Running Down the Dream with Sara Ibbetson
Whether it’s under a starry winter sky with arctic-like winds or at the crack of dawn on a muggy summer morning, it’s a pretty safe bet that you’ll find Sara Ibbetson (née Major) clipping away on her usual morning route through the vast, mountainous Ozarks region of southern Missouri.
A full-time behavioral therapist, wife, and mother to a ten-year-old daughter, Ibbetson is also a competitive runner with an impressive résumé. She’s clocked 2:49:20 and 1:20:50 in the marathon and half marathon respectively, holds multiple state records in both Kansas and Missouri, and recent achievements include placing 6th overall female in a competitive field at the 2017 BMO Mesa-Phoenix Marathon as well as winning the overall female title at the 2016 White River Half Marathon and 2015 Bass Pro Marathon.
Ibbetson’s running career has been a unique one, from her early successes as a child to being plagued by injury throughout college, to running for fun as an adult, to becoming one of the top marathoners in her region and continuing to smash personal records at age 36. On December 3rd, she will be toeing the line at the California International Marathon in Sacramento.
An Interview with Sara Ibbetson
In this interview, Ibbetson shares some of the ups and downs in her running journey, significant moments that shaped her running, sage wisdom for those dealing with injury, and reveals her next big goal.
A bit of background- where did you grow up? Where do you live now?
I grew up out in the country near a small town named Benton, Kansas (outside of Wichita, Kansas) from birth to age 18. From 18-29 I lived in Pittsburg, Kansas, and since then I’ve been in the Springfield, Missouri area. My current address is Ozark, Missouri, but I again live in the country!
What initially brought you to running?
My dad ran competitively in high school, college, and into his 40s, so I grew up seeing him train daily and race often. I was also around my older sister’s high school and college meets as a kid, so like anything you grow up around, running just seemed “normal” to me. Initially, I was in it for the awards (what kid isn’t!?), but I quickly developed a passion for training to be the best runner I could be.
Tell me about your very first race.
I did several half-mile fun runs at races my dad was competing in when I was a kid, and now those early ones all blur together since I was only 5 or 6 years old. I competed in my first AAU track meet at age 11, and I entered the long jump, 100m dash, and 1500m run – what a combination, huh?! I did not make the 100m finals, I got a 6th place ribbon for long jump (which makes me wonder if there were only 6 entrants), and I won the 1500m run by a big margin. From that point on, I was a “distance” runner!
Who has been the most influential figure in your running?
My dad. As I mentioned, he is the reason I started running, and I have many, many treasured memories of first training beside him and then training with him as my coach. This man has ridden a bike beside me over thousands of miles, driven a car behind me for hundreds of miles, and driven me around the country to compete as a teenager. He never missed a single track or cross country meet of mine throughout my youth, and now I honestly can’t imagine how he managed to do it all while working full-time! He still comes to many of my races, and if he can’t be there he is my #1 tracker. This year, he came with me to the Rock ‘n’ Roll Arizona Half marathon, and while we were there we drove the BMO Mesa-Phoenix Marathon course. On
marathon day, [back home] he and my mom spent the entire duration of the race estimating where I should be on the course map by using only my pace band, visualizing what that part of the course would look like, and with the only available live tracking update from the halfway point. Now that’s commitment!
Who are your running heroes and why?
I most admire women who are fast but not quite the fastest. I don’t want to list names for fear of leaving someone off, but those ladies duking it out behind the top 10 finishers at major events are who I most admire – especially those who have full-time jobs and children. I love seeing people work hard to attain their goals at all levels, and I admire that first time half marathoner finishing against all odds just as much as I admire the world record holders – or maybe more!
What inspired you to run your first marathon? How was that experience?
It was initially a one-and-done plan! After a disappointing collegiate running career during which I was mostly just injured, I didn’t think marathon training would be a very intelligent endeavor, but a friend talked me into doing one with her when I was in graduate school. I was running regularly at the time for fitness/enjoyment/stress relief, but I didn’t take on the affair competitively by any means. We did a bare minimum beginners schedule and I ran with her during the race, finishing in 4:05. At the finish, I thought, “Well, I can do that a lot faster,” and ran my second marathon a few months later in 3:30, still knowing nothing about actual marathon training or strategy. I again finished and thought, “I can go faster,” and the obsession continued! To this day, every marathon I run I know I have a faster one in me.
