If anyone could set a U.S. women’s record in her first 10-mile race, family and friends say, it was Sally Meyerhoff. If anyone could endure training for simultaneous careers as a professional triathlete and Olympic-level marathoner — which consumed as much as eight hours each day — it was the 27-year-old Duke graduate.
And if anyone could pull off wearing leopard-print arm sleeves, hot pink compression socks and pigtails on her runs, it was the effervescent, self-confident native of Tempe, Ariz., who was known as much for her sense of humor as for her enormous ability.
“She almost had too much talent,” said Kelly Fillnow, a teammate of Meyerhoff’s on the Duke cross-country team who encouraged Meyerhoff to pursue her dreams of competing in the triathlon. “She could have been the best in the world in triathlons and in the Olympics. She had an endless amount of potential.”
On March 8, Meyerhoff, considered one of the country’s top women’s marathoners, was struck and killed instantly by a pickup truck at a tricky rural intersection while riding her bike in Maricopa, Ariz., a city about 30 miles south of her home town. Local police say she failed to yield at a stop sign. The truck driver, they said, showed no signs of impairment.
It was a tragic early end to an athletic career that, by many accounts, was en route to greatness. At Marcos de Niza High and later Mountain Pointe High in Arizona, Meyerhoff was a star runner, winning seven individual state track championships. In her five years at Duke, she captured an ACC cross-country title and all-American honors.
After college, Meyerhoff began running professionally, trying her hand at longer distances. She coached cross-country and track at Mountain Pointe for a season while substitute teaching. But she quit to train full-time in Oregon with a coach, only to return seven months later to Arizona because she missed home.
Meyerhoff qualified for the 2008 Olympic trials in her first-ever marathon, the P.F. Chang’s Rock ‘n’ Roll Arizona Marathon, with a sixth-place time of 2 hours 42 minutes 47 seconds. In 2009, she ran her first and only Cherry Blossom Ten Mile Run, finishing seventh overall in the women’s division in 54:38.
“It definitely wasn’t surprising to see her do so well. I was expecting nothing less,” said Meyerhoff’s younger sister, Samantha, who is now a junior cross-country runner at St. John’s. “She was always talking about how she wanted to do it again,” she added.
After a disappointing finish in last November’s New York City Marathon, Sally Meyerhoff asked Adam Zucco, a coach and triathlete, to help her. This January, she became the first American woman to win the P.F. Chang’s Rock ‘n’ Roll Arizona Marathon, running 2:37:55 and qualifying for the 2012 Olympic trials.
She qualified as a professional triathlete last year and recently committed to training for the Ironman World Championship and the Olympic trials — a goal that some thought was too much.
Friends remember Meyerhoff as an extremely competitive but relentlessly positive person, who believed in having fun with ridiculous outfits and pranks. During one preseason team retreat at Duke, Meyerhoff slipped crayfish from a nearby river into everyone’s sleeping bag. They all knew who had done it.
“She just has this energy that was infectious,” said former teammate Liz Wort, now an assistant cross-country and track coach at Duke. “She had the ability to influence people incredibly positively. When she was happy, everyone else was happy.”
For many, Meyerhoff’s death serves as a reminder of the dangers faced while training on the road. Meyerhoff’s sister said that only days before, they had biked through the same intersection where Sally was killed and Samantha remembers her sister’s warnings of the need to stay safe.
According to federal government figures, 630 cyclists were killed in collisions with vehicles in 2009, the majority in urban areas.
“It kind of makes you realize that when you go out you take your life in your own hands,” said Michael Wardian, an Arlington-based marathoner and ultramarathoner who met Meyerhoff at last year’s New York City Half-Marathon, where they shared a sponsor. “You just have to be very careful.”
A foundation is being set up in Meyerhoff’s honor. The track at Mountain Pointe High School is expected to be named after her. Cherry Blossom Ten Mile Run organizers said they would hold a moment of silence for her at a race dinner Saturday.
Two days before her death, Meyerhoff posted an update on her blog about two recent triathlon events in Costa Rica and her determination to prove she could compete as a professional runner and triathlete.
“I cannot express how HAPPY I am with where I am in my life right now though, and how grateful I feel for being able to do what I do,” Meyerhoff wrote. “ . . . I totally and completely love this life I’m living and the most fabulous thing is that I know it’s only going to get 20 times better by the end of the year.”