Interview: Sarah Hann
By Alison Wade

Sarah Hann competes in the 8k race on day one of the 2002 USATF Winter Cross Country Championships.
Hann receives her medal after finishing fourth in the 4k and qualifying for the U.S. World Cross Country team.
(Photos: New York Road Runners)
Top performer stands out from crowd (January 2002)
Sarah Hann enters new territory (September 2001)
She's up to the 10k trek (August 2001)

In placing 4th in the 4k and 12th in 8k at the 2002 USATF Winter Cross Country Nationals, Sarah Hann pulled off one of the most surprising performances of the meet and qualified for her first World Championship team. Despite being one of the top runners in New England -- she was named New England Runner's Women's Runner of the Year in 2001 -- Hann is a relatively new face on the national scene. She finished third at the 2000 USATF Fall Cross Country Nationals and qualified for the 2001 USATF Outdoor Track & Field Championships by running a PR 15:54 for 5,000m. Hann had a banner season in the Fall of 2001, finishing 5th at the Tufts 10k in 33:37, second to Priscilla Hein at the Mayor's Cup XC 5k in 16:34 and winning the USATF-New England 6k XC Championship in 19:49 (ahead of Kristin Chisum). A 1995 graduate of Wesleyan University, she was a four-time Division III All American in college. She lives on her family's farm in Winchester, New Hampshire and is self-coached.

Heading into Winter Nationals, did you think you'd be more likely to make the World team in one race or the other?
I wasn't sure. The 8k is a little too long for me right now, and the 4k, I thought, was a little too short for me. So I didn't know which one to do. It actually turned out that I hurt my achilles tendon a little bit, not seriously but I had some tendonitis in January. I had to take it really easy with my training and I could only do tempo runs. So, because of that I thought that I wouldn't have any speed and that my strength would be left over from the fall. So I figured I'd go for the 8k. But when I heard some of the people who were going to be running that 8k, I basically thought to myself, 'Well, there are 10 people that I can name that, on a bad day, could beat me.' So I sort of went into it thinking that I wasn't going to make the team, but that I should go anyway, for experience's sake. I haven't had that much experience at national competitions and I figured the more used to it I get, the more comfortable I'd be. So I went sort of just wanting to run a good, solid race and not necessarily expecting to make the team.

After you finished 12th the first day, did you head into the second day thinking you could make the 4k team?
Well, I hadn't raced since December and I think I was a little bit rusty. While I was obviously in good physical shape, I think I wasn't mentally sharp. I was really happy with my race on Saturday, it was the best I had ever done at a national competition. But when I finished, I sort of felt like I had run an apathetic race, that I'd just gone out and run, but I hadn't raced it. So, I was really excited the next day to just race.

There was no pressure on me, I was perfectly satisfied with the weekend, I was happy that I was even able to finish the 8k because I wasn't sure how my achilles was going to hold up on the dirt. I think that because there was no pressure on me, I just went for it. I didn't expect to make the team, I didn't know what was going to happen. I knew that there might be a chance, and I knew that I might as well go out and try to do it. Particularly after coming in 12th, I thought to myself, 'Well, there's a good chance I'm going to be up near the front of the pack at least, so I might as well see what I can do and just go out hard.'

It was an impressive race, too, because it wasn't like you just barely grabbed the last spot on the team. In fact, you moved up near the end and you outkicked some people who really have a lot of experience.
The end of that course favors a little bit of strength, finishing up that hill like that. I passed Mary Jayne (Harrelson) and Janet (Trujillo) right on that last hill and I think that my strength helped me have a kick there. I was really pleased with how I ran that race.

How does it change your thinking now that you've made a World team?
I think in some ways it's a relief, because I feel like now I finally know that I'm capable of doing it. Before I just never knew. I always had this looming thought that I'd be able to run well at a national-caliber meet, but I hadn't done it yet and I didn't know whether or not it was ever going to happen. I had a great fall, I worked really hard, but by the end I was exhausted and I didn't know how the season was going to translate. So there's a sense of relief and enormous joy, obviously, from making a team. At the same time there's a lot of pressure, now I feel like I need to replicate that performance, so that puts a little bit of pressure on me. But I like that kind of pressure, that's what running is all about.

