Here at Black Line London we like cool people. It’s always great to meet someone who has done something a little different, lived through interesting times and has some good stories to tell. So we’d like to introduce friend of the team and all around cool dude Sarah Crewe, a 51 year old triathlete and mother of two who lives in the remote hills of Ruidoso, New Mexico, USA.
I first met Sarah in Cozumel, Mexico in November 2011 where we had both travelled to race the Ironman. It would be fair to say she was not your typical athlete: a little older, terrified of swimming (despite us being in an island paradise and tackling likely the easiest Ironman swim you will ever do), extremely nervous about racing and riding a ridiculous tin-pot steel bike which had 650cc wheels for no apparent reason, weighed a ton and looked like it had been built in the dark ages. So I have to admit I didn’t have great expectations. Catching up with Sarah after the race when I’d finished not far ahead of her (10.20 to her 11.02) she’d trounced me on the swim, stayed ahead of me for most of the bike course despite having to serve a penalty obtained when roundly abusing a large group of drafters, after which she missed T2 and had to be escorted back to transition the wrong way on the pavement by a Mexican policeman, and having won her age group by an hour to qualify for her second Kona (almost 20 years after her first), I realised the reality was a little different. And having got to know her a lot better over the next 15 months she took some time out to chat and share a few stories.
Talk us through Ironman Cozumel first, how was your experience of the race?
In a nutshell, I was grieving for my father who had passed away in 2009. He has been my only and biggest fan. It was a long time since I’d raced an Ironman so I got there a week before the race and met some awesome and inspiring people. One of them was Peter, a young chef, who, after his 3rd brain surgery for brain cancer—where they realised they could not remove the tumour—decided to forego drugs and chemotherapy and live his life to the fullest in the very short time he has left. His first goal: completing an Ironman. His doctor flew down to be with him, as he gets seizures. If he got one during the race he could die. He was so calming and strong: Mentally he was one of the strongest people I have ever met and I am honoured to call him a friend.
In the race itself, I got pummelled a few times in the swim, but no serious injuries. Wore 2 caps just to make sure my goggles stayed on my head, for without my prescription goggles, I’m toast. 1.03 was a pretty ok time for me. Swallowed 3 huge mouthfuls of water, but felt OK. The bike started ok: into the wind out to the north side of the island, then crosswinds out, then with the wind back, crosswinds, then headwinds… you get the picture. On the 3rd lap a HUGE peleton (30 riders I think) sucked me up. It took a while, but I slowly moved back and got away from the group as this behaviour is not allowed. It’s cheating. I got a good look at the women amidst all the men in the pack and told one “This is not right, I’m outta here”, but she said nothing. I kept hoping a referee would come and bust them all but none came. I did witness a bad crash— one of the peloton members crashed out—“Serves him right”, I thought. Shortly thereafter, a man rode up and I complained to him, and him to me, about the peleton. As soon as I asked him ‘Where are the refs when you need them” one drove up and gave us both a penalty for riding side by side! I laughed and told him he should focus on that big peloton. He said he would, but still the penalty stuck. Oh well, my bad. I should stop talking so much.
But because my glasses were so dirty from the salt and rain I couldn’t see the finishing chute when I got into town so I kept on going. After a few minutes I realised that I really didn’t want to ride 4 loops so I stopped the bike, asked a spectator where the finishing chute was, and got the word that it was “way back that way to your right”. Oops! Rookie mistake. So I rode back and stopped again, asked a cop where to go, and he quickly broke the tape line and let me take a back road towards the finish line. I just laughed.
We ran out of town in 3 loops of 8.7 miles each. There were aid stations every k, with water and ice in bags, which was awesome because it was HOT. A few women passed me on the run but I didn’t see anyone with my letter, “U”. But by mile 13 my quads were shot. Each step brought an excruciating pain shooting up into my thighs like nothing I’ve felt before, but I kept telling myself that walking is not an option. I thought about my Dad and how proud he would be of me, thought about how much he suffered the last years of his life and that this day of suffering was nothing compared to what he went through, and wished for him to be waiting at the finish line for me. I thought about all the amazing people I’d met before the race, thought about Peter and hoped he didn’t get a seizure during his journey that day (thankfully he didn’t). I thought about all my friends in Ruidoso and in Chicago, all the people who have supported me throughout this journey, thought about all the sacrifices Patrick has made, thought about my twin girls. I missed them.
