When the top pros cross the finish line at a major marathon, it's an organized affair. They are expected to be arriving then, so their families and coaches are waiting for them, ready with clothes and food and hugs. When Sarah Sellers crossed the line at Boston in 2:44:04 -- four minutes behind the winner, American Desiree Linden -- no one expected her. The last time her parents and husband had been able to see her on course, she was in 11th or 12th place. They didn't know she had moved up so many places. She didn't even know.
In the cold rain and heavy winds, Sellers, 26, ran through the finish in unadorned running clothes, with no sponsors. She stopped her watch "like an idiot," she jokes, and asked the officials what place she ended up. Then she had to ask again: second in what division? They couldn't mean overall, she thought. With the rain blowing in her eyes, it'd been impossible to tell how many people ahead of her had dropped out.
"I was passing big names, but there are a lot of big names in the race," she says. Even though she thought it was going well, she says, "I'm the ultimate pessimist."
Finally, her husband, Blake, found her in the finish area and she told him she was second. "He started jumping up and down and I realized it was real."
Then, this unknown runner, who works full-time as a nurse anesthetist at Banner Medical Center in Tucson, Arizona, was ushered into the race hotel while someone went to find her drop bag -- the bag regular runners drop off at the starting line with warm dry clothes for the finish. Since no one had expected her, she had to wait for an hour before they found her dry clothes, then she was sent through drug testing and a news conference, where the first question was, "Tell us who you are."
Despite how it might seem, though, Sellers did not appear out of nowhere. She didn't wake up that Monday morning suddenly able to run with the best in the world. In fact, she's been running competitively since she was a kid. And this was exactly the kind of performance she always dreamed might be possible but never imagined could really happen -- and certainly didn't plan for.
"The craziest part is that I haven't woken up and had it all be a dream yet," Sellers says.
As a child in Ogden, Utah, she ran before school on the trails with her parents. "I've been a runner my whole life," Sellers says. She went on to run in college at Weber State.
"She was a good collegiate distance runner," says Paul Pilkington, who coached her at Weber State and is now guiding her again. She ran a 32:51 10,000-meter race in college and just missed the school record in the 5,000 meters. She was named female athlete of the year in 2012. (Current NBA guard Damian Lillard was the school's male athlete of the year.) She was a nine-time conference champion. Certainly she expected to run at least somewhat competitively after college.
But then, her senior year, she was diagnosed with a stress fracture in the navicular bone in her foot. "It was pretty devastating," Sellers says.
"It's a very difficult bone to heal," Pilkington says. Because of its position on the top of the foot, the bone doesn't get a lot of blood flow, which slows healing. Some athletes never come back from a navicular stress fracture.
Sellers couldn't run at all for a year. Then for three years, she ran only a couple of times per week casually, which worked out because she was busy in nursing school at the time anyway. She could have just moved on at that point to other interests and forgotten about serious running, but she had unfinished business.
"My sophomore year I made myself a bet that I wouldn't eat ice cream until I was All-American," she says. After the injury, though, she was never able to achieve that goal -- so she simply didn't eat ice cream at all for five years, which ought to offer a clue about what kind of dedicated athlete she is. "Until last summer, my husband convinced me I was beating myself up over something I couldn't do anything about," she says, and she finally ate ice cream again.
Last May, she graduated from nursing school and started a new job in July. She worked four 10-hour days each week and started getting back into serious training, with speed work and tempo runs fit around her work schedule. Her brother wanted to run the Boston Marathon, so she ran the Huntsville (Utah) Marathon in September in a qualifying time of 2:44. She called up Pilkington and asked him to start coaching her again.
"She wanted to beat her brother," Pilkington says, and she wanted to run an Olympic trials qualifying A standard (2:37). Pilkington gave her workouts, and they spoke each week to check in. She started running at 4 a.m. before work and 8 p.m. after her shift.
The key, she says, was simply to decide in advance what the training plan was and then stick to it. That way when the alarm went off before 4 a.m., she didn't have to decide whether she was going to get up because she had already decided.
"The hardest part was doing hard workouts after work," she says. In the operating room, she is on her feet all day and can't reliably eat snacks or stay hydrated. It's emotionally and physically draining.
But she kept at it. "She's a gritty girl," Pilkington says.
She signed up for the Boston Marathon just like any other runner, paying her entry fee and submitting her time. Her time qualified her to start in the elite wave as one of the fast amateur runners. She still checked in at the expo and rode the bus out with the uninvited elites to the starting line.
Then, because of the rainy and cold weather that day, she tucked her head down and changed her race plans. A goal time was out the window, but she planned to just tuck in. Best case scenario, if a miracle happened, she thought she could be in the top 10 -- still an impressive result.
"I knew she was in good shape, but I wouldn't have predicted [second place]," Pilkington says.
Then something in the gritty runner -- who wouldn't eat ice cream for five years, who ran tired so many early mornings and late nights, who grew up training in cold, miserable weather -- propelled her past all those famous professionals. The weather played in her favor, and Sellers stayed amazingly consistent, running exactly even splits. She kept chugging along and, fortunately, she says, never got hypothermic -- just miserable.
At Miles 21 or 22, she passed New York Marathon winner Shalane Flanagan. "For a moment, it took me away from the pain of the race," she says. She couldn't believe it was real. But the craziest part happened in the last four miles. That's when she slowly moved from 11th or 12th up to second, as so many of the big names dropped out.
Since crossing that finish line, Sellers has become a running media sensation. She woke up at 2:30 a.m. to do a live interview on the BBC during the London Marathon. She's done dozens of interviews. She had no social media presence before the race; now Kara Goucher has goaded her into joining Twitter. The hospital gave her Wednesday of the marathon week off because of all the craziness, but then she was back at work on Thursday.
So what now?
"She'll run a lot faster," Pilkington predicts.
"I feel like I still have a lot left to prove," she says. She is still working out her specific race goals, but she's not going to quit her job and she's not going to move across the country to join a training squad. She's using the $75,000 in prize money to pay off student loans. And she's going to keep doing what she's doing, except hopefully with some more balance and time to sleep.
It's a journey she's been on -- and one that's been a long time coming. That's her advice for other runners, too -- for anyone getting up early before work to achieve their goals. "Be happy and be proud of the progress you're making," she says. It could pay off with a dream race one day.