Describe the setting you train in- when I see your runs on Strava from a bird’s eye view, it looks like a small rectangular shape, until I realize that little rectangle, in fact, covers 20 miles or so! Are you out on country roads? Flat or rolling? Trees or fields? What is a typical run in the life of Sara?
I mostly train on “Farm Roads”, which may be a Missouri term. Essentially they are country roads, but they are also all paved. In the Ozarks, there are no flat routes, and most of my frequent routes are gently rolling. There’s a little bit of everything on my routes – fields, cows, trees, homes, houses, horses, etc. – but little traffic and few people at the time of day I run. There are many cycling routes in my area so on weekend long runs I see many more cyclists than cars. The vast majority of my running is done on the road, and when I have tempos or speed work where I want consistent splits, I run a loop that is about a mile that goes around my development. It’s not pancake flat, but it’s the closest I can get in the area, and I like it because each mile or rep is comparable. I do the majority of my running in the early morning, starting at 5:30 AM on average. When I have two runs I try to do the second on a late lunch break at 1:00 p.m. and that one is done from my office on city streets/sidewalks.
What are the most difficult conditions you’ve trained in considering you’re getting the full brunt of winter and summer?
I guess I’ve learned to adapt to whatever the Midwest weather throws at me, because nothing seems that awful. I dislike any conditions that hurt my performance, whether it’s cold, heat, wind, snow, etc., but I can’t control it so try not to worry about it. During the winter I have plenty of morning runs where the wind chill is in the single digits or even below zero, and in the summer I have 90 degrees with 90% humidity on some second runs. I just dress for it and deal with it! I don’t like running in snow, but I try to embrace the beauty and the slower pace it brings. Ice is really the only thing that puts me on the treadmill.
Do you train solo or with others or both? Which do you prefer and what have the benefits of that been?
Both. I have a wonderful group of training buddies, and I run with one/some of them on most base, recovery, and long runs. Some days I’ll have one training partner and others I’ll have six – it varies based on everyone’s training schedules and non-running lives. I do most of my workouts alone, mainly because I don’t have anyone who is an exact match on my tempo and
speed work paces. Recently I’ve run a few track workouts with men who are faster than me, and that’s been a good challenge for me! I am beyond thankful for my training buddies and always prefer to run with them, but I also enjoy the sound of silence when I train solo. I think grinding out the hard workouts alone gives me mental toughness and the abilities to rely only on myself and to trust my own pacing in races.
You’ve taken your marathon time down from 4:05 in your first marathon in 2003, to 3:09 in 2009, to 2:57 in 2016, to your most current PR of 2:49:20 at the Mesa-Phoenix Marathon. What would you attribute to your breakthrough in 2009 and what do you attribute to your most recent ten minute PR?
I haven’t had the nice pretty downward progression in my marathon times that many have had, because I’ve had periods of running competitively interspersed with periods of running for fun and periods of injuries. I think my breakthrough at Portland in 2009 was mainly due to wanting it and not racing multiple marathons close together as I had done in the past.
My recent progression can be 100% attributed towards working with a coach. Not only has he kept me 100% healthy, but I’ve annihilated all of my PRs. I thought I knew what I was doing when I made my own training schedule, but clearly, I didn’t! He’s taught me a lot about periodization and training smarter, not harder. I now know I was over-training much of the time when I was making my own schedule; I always thought that if I worked as hard as possible the results would come, but I wasn’t letting my body recover properly or using the best build-up techniques.
My first build-up working with my coach was for Dallas 2015, and I ran a 3:01 there off of around 40 miles per week; I’d requested to be conservative based on my injury history. He believed I could handle more mileage if done correctly and would see performance gains accordingly. I ran mostly 50-mile weeks while training for Prairie Fire/Bass Pro 2016, which helped improve my performance. For Phoenix, my weeks were high 50s/low 60s, which further helped me improve. That was still relatively low mileage considering my goal times, so I hold onto hopes that I have a faster PR coming if I can up my mileage into the 70s or 80s and stay healthy doing it!
I’m also a firm believer that each marathon cycle builds on the one before it. For Phoenix, everything came together best as far as weather, course, my health, etc. It sounds cheesy, but for Phoenix, I also believed I could do it. After I missed a sub-3:00 in Dallas 2015, I was very unsure at Prairie Fire 2016, but going into Phoenix I believed I could run in the low 2:50s and if
everything went perfectly that I could break 2:50.
This spring you took your running to the track as an unattached athlete at open college meets. Is this the first time you’ve done this? How is racing on the track different from racing on the roads? What were the pros and cons?
