2003 NIKE Indoor Mile Champion, Sarah Bowman, has her sights set on being more than just another runner. She wants to be a role model that everyone aspires to be.
Sarah Bowman's win at the NIKE Indoor Championships and 2nd in the mile at the Penn Relays may have come as a surprise to some, but not to her. The Fauquier (Warrenton, VA) sophomore has had her sights on becoming one of the best ever since she became serious about her running in the winter of 2002-2003. It was then that she decided to wean herself from her top flight soccer career and devote more time to track. Her intentions are to see just how far she can get with the Olympics as her ultimate goal.
Bowman has always been told that she was a fast runner. First, by her grandmother, and later, by all her teachers and coaches at school were she habitually won over the boys in her class.
" I would always run the mile in gym class and beat all the boys," she says laughing. " So then we would have PE Olympics. I ran those. Everyone thought I was fast. They told me about Hershey Track and Field, " she says. She participated in the Hershey track and field series and had immediate success there. Then it was on to AAU Junior Olympics in the summer before entering high school. She won the 1500m in her first season of summer track.
How did she do it? Someone so inexperienced racing against so many fast kids with experience and winning doesn't make much sense. Obviously, she's very talented, but is there more than just her talent propelling her to such great performances? Here's where one would think there was magic training scheme and/or countless hours devoted to getting better, but, in fact, she used a very simple approach.
" I wasn't working out that hard. The most I did was two miles a day. I would just go out and run some laps at a certain speed. My mom was the one who timed me. We didn't really have anything too formal, " she says.
Delving further into her background for an explanation for her running prowess, possibly another reason would surface. Maybe her parents where great athletes or former coaches. That's just not the case.
" My mother has no track background. She started when I was little. She doesn't do much, but hold a watch. We just went out and ran. She knew I needed speed work so we would run a couple of laps really fast. She'd time me then I'd run some more laps and I'd just keep going like that, " she says." My father was a 4:59 miler and basketball player. Not too fast, but not too bad either."
Entering her freshman year at Fauquier, Bowman, of course, was better than most. Her track speed was not her only strength. She had done well in several road 5k's as a youngster and that transferred well into cross country. She continued her string of successes with a solid third place at the class 2A Virginia state championships running a 19:02 for the 5k. Then, as she always does, she went looking for more competition at the Footlocker South Regional in Charlotte, NC. There she placed a respectable 50th in 19:00.15.
As she had done since she was very young, Bowman balanced her running with her soccer team practices and games. Her team is in the competitive division I of the Washington Area Girls Soccer league (WAGS). This April, they were invited to Korea to compete as a representative of the United States, but Operation Iraqi Freedom canceled that trip. They may still play in the summer.
" There's really no off season in soccer. I play forward for my WAGS, Washington Area Girls Soccer, team, the Braddock Road Attack, and we have games and practices all year round, " she says.
It wasn't until the winter of her freshman year that her outlook on running began to change. Her school had no indoor track team which left her ineligible to compete in the Virginia High School League Indoor meets. The only indoor competition she was able to run was the NIKE Indoor Championships which allows any high school athlete under the age of 19 to compete. She made the hour and a half trek to Landover, Maryland to compete in the freshman mile. While she was sitting there watching the other girl milers compete, it became apparent to her what she wanted from her running.
" I remember at nationals last year, I ran in the freshman mile. We were watching the open mile while waiting for the freshman mile to begin. I saw the girl who won it. I don't remember her name. I was watching her run and all the girls were like ' oh she's so fast, I wish I could run like that.' I was like ' I'm gonna run like that.' It was just kind of a desire to want to succeed at something. When you want something, if you want it, you can get it, " she says.
Bowman placed a strong second in her race in Landover, Maryland's Prince George's Sports and Learning Complex running a 5:09.26. The time may not seem that remarkable at first, but consider she hadn't trained at all for the event.
Her training became more serious when she entered track season that spring at Fauquier. She keeps a log, but doesn't keep it up to date saying, "I have a journal. I don't know if I've written in it for a while. I think as long as I feel I'm running, " she says. Then she begins to backtrack some.
" I'm still a teenager. I'm not going to like ' oh, I have to make my log.' It sounds awful, " she says realizing what people might think.
