Interview: Heather Sagan
By Alison Wade

While most of the spectators during the 2002 NCAA Indoor mile final focused on the duel up front between Lena Nilsson and Shalane Flanagan, Heather Sagan stealthily worked her way up through the field, getting ready to strike with one lap to go. Though she didn't take the lead until the final straightaway, Sagan claimed it for good, pulling off the upset victory in 4:38.52. Despite being a two-time NCAA Cross Country National qualifier (finishing 59th in 2000 and 74th in 2001), this was Sagan's first trip to track nationals. We caught up with the Liberty University senior on March 19th, ten days after her NCAA victory.

Heather Sagan wins the mile at the 2002 NCAA Indoor Track & Field Championships.
(Photo: New York Road Runners)
Sagan wins her Friday night mile heat at the 2002 NCAA Indoor Championships.
(Photo: New York Road Runners) At the beginning of the indoor season, did you ever think that you'd be a national champion?
Heather Sagan: No. My junior year my goal was to make it to nationals, and I seemed so close but I never made it. So my goal for my senior year was to simply make it.

And then once you qualified for NCAAs, did you re-evaluate and come up with a new goal?
Actually, I'd been having such amazing workouts and I really felt like I had been improving. And so I did have hopes of winning, but I had no idea how it was all going to come together.

You were pretty close to the back of the pack in the beginning of the NCAA mile final. Could you tell us a little about how the race unfolded?
Well, I'm a kicker. I like to be patient and kick at the end, because I have a pretty strong kick. My coach (Brant Tolsma) and I talked about it and we figured that it would probably be to my benefit to stay in the back. In the prelims the day before, there had been so much traffic and I ended up running in lane two and getting pushed around, and stepped on, and stepping on others. If I stayed in the back I would not get my stride chopped off, which would probably be to my benefit.

I didn't want to be in the back because I thought, 'Oh no, I'm going to lose the head pack.' But I just tried to be patient. I was in eighth place for a while and then seventh place for three laps, I think. Then I moved up to fifth with three laps to go and moved into fourth place on the bell lap. It wasn't until the last 100 meters that I started passing first and second.

Now that you've had some time to reflect on it, how does it feel to be an NCAA Champion?
It took a while to set in, but it's really been a lot of fun. I'm a Christian and I know that the only way that I was able to achieve this victory was through God's strength. He's really been my motivator. I believe that God is the one who has given me these talents and helped developed them. So it's just really made me see how real God is, being able to be national champion.

What are your goals for the outdoor season now?
Well, I'd like to continue to drop some time in the 1,500, I'd like to make it to nationals, and see how that goes. If I don't get injured and I can continue to stay strong, I'd like to try to make it to USA Track & Field Nationals in the summer. (The 'A' standard is 4:17.00, the 'B' standard is 4:18.00.)

What's your best 1,500 time right now?
I believe it's a 4:24. However, I believe the 1,500 split I ran in the mile at nationals was faster than that.

Yeah, it would have to be. And your nationals time (4:38.52) was a PR by about five seconds?
Yes, before my PR was a 4:43.08.

And you've dropped 10 seconds off your time in the past year?
Yes, last year's PR was a 4:48, so I did drop ten seconds by my last race this year.

Do you have any idea how this whole breakthrough came about and why you were able to improve your time so much?
Well... I really just think it's a miracle. I think that God has just really been multiplying my talents and I know that my winter training was a lot more intense, my workouts this semester have been a lot more intense. I've been a lot more driven. I've just had a lot of support too, between my coaches and my teammates and my parents and my fiancee, I have a lot of people who are supporting me and praying for me. I just decided to [move to] a new level of dedication.

What changes are involved with a decision to become more dedicated?
It's probably mostly [a change in] mental focus - not just showing up to practice just to run but actually having planned out what I wanted to run and taking each workout seriously.

