USATF Masters Athlete of the Year Sabra Harvey continued to run amazing times in 2017.
By Ali Fenwick for RunnersWorld.com THURSDAY, DECEMBER 14, 2017, 6:58 AM
When it comes to running, Sabra Harvey had a very good 2017. The 68-year-old packed her schedule with a series of road races that made her a quadruple national champion, winning her age group and overall age-graded title in every USATF Masters championship event she entered: the mile, 5K, 10K, and 15K.
She ran under 20 minutes in the 5K twice this year (19:56 and 19:50) and swept the age group golds in the 800, 1500, and 5,000 meters at the USATF Masters Championships in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, in July. For all this, she was named USA Track and Field’s Masters Athlete of the Year earlier this month.
Then, to really put a bow on her racing season, this past Saturday she captured another age-graded win at the 6K cross-country nationals in Lexington, Kentucky, in 26:15. Of the 52 finishers ahead of her in the field of 118, the closest in age was a full decade younger.
But it was an unscheduled event—one that had little to do with running—that really tested Harvey’s fortitude this year.
She had just won the second of her four national titles this year with a 6:07 road mile in Flint, Michigan, on Friday, August 25, and was set to return home the next day when the weather reports began looking grim. Harvey soon found herself in a very different kind of race—outrunning Hurricane Harvey, the Category 4 hurricane barreling toward her hometown of Houston.
The hurricane had made landfall late on Friday evening in Rockport, Texas, about 200 miles south of Houston, with top sustained winds of 130 miles per hour. It was raining in Houston the next morning when Harvey and her training partner Lynn Malloy toed the line at the Crim Festival of Races 10-Miler in downtown Flint (in which Harvey would end up winning her age group again, in 1:11.55).
But it wasn't until they arrived at Flint’s Bishop International Airport that afternoon that they realized getting home wasn’t going to be easy. Their flight had been canceled, along with their rescheduled flight on Sunday. Finally, they managed to get on a plane to Dallas that afternoon and rented a car to drive the four hours to Houston.
“That was a bit of an adventure,” Malloy, 58, told Runner’s World. “It was still raining and they were basically closing the roads behind us as we went through.”
They made it home in the nick of time—Malloy had less than three hours to squirrel away her most precious belongings to the second story of her home in nearby Katy, Texas, before the flood waters seeped through her front door. With water rising in the street, Sabra and her husband Bill hunkered down in their ranch-style home in the Thornwood neighborhood on Houston’s west side for the night, only to evacuate the next day when news came that the Army Corps of Engineers would be releasing water from the dams north of them. Sabra packed what she considered essentials—their passports, marriage certificate, warm clothes, a long-forgotten emergency kit crammed with matches, flashlights, cooking gear, canned food, and all the running gear she could rescue.
“The things that I put in my bag were the running shoes that were the most useful and important to me, my running shorts, and my running bras,” Sabra said.
It was four days until the Harveys could get back to check on their house and eleven before the waters had receded enough so they could begin to clean up.
“Before I saw the destruction inside the house the first time, I was tense,” Harvey said. The waters had reached four feet, but she didn’t know what that would mean. “Once I walked inside with the water up to my waist and saw everything upside down and covered in scuzz, it was like a release. I thought, ‘Oh well, it’s done. There’s nothing I can do about it.’”
A retired graphic designer and grandmother of eight, Harvey only started running at age 51. She didn’t begin seriously training until she met her former coach and mentor Karen Bowler at age 58, when she finally began reaching her potential and unlocking her Benjamin Button-like aptitude for the sport that soon brought many records.
“Karen saw something I didn’t recognize,” Harvey said. “She saw a God-given talent and gave it wings.”
Standing in the way of the rest of Harvey’s 2017 schedule was the devastation left by Hurricane Harvey, which lingered over the Houston area for four days as it weakened to a tropical storm, dumping an estimated 1 trillion gallons of water and damaging or destroying 136,000 homes in Harris County alone, which includes Houston. At the storm’s peak, one-third of the city was underwater, including the network of running trails surrounding Terry Hershey Park, located just steps from Harvey’s home, where she and Malloy ran four days a week.
But Harvey had come too far to stop her training, and if you’ve ever seen the seriously intimidating game face she puts on before a race (see above), you’d know that she wasn’t about to let a pesky hurricane stop her.
So she adapted and within a matter of days, while still evacuated from their homes, the duo resumed running wherever they could.
“After the flood, the schedule went out the window,” Harvey said. “Running really was a stress reliever at that point.”
Her routine had gone from high intensity, goal-based training to running just to keep her sanity and her fitness. But there was never a doubt in her mind that she would compete in the 5K road nationals in Syracuse, New York, as scheduled, less than a month after Hurricane Harvey hit.
“My mindset was, the day after we evacuated, I said, ‘Look, I’m going to Syracuse in three weeks,’” Harvey said. “I don’t care what’s happening with the house. I’m going to go and whatever happens, I’ll run with whatever fitness I have and enjoy the trip.’”
With her training disrupted and her goal time for the 5K out of reach, she deployed Plan B: Just have fun. Harvey won the age-graded title in 20:44, about a minute slower than she’d trained for, but she still counted it a success.
At the 15K nationals a month later in Tulsa, Oklahoma, she had a little more preparation under her belt, which she needed to battle it out with Edie Stevenson, a tough rival of the same age who she had to beat to keep her age-graded streak alive. They were running just one second apart at the 10K mark, but Harvey dropped the hammer and widened the gap to win by a full minute, in 1:07:24.
Harvey, her husband Bill, and their two dogs are currently living in a travel trailer parked in their driveway while their home is stripped to the studs so it can be rebuilt. When she traveled to Columbus, Ohio, to accept her USATF award earlier this month, her husband had to stay behind to deal with contractors.
Harvey says she was “gobsmacked” to be chosen as the Masters athlete of the year, but her former coach wasn’t surprised.
“Her journey has been all about perseverance,” Bowler says. “She has helped people because she started from zero, and not so long ago. At 68, it’s so inspirational for everyone to see her achieve these things.”
When faced with a challenge in running or in life, Harvey’s advice is simple. “Take a deep breath, look at the big picture, and take it one day at a time.”