WEST POINT, N.Y. -- Heading into her first marathon, Class of 2020 Cadet Kate Sanborn had heard all about the wall, the moment in the middle of the race when physically and mentally you simply break. Standing at the starting line facing down the course, Sanborn didn't know how her body would react.
A marathon stretches 26.2 miles from start to finish and despite the hundreds of miles of training Sanborn put in preparing for the race, the longest she had ever run at one time was 21 miles. Each day of training had been meticulously tracked in her notebook, every day of double runs and the weeks where she ran 77 miles as she laid down a base of endurance.
In November at the Richmond Marathon it was time to see if those miles and hours spent training would pay off. If the wall came, she was determined to push past it and cross the finish line.
"That was the one thing I was unsure of. How was my body going to handle it and how was I going to react mentally?" Sanborn said. "The day of, I showed up at the line and was like, 'what happens, happens.' If I just take a carefree attack at it, then nothing can really hurt me. If I hit the wall, then I hit the wall. I know that I am going to finish whether that is walking and jogging. I am going to cross the line."
Her plan was to run conservatively, aim for a 2:50:00 pace and see how the race went. Then, at mile 12 no wall hit and she decided to push it harder. At mile 21, the longest she had ever run before that day, still no wall came. That moment where your body fails, and your mind quits never came.
With the miles flying past beneath her feet, Sanborn reached deeper into herself and let loose. At each check point along the race, her pace fell as she pushed harder. Her goal was to be fearless, a mantra and word that carries her through everything.
"The plan of attack going in was to go out conservative so I don't feel completely terrible at mile 20 or whatever," Sanborn said. "I told myself I wanted to start out at a 6:35 mile pace and then kind of bring it down. I looked at my watch and was at a 6:15 mile pace and was like, 'Well, there goes that plan.' I tried backing it off a little bit and then I realized I could do so much more. Around mile 12, I thought I would rather have no regrets finishing this than to just play it safe."
Written in that notebook next to her training log were her goals. The work and the destination written side-by-side spurring her on through the 5 a.m. wake ups for an extra run or getting a few extra miles in before practice with the West Point Marathon team. Listed in the longer term goals, Sanborn hoped to qualify for U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials and earn a spot in the Army's World Class Athlete Program.
The goals were planned for the future, but as she raced through the streets of Richmond and looked at her watch, Sanborn realized that there was no reason to wait, and the future was now. So, with a mile left and the thoughts of the wall behind her, she began to sprint reaching into her reserves.
The B qualifying time for the U.S. Olympic trials is a 2:45:00, five minutes below Sanborn's original goal time, but despite starting a minute back in the pack, she crossed the line in 2:44:04 earning a spot in the trials in February of 2020.
"I cried. I hate crying in front of people, but I did cry," Sanborn said. "There are a couple of pictures of me covering my face because I realized what had just happened. My mom was at the fence across from the line and I remember running over to her. It is one of those moments I will cherish forever. Going up to her and hugging her and she is crying too because she realized I had hit that time."
Along with qualifying for the trials, Sanborn's time also earned her a spot in the Army's World Class Athlete Program upon graduation from West Point. The program will enable her to serve in the Army, while also training and competing as a professional athlete representing the United States. With one fell swoop, she had accomplished both long term goals she had set out for herself.
"I never thought that would happen. Right now, it is still kind of sinking in. It is sinking in for a lot of my teammates as well. It was a shock at first. It is a really cool opportunity I want to take advantage of," Sanborn said.
Sanborn spent her first two years at the U.S. Military Academy running on the cross country and track teams, but heading into her Cow or junior year, Sanborn decided she wanted more of a challenge and joined the marathon team. The team trains each day during the week and then completes longer runs on the weekends.
The team also completed its annual ball run to Philadelphia last week as each team member ran 15-20 miles to deliver the game ball for Army-Navy.
It was the support of the family the team has become that enabled her to reach her goals, Sanborn said, but now she must find a balance between being a member of the team, which doesn't have a coach, and getting herself ready for the trials in a little over a year.
Her immediate plan is to train for April's Boston Marathon, which she earned a spot in based on her Richmond performance, where she hopes to meet the A qualifying time of 2:37:00. That would make her eligible for an Olympic berth were she to finish in the top three at trials.
"Because of heartbreak hill, Boston isn't the fastest of courses, but I still think hitting the A standard is a very doable goal. I think 2:37:00 would be something I could definitely get," Sanborn said. "I really don't have any other expectations other than that. I would rather go in knowing that whatever happens, happens. I'd just rather go in just carefree like this one."
That will likely be her last competitive marathon before the Olympic trials Feb. 29, 2020 in Atlanta, Georgia. There, she will be competing against the best female marathon runners in the country for the chance to represent America in the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo.
"Qualifying for the Olympics would be a long shot, but I don't want to mentally quit now," Sanborn said. "I do want to take training seriously for it and try and go for top three. Honestly, just a personal record would be great and try and set a place goal like top 20 and see where I can shake out among all of America's best women marathoners. That would be a really cool opportunity to see where I am in relation to everyone else."
In the meantime, Sanborn will be refining her training and working to outline how her future will look in the World Class Athlete Program while continuing to do what she truly loves--simply running.
"That is the really cool thing about running," she said. "No one can tell you how far or how fast. It is just you, the road and your shoes and you see what you can do."