Interview with Sara Bei
by Erik Heinonen

With about a mile to go at 2003 NCAA Cross Country Championships, Sara Bei runs in seventh place.
(All Photos: Alison Wade/New York Road Runners)
Sara Bei uses a strong kick to finish third at the 2003 NCAA Cross Country Championships.
Bei (center) with her Stanford teammates, holding the NCAA Championship trophy.

With a third-place finish at last month's NCAA Cross Country Championships in Waterloo, Iowa, Sara Bei became the third Stanford harrier to fill the number three spot on the award stand since 2001, following in the footsteps of Lauren Fleshman (3rd, '01) and current teammate Alicia Craig (3rd, '02). Bei's run — a marked improvement on her 57th place finish at the 2002 national meet — proved a pivotal performance for the Cardinal as they edged BYU 120-128, to win the program's first NCAA team title since 1996. Selected the 2003 Pac-10 Women's Cross Country Athlete of the Year, Bei, a junior, presaged her third-place national finish with a win at the PAC-10 Championships and a runner-up showing at the NCAA Pre-National Invitational in Waterloo.

As a prep, the Montgomery High standout became the first — and, thus far, only — athlete in California history to win four state cross country titles. Bei capped her senior season with a win at the Foot Locker Cross Country Championships, after also qualifying for the national meet as a freshman (10th) and sophomore (3rd).

As a Stanford frosh, Bei earned conference newcomer-of-the-year honors in cross country and finished 12th over 5,000m at the NCAA Track & Field Championships in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. In 2002-2003, the Santa Rosa native claimed her first PAC-10 Cross Country title and was again an NCAA 5,000 finalist (13th).

Bei, who owns personal bests of 4:20 (1,500m), 16:03 (5,000m) and 33:58 (10,000m), also represented the U.S. in both the World Junior Track & Field and Cross Country Championships in 2002. Away from the oval, the human biology major is a three-time PAC-10 All-Academic honoree and was named an Academic-All American by the US Cross Country Coaches Association in 2002. Bei isn't the only star student-athlete in her family, however. Her father Gary was a baseball letterman at Stanford in 1974 and 1975, and her older sister Amy pole vaulted and fenced at Harvard. Congratulations on you run at Nationals. How did the race play out for you?
Sara Bei:
Going into the race, I had talked with (Stanford coach) Dena (Evans) and she wanted me to stay in the top 10 the whole race but not lead. She wanted me to be between places five and 10 and just stay there. She said 'Even if you're feeling good, stay there and save it for the end.' I was able to get out pretty well and get in the position that I needed to be. I think I was around 10th going around the turn after the start. I stayed there and tried to be right behind Michaela Mannova from BYU, because I knew I had to do my part for the team and not let anyone from BYU beat me. I felt really good and it was pretty incredible because I was expecting it to be a really tough race, with such a fast pace and the conditions.

FW: Do you feel like the cold temperatures (21 degrees, 8 degrees wind chill) played much of a part in how the race turned out? It certainly seemed like the weather was on the mind of lots of athletes, particularly those from warmer places.
I'm someone who grew up in California and has never raced in the cold. Last year's Nationals in Indiana were the coldest conditions I'd ever run in, and I don't think people considered that very cold. I don't think it was really a factor [though]. At least on our team, everyone felt warm during the race. I think we overdressed if anything, but I wanted to err on that side, because I was freezing the week before at Regionals (in Portland). People didn't think that was very cold, but I was dying (laughs). I guess I have less of a cold tolerance than most people, not being used to racing in the cold, but I thought [Nationals] was fine.

FW: How was the wait after the race for the final scores to be announced, given the unofficial and official scores flip-flopped Stanford and BYU at last years meet?
It was kind of hard because I was pretty excited but Dena was completely unexcited. She was like, 'No, we're not going to get excited until we have the trophy in our hands.' It was hard [last year] when we'd thought we'd won but we didn't. In a way, I'm kind of happy it did happen that way because we got a taste of what it would be like to win and I think that really made us hungry for it this year, just having that experience of thinking for a little while we had won. Those are some of the greatest moments when you do win. It was hard because we didn't get that burst of excitement; it was more of progressive build up.

