Fast Times With Sarah Bard
When I emailed Sarah Bard a few hours before our scheduled interview time to re-schedule, she replied (with a heavy dose of sarcasm), “Sigh, I just did my hair and make up, but sure… that’s totally fine.” That’s Sarah for you: witty, sarcastic, blithe—and holy smokes she is fast. The 2016 U.S. Olympic Trials Marathon qualifier has blazed to consecutive fourth-place finishes at the 2015 IAU 100k World Championships and the 2016 Comrades Marathon, while twice winning the storied JFK 50 Mile (2014, 2015) and the 2015 USATF 50k Road National Championships, solidifying herself as a world-class ultrarunner on the roads. She’s recently showed a penchant for success on the trails, too, finishing third at the 2016 Chuckanut 50k in March, and then notching a second-place finish at the increasingly competitive Ultravasan 90k a couple weeks ago in Sweden. Bard sat down so that I could catch up with her dry humor and speedy tales in this interview.
Listen to this audio preview, and then read on:
iRunFar: What are you doing in Seattle, Washington?
Sarah Bard: I work for a biotech company based in Boston, Massachusetts—or in Cambridge, doing corporate communications and librarian work. I work from home [in Seattle]—we moved here at the end of last year when my husband, John, took a position at the University of Washington. I work remotely, which means I have to put on clothes for [this interview] and not drink a beer at like 2 p.m. [laughs].
iRunFar: [laughs] You have to restrain yourself.
Bard: Right. Well I work on East-Coast time so I start work around 6 or 6:30 a.m. and I’m done by 2 or 3 p.m. every day.
iRunFar: Well before we get into your running accomplishments, let’s look back. When did you first start running?
Bard: So I grew up in a small town in Maine, a town of 10,000 people. It’s called Waterville, it’s where Colby College is. One activity my small grade school had was called Running Club. They basically just mowed a path through a field and told us to run and count our laps, and they set a goal for the school to collectively run enough miles to get to Hawaii. I got really into Running Club. I wasn’t necessarily competitive with other people, it was more that I had a hard time getting myself to stop—I always thought I could do another lap. So a lot like ultrarunning, it was about how far I could go, not necessarily if I could beat other people. I also did gymnastics until junior-high school, and I road my bike a lot. My parents tried to make me play soccer, but I didn’t like that. I was more into individual-based sports.
I was an active kid, but didn’t really do organized sports until I ran track in junior high. I never really thought of myself as a runner, but I clearly was. Looking back, I wonder why I didn’t call myself a runner, because I was a runner. I remember a friend in junior high asking if I would run in high school and I said that I didn’t know, I was really scared, I didn’t know if I would make the team. And then I ran in high school, and I did some serious running on the track and I ran cross country. High-school track was probably the most transformative for my running because we did some serious workouts—like the most serious I had done until I was running in Boston and doing workouts with a group there.
iRunFar: So then did you run in college?
Bard: I did, but I deliberately—I think because high school was so intense–I was a good student, but the thing that dominated everything in high school was track, and I didn’t want that to be the case in college, mostly because you pay so much to go to college. For me, I wanted the focus to be on academics. If I have a choice, it’s fun to run [laughs], so I wanted to be in a place that would encourage my academics and not ever put pressure on athletics.
So I went to Wellesley College, which at the time didn’t have a track team. They only had a cross-country team but they had a great coach. They had a track, but cross country was the only recognized running sport. You could run track and enter local meets, but there was no team, you were entered unattached. It was nice to go to a school that wasn’t totally focused on athletics but still had a great coach, and it wouldn’t be a lackluster program.
iRunFar: You seem to focus on competing with yourself and not with other people, but it also sounds like you enjoy being part of a team and being in groups.
