an NYRRC web site

About this site | Email

Interview: Sarah Schwald

Sarah Schwald opens her 2001 Outdoor season with a mile victory at the Penn Relays.
(Victah@Photo Run)

By Peter Gambaccini

In a busy winter of racing, Sarah Schwald was third in the 3000 at the USATF Indoor Championships in 8:57.03 and fourth in the 4k at the USATF Cross Country Championships. She went on to place 48th in the 4k at the World Championships is Ostend, Belgium. She placed second to Regina Jacobs in the mile at the Millrose Games in 4:43.41 and third in the 3000 at the New Balance Invitational in Boston in a personal best of 8:51.68. Schwald was seventh in the 1500 at the 1996 U.S. Olympic Trials and has a fastest time of 4:09.89 for that distance. She was the 1995 NCAA indoor 3000 meter champion while at the University of Arkansas and a double winner in the 1500 and 3000 at the 1994 Southeastern Conference Championships as a junior. Schwald, who attended high school first in Colorado and then in Washington State, was the 1988 U.S. Junior champion in the 1500 and set the still extant Millrose Games High School Girls Mile mark of 4:49.84 in 1989. She now lives in Madison, Wisconsin, where she is coached by Peter Tegen and trains with Suzy Favor-Hamilton, Amy Wickus, and Kathy Butler. Schwald opened up her outdoor season with a 4:34.02 mile victory at the Penn Relays.

What first got you into running?
I actually started running in Concord, California when I was seven in 1980, the start of the big Running Boom. My mother used to run for a club in Seattle way back in the '60s. She was actually a really good runner, but I had no idea. When I was seven, I ended up playing in a closet that I probably wasn't supposed to be in, and I found a medal. And I thought that was so cool. I'm walking around the house with this medal on. My mom was like "where did you get that?" I wanted to know "oh, is it yours? What did you get it for?" She said, "oh, I used to run a long time ago." I said "well, I want to run" -- mostly because I really wanted to get a medal. She's like, "it's not that easy." She actually really discouraged me from running, because she felt there really weren't opportunities. Back when she was running, they didn't think women could run a mile.

What distances had she run?
She was running the 800 and 1500. She was telling me when she was in high school, women had to wear shorts and then skirts over them. She didn't really think it was a great idea for me at the age of seven. She took me to a road race and thought I was going to see all of these people hot, sweaty, really miserable. It kind of started off that way until I saw a van pull up and all these little girls got out. They had the same uniforms on. They all had their hair in pigtails, with little ribbons the same color as their uniform. I said "I want to do that, the other kids are doing that!"

She took me to a one-mile cross country race, around the school, on the grass. She thought "okay, now she's going to realize running hurts, it's not that fun." I ended up placing second and getting a big ribbon, like one of those horse ribbons. I just thought that was the greatest thing ever. From then on, I decided I was going to be a runner.

Were most of the kids in that race your age?
It was first through sixth graders, and I was in first grade, and the girl who won was in sixth grade. And I was running with her the whole time. We went up this hill to the finish and I was running right alongside of her. My mom was so excited, she started yelling "sprint, sprint!" I'd never heard that word before in my life, I had no idea what "sprint" meant. So I stopped, I thought something was wrong. She said "no, no, no, keep running." So I ended up getting second.

What did your mother think of that?
She said "well, you know you have to train if you're going to run." I thought that wasn't a big deal. Every day, after school, I would run around the baseball field as many times as I could without stopping. After about two weeks, she figured "okay, this isn't going to stop." She started helping me at that point. She was my coach pretty much until I went through
college, except during the high school season. To do Junior Olympics stuff and U.S. Juniors, she would coach me.

She would create what she called "artificial off years," where she
wouldn't let me race as much. During that time, she'd make me try every other sport under the sun. She felt "you're too young to focus on one thing." So I would do T-Ball, I would do gymnastics, soccer, you name it. But I really liked the running. I think a lot of it was me depending on myself. I would get to these team events and get so frustrated. Kids didn't try. They just didn't care that much. I was having to depend on them, and it just didn't mean that much to them.

