You won’t see a city-league basketball player play in the NBA, but in our sport, if you work hard and stick with it, you can do what Sarah did. —Paul Pilkington
Who is Sarah Sellers?
That is what every media outlet in the country has been asking since the Utah native delivered her shocking second-place finish in Monday’s Boston Marathon and became one of the most sought-after interviews in the world. If an amateur golfer had won the Masters it would have been no more surprising.
There have been interview requests from the BBC, Boston Globe, Washington Post, New York Times, USA Today, CBS, NBC and on and on it goes. Sellers looked forward to a return to normalcy when she returned to her home in Tucson, Arizona, Tuesday night, only to find her car with a dead battery in the airport parking lot. She slept 45 minutes that night and was awakened early with another request from the BBC.
“It’s been insane,” she says. “Non-stop. And I feel unequipped for what to do with it.”
Who is Sarah (nee: Callister) Sellers? In a wrap, she was an outstanding high school and collegiate runner at Ogden High and Weber State — and then she dropped out of the running world for five years while dealing with a stubborn injury, grad school and a full-time job.
No one knew who she was when she showed up last week in Boston to compete in running’s most prestigious event. She entered the race only because her brother Ryan planned to do it. In November, she secured a qualifying time for the race by winning the Huntsville Marathon. Boston would be her second marathon ever. As has been widely reported, unlike other top runners, she had to pay her way to the race and pay the $185 entry fee. She has no sponsors and no agent.
When Sellers reached the finish line she didn’t know what place she had taken, and when a race official told her she had finished second she thought it was a mistake. “No, what place was I really?” Sellers repeated. The official told her again that she was second. “No, I wasn’t second. What was my place?” The official repeated it a third time. “Even then, I had to ask my husband to verify that that had really happened,” she says.
Her coach, Paul Pilkington, watching the race on TV from his Ogden home and monitoring a computer app that tracked his runner’s every move, couldn’t believe what he was seeing. “Even when I saw her on TV and it said she was second, I thought they must’ve missed someone,” he says. “I kept hitting the refresh button on my computer for the results and it kept saying she was second.”
Sellers went up against a loaded field Monday that included five Olympic and world championship medalists, three former Boston champions, four of the five fastest American female marathoners in history, and 10 women who had run faster than 2:23 — more than 20 minutes faster than Sellers’ only effort.
Sarah Callister Sellers, an Ogden native, was a nine-time Big Sky champion during her career at Weber State from 2009-12. On Monday, April 16, 2018, Sellers finished second in the Boston Marathon.
For her part, Sellers had no credentials before entering the race other than the Huntsville race and a half-marathon in Phoenix in February in which she finished fourth. Which is why the day’s headlines repeated themselves all over the world: Who is Sarah Sellers?
After a standout career at Ogden High — a perennial distance-running power in Utah — she was a nine-time Big Sky Conference champion from 2009-11 and never lost a conference race in three years of competition. But in February 2012, at the outset of her senior season, she was diagnosed with a stress fracture in the navicular bone of her foot. She not only missed her entire senior season, but it would be years before she competed again.
The injury was slow healing, and for the next year she didn’t run at all. The second year she ran occasionally but not intensely. The third year she tried to increase the intensity of her runs but it only inflamed the old injury.
“The smart thing would’ve been for me to walk away and not risk further damage and long-term implications,” she says.
By 2015, she was in grad school at Barry University in Florida to become a nurse anesthetist. Even if she had been able to run, her schedule and odd hours would have precluded it. She ran lightly, competed in a few low-key road races and bided her time until she completed school in May 2017.
She took a job in Arizona and, after five years of little running, she began to run more seriously. When her brother convinced her to run the Boston Marathon with him, she won the Huntsville race last September in 2:44:27.
With Boston in her sights, she called Pilkington, her college coach, and asked him to write a training program for her. They talked on the phone on Sunday or Monday to plan that week’s workouts, and then she would report the results to him. To train, she either ran before work at 4 a.m., or after completing one of her 10-hour shifts at 7 p.m.