Bard: Yeah, it’s funny because I really like running with other people. When we moved to Seattle I had a hard time running because I didn’t have anyone to run with, and while in Boston I had a community. I love the team aspect of running and that’s a big reason why I’ve wanted to continue running at all points in my life. So I’m trying to build a community here in Seattle. I think the thing that appeals to me about these more individual sports is that I’m in control of how much I can contribute. The thing that I didn’t like about soccer was that I never knew when I was able to be helpful, or I just wasn’t in control of it. With running, or an ultra race, you’re thinking about the entire span of what you’re doing. You’re trying to walk this plateau where you push as hard as you can, but never too much. I like that aspect and it’s what I like about sport: being in control [laughs]. It’s a back-and-forth, zoom-in, zoom-out way of approaching athletics: you have to think about the minutia, but also the entirety of what you’re facing.
iRunFar: Is the control thing more widespread in your life? Like you don’t want to get on a plane because you’re not in control?
Bard: Um, not with a plane—I like to be in control, but I guess not to that level. I think it’s just racing, I want control. Like when I’m driving down a four-lane highway and everyone is going the same speed, I’m always like, This is so inefficient, let me go by! [laughs]
iRunFar: What’d you study at Wellesley?
Bard: English major and an Italian minor—two very useful degrees [laughs].
iRunFar: What about once you graduated?
Bard: I moved to Boston for college, then after college I moved to the San Juan Islands off the coast of Seattle. A friend of mine in college lived near the San Juans and we went there for spring break a few times. I didn’t know what I wanted to do after college, I wanted to hang out and live with a bunch of hippies and just chill a lot [laughs]. It was difficult to find housing on the island, but I lucked out because I found a woman on Craigslist who was looking for someone to help out for 20 hours of week with her gardening in exchange for housing. I didn’t know much about gardening, but it worked out. I learned how to garden all the Pacific Northwest flowers and vegetables.
iRunFar: How long did you live out there?
Bard: Not super long, probably a little less than a year on the island. I ended up moving into a tiny house on this family’s property. I lived there during the winter. It’s dark most of the time during the winter there, and I was working at a grocery store while it was light out, and I would leave work and it would be dark and cold and there were a lot of snowstorms. I’d have to hike a quarter mile through the snow to this tiny cabin, without water or electricity, and then I would debate if I should build a fire to get warm or just go to sleep [laughs]. I had stopped running completely at this point. So I ended up leaving the island. A bunch of friends had decided to move to Missoula, [Montana], and I moved to Big Sky.
iRunFar: You were burnt out with running?
Bard: I guess it was my junior year of college, and I had developed—I guess it was an eating disorder or working-out disorder. I would basically overestimate the calories I was putting in and underestimate the calories I was burning. I honestly don’t know why that happened because, again, our team in college wasn’t super intense–Division I or anything. I think it’s just sort of what happened at college. I came from a family of big eaters and then at college I was around people who were having only a salad for dinner. I think at some point something happened and it changed my mind space and I fell into this trap—so I lost a lot of weight, a lot for me, but as a pretty muscular person it probably wasn’t that noticeable. I never looked terrible, I just lost a bunch of muscle mass.
Eventually I made the effort—my senior year I was captain of the team but I didn’t run much at all. At that point I was recovering and I gained a lot of weight. I think I went from being 15 pounds under my normal weight to being 25 pounds over. I think at that point, running was something I couldn’t focus on at all. I just had to go with what was happening in my mind. I stopped and then it was hard to get back into running. It’s hard for someone who’s run for awhile to go back and run two minutes slower per mile and feel like you’re dying. I would run two days and think it was awful, and then I wouldn’t run at all. Then three weeks later, I would run for two days, then say, “Nope, I’m still not ready.” I actually didn’t get back into running until we lived in Montana for two-and-a-half years…
iRunFar: You and John were together at this time?
Bard: John and I started dating while I was living on the islands. That was part of the reason to move to Montana—he was living in Missoula and I wanted to be closer so that we didn’t have this 10-hour drive. I didn’t want to move right in with him, so I moved to Big Sky—closer, but not I’m-living-in-your-house close [laughs]. I worked as a nanny for a number of families and lived with one of the families. Then I moved to Missoula but soon after John went to Argentina [laughs]. It was supposed to be for three months but it ended up being nine months. I went down to Argentina with John, and then we came back to Missoula together.