So what is your goal for the World Cross Country Championships?
It's hard to know because I've never run at Worlds. My goal is to run as well as I can and help our team do as well as we can. I don't even know whether or not to say [I'd like to finish] a certain number in the world (laughs). I've looked at some results but last year it was really muddy. So I think I'm just going to train really hard the next couple weeks and do some speedwork to try and improve my speed.

Will you do any races before World Cross?
I'm going to run at Indoor Nationals. I think I'm going to run the 3k. I figure that will be a good race to get me in gear for Worlds.

We noticed that you ran a 4:41 mile the weekend after Winter Nationals (she won by more than seven seconds).
I hadn't been on the track yet, so I had to run a race to qualify for indoors.

Was that a PR?
Yeah, only by a second or so.

How did it feel?
It felt really good. I ran even splits the whole way, which was really nice. It was definitely a strength race for me, because I haven't worked on any speed yet. All my splits were completely even and I had no kick. The last 200 was the same split as the first one (laughs). So, in that way I hope that I can fine-tune my running a little bit before Worlds. But I was pleased to be able to just step on the track and run a PR, that's always a wonderful thing to be able to do.

Are you still running for Greater Lowell Road Runners?
No, I run for New Balance now.

When did that change come about?
New Balance approached me in the fall, and I started running for them as of January.

What did that switch mean in terms of coaching and support?
Initially, when I started running for Greater Lowell, I was being trained by Bruce Bickford, but he moved to Maine. After he moved to Maine, I decided to coach myself. I thought that it wouldn't necessarily be the best situation to have someone so far away coaching me. There were some things that I wanted to learn about my running, so I decided to coach myself. I ran for Lowell as a club and they sent me to meets, basically.

And now New Balance does that. But there's still no coach involved and you have no plans to get one?
I think eventually I'm going to have to get a coach, this can't last forever. Right now it seems to be working for me and I'm figuring out some things about who I am as a runner and as a competitor. And it's been really fun to coach myself, an enlightening experience, almost like an experiment on what works and what doesn't. I've had some bad races too, but overall, it seems to have been a positive experience with positive results in my racing.

I think at some point I'm going to have to find a coach, and possibly a training group. I've been running alone, I always run alone and I always have. So I don't know how I feel about a training group. My theory is, 'If it's not broken, don't fix it.' Right now it's working for me, when it stops working, I'm going to find a coach. Or, if a situation presents itself that seems like a good deal, then I'll go for that. But right now this is working. I'm thrilled that I was able to coach myself to a world team. That was sort of one of my goals, not only to make a team but to do it completely on my own.

Were there any times when you doubted your ability to coach yourself?
Oh yeah (laughs). At Fall Cross Country Nationals I ran so badly, had a really rough race. I had run a ton of races in the fall and I knew that I was doing too many races. There just weren't any that I could cut out of my schedule, between running the New England club circuit and doing a couple of national races. So for Club Nationals I knew that I had done something majorly wrong with my training. Basically I was overtrained and slightly anemic, because I just went too hard and I hadn't reined myself in at all.

And there are also little questions that I'm just not sure about. Like this past weekend (at the USATF New England Indoor Championships), I didn't know whether or not to run the mile or the 3k. I had no idea if I would be able to qualify in the mile. I hadn't been on a track so I didn't know if I would physically be able to run a 71 (second lap)... Having a coach would help me avoid that sort of anxiety, I wouldn't have to worry that I might be making the wrong decision.

Can you talk about Fall Nationals a little more - from the photos it looked like you were up front early on but then you finished uncharacteristically far back.
Well, for the whole two weeks before Nationals I wasn't feeling good and I wasn't able to do any of my workouts. The same thing would happen in my workouts that happened in the race. I would feel fine in the beginning but I would be having to work way too hard for the pace I was running and I wouldn't be able to hold anything. So, I think it was an overtraining issue and a little bit of anemia. I was just feeling sluggish overall, so I took it really easy in December and worked on my nutrition a little but, and I seemed to get back in gear again.

In all of this experimenting, what have you found does work for you in terms of training?
I've actually been doing my workouts a little bit slower than I did last year, and doing more repeats with less rest in between. I've been doing race pace or slower, never anything faster than race pace. I've actually been keeping my mileage fairly low. In January I was forced to keep it low because of my achilles, and I was doing only about 60 miles a week. But generally, I'd say I go between 60 and 80.