FW: How would you rate the nationals performance compared to some of your other achievements?
It's hard to say because races are so different. There's the race itself and the whole story behind it, so it's hard to compare them. I think this is probably my favorite race just because of a lot of things I've gone through leading up to it, and I knew that it was a really important race for me. I've been really disappointed with not being able to perform to my fitness in past NCAA meets. I always measure the success of my season by those races, and so it was hard because I knew I was in great shape [based on] training, but I didn't have good races. It was an important step for me in trusting God, that He is faithful and if you do put in the work and training — you have to do your part... I would just be praying 'Lord, why does this always happen?' and not really understanding that. I think He was just calling me to trust Him in the race and set things up where I really did have to trust. Regionals didn't go well, which was similar to past years, so He really wanted me to trust in Him and He really gave me a peace in the race — I knew He was in control. I've never experienced that in a race before, having it feel so, I don't want to say easy because I don't want to come across as conceited, but I really don't feel like it was all my strength out there. I definitely put in the work and was capable of running the time I did, but just how it felt, I know that God was present with me during the race and that was really exciting.

FW: You mentioned doing your part. Was there anything that you did different in your preparation or during the race itself this year?
No, not really. That was something that really frustrated me in the past, because there was nothing that I could pinpoint as far as training, thought processes or anything else leading up to the race that caused it, so it was hard to predict if it would happen again. I know that it's easy to look at it on paper and say, 'Oh, that person has mental problems [in races],' but I don't write myself off like that because I know myself as a runner, and I know I'm someone who gives everything on [race] day. Each year you learn more, and I've learned to trust God more with my racing. Obviously, I'm more prepared physically than in years past too, but I don't think there's anything I can pinpoint that determined my success this time.

FW: Now, in high school you were known for being able to run your way through the field as the race progressed, but at Stanford the mentality seems to be more of a get-out-hard-and-stay-close-to-the-front. Has it been difficult to make that kind of change in tactics?
Yeah, it was a tough transition at first. I wasn't used to going out hard in races. Every year I ran at Foot Locker Nationals, I was just about last at the mile. That was something that was more a result of not knowing much in high school. It's funny to look back and laugh about so many things that I really believed were true. In high school, I didn't have that much guidance so I came up with my own ideas as to what I thought was going to work. How I ran and my racing strategy were more a product of my own thinking that 'Oh, everyone else goes out too hard, but I'm the smart one who paces herself.' (Laughs)

I think it was smart in some instances, but I know I went out too slow in a lot of races. That's how I ran, and that was my background coming into college. It was hard — being used to always having a lot at the end, and always moving up and getting momentum by passing other people throughout the race — instead being the one up in front who was being hunted rather than moving up and hunting people. That was a hard transition at first, but by the end of my freshman year, I really enjoyed racing that way. And especially my sophomore year when it was Lauren, Alicia and I running together a lot. I really loved that feeling of the three of us out in front flying together. Those are some of my most memorable races. I definitely think it's a smarter way to run. As far as my background though, I do run better from the back a little bit more, but it's not always possible. You could maybe do it in high school, but in college, you can just get buried, and that happened to me freshman year at NCAAs [Editor's Note: She finished 89th]. I learned from that race that you can't do that.

FW: How has the team dynamic changed having a couple of key runners from last year's team graduated and a big incoming freshman class?
It was really different this year, being one of the old people. I still feel really young in many respects, and it's caused us juniors to have to grow up a lot. We depended on people like Lauren and Malindi (Elmore), who had so much wisdom and experience, and followed them. They knew what the workouts were all about, they'd done all the races before, and they were great leaders for us. I knew we really had to step up with so many freshman and such a talented group, because we needed [their help] in order to do well this year. It was a different dynamic, but it was a really, really fun team, and I really enjoyed the freshman who came in this year. Half our team is freshman, I think there are 10 freshmen out of 20 girls. I enjoyed them not just as teammates and competitors — because they are very tough in practice and have great work ethics in practice and outside of practice — but I also really enjoyed them as people, and each one of their personalities. I'm glad that we won Nationals this year with this team because it's a really special group.