The first time in Missoula [before Argentina], I got back into running with one of John’s friends who lived there. We lived in a house at the base of Waterworks Hill. We would run up Waterworks every day after work. Going from running on roads to running on mountains, there wasn’t that comparison I was struggling with when I was trying to start running again on the Islands because, you know, you’re walking up a mountain and you’re dying, and you can walk faster than you run. I think that’s how I finally was able to get back into [running], by doing these runs with John’s friend everyday. That’s what we would do: run after work, very low key. We were in Missoula for a year once we got back from Argentina, and I actually started running workouts with a group on the track there.
I finally signed up for a race again called the Trifecta. It was a 10k, then a short break, then a 5k, then a short break, then a mile. I did that and it was the first time I had raced in a really long time and I felt like I could run again. So I signed up for the Chicago Marathon. We were moving to Chicago and that’s a good one for first timers. That was in 2008 that I ran Chicago.
iRunFar: Did you start running more consistently before the marathon then?
Bard: Yeah, so I actually ran the Boston Marathon my senior year of college. I did the thing that many people who have run all their lives probably do in their first marathon, which is to underestimate the marathon. So I thought I was good at this and I ran a 1:30 for the first half, and then I finished in 4:02. It was so painful. I stopped at Wellesley and was going to take the commuter rail, but I had bought that stupid jacket and thought, I can never wear that jacket if I don’t finish. I started running again, and then I would stop and think, No way, and start walking toward the commuter rail, but then I would turn back around and start running again. Eventually I finished but I basically walked/ran the whole second half and I’ve never been—to this day, I don’t think I’ve been in that much pain.
I wanted to run the marathon again at some point to redeem myself and have a good experience. I signed up for Chicago with the goal of finishing the marathon and not wanting to die. But I actually ran a qualifier for Boston and so I went back to Boston that next spring.
iRunFar: What were your times then at Chicago and Boston the next spring?
Bard: My first Boston was 4:02, then at Chicago I ran 3:15, which was a huge surprise because at the time I only needed a 3:40 to qualify for Boston. At Boston the next spring I think I ran 3:06.
iRunFar: This is when your marathon times started coming down. You must have felt good.
Bard: Yeah, at that point I was taking off huge chunks of time. Usually people take off smaller amounts, so I wanted to keep going. After that, I wanted to go under three hours. I signed up for the New York City Marathon, and I squeaked under three hours there, I ran 2:58. Then John said, “You should try to get the Trials qualifier,” which at that point was 2:46 [laughs]. I know thinking 2:58 to 2:46 is so much, but at the time I was taking five to 10 minutes each time. It wasn’t completely absurd to think that.
iRunFar: I bet you ran a qualifier on the next try.
Bard: I didn’t get it; I missed it by 20 seconds or something. Yeah, in my next marathon I missed the Trials standard and ran 2:46:38, I think.
iRunFar: This was in an effort to qualify for the 2012 Trials?
iRunFar: But then you did qualify in 2016.
Bard: I did, yeah, with a 2:43 after they slowed the qualifying standard a few months before the Trials.
iRunFar: Congrats again on that. So how did you learn about ultrarunning?
Bard: I’m not sure. For a long time I just thought I would be good at ultras. But in my head you didn’t do ultras until you were old [laughs], so I thought I couldn’t do them until I got old. I was waiting until I was old but I some point I decided I just needed to do it because it was something that I wanted to do.
iRunFar: You say you thought you would be good at ultras. How did you know about the sport?
Bard: We lived in Virginia for four years, from 2009 to 2012, during John’s PhD, about an hour outside of Washington, D.C. Almost everyone in the group that I ran with there ran ultras. It was hard to find someone to do marathon training with me. I think I learned about the JFK 50 Mile from them, and then got it in my head that I would be better at ultras than the marathon distance or shorter.
iRunFar: Eventually you did get into ultras, and you’ve done so in a big way. But I would guess that many in the ultrarunning community really don’t know who you are. Tell me why they should know about you.
Bard: [laughs] So a nice, humbling introduction.
iRunFar: [laughs] That’s right. But you know what I mean—notable performances, let’s talk about your ultrarunning career.
