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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.

?I feel like a completely different person now than then,? said Sumpter, an academic sophomore but a redshirt freshman athletically. ?I am probably in the best shape of my life right now. And I know I am capable of great things and that my team is as well.?

For Sumpter to say that last sentence ? ?I know I am capable of great things? ? is a stark departure for someone who in high school shy to the point of being invisible.

Then again, winning a conference championship as a freshman might have a tendency to boost one?s spirits.

?I?m going for it tomorrow,? Sumpter told UC Davis? women?s coach, Deanne Vochatzer, the night before the race. Of the 77 women competing, Vochatzer thought the winner would be one of three: Northridge?s Lilyana Morejon, Cal Poly?s Kayleigh Tyerman or Sumpter.

Of course, it wouldn?t be that simple for Sumpter.

With 400 meters left in the 5,000-meter race, a course marshal directed those three women ? well ahead at that point of the rest of the field ? down the wrong trail. The trio went 80 meters before being redirected. They would have to cross a gully.

?Oh, my God,? is what Vochatzer thought to herself. The run through the gully was actually gingerly stepped through chuckholes and shrubbery.

?Actually, you wouldn?t call it running,? Vochatzer said. ?My heart stopped. It would be easy to twist an ankle and lose the race or, worse, get an injury that would end a season.?

Sumpter went off course leading Tyerman and Morejon. They re-entered the course with Sumpter still leading but now Morejon had passed Tyerman. The rest of the field was back far enough as not to affect the top three.

?I just had to power through,? Sumpter said. ?I wasn?t going to let it stop me.?

And what if Sumpter had been passed by someone in the field who was fortunate enough not to go off-course? Oh, well, Vochatzer said.

?Happens a lot in marathons,? she said. ?You just have to accept it. You have no recourse.?

Vochatzer saw enough last Saturday to claim that, by the time she graduates, Sumpter?s name will be included among the all-time best runners at Davis.

?Sarah is on a journey,? Vochatzer said. ?She is learning how to cook. She is learning how to eat properly. All young women distance runners have to fight the (eating disorder) demon. Last year (being inactive) was really a learning experience for her. She has come a long way. So far, so good.?

Sumpter readily admitted she learned a hard lesson in the winter of 2008.

?Running is not going to pay my bills when I graduate,? said Sumpter, who will now compete in the NCAA West Regionals in two weeks and if she finishes in the top four she?ll go to Nationals. ?There?s more to life than running.?

An education for one thing. Her declared major is psychology.

?Sports psychologist?? I asked.

?I?ve been thinking about that,? Sumpter said. ?It would mesh well with what I have been through, with all the different places I have been both physically and mentally. Yeah, you?d think running is the simplest thing in the world. But there?s so much more to it.?

Running, she would tell you, can be more of a mental exercise than a physical one. That the real strain is on the brain and the course that really tests a runner is the one between the ears. That the journey for her doesn?t begin with a single step. It begins with a single thought.

For more on North Bay sports go to Bob Padecky?s blog at padecky.blogs.pressdemocrat.com. You can reach Staff Columnist Bob Padecky at 521-5223 or bob.padecky@pressdemocrat.com.

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