Sarah Lawson: Life in the fast lane

Lawson a quick study on track

(This article originally appeared in the March 26, 2003, issue of the Boston Globe.)

By Barbara Huebner, Globe Correspondent, 3/26/2003

It’s noon on a recent Thursday and Sarah Lawson is pacing the infield at the nearly empty Reggie Lewis Center, talking into her cellphone. A Roxy Renovations client has questions about a subcontractor, and she is trying to straighten out the situation while recovering from a 150-meter sprint. Crisis averted and pulse-rate slowed, the business owner/athlete stows the phone and steps back onto the track for the final repeat of her workout. As a general contractor, Lawson gets plenty of practice staying calm amid chaos. She exudes competence and confidence. Precision is her motto; focus, her mantra. Get it done quickly, but get it done right.

That makes sprinting a perfect fit. So what if she didn’t take it up until she was 38. It still only took 18 months to win her first national title. Get it done quickly, get it done right.

”It was so exciting,” she said of her triumph, relaxing in the top row of bleachers after her workout and ignoring her cellphone as much as possible. ”I got to stand up on the thing and get the medal and everything.”

At 39 (39 years, 11 months and 2 weeks, to be precise), Lawson won the 100-meter dash in the 35-39 age group at last summer’s USA Masters Track & Field Championships in Orono, Maine. ”I taught those 35-year-olds a lesson,” she said, grinning. For good measure, she took silver in the 200. Now 40, the Waltham mother of two will be in a new age group this weekend when she competes at 60 meters and 200 meters at the USATF National Masters Indoor Championships. The meet, featuring male and female athletes from 30 to 101, runs Friday through Sunday at the Reggie Lewis Center.

Her real goal, though, is to make the 100 and 200 finals of the World Masters Athletics Championships in July in Puerto Rico. Don’t count her out, either: in 2001 she was a beginner; in 2002 she ranked 21st in the world at 60 meters in her age group — a list led by two-time Olympic gold medalist Gail Devers — and fourth at 55 meters.

As she put it: ”I wouldn’t be going there to bring up the rear.”

Lawson, the mother of daughters O’Mara, 13, and Grace, 12 (”They get a kick out of telling their friends I’m the fastest soccer mom in town”) became a sprinter almost by accident. A 1980 graduate of Lincoln-Sudbury High School, she played lacrosse and field hockey, and as an adult ”always did something” for exercise but was never a runner. Then a few years ago, she jumped into a corporate 5K (3.1 miles) race and ran seven-minute miles, an impressive first effort. She was intrigued, and asked David Hoey, a former world-class 800-meter runner from Australia and conveniently her boyfriend, how she could get faster.

Track work, he said. Ugh, she replied, after the first workout. ”It was hideous,” she said. ”It was really horrible. But he kept saying, `I’m telling you, you are fast.’ ”

So in the spring of 2001, she joined the Greater Boston Track Club. That summer, she jumped into outdoor nationals ”just for the heck of it” and won two silvers and a bronze.

Witness the birth of a motivated sprinter. ”I’d never really done anything where I said, `OK, how good can I get with what I’ve got?’ ” she explained. Deciding she needed more training partners, Lawson began checking out local universities to see which had the best women’s track program. Up popped Wheaton College, a powerhouse that earlier this month won its fifth consecutive NCAA Division 3 indoor national title.

”She called me out of the clear blue,” said Wheaton coach Paul Souza, who invited her to train with the team. ”She’s so self-motivated, first to make the call, then to drive 45 minutes each way to practice. It’s another great story in our sport, that someone can take it up so late in life and be that good. She was a great example for our kids.”

Not to mention a prod. College runners, said Lawson, ”do not want to get beaten by their mother.”

After a season of killer workouts so exhausting that she had to lie down for a while before she could drive home, Lawson won the national 100-meter title last summer. But the quest to improve was not yet over, and by December she had hooked up with Charlie Scarrow, the retired Wayland High School coach who now coaches in Nova Scotia. In a weeklong visit there last December, she said, ”He really helped me with my form and moved me forward. It’s such a technical sport. You watch it, and it’s like people just fall off the turnip truck and do it, but they don’t. There’s the relaxation, the balance, everything, and you’re trying to do all that under pressure. There are so many ways to mess up.”

Scarrow writes her workouts; Lawson modifies them. For instance, she’s backing off the 400 meters to concentrate on the shorter sprints. You get a little older, she said, you have a mind of your own. You put in long hours on your business. You have two children. You also have some perspective.

”She knows what she wants and she goes after it relentlessly without going nuts,” said Tom Derderian, the Greater Boston Track Club coach. ”She, compared to young people, shows a focus and resolve that approaches but does not pass into obsession.”

Before every race, Lawson writes down her goals. For this weekend, it’s about form (get a good start in the 60, stay relaxed in the 200) and time (sub-8.50, sub-27.60), not about place. ”I don’t aspire to win, and maybe that’s why I don’t win more,” she said. ”I aspire to times.”

Still, she hopes to avoid a repeat of her most recent Reggie Lewis appearance, when she finished last in a 200-meter masters exhibition race in front of a full house at indoor nationals earlier this month, a day before coming down with the flu.

”I found it so unnerving having so many people watching, because it’s kind of private, what we do,” said Lawson, who has sworn off the 90-minute roundtrip to Wheaton and now trains mostly alone at either Reggie Lewis or Brandeis. ”All of a sudden it’s take your clothes off and run in your underwear in front of all those people.”

Sometimes, admits Lawson, she wonders how fast she might have been had she started younger, but it’s more out of curiosity because the present is enough of a challenge. ”I’m not as fast as I can get,” she said. ”I want to go higher on that [world] list. I’m still a newbie. My form isn’t that great, my start is OK. Most people learn that stuff in college.”

Plus, she adds: ”I don’t know that I would have been mentally tough enough.”

Ah, that age thing again. According to Steve Vaitones, meet director of the master’s indoor championships, women’s participation in the event has gone up in the past six years, with women 40 to 49 the largest group. (”The kids are in high school now,” explained Lawson. ”Let’s do it.”) Still, of the 750 athletes expected at this weekend’s meet, only 22 percent are women.

Lawson, for one, would love to see more out there, women like herself who, having grown up at a time when it was unfashionable, have never challenged themselves athletically. She looks at her name on the world lists after less than two years in the sport and sighs.

”It makes me think,” she said, ”there’s a lot of women out there who aren’t using their gifts.”

This story ran on page F8 of the Boston Globe on 3/26/2003.
Copyright 2003 Globe Newspaper Company.