Entering her third season as head coach of the University of Virginia’s College at Wise cross country teams, Sarah Smith Carlson just can’t stop running.
“I love what I do and I’ve ran I can’t tell you how many miles at this point in my life,” Smith Carlson said. “It’s what I enjoy doing.”
The former softball player began her running career as a freshman at UVa-Wise after never having enjoyed running beforehand.
“I started playing softball here when I was in college, and part of our summer workout was to start running. In high school I never really ran too much, it was kind of punishment more than anything else,” she said. “Once I started softball here I was forced to run the summer before my freshman year and I kind of started to enjoy it a little bit. Once I stopped playing softball I still wanted to compete in something, and so that’s how I got started in road racing.”
After wrapping up her softball career, Smith Carlson went on to start running in 5Ks and half-marathons. She said her personal record in a 5K was 21:08, which was seven minutes faster than her time in her first 5K, and her personal record for a half-marathon was 1:36:39. It was that performance in the Kentucky Derby Half-Marathon that Smith Carlson says stands out the most in her mind, as she said she finished in the Top-100 for that race.
“That’s probably the biggest career highlight for me was that half marathon, because I didn’t think I’d ever get under 1:40:00,” she said.
Smith Carlson has also run in one full marathon — the Richmond Marathon — where she finished in under four hours.
“I enjoy pushing myself and seeing how far I can go and seeing what my limit is,” she said. “I like a good challenge, and running 26.2 miles is a pretty good challenge.”
Even with all of her personal accomplishments, it’s her work as the cross country coach that Smith Carlson enjoys the most. She said that despite having never run in cross country in high school or college, coaching has been a great opportunity for her, and she has enjoyed learning from her teams.
“I enjoy being around students, and I enjoy running and I enjoy fitness obviously since that’s part of my job too,” Smith Carlson said. “So it was just a perfect storm of everything I enjoy doing. I’ve had a great time doing it and I love doing it.”
Her love for her job can be seen in the admiration that the members of the cross country team have for her.
“She expects greatness from us, and she does her best to ensure that we are able to reach our top potentials that we can — not just on the course but also off the course,” senior William Law said. “She is always there for us whenever we need her, and she puts up with a lot more than she probably should.”
Senior Tamyra Howell also spoke highly of Smith Carlson, adding that as much as Smith Carlson wants her runners to succeed on race day, she also places an emphasis on making sure her team does well in the classroom.
“She’s awesome. My favorite thing about her and what I tell all the potential recruits that think about coming here is she puts school first, which is really important,” Howell said. “She works around our schedule and if someone is overloaded — we had that this semester someone was very overloaded — she’s like, ‘OK then if you need to take time off, take time off,’ and I think that’s really important.”
As the Cavaliers continue to compete in their final season as a member of the Mountain East Conference, Smith Carlson continues to push her runners to do even better on the race course. For Smith Carlson, seeing her teams continue to improve and succeed is the part of her job she enjoys the most.
“The biggest highlights for me are just when someone goes out and has a really great race,” she said. “That’s the best part of my job. I like to see them succeed, both individually and as a team.”