Was any sport a clear second favorite?
Probably gymnastics. It's funny, I would run down to gymnastics practice, which was a mile away. And then I'd practice for three hours, and then I'd run home. I was really, really active as a kid. I had tons of energy. My mom would do a lot of fun things with workouts, too. We'd run to 7-11 to get a Slurpee, and that would be my workout. We would have popsicle
relays with club team members. I was never really on a track, doing intervals. When I got to high school and college, I couldn't believe how much people ran. I was just floored. I think that was a little part of my problem in my transition into college. I wasn't prepared to do all of that. People were saying "you're so good, surely you've been doing as lot." And I hadn't. I'd just been really, really lucky.

After that first grassy mile, what racing did you do?
I did road races, not really realizing what racing was. I was just participating. I would do 10ks, and would be back with people who were doing about an hour -- weekend warrior people. They were very social about it, so that's what I thought it was all about. When they stopped and walked, I would stop and walk with them. I would talk with them the whole time. Finally, my mom ran one with me. She asked "are you really tired?" I said "no." She said "well, why are you walking?" I said "because everyone else is." Then I realized "oh, I'm supposed to run as hard as I can."

At seven or eight years old, I would run track meets, anything like 50-meter dash or 400 meters, plus road races. I just really, really liked running. I didn't care if it was 10k or 50 meters. I first started running cross country when I was eight. That's when I went to my first national meet. In the ten and under group, I was tenth when I was age eight. I was pretty excited about that. By the time I was ten, I'd run both of the nationals in cross country; they had AAU and Junior Olympics. I think it was 3000 meters for ten and under.

So you've always been a good runner. It must be nice to find something you enjoyed but are also so good at.
When I first started out, it was even better. I would come home from these road races with a T-shirt and a medal for winning my age group and a medal for the youngest finisher. So I'd come with all this hardware. And of course when you're there, everybody at road races is so friendly anyway. They're just so nice. It really was a nice way for me to start running. It
kept everything so positive. I guess I was really lucky.

And I was really, really fortunate to have a parent who was very smart about it. She let me pick what I wanted to run. We'd go back to the car, and there would be all these race fliers on our windshield. And I would say "next weekend, I want to run this race." She would make sure that I didn't train seven days a week. I barely trained four. And then I would race all the time. People would think of my mom, "oh, she's pushing her kid to race." But she was the one who had to stop me. If I had my choice, I would have raced every single weekend of my life.

When I was 11, I ran 37:14 for a 10k on the roads, in New York City at a Diet Pepsi 10K. I ran one in Seattle that was a qualifier for the nationals. I hadn't even known that. After the race they said I got to do to New York City for the nationals. The national what? It was nothing that I ever trained for. I didn't even know about records. But the next year, I set age group records in track in the 1500, at 12 and 13. By the time I was 16, I'd won the 1500 at the USA Junior Championships.

Were you ever hurt during all those years?
Not until my senior year in high school. I think it was a stress fracture in my tibia, in the wintertime. I'd heard people were running all this more mileage. At that time, I was running between 20 and 25 miles a week. Going to Kinney (now Foot Locker) Nationals, you see girls who were running 70 miles a week. I just had no concept of that. So I thought "well, I
need to run more," and I started to. And it really wasn't something that was good for me.

Are you surprised, 12 years after you set it, to still have the Millrose Games high school mile record?
I really am. First of all, I never had indoor track where I lived. I know back East, it's really big in high school. There was no thing as indoor track for us. At the time I was living in Colorado. The winters there were pretty bad. I wasn't even running on an indoor track up there My
mom was kind of having me to do these really weird workouts in the basketball stadium. If I could go outside, it would be no more than 30 minutes, and really slow because of the weather.

