By Contributor Fabian Huber
It must have been mile nine or ten.
Sarah Williams was running the Eversource Hartford Half Marathon of 2016. The temperature was in the 50s, perfect running weather. Thousands of spectators were standing on the sidelines, encouraging the exhausted participants with claps and cheers. Only a few turns left and Williams would traverse the red-bricked Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Arch, cross the finish line, and complete her first half marathon.
But all of a sudden, as she encountered two fellow runners, she burst into tears.
One contestant was pushing an amputee in a wheelchair. Both wore the same t-shirt, their story imprinted on the back side: It was a father wheeling his son, a veteran who had lost both of his legs in Afghanistan but didn’t want to give up on his passion for running. Williams ended up passing the duo and finished the race, emotionally shaken.
One year after, Williams, a 21-year-old senior politics major at the Catholic University of America, is still haunted by this casual meeting.
“That was a person who loved to run like I loved to run but he just couldn’t anymore,” Williams said. “It’s something that makes you appreciate what you have, I guess. And it made me wanna run more.”
And Williams ran more. In fact, she ran double what she had accomplished back then in Hartford at Sunday’s Marine Corps Marathon, finishing her first marathon ever in just over six hours about mid-pack of a total of roughly 30,000 runners.
Williams’ participation at the Marine Corps Marathon was somewhat predestined. Growing up in what she calls the “really small and rural town” of Washington, Connecticut, the Shepaugh Valley Regional High School graduate was exposed to sports from the very beginning of her life. She danced and swam. She joined her little brother’s baseball team. She played softball, soccer, and field hockey.
“I would be out of the house from 5 AM to 8 PM every day as a little kid,” Williams said. “My parents were making sure that me and my brother were involved in sports.”
“A lot of parents push their kids too far,” said Stephen Williams, Sarah’s father who attended the same high school as his daughter and works as a fire chief. “When we saw that our children had interest in something we did everything we could to help them improve.”
Yet it was only after being convinced by her friend Clare that Williams started running with the high school’s cross country team, the Spartans. They practiced every day after school and ran the hilly tracks of Steep Rock Reservation in Shepaugh Valley. Williams didn’t like cross country at first. It was a small group, or as Williams put it: “who decides to run that much, honestly?”
“But then you get to the point where you’re running six miles a day and you’re fine. And I ended up really liking it,” she said. “It was just a community thing.”
Besides the community of runners and the added stress relief after a busy college day, Williams drew motivation from the “achievement of running a distance you haven’t run yet.” Thus, after she had completed her first half marathon in Hartford, Williams signed up for the Marine Corps Marathon, a race known for being a good starter marathon. She was one of the lucky 30,000 runners to be selected in a lottery.
This past summer, Williams started focusing, gearing up and getting a plan together for her first marathon.
“When I have a race in mind, it makes me pull myself to get more,” she said.
Her preparation was straightforward: doing a little bit every day which did not necessarily mean going for a run. She biked, swam, exercised on the cross trainer or the elliptical, and if she put on her trainers, it was just for a short run, circling the monuments of Washington, D.C..
Moving from woody Washington in New England to the concrete-dominated Washington down south has forced Williams to make some adjustments in her practice.
“If I run, I try to run on dirt, or sand, or grass as much as I possibly can. Running on pavement can be very hard on your body,” she said.
When Williams took part in the Marine Corps Marathon on Sunday, she had to do exactly that: running on pavement while keeping an average pace of about 14 minutes per mile to master several gauntlets and avoid disqualification.
“Many people struggled with the heat, myself included,” said Williams, who didn’t really want to tie herself down to a certain goal before the run but added that she’d like to finish in under four hours.
After passing the Kennedy Center, the Lincoln Memorial, and many more Washingtonian landmarks, Williams crossed the finish line at the Marine Corps War Memorial in Arlington after just over six hours.
However, the motto on Williams’ race number symbolizes that time wasn’t the main issue: “Run with purpose. Finish with pride.”
“The race was wonderful. I’m glad to have my first marathon under my belt,” Williams said.
The fact that her father was a Marine serving in the Western Pacific added further emotional value to her participation.
“It was excellent,” said Stephen Williams who came to D.C. with his wife to see their daughter running. “And seeing all those Marines brought back memories. It was a great feeling.”
“Running a marathon that is involved with the Marine Corps is something that’s just important to my family,” Williams said. “And the best part of it is when you’re running and all of the sudden you see your parents on the sidelines cheering for you. Then you know it’s worth it.”
When she was seven years old, Williams named her teddy bear “Mr. President.’’ She wanted to become the first female president of the United States. “I’m just a wittle kid with a teddy bear and big dreams,” said the caption of her Twitter profile.
Fourteen years later, Williams may not be a kid anymore. But she still has her teddy bear and big dreams. She has acquired the taste of running marathons. The old doubtful question she kept asking herself in high school, “who decides to run that much, honestly?” has vanished.
“I have this crazy goal in mind,” she said instead. “I want to run a marathon in every state. This was one of fifty.”