will collapse — is also what compels me to do it. In addition to the physical challenge, I bring to this little hometown race more mental baggage than any other running event. It’s for that reason as well that I race it: to work through those issues rather than be weighed down.

Winning the Turkey Trot five years ago. Instead of seeing a fit runner sprinting toward a finish line, I see a crazy lady running pell-mell toward a cliff.

Winning my first Turkey Trot in 2003

I ran my first Piedmont Turkey Trot in 2003. It happened to coincide with our family’s worst Thanksgiving holiday weekend ever and the onset of the lowest point in my adult life (no details necessary; let’s just say “personal problems”), yet I ran one of my best races ever: I won it in 19:10 — a 6:23 pace, which isn’t bad considering the hills on the course. A picture taken of me in the final mile that year haunts me, because instead of seeing a fit runner sprinting toward a finish line, I see a crazy lady running pell-mell toward a cliff.

I skipped the Turkey Trot in 2004 and 2005, then returned in 2006 and 2007. Both years, I wanted to see if I could still break 20 minutes in spite of being about five pounds heavier than in 2003 and not training at the track as regularly. In 2006, I finished in 19:20 (1st age group, 2nd overall) and in 2007, 19:29 (3rd overall).

This year, I felt more ambivalent and less confident than ever. I decided to go for it to see how much I had come back (or not) from the summer’s hiatus caused by the broken foot. I had done two or three track workouts recently, and I got my weight down to normal after being heavier through the first half of the year. I still didn’t think I could do it, though. I felt more intimidated by a tough 20 minutes than by 20-plus miles. Then that Eleanor Roosevelt quote came to me, “You must do the thing you think you cannot do.” I also thought of what my coach, Alphonzo Jackson, told me on so many race mornings: “Just do the damn thing.”

The starting line next to Piedmont High took the edge off my fear and intensity. It’s hard not to share the joy in the parade-like atmosphere of friends and neighbors. There’s no way I can take myself and this race entirely seriously when I’m lining up next to my kids’ friends who are calling me Mrs. Smith — all the grade-school kids who insist on being at the very front of the line — and I’m surrounded by folks I know because we serve hot lunch together at the school or build 4th of July floats together. Several running friends laughed as they patted their paunches, one-upping each other about who had aged more or gained more weight and would run slower this year.

I lined up with my friend and competitor Eileen White, one of the nicest and smartest people I know, who’s full of boundless, goofy energy that she channels into running with a blazing intensity. We have run together for about eight years. She is in her mid-40s and remains one of the fastest, most naturally talented runners in the Bay Area, annually placing near the top of the San Francisco Half Marathon. She usually beats me in races, and on the rare occasion I finish ahead of her, it’s because I get a better start. She is too gracious to elbow her way to the front as I do, hence I get past the tangle of people faster and she has to close the gap. We went through our routine of “I’m gonna follow you” — “no, you’re gonna be way ahead of me, I’ll just keep you in sight” — and we settled on the goal of both of us trying to beat her teenage son. I truly was grateful she was there. Ahead of me or behind, she’d help me run my best.

The gun went off and all was chaos as some 25 or more kids sprinted ahead for about 30 yards and then gave up and jogged or walked, forcing the lead pack to dodge them. I used my elbows to nudge them aside so I could pass without tripping, and I actually put my hands on one kid’s shoulders and firmly moved him out of the way. My kids might be embarrassed at school the following Monday when they hear, “Your mom pushed me!” I kept pushing and sprinting the first half mile until the way was clear and I could establish some kind of rhythm.

The question came back to me: Why do I put myself through this? The thing about a 5K, it hurts from the start. It’s not a 10K, where the race really begins at mile 4. To be competitive, you have to shift to a higher gear immediately and stay there, at the threshold between aerobic and anaerobic. To break 20, I’d need to do 6:50 or better in the first mile, 7 minutes for the second (which has a lot of uphill), and push to sub-6:10 in the final mile (mostly downhill).

I hit the first mile in 6:25 and congratulated myself. We were running through some of Piedmont’s prettiest streets, lined with liquid amber trees that were turning golden-red and stately homes nearly 100 years old. Each block I heard people call “Go Sarah,” but I wouldn’t glance to see who it was. When I’m racing like this, I concentrate on the line down the middle of the road, and I imagine keeping my footstrike parallel to it so my form stays balanced and even. I tell myself to run from my core, keep limbs relaxed, lean forward, and make the cadence quick enough so it’s like pedaling a bike. When it all comes together, I get into what’s been called “the zone” or “flow,” when peak performance is achieved and feels more natural than painful or stressful. This sweet spot is itself an answer to why I do it.

I passed a fire hydrant on Sea View Avenue just past the Mile 2 mark, which I knew from years past that I should hit in 14 minutes or less. My watch said 14:05 — uh oh. I accelerated up the hill. In addition to hearing people cheer my name, I kept hearing congratulatory calls of “first woman.” Yeah, whatever. I actually didn’t want to be first woman, knowing that’s a tactical disadvantage. I knew the others were right behind me, waiting to pass.

We crested the hill and transitioned to the downhill. I forced myself to lean forward and increase my turnover in spite of my legs feeling Gumby-like, ready to give out. The pack hit a sub-6 pace on this stretch, but in spite of the speed a young woman glided past me, some skinny twentysomething. I didn’t particularly mind and wasn’t surprised; I wanted to ask her, What took you so long? C’mon up here and set the pace! Sure enough, as soon as she passed, I found it in me to run faster.

Then, barreling down Craig Street before turning back onto the main street of Highland, I sensed another woman at my back (I don’t know how I knew it was a woman without glancing back — perhaps it was the lighter footsteps — but I could tell it wasn’t a guy coming upon me). “Go for it, Eileen — it’s yours!” I called to her, certain it was my friend. Then I was shocked when a different friend passed me — Anna Gunn, a woman from Walnut Creek who’s around my age and also has kids. I regularly see her in the pre-dawn hours by Lake Merritt, where she leads the women-only Adventure Boot Camp. I had no idea she was behind me. Whoa, I thought, stealth attack! I was happily surprised to see her, though. “Go, Anna!” I yelled, admiring her buff body and hoping she’d catch the college chick. Let’s hear it for fast moms!

Getting passed by Anna made me push the final mile at as close to 100 percent intensity as possible. My lungs felt sand-papered and my legs radiated pain. My lower half began to feel unresponsive, like an epidural before the full numbness kicks in. I heard my family yelling for me at the final turn, and I sensed Eileen right behind me. I pushed and followed Anna into the chutes, a couple of seconds behind her. Eileen followed about six seconds behind me.

My time: 19:39, good enough for third place, six seconds behind the first woman. I felt a surge of satisfaction and relief at having met my goal of running sub-20. “I’m so glad I did it and so glad it’s over,” I told family and friends who congratulated me.

I did what I set out to do — the best I could do on that given day, given my level of training — and felt inspired rather than daunted by the competition. For Thanksgiving, I silently gave thanks that I can run virtually as fast and a whole lot healthier than the person I was in 2003. Then I sliced and savored the apple pie I won.

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4 Responses to The Toughest 20 Minutes

  1. Eileen White December 15, 2008 at 3:56 pm #


    You wrote a GREAT story!!! You are such an excellent writer!

    Rob and I really enjoyed your holiday card. In addition to your running, you can be proud of your beautiful family.

    Happy Holiday!


  2. Sarah December 15, 2008 at 11:25 pm #

    Eileen, you are so sweet. It was great racing with you Thanksgiving morning, as always. I’m sure we’ll run together again soon.


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