Most nurses don’t get selfie requests from patients. Or go for a run both before and after a 10-hour shift. Or, you know, finish second in one of the world’s most prestigious marathons. But Sarah Sellers isn’t like most nurses.
The 27-year-old stunned the running world last April when she finished second in the Boston Marathon, confusing viewers—and even herself—by besting dozens of pros as an unranked, amateur marathoner in her second-ever attempt at the 26.2-mile distance. Even more unusual? Unlike many of her top-ranked competitors, whose main (and sometimes sole) focus is running, Sellers trained for Boston while working 40 to 50 hours a week as a nurse anesthetist at Banner-University Medical Center in Tucson, Arizona.
So yeah, Sarah Sellers isn’t like most nurses. Or most elite athletes, for that matter.
In the year since Boston, Sellers has continued to break the mold. The Utah native completed another World Major Marathon, qualified for the 2020 Olympic Trials, and signed with three sponsors, officially becoming a professional runner. In December, she announced she will be returning to the Boston Marathon this April with the goal of breaking 2 hours 30 minutes, a six-and-a-half minute drop from her current personal best. Through it all, she’s still continued working as a nurse, clocking about 30 hours at the hospital every week.
“It’s definitely been a wild last year,” Sellers tells SELF. That’s putting it lightly.
Before the 2018 Boston Marathon
Sellers’s passion for running dates all way back to middle school. The Ogden, Utah native started running in about sixth grade, lacing up with her parents and charting the trails behind their house before school. “I just loved being outside,” she remembers. She also loved the sense of accomplishment that came from waking up and logging miles hours before the first school bell rang.
In high school, “I really started to define myself as a runner,” says Sellers, who went on to run at Weber State, where she was a nine-time conference champion. Her success earned her the prestigious NCAA Elite 89 award in 2012, and twice, Sellers (then Sarah Callister) was named Weber State’s Female Athlete of the Year. But during her senior year, she suffered a stress fracture in the navicular bone on her foot and was battling a condition that left her perpetually fatigued. So Sellers quit running for an entire year. Then, she spent the next several years ping-ponging between running, getting injured again, and stopping completely.
In 2017, for the first time since college, she started running consistently again. Her younger brother, Ryan Callister, had qualified for the 2018 Boston Marathon. Inspired to join him, Sellers signed up last minute for the Huntsville Marathon in Utah, her first ever 26.2-mile race. She won the women’s division by nearly 15 minutes. Her time of 2:44:27 broke the course record—and qualified her for Boston.
At that point, Sellers got in touch with Pilkington, who coached her at Weber State, and asked if he could help her prepare. In a nutshell, the training plan involved running 90 to 95 miles a week, including early runs before work, evening runs after work, and just 5 to 6 hours of sleep in between.
The epic day when it all went down
The morning of the 2018 Boston Marathon, Sellers woke up feeling sick to her stomach. Sellers typically feels jittery before races, but this was her worst-ever case of pre-race anxiety. It was only her second ever marathon. She had high expectations for herself. It was probably really going to hurt. On top of that, the weather was horrible—torrential rain, 30-plus mph winds, temperatures in the mid-30s—some of the harshest conditions in the race’s history.
But on the bus ride up to the start line, Sellers chatted with her competitors, and the group’s friendliness and camaraderie put her at ease. The women talked strategy for the race, and how they could help each other power through the frigid deluge.
“Instead of feeling like we were competing against each other, it was like together we were competing against the weather,” Sellers remembers. She arrived at the start line feeling completely relaxed.
The race started out much slower than Sellers anticipated. During the first half, she alternated between running with the pack of elite women that had formed and running alone. The solo stretches, where Sellers battled unrelenting rain and fierce headwinds with no protection, were brutal. She wondered if she’d be able to hold a strong pace. But at some point beyond the halfway mark, after a solid stretch running with the group, Sellers started feeling good again. When fellow American Rachel Hyland ran by the pack, Sellers broke off and joined her.
Together, they continued to forge through the conditions as other competitors either dropped from the race entirely, or slowed significantly. Then, from mile 20 to 23, something surreal happened: They began passing big-name pros, including Olympic silver medalist Shalane Flanagan, winner of the 2017 NYC Marathon, and two-time Olympian Molly Huddle. “Some of the spectators were yelling that Shalane was just ahead,” remembers Sellers. “It was just a really crazy experience. My heart went out to Shalane and Molly, these incredible runners, because I know the type of athletes that they are and that they were hurting.”
At mile 23, Sellers realized she had just 5K left to go. Still feeling good, she took the lead from Hyland and “kind of just hammered the last 3 miles.” As she ran down the final stretch on Boylston Street through a screaming tunnel of spectators, “I remember thinking that I must be doing pretty well because the crowd seemed like it was excited.” But in the last few hundred meters, Japanese runner Yuki Kawauchi, the men’s first-place finisher, eclipsed her. Sellers’s excitement dipped. Oh, they’re probably just cheering for him, she thought.
She didn’t know that she had finished second until after she’d crossed the finish line. At first, she thought second place meant second place in a specific division. A race official broke the news, repeating it several times—that she was actually the second woman to finish overall—before it registered.
When reality finally sank in, and she confirmed with her husband, Blake Sellers, that this was actually happening, “it was a mixture of shock and excitement and also a little bit of fear that I knew this was going to be kind of a big deal.”
“Kind of a big deal” is another understatement. News articles, from The Washington Post to Sports Illustrated to The Guardian, published the one question that was on everyone’s mind: Who is Sarah Sellers?
The post-race media storm
For Sellers, who describes herself as “kind of introverted,” the tidal wave of attention that hit post Boston was “pretty overwhelming.”
