Up until today, if you had asked me what the best place for training was in the country I would have told you it was Bellingham Washington, my college town, with its deep green forested trails, soft with layers of dead pine needles and the long boardwalk along the bay, but now I know that’s not true. It’s Flagstaff, Arizona.
And I live here now.
I can trace the true origins of this move back to a single phone call with Pete Rea. Yes, Pete, the guy who wasn’t even my coach anymore, cared enough to tell me the truth.
One day last year he called me and we started with the usual, how was training, how was life talk, but I knew he had something on his mind and I finally told him to just spit it out.
Pete: “Fine. I’m just going to say it. I’m going to say what no one else has the balls to say to you. You’re making a mistake.”
He told me that I, like all professional runners, had a very short window of opportunity and that I was squandering it by trying to train alone in a small town in Kentucky.
Me: “But Pete, I’ve started a life here,” I said, flustered, “I mean, Michael has a job here!”
Pete: “I know that, but I don’t want you to hit forty and look back and wish that you had done it right, that you’d gone all in. Do you really think that you’re going to see your best running training alone in a tiny town in Eastern Kentucky, Sarah? You won’t. You will not. Not even close. You might get a little bit faster but you aren’t going to even scratch the surface of your potential until you train in an environment where you are pushed. You need to be pushed by altitude and by women who are capable of kicking your ass on a daily basis. Maybe Zap wasn’t the place for that, but training by yourself in Eastern Kentucky certainly isn’t either.”
Me: “But Pete, for crying out loud, I just bought a house here!”
Pete: “F*#%ing sell it.”
I got angry at him. I shouted a little, cried a little, and then thought a lot. He was right. I’ve always prided myself on being the one in a million runner who can make it work anywhere. I wanted to believe that I was tough enough to train alone, in a place without trails, without a single flat option besides a treadmill and with brutal conditions six months out of the year.
But the truth is, Pete was right, and my running was slowly dying in Kentucky. Every day was a struggle. I put off my run until ten or eleven in the morning then finally climbed into the car and drove to one of the three venues I had available. All three were hilly, all three were simple out and back gravel roads, none longer than seven miles, and all three were made unbearable by the Kentucky summer heat and humidity. But strangely, though I hated running in Kentucky, I loved living there.
Kentucky gets a bum rap. Sure, plenty of the clichés are true. There are chubby rednecks who drive around town in jacked-up pickup trucks with confederate flag bumper stickers peeling off of dusty tailgates. There are also plenty of toothless old timers flying down the highway at three miles per hour in John Deer tractors, but there are good things too.
It’s heartbreaking to know that Michael and I will never leave our Kentucky house again for an evening walk around the neighborhood, holding hands while we listen to the rattling pulse of the cicadas and watch the fireflies flicker on and off in neon yellow bursts as they lazily float above fields of grass so green that they seem covered in the loveliest imaginable shade of mossy velvet. It’s hard to believe that it is already a memory, all of it, from the dark, low clouds bringing thunder cracking across those rolling hills to the ratty, ancient hymnals that rest forever in their slots in the old pews of the hometown church we fell in love with.
Everywhere you live you lay down roots and pulling them up hurts. But this certainly isn’t the first time I’ve had to do some painful yard work.
If you did a “connect the dots” of where Michael and I have lived over the past seven years, you could see that we’ve pinballed our way around the country in a lopsided figure eight.
This is what it looks like on paper:
2011 - Bellingham, Washington to the mountains of North Carolina 2013 - North Carolina to Lake Tahoe, California 2014 - California to western Massachusetts 2015 - Massachusetts to the Appalachian foothills of Eastern Kentucky 2017 - Kentucky to Flagstaff Arizona
I wanted to live everywhere. I wanted to see everything that I could and experience living in every culture that this amazing country has to offer before we settle down to start a family. Along the way, I’ve seen some of the ugliest and prettiest sights from sea to shining sea.
On the ugly end, I’ve run across endless russet plains, stark and monotonous where they litter the earth between the mountains of the east and west. I’ve climbed old snow piles turning black where they have been shoved into the corners of Massachusetts mall parking lots. There is still a rock in the pocket of one of my running jackets from Big Springs, Nebraska, a “blink and you miss it” town I ran an unmemorable 10 miles in long ago.
But I’ve also watched the sun set low on the Pacific in Oregon, salmon and still, and rise over the Atlantic in Maine, icy and azure. I’ve heard the music of the people in the Appalachians and danced to the rhythm of those golden mountains themselves. I’ve submerged myself in that crystal clear water that forms a bowl in the midst of the Sierra Nevadas and chased autumn as it blazed a bright red path up into the hills of New England.
I have fallen in love with different lands time and time again, but I have never, not once, fallen in love with a place so swiftly and wholeheartedly as I have with Flagstaff. As I write these words, I have been here exactly 24 hours. In that time I have run exactly 24 miles. And during those 24 miles and 24 hours I have cried three times from sheer, unbridled happiness. This is where I’m meant to be, and this is where I will stay until I am ready to put pro running behind me.
This will be my last move as a professional runner. I will see the best, and the last, of my professional running career in Flagstaff. I will turn twenty-eight in August and I believe wholeheartedly that the next 7-10 years will bring the peak and then the conclusion of my marathon career, as evidenced by the woman before me. I am no longer naïve enough to assume that I can do this forever. Running led me to my husband and bought me two houses. It has taken me to Europe twice and has introduced me to virtually every single one of my closest friends. It has given me moments of guts and glory that I would not trade for all of Trump’s millions, but running has also made it impossible to rise out of bed in the morning without pain. On August 22nd, when I turn twenty-eight, I will have been a runner for exactly half of my life and in that time I’ve inflicted an incredible amount of damage on my body.
Stiff, aching joints accompany me for the first hour of the day as though I was 77, not 27. My left heel and right hamstring are constant, chronic reminders that I’m not as young as I used to be and as the years go by, the list of permanent grievances grows. Running has given and running has taken away, but it’s been worth it. It’s been so worth it that I had to move to Flagstaff. I have to try to do justice to the window of potential and so I will haunt these trails at 7,000 feet above sea level that have forged Olympians and I will find my own way up the side of this mountain called professional running for as long as I have left in the sport. And hopefully, I will find a running resurrection here. I will become a Phoenix here. (Phoenix….like the bird…..and also like Phoenix, Arizona….see what I did there?)