It was the first of March and the weather in New York state was a chilled but unsurprising 15 degrees. As snow began to lightly fall late in the morning, the 50k Road Championships in Cuamsett State Park ignited a hot, fiery pursuit in its pack of runners—regardless of the accumulating puddles and slick terrain. One runner in particular had the heat to ultimately cook the competition and break the tape: Sarah Bard, the hardworking CRAFT athlete from Somerville, Massachusetts. Bard took the win with a time of 3:23:28, settling for first place spot ahead of course record holder Emily Harrison (3:33:01).
Level Renner got the goods from Sarah on the championship, her preparation, the team training and support, women in the racing world and her well-qualified advice to runners.
You’re now a national champion in the 50k-A well-deserved congratulations! You conquered the icy course and won over the defending champion, course record holder Emily Harrison. What does that title mean to you?
It’s pretty exciting. I only recently got into running and racing ultra distances and hadn’t raced a 50k before. I did the JFK 50 mile in November, which was my first ultra race. When I started my training for the 50k and looking at the competition from past years, it really hit me that a 50k isn’t much longer than a marathon. Emily Harrison went through the marathon at the 2014 race in Caumsett under 2:43(!), so it’s basically running a fast (and in Emily’s case, a very very fast) marathon and then just continuing on for 5 more miles! Winning this year gave me the confidence that I can be competitive in this new chapter of my running.
Let’s look at the main event, the USATF 50k Road Championships, the race that gave you the shot at the title. Run me through race day. How did you feel going into it and did it pan out the way you anticipated it to?
Well, to be honest it didn’t go as I expected in many ways. First off, my training cycle was much shorter than I would typically have in approaching a long and fast race. Typically I’d like something like 14 weeks, but this cycle was just 8 weeks. I ran the JFK 50 miler at the end of November off very little training, so I needed a long time to recover – and I basically ran very little for the entire month of December. But once holiday vacation hit, I started to focus on organizing my training to target the race.
On top of the short training cycle I didn’t do many long, marathon-specific workouts because, as you likely know, this winter was a bit of a hassle when it came to figuring out where and when to run. Usually I prefer long repeats or tempos when it comes to workouts and I typically do them outside on the roads or along the river. But in the conditions we had this winter, it was nearly impossible to do faster stuff outdoors. Instead I did some faster/shorter distance workouts on the indoor track with my speedy training partner, Meagan Nedlo. The workouts were hard and I felt good about my fitness, but I was fairly unsure about my fitness and endurance.
Despite the unorthodox training, I felt surprisingly optimistic going into the race that I could run well and be competitive.
The weather for the race was not great. I was bundled up for the entire race. At one point, I got a little warm and unzipped my top layer a bit, but then my breathing started to labor because my chest was getting cold – so I had to button up again.
The interesting part was actually the course itself. It consisted of one rolling road loop of about 2.6 miles and this ‘dog leg’ out and back at the end of each loop where you ran out on a narrow dirt road, looped around a cul-de-sac, turned 180 degrees and retraced your steps. It would have been a bit tricky in optimal conditions. But, while the road loop was great footing, this little dirt road still had lots of ice and slush – so the footing was uneven and slick and there were some pretty large puddles to navigate – all while trying to stay to the right of the cones to allow for runners going both ways.
As for the race – it was a bit strange. Emily Harrison – who was my closest competition – and I never once ran together. We traded the lead several times over the 10 loops. We’d head out with me in front by 20 meters and come back with her leading by 50. The next loop, it would be the opposite. That part was exhausting – just trying to not settle and become complacent. Your mind always goes through a bit of a rough spot when you get passed and then lose distance. It would have been very easy to come in second to Emily. She’s an incredible, distinguished runner. No one would have given me a hard time for placing second to her (Smiley Emoticon)
In the second to the last lap, Emily fell behind. I came out of the road loop and my husband had a confused look on his face. When I was coming back on the dog leg, I was surprised to see that Emily had fallen back by about a minute. However, with one loop to go, I didn’t want to take my lead for granted. Maybe she was fading, but maybe also she had stopped briefly on the last lap and was now going to come back strong; she certainly has the speed. That’s a fun thing about longer distance races and particularly ultras: you can’t really count people out until they drop out.