Don’t think I got a finishing photo as I was whisked away by 2 strong men as soon as I crossed the line. Nothing left in the tank. After resting, drinking ramen noodles and a post-race massage, I walked out into Patrick’s arms. “You Won!” he cried. It took a while, but it finally hit me, on the podium, Kona slot in hand— he was right. I did win my age group. Dad would have been proud.
I heard from you later that you’d raced Kona in 1993. Before we get onto that, can you explain how you got into the sport in the early 1990s when it was really only just beginning? Did you have any training partners? Were there many local races you could go to? What about training camps?
Way back in the dark ages, races were an entirely different experience. You could literally register on race day and they were relatively cheap ($25 to $50). Qualifying for Kona was also relatively easy back then. I remember it costing me about $200! One could qualify at an Olympic race back then and relatively few people did triathlons, even in Chicago, where I lived. I got into triathlon on the suggestion of a friend. I had sustained a running injury and she suggested I swim with her Masters Swim Team. I fell in love with swimming all over again and gravitated to a group who also raced in triathlons. I got hooked quickly but I was not very fast or smart. It took me until 1999 till I got fast. There were no coaches back then. We rode with guys who biked, swam with Masters swimmers, and ran with the local track club. So we over-ran, over-swam and over-biked as a rule! Nothing scientific about what we did. Kona back then was on the old course, so this year I felt like I had never even done the race on many levels. The course was different, Kona had grown exponentially and so had the race. When I did it I think there were only 1400 participants and much less media attention, in fact compared with this year what I had experienced in 1993 was the equivalent of a local race today!
The first time I went to a camp was with the Multisport group consisting of Roch Frey, Paul Huddle, Paula Newby-Frasier Heather Fuehr, and a host of other pros (German and US) at the time. I think it was in 1996. It was really the only camp out there at the time. I attended twice, in the late 90’s. Since then camps have grown like weeds. I havent been to a camp since then.
Back then it was really intimate. We hung out together and just learned so much about what it was like to be a pro. Lots of laughing. I remember during one ride drafting behind Peter Reid thinking I had died and gone to heaven. Another time, Paula, Patrick Heather and I swam a workout together one morning. Just the 4 of us. This is how intimate it was. We did Paula’s favorite 400’s workout: 400 free followed by 4×100’s– 4x ( after a very long warmup)! I remember there was very little rest…. I swam with Heather and Patrick swam (and kept up) with Paula.
Did you have a coach, and how did that work? It’s so easy now to get a training plan emailed to you, or download one from the Internet. Was there much information available then?
Back then I had no coach. It was all about what I time I had in each day before or after work, and mostly about what my friends were doing. It was very social and we all did what ever the other person wanted to do that day. I had a Masters coach, a running track coach, but no triathlon coach. I don’t even think they were invented back then! I most certainly had never heard of one. there was no information except what you read in a magazine. I remember looking at workouts but never followed any. The first tri coach I had was Troy Jacobsen. I cannot remember when I “hired” him, but it must have been in the late 90’s. He would fax workouts, but it was very impersonal and not tailored back then. It was definitely pre-internet!
People racing now often refer to people racing at that time as role models: Mark and Dave, Paula Newby Fraser and so on. Was this the case then, or was the sport still too young for that to have developed?
If you were a triathlete, you definitely knew who the pros were. Paula and Heather were definitely my heroes. Paula was just such a force, especially when you were in camp with her. And Huddle was just the opposite, always trying to get you to skip the ride or run and go surfing instead! I remember going out to dinner in Salano Beach at the camp and seeing Mark out having dinner with his wife. As a triathlete I read Triathlon Today and Inside Triathlon. That was where you got all the news as there was no internet! Race results weren’t posted on line, it was all word of mouth how you did at the races.
You obviously discovered you had a talent for the sport, did you ever plan to race pro? Was it possible to get sponsors as an age grouper?