She does have a general outline of her training. It's not as though she doesn't work for what she's gotten. " We do long distances runs. Each day we do like a different speed workout. We do speed workout like three times a week. The first one is the hardest of the week. You have to do 800 repeats and then we do 400 repeats. Then 200 repeats, " she says.
She finished her freshman year with her best time of 4:57.05 in winning the state AA championship. She also dabbled in the long jump and high jump during the season. She still competes in the high jump, setting a PR this year of 5-05. She only started to practice the event again last week.
"Those were good distractions [of the two events]. Instead of waiting around all day, I go out there and jump. It breaks up the day." she says. " I don't do the long jump anymore. It got to be too much. "
After her first high school season, she looked to compete one more time. She won the Adidas Outdoor Championship freshman mile in Raleigh, NC easily in 5:05.62. It was a good end and beginning to the summer for her. She took up the AAU Junior Olympic summer circuit again. She began slowly and then blasted a 4:35.58 to break the seven year old record held by Lara Delaney of Pennsylvania. She again teamed up with her mom to get the job done.
" My mom trained me during the summer. I did the same thing I did this winter. I went out and ran some laps hard on the track. I was really out of shape, when I first started AAU. The first couple of meets, I was really out of shape. Then, my mom and I went out there and really started working hard. It just changed," she says about her training before the record which she had set as a goal.
The race itself followed the pattern that is beginning to characterize her style of racing; one sudden burst to put away all challengers. " I remember the last lap, I was running with everyone. The last lap, I took off. My goal was to break the record. I ran the 3000, too. I got third. I wasn't in condition to run a 3000. I'd only been training a mile and half so I wasn't in shape for that and you could tell. That was the second time I won, " she says.
Looking back on all her successes as a freshman, one would think that Bowman would be pleased with her improvement and championships. But her perspective is a very ambitious one and says this: " My best time outdoors last year was 4:57. I did that at state. It was kind of my play around year. I don't think I took it as seriously as I do now. I realize now that I did train hard and I started realizing all the competition. So last year, I had a lot of learning about running and about myself."
After her record setting summer, Bowman entered her sophomore cross country season with great expectations. A little more training and experience left a lot to be desired. She dominated Virginia cross country all season long, never being headed She capped her season off with a state title. Her chances of qualifying for Footlocker Nationals were better than good. However, a cold lingered and she had trouble breathing and struggled home. " It was disappointing, but not that disappointing. I mean, if I were a senior, then it would have been really disappointing," she says.
Not discouraged at all, she began the indoor season with actually being able to compete indoors. Fauquier did not have an indoor track team her freshman year, but with the help of her parents, indoor track was added as a sport. This allowed Bowman to compete in the Virginia High School League meets.
Again she did well. At the indoor state championships on February 21, 2003, Bowman won both the 1,000, 2:52.44, and 1600, 5:00.69. With a full season of indoor track, she was definitely be in much better shape than the year before. Her performances indicated that she would be ready for another trip to the NIKE Indoor Championships. This time she would run in the Invitational division mile, the race that impacted her so the year before. Bowman, though, was unfamiliar with her competition and wasn't sure how'd she run the race.
" I didn't know how I'd do. I know I had a chance and if I had a good race, I might be able to do it. I really didn't know too much about my competition. I'm not one who's researching it a whole lot so I really didn't know much about my competition, " she says. Continuing on about the race and her prerace plan she says, "I knew it was going to be one of the toughest competitions. I tried not to think about it too much because that makes me really nervous. My plan was to try and stay behind the first place person and see what happens. I don't really have race strategies. That was my strategy."
She darted out to the front and was then swallowed up by the pack. Making her way towards the back, Bowman seemed to be an inexperienced runner going out too fast only to fade over the course of the race. " I remember going out and it being really slow. So I was like 'ok. I can pick it up.' So I picked it up and I led for a couple of laps, then everyone started to cave in and they were all around me and passing me. I wouldn't let myself slow down so I just stayed with them. It was a comfortable pace. It didn't feel too bad and then I dropped back. In the back, I was comfortable so I knew when it got closer to time, I would work my way back up, " she says.
