Heather Stephens

There are no guarantees in our sport. No matter how hard you work there is nothing that you deserve, there is nothing that is given to you. There is however, always a chance at something big. Almost a year ago Sarah Mac accomplished her biggest, scariest, loftiest running goal of all time. I remember refreshing the screen on finishing times at the California International Marathon over and over again until finally it showed the result. 2:42:36. She did it. Sarah Mac made the Olympic Trials. It was a memory I personally will carry forever. A moment in time that goes down in my book of running inspiration.


The story often untold is the one that follows the big accomplishment. Does running end when you knock your greatest goal out of the park? What's next? And how do you wrap your head around training again and setting another goal? Sarah Mac and I have run many miles together since the Olympic Trials back in February, but I never had a chance to fully hear her story on the other side of her big moment. So we caught up on her life after trials and talked about her next big thing: MAC2NYC.

HEATHER: Can you talk about your moment at the Olympic Trials and what it felt like to toe the line at your big dream race?

MAC: It was really interesting because I’d been imagining it for so long. It was different than I imagined it to be and more exciting than I thought it would be. But I also sort of knew that once it was over, it was over and that my goal of it all would be checked off for me.  I was trying to enjoy everything and slow down time, but also live in the moment and try not to stress too much about it. I didn’t even take a lot of pictures, I just Snapchat-ed it. Which perfectly captured what the moment felt like, in the sense that you’re capturing everything and remembering it but it’s also gone right away.

H: When did you come down from the whole buzz of the trials? When did it hit you that you had raced on that stage?

M: When I crossed the finish line. It was completely quiet. Three women were getting their medals and being crowned as Olympians and no one was watching me finish. And I just felt like the moment has already passed. We had our three Olympians and the Olympic Trials were over. Someone threw away my shoes and I walked out of the village without my shoes and found my family, and had a moment where I realized that was that. PJ wanted to play with me, which immediately snapped me out of being sad about the trials being over. It was just kind of great, it was time to play with PJ.


H: When you got back to Seattle and reality set, what were you thinking about your running? What was it like on the other side of achieving the big goal?

M: It was a weird mix. I really wanted to race again, because I just felt sort of unsatisfied because the race hadn’t reflected how fit I was and I wanted to go do something with my fitness. I wish I had allowed myself time to be a little more satisfied right after and just take a solid month off and not think about running. But I just wasn’t in that mindset. I wanted to start racing right away. I took a week off, but even that week I was weird about taking time off. I think a lot of it was just comparison problems of looking at a lot of my teammates who were still racing and still super fired up…. I’m not sure if they were really fired up, but they looked super fired up on Instagram and Twitter and I was falling into a rabbit hole that I hadn’t been down in a very long time of comparison and thinking that they were fine, they were recovered, they were racing and I needed to keep racing too. I should have been a little more truthful with myself about where I was.

H: And then, did you take time away from racing or did you do another race?

M: I got right back to it and was just sort of training to train. Steph and I had an email exchange where I said I wanted to make a lot of money, and sign up for races with big cash prizes (PS - there aren’t any). I couldn’t find any, and just realized that money doesn’t really excite me that much anyway. I was just sort of drifting, but still training. I think when a big goal is checked off, one that is so specific, you don’t really know why you competed in the first place other than for that goal. SO I had to unpack the trials goal and figure out why it meant something to me. What was it about that goal that I could replicate somewhere else? The goal was important because it wasn’t about beating anyone else, it was about finding the possibility of something big. It was about earning a ticket to a special exclusive stage. And so I had to unpack what was interesting to me about all of that. I’m not really motivated by normal things. Money doesn’t motivate me. Being known doesn’t motivate me. I’m more motivated by seeing what is possible on a personal level and those other outside goals are less of a driving force for me.


H: How did the conversation with Steph go about unpacking your goal? And how did you set your sights on the future of your running?

M: We just sort of checked in once in a while. And after racing Beat The Bridge, I came to the conclusion that I just really didn’t care about money. It’s exciting but when push came to shove in that race and I really needed to push hard to earn a place for Nordstrom $$, it just didn’t set me on fire. And I knew that I wanted to do another marathon. But I also knew that I needed to take some time. I’m going to do three marathons in 12 months, which is probably pushing it. For sure. But there’s something about the marathon that is so addicting, in a way that no other race distance is. I just want to do it again and again and learn different things from it. But the truth is, you’re only allowed to do it so often, so it’s a bit debilitating in that way.

H: So you landed on the NYC Marathon? What’s special about New York for you?