In December, she returned to Ogden for 10 days and trained with two other former Weber stars — Lindsey Anderson, a 2008 Olympian who is making a comeback, and Taylor Ward, the ninth-place finisher in last fall’s Chicago Marathon.
“That was the only training she did with other runners, says Pilkington. “Everything else was by herself. But her training went well.”
Sellers gave a hint of things to come when she ran a 5:55 mile pace for 20 miles in one of her final intense training runs before Boston.
Much of her training had been based on trying to run a fast time in Boston. “I didn’t think much about place because it was such a loaded field,” she says. “An optimistic goal would’ve been top 15. That said, I was seeded 42nd.”
“Our original plan was to run 2:30-2:32,” says Pilkington. But Saturday he saw the forecast for Monday and scrapped their race plan. The weather for the race would be some of the worst in the 122-year history of the event, with 40-degree temperatures, a wind-chill of 29, wind gusts of 30 miles per hour, and a cold, driving rain.
“Under those conditions I told her to hold back and run conservatively,” says Pilkington.
Sarah Sellers, of the United States, center in purple with black cap, sets out from the start in the middle of the elite womens pack during the 122nd running of the Boston Marathon in Hopkinton, Mass., Monday, April 16, 2018. | Mary Schwalm, Associated Press
Chris Troyanos, the race medical coordinator, reported that more than 2,500 people sought medical attention after the race, including 25 elite runners, and claimed that cold weather was responsible for 95 percent of all treatments. Several elite runners simply dropped out of the race.
When a lead pack broke away at 5,000 meters, Sellers let them go and bided her time. As she explained it, “Everyone was dealing with the same conditions, so I didn’t feel like I was at a disadvantage. Having run in Utah sleet and getting pretty cold, I was prepared mentally. I would’ve walked across the line if I had to. I had nothing to lose.”
Pilkington, tracking her on TV and laptop, began to realize something special was happening. “At the halfway mark she was about 25th and when the field got to 35K (21.7 miles) I got a glimpse of her on TV because I knew what she was wearing. I could see her way in back running alone, but I could also see the lead pack was not getting any farther away from her. I thought, wow!
"She was about 12th at that point. It occurred to me that when the leaders made a move there was going to be some dead meat falling off the back and she would be in a good spot, and that’s what happened. She went from 12th to second in a little more than four miles.”
It was a war of attrition as the more aggressive runners faded in the cold conditions. Sellers’ patience paid off. She ran the second half of the race faster than the first half — which is remarkable considering that that is the toughest section of the race (and includes Heartbreak Hill) — and faster than anyone in the race.
As Sellers tells it, “Rachel Hyland (the eventual fourth-place finisher) made a move some time halfway through the race to break away. I went with her and tried to hang on to her for the middle miles. I left her in the last mile and a half.”
Sellers finished in 2:44:04, four minutes behind Desiree Linden, who became the first American woman to win the race in 33 years.
“That’s what is unique about our sport,” says Pilkington, who made world headlines himself by winning the 1995 L.A. Marathon while serving as the pacesetter. “You won’t see a city-league basketball player play in the NBA, but in our sport, if you work hard and stick with it, you can do what Sarah did.”
Two days after her big race, Sellers was scheduled to return to work, but she was given the day off. A full-time nurse anesthetist, she planned to return to work Thursday.
Sarah Sellers and her husband Blake Sellers after she finished second in the Boston Marathon. | Provided by Sarah Sellers
She has received some inquiries from sponsors and agents, but says she wants to let things settle down before she makes any such decisions.
“I don’t think a lot is going to change day to day,” she says. “I’m keeping everything in perspective. I have incredible admiration for where American distance running is right now. I have an opportunity, but I can’t pretend I’ve done things I haven’t. I had a spectacular day, but I’ve still got a lot to do.”
Perhaps Pilkington put it all in perspective best when he said, “As a marathoner, the one thing you’re always asked is if you ran Boston. For the rest of her life, Sarah can say, yeah, I took second place.”