What were some of the key workouts leading up to NCAAs that indicated that something special might be happening?
Well, I don't know when it was but sometime after I qualified for Nationals, I had a workout that was 10x300m. I think I had a 100 meter jog for my rest, and they were supposed to be at my mile pace. So it ended up being almost two miles at my mile pace, and I ran each of them faster than mile pace. So that gave me a lot of confidence, even though I had that 100 meter jog, I wasn't racing, I was the only one on the track. It was just neat because I finished five of them and I was just like, 'Okay, I'm ready to quit.' And then I just started praying I had enough strength to finish and I finished stronger, my second five were faster than my first five.

What kind of mileage were you doing during the indoor season?
I stuck with 50-55 and then tapered a little bit, closer to conference, and ECACs and nationals. I'm not a high-mileage runner.

You ran a 3,000 to open your outdoor season [the weekend of March 16], do you ever race longer than that?
Actually that was only my second 3,000 outdoors. Indoors I did one 5k, last semester, but that was just kind of for fun. (She won in 9:34.54.)

Are the longer distances something that interest you?
After the race on Saturday, I just was so glad that I run the 1,500 (laughs).

What about the 800?
I do like the 800, but I couldn't go as far with the 800. My times aren't anything impressive.

What's your PR?
It was a split in a relay, I think 2:10. It's a decent time but it's not going to get me anywhere.

Is your strong kick something that you just have, or is it something that you've worked to develop?
I love to finish my workouts strong, it helps me mentally. The last few intervals of every workout I always make my strongest. I plan my workouts to be cutdowns, even if that's not the assignment. If I have eight 800s, I automatically start off slow and get faster. That's kind of just my style and it works best for me mentally.

And if you keep practicing it in the workouts, it seems that it would come naturally in races.
Right. In high school, I did have a kick though, even though I didn't train.

Speaking of high school, we heard you got a pretty late start on your running career?
I started running cross country my junior year of high school. I actually couldn't finish the season out because of shin splints. I wasn't anything really impressive in high school, but because I started so late and my times were decent, it gave the coaches indication that I had room for improvement. My PR in the 1,600 was a 5:12, and the 800 was a 2:19.

Did you participate in other sports before taking up running your junior year?
No, not in high school or middle school. When I was younger I did soccer, but I really wasn't an athlete, I was more into music, particularly choir and band.

What promted the move to cross country and track?
Well I went to public my sophomore year, I had been at private school and home school before that, so I never really did any sports. I wasn't even athletic by any means. I was in P.E. class and I remember I finished the mile for the Presidential Fitness Program in like 7:48. The P.E. coach was like, 'Heather, you should run track!' And our number one miler in the state was in my P.E. class and she was like, 'Yeah, you should run cross country!'So she kind of convinced me and I went out for it.

How did cross country go, what were your times like?
My first year, which was my junior year, I think I ran like a high 20 (under 21:00). My coach was impressed, it was my first year running and it put me in the top five. My senior year I ran low 20s, and then one race I ran a 19:40 - that was my regional meet. But then I went to Foot Locker Regionals. I didn't make it to Foot Locker Nationals, but I went to Regionals and my whole goal was to beat this one girl. I had no idea what my splits were and when I finished, I had run an 18:17, so it was like a minute and a half off my time.

Had colleges already expressed interest in you at that point?
When they called my coach, it was hard to know whether they were really interested in me or if it was because my teammate was so good. My coach would tell them about me. So I did have people who were interested in me, not for a full scholarship but I had a few persistent coaches interested in me. I decided I didn't want to run for a secular school, I wanted to go to a Christian college. Liberty's Division I and they're Christian, so that's where I decided to go.

In looking through results from your freshman and sophomore years, it looks like you ran a bunch of times in the 19s and 20s, is that pretty representative?
Well, my freshman year and sophomore year were pretty rough for cross country. I was anemic my sophomore year. I don't think I broke 20 my sophmore year... well, I might have done it once. And I broke 20 once my freshman year. I was actually contemplating giving up running.

