Eight-Time All-Met Sarah Bowman Set for Yet Another Run at Penn Relays

Sarah Bowman, an eight-time All-Met pick at Fauquier, shown winning the sprint medley relay for Tennessee at the Penn Relays in 2006.
Sarah Bowman, an eight-time All-Met pick at Fauquier, shown winning the sprint medley relay for Tennessee at the Penn Relays in 2006. (By H. Rumph Jr -- Associated Press)
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By Carl Little
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, April 23, 2009

Sarah Bowman slinked away from the finish line on a hot afternoon last April. With the Tennessee track standout running the anchor leg each time, the Volunteers had placed second for the third time in as many days at the Penn Relays, coming up short by a total of 2.7 seconds. While listening to the howl of 49,981 spectators, one of the largest crowds she had ever seen at a track and field meet, Bowman brooded over three of the slimmest margins of defeat in her career.

The Penn Relays, whose 22,000 athletes per year outnumber those competing at the Olympic Games, once meant happier days for Bowman, now a Lady Vols senior. The event is where the eight-time All-Met and 2005 Fauquier High graduate burst into national prominence. She won the girls' mile in 2004 with the third-fastest time in meet history, then took it again the following year. When the 115th Penn Relays get underway on Thursday, she will step onto the track at Franklin Field in Philadelphia for the final time as an amateur and start her chase of the three crowns -- the 4x800-meter relay, 4x1,500-meter relay and distance medley relay -- that eluded her a year ago.

"I never want to come to Penns again and not take home a single victory," Bowman said. "I'm better able to handle it physically and mentally. I think I'm stronger."

That strength is forged in rigorous private practices and yields splendid rewards. At the NCAA indoor championships last month, she won the mile in 4 minutes 29.72 seconds, breaking the 20-year-old meet record and lowering the school record she already owned by nearly five seconds. At the U.S. Olympic trials last summer, Bowman became the only female college runner to reach the final in the 1,500 meters.

Little has slowed Bowman on her remarkable ascent. In January 2008, she climbed onto a stationary bike four days after undergoing emergency surgery to have her appendix removed.

"I really have a tenacity for it. I love competing and I love racing," said Bowman, 22. "I just like pushing myself and making myself better."

Even as a high school junior, when Mike Byrnes became her personal coach, Bowman was interested in testing her limits, pushing herself to see what would happen. She found out during her first workout with Byrnes, who, as co-meet director of Nike Nationals, has evaluated national, world and Olympic champions while they were still amateurs. When it was over, she collapsed to her hands and knees, panting.

It wasn't a particularly difficult workout, Byrnes remembered. He took her out to a field behind Fauquier High and told Bowman to run for five minutes and walk for four, then run for four minutes and walk for three. When she got down to a minute of running and rest, Byrnes had her perform the exercise in reverse.

He cautioned Bowman not to go too hard.

"Of course, being a young, unschooled runner, she went too fast early and at the end was really hurting," Byrnes said. "But she didn't quit. I sensed really then that we might have a winner here."

Bowman's parents, Gary and Gail Bowman, sensed it, too, even if they didn't quite know what to do with it when Bowman was a preteen playing in the Washington Area Girls Soccer league. All they knew was she would hardly ever tire while running up and down the field. They decided to see how far and how fast she could go.

Gail took her daughter to youth track meets along the East Coast, and when Bowman was a high school sophomore, they found their way to Nike Indoor Nationals in Landover. Bowman surprised the field by winning the mile, even though she had played in a soccer tournament 24 hours earlier.

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