The 10,000 m I raced at the Wash U Invite Distance Carnival was my first track race since high school, and I loved it! It was easy for me to get into a rhythm and pace evenly on the track, and I also liked running in a thick field of competitive women (even though I was almost twice their age). In the Ozarks, pretty much the only way to run a pancake flat race is to run on the track, so I enjoyed that part of it too. I’d say the only cons are that turning so many times around a track places more stress on your body and that racing at 9:30 p.m. wrecked my sleep and subsequent recovery!
Two years ago you and your husband became foster parents and in 2016 finalized the adoption of your now ten-year-old daughter Albani. How has becoming a parent affected your outlook on running and being a role model? How does running play a role within your family?
The whole experience was intertwined with my running because I’m not sure we would have become foster parents had I been training hard at the time (I was dealing with hip issues instead). I look back at it all in awe, because I spent my whole life never wanting to/planning to have biological children, and now I know I felt that way because I was meant to be Albani’s mom!
Becoming a parent has made me more balanced. I think any parent will agree that you become less selfish when entrusted with raising a child! For some people, being a parent makes it harder to be a competitive runner, but it’s made my running better because it makes me less apt to overtrain. I’ve been a super early/before work runner for years, so most of my running is done before Albani wakes up.
Our morning routine consists of me coming home from my run at about 6:45 a.m. and stretching in her room while she wakes up (she will get upset if I don’t do this, even on days she is out of school). Then we get ready for school and work together in the master bathroom. Having a daughter particularly has made me hyper-aware of how I present exercise and eating habits. I want her to grow up with a healthy body image and seeing that sports are fun. My husband often wants to lose a few pounds and will use the term “diet” and discuss limiting food intake, and I always get into him about that, I think because I’m a female athlete who has seen extremes with poor eating behaviors. I want her to see me enjoying physical activity, and being good to my body.
As far as selecting races, I now lean more towards events that offer children’s races and/or special events for kids (bounce houses, face painting, fairs, etc.), which isn’t something I looked at before. Albani likes to race, but at this point, she is definitely in it for the bling! She completed the kids’ marathon in conjunction with the Prairie Fire Marathon 2016 by running 25.2 miles before race day, in 1 mile increments, and then finishing the final mile on race day. She’s completed several 1 mile races and has been telling me recently that she’s ready to try a 5K, so that’s coming. My husband enjoys running as well, so races are really a family affair and a weekend event that everyone looks forward to. I am so thankful for that!
You’ve dealt with injuries in the past that have kept you from running. I remember being beyond impressed seeing the long hours you’d put in on the elliptical machine in lieu of running. Do you think cross training has played a role in maintaining your fitness during those periods off running? Did you have a certain system, like however many minutes you would have been running you replace with cross training? What advice would you give to someone currently dealing with an injury? What kept you motivated/what was at the forefront of your mind during those times?
Yes and no, with cross-training playing a role in maintaining fitness. Being suddenly unable to train and compete when you’re at peak fitness is a hard pill to swallow, and I’ve always used that stress to cross-train with gusto. Looking back at my cross-training practices when injured, I was definitely over-training, and my “system” was typically to do as much as I possibly could! I was always motivated to maintain as much conditioning as possible so I could return to running and racing as quickly as I could. Cross-training fitness translates to some degree, but nothing compares to miles.
For those currently injured, I think the most important thing is to not stop believing. I believe that God uses everything for a greater purpose, and that was certainly the case with my injuries. Never stop believing that you’ll overcome and that good will come out of it. I always felt better when I was doing things proactively (hence my excessive cross-training!), and I also found that when I learned more about and addressed some of my weaknesses and imbalances, not only did I recover from injuries faster but I also became a stronger runner for it. All of those stretches and strength moves your PT recommends will not only help you move past your injury, they will also help you run faster when you resume running. Embrace those extras as much as you can, and be kind to your body. No one ever got healthy faster by hating their body for getting hurt or killing themselves cross-training, so I’m not sure why I did that for so long!
What race on your calendar are you most looking forward to?
The California International Marathon in December is my big one this year.
Would you be open to share your next marathon goal?
Since I’ve written a blog post about it, I guess it’s already out there for the world! I want to run a 2:44:59 marathon to net the 2020 Olympic Trials Marathon Standard. If I can get fit enough to do that, I figure I will also PR in every other race distance by default, so that is an ancillary goal. Why not dream big, right?!
Interview edited for length/clarity.