But most runners would tend to panic in such situations; taking the lead and then losing it so rapidly. She, however, was unfazed. " It's not something I really think about during a race. If I was really tired, then I'd be worried, but I knew I wasn't tiring out so that I couldn't do it. It was more, ' I'm just back here and I need to do something, ' " she says of the middle of her race.
With AOC national mile champ Megan Kaltenbach leading comfortably and seemingly in control, Bowman looked to be out of contention languishing in the back of the lead pack. But then, all too familiar sudden burst two laps from the finish launched her from the back and into the lead. Again, it seemed like an inexperienced move on Bowman's part. " It happened so quickly. I just decided to go. I have a pretty good kick when I want to use it. I didn't really surprise myself. I wasn't really thinking about it doing it. I just kind of did it, " she says.
Such a bold move from so far out, one would think that she would be worried about the competition behind her, especially with Kaltenbach chasing. But Bowman thought otherwise. " I was glad that I might get to win this I was thinking. That was exciting. There were so many other things going through my mind besides just that. I can't even remember now. When I crossed the finish line. That's when I thought, ' now I won,' " she says.
Something else that becomes apparent when speaking to Bowman about her past races is that her achievements spur her into looking to doing even greater things. She doesn't dwell or relive races. Even after a win as big as the NIKE Indoor Mile, she was looking ahead and speaks modestly about her accomplishment. " I'm a little more impressed than I was at first beating some of the people. Once a race is over, I'm ready for the next thing. After a race, I don't stay with that race and say like ' Wow, I could have done better in that race.' So I'm always thinking things like that. I'm running for the next race so I can try and work harder and beat the same people because any given day, things can change. That's what keeps me running. A lot of it though is my personality. The drive to want to get and do better. " she says.
Looking to compete against tougher competition, Bowman and her parents sat down with her coaches before the beginning of the track season and mapped out some big races for her to compete in. With the Korea trip being canceled, the Penn Relays Mile became an option for her.
Before the largest crowd she's ever run in front of, Bowman again took the lead early. She yo-yoed back and forth citing a mental lapse that let eventual winner, Ari Lambie get away from her. Bowman came home second with another strong finish to run a lifetime best of 4:48.69. " It was a decent race. I put in a good time and everything. I was happy with it. I would have liked to improve my time more, " she says. " When I finished indoor, I felt a lot more tired. I need and should to be able to run faster. I don't know what would have happened if I had gone with Lambie."
Also in her racing scheme was the Dogwood Classic in Charlottesville, VA two days after Penn. Feeling no ill effects from the Penn mile, Bowman put together an amazing quadruple. She began the day with a 5-0 mark in the high jump. She then followed that with an impressive win in the 1600m, 4:49.52, the 800m, 2:11.32 and capped the day off with a 56 split in the 400m.
"I was happy with my times, doing that many events. I was happy with my 4x4 because we qualified for state and my split was my best ever. I was a lot more relaxed than I usually am. I felt good, " she says. " The Penn Relays was only one race so I didn't feel sore like I could have."
In such heady competitions, Bowman does share some qualities with many other runners; she gets nervous before races. " I always get real nervous. I'm like " I don't know if I can do this…" Those thoughts always go through my head," she says. However, she tempers that with a healthy outlook on the anxiety that she feels. " It's good for you to be nervous because then you know you actually want it and you'll try. You have adrenaline and everything. I just get really nervous, " she says.
The nervousness even helps her at times. " It always ends up helping me. If you let get to you or let it get to that point, it can not help you out. I don't let it get to that point. I try to keep in more contained to help me, " she says.
In a somewhat refreshing outlook for her generation, Bowman shies away from the running scene. It seems almost impossible to avoid the temptation with instant messaging and cyberspace, but Bowman is able to keep her running in her own neat perspective. " I follow running to an extent. I mean. No running magazines. I talk to my friends and stuff on the internet. I just don't surf for all that running stuff. I think it's better for me to stay away from that. I don't want to be always dwelling on it. Worrying about everyone else. There are other things more important than that. I just worry about myself. I like to look at times so I know what I need to strive for, but I don't watch. I couldn't name big runners."
She stays away from just about everything about running it seems. It is almost unbelievable that she can't name any of the top college programs or major high school invitationals. " I don't even know what the big invitationals are. I don't know any top schools either. I must sound pathetic," she says.