Who was the first person you called or texted after your race?
I’m very fortunate; after a big race I always come back to my phone with dozens of messages from friends and family. My husband was there for the race though—he took care of all my liquids and gels. So I got to see him right at the finish line. He’s so supportive and understanding during training cycles and then to stand outside for 3 hours in 15 degree weather handing me bottles—it was nice to be able to make it all worth it.
What have you been up to since you broke the tape?
I haven’t done a lot of ultras and I also haven’t done much trail running – despite really enjoying being outdoors, on the trails hiking. So my next and probably biggest goal is to learn more about long trail races and how to run them. The pacing is totally foreign (running an 8 minute mile means you’re probably going too fast?), the eating and nutrition is vitally important (and hard to pin down). Just figuring out what works takes a bit of trial…and error.
So, I entered and ran the Lake Sonoma 50 – out in Geyersville, CA. I knew I wasn’t at my physical peak, but it’s a crazy competitive race that draws some of the fastest and toughest ultra-runners out there. So I figured, who better to learn from. I know I’m going to make a lot of mistakes in my first few races, so I might as well make them while getting to learn from some of the top runners out there. Plus, it was in California, in April…so why not!?
I actually was running pretty well in that race, up until mile 43, when I took a step and felt a shooting pain behind my knee that stopped me immediately. As far as I could tell, I hadn’t tripped or taken an odd step, my poor training on that sort of terrain had just caught up with me. I had to hobble the last 7 miles to the finish. But it was still fun and a great learning experience.
Your club, CRAFT Concept Racing, promotes a balanced lifestyle for kick ass women in Boston. These runners have a career, family, and want success in their running on a high level. What has your experience been like on CRAFT?
Amazing. CRAFT is still a fledgling team, but the thought behind it and the women who are part of it are all very inspiring.
For me, developing the idea and mission of the Craft team was important toward reestablishing what it means to be a post-collegiate female athlete. I have a job that I’m passionate about, it’s important to me to spend time with my husband, but I’m also committed to my training and to competing at a high level. I wanted a team that understands that there can be a balance – that having a career does not mean that one cannot also have lofty goals.
Our team feels very personal and it’s true that we have to work a bit harder at making things work. But we’re committed to each other and to developing a network of support and that is really what’s important to personal and team success.
Also importantly, I’m proud to run for Craft, the brand. They make some really great products that really consider the needs of athletes (instead of just focusing on fashion). Their clothes look good, but more importantly, they fit well and they work incredibly well. I’m not making a living off it, so if I’m going to promote a brand, I want to make sure that I feel honest and good about it.
What advice would you give to fellow runners, especially women, who are revving up for their own distance races? And for young runners starting out?
I don’t think it’s glaring, which might be the issue, but women in athletics are still under-supported when compared to male counterparts. It’s a bit baffling really, especially in the US and especially in a city like Boston. I think a large part of this problem is that we don’t want to bite the hand that feeds us or seem ungrateful for what we do have, but there’s still a large amount of disparity in our sport. It’s a lot easier to run well (and enjoy it) when you have people who are behind you and your goals.
So, find people who do support you, who push you, who bolster you, who make you better and learn from them. Find people who encourage you to think bigger and expect more. Don’t be afraid to ask questions and ask for help. Runners are often too humble. There aren’t many handbooks for how to have a successful post-collegiate running career. It’s more of a game of telephone. So make friends!
Since 2010, women have surpassed men in the gender game when it comes to race participation. Let’s face it, there are more women out there running than men these days. With the success of committed training programs and clubs like CRAFT, top-tier female athletes like Sarah Bard are able to maintain it all: the balance of true running friendships, tailored coaching, and the welcomed-yet-strenuous training. I say, get out there and go like Bard: grab a friend (guy or gal!), get those miles in and enjoy this crazy little thing called life.
‘Cuz while you’re at it, you might just smash a PR, or win a race, of your own.
You can follow Sarah Bard on Twitter (@sarahjbard) and Craft Concept Racing through their website. Keep up with Barbara Powell via her page The Day Between: Not Quite Sunday.