Bard: I consider the 2014 JFK 50 Mile my first ultra, but I did technically run an ultra before that. I entered a 50k one weekend when we were home in Maine. I felt like I wanted to move into ultrarunning because I had gone through—I come from a marathon background, and at some point I just didn’t want to train for a marathon again. Usually when I felt that way, it felt like I didn’t want to run at all. So I would take time off, recover mentally and physically, and at some point I would get the itch to run and race again. I did a marathon and then I wanted to run again, I just didn’t want to run a marathon. I was at a loss of what to do in training because I wasn’t training for anything specific. I thought maybe this was the time to try an ultra. So I ran that 50k, I was super conservative, there were maybe 10 people in the race, it was more just a 30-mile run. I ran that in October of 2014 and thought, Okay, I can run 50k, so I can at least try 50 miles.
I remember reading the interviews with Zach Miller after his JFK win and he was like, “Yeah, I emailed the race director a week before, and then I won and crushed everything.” I was like, Oh, well I can maybe email and try to get into this race because people have done it in the past. I didn’t necessarily put myself on the level of Zach Miller, thinking I would go in and destroy it, but at least I could get in. So I wrote to Mike Spinnler, got into JFK about a month ahead of time, trained my butt off for two weeks, and then ran it.
iRunFar: You ran 6 hours and 37 minutes, too. I mean, that was a fast winning time.
Bard: That’s what surprised me—I was not going for a specific time. My goal was to finish. I was super nervous before. I was looking at everyone’s shoes at the start line, wondering if I had chosen the right shoes.
iRunFar: Where were you living at the time, back in 2014?
Bard: In Boston. That was another reason for choosing JFK, since it’s nearby.
iRunFar: It’s your first 50 miler, and it’s JFK, and you win in a really solid time. Is the storyline that seamless?
Bard: As soon as I got off the Appalachian Trail, I just went for it. Since I had been training for marathons and doing lots of tempos in the recent past, I settled into a tempo pace and didn’t even think about it. Eventually I took over the lead and kept my eye on the lead biker and just ran. I had no plans to try to win, I had no time I was shooting for, I just ran.
iRunFar: That sounds more like Zach Miller than you might realize.
Bard: [laughs] I’m definitely not as intensely speedy in the beginning.
iRunFar: Did you think, I’m really good at this?
Bard: It was heartening to know that I could start pursuing that with a little bit more of a mission. Like I said, I was tired of marathons and just felt lost. It was nice to feel—and the challenge was similar but different. With marathons it got to the point where I was thinking about a half second per mile [improvement], and less about the race as a whole, whereas with ultras it’s more calculated, more, Can I keep going? Can I do another mile? Can I take another step? It’s a different sort of challenge but on the same level.
iRunFar: Aside from your own motivations to continue pursuing ultras, was there anyone who told you after JFK, “Hey, you’re good at this, keep doing it!”
Bard: Yeah, Mike Spinnler and [journalist] Andy Mason were congratulatory, and people came out of the woodwork to congratulate me on the effort and the run. After that I just tried to find things that played to my strengths. The next thing I decided to do was the Caumsett 50k in March, 2015, which is very similar to a marathon, just a different way of thinking about it. When I was training for Caumsett, it didn’t feel like I was training for a marathon, even though they’re similar.
iRunFar: Caumsett was your next ultra then?
iRunFar: You won, that was a national championship, and you beat Emily Harrison. Besides it being a race you felt comfortable with, what were your motivations there?
Bard: I like to have goals, long-term goals. I don’t know how I found out about the IAU 50k World Championships—these weren’t things I had thought about before because in track and field I never would have gone to Worlds. But I was looking into it and it seemed like I could maybe qualify for the U.S. 50k Worlds team. So that was my motivation: to get a spot on the team and go to Doha for Worlds.
iRunFar: So you did qualify for the team, you ran a 3:23 50k, you were set to go to Doha in the fall of 2015. Then what happened?
Bard: Then, actually I was looking on the USATF website—they have so many outdated pages on there and I was trying to get to the 50k page and I ended up on the 100k page, and I saw my name there as one of the people who was in the running to make the 100k team. Then I thought, Wow, I really want to make the team and run the 100k. I crossed my fingers until June when they selected the team, and I was selected. So I trained through the summer of 2015 for 100k Worlds that September.
iRunFar: The plan was to run the IAU 100k World Championships and the IAU 50k World Championships?
