© James Goldsmith
She only started running at the age of 33, but Sarah Sawyer’s journey from novice to race-winning ultrarunner has followed an impressive upwards trajectory and has featured everything from 24-hour track races to multi-stage events and 100-milers. In 2019, Sarah took on Greece’s infamous 153-mile Spartathlon race and ran her way to a brilliant fourth woman finish.
In this Q&A Sarah reveals her how her running journey began, her typical training schedule (when the world isn’t experiencing a pandemic), how her race calendar has changed due to coronavirus, and lots more.
First things first – are you well, and how has COVID-19 affected your training and racing plans this year?
I’m doing well thank you, even in these crazy times. I’m at the stage where I’m not really sure what I’m training for at the moment! I was meant to be doing Brighton marathon and Comrades in the next three months, which are both obviously postponed/cancelled. Realistically, I’m thinking my next race will hopefully be Tooting 24 hours in September, but I’m fine with that. I always say I love the process of training as much as racing, so this is just going to be a very extended training block!
I’ll hopefully get out to America at the end of the year for a 100-mile race, as one of the things I was hoping to achieve this year with my running was a sub-17-hour 100-miler (current PB is 17:13). At the moment in the UK, we are still allowed to go out to exercise once a day, although it has to be close to home, but fortunately, I love running laps!
I take the view though that it’s only running and racing – there are much more important things going on in the world at the moment, and when this is all over, running and racing will still be there for us.
Let’s rewind a lot. Am I right in thinking that you didn’t take up running until you were 33?
Yes, I started running just over 10 years ago when I was 33. My husband, Tom, and I had spent six months travelling around South East Asia, and I think an experience like that does change you. It made me realise that I didn’t want to go back to my old lifestyle when we got home, which although was lots of fun, was mainly about partying! Tom had got a place with his work charity to run the London marathon, so I thought I’d start running too. I hadn’t run since I was at school and my first run was one mile around our local park in Ealing where we lived at the time. I had no great running aspirations, I just thought that I’d eventually like to run 6 miles which seemed like a nice number of miles to be able to run!
I ran my first half-marathon about nine months after I started running, and then my first marathon about a year after that. I had no natural running talent and did everything wrong on my first marathon (my half-marathon splits were 2:00 and 2:29!), but I absolutely loved every minute of it. A few more marathons followed and then I started dabbling in ultras. Nowadays, I run everything from 5Ks to 100+ mile races and pretty much everything in between.
At what point did you realise you had a talent for running a very long way?
Ha, that’s very kind of you. My husband says I have the ability to chug along all day (which he assures me is a compliment!). I have a bit of a reputation for being able to pace like a metronome and the longer stuff is so much about pacing yourself. I’m also a very much ‘glass overflowing’ type of person and I think that being able to stay positive in ultras is really important, regardless of what’s being thrown at you over the course of many miles and hours.
Your racing is pretty varied – from 24-hour track races to mountainous trail ultras and multi-stage events. Do you mix it up because it keeps you interested or because you just love running?
I do just love all kinds of running… well, apart from cross-country as I don’t do mud! I guess like most runners when you start out you try a bit of everything, so I’ve done runnable ultras to the more mountainous stuff to multi-day ultras, which I basically use as an excuse to see the world! But over the last couple of years, I’ve realised my main running love is long, runnable ultras, so I definitely veer towards those when choosing races, but I do like to mix it up. I also love running shorter stuff on the road as there is nowhere to hide with a hard 10K or road marathon.
What does a typical week of training look like when the world isn’t experiencing a pandemic?
I’ve been coached by Ian Sharman for nearly three years, he is an absolutely brilliant coach and someone I have so much respect for as a runner because of his longevity in the sport. He’s a huge advocate of quality over quantity and not churning out lots of junk miles, so I only tend to run 70-80 miles a week. My training is always very tailored to what I’m training for, but I always run six days a week and it’s broken down as two speedwork sessions, two or three recovery runs and one or two long runs at the weekend.
Where I train will again depend on what I’m training for. I live in Brighton so I have the South Downs and the seafront on my doorstep, and I also love running laps, so have a few good 1-mile lap routes that I run. I know some people like views and scenery when they run; I’m the opposite and can quite happily run for hours on a loop – I guess it’s one of the reasons why I love 24-hour racing so much!
You’re a Pilates instructor. Has practising Pilates helped your running, and does your general training include any cross-training/strength and conditioning?
I started Pilates (and yoga) pretty much when I started running, simply because all the running magazines said you should! And they’ve both been an integral part of my training ever since. Over five years ago, I decided to do my Pilates teaching qualification as I thought it would be useful to further my own knowledge of Pilates. I didn’t initially have any intention of using it to teach, but after qualifying, I started covering some classes and then set up some of my own classes and it’s grown since then. Now I teach alongside my other jobs of copywriting and coaching, which is a really nice mix.