So with little awareness of the running scene around her, it's no surprise that she has no running role models either. There's a reason for that which is quite astonishing for a novice. Remember, she's only a tenth grader. " No role models. My parents maybe, but I don't have one for running. I know a lot of people who run would be like searching and having a favorite runner and everything. I want to win. This may sound kind of awful, but I want to be the best. I want people to use me as a role model. That's another thing keeps me really dedicated to the sport. I want that, " she says
Despite winning much of the time from the get go and wanting to be a role model for everyone, Bowman doesn't see herself as being all that great. She doesn't see what all the hoopla is surrounding her running feats. " It's hard to explain. I don't ever really look and say ' wow, that's such a big deal.' It's just part of me. Running is what I do. I don't know, I just….. I don't feel like I'm anything great, " she says struggling to not sound too egotistical. "I've always been able to run so I don't think of it . I've done it before. I don't think I'm anything great. I'm not like ' I'm Sarah Bowman, everyone has to like me.' "
She does use her success as motivation though. " It puts pressure on me. It makes me feel like 'wow, I can't do anything wrong.' I feel like I have to work to stay there. It motivates me to work harder. Like in practices and stuff. When I'm tired or I say ' I don't want to do this,' I just think that I need to keep up with all these other people. It makes me work harder, "
Her attitude has changed traveling the nation to seek out tougher and faster competition. It has helped to her develop into a better runner over the past two years. " I think I realized the sport. I realized the competition. How much I want to work for it. It's hard to explain. You just learn too. Something you love doing or something you want to do. To train harder," she says.
She keeps her options open when it comes to competing in track and field. She has tried " just about everything" when it comes to track. It keeps it fun for her. She has this to say about some of her events. The 800 she says, "It's interesting. In my other races, it's the first lap and the last lap, the rest takes care of itself. In the 800, that's what it is. It's the first and last. You have one lap and then your last lap. It's good for me though. I like it." The 400, "I don't like it as an individual event. I like it in the 4x4 relay. To be honest though, I don't like it. It's a sprint. It's not bad. You've got to go. There's no down time. You have to go the whole time. Not like in any of the other races where you have some down time. " And finally the 3000/3200m/ two mile, she just says " Too many laps."
But not liking the 3200m doesn't keep her from wanting to be a good cross country runner.
" I still haven't run my best cross country race yet. I just have to work a little harder. I'm still waiting to. I like xc," she says.
And one can't forget that she also plays soccer. Running has taken a priority with her. Her soccer coaches are "good with it" and are impressed with her performances, but they are still "soccer minded." " Soccer has been put behind track. Track has always come first and my coach understands that, " she says.
She doesn't like comparing the two sports nor does she really think about it. Both sports are independent of each other. She does go as far to say this about the two. " When you're running, it's all about you. There's no one else to blame it on. You're in charge of everything. It can be both good and bad. It depends on how you like at it. I've never really compared the two. I like setting goals and getting goals. I like working for something. The thrill of working for something you really want and getting it. Soccer, is just sort if team. I've been doing it since I was little so going out there is no problem. There a lot the same. Track has more of the goal, but both are really fun to me, " she says.
In Bowman's mind, she has only scratched the surface of her talent. She just doesn't seem to think she's that good right now. " I always say, I'm going to do the best I can. However that turns out, that's how it goes. I don't think I've run as fast as I can run yet. I think every race, I push myself a little harder. I don't think I've run a race where I've run the very fastest I could run or come out of a race and say 'I did the best I could.' I always think that I have more energy to run faster. Always. Until I like fall down at the line, I'm going to always think that. No one thinks that. I've gotten to the point where I can hardly breathe sometimes. When I get to that point in a race, I think I'll have run my hardest, " she says.
There's still work to be done and there are improvements she can make. Where her running will take her is still in flux. She's planning on taking her running where ever it will take her. " It depends on how good am. If I can make it all the way or I can't. I would like to be at the Olympics, " she says.
There's very little doubt that she will have any trouble getting to the top and that Olympic goal may become a reality if she continues improving at the alarming rate she has shown already. She may just become that role model she set out to be in the first place.