Oh gosh, thanks for the compliment, but really I started SOO late. I was 30 (I’m now 51) when I started. I didn’t start working out till I was 28! I had quit swimming when I was 13, and I had never really run until then, so I was behind the 8-ball. I got good enough to be sponsored by PowerBar (it had just come out on the market) as an “Elite” amateur, but I was already in my mid-late 30’s by then. Actually my fastest years were in aged 39-42 and that is way to old to go pro! Plus I just didn’t have the speed, I had a full time job and I liked having it as a hobby. I was also sponsored by a local running store and Rudy Project (pre-helmets, back when they only sold sun glasses). But back then you could fly your bike for free or only pay $25, the races were relatively cheap, so it wasn’t a huge expense like it is now.
How did the qualifying process for Kona work? Was it something people aspired to or was there not really much media interest in the race yet?
Back then it was cool amongst the triathletes, but like I said before it was much easier to qualify. Becoming a pro was easier too. I knew a woman who raced pro to qualify even though I beat her in every race! You could literally race the Chicago Triathlon, win your age, and qualify. It only started getting tougher later in the 90s, early 2000’s and it has gotten more and more difficult since then. I remember getting 2nd or 3rd in Vineman in 2003 in my age group and knowing I would qualify but I didn’t stay for the awards ceremony knowing I had to get back to take care of the twins! And the same happened when we took the twins to England in 2004. We did the half IM in Dorset: we swam and ran around a moat and a castle. I remember doing really well, like around 5 hours, and I may have even won my age group, but we had to leave to get back to Essex to take care of the twins immediately after the race. I probably would have gotten a slot then, but it wasn’t a priority to me. These days, forget it. You qualify you take it! It is SOOO hard to get a slot!
So you got to Kona in 1993, how did the race go for you?
It was the worst race of my life. I was under prepared and was not trained properly for the heat the wind and the effects of all that on the body. I had no idea about nutrition and spent 90 minutes in the med tent after the bike with what I now think was hyponatremia. My stomach was bloated from too much water, no salt, and no idea what to do about the nausea. Only after projectile vomiting during the walk/run did I eventually feel better. I don’t know why, but I walked the entire marathon, eating my way through each aid station like it was the last buffet I’d ever see, chatting with anyone and anything that walked my way. At mile 20 it dawned on me that I was probably the only triathlete to have GAINED weight during the race! I was embarrassed to cross the finish line all bloated from all the good food!
What happened next? Did you ever plan to race Kona again? What made you stay in the sport?
Ah I decided to redeem myself by racing Ironman events all over the world with my then-fiance, Patrick. I did the Espirit in Canada, Lanzarote, Roth, Florida, New York, and registered for Taupo but was injured for the race and watched it instead. I stayed in the sport because I loved the lifestyle: Long rides with friends on the weekends, long runs with friends, swimming with friends. It was my lifestyle and I loved the people I met who became my good friends. This was pre-kids. I worked and played and loved it.
Going back in 2012 must have been fantastic but also quite strange, for a start I know the course has changed slightly since then. How did your experience compare?
I didn’t have the race I had trained for, so I was very discouraged. I had a terrible swim, started way way too far to the left, and just felt sluggish all day. Getting older has its drawbacks, especially for females, and hormones are a key factor to performance I think. It just wasn’t my day. To top it off I had an asthma attack on the run which really slowed things down considerably. At mile 5 my lungs seized up and I had to stop and walk with my hand over my head, using my inhaler and calming myself down for 20 minutes. A doctor ran up to me and told me to stop but I smiled (could not talk) and kept going. But it scared me so I just jogged slowly the rest of the run. At least I didn’t walk the entire marathon like I did in 1993.
There was a lot of press this year about Julie Moss and Kathleen McCartney reuniting 30 years after their infamous crawl-off. As you are in the same age group as them, did you get in there to spoil the party? Did you know those girls from racing when you were younger? Is it true that Paula was backing you to take them down?!
Ha! I remember on the run some photographers running over to Julie (she was behind me) to capture her and thinking “phew’ , at least I’m beating her!” Yes, I remember Julie from the video of the race in 1982, but she was not a big pro like Paula. And I think Kathleen raced only once after her initial race, so no, they were not in the picture when I was racing.
