This is Sarah Sumpter's time of year. The air is fresh, the trails alive with color. And recently, on the last Saturday in October, it was almost her day. Six seconds faster, and she would have taken home first place in an all-important cross country race.
She'd pushed the pace from the start, getting in front of the lead pack and challenging the other runners to keep up. The women, wearing their bright college singlets and racing shorts, sprinted lithely across the field to the finish of the UC Riverside cross country course. Sumpter crossed the line for the 6K in 20:33, just a hair behind the leader, in a time good enough to help her team, the UC Davis Aggies, claim its first Big West Conference championship.
And though Sumpter came up a bit short in the end, after a year in which she battled cancer and continued to endure chemo, second was just as sweet as first.
"It has become too easy to let the remarkable nature of this young woman escape me during the day-to-day routine of life in and around a team of distance runners in the throes of what should be best moments of their careers," wrote head coach Drew Wartenburg on his blog. "I have grown to identify Sarah's now willingly shaved head as part of her persona rather than any sort of stigma or emblem associated with cancer survival. ... At every turn, Sarah's willing search for challenge and a longer leash left family, medical professionals, our sports psychologist, teammates, coaches, wondering how to fit this outlier patient-student-athlete into a traditional model for what she was confronting on a daily basis."
Last fall Sumpter went in for a routine doctor's visit. She was in top physical condition, coming off a strong spring on the track and a summer of dedicated training. Sumpter, a state cross country champion in high school, had been recruited by UC Davis to help spearhead its new Division I team, having recently moved up from D-II.
She answered the call with confidence, winning the Big West Conference individual championship in 2009 and earning athlete of the year honors for the school.
By all indications, 2010 should have been a breakthrough for the promising collegiate athlete. But that afternoon doctor's visit changed everything. After undergoing a battery of tests, the diagnosis landed like a brick: Sumpter had brain cancer.
"I was in total denial," she said, remembering her conversation with the physician. "I thought, 'But I have a cross country race tomorrow -- can I still run it?'"
Reality quickly set in. Sumpter was immediately scheduled for a craniotomy to remove as much of the tumor as possible, but because its location was so close to the area of the brain that controls motor function, not all of it could be taken out. The rest is being controlled through chemotherapy, which she is still taking orally, even as she races cross country for UC Davis this fall.
The toughest part, Sumpter said, was the strict "no running" orders from her physician for the two months following surgery. "Running is my religion," she explained. "It is who I am; it defines me. To not run -- I didn't know how to do that."
The timing of it all meant Sumpter missed the 2010 cross country season. It was a tough blow; she was the leader of her team and felt a tremendous responsibility to be there. From her hospital bed, she wrote her coach a letter. "I said I was sorry, and that I'd do everything in my power to be back on the team as soon as possible," Sumpter said. "I felt like I'd let them down."
She also felt angry. "At first it was, let's just get through the surgery," she said. "But after that, I felt so frustrated. I'd been in the best shape of my life before cancer. I'd worked hard and it was paying off. All that was taken away from me, and it really made me mad."
Finding her footing
As soon as the doctor would allow, Sumpter was back to her training. Bit by bit, she found her stride again.
By January 2011, only four months after her diagnosis and surgery, Sumpter was back at team practices, running shorter versions of the workouts as she rebuilt her strength.
When spring rolled around, she decided to test her recovery by competing in track and field, unattached to her team. "I didn't want the burden of having to score points yet," she said. "I needed to spin my wheels and come to terms with running on my own first."
By last summer, she was ready to dive back into the collegiate program full force. "It was like having a blank slate," she said of the summer training program. "It was the first time since my surgery where I felt like I was going into the training on equal footing with my teammates. I did the same workouts as them, followed the same plan."
The goal in summer training, as Sumpter and her teammates knew, was to elevate the team's performance to a level that it had a chance at making the NCAA championships in Terre Haute, Ind., on Nov. 21.
Building a nationals-quality team takes total commitment and Sumpter, now healthy and fit, led charge. The Big West title three weeks ago was a step in the right direction, but as last Saturday's results revealed, Sumpter and UC Davis still have work to do.
At the NCAA West Regionals, Sumpter paced her team, finishing in 28th place overall with a time of 20:58 in the 6K race. As a team, the women finished in eighth place. Only the top two teams qualified for the NCAA championships. Four individuals were selected from each region, but all finished in the top 25. Sumpter and her teammates will be forced to watch from afar.