Were you running good track times?
My freshman year, I think they were right around what I had run in high school. And then my sophomore year, after I had tackled anemia and had begun really training, I started improving. I think I won our conference in the 1,500 and the 800 that spring.

Was that the point when you decided that you should indeed stick with running?
Yes. That Christmas break, I just decided to stay dedicated. I had a friend of mine, who's now my fiancee, who really helped motivate me in my training. When I came out, I was ready to run. From my sophomore track season on, my times have continually gone down. It's rare for me to have a race that's not a PR, which is a real blessing because that doesn't happen to most people. Unless it's a race that's purely strategical where I don't care about my times, just place, most of my races have been PRs or really close to them.

That year and a half when you were having a rough time much have been really frustrating though.
It was really hard, it helped me evaluate: 'Why do I run? It hurts, I'm not good at it. What is the purpose of running?' And I think that having that time to evaluate and set my priorities straight and get my perspective and realize that I run because God has given me talents and I want to use them to give him glory. That's been my motivation in all of my training. I have what I feel is a really deep purpose, and it's just part of me and it really motivates my training.

Have you thought about your post-collegiate running plans yet?
Yes. I don't know what to do, my coach was going to look into some things. I don't really know where or how to go from here, but I do plan on running after I graduate. I wasn't going to. I was actually ready to move on with my life, to become a normal person (laughs), not a runner. Just because of the indoor season I realized that I probably should keep running. I enjoy it.

But you don't know where you'll live or who you'll be coached by?
Well, that's all up in the air because I'm going to get married. My fiancee (Bruce Kite) used to run for Liberty and he would like to coach me, he's kind of been coaching me all along, as a friend, on the side. By no means do my coach and my fiancee butt heads, they both reiterate the same things. So I'm not sure. Coach Tolsma, I think, would be more than willing to help me out, maybe get me into races and everything. But Bruce and I haven't decided where we want to live, he lives in Allentown, Pennsylvania.

So it's a long-distance relationship right now?
Yes, I haven't seen him since Valentine's Day.

So he didn't even get to see you run at NCAAs?
No, my parents were there though.

When are you getting married?
I still have to student teach because I'm in education. I was going to student teach in the fall and that's up in the air now because I was going to go overseas to teach. But if I'm going to continue to train, I don't think I'd be able to train overseas. I'm going to go to a Spanish culture and it may not be safe to run by myself. We were going to get married when I came back from teaching, but if I don't go overseas we may get married in August.

It's clear that your religion is a central part of your life and plays a strong role in your running. Could you tell us a little more about that?
I think one of the key parts was when I was struggling with anemia my sophomore year. I didn't know that it was anemia, but all I new was that I was putting the work in and never seeing the results. It was a very frustrating time. With athletes, it's hard because we pour so much energy into running and into athletics that when they're not going well, they can make the rest of your life seem pointless. And I realized that athletics is not something that I want to be first and foremost in my life, and so I needed to have something that was consistent in life.

I realized that the word of God is true and that God is always going to be here. He is so faithful and He will never let me down. So I just decided to put all my trust and all my purpose in Christ. I spent a lot of time reading the Bible and getting a lot of verses, because there are so many good verses in the Bible that encourage and motivate me for running. All throughout the Bible... I just read the psalms and I have little stick figures of runners beside all the verses, because they seem so applicable. And I have really learned a lot about training through reading the Bible -- about perseverance, about working hard... There's a verse in the Bible that says that God has given us everything and through him, we're able to accomplish things and we give him the glory. And I just know that he's given me the talent of running and so once I began reading the Bible more and really just spending time with the Lord and making him my best friend, I realized that I wanted to run for God.

