As appearing in Alumline

When Sarah “Mac” Robinson was in sixth grade, she bought a CSU cross country t-shirt and vowed to run as a Ram.

When she was a freshman in college, she did just that, toeing the line under the guidance of Coach Del Hessel.

And on February 13, Robinson (B.A. English, ’05) was among the elite runners who lined up in Los Angeles at the U.S Olympic Team Marathon Trials, attempting to be one of three women to represent the country at the Rio Olympics next summer.

Robinson at the USA Olympic Team Trials Marathon 2016. Photo credit:
Robinson at the USA Olympic Team Trials Marathon 2016. Photo credit:

In unseasonably warm weather, with temperatures hitting the low 70s in the middle of the race, Robinson ran with the likes of Shalane Flanagan (the Olympic bronze medalist in the 10,000 meters in 2008), Kara Goucher (who has represented the U.S. in two Olympics) and Desiree Linden (the fastest American woman at the 2015 Boston marathon). The conditions, though, were tough on everyone. Hydration and nutrition became key factors in the race.

Robinson finished 95th overall in a time of 2:54.17. “I secretly wanted to be top 50 and I wanted to prove that I wasn’t a flash in the pan. I wanted to prove that I had a little something,” she said. And until the end of the third lap of the looped course around downtown Los Angeles and the University of Southern California campus, Robinson felt good. But in the last lap, her body started to shut down from dehydration. At the beginning of the race, she was taking small sips of water before tossing her bottles aside; she didn’t realize how crucial that hydration would be later.

On a day when 49 women dropped out of the race because of the conditions, Robinson knew she had to finish. “People kept asking me, ‘Why were you smiling?’ There were times when I felt so beaten down, and I saw people out there to support me and I felt embarrassed and honored that they were there for me, I couldn’t help but smile. How can you not be thankful, honestly?” said Robinson.

And even though the moment when she crossed the finish line was very “sad trombone” because they had started to announce the three women who were going to the Olympics (Amy Cragg, Linden, and Flanagan) and no one was cheering for her, she got to celebrate the race with her dad.

Robinson, a freelancer who focuses on content strategy and digital marketing, had the support of her family, her sponsor (Oiselle, a women’s running apparel company) and the dream of making it to the trials that had flickered on and off her whole life. Getting to the trials, though, required her to qualify with a marathon time of under 2:45, something that seemed attainable to her after she ran a fast half marathon last fall. “I’ve always held a tiny flame that I could make it,” she said. So she set her sights on the California International Marathon (CIM), a notoriously fast course that could provide her with the qualifying time she needed.

Robinson (third from right) with her CSU cross country teammates.
Robinson (third from right) with her CSU cross country teammates. Photo courtesy of Robinson.

Coach Hessel popped into her thoughts several times during the painful late miles during CIM. “That man was tough love defined. He was absolutely no B.S.,” she remembered. “When he gave you a compliment, it actually meant something. I kept those sparse compliments with me.”

And with arms clenched in victory and a scream let loose that sounded only of pure joy, Robinson finished in picture-perfect 2:42.36 and qualified for the trials. “I felt a sense of redemption. I left my heart open to this sport for decades and it had been broken so many times. But I did it, finally!”

In the lead-up to the trials, Robinson heard from several of her CSU teammates, friends and roommates. And Coach Hessel had only compliments and well wishes for his former athlete. “I am so pleased that she has continued her running and has found success at it,” he said. “I am honored that she would remember me in her training and racing time.”

With memories of singing the fight song (poorly) on bus rides to CSU cross country meets and living in Newsom and loving it, some of Robinson’s grit can be traced back to running under Hessel. “I run tough. And he made me tougher,” she said. There’s no doubt that the little girl wearing the Rams cross country shirt would be proud of the woman she became.