Marathon-running Sister of St. Joseph imparts lessons

Teak Phillips | teakphillips@archstl.org
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By running in the Boston Marathon, the principal of Marian Middle School is setting an example of hard work and perseverance to help her students succeed.

Sister Sarah Heger, CSJ, will be among the 30,000 runners in the challenging race which passes through eight cities and towns on Monday, April 18. The oldest annual marathon in the world, it often is considered the most prestigious. For many, getting a Boston qualifier is a lifetime running achievement. Since 1970, the primary way for runners to enter the Boston Marathon has been with a qualifying time from another marathon.

Sister Sarah qualified at the Go! St. Louis Marathon last year with a run of 3:27:55, finishing second of 96 in the female 30-34 age group and 16th of 581 female runners.

Students at Marian Middle, which serves girls from low-income backgrounds and follows them through a graduate support program, know Sister Sarah's refrain that "every day is a beautiful day to run." Her running provides "an optimistic, positive attitude. It's all about how you frame life and things you're framed with," Sister Sarah said.

The Sister of St. Joseph of Carondelet gave an example of the lessons she teaches in her role as a track coach, a sport in which half the school's students participate. They talk about endurance — relating it to school and life as more of a marathon than a sprint and having perseverance and being around people who are encouraging, helping you make it through challenges. It's also involves goal-setting.

On a sunny afternoon a week before her big race, Sister Sarah urged on the school's track club members, who were preparing to run in CYC meets. "Come on, come on. Hang with me. Don't stop," she shouted, later adding praise, "Good job, girls."

"She really inspires us," seventh-grader Alexandrina Weingart said. "When I came to Marian, I could barely run three laps, and now I'm running long distance."

Sixth-grader Nia Hearon said she was the last one in the group when she started. Sister Sarah encouraged her to practice, and now she's going farther than anyone else. "No matter how tired we get, you have to keep on going," Nia said. "We're going to fail some times, but each time we'll get better."

Sister Sarah's running began as a middle-school student as a way of getting in shape to make the volleyball team at St. Francis Borgia High School, encouraged by the coach there during summer camps. She ran on the track team at Borgia and filled in on the cross country team, but focused on volleyball. She did the same at Fontbonne University, where she also did the heptathlon.

"It has become something I love, something that centers me," Sister Sarah said of her running. "I use it for prayer, as a meditation to get my body, my mind and my breathing in sync and to be outside."

Last year, she and four other women religious ran in the Go! St. Louis Marathon to raise awareness to the Year of Consecrated Life. The others ran the half marathon, while Sister Sarah did the full marathon. "This was my first marathon. I never even ran a half marathon," she said.

It would have been her last marathon, too, except that since she qualified for the Boston Marathon she decided to go for it. "They asked for an estimated time you think you'll finish it in, and I guessed something like five or five-and-a-half hours. I had no idea," Sister Sarah said.

She runs after school, often with participants in the school's track program, and does long runs on Sundays with Big River Running's training team. "It's really nice to do the long runs with a group of people," she said. "It's hard to go run 22 miles by yourself."

Just as a runner has someone helping with his or her goal, every successful Marian student is supported a teacher, donor, parent — "no one in life does it alone," Sister Sarah said. "To have a support network of people who cheer you on and help you to name those goals, set them high and achieve them is hopefully what our students have in some shape or form."

In addition to running, Sister Sarah is finishing a master's degree. She oversees five core teachers and 68 girls in fifth through eighth grades. She has taken on many of the responsibilities of dean of student life while the school recruits a candidate for the position and oversees the enrichment program, Marian's after-school program that provides students with opportunities for learning, empowerment, character growth and development. Activities range from athletics and theater to culinary arts and robotics.

One of the highlights for the girls is a camp they attend each summer. A group of them arise at dawn to run with Sister Sarah and experience the steam off the lake, the sunrise, the dew on spiderwebs and other natural sights they hadn't seen before. 

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