GREENVILLE — A running career that began at Riverheads High School more than 30 years ago continues today, but it’s not nearly the type of running a high school kid would consider.
Sandy Powell, who turned 51 Tuesday, was state runner-up in the mile for Riverheads, and she still holds the school record in the event. After running for James Madison University, Powell tried her luck at marathon running. These days, Powell is an ultramarathoner, with the emphasis on the word “ultra.”
“I got disgruntled with the marathons because one, I wasn’t fast,” Powell said. “I’m not a speed person, I’m an endurance person. I didn’t have the speed, and there were so many people. Like in (the) Boston (Marathon), it would take you 10 minutes just to get to the starting line. And then you’d be running and stepping on people. But the experience of the Boston Marathon — you can’t ever describe it.
“Then I was like, ’26 miles? That’s not a challenge. I can run 26 miles,'” she continued. “So my friend, Bill Gentry, said, ‘You need to do ultras. That will challenge you.’ And that’s how I got interested, and I’ve been doing ultras for 10 years. I started slow, with 40 miles, then 50 miles, then 60 miles, and then I did a 100-miler. And then I got into 24 hours, and now 48 hours in the last couple of years. If someone would have told me 10 years ago, ‘Go do a 24-hour race,’ I would have thought, ‘You’re crazy.'”
Crazy or not, Powell recently competed in the 2008 Surgeres 48-Hour Ultramarathon, held in Surgeres, France, on May 16-18. Powell ran 201 1/2 total miles, finishing fourth among women, and 11th overall. Powell is the top-ranked ultramarathoner in the United States and Canada. She has run about 15 marathons, and 40-50 ultramarathons.
“It’s invite only, and they invite approximately 30 runners from around the world,” Powell said about the Surgeres marathon. “It’s kept small so they can take care of the runners. It’s a mixture of different athletes, and some of it is based on where you rank, and some of it is based on just being an ambassador from your country. I was one of two Americans invited this year to go and represent the U.S. and my sponsors.”
The race began at 4 p.m. on Friday, and lasted until 4 p.m. on Sunday, with competitors running almost the entire time, stopping only to change clothes and shoes. Powell said she doesn’t even get sleepy.
“We’re up from 9 o’clock on Friday morning until probably 11 o’clock Sunday night,” she said. “I have no desire to want to sleep because I’m going there to compete.
“I have a great coach, Lisa Smith, from Arizona, and I’ve been well trained. Years of running — I’ve always run distance, so the endurance is there,” she said. “I do a lot of cross training, and I lift weights. I do a lot of running on the weekends to prepare, and once you get there it becomes a mindset. What are my goals, what do I want to achieve? I break it in six-hour increments because you can actually think of it as 48 hours, and it will blow your mind.”
The track is 300 meters, 100 shorter than a high school or college track, and the runners switch directions every six hours.
“I have a crew, my husband, Ben, my sister, Cindy, and her husband, Danny Clymore,” Powell said. “Danny does all the statistical work, Cindy and Ben take care of all my food and my clothes, a change of shoes. Every hour I take a supplement, and every three and five hours there are certain drinks. I break it up, and one lap I eat, and the next lap I’ll drink.”
Powell said her family also spurs her on throughout the race, and she also got encouragement from five special omens.
“There were five different rainbows throughout this race, and they didn’t all come after it rained,” she said. “Rainbows are very significant to my family because when my Mom was battling cancer, rainbows were always a sign when things were going downhill and looked to be at their worst. So I knew, even in my darkest hour, there was hope and I had to refocus and know that people had belief in me that I could do it.”
Powell said she plans to run in the event again next year, but she doesn’t look forward to all the training. But, with the support of her family, she knows she can do it.
“The race is the fun part, it’s all the work leading up to it that’s hard,” she said. “I have a lot to be thankful for, and I’m blessed that my family is so supportive. I don’t know a lot of people that would sit around for 48 hours and help me run. I’m very thankful for my family and the support I’ve gotten.”