I didn't think that I was in any great shape to run a mile. But they called me and invited me to go to New York City. My running has enabled me to do so many things and so many places. It's really been something fun and exciting for me. If I had run 5:10 at that meet, it wouldn't have surprised me. It was weird for me to run on a track that little, and banked. I thought "oh my gosh, what is this?" Maybe the fact that I didn't know what I was doing helped me out more than anything. I ran with Cheri Kenah (Cheri Goddard, at that time). The whole race we'd go back and forth, back and forth, trading leads. I was really surprised to win. I was only 16 at the time.

Why did you end up at the University of Arkansas?
It was the coach's, Lance Harter's, very first year there. I was the first recruit that he signed. He came from Cal Poly-San Luis Obispo. I went to Villanova, Georgetown, Wisconsin, UCLA, and Arkansas for my five visits. I got full academic scholarships to most of these schools, so it
wasn't like I couldn't get in. Academics were important to me as well, but I really wanted to run. Some of these schools were into very high mileage, and I thought I would never make it there. I was really looking for something well-rounded, where all the emphasis wasn't on running, wasn't on academics. There was some sort of a social life. I thought I would get that at Arkansas. It was nice. Deena Drossin came in the same year as I did, and we had some
pretty good recruits.

It was very very competitive. You had a lot of big fish all of the sudden together. I ran too much mileage too fast. Within a month, I had a navicular stress fracture. My transition wasn't as smooth as it probably should have been. I think that's a mistake a lot of coaches make with these kids coming in. Instead of giving them a year to adjust, even if they're phenomenal coming out of high school, say "we're going to redshirt you this year - even though you're not injured, you're not sick, we're going to give you a whole year to get your mileage up, a whole year to get used to these kind of workouts, where you're not rushing anything and you don't feel like you have to make a certain place in practice." Just let them develop, and then their sophomore year, they can do really, really well.

Does Deena's postcollegiate success surprise you?
Deena was good in high school, too. And maybe things didn't pan out at Arkansas as well as we would have liked, the both of us. But she's definitely talented and you could see that before she ever went to Arkansas. She would be injured there and within a couple of months get back to running really well. She was kind of in the same boat as me; we both needed to get away from there and get back to running for the right reasons, and why we always love to run, running on our own terms and finding a coach who understood that and brought that out in us so. So it doesn't surprise me at all that she's running very, very well.

The 3000 PR in Boston in February must have been a real morale boost.
It was really surprising because I didn't know the pacing. He (her coach, Peter Tegen) told me Kathy Butler was going to go about 9:00 pace, just stick behind her and see how you feel. After a mile, he said "take a lap." So then I front to the front. Kathy never retook the lead, so I just kept running. I had no clue how fast I was running until I finished and they told me my time and I was pretty stunned. But that was a nice thing, because it reinforced that trust with Peter, because he knew I was ready to run that fast even if I didn't.

What was your impression of the World Cross Country Championships in Ostend, Belgium?
It was horrible. I felt bad for the coaches, because I think they had higher expectations for the team we were sending. Elva (Dryer), Cheri, me, and Collette Liss had all run under 9:00 this season for 3000 meters They felt we had a really good chance of running well in the 4k. Which I think we would have if the race was in Portugal. But unfortunately, we're not what they would call "mudders." That course was really, really difficult, not even a course you could race on. You were just running. I think I ran over 3:00 slower than I did at the Trials race. It was the kind of mud that sucks off your shoe. I was not even pushing out of the mud; I was literally trying to yank my feet out. I'd never, ever run in anything like that. It was unbelievable.

Before 2001, you hadn't been so visible in the last five years. When did things go bad, and what did you do to come back?
I graduated in '95 from Arkansas and moved to Boston and was raining with a good coach, John Doherty, and a pretty good group of athletes. I ran really well that first year; I ran 4:09 and made it to the finals of the (1996) Olympic Trials and was pretty happy about that. But by
the end of '96, I developed a metatarsal stress fracture and took six weeks off. When I returned, I had other foot problems. I struggled through '97, and didn't run in '98 and '99.

