After a surprise podium finish at the 2018 Boston Marathon, Sarah Sellers is returning to the race that catapulted her into the spotlight as a runner.
When Sarah Sellers rises at 4 a.m., it’s not to sip coffee slowly in the still of the morning or head off to an early shift at the Tucson hospital where she works as a nurse anesthetist. Instead, Sellers hits the blaring alarm and gets out her shoes to tackle another early morning run.
Sellers is preparing for her second appearance in the Boston Marathon after a long love affair with running. The 27-year-old started in middle school with her parents on the trails behind their house in Ogden, Utah, and went on to run in college for Weber State from 2009–13.
For someone who has spent most of her life running, qualifying for the Boston Marathon came easy. But competing among the elites was another task all together. In 2018, Sellers arrived on the starting line in Hopkinton as a relatively unknown runner and had only competed in one marathon, in Huntsville, Utah, in Sept. 2017. She won her debut in 2:44:27—nearly 15 minutes ahead of the next woman.
“In some ways last year it was really nice to be totally naïve and do my own thing and not have anyone besides a few family members and my coach interested in how I did,” Sellers says.
The conditions at the 2018 Boston Marathon were anything but ideal. At the start of the race temperatures hovered around 37 degrees. A torrential downpour, which amounted to over a half inch of rain, soaked runners for the entirety of the race. The worst part, according to Sellers, who compared running in the heavy rains to being in a car wash, was the strong headwinds that reached up to 35 miles per hour. More than 2,500 runners visited medical tents during the race and 1,123 participants did not finish.
When Sellers crossed the finish line in 2:44:04 as the second runner in the women’s division behind two-time Olympian Desiree Linden, who became the first American woman to win the race in 33 years, her anonymity to the general public quickly vanished. Suddenly, the media was clamoring to talk to Sellers, who was in a state of disbelief over her second-place finish. “Who is Sarah Sellers?” started popping on search engines, running message boards and social media. The reality sank in after she found her husband, Blake, and he confirmed that the result was no fluke.
“It was the mixture of excitement and almost this daunting feeling,” Seller says. “It was a little bit scary because I knew it was going to be a big deal but I also asked myself ‘What did I just do?’”
Before April 16, 2018, not many people would’ve cared that Sellers ran track and cross country in middle school and high school before joining the teams at Weber State in her hometown. She was a nine-time Big Sky conference champion during her college career and was voted the university’s 2012 Female Athlete of the Year. After she was diagnosed with a stress fracture in the navicular bone in her foot during her senior year, Sellers didn’t know if she would be able to run again, because that specific bone doesn’t get much blood supply, which makes it hard to heal. She never finished her final year of NCAA eligibility at Weber State.
She went a couple of years without being able to run or could run very little,” says Paul Pilkington, Sellers’s coach at Weber State. “She wasn’t training a lot when in grad school but I think that helped her get healthy again. It’s the whole thing of ‘Hey I may never be able to run again’ that makes her appreciate it a lot.”
Sellers eventually did start running again as a graduate student at Barry University in Florida. She decided to target the 2018 Boston Marathon after her brother, Ryan, signed up. She earned her Boston qualifier in Huntsville and then reached out to Pilkington and asked him to help her train for the marathon.
While working four days a week, Sellers rose at 4 a.m. to train before her shifts at Banner-University Medical Center Tucson and went out for a run for a second time at night after work. There were days where she would arrive tired at the track after what she calls “emotionally challenging” days at work. She wasn’t always in the mood to do mile repeats, but she stuck with it because that’s what Pilkington had scheduled for her.
All the hard work suddenly paid off when she found herself running through the hard rain in Boston.
“I was not going to drop out. I had nothing to lose and I was going to give it my all no matter what happened,” she says. “There was no pressure on me so it was just about a positive mindset. I was not on pace but I just kind of put my head down and gave it my best effort. I think those workouts prepared me for Boston last year because that’s how Boston was.”
Her second-place finish catapulted Sellers into the spotlight and she was fielding media requests for articles and podcasts regularly for several months after the race. Changes quickly followed. Sellers joined Twitter in late April after Olympian Kara Goucher encouraged her to do so. Pilkington connected Sellers with an agent and she eventually signed sponsorship deals with Biofreeze, Altra Running and UCAN, a nutrition products company.
The media attention was a bit overwhelming for Sellers at first and she found it hard to balance with training and working. But she is also grateful for how the frenzy led to sponsorships and a turnaround in her running career that almost ended with her foot injury.
“When I was injured in college and thought that I was pretty much done competing, I never thought I would have been in a position later on to have sponsors to support my running,” Sellers says. “I think they understand that I’m putting everything that I can in running but I’m trying to have realistic expectations and goals.”
While training for Boston this year, Sellers now only works three days a week. Her ideal goal is to hit a sub-2:30 finish time in the race, which would check off the 2020 Olympic standard time of 2:29:30.
Even if she doesn’t get under that mark, Sellers says she would be happy with setting a personal best under 2:36; she finished the New York City Marathon last November with a best of 2:36:37. Sellers and Pilkington don’t expect her to repeat her second-place finish like last year and are more focused on her time than a spot on the podium.
“[People] see I got second last year and think I’m going to win it this year or be on the podium,” Sellers says. “Initially those kinds of comments would get to me because the odds of that happening are not zero but they’re close. And that’s being realistic.”
Now that the world knows who Sarah Sellers is, the only question people are asking this year is: What can Sarah Sellers do next?