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Ultramarathons: The Epic Adventure

“Run because you can! I’m running to find the best version of myself.”

The thirteen words above are the driving force for Sarah Cummings. As you read further, you will appreciate what Sarah means as she seeks the best version of herself. For that to happen, there must be challenges. Last November, Sarah had a challenge that tested her abilities.

Sarah had completed the JFK 50-Mile race in 2020, and was runner-up with her 6:57:11 time. The results were accepted, but she was not satisfied. By her nature, the second chance to run the same race, was to validate her abilities and find the best version. It is not always about winning but giving your best performance.

In November 2021, her best version came through with a winning time of 6:18:43. The time was ranked as the third best female time in the event’s history. On that day, Sara gave her best.

Sarah Cummings finishing one of her ultramarathons

Sarah crossing the finish line of the JFK 50 Mile

As you continue to read, Sarah’s passion will come through, which can inspire you to evaluate your fitness program. It is time to invest in your potential. You do not need to run 50-miles, but a one-mile run or walk can be that start. Let the words of Sarah be your spark.

Sarah has an attraction to the ultramarathons. “I love the unknown of longer races. I love to adventure and explore. Running an ultramarathon is a great excuse to explore nature and participate in an epic adventure. I love the balance required in ultras of staying in the moment (particularly on technical trails) while also thinking to the later stages of the race and making sure you are expending energy and fueling/hydrating in a way that will be sustainable.”

“I signed up for the 2020 edition on a whim about three weeks before. It was my 50-mile debut. I’d always been in awe of the race and those who were brave enough to take on the challenge. My training lacked specificity for the challenges of the JFK course. I had about two months of lifetime trail running experience. Not surprisingly, I struggled on the Appalachian Trail. I approached the race much differently this year. I started working with Hayden Hawks (2020 winner and course record holder) in March of 2021. I returned this year with a year of trail running under my belt,”

When did you realize that you had an interest in the sport of running?

I grew up as a competitive figure skater (from age five) and didn’t know much about the sport of running until I found myself immersed in it! My running was limited to the presidential physical fitness test until 16. I was very competitive and put it all out there to win (which included beating the boys) each year during the mile run, but that was it. Everything changed on Halloween of my sophomore year when I ran a 5-Kilometer fundraiser for my sister Marisa’s elementary school. I wasn’t planning to run – my sister and dad were. The morning of, my dad challenged me to the race. That was all it took. I ran a 19-min 5K off no training. The local high school coach was at the race. Two weeks later, I was running for my high school (which, coincidentally, was one of the best girl’s cross-country programs in the country) at the California State Cross-Country meet. Once I started getting recruited, I dropped my ice-skating career. I loved everything about running from the start. The objectivity was so novel and refreshing, coming from the subjectivity of ice skating.

How have you mentally grown with the sport?

I’ve realized that embracing (and talking about) your weaknesses can make you stronger. In my early years, I internalized everything. I focused on presenting an unbreakable facade of complete control. I thought showing signs of vulnerability would lead me to spiral and give my competitors an advantage. Over the years, I realized that approaching the sport in this way prevents you from embracing the amazing humans within the running community. Through the years (and injury), I’ve realized the community is what I cherish most!

What are the challenges that you see being a female athlete?

I don’t feel like I’ve faced many challenges being a female athlete. I was lucky to grow up in a time and place where I was encouraged to pursue my athletic goals. I played club soccer with the boys in elementary and middle school and held myself to their exact standards. I think this was a formative experience for me in the sense that I didn’t need to see “me” to believe I could pursue/achieve at the highest level.

Are there any changes you would like to see in the sport?

Many positive changes have been made/are underway to encourage more females to enter the sport and find community. The growing discourse around performance ebbs and flows throughout a female running career (vs. more linear for males) is incredible, and I hope it continues.

Where does your determination arise to keep you stepping up to the start line?

Knowing that this was all nearly taken away from me (and still could be). I’m so grateful I can run and race to celebrate that.

Do you feel pressure to always be at the top of your game?