Just three days after her podium finish, after a dizzying array of interviews and an explosion of congratulatory messages, Sellers returned to work at Banner-University Medical Center. Meanwhile, the media requests kept coming. “I’m not the kind of person who says no to very many things so I was just trying to balance all of this,” she says. “I was doing interviews on my drive to work, on my lunch break, on my drive home from work, like, basically every day.” At the same time, she was also trying to physically recover from the race.
During this period, “each day, I thought, this is going to be the last day that it’s like this,” Sellers remembers. “Everyone who could interview me, or who might want to interview me, has already done so.” Yet the requests kept coming in, including middle-of-the-night interviews with European press, and Sellers admits “it was quite a while before it calmed down.”
At first, she kept track of how many interviews she did. Just several weeks in, that number hit 80, at which point she stopped counting.
Navigating her new relationship with running
When the media frenzy finally slowed, about a month after the race, Sellers faced another pressure: proving her worth as an athlete.
With all the attention after Boston, “I wanted to prove that I was a good runner,” says Sellers. Though the overwhelming majority of messages she received after her surprise podium finish were positive, she also heard about people who believed her feat was a “fluke” and that the race “didn’t count” because so many of the elites had dropped out.
On the other end of the spectrum, she felt pressure from those who took her incredible race to mean guaranteed greatness. That she would win the marathon in the 2020 Olympics, for example.
“Both sides don’t know me as person and truly don’t actually matter,” says Sellers. What does matter: her expectations, and the expectations of her coach, Paul Pilkington. But it took her time to reach that conclusion.
About three months after Boston, “I struggled with my relationship with running,” says Sellers. The constant attention started to wear on her. She had a bout of difficult races that summer—including the New York Mini 10K, and The Deseret News 10K—and felt drained from not meeting her own high standards.
“I felt like running had always been so simple and natural. Just put on a pair of running shoes, go out in the dark and go on a run,” she says. The aftermath of Boston complicated that. “The actual act of going out running was becoming a negative, stressful thing.”
So she took a step back. She remembered that she loved running simply because she loved running. Not because she got second in the Boston Marathon. Not because she won $ 75,000 in prize money. Not because it brought her overnight fame.
At that point, Sellers made a decision: “I’m not going to let all the attention and all the expectations take away my love for just going outside and just being active,” she says. This philosophy has continued to guide her forward.
In the fall, she ran the New York City Marathon, her first big race—and first marathon—since Boston. The training had its challenges; mainly, sickness and small injuries. Then, the race itself was difficult. Sellers battled stomach cramps and ran completely alone from mile 9 to the end, finishing in 18th place. Still, she clocked 2:36:37, a personal best by more than seven minutes, and an Olympic Trials qualifying “A” standard.
“With all the pressure after Boston, I was just hoping to not have a disaster happen in New York,” says Sellers. So even though she hoped to run faster—closer to a 2:32—”I was just really happy to get a marathon out of the way after Boston.”
Training for the 2019 Boston Marathon
As hard as Sellers trained for Boston last year, she’s been training even harder this year. “When I was training for Boston last year, even during the middle of it, I knew it wasn’t sustainable for a long time,” says Sellers. Last July, she scaled back her hospital work to about 30 hours a week, which has allowed her to devote more time to running (and sleeping). Now, the three days a week that she does work are, admittedly, “super busy,” but her schedule feels sustainable.
This year, under Pilkington’s guidance, she’s been averaging 110 to 115 miles per week, about 20 miles more than last year’s average. Her tempo runs have been a bit speedier. For the most part, she runs alone, tackling the same routes, week after week, through the dry, often dark Arizona desert. Overall, she feels stronger, faster, more prepared.
As race day approaches, Sellers acknowledges that there are high expectations, both from herself and others. “It’s similar to the basketball player shooting free throws by himself versus in front of thousands of people,” she says. “As much as you try to block it out, there’s only so much you can consciously block out, and then you just have to show up on race day. My biggest mental goal this year is to not get worked up by any of it.”
She knows that will be tough. She anticipates, like last year, waking up on race morning feeling sick to her stomach with nerves. She envisions the media appearances being “a little bit stressful.” But she’s going to try her hardest to embrace those feelings and just roll with it.
In March, the Olympics announced new qualifying standards for marathoners. Women must run below a 2:29:30, or finish high enough in certain big-name competitions, to compete in the 2020 Tokyo Summer Games. If there’s ideal weather on race day—not too hot, not too windy—Sellers thinks she’s fit enough to beat that time mark.
No matter what happens, whether she hits that time goal or not, she wants to focus on the positive. “I don’t want my goal to take away from the joy of getting to race Boston again,” she says.
Balancing runs and scrubs
For Sellers, being a nurse anesthetist provides perspective and empathy—two qualities she says make her a better runner. That’s why she plans to continue balancing both jobs.
When Sellers had a disappointing race in college, she tended to catastrophize it. But being a nurse, she says, has given her day-to-day perspective that keeps these setbacks in check. “When I see patients going through some pretty horrific things, I realize that even a bad race is a pretty incredible blessing because it means I was healthy enough to be out there competing,” says Sellers.
She’s considered quitting her job entirely to focus 100 percent on running. But every time she envisions that reality, “for some reason, I picture my running going worse. I feel like my world would completely narrow…I would be more prone to overtrain.”
So she’ll keep alternating between athletic shorts and scrubs; between long, solitary runs in the dark and long, busy days in the hospital; between, as she put it in an Instagram post, inducing pain and alleviating pain.
As for making the 2020 U.S. Olympic Team, “from a realistic standpoint, because I am pretty realistic, it would take another almost Boston-type miracle for me to make the team,” she says. But “the chance of it happening is not zero.”
And Sellers, the devoted nurse anesthetist and the dedicated professional runner, is “willing to work for that chance.”