Yes, Paula did tell me to beat Julie at the pre-race expo. She was funny. I can’t believe after all these years she remembered me— that was one of the most memorable moments of the entire Kona experience. To think this woman remembered me of all people!
You are also one of the most well-travelled people I’ve met and raced all over Europe in the 1990s. Any good / bad memories to share of those races? Any particular favourites or total disasters?
Oh gosh, I really have been lucky to race everywhere. Roth was a kick. I think that was in 1999. I remember after the race going down to breakfast and nearly gagging with all the cigarette smoke! I could not believe my eyes watching half a dozen Ironmen smoking cigarettes the day after the race! Lanzarote was the toughest race on the planet. I will NEVER race it again though I’d love to go train there. I got engaged in Paloma, Italy at the duathlon world championships in 96. That was a blast racing over cobblestones. I think I got 9th or 19th in that race. Roth was a disaster. They kept serving water with gas or not and I could never remember which word was “with” gas and which was “no” gas…and often make the mistake that cost me my insides. I projectile vomited there too. In fact, I got sick in every Ironman I have done except Florida and Kona 2012. I tell you I am a slow learner.
I raced in Perth at the Olympic Worlds in….gosh what year was that? 1996? Didn’t have a great race but had a blast. Raced in the Cayman Islands— now that was the most primitive. I think we had to ride on grass and dirt roads at one point….My favorite race overseas was Dorset. Or was is Somerset? Just swimming in a moat was so very cool, and running on the trails around the castle gave me the shivers. It was amazing. In the states, my favorite was Muncie half Ironman. I won overall amateur that year— 4:53– the only race time I remember—I think it was 1999– and I felt like a million bucks. I’m still trying to recapture that feeling. I’m a slow learner. Did I say that already?
Having finished 2nd in the 50-54 age group in the 70.3 Worlds in Vegas this year I think half distance is probably your strongest distance. Any plans to go back for the AG win this year? Or to go shorter and faster?
This year, because my kids are so busy and my husband works out of town, I cannot possibly train for an Ironman. I plan to do some local (here, local means within a 5 hour drive) races that are shorter, and I hope to qualify to try for Worlds 70.3 again. I plan to race Galveston and Lubbock 70.3s and smaller races in between then. May is too hard to race as my girls are budding ballerinas and their Spring shows are in April and May. The thing I always have to keep in mind is that there is always a handful of girls who age up each year, so nothing is guaranteed. I need to work on my run and pull it up to what it once was.
Having seen some fairly blatant drafting at Cozumel and Kona over the last 2 years, I know you feel strongly about kicking cheats out of the sport. With large age group fields and multi-lap courses this seems to be getting worse – any thoughts on what could be done?
Ha. Cozumel was very blatant, but NOTHING like Kona this year. I just felt like I saw miles of drafting. That was discouraging. In the olden days I think because there were less racers there was less drafting. I think one thing they could do but they wont is have more waves spread farther apart. The media loves capturing the mass start, and this only leads to more packs and more drafting. I think if the penalties were stiffer as well it would make a difference. If someone drafts, lets say, for 20 miles and gets a 4 minute penalty, that in their mind is worth it. But if the penalty were 8 minutes they may think twice before drafting!
There’s also been talk about age group doping recently with an older age grouper being banned last year. Have you come across this at all in the States? Do you think it’s a common problem with older athletes?
I had NEVER heard about drugs in the old days. I only heard about them last year at Las Vegas Worlds. Someone at a pre-race dinner table was talking about going to a doctor to get their hormone levels tested… the group ten began talking about T, and I learned, after talking to other people, that these people go to doctors to get their testosterone levels checked. If they are “low” t (and who at my age has naturally high testosterone!) they get hormones! I was appalled. The doctors are “anti-ageing” specialists and I hear that it is a growing specialty for the baby boomer generation. I had forgotten about it until this year when I read an athlete with whom I was familiar (he was often in the same races I raced in back in the days) had been busted for high testosterone.
