Just before the start of the Women’s Invitational Mile at the 2015 Music City Distance Carnival, Sonja Friend-Uhl’s mind wasn’t where she wanted it to be. It was immersed in the heavy load of life, just like most forty-four year old moms.
The race didn’t start until ten at night, Sonja’s bedtime. And, the late start had done nothing to cool the angry June Nashville air. All around her, some of the most talented open and collegiate middle distance runners in the country were warming up, seemly far more prepared for the race than Sonja was.
Sonja ran her first race as a seven-year old, a 50-meter dash. A couple years later, someone talked her into running a 400-meter race, a distance that seemed too far at the time. She would run with her dad from time to time and her parents drove her to club meets around the state of Washington. It wasn’t the early success that captured her interest as much as the emotional release running gave her.
“I don’t remember making a conscious thought to choose running,” Sonja shared. “In many ways, running chose me.”
When she was twelve, her family moved to Lewes, Delaware, to be closer to the family that was scattered in the area. Sonja ran for Cape Henlopen High School, becoming a state 800 meter champion before moving on to run for William and Mary College.
During her warm-up for the Music City Mile, Sonja didn’t feel the usual fire, and positive self-talk didn’t seem to help her. As she approached the line with the rest of the field, all she could do was empty her mind and rid herself of the apprehension.
The gun fired.
The first lap disappeared, which is normal for an elite runner. It just melts into the place where lost time goes, and without feeling anything Sonja ran at the back of the pack, passing the 400 meter split in 71 seconds.
Her awareness resurfaced on the first turn of the second lap. She focused on staying relaxed and letting the pack pull her along. She hit 800 meters in 2:23.
When she had visualized the race earlier, she knew the third lap would be important, and she promised herself that she would race it hard no matter how she felt.
After college, Sonja became a fitness professional and coach, a career that worked well as she continued to pursue her own running. She’s always felt that running was a gift, and she wanted to share the blessing.
Through the years, running taught her the value of perseverance, discipline, humility and confidence, traits she’s used to set an example for her daughters. “I want to help them see that our bodies are meant to be worked, and that this also strengthens and opens our minds,” she told me.
Sonja felt good on the backstretch of the third lap, passing several runners there. Coming into the bell lap she still had strength in her legs, and her excitement surged as she realized she had run the third lap in 69 seconds.
Every muscle fiber, every conscious and subconscious part of her mind was focused on a single task – run hard. She built speed coming into the final turn and she continued to accelerate coming off it. She was all-out in the final straight, passing two more runners before crossing the line.
Sonja finished sixth, but the place didn’t matter. She just loves finding the best in herself, which is all she’s ever wanted to do. That night, her best was a 4:45.68 mile, a new American record for women over forty.
My wife and I just returned from another vacation in Lewes, DE. I love running while I’m there. The trails are long and soft. The salty air is fresh.
On one of my runs this time, I stopped by Cape Henlopen High School to find water. A women at the stadium was kind enough to give me a bottle, and I asked her if she knew Sonja. The question attracted the attention of a few others, and for several moments they all talked about her as if she were a dear friend. The affection didn’t surprise me.
A lot of people have talent. Few cultivate it. Fewer still, like Sonja, use it as a means to enhance the lives of other people.
As I finished my run that day, I realized I have a new reason to love running in Lewes, because it reminds me of one of the most enduring running legacies of our time.
Thirty-six years after running her first race, Sonja ran one of her greatest. The outcome wasn’t decided at the time of opportunity, it was written in the decades of disciplined life that preceded it.
We are all being called to become our greatest self. Listen to the calling.