"This is where I feel empowered and fearless to continue to achieve the things that I want to achieve, and it's a place where I love the process of that training."
By Tommy DeLaunay - MileSplit
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Kate Sanborn's journey to the marathon has been a test, in and of itself.
Only, running has often been the easiest part of this thing called life.
Because while running has challenged her to her core, while it's made her stronger and forced her to keep going, mile after mile, it's never broken her like that moment did, it's never forced her to question her own self worth, it never made her doubt humanity, it never made her cope with her deepest and darkest fears.
That grotesque and brutal and unacceptable moment did.
But after a harrowing experience during her time at the United States Military Academy at West Point, when her love for the sport was nearly taken from her, the 24-year-old is more than ready to tackle what's ahead of her.
Because she's also stronger in 2022, much stronger than she ever was.
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Sanborn, a North Carolina native who graduated from Pinecrest High School in 2016, first entered the competitive running scene when she was nine years old. She had tried soccer and softball, but the ball always seemed to get in the way of her favorite part: running.
Her first experience racing came in 2007, when she won a school-wide competition to represent her school at the Cumberland County Elementary School Championship. The competition consisted of jump rope, a shuttle run and a half-mile run.
She remembers that first half-mile race vividly: Last place, 200-meters to go, something clicks. She refused to lose and ended up charging back to win.
It was a natural fit for Sanborn, who instantly fell in love with the sport.
She went on to later run for Jack Britt High School in Fayetteville while living on the base of Fort Bragg for her freshman through junior seasons. During her freshman cross country season, Sanborn was fifth at the NCHSAA 4A East Regional. She carried that momentum into the indoor track season, where she qualified for the state championships in the 1K and went on to finish 10th in the NCHSAA 4A classification.
During the outdoor track season, she won the Mid-South Conference championship in the 3,200m. She took 13th-place in the 1,600m at the state championships later that season.
Sanborn, a traditional military kid, was lucky to stay in Fort Bragg for the majority of her life. Before her senior year, though, her father, who retired from the Army after 30 years, accepted a role as the village manager of Pinehurst, which called for the family to pack up and leave everything -- which meant that Kate had to leave everyone she knew behind.
The transition was hard. Transferring to a new high school for her senior year and adjusting to new teammates and a new program, it would be a lot for anyone. But Sanborn knew that running would help her find a new foundation at Pinecrest High School.
She had a very successful first year with the Patriots, winning Southeastern 4A Conference titles in cross country and in the outdoor 1,600m run. She went on to win the NCHSAA 4A East Regional in the 1,600m, running her personal best of 5:06.14.
"In marathon training, it's embracing the struggle and the day in and day out because you're doing so many miles at really ridiculous paces that it's okay not to feel okay."
Although her high school career soon finished, Sanborn had been working toward something even greater: She knew she wanted to follow in her parents' footsteps and attend the United States Military Academy at West Point.
After being accepted in the spring of 2016, she was more than ready for the next stage of her career.
Sanborn got to West Point in the summer of 2016, 30 years after her parents first enrolled, and she was ready to tackle all the new and upcoming challenges that would be presented to her and her new classmates.
"I wanted to have a purpose that had tangible results, and I saw that through the Army," she said, "and Serving in the Army was ultimately what I wanted to do. But you can also get a top-tier education. And it didn't hurt that I was also being recruited to run [Division I] for their track and field and cross country program. It was the best of both worlds."
For Sanborn, life as a freshman -- or 'plebe' as they're called at West Point -- was challenging. Plebes arrive on campus in June for basic training, which lasts until August. There is little time to sleep, as you're doing physical activities day in and day out.
Sanborn's performances suffered, but she tried to not let it get to her. She didn't PR that year. And yet, she knew she was still adjusting to the training load and coaching style.
Despite the difficulties of her first year, Sanborn came into her sophomore season -- or the 'Yearling year' -- with high spirits. She was ready to demolish the upcoming cross country season and be an asset to the team.
"Going into that cross-country season, all I wanted to do is just pour everything into it," she said.
Early on, however, adversity hit. She suffered a stress fracture in her foot and toe, which meant this: She was unable to do what she loved most. She lost running.
Sanborn was still trying to find her place in the team, so the weekend after the injury she and some of her teammates went off-campus to relax and get their minds off the stress of the academy.
That weekend changed the trajectory of her life.
She was sexually assaulted by two of her teammates.
