JFK50 record-holder sets goal for Western States Golden Ticket
By Henry Howard
It took about a week for the reality of Sarah Biehl’s course record at the JFK 50 to fully sink in.
“After the race, I sat for a little bit in a chair,” recalls Biehl, who finished in second place last year and fifth in 2020. “I shed a few tears because it was really overwhelming and exciting to do something like that. From my first JFK and just being hooked on this race and just loving the format of the race, I always knew it was going to mean something to win this race. And it was always a goal of mine.”
Biehl, who lives in Ohio, finished 11th overall with a time of 6:05:42. Ellie Greenwood set the previous record of 6:12 in 2012. (Meet the winner of the men's race, Garrett Corcoran.)
“I was just so determined to try to get a win,” Biehl says. “Having the course record in mind and then throughout the race, seeing that it was going to be a possibility, it was, shocking, but also exciting. When you're in that position, it makes it easier to push harder and stay motivated throughout the race even when you get tired or you have those down moments. It was such a motivating factor throughout the day.”
That determination can be traced back to her early days as a runner.
When she started her running journey as a high school freshman, Biehl thought she would be a sprinter.
“I was really determined I was going to run the 100 and the 200, but my high school coach had a different plan for me,” she recalls. “So they slowly integrated me to the 400, 800, snapped the mile in, and then went from there.”
Initially, she just wanted to run track and play volleyball instead of cross-country. Now, she admits, it “was kind of silly being 5'2" and thinking I was going to be a future volleyball star.”
It didn’t take long for Biehl to fit right in.
“After the first practice I knew these were my people and was definitely going to be a good fit,” she says. “But then I didn't know what I could do really. I knew track had went well, but I didn't know anything about this new distance of a 5K. So the first meet that I ran was a local meet and I won it. It was a smaller, local meet, but I won it and I felt good. I was really interested in getting even better and better. So that progressed from there.”
Not only did Biehl get better and better, she graduated to longer and longer distances.
After graduating from Shawnee State, an NAIA school in Portsmouth, Ohio, she started checking out half marathons.
“It was the thing to do after college, or at least for my little bubble, if you wanted to continue running,” she recalls. “Then my college coach, he put the bug in my ear, ‘Oh, you should try to qualify for the Olympic trials and you should try to run a marathon.’ So then I progressed to that and after my second marathon, I qualified for the Olympic trials in 2020.”
At that point, Biehl hadn’t considered ultras. But her college coach and the onset of COVID would change that. Her coach would suggest doing an ultra from time to time. With most road races canceled during the initial wave of the pandemic in 2020, Biehl found the trails.
“I got on the trails at the Shawnee State Forest and ran with some friends out there,” she says. “I really enjoyed the time on the trails. And one thing led to another. My current coach, Michael Owen, convinced me to sign up for JFK. I was really interested in just finding something new and challenging. I was just hooked after my first JFK.”
Third time is the charm
With two top-five finishes the previous two years, she was among the favorites in a stacked women’s field heading into race day. Does she prefer to be the hunted or the hunter?
“If I could choose, I would have it the other way around, being the hunter,” she says. “But honestly, going into it, I felt like I was in more of the position just because there was an Olympian that was on the start line, too, with quite the running resume.”
Biehl ran a smart, controlled race while also keeping in mind that anything can happen during an ultra.
“I didn't get overly excited until maybe the last mile,” she recalls. “If my legs completely gave out on me, I think I could hobble my way there. On the road, I thought, ‘I feel OK, but anything could happen. I could have to walk in the last three miles.’”
Since she was familiar with the course, a mix of road and trails, her training was dialed in. She kept to the training that she did in preparation for the previous two JFKs.
Often, she would head to Athens, Ohio, to run on trails for an hour or two, then transition to a bike path.
“It allows me to get more hills since I live in Columbus and there are not a whole lot of hills around here,” she says. “It was almost perfect. The trail head is super close to where the bike path is, so I get on the trail for an hour or two and then run down to the bike path and then do a steady state or a tempo type of effort and then finish up either in some of the neighborhoods around the hills there, or get back on the trail or just finish up on the bike path as a cool down. So that really mimics the trail to canal towpath type of transition.”
For Biehl, the training for JFK is one of her favorite things, but she has already decided to forego the 2023 race.
“I'm excited to try different races, but I will miss those workouts. The lead up to JFK is so much fun for me.”
She is planning to run Black Canyon in February and The Canyons in late April, and it’s no coincidence that both are Golden Ticket race for Western States.
“That's my goal.”
Lessons learned at a DNF
Earlier in 2022, Biehl had her first DNF (Did Not Finish) at the Bandera 100K. She dropped around mile 48. “It definitely stung just because I'd always finished, sometimes maybe even to a fault.”
Biehl admits neglecting to take nutrition for a few hours and then becoming lightheaded.
“It hit me so quick and I sat at the aid station for a little bit,” she says. “Honestly, I got out of the next aid station and then I had to walk back and I just never felt like that before. It was hard to do that. It was a hard day, but I think that if I didn't have that day, I wouldn't have buckled down on nutrition. I think I learned my lesson. There are so many lessons to learn and I'm going to make mistakes like that multiple times, but it was definitely a wakeup call that I needed to get better at nutrition.”
While her previous successes at JFK prepared her well for this year, so did the disappointment at Bandera.
“As hard as that day was, I think I learned so much from Bandera,” she says. “Since then, even our regular training runs, I feel so much better. It's those low moments and those hard races that you have the choice to take away something from it or to sulk in it. I just had to find something positive out of that day and learn from it. And honestly, that was the best thing that could have happened to me this year.”
For runners who are dealing with a DNF, Biehl offers some advice. (I dealt with my first earlier this year.)
“It's always fair to give ourselves a little bit of time to feel all those feelings, but then not let it last for too long,” she counsels. “I had to give myself a couple days to be upset, but then I figured something else out from the stuff that happened. In ultras it's inevitable that it's going to end up happening again just because it's such long races and so unpredictable. As much as I can control, I'd like to control. And that was just poor planning and silly decision making.”
Drawing inspiration from a legend
Nutritional issues are one thing. A strong mental game is another.
Biehl uses a couple of inspirational mantras, "Fall down, get back up,” and, “Play your own game." The latter took on special meaning during JFK.
Greenwood, the previous record holder, had written a race recap that Biehl’s coach shared with her a few days before the race. Greenwood wrote about a trail angel or someone on the path.
“She said something along the lines of, ‘Play your own game,” Biehl relays. “I thought that article was fantastic and such a cool thing to think about throughout the race. Run your own race, play your own game, and at the end of the day you got to do it your way and try to focus on what you can control.”
Name: Sarah Biehl
Hometown: Lowell, Ohio
Years running: 13
Miles per week: Varies between 70 and 90 miles.
Point of pride: Consistency and self determination.
Favorite race distance: Tough choice ... either 50K or 50-miler.
Favorite pre race food/drink: “Blueberry bagel before any run, awesome sauce Spring Energy during, and Long Haul drink mix during runs.”
Favorite piece of gear: Hydration pack or belt ... both are life savers in longer races.
Who inspires you: The community of runners in Ohio.
Favorite inspirational song to run to: Want Want by Maggie Rogers
Favorite or inspirational mantra: “’Fall down, get back up,’ or ‘Play your own game.’” Both with stories behind them.”
Where can other runners find you:
• Strava: Sarah Biehl
• Instagram: biehlharas