As a college student in 2002, Sarah Robinson used a half-off coupon to get three starfish tattooed on her back.
The promising Colorado State University runner broke her back in a car accident and she had the small sea stars inked over each of her broken vertebrae.
“A starfish doesn’t look very strong but it can grow a whole limb back if it loses one,” Robinson said. “You can go through some stuff and it doesn’t mean that it’s over.”
There was a time when Robinson thought her competitive running career was over. Then she rediscovered her love for the sport and regenerated her career.
On Nov. 6, the new Tacoma resident was the top South Sound finisher at the New York City Marathon. Robinson, 33, finished in 2 hours, 51 minutes and 50 seconds. She was the 27th-fastest woman overall and finished 15th in her age group (30-34). Of the 414 racers from Washington, she was the fastest woman and seventh-fastest overall.
Robinson, her husband, Owen, and their 2-year-old daughter, Penelope, moved to Tacoma in July in the middle of an impressive running season. In February, Robinson finished 95th at the Olympic marathon trials in Los Angeles.
Robinson, who works in marketing, says she got back into running after four years away. It was when she realized that she could have fun, avoid injuries and be free of the pressure of running for a college scholarship that she said she, “I want back in.”
Today, she is a sponsored athlete running for Oiselle, a women’s running apparel company. Robinson worked five years for the Seattle-based company.
At the New York City Marathon, Robinson ran in the professional field and said it was “like nothing I’ve ever experienced.” As she recovered a few days later, we caught up with her long enough to ask a few questions:
Q: How intimidating is to be in a professional field?
A: Three weeks out I would have said I was terrified and/or embarrassed. By the time I got there I was just looking at it as an experience to enjoy. Nobody expected me to run a 2:25. My goal was to run a 2:42. I ran a 2:51. It was a really hard day and that’s a really hard course. I just thought, “You can only do the best that you can do, and they invited you for a reason. I’m just going to respect the journey and do my absolute best.”
... I also started to look at it as a backstage pass to my favorite thing. To see these elites warming up or eating breakfast, it was such a cool opportunity. I said hi to (Olympic athlete) Molly Huddle. I rode on the bus with Neely Spence Gracey (top American woman at this year’s Boston Marathon) and we talked about her dog and my kid. I got to meet (Olympic triathlon champ) Gwen Jorgensen. She is so sweet. I got to meet Meb (2004 Olympic marathon silver medalist Meb Keflezighi) and Desi (Olympic marathoner Desiree Linden). It was just so fun.
Q: How did it compare with the Olympic Trials when a lot of these people were also there?
A: This was my second race of having to deal with that imposter syndrome. What am I doing here? I mean, warming up at the Olympic trials next to (Olympic 10k bronze medalist) Shalane Flanagan and (U.S. marathon champ) Amy Hastings (Cragg). Just having this out-of-body experience. This is wild. I almost let it get the best of me at the trials in a way. I started to go outside of myself and not feel secure inside. I learned a lot there. How to run your own race. … It was definitely a learning experience. And at New York I kept trying to remind myself of those lessons I learned.
Q: Have you run the Boston Marathon?
A: I haven’t. My parents actually live about 8 miles from the start of Boston and I graduated high school there. I do want to run Boston, but for some reason New York has always enticed me more than that. You are in the city the whole time in New York and I love the energy. While in Boston you enter the city at the end of the race and you are running to Boston. So New York was a little ahead on my bucket list.
Q: Are you happy with your performance in New York?
A: No. I’m really not. … But I ran true to myself and I ran as hard as I could. I was by myself, and it was very windy. My face was completely wind-burned by the end and to have nobody to draft with, it was pretty demoralizing and really hard. But I gave it everything I had, and I think on a different day and different course, I’m probably in 2:41, 2:42 shape. I held on really strong at the end and that I’m proud of. I just wish I had a better time to show for it.
Q: You called yourself injury prone. How do you keep pushing yourself when you’re battling injuries?
A: If you are going to get to the next level, you are going to ride a line between getting sick and getting injured and you have to ride it to get to the next level. You have to get yourself as close as you can to pushing yourself over. There are those cliche quotes like “If it’s not uncomfortable, it’s not going to change you.” As you run for so many years you start to recognize the signs so much earlier. Then you can say, “OK, you need to take a day off now or you are going to take two months off later.” You have to deal with things before they become an actual injury.
I’m injury prone in that I didn’t build up a lot of muscular strength when I was younger. I had three knee injuries before I graduated high school and then in college I broke three vertebrae in my back in a car accident. I had complications from that. When I had my baby, I had an emergency C-section. … I had a side ache that somebody suggested was a hernia that I taped up before races. It sounds messed up, but when you love to do what you love to do you are going to find a way to do it.
Q: What is your next big running project?
A: To take a break. I haven’t had an off-season in so long. I’ve taken off four weeks this year and I’ve run three marathons in 12 months. I already want to run again. That’s the sick thing about the marathon, especially when it doesn’t go your way. So, I’m trying to hold back. I think I’m going to take three weeks then pick some races that are little bit different so I can gain some strength outside of the marathon. But the marathon is so addictive, I just can’t wait to race it again.
You only get to do it once in a while and you learn so much every time. But you never crack it. It’s such a strange distance and it’s the most fun to train for.