FW: Going back a bit, you were pretty successful as high school freshman. Was that you're first year of running seriously or did you get into the sport before that?
I ran my first race in junior high — seventh grade. I was a soccer player since I was five and did basketball, too, through my freshman year of high school. We didn't have a soccer team in junior high, but my sister [ran] cross country. I knew I had speed from soccer, and my Dad played baseball at Stanford and is really quick. I think all three of us got his quickness genes (laughs). I was the person in soccer who they had run all over the field, so I knew running (talent) was something God had gifted me with. I just loved it. I was pretty successful in seventh grade, I think I won every race except for one, and it helped me build a passion for it. That summer after seventh grade was when I started training a little bit, but I really started training the summer before freshman year. I lived across the street from miles and miles of gorgeous trails and it was really fun for me to go hit the trails, and I just started to love it.

FW: Was it tough making the transition from not having much competition towards the end of high school, except at the biggest meets, to having people at your level or above it at practice every day in college?
I think I made a pretty good transition just because my senior year of high school things changed a lot, with Amber Trotter being in my league and Jenny Aldridge too. I did have competition pretty regularly, even in dual meets. One thing that has been great about Stanford is that it's a completely noncompetitive environment in practice. It's hard to explain that to people, because from the outside it seems like it would be really competitive with so many talented runners together... That was probably my biggest worry coming into Stanford, that it would be too competitive. But it's not, and that is something I really appreciate about our team.

FW: How much did your training change from high school to college, and how much has it changed while you've been in college?
It didn't change too much initially, because I did a decent amount of mileage in high school. I was pretty consistently between 60 and 65 miles a week my senior year. I did 70 pretty consistently freshman year [here]. Workouts were actually a lot easier in college. Having people to run them with made them so much easier than high school. Racing was a little bit more of a transition, but training-wise it was a good adjustment. Since I've been in college, it's been exciting, having benchmark workouts we do and seeing improvements each year. And I do more mileage now than when I started, and it's exciting being able to handle more, being able to run farther, and faster in tempo runs. That's something I've really enjoyed: the process. Not just getting to race, but doing workouts and the process of getting there. Some of my workouts with Alicia have been a lot more memorable than races, and I'm looking forward to a couple more years of that.

FW: How has it been balancing athletics and academics at Stanford?
I really enjoy the academics at Stanford. I'm a human biology major, and I love learning everything we're taught in class. I enjoy going to lecture, which is kind of strange, because in high school it's just get-through-the-day (laughs). I took exercise physiology this last quarter, and everything we learned is applicable to running and being an endurance athlete. I really like it; it's a tough balance, but with the time-management skills you learn in high school, it's not much different.

FW: Looking ahead to next spring, are you planning to focus on the 5,000, or do you have any interest in stepping down to the 1,500 or up to the 10,000?
I think the 5,000 will be my primary event, but in talking to Dena, she says she wants me to be a 1,500m runner who happens to run the 5,000 well. That's not saying that I'm going to focus on the 1,500, but I'm going to try to work on my speed more, because that's something I haven't done as much at Stanford as I think we could have. I think we're going to run mostly 1,500s and 5,000s and probably not do many 10,000s. I'm really excited about the 3,000 indoors because I think that's the best event for me.

FW: How are the Olympic Trials going to figure into your plan, or have you not thought that far ahead?
I kind of like to take things one step at a time. You can make plans and have goals, but they don't always happen. I do hope to compete in the Trials, though, and I'm scheduling things around being able to run in them.

(Interview conducted December 20, 2003, posted December 30, 2003)

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