Cross-training forms a big part of my training and I definitely credit it for keeping me injury-free and letting my legs run these long distances. In a typical week, I teach five Pilates lessons, go to two yoga classes, do two weights sessions in the gym and do daily weighted hikes. All this is obviously pre-coronavirus; at the moment I’m just doing whatever I can do at home – last week this included hiking up and down the stairs in a weighted vest!
In 2019 you came an amazing 4th lady at Spartathlon and didn’t have any low points. Have there been any races where you’ve really struggled or contemplated pulling out?
Aww thank you, Spartathlon went like an absolute dream. But I’ve definitely been on the other side! The absolute worse race I’ve ever done was a 125K mountain race in the Pyrenees (GRP Tour des Cirques). I’d run the CCC [race] the year before and absolutely loved it, so I thought a longer, more technical race in the Pyrenees seemed like the next logical step.
However, the reality felt like 80 miles of unrunnable rocks and clambering over boulders – as I said, I love running races and I think I ran about 10% of the entire race. I’ve never felt so miserable in a race, I was even wishing for a minor injury so I had a good excuse to quit! However, I realised feeling miserable isn’t a good enough reason to quit, so I had no choice but to finish. People always laugh at me as I’m always really happy and smiley when I run, [but] believe me there was no smiling going on that day!
What keeps you going in situations like that?
I guess I’m just pretty stubborn and determined. If I say I’m going to do something, short of injury or illness, I will. I always think ultrarunning is like life: sometimes it goes amazingly and sometimes it’s a bit shit, but if you give up when things feel a bit shit, then what does that say about you as a person?
Tell me how you fuelled your 153-mile Spartathon race?
After struggling with nutrition when I first started ultrarunning, over the last few years I’ve found what really works for me and I fuel all my ultras on a mix of Mountain Fuel drinks and Jelly, Longhaul Endurance Ultra-Fuels and pots of custard, and I survived on that for the entire 30:37 hours at Spartathlon. It might not work for everyone, but even when temperatures reached 39 degrees and over 90% humidity in Greece, I suffered no sickness whatsoever
You’ve been known to layer up in winter gear in summer as part of heat training. How detailed do you get with your race preparation?
I am the Queen of Specificity! So I love nothing more than the process of training for a race. And yes, I spent the few weeks before Spartathlon looking like a complete idiot running around Brighton in a down jacket and layers of winter clothes for heat acclimatisation! For Spartathlon all my training was on two 1-mile hilly road routes; if I’m training for a 24-hour track race, I’ll run umpteen laps on the seafront or around the track; and when I was training for the CCC we used to spend a lot of weekends in the Brecon Beacons doing reps of Pen y Fan. I must have a really high boredom threshold because I can do the same thing again and again and not get bored! I tend to focus on two or three ultras a year maximum and train for them really properly and specifically, rather than churn out several ultras which I know compromises my training for them.
Which has been your most memorable race so far?
Ahh, Spartathlon without a doubt. I thought it would be the type of race I’d love, but it exceeded all the expectations I had – I really didn’t think running 153 miles along Greek A-roads could bring so much happiness and joy! Part of me thinks I’ll never love a race as much as I loved Spartathlon, but on the other hand, I’m a bit scared to go back in case it isn’t as good the second time around!
I also loved Crawley 24 Hour, my first 24-hour race, as, to me, it’s just the purest form of ultrarunning – it’s just you, the track and the clock for 24 hours. And on completely the other end of the spectrum, I’ve been really lucky to race in some pretty special places like Bhutan, Patagonia and the Atacama Desert, so they’ve all been really memorable for the ‘wow, I can’t believe I’m running here’ factor
What are your must-have items for training and racing?
Nutrition-wise, the previously mentioned Mountain Fuel, Longhaul Endurance and pots of custard. For trainers, I’m obsessed with the Nike Vaporfly. I wear them for everything from short road races up to 24-hour races/Spartathlon – it’s probably not what Nike intended them for when they designed them as a speedy marathon trainer! I have an embarrassing number of pairs – some people stockpile toilet paper, I stockpile trainers!
I’m an early bird runner and run at 5am every day so my Petzl head torch is an invaluable piece of kit for over half the year, and I love my Garmin Fenix 6 which comes with a 36-hour battery life which is more than long enough for any race I’m planning to do!
What’s next for you, running-wise?
Obviously there’s a lot of uncertainty with racing at the moment, but I’m hoping to do Tooting 24 hours and a lap 100-miler before the end of the year. Beyond that, I think I’ll definitely go and do Comrades next year after coronavirus curtailed it this year. I’ve also got my eye on Ultrabalaton in Hungary and Badwater in Death Valley. And it would be nice to take a bit more off my marathon PB (currently 3:15) as I’ve had such bad luck with road marathons that I hope if I keep persevering it will come together one day!