TUCSON — Nothing stops her. Not the rattlesnakes, coyotes, or the occasional bobcat and javelina she sees in the foothills that surround her home in the Tucson Mountains. Not even a bite on her thumb courtesy of her pet boa constrictor, Nito.
She’s running twice a day and logs more than 110 miles a week. Her goal is to run a sub-2:30 Boston Marathon.
Sarah Sellers, 27, is ready to take the starting line at Hopkinton again.
Does the name sound familiar? Last year, Sellers shocked the road running world when she braved bone-chilling, monsoon-like conditions to finish second at Boston in 2:44:04. Unsponsored and unranked, she was running just her second marathon ever.
There are no expectations for a podium finish this year. There are four Ethiopians and one Kenyan in the women’s elite field who have run under 2:20. There also are 20 other marathoners who have logged faster times.
“Being realistic, it’s very slim,” Sellers acknowledges.
Her training routine has remained the same. Sellers, a nurse anesthetist, runs before work at 4 a.m. and after work at 8 p.m.
“A lot of the media after Boston made it sound like I just woke up one day and ran Boston,” she says.
“She’s the most determined woman I ever met,” says Blake Sellers, the orthopedic surgeon who met his future wife while they were transferring a patient from an operating table to a stretcher.
Her longtime coach is amazed at her desire.
“She’ll run through a brick wall,” says Paul Pilkington, a two-time marathon winner who coached Sellers at Weber State.
Nor did she come out of nowhere. Sarah Callister, a native of Ogden, Utah, was a nine-time Big Sky conference champion in cross-country and track and field at Weber State. She was voted the school’s 2012 Female Athlete of the Year. (Her male counterpart that year was Damian Lillard, now an All-Star guard with the Portland Trail Blazers.)
The road to competing at a world-class level hasn’t been easy. In her junior year, she was midway through a 5K at the University of Washington, one step away from the nationals, when she felt “a white-hot sharp pain” in her foot.
“And normally you’re used to feeling pain when you run,” she says. “But this was different.”
Somehow she finished the race, running with a stress fracture in the navicular bone, before crumpling on the track, devastated. Doctors told her she probably would never run competitively again because the injury was in a place that had limited blood flow to heal.
They told her to pick something else, like art.
“I don’t do art,” Sellers told them. “I run.”
A splash in rainy Boston
It took years, but her foot eventually healed. The couple moved to Florida, and Sellers entered the Orlando Half Marathon in 2016 after working the overnight shift as a student nurse. She wore her running clothes under her scrubs as she rushed to the starting line.
In 2017, she won in her first try at a marathon, in Huntsville, Utah. It was all downhill — it killed her quads — but she set a course record and qualified for Boston on the last day of eligibility. She decided to run Boston because her brother, Ryan, was entered.
Having been raised in the Rockies, she got stronger as the race got longer. She treated Heartbreak Hill like a speed bump as she passed runners she idolized in the torrents of rain. At one point in the homestretch, she heard the crowd going crazy.
“I was mentally and physically just totally spent and trying to sprint in with about a quarter-mile to go,’’ she remembers. “I could not believe how loud it was. It was, like, totally crazy.
“And I remember thinking, ‘I’m, like, doing a lot better than I expected and then [men’s winner] Yuki Kawauchi passed me and my heart sank a little . . . I thought maybe I’m not doing that good.”
When she crossed the finish line, she repeatedly asked everybody what place she was in. Finally a race official who was escorting her to drug testing gave her the news. Second place. Just four minutes behind the winner, two-time Olympian Desiree Linden.
“I was in denial, and she repeated it multiple times,” says Sellers. “When it finally started to sink in, it was like a shock.” Then, she says, there was “fear that I knew a wave was coming. This was going to be a really big deal.”
The headlines were all the same.
“Who is Sarah Sellers?” proclaimed the Globe, the Washington Post, and it seemed every runner in America.
She didn’t even drink champagne to celebrate her finish, which was worth $75,000 in prize money. In fact, she’s never had a drop of alcohol, coffee, or tea. The prize money went to help pay off college loans.
She canceled her plans to tour Boston and instead did interview after interview, patiently.
Sellers is beloved at Banner-University Medical Center Tucson. When she returned from Boston last year, her coworkers presented her with a chocolate cake decorated with the Boston Marathon insignia at 6:15 a.m. before her morning shift.
“It was delicious,” she says.
“She’s probably the sweetest person I’ve ever met,” says Ashley Wilton, a nurse anesthetist.
Dr. Anthony Lucas, an anesthesiologist, agreed.
“She’s a humble person who doesn’t speak about herself,’’ Lucas says. “She almost gets a little embarrassed when people glorify her second-place finish.”
Her normal day starts in darkness with that 4 a.m. run. The first step is the hardest, she says.
“The thought of getting out to go run when you didn’t get enough sleep and it’s cold and dark just sounds pretty terrible,” Sellers says.
But she forces herself to get up and have her Breakfast of Champions: a piece of chocolate.
“And then when you have it, you say, ‘OK, now I’ll go run.’ It works,” she says.
Sugar, she says, is not the enemy. She loves dark chocolate, chocolate-covered almonds, oatmeal chocolate chip cookies, and chocolate chip cookie dough.
“In college, I was much more strict in my diet,’’ Sellers says. “I would not have any type of processed sugars or I would try to restrict my calories.”
She believed less weight meant faster times.
“The flip side of that is that it can lead to injuries,” says Sellers, who has suffered three stress fractures. “My perspective [now] is I want to be as fast as I can while being healthy.’’
She’s doing a lot of strength training, as a result.
“I’m 5-8 and 128-130 pounds,’’ she says. “I think I’m a fairly strong runner so I weigh more than elite runners. You don’t necessarily have to be a stick figure and unhealthy skinny in order to be a great marathoner.”
She loves the yin and yang of her life: running, which causes pain, and anesthesia, which relieves it.
“She’s very unusual,” says Pilkington, her coach. “A nurse anesthetist and training full-time. It’s very rare that somebody has this incredible career and goes, ‘Hey, I want to be a world-class marathoner and do both at the same time.’ That’s incredibly unique.
“She’s still young enough to get a lot better. There’s some pressure on her that she’s putting on herself. She wants to show that ‘I’m good and I’m legitimate,’ and she is.
“If she stays healthy, she’s going to have a very good marathon career.”
Fan support helps
Sellers, who will have three sponsors when she lines up in Hopkinton, has already qualified for the Olympic trials, which will be held Feb. 29, 2020, before the 2020 Summer Games in Tokyo.
“Definitely making the US Olympic team would be incredible,” she says.
Her times are improving. She ran a personal-record 2:36:37 in the New York City Marathon last October, finishing 18th despite severe stomach cramps. She says a fan gave her a lift when she was hurting.
“There was a guy who leaned onto the course in Central Park and said, ‘Go, Sarah, you’re running for all us nurses,’ ” she says. “And that meant a lot to me. It definitely helps. It’s very humbling to have people support you.”
Sellers hopes the Boston fans will help lift her again.
“When the race got really tough, I would pick out someone in the crowd who’s just cheering their guts out,’’ she says. “I would focus on them for a few seconds as I went by and really try to use their positive energy. I think that helps take away some of the pain.”
But Sellers’s threshold of pain is high. Weeks after visiting with a reporter, she sent along a photo of a long, skinny tooth.
“Guess what I pulled out of my thumb this week?” she wrote.