Sarah’s story was one that I knew was going to fascinate me. I have been involved in a team sport for my entire career but have always been interested in the individual sports and how they differ. Sarah was an elite long distance runner specialising in 5,000 and 10,000 meter distances predominantly. What started out as it should be – fun and enjoyable, turned into a story of tough decisions, hunger and huge determination to reach the top.
I wanted to know how her relationship with Athletics started.
I was involved with a lot of different sports when I was younger; netball, tennis, running – every sport I had the opportunity to get involved in – but when I was 9 I went to watch my brother train at the local running club and that’s when I first fell in love with running. Officially youngsters were not allowed to join the Athletics club until the age of 10yrs – but they let me join a little early due to my constant nagging! What followed was an eagerness to be involved with cross country training and racing throughout school years and the more I took part, the more I knew it was something I loved.
So it was fun throughout that period?
Yes, 100%. I loved it. I never ever wanted to follow the crowd. I wanted to prove that cross country wasn’t just for the boys, and that fuelled my determination to succeed in the sport even more. I loved the mud and all I wanted to do was getting my running shoes on….. rather than the ballet shoes my mum bought me!
Already the drive and willingness to win was becoming clear. I could tell even now that Sarah had a burning desire to compete. So what did the next few years look like; what were your next steps I asked her?
Competing consistently for the local running club I had joined and competing for my county (Hertfordshire) were my next steps. I started competing in National Cross Country races and in the English Schools Competition, where selection for the England teams were made. My aim at that time was to be noticed by the England Athletics team, to be picked to race abroad, and after, as I got older, a Great Britain team vest, my ultimate motivation being to be racing at the Olympic Games.
So how did those races go for you?
Those races gave me a solid foundation for my future success – but they were tough, and I was always frustrated to be ‘there or there abouts’ rather than being the best and winning all the races. I remember a coach explaining to me that I would never compete for Great Britain – as determined as I was prove that cross country was not just for boys, I had a huge determination to prove that coach and others who doubted me wrong. My parents are a huge part of the success I had as an athlete – and one of my goals has and always will be, to make them proud. They were as dedicated to my athletics as I was – so much so that they would drive behind me in their car so that I could see where I was going when the short days meant training was difficult in the dark. Likewise they would stand out in the soccer fields with a torch to ‘shine the way’ and allow me the best chance at success. I’m forever grateful to them.
Was there a defining time when running shifted from hobby to something a lot more serious?
Yes, looking back it was around the age of 16 that things started to get more serious. I started training twice a day and dedicating everything to my sport – making the necessary ‘sacrifices’ to compete at my best. I would train from home in Herefordshire when I woke up, after which I would drive to Sixth form college in Worcester and finally train in either Cheltenham or Gloucester at night– in a nutshell I’d visit the three counties all in one day at least twice a week! I would take time out of my educational focus to train, the aim being to make it as a professional and give myself the best opportunity to achieve my goals as an athlete.
It was clear to me the drive and hunger that Sarah had and the characteristics that she still has now in her current job
So what was next?
I went off to University to study Sports and Exercise Science at the University of Birmingham. The main reason for my choice of degree was that I wanted to learn for myself how I could fulfil my potential as an athlete, I knew that the areas I would be studying would help my athletic performance in the long run. I graduated in 2009 – and once I knew I had got a 2:1 – it suddenly hit me that if my athletic career didn’t happen to turn out the way I wanted, I had absolutely no idea what other career route I could go into. I decided to move back to Herefordshire with my parents and work part time whilst focusing on training. I was quite neurotic with my training – and so having a few small jobs helped keep my life slightly more balanced.
I was fortunate enough to be offered USA sports scholarships for my undergraduate degree but had never felt like it was the ‘right’ time. However, I remember sitting in a Tesco Car Park one day after graduating and thinking, will there ever be a ‘right’ time? Does that even exist? This was the last opportunity I had to experience training in the states, and if I didn’t do it now, then I’d always wonder ‘what if’? Two months later I was on a flight to New Mexico – the conditions of which would be to study a Master’s Degree for two years and compete for the team – expenses paid, much to my parents delight!
Wow, so that was the moment when you thought this is it. That must have been a defining moment?
Yes, I realised that I needed pushing. I needed other athletes around me (which didn’t exist whilst living at home with my parents) who would push me to my limits and who were as motivated and as hungry as I was. The conditions were perfect and the environment was made for improvement. The support I received was incredible – I was running a lot of miles (approx. 80/wk) but everything was in place to ensure recovery was had, training was monitored and everything was in place to create World Class Performances. Without being in New Mexico I certainly would not have hit the times I hit – that’s for certain.
Did that environment scare you at all or did it inspire you?
The dedication that is expected out there is massive – but I knew that when I accepted the scholarship, and I was extremely dedicated anyway when I was living at home with my parents anyway. Of course I was apprehensive at first – not only was I away from my support group, but I was also in a completely different country. My first year out there performance wise was average, and there were times when I just wanted to return back to England. But I’m glad I stuck it out, because my second year out there was the best of my career. Everything came together. I listened to my body, I believed in myself and one good race lead to another. I raced my fastest ever time in California, 32min36sec for 10k and that was one of the best feelings I’ve had in my life.
So what did that race lead to?
Well the target for me was always the 2016 Olympics – if I got there, that would be success at its best. But after racing my fastest ever 10k and being in the shape of my life, the media used headlines such as ‘Waldron tries out of London 2012 Olympics’, and they were right. I flew back for the trial race in Birmingham but unfortunately missed the team. It was then that I realised how burnt out I was. Under weight, exhausted mentally and physically and in desperate need of a break. I got off the track and didn’t warm down. I didn’t have the energy. I needed time out.
Listening to Sarah now I could sense a period of reflection that followed this moment.
I had made so many sacrifices, everything I had ever done was geared around my athletics. I knew that these sacrifices were necessary and I certainly didn’t regret doing them, but I hadn’t had a mental break, time away from competing for years and years. Even whilst on holiday I was always training – even when we went to the Maldives – one of the most relaxing places on earth. I realised with the ‘burn out’ experience I was feeling from the sport, the highs were no longer outweighing the lows. I craved a different lifestyle – it had been too much of the same for too long. So I stopped, and to this day it was one of the best decisions I made. I accomplished racing for Great Britain and winning team gold at the European Championships, and yes I didn’t make the Olympics, but that was a fantastic chapter of my life. One that came to an end at the right time.
Sarah had been so dedicated from such a young age, for me it was completely understandable how it almost suddenly stopped. Listening to what she has been through was an amazing insight.
To end with, I wanted to know whether anything she has been through had an impact on her day to day life now?
For so long I thought that running was the only way I would feel completely successful. I’m sure now that running installed a determination in me that whatever else I went on to do in life I would always want to be the best I could be, and the best out of everyone I associated myself with. My first job after running was in Sales for a company in America. I was working with people who had done the job for years, but my goal was to set the standard higher than ever before. I worked extra hours and success followed, until my work Visa ended and I was forced to return to England. Back in England? What do I do now? I felt lost. I applied for some local jobs – finding my way into a travel job and then from there into the sports industry. Now I’m in Business Development at Worcester Warriors and I love it.
There is no doubt that Sarah has a set of skills and characteristics that were extremely valuable during her athletics career which simply can’t be bought, and transferring those into her current job and the corporate world can only be an advantage to her employers. It was great to speak to her and get a real insight into her career, and how she has used those experiences to her advantage.