Sarah Williams' personal-best time in a five-kilometer race two weeks ago in Crete, Neb., earned her fifth place in an NAIA cross country meet. Another personal best on Sunday had Williams collapsing into the arms of family members as she wept tears that were a combination of joy and having nothing left to give.
Williams cut more than 20 minutes off her time in the Boston Marathon in April and won the Prairie Fire Wichita Marathon downtown, crossing the finish line in 3 hours, 3 minutes, 56 seconds. A 21-year-old distance runner at Peru State in Peru, Neb., Williams was as much surprised that she won as anyone.
"I had no idea," Williams said. "I actually thought I'd run worse than I did in Boston, because of the training and whatnot."
An Internet search of Williams reveals her history in distance races around the country. She finished 81st among women at the Lincoln, Neb., marathon in May, where she won her age group and 904th overall in Boston. She consistently runs the 26.1-mile courses in under four hours, but her times have given no indication that she was primed for a marathon victory.
Neither has her training regimen. She runs long distances in training with Peru State, but working toward running 5K races on most weekends isn't conducive to preparing for a marathon.
"I've been training for cross country, so it's just kind of up and down," Williams said. "I had no idea; I didn't know if I was ready or not, because going from 26.2 miles to a 5K is kind of tough. I just went out every day and never took a watch. I just went out and ran."
Williams was more than 16 minutes better than the second-place women's finisher, Tiffany Kohn. Lacy Hansen, who finished second last year, took third. Williams beat last year's winning time, from Kris Huff, by more than 10 minutes.
Conditions were favorable for Williams, who found relief from the flat course and from the rain, which kept her hydrated. At one point, spectators let her know she was the leading female runner, and instead of that information giving her a reason to relax, Williams kept moving until she was well ahead of her competitors.
"It kind of kept pushing me because I didn't want to give up," Williams said.
Her emotion after the race indicated Williams' level of fatigue, but she managed to remain at full strength for most of the race.
"I wasn't too bad," Williams said. "I usually get pretty tired. At 20 miles, you usually hit the wall."
Williams' improvement over past marathons is even more drastic than the 20 minutes she took off over the last six months. She ran her first marathon, in Lincoln, in 2009 and was unable to break four hours. She set a goal of running in 3 hours, 40 minutes, and accomplished that in Boston before failing to meet the mark in Lincoln in May.
There was never a goal to win one, though, but she did that by improving her time by an hour in 17 months.
"I didn't even know back then I could run that much," Williams said. "I thought (winning) would be cool, but I didn't ever think it was possible."
Williams is graduating after one more year of college at Peru State, where she majors in physical education. She has a plan for what's next.
"I'm probably going to go to Boston again," she said. "But first I'm going to take some time off."