Bard: By the time I was really training for the 100k, I knew that I wasn’t going to go to the 50k. I’m a terrible hot-weather runner. At some point, I realized I didn’t actually want to go to Doha and suffer through a race that I probably wasn’t going to perform well in. I’m not always that way about races, but with Doha—we won’t get into the politics and all [laughs].
iRunFar: [laughs] Right. So you went to the 100k in the Netherlands. You finished fourth! What was your time?
iRunFar: That’s so solid. That’s something like the fourth-fastest time by a North American. And this was your 100k debut. Was it similar to JFK in that it was basically seamless?
Bard: I pretty much ran a pace that felt comfortable. I’m very sensitive, as a new runner in ultras, not to go out too fast, not to make assumptions about my abilities. In some cases, that’s not necessarily the way to be. At least with marathons, I progressed over an hour and I look back and wish I had given myself credit and gotten my time down more quickly, I think I could have done it faster.
At the IAU 100k World Championships, I went out with Meghan Arbogast because I knew she was a smart and experienced runner and no one would fault me for going out at that pace—it’s not like I took off. At about 10k, I realized I could go a little faster, and I did, and I kept it comfortable but took feedback from team managers and John about when to push. I roomed with Nick Accardo and he had gone out too fast a previous year and he ingrained in me not to do that.
iRunFar: So it’s been one year, you’ve won JFK, you’ve won the USATF 50k Road National Championships, and you’ve been fourth at the IAU 100k World Championships. Now are you thinking, I’m really good at this? Had that set in by now?
Bard: [laughs] I don’t know if I’ll ever feel like I’m really good at it, especially with ultras, more so with ultras. I think there’s so much that can happen in a race, there’s so much that can go wrong or go right. I feel like I always step onto a line being like, Hey guys, how’s it going? Let’s see how this goes. I’m really, sort of, I don’t know the word I’m trying to think of—I just feel like I never really belong there. But that being said, as soon as the gun goes off, I’m competitive. I think I have a strong respect for what can happen in a race.
I knew going into the 100k the time I thought I could run. When you apply for the 100k, they ask you what you think your time will be. I think I told them that I would run between 7:28 and 7:32. I had never run that before and I actually didn’t know that that would be among some of the fastest times ever in North America, but I thought, based on my calculations, that that was what I thought I could run.
iRunFar: It’s almost like you can dictate what you’re going to run. Like next year just write in, I don’t know, 7:08 to 7:12 [laughs].
Bard: [laughs] I think that’s what I really need to do because that’s kind of how the marathon progression went too. I was like, “I’m going to run 2:58,” and then I would run 2:58. So maybe that’s what I’ll start doing. That sort of happened at Comrades this year. My training was kind of lackluster and not up to par, but I said, “I think I can run in the 6:40s,” and then I ran 6:42 [laughs].
iRunFar: And you were fourth!
Bard: I think I was very lucky at Comrades. My training—I feel like I’m finally getting over our move to Seattle, and making friends, and getting my motivation back. For a long time after we moved, I was without the Boston running community, and I realized that had become really ingrained and a big part of my life. I didn’t have a strong motivation to get out there and run everyday. Or I did, but it wasn’t with the same attitude. I just think I was very lucky and was able to rely on my muscle memory and long-term base. I trained at pretty low mileage and I’m a higher-mileage runner.
iRunFar: What is your weekly mileage, typically?
Bard: I would say I like to train between 90 and 120 miles per week. I was training at like 50 miles per week before Comrades. I think I got like one good week in there, but it was like 50 to 65 most weeks.
iRunFar: Did fourth place at Comrades surprise you?
Bard: You know, I really wanted to place—I have a friend here who also moved from Boston. We’ve been running together, but she doesn’t know much about ultras. We were running a lot before Comrades and she asked how I would place. I told her that I didn’t think I would come in first unless something tragic happened to everyone else. But I felt like I had a good shot to place between third and sixth, based on times from past years. I felt like if I didn’t place in the top 10, then it was going to have been a bad race—unless, you know, some years it’s crazy, like the men’s race this year. But looking at past years, that’s where I felt I could place. And I still did have some good workouts, even though I didn’t have higher mileage. I had some good, long tempos at a pace that translated to that sort of placement and time at Comrades.
iRunFar: Next year you’ll just shoot to place between first and fourth, I guess, and you’ll get second.
