Cloverdale?s Sarah Sumpter won the Big West Conference?s cross country championships last Saturday at Riverside. In the 26 years that the Big West has been staging women?s cross country, Sumpter is only the second freshman to win the conference title.
OK, good, so much for the simple stuff. That?s going to be the least complicated paragraph you?ll read for the rest of this column.
But, come on, putting one foot in front of the other, how complicated can that be? Ah, but this is Sarah Sumpter we?re talking about here. If she keeps up her current pace of here-there-nowhere-everywhere, by the time she?s 30 her story will have as many pages as a Manhattan phone book and more plot lines than a Russian novel. There?s at least 30 minutes of a made-for-TV movie already done.
To start? Might as well start with the image, one more vivid.
?It was like I was standing inside a building,? said the CIF?s Division IV 2007 cross country champion, ?and looking outside and seeing all the runners go past me. It was like I was trapped inside the building and couldn?t get out. I can?t really describe the depth of my frustration.?
Ah, I think she did. In the fall of 2008, Sumpter had to watch her UC Davis cross country teammates compete. A freshman, Sumpter had pulled a hip flexor muscle in the late summer and had to stop running. She doesn?t remember how she hurt herself but she?s pretty sure she knows why (like I said, this is complicated).
?I over-trained that (2008) summer,? said Sumpter, who starred for Healdsburg. ?I wanted to show UC Davis that I was worth the scholarship. I wanted to prove to them I was that good.?
Told that riding a stationery bike and swimming would have to be the limit of her exercise for four months, Sumpter became depressed. Running was her life, her ?oxygen? as she once called it.
?I felt ashamed,? said Sumpter. She felt she was letting down her teammates and coaches. ?I had done so well in high school and then to go from the top to the bottom like that, well, I was afraid of what people would say. ?She was a fluke?. Or ?Look what happened to her (because of her eating habits).?
Six months after she won the state cross country title, Sumpter told The Press Democrat she was anorexic and that she needed to change her lifestyle. Her weight had dropped to 92 pounds, down 20 pounds from her preferred weight. She felt sick most of the time. It was courageous for her to admit her eating disorder publicly, in the hopes of helping other female long-distance runners, but she knew tongues would wag. And now that she wasn?t competing for UC Davis, after much pre-arrival ballyhoo, well, the whispering would go, Sarah is starving herself again.
?I definitely knew people would be saying some things,? said Sumpter, now 19. ?But I have gotten past those thoughts. I have moved past that high school dynamic. I know there?s always going to be some people like that.?
Sumpter is nothing if not tenacious. Running 100 miles a week, as was her custom at Healdsburg, is a dramatic example of that. Folding her hand? Not in the cards. Twice a week Sumpter went to a sports psychologist provided by UC Davis. It was an outlet for Sumpter?s anger, frustration and gloominess.