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Interview: Sarah Toland
by Chris Lear

Sarah Toland on her way to an 8th-place finish at the 2001 USATF Winter Cross Country Championships
(Photo by Alison Wade)

Sarah Toland burst onto the national scene last weekend (2-17-01) when she finished a surprise 8th in the 8k at the USATF Winter Cross Country Nationals. A 2000 graduate of NCAA Division III Colby College in Waterville, Maine, Toland didn't start running competitively until the spring of her sophomore year in college. She currently resides in Boulder, Colorado where she is coached by University of Colorado assistant coach Jason Drake. (02-25-01)

FW: Thanks for your time. You've just exploded on the running scene with your 8th place finish at the US Cross Country meet in the 8k. I think it is fair to say not many people have heard of you. Where did you grow up?

ST: I'm from Orleans, Massachusetts, and I went to Nauset Regional High School.

FW: Did you run there?

ST: No. I never ran in high school. I danced ballet all through junior high and first couple years of high school, and then junior and senior year of high school I didn't do anything. I was actually on swim team junior winter, but I hated it. I smoked cigarettes (laughs).

FW: After a year at CU, where you ran recreationally, you transferred to Colby, correct?

ST: Yes.

FW: How did you get started running there?

ST: Actually I started running the summer going into college to become a lifeguard on Cape Cod. They had a pretty competitive run-swim-run to make it as a lifeguard. I started running to do that. I competed in lifeguard competitions that summer and the summer after that, and people said, "Wow, you're pretty good." So, I started running throughout the year, but I didn't start competing until my sophomore year at Colby, outdoor track.

FW: How did you do that first season?

ST: I was starting out with a base of 4 or 5 runs a week and I had never competed before so I remember showing up for my first race in my trainers, no warm up, no strides, and I finished second. I ran 18:30 or something. But I ended up doing pretty well (that season). I ended up missing D3 nationals by a second and I think I won our conference in the 5k too.

FW: Did you see more big improvements your junior and senior year?

ST: Well I ran junior year cross country and I kept improving. But I got a stress fracture at the end of cross and then went to New Zealand so I didn't do indoor or outdoor track. I did a lot of traveling.

I guess I got serious senior year and started running 6 days a week. I finished 11th at D3 nats in cross. I was All-American in the 1500 (not my event) and the DMR indoors. And I was double All-American in the 3k and the 5k outdoors. But the real improvements have come this year when I have actually started running enough mileage to really be able to compete at a higher level.

FW: Did running prompt your move to Boulder?

ST: I came to Boulder in June of 2000... I figured I would take a year and see if I could get good, and if I couldn't then I would just give it up.

FW: So you hooked up with JD. And how did you guys proceed?

ST: When JD met me I think he was a bit disappointed that my mileage was so low, so the first thing that we did was establish a base this summer. I doubled my weekly mileage that I ran in college by the fall (from roughly 35 to 70). Then we started adding speed workouts twice a week and I started racing in January to prepare for cross country nationals.

FW: What races did you do before cross country nationals?

ST: I did the Rocky Mountain Shootout in September (which she won), and I probably would have raced fall cross nationals in Boston, but I was having some problems with my hip so we bagged that. Then I raced a 3k indoors at Air Force. (Editors note: she won convincingly in 10:07 - doesn't sound too fast, but it is at 7500 ft. and the time was within 10 seconds of the field house record.)

FW: What information did you get from that effort?

ST: That I'd improved since the year before! But also, it was a lot easier to race the 3k and still do well than it had been in college. It was so easy to run that time; it was a confidence boost that I had enough in me to be competitive with the type of people that hold field house records at Air Force. I guess that is really what it told me.

FW: So you go to cross nationals, and finish 8th, surprising perhaps everyone but yourself, and finishing as the first Nike athlete. Tell us a bit about that experience.

ST: When I went the night before to the meet hotel and looked at who was scheduled in the 8k I thought gosh, I'll be happy if I finish in the top 30 because there are so many names that were familiar to me. D1 athletes I remembered along with fast post-collegians I read about when I was in college. That made me nervous the night before, but the morning of, I wasn't nervous anymore. I had talked to JD and thought I would just go out in the middle of the pack and see what I could do after that.

FW: At what point in the race did you start moving up?

ST: Probably after the first mile. And it was great. I just felt like I kept on closing on more and more people. I felt better with each lap. I had no idea where I was, but then on the last lap someone yelled at me, hey you are top ten. I actually passed JD and Janet (Trujillo, who ran in the 4k) early in the race and gave them a thumbs up. I felt fine. When I crossed the line and they tagged me I couldn't believe I was eighth!

FW: What exactly does being a Nike athlete mean? What kind of support do they give you?

ST: They send me shoes and gear twice a year. They also pay for some lodging.

FW: No travel?

ST: No, I don't think so. Not yet.

FW: Hopefully this result will encourage them to invest more heavily in your running!

ST: I think I exceeded their expectations of me. All I had really run in the 5k was 16:58 last year. When I finished first for them, in eighth, I think they were pretty happy with that.

FW: Two weeks before cross nationals you won a local 5k road race. That was somewhat of a breakthrough race for you, right?

ST: Yeah, I got a PR there in everything! I had never run a road race so it was my road PR, it would have been a track PR, it was an all-around PR. I ran 16:29, but the accuracy of the course is questionable.

FW: You took a bold step coming out here to give it a shot, so you must feel almost a bit relieved that it is coming to pass.

ST: I do. And what's best is that I like running even more than when I made the decision to come here. I feel a bit validated in my decision.

FW: How much has training in a group with Nicole Jefferson and Janet Trujillo helped?

ST: Tons. To have someone to work out with, especially women that are as fast and tough as Janet and Nic has really helped me to improve..

FW: Where do you go from here?

ST: I'll go wherever JD tells me to. Running as a post-collegian still seems kind of foreign to me. But, I think I will run the 5k on the track at Mt. Sac and along with some Stanford meets this spring to try to make the standard for USATF outdoor nationals.

FW: Any advice for other D3 runners out there who may be contemplating a similar leap of faith?

ST: DO IT! I think there is an idea among D3 runners that you are the bottom of the pack, above is D2, D1, then elites, and it seems insurmountable to progress that much even if you can succeed in D3, D1 just seemed so much better. When I did well in races in D3 I thought that that would make me mid to bottom of pack on any D1 team.

But, if you can establish yourself and get consistent good training underneath you, I think you can make those leaps. D3 runners usually start without the base mileage, or great coaching, and you are not in the most competitive pool, so you don't have the opportunities to really be competitive. I think with the introduction of those factors, someone can really improve.

FW: Best of luck! You certainly are an inspiration to many.

Chris Lear is the author of "Running with the Buffaloes." The book chronicles the University of Colorado men's cross country team's 1998 season. Currently out of print, Lyons Press is republishing the book in hardcover in the spring of 2001. Check for details.


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