Interview with Sara Wells
By Scott Douglas

Sara Wells competes at the 2003 USA 20K Championships in New Haven, Connecticut.
(Both photos: Alison Wade/New York Road Runners)
Wells competes at the 2003 USA Cross Country Championships in Houston.

In her only marathon, Sara Wells won last spring's national championships, which were held on the course that will be the site of April 3's U.S. Olympic Team Trials - Women's Marathon. On a frigid day, Wells passed Colleen De Reuck with just more than a mile to go to record a strong debut time of 2:35:37.

Wells, who turns 25 two weeks before the Trials, graduated from Oklahoma State University in 2001. In the fall of 2002, she joined Team USA Minnesota, a Twin Cities-based group whose other female members include Carrie Tollefson and Katie McGregor. Since joining the program, Wells has run in the World Cross Country Championships and set a half-marathon PR of 1:12:50, in addition to her marathon win last April.

FW: So, how's that winter in Minnesota working out for you?
Sara Wells:
It's been a little different this year because I've been injured and been doing a lot of crosstraining indoors. I might as well have been anywhere, because I've been indoors so much in the pool, doing the stairmaster, on the elliptical.

FW: How much have you been running?
My highest mileage has been around 80 a week, plus the crosstraining. Last year before the marathon it was more like 100, consistently.

FW: Is this all because of your, what's it called?
Spondylothesis. That's what the MRI showed. A lot of doctors say you can have it for a long time, until you do something to aggravate it. In my case, it's probably from doing gymnastics when I was younger. Some people can have it and never know it.

FW: What exactly is it?
It's a stress fracture in the spine, where the lower lumbar meets the sacrum. It broke completely through, the vertebrae broke completely forward. It causes some sciatic pain, and hamstring tendinitis, high, at the attachment.

FW: When did it start bothering you?
When I was coming back from the marathon last year. The worst I felt was at the [USA Half-Marathon Championships] — my back really tightened up there. I would try to keep training through it. I might be able to get a workout in, no real problems, but then not be able to run the next day. I finally had to go through a period of no running. Now I'm getting more running mixed in, but it's still been hardwhen it was real snowy here a while back, the unevenness, the bad footing made it bad.

FW: What have you been doing to treat it?
Physical therapy and core strengthening, strengthening the area around it to take some of the pressure off. It's helpedI've been feeling stronger in my running. It's probably something I should have been doing anyway.

FW: So with all of this going on, what do you think is possible at the Trials?
It's hard to tell. I'm not doing the racing that I was before the marathon last year, so it's hard to get a gauge. I feel like I'm in good shapeI've been doing a lot of hard crosstraining workouts. Running, I've only done a few indoor workouts and one small 5K here indoors. [Wells ran 16:22, 11 seconds off her PR.] That felt really good. And I'm going to the Gate River 15K this weekend. [Wells finished fourth in 50:51, 44 seconds slower than at last year's race.] That'll help me know more where I stand.

FW: Will that be your last race before the Trials?
I might do an 8K here the next week, just to get in something faster, to make marathon pace feel a little easier.

FW: For how long have you been at 80 a week?
For the last month or two, I've had some weeks at 80, but not consistently. It's certainly not what I had been doing before the marathon last year.

FW: Going into your first marathon last year, what did you think would happen? Did you think you'd run about 2:35?
I don't know, I was really just shooting for 2:39, breaking the "A" standard for the Trials. It felt really comfortable until the last six miles.

FW: Was your 2:35 pretty even pace?
I think it was pretty good. Around 18 I started to slow down some. The last mile I was pretty heavy-legged. You know, I didn't know what to expect. I'd heard all the horror storiesI thought it might be worse. It certainly wasn't enjoyable, but it could have been worse. I hope this time to be competitive and go faster.

FW: How do you think the Trials race will go now that the Olympic "A" standard has been relaxed?
I don't know. Will it be a slower race? The beginning is going to be weird, with that many women on the track. You do three laps on the track, then out on the roads. Some people might take off really fast so that they don't get caught back behind going 7:00 for the first mile with everyone on the track.

FW: How do you like the course?
Well, I don't have a lot to compare it to, but I liked it. There will be good crowd support with the loops. There's one hill that I rememberyou go on it four times, and it comes at about 25 the last time. That's where I caught up to Colleen last time.

FW: Is there anything obvious about the course where you would think, 'This is the place where something is going to happen?'
I don't really analyze that sort of thing much before. Each race dictates itself. Last year, I think I was the only person who didn't do the bus tour of the course. Of course, now I've run it. I guess that hill could be it, especially the last time you hit it. Sometimes on runs now I'll visualize myself pushing up that hill and staying strong once I'm up it. Mentally, I've been going over the course.

FW: It seemed like last year, your running the marathon was, well, not a lark, but not something you'd focused on from far out. Now this time there's been this whole year where you know you're going to do the Trials.
Yeah, it's a lot different coming in to it this year. Last year, there were so many other races. I knew I wanted to get in a marathon, but I don't think it was maybe January until my coach and I decided on doing the one in St. Louis. I don't know if that's a good or bad thing, with so much depending on the outcome of this one race. Hopefully it's good.

FW: Have you been running much with others in Team USA Minnesota?
Last year we ran together a lot more. Around this time of year is usually when we more start training for different things and diverging. Last year before that point, we were running together three or four times a week, if not more. This year I've done almost all my training by myself, which has been kinda tough. A lot of always being on my own is because of all the crosstraining. The few times I've gone to the track there have been people there. Like yesterday, there were six of us at the indoor track, so we can warm up and cool down together.

FW: What about your long runs?
I like running those with people, and I usually do if I'm not injured. We're on different schedules, though, and maybe doing our long runs on different days. And with the weather, when it was real snowy here, I ran long on the treadmill. That actually helpsit keeps you honest with the pace.

FW: What kind of support does the team thing provide?
I think it's great. I've never been in such a runner's community as the Twin Cities. People have asked me, 'Minnesota? Why go there to train?' It's amazing here, thoughit's like everyone here has run a marathon. We also get great support from the Lifetime Fitness clubs.

We've started a new program called Heart of a Champion, where some of us go to elementary schools and give a presentation on heart health, how to be healthy, a way to give back to the community.

FW: What about support in terms of housing and things like that?
That's kinda changed from the start. When I came here, all the girls were living in one house that [team manager] Pat Goodwin owned. Everyone eventually moved out. They'll still help you find housingI just got a townhouse here, and Dana Coons is here with me; she started here in September. Pat Goodwin has connections everywhere, and can find you a job most of the time.

FW: Are you still part-time teaching?
It's not teaching, but helping out at an after-school program. That's not really what I planned to do.

FW: What happened with you going to medical school?
I did not reapply to the school I got into in Kansas. I don't know what I'm going to do now. I would like to stay here and continue running. I've looked into going to physical therapy school at the University of Minnesota in the fall. That's kinda my only option along those lines right now.

FW: At least if you don't go to medical school, you won't have to hear years of Bob Kempainen comparisons.
It's funny, Liz Schorn, the physical therapist I see, worked with him when he was hurt before the 1992 Trials. She says, 'Bob did this, Bob did this, Bob did this.' She tells me, 'You're fine. Just keep doing what you're doing, and you'll be fine.'

(Interview conducted March 9, 2004, and posted March 19, 2004.)

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