I did before what could have been a career-ending injury. In November of 2016, after nearly 15 years of Hamstring Tendinosis, I suffered a complete hamstring rupture that required immediate surgery to repair, (with six screws) followed by six weeks of bed rest in a half body cast. The doctors made no promises that I would return to running. I wasn’t sure myself. For the first year post-surgery, I was in pain worse than the tendinosis I had suffered before the rupture. I gave up hope of ever running pain-free, let alone training at a higher-level, many times over. A miracle worker of a physical therapist, who I connected with 18 months post-op, helped me see the light. Now I don’t take a single healthy day of running for granted and am grateful for what my body gives me on any given day. I embrace that and try to make the most of it!

Has there been a point where you doubted your abilities and thought about stopping?

Yes! Some doubts creep in above and on a smaller scale during most runs and races. I think negative thoughts are inevitable but not impossible. What you do with them is what determines the outcome!

If you were not in this sport, what would be the alternative?

I love running but am also passionate about snowboarding. I started snowboarding at age 11 and still actively pursue both downhill/resort and backcountry. I love any sport that gets me outdoors. I recently picked up mountain biking and Nordic skiing and also enjoy hiking and paddleboarding. I still get out on the ice to skate from time to time as well!

Do you feel the sport is emotional?

Very much so. The rawness of it, how it brings people together, the highs and the lows.

What is that achievement in which you did all the right things right?

JFK 50 mile of 2021 comes to mind!! The race played out exactly as I hoped regarding my position coming off the trail and how I advanced on the towpath. Nutrition and hydration were perfect for the day, as was my crew which was my sister.

Was there an event where you did all the wrong things right?

Yes, Lake Sonoma 50, 2021! My training wasn’t suitable for the terrain. I was probably not fully healed from a lousy trail fall heading into the cycle. I messed up my hydration – I made a good plan but didn’t adjust for warmer conditions. All the mistakes are so easy to see in retrospect. What was I thinking?!

How do you adjust your training to make up for mistakes?

I love trail/ultra because, for me, just living in the mountains (the way I do) can be considered training. Going for a hike is great for time on feet and worrying about wearing yourself out for an extensive workout/training session isn’t so much a factor. Marathon training is different. Mistakes happen more often. I generally try to move on from training mistakes rather than fixing them. I’ve found that attempting to re-do botched workouts usually doesn’t go well or puts me in a hole.

What value do you see in having a coach or mentor in the sport?

So much value. It can be easy to lose perspective with running (i.e., take too seriously). It is essential to have someone who can give you a reality check when running begins to control your life.

What is it that you enjoy about training runs?

I love the routine and clear-headedness when it comes to road runs and the adventure when I’m on the trail.

Who is your biggest supporter that you value their input?

My sister, Marisa!

Looking ahead, we will have a visit with Marisa Cummings next month.

Sarah had Marisa on her crew during her ultramarathons.

Sarah and her sister Marisa (catch her story next month!)

Author

  • George Banker

    George Banker was the Operations Manager for the Army Ten-Miler (US Army / MDW), one of the largest 10-mile road race in the United States. From 2003 through 2023, his responsibilities included the operational planning, logistics, community outreach, design of the course, volunteer recruitment, and support to medical and police jurisdictions. Prior to joining the Army Ten-Miler, he worked 25 years at IBM serving in administration and management within the federal marketing environment in Bethesda, Maryland. He is retired from the U.S. Air Force (enlisted grade Technical Sergeant), where his experience included ground refueling supervisor and cryogenic fluids production supervisor. He received 14 military decorations including the Air Force Commendation Medal, Vietnam Service Medal, Republic of Vietnam Gallantry Cross with Palm, and Republic of Vietnam Campaign Medal (1969-1989). Since 1983, he has worked as a freelance photographer and journalist, contributor for the Runner’s Gazette, and He is the author of “The Marine Corps Marathon: A Running Tradition”. He is an avid runner, with 136 marathons completed.

1 Comment

  1. Sharita Knobloch

    What a running powerhouse! Incredible that she works so hard to find such great success with ultramarathons. Thanks for sharing her story with us, George!

    Reply

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Teen Etiquette

Teen Etiquette

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