One of the things that really spoke to me during my hardest point, during my sophomore year, was a Eric Liddell (of Chariots of Fire fame) quote, 'When I run, I feel God's pleasure.' I'm really inspired by Eric Liddell's story, I just wanted to run and know that God was pleased with me. I decided then not to worry about my expectations and the coach's expectations, scholarship expectations, or even what the team expects out of me, and just run to please God. And that was a huge difference because there was no pressure. For every race that I ran, all I had to do was run my best for God and it didn't matter what happened. My times didn't matter and it didn't matter what other people thought about it. So when you run that way, there's no fear. It frees you and it's enjoyable, something that I think a lot of high-level athletes miss out on. And so it's just been so fun. Every race is a new experience and it's just really changed my life, and changed my running.

Have you been able to talk to many other Christian athletes?
Everyone on our team is Christian and we have a Bible study that I actually lead. Our team is very close and my coach has written a book, The Surrendered Christian Athlete by Brant Tolsma, and that has so much wisdom in it. It really helps me realize how I'm supposed to use my talent for God. I speak to a lot Christians, I've been trying to pray with all my competitors. I just started this this semester actually, trying to pray with all of my competitors before the race, just so that they know that I'm not out there to promote myself. I'm not trying to give a sermon, I'm just trying to pray and if anyone wants to, they join me. Each race is not to promote Heather Sagan, it's just to see what God has given me and show that.

Have you found that your competitors are pretty receptive?
Yeah, I've had a lot of girls come up and thank me for praying and I've had a lot of people ask me questions. It's really neat, I love it. My favorite topic to talk about is the Lord, because he's my best friend. It's also nice too because now is kind of a confusing time for me, I just have been able to trust that God knows what he wants for me and he'll direct me like he always does. I think one of the biggest things that gave me confidence during the race at nationals was I knew that God was faithful to me every workout. I knew that the same God that was faithful in workouts would be faithful during my race, because he's the same yesterday, today and forever. I went into the race with the confidence that God was strong and big and He could handle anything.

That must provide you with a lot of confidence. It seems like some runners get into high-pressure situations like that, lose their confidence and forget that they belong there.
I'm so blessed to know what my purpose is for running because I think it's easy to get discouraged if your whole life revolves around running. I'm really thankful that God has shown me there's more to life than simply running.

Speaking of that, what are your other interests outside of running?
I enjoy music. I love to sing, I'm not a good singer but I just enjoy singing (laughs). It's hard because I haven't been able to pour my time into music. I love to play the guitar and piano but I haven't even touched the instruments since I've come to college. But I just love being around people, I love spending time with friends. If I have free time, I don't go to the movies, I just call a friend. I'm really involved in my church, my fiancee is as well. I also love other cultures. My major is teaching English as a second language, so I can either go into other countries and teach English, or I can stay in the States and people from other countries come to me. That really excites me, learning about different countries.

If you aren't able to travel abroad to do your student teaching, will you still end up with the same degree?
Yes. All the student teaching is for is to work under a teacher to help us along for the first bit so that we can kind of get the ins and outs of teaching. So if I go to another country, I'll be shadowing an ESL teacher, but if I stay in the States, I'll be doing the same thing. I just wanted to become more fluent in Spanish, that's why I wanted to go overseas.

Are you relatively fluent in Spanish?
After my Spanish quiz today, I'd say no, but I thought so (laughs). I worked as a translator in Bolivia one summer, but that was four years ago and it's kind of left me a little.

What meets will we see you running in this spring?
Raleigh Relays is in two weeks (March 30). We have a really strong distance team right now but three of our girls just got injured, it's really sad. We had planned to do all these 4x1500s and 4x800s but if they don't get better, I'll probably run the 1,500 at Raleigh, which I did last year. I'm going to run at Duke (The Duke Invitational, April 5-6) in the 1,500. I'll be going to Penn Relays where I might be able to run an open 1,500. I may do a relay at Penn. In the past, I focused more on the relays than my individual races, but I think my coach is going to try to put me in individual races to help me out a little. Then we have Big South (April 18-20). I think we have a small one in Lynchburg which I may not run, and then ECACs at Princeton (May 17-19). I think that those are the main ones.

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