M: It’s been one of those goal races for me to run for a long time. But for various reasons, I kept putting it in the back of my head. Then one day I was doing a track workout. Repeats on a hot summer morning. And I just kept thinking, what am I doing this for? Why am I doing a track workout right now? This is ridiculous. I am clearly doing it because I have a goal. Just say it. You want to run New York. It’s enough. So I decided to email a contact I had for the NYC Marathon, and asked if they had a sub elite program. And they emailed back, letting me know that they had a professional spot open. And then I just felt like it was the universe saying: you get one more. I hadn’t even talked to Steph about it at all before sending the email. That’s how secret it was. It’s kind of par for the course for me. I secretly wanted to make the Olympic Trials ten years before I actually said it out loud. I’m just really secretive with my goals, which I’m sure is really challenging for a coach. But I told her I got in and she just started laughing and said, alright lets do this thing. And so we started training.


H: So you’re a little secretive about your goals, but I’ll ask this question anyway. When you’re looking ahead and getting ready for New York, do you have specific goals for the race?

M: I would love to run a 2:42 again or under. I just have to make sure I can still do it. I don’t want to say I ran 2:42 once. I sort of want to know that I can do it again. Even more secret, it would be great to hang my hat on a 2:40. Looking at this training block, it kind of feels like a dream unicorn goal, like all of the world would have to align. Not to say it can’t happen. I mean the goal is just to run a really solid race and to show up mentally in a big way. My mental game was so strong at CIM, and I want to get into that place again. I gave zero Fs, I knew I was going to do it. And I want to do that again.

H: I know you pretty well and I know your story. You’ve quit the sport a couple of times and you’ve started again. What are you thinking about your running beyond the NYC Marathon?

M: Well, I think any time you’re training for a marathon, you have to look at just that marathon and you cannot pass go. Even with New York, I keep wanting to look back at my training log and analyze it and that’s not even something personally that you should do until you cross the finish line. You have to have a very narrow focus to do a marathon. There’s a million scenarios that I’m trying not to overanalyze too much. If it goes really well, and I get a PR is that it? Am I 100% satisfied? I don’t know because I don’t know what that feels like. But I think that the only thing I can say is, I will take a big competitive break, because competing at the level I’ve been competing at for a year without an off season is a lot. I know that I’ll take an off season and then revisit what I have left on my checklist. And maybe I’ll find that I have nothing left. The second chapter of the past 12 months  has been the bonus round… something I didn’t expect or plan for. I’ll always keep running, I just don’t know what competitive running will look like. Right now, I’m just looking at New York.

H: You’re a master at goal setting, even if it is secretive, and aiming really high despite life circumstances of being a full-time mom and working full time. What is your advice for anyone out there who’s reading this, on chasing and setting a lofty goal?

M: I think I’m still figuring out what advice I would give myself. I think that there’s a fine line between being really stubborn about a goal for no reason. I look at this training cycle for example. I’ve randomly landed in the hospital, I’ve been sick for three weeks, I’ve strained my hamstring. But I still don’t at any given point look at any of these things as derailment. I think it’s a really good way to be, but it’s also a double edged sword. You can be too hard on yourself and illogical in some ways. The point is, have big big big goals but don’t be so stubborn about a specific goal that you miss the journey. One of the things that I always do is check in on sacrifice and pay out. If I’m going to sacrifice X,Y, or Z... time with my family, time with my friends, is it going to be worth it to me no matter the outcome of the goal I set? Whether I fail or fly? And if the answer’s yes, it’s still worth it, then I sacrifice it. If the answer is no, then I check back in with myself and adapt in a flexible way to make sure that rigid goal setting is taking up the joy of the journey. I definitely think that having PJ taught me that. Someone asked me if having a baby made me tougher, and it didn’t, because I’m already too tough…. that sounds like *toot, toot*... but it just means I’m already too stubborn, too bull-headed. But PJ taught me that there’s more strength in being flexible and not being so rigid and pin-focused. But to look around and enjoy the journey, take a break when you need to and just keep the joy in it.


H: Do you have a mantra for your training and racing in general? Or one specific to New York?

M: Yeah! Every race I have a different mantra because I feel like every race is a different being in the way that life plays out on a tiny, little stage. Leading up to CIM, it was all about being thankful. But a new manta randomly came to during the race. At mile 19, the mantra became “change your own life”. It meant that nobody is going to run the next 7 miles for you. Get your stuff together and make it happen. If I wanted to make the Olympic Trials, then I had to do it. No one was going to do it for me. The thought was also empowering because you have the power to change your life at any given moment. For New York, my mantra is “get ugly”. I just want to get so ugly. I want to leave everything out there. I want to go out with a bang.

Follow along with Sarah Mac and cheer her on for the NYC Marathon with hashtag #MAC2NYC!