I think that many triathletes in the States have incredible amounts of disposable income and will do anything to get faster. It’s a shame because it taints the races. I think out of competition testing is important to do for those who are well known age group winners. Just like the pros, I am sure they are smart enough and have the resources to make sure they are clean on race day. It seems so ironic that they would spend a fortune on something that they don’t get paid to do. And who knows what the side effects will be down the road? I’m just happy that I have kids and all I worry about is staying healthy for them and being a good role model that they will remember long after I’m gone.
Going completely off topic for a moment, as someone who has lived a varied and interesting life can you explain how you came to be shot at during a military coup?
Oh my, that is a long long story. In a nutshell, I lived in Kenya during my Jr Year Abroad while in college at the University of California Santa Cruz in 1980. I was an anthropology major and thought it would be enlightening to study at the Leaky center in Nairobi. I was focusing on physical anthropology Well, once I arrived in Kenya the world changed for me. I learned how others saw us, how the Third World, as it was called, saw the world, and I really grew up. I changed my major and focused on African Literature. At the time, the students, the ones who were my friends, were friends with people in the Air Force, and before I knew it there was an attempted coup— the Army vs the Air Force. The Air Force wanted more pay, or something of that sort. It was a mess. We were woken in the dorms one night to the sound of bombing and gunfire….We had to hurry and leave the city fast. During the next 24 hours we scrambled. Lots of bullets. I remembered running with a group towards a taxi, opening the door to find a man dead in a pile of blood. One of the students pulled him out and we jumped in….Memories that I’d rather forget. Walking on the street the next morning, arms above my head, and stepping on a half-naked man who was lying face down dead in the gutter….Guns pointing at my head, being forced to crawl at one point on my knees with other students…standing and watching students get cattle-prodded and beaten….
I’m lucky to be alive. No kidding. I don’t know how it all happened, but I managed to escape to the country with a couple of friends. After a month or more I took a bus to the city and bought a ticket home from an Indian who worked above a seedy night club. It was all so very surreal. The memories are so raw, I was so naiive and young to understand what was happening. But during my travels in the country I met the kindest people. Hard working women who amazed me with their generosity and kindness. The stark contrasts between the tangible experiences of evil and good will forever be embedded in my mind.
When people here talk in this country about putting guns in schools, arming teachers I just want to vomit. I bet that none of these people know what it is like to be terrorised to have a gun pointed at their head by a high or drunk soldier, no idea how they would react to such terror. If I had had a gun back then there is no way I could have used it. I remember running and peeing in my pants, my heart in my head, unable to breathe. Terror is tangible and it consumes your body. Most people would not have the power to override that feeling. I just hope that smart people make smart decisions when it comes to gun laws in this country. (editorial!)
Having been lucky enough to stay with you in New Mexico, the serenity and calm of the mountains must be a long way from growing up in Chicago and teaching rough kids in Harlem. How did that come about?
Another long story! My husband and I were working long long hours and never seeing our kids. Amongst a lawsuit from his former partners, and the desire to work and live by our kids, he was recruited to work here. I quit my job as a banker and started a new life as a health teacher, an instructor and a swim coach. I am blessed to be able to be a part of my kids lives and to have had the opportunity to change my career and do what I love.
Final question, what’s your best memory from your racing career?
Winning in Muncie. That was an out of body experience. Crossing that line, breaking that tape! Second was Ironman Cozumel. To be able to win, after all that had transpired since my last Ironman, to have won on my old 650 Litespeed Blade against women who had fancy new bikes, to have kept it up thinking the entire time about my dad… that was truly special.
And final final question, is it true you know Barack Obama?
Yes, but I’m sure, unlike PNF, he won’t remember me! He worked out at the East Bank Club, where I belonged, while he was in Chicago. He would come in the mornings and play basketball with his buds and afterwards would go to the deli counter to get his breakfast to go. On many occasions I would be there too. Once I was in line behind him and we started chatting. He was so incredibly personable, asking me about my life, why I was going to move, and then we started to talk about Kenya. Thank heaven the line was long. I told him about my stay in Kenya and he was genuinely interested– in me!! I’ll never forget that day. He bought 2 hard boiled eggs and a smoothie. Pretty healthy for a politician! That was his breakfast every time I saw him there.