What's a sample workout for you?
Hmm. I change it all the time, depending on what I think I need to work on, in terms of what my weaknesses are... I can't give one for January because really all I did was tempo runs, but I like doing mile repeats, like five times a mile, a little bit slower than race pace.

Would you do that on the track?
In the fall, sometimes I did it on the track, but my preference is to get out on the trails and do it all by time. And that way, if I don't feel great one day and I happen to not go quite as far, I don't know that I haven't gone quite as far.

It's all about the effort?
Yeah. And I'm working out how my body needs to be working out for that particular day. I don't get that same emotional stress of hitting a particular split.

If I did that, my one fear would be thinking I was running great times in my workouts, but getting in a race and finding out I had been running slowly all along.
I think that's the fear, especially when your working out alone. You have no idea, you think 'Maybe I'm going too fast, maybe I'm going too slow.' So I tend to alternate. I'll do a trail workout one day and then maybe I'll get on the track the other day of the week. For cross country I don't like to get on the track twice a week, it's too much for me.

You were a good runner in college but seemed to disappear for a while after that. How did you get back into elite-level running?
After I graduated (from college), I stopped running completely for a year. I was good in college and I liked it, but it wasn't something that I was necessarily passionate about. It was more recreational for me at that point, I had all these other things that I wanted to do. So I stopped running completely for a year. I started up again basically a year after I graduated, just because I was out of shape (laughs). So I started running again recreationally, just for fun, for a few years. From '95-'96, I didn't run at all. And then I started running again in '96-'97. In the fall of '98 I started coaching at Amherst College because I started going to grad school at UMass. But my primary focus, most definitely, at that point, was graduate school.

And what program were you in?
I was working toward an American Studies degree, which is in the English department. And I was still running recreationally. But basically once track rolled around in '99, I started watching my athletes race and that kind of lit the fire in me. I decided that I should start to train again and try to race. So I think I did a couple road races that summer, then I started doing cross country again that fall, and that was when I started running for the Greater Lowell Road Runners. 2000 was my first outdoor season, but it was a very casual season. I ran a couple races, I think I ran a 5k and a 3k.

At this point were you thinking you wanted to take it as far as you could go?
No. I was just having fun racing. I knew that I was better than I was in college and I thought that that was exciting. Basically all I had done was run for a few years... that amazed me, that just having that strength from a few years of jogging could make you better.

Do you have any idea why that base made such a difference?
I think that I've always been a late bloomer physically and emotionally, and I probably just needed a few years of straight cardiovascular running, which I hadn't ever had. In college I didn't run very much. I didn't really start running seriously until my sophomore year, then I got good my junior year. So I just don't think I had logged the miles that a lot of people had done in college. I was a runner in high school but I was also a diver. Running wasn't my main focus so I wasn't doing a lot of it.

What kind of times did you run in high school?
My PR was 22 minutes for 5k.

Well, it was 21:07 or something for three miles, so that equates to like 21:50 for a 5k, cross country.

Did you ever run track in high school?
I did, but our team was really good and I was sort of a nobody. I don't even remember what my times were and I was never taken to any of the really big meets because I wasn't one of the top three in any event. (Editor's Note: Hann attended Northfield Mount Hermon in Northfield, Mass., aka Frank Shorter's alma mater.)

It's really interesting that you could run on a team like that without realizing how much potential you had.
I think when I was running in high school, I really liked being on the team, but I wasn't going out there and racing.

Moving back to the recent past, when did you really decide to take your running seriously?
After running a couple races on the track in the spring of 2000, I decided that I wanted to train a little bit harder and have fun with the cross country season in the fall of 2000. So I trained a little bit harder over that summer, had a really good fall, and actually came in third at Fall Nationals... I sort of ran this race where I beat all these really good people, partially because I didn't know that they were really good and that I probably shouldn't be beating them. But after I ran that well at Fall Nationals, I thought to myself, 'Well wow, maybe I should take this a little more seriously, maybe I should spend more time thinking about my running and training, and maybe I can do something like qualify for outdoor nationals.'

At that point, qualifying for outdoor nationals became a goal. I'd say that was one shift. And then after I qualified for outdoor nationals (in the 5,000), and went and had a bad race there (she finished 18th in 16:18.81), partially because it took all my energy just to get to nationals. My goal had been to get to nationals, and once I got there, I didn't even want to run anymore (laughs). I didn't know how I could muster up enough energy to do one more 5k, I felt like I'd been running 5k after 5k, trying to get that qualifier.