Bard: [laughs] Yeah, I’ll just shoot for six hours.
iRunFar: You know you probably split 50 miles around six hours at Comrades this year, which is not too far from the 50-mile world record. Is that a goal?
Bard: Well, I don’t know about that one. I feel like the 100-mile record is within reach. I have secretly toyed around with the idea of running Desert Solstice, doing the Zach Bitter thing. I do feel like the longer the race, the stronger I feel. In both Comrades and the 100k, I passed most of the people in the last 10k of the race. I just feel that once I get to a certain point, I can start pushing harder. Like I’ve reached this certain point in the race and I can actually open it up and not worry that my body will shut down. I want to try 100 miles, but 100-mile races typically occur on trails. That’s an added stress. I’m not opposed to doing that—I just want to be smart about when I do it. I do think I could go out there in the next six months and run 100 miles on the road or track. That one is appealing. The longer the distance, the more possible those records seem.
iRunFar: Does fourth at a world-class event finally make you feel like you belong?
Bard: It gives me more confidence to want to be competitive in other races, or feel like I can belong in other races where there’s a competitive field. Again, I do just feel like, especially in ultras, there’s so much talent and hard work out there, that anyone can win on any day, anyone can do well, someone who’s done well previously can do terribly. That’s what’s nice about the sport, too: you can’t judge any runner by one race because there’s so much that can happen.
Actually at Comrades I must have tied on the timing chip wrong because it kept tightening my shoelaces. So I stopped three times to re-tie my shoes, but it kept tightening, so my one leg was shutting down from like 30k in. I stopped at one point and asked a stranger to massage my butt while I was standing up [laughs]. My entire leg was becoming something that I was dragging along with me. It was a tough race. The downhill takes it out of you; I started to look forward to the uphill.
iRunFar: You’ve dabbled in some trails races this year, finishing third at Chuckanut and second at Ultravasan. Have you decided to move toward the trails?
Bard: I’m trying to do some races like that, in-between races where I feel like I actually have a strength—races like Comrades or the road 100k. I’m bad at technical descending. I would like to move into more technical trails, but it’s a slow, calculated move. I think I might as well take advantage of my road strength while I can and while I’m learning more about how to run well on trails.
iRunFar: Did it every occur to you, earlier in your life, that you would be this good at running?
Bard: [laughs] No way. I think it’s a little bit of imposter syndrome, which I think a lot of people have. You know, the thought that you don’t belong. I think also it’s that in junior high there were people better than me, in high school there were people better than me. On a regular basis, there were people better than me. I think I tend to race better than I train and that would always be a surprise to me. I would be dragging ass in workouts and then beat this person in a race. I felt like it was always a fluke. I still kind of feel that way. It’s like, I’ve seen you train, we train together on a daily basis, and you’re kicking my ass daily! If I have to say one positive thing about myself [laughs], it’s that I tend to race really well, and I can always convince myself that I can go a little bit more. But that’s in everything I do. I was talking to campers at Max King’s trail running camp this summer about ways to train, and one of them is carrying heavy grocery bags from the store to my home. Your arms get so tired and you just have to be like, I’m just going to keep going, my arms haven’t fallen off, I’m still holding the bags. I think it’s little things like that: in races you just have to ask yourself, Can I take another step? I think that’s a different perspective that people don’t think of, and only think of the whole picture. They think, I’m done, I’m toasted. But if you think about it in a step-by-step fashion: Can I take another step? Yes. Can I do another mile? Yes. Unless your body gives up and throws you on the ground, you just have to keep pushing, even if it hurts a lot.
iRunFar: You make it sound so easy, almost.
Bard: I mean, it’s not easy. I’m just thinking of all these times in races where you’re at the end and you see someone ahead and you have to make a decision. You regret if you don’t do it, and you don’t regret if you do. If you do it, and you fail, at least you know. But I think most of the time when people decide to make that move, they succeed. But it’s a hard decision to want to make. The cliché is that you really learn about where your limits are, and people don’t want to admit that, but I think it’s also that you don’t want to go to enter that pain cave, you want to jog it in.