What did you do instead?
I didn't enjoy running that while being in pain all the time. I decided to take time off, no crosstraining, just let my foot heal. It took ten months before it stopped hurting when I was walking. During that time, I'd go "regular people" outdoor things, hiking or rollerblading with my
sister, mostly on the weekends. I decided to move home to where my family lived in Palm Springs and spent time with them and got a regular job with Social Security.

When my foot started feeling better, I decided I'd start running again, but I didn't want to put any pressure on myself and come back too soon. I didn't have a coach and I didn't have anybody to run with. It was about 110 degrees every day. I remember the first day, I ran 25 minutes and thought I was going to go into cardiac arrest. And that was about 8:00 pace.

Last year I got suckered into running some races with my friends who lived in Los Angeles. I was only training 30 to 35 miles a week. I ran a few 800s and 1500s and people said "you can qualify for the Trials." It's nice to go to the Trials, but it's not great to finish last in your heat or something like that. I really wasn't concerned with the Olympic Trials last year. I just wanted to see how long I could run with my foot feeling really good. I made it through a partial track season and I felt fine. I ran around 2:07 flat for 800, which surprised me, because it was really minimal stuff and I was training by myself. My first race, in the beginning of April, was 4:19 or 4:20, and then every other race was the same. Which probably means I'm not
that good at coaching myself.

So you started looking for a coach. Was Peter Tegen at the top of the list?
I've always had a good relationship with Peter. He recruited me out of high school. I didn't end up coming here (to Wisconsin). I was worried that might not work in my favor; he seems to mostly coach people who went to school here and ran under him. But he was really, really nice and very enthusiastic about it. We get along very well.

Tegen sure has a history of turning out great 1500-meter women, like Suzy Favor-Hamilton, Amy Wickus, and Sarah Thorsett.
The amazing thing for me is, I go into the locker room and there's a plaque of every All-American or Olympian. You look at where they're from, these little small towns in Illinois and Wisconsin. I look at the ones that were my age in high school; I'd never heard of them. There's another girl I train with, Jenelle Deatheridge, from Illinois. She was okay in her state, but I don't think she ever broke 5:00. She comes here, and last year, she runs 4:13 (for 1500). To me, that shows what a great coach he is. He takes all of these people who no one recruited, who no one thought had any potential, and she gets them to do amazing things.

Tell us what's a little different about Tegen's approach.
We don't do a lot of intervals for time. We do a lot of continuous running, which is different for me. I'm used to the standard 10x400, with 50 seconds rest, which you keep in the back of your mind and judge all of your other workouts based on. With Peter, you can't really do that. We do so much stuff based on effort. Sometimes we'll do odd distances, or things just based on a time - 8:00 of this or that. Which I think is good for me. Like a lot of other runners, I have a tendency to get a little hung up on the numbers and get discouraged during the workout. I haven't had a bad workout since I've been here. Peter knows when to stop you, or maybe when to have you do more.

I just feel very, very fortunate to have the girls I have to work out with. We just have so much fun all the time. There's no racing at practice or big egos. I think it's so difficult to get a group together that's compatible.

What will be your next race?
We're going to have two home meets on May 5 and May 12. If I need pacemakers, my training partners will just make pace for me, and they can go real far, not just one lap. And they set them up at night, when there's no wind. I might do an 800 and a 1500. And then I'll probably run at Pre (Prefontaine Classic), and then a Stanford meet two weeks after that.

What kind of time are you targeting this spring and summer?
We don't focus on that. We have general idea of what Peter thinks I can do. I'd like to get the qualifying standard for the Worlds (4:07). That's something what will be on my plate. But as far as how fast I can go, I don't know. I have to get a few races under my belt and see what that feels like again.

Nothing contained herein may be reproduced online in any form without the express written permission of the New York Road Runners Club, Inc.