After I ran badly at nationals, that really fueled the fire. And I said, 'I'm never going to do that again.' I really just wanted to be able to go to nationals and do well. And I think simply qualifying for nationals makes you think, 'Now I know that I have the capacity to run at the best meet in the country, so now I actually want to do well there.' So this past summer, I definitely had an emotional shift where I started to realize that running was something I really cared about, running was something that I wanted to do seriously and that I wanted to be my main focus. That was probably the biggest recent shift, over the summer, making that mental shift from doing it as well as all my other things to thinking 'Well now this is going to be my main focus.'

And that's when you decided to take a leave of absence from graduate school?
I was in grad school this fall, I finished my masters in American Studies and then transferred into the Art History program. I was taking a full load of classes this fall... and I had a job... and I was running. It was fine in the beginning, and I always thought that this whole running thing was a nice balance because I had the mind-body equillibrium. But by the end of the semester, I was fried. I was trying to do my papers and trying to run in races... flying to Mobile to run. I couldn't focus at all on my schoolwork. I was not being a student, I was being an athlete. Athletics was definitely taking a priority and here I was paying to go to graduate school. It didn't make any sense to me to have so much anxiety about graduate school when it was something that I could put on hold if I needed to. So I decided to take a leave of absence for the spring and see how it felt to not be in school. Now I'm just working and running.

What do you do for work?
I actually still work at the University, I'm like a TA, basically.

What other things soak up your time each day?
Running, and working, and fiddling around. I have a dog. I have to take care of my dog, I take her on walks. I don't know, I find things to do, it's amazing. It's been really nice the past couple weeks to be able to rest. When I was injured, I felt like I was training all the time, because I had to get in the pool and on the bike, and that takes forever. Now that I'm running again and not doing any of the cross training stuff, I feel like a free woman.

What aspects of your life have you changed in order to focus on running at an elite level? Are there particular things you do to take care of yourself or are there things that you can't do because you're worried about your body and your health?
I definitely have less of a social life. That may be a result of where I live, but I think that it's probably helped my running. At the very least, it's given me a very set schedule of when I go to bed and when I wake up, and I get a good night's sleep every night. That seems to help me. As far as eating is concerned, I've always been a healthy eater. I've just tried to continue eating healthy, natural food.

Do you get massages?
I do, every two weeks, probably. It depends. In January I had massages all the time to make sure that my achilles didn't get any worse. I sort of base my massages on how my body's feeling.

It seems like you're really focused on what you're doing right now.
Yeah, I am. I really like it. I think when I decided to not take classes, I said to myself, 'Well, this is it. You've got to try and do it now.' I'm really grateful that I made a world team so quickly after making the decision that I was going to go for it.

Where do you see yourself going in the future, is there any sort of deadline for how long you'll keep at it like this?
I'll keep going until I don't get any better. I think it's really hard to know, it's a huge gamble. It's the same for everyone, there's always the fear that you'll just never get any better, that this is it, you've reached your potential. I think the wonderful thing about running is always aspiring to figure out what that potential might be and to change your training around to try and tap that potential. So I haven't set goals in terms of time limits. For me, at lot of it is about whether or not I'm enjoying myself. So if it ever gets to the point where I'm no longer having fun, that would be a time that I would stop thinking about running the way I am now.

Do you think you'd ever move up in distance? Do you even know what your best distance is yet?
I still feel very new to the 5k because I did the 1,500 in college. Basically two years ago, in 2000, was the first time I ran the 5k on the track. Last year was the first time I had really done a lot of training for it. I ran 16:45 or something the year before last year, and then 15:54 last year. So I think that I still have a long way to go before I'm comfortable with the 5k. When I'm racing it, the 5k still feels very long. It feels about a mile too long right now (laughs). I'd like to improve my 5k a little bit, work on my speed. But eventually the 10k is calling me. I'm not sure if I'm strong enough for the 10k yet. I did a great 10k this fall at Tufts (33:37) and I was really pleased with it. That was a PR by two minutes. So I think eventually I'd like to try the 10k and see if that's my distance, but I'm most certainly not done with the 5k.

(Interview conducted 2/20/02, posted 3/1/02)

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