Following the assault, Sanborn struggled with her self-worth.
"Other human beings couldn't respect or value me as a human being," she said.
Being hurt by her teammates left her feeling without purpose, both on her team and as an individual. Her mental health suffered, and, as is common with survivors of sexual assault, her mental health battle materialized into an eating disorder.
She completed the indoor track and field season in early 2018, but she knew that continuing on with running was only continuing to send her on a downward spiral. She left the team and sought help from military doctors on campus.
"That was something that stung a lot," Sanborn said. "If I can't be respected as a human being or an athlete, how am I supposed to respect myself? It's something that literally ate away at me."
Sanborn continued training throughout the spring and summer, and even went to Airborne school that summer. Internally, she debated returning to the program where her assault had happened. At certain points, she felt it was not the right choice. But her first love of running could not be taken away from her, and so she made a decision: In the fall of 2018, Sanborn returned to West Point.
She decided she would not be a part of the cross country and track and field teams.
"Whenever you have some sort of mental health issue, whether that's depression, anxiety, eating disorder, you're going to continue to cite that for the rest of your life," she said.
But overcoming that trauma, through the darkest parts of her life, something inspiring came from it: She found the Marathon Club Team at West Point.
"How can I work through the root of the cause?" Sanborn remembered asking herself. "The root of the cause for me was the sexual assault. So, knowing that, how can I rewire my brain?
"How could I not have panic attacks? How can I not have nightmares? How can I not be severely depressed and anxious all the time? How can I manage this day in and day out by surrounding myself with the right people? Is there something that can help keep my mind off it?
"For me, that's running," she said.
The Marathon Club Team at West Point was like a new home. Sanborn saw them as a group of like-minded individuals that wanted to get the best out of each and every runner.
"It was a really great cohort of people to be alongside and a great cohort of people that also realized that long distance running doesn't have to be perfect," she said. "In marathon training, it's embracing the struggle and the day in and day out because you're doing so many miles at really ridiculous paces that it's okay not to feel okay."
She also began to realize another thing: It's okay not to feel okay.
On November 10, 2018, just a few months after joining the club, that little light at the end of the tunnel became a bright one in Sanborn's life.
She traveled to Richmond, Virginia, for the Allianz Partners Richmond Marathon, eager to toe the line for the first time in what felt like a lifetime. The gun went off and Sanborn felt as strong as she had in months.
She had hoped to break the three-hour barrier in her debut marathon, but the time on the clock when she crossed the line wasn't even believable to her at the moment.
"I felt like I had a lot left in the tank and it was a lot of fun," she said. "I love all these people and I love marathoners and I love the running community."
At that moment, Sanborn felt like she had found new purpose in her running career, which just months earlier had been slipping through her fingers.
"How can I work through the root of the cause? The root of the cause for me was the sexual assault. So, knowing that, how can I rewire my brain?"
"This is where I belong in the running world," she said.
Her debut marathon qualified her for the 2020 U.S. Olympic Trials in Atlanta, Georgia.
Along with her athletic successes, though, came other positives. Her academic performance was improving, too.
But the trauma of her assault hadn't just gone away. Internal battles still haunted her.
After her junior year, Sanborn was referred to the Medical Evaluation Board (M.E.B) by campus doctors. She was evaluated by the M.E.B on her mental health and was retired from the military due to military sexual trauma.
In the summer of 2019, Sanborn packed all her belongings in her maroon Jeep and hit the road back to North Carolina. She was not ready to share the true reasons behind her departure from West Point. She hid it from friends, former teammates and coaches, only telling her story to her parents and brother.
After the summer at home in Pinehurst, Sanborn enrolled at NC State University for the fall 2019 semester.
From there, the build to the U.S. Olympic Trials started. She trained with the Raleigh Distance Project. And as she once felt with the club team at West Point, she once again felt at home again.
She did not run any marathons in between Richmond and the Olympic Trials, but she learned more during the build-up and race than she could have ever imagined.
Still, the marathon training was less than ideal for Sanborn. She was still dealing with mental health issues and the stresses of the upcoming race. That was only adding more weight to the pressure.
"I just trained like an animal and that was not necessarily smart," she said. "I was trying to cope and deal with stress -- [of] wanting to do well. So all of that was a process for me."
But Sanborn also wasn't going to let anything stop her from soaking in the experience.
She told herself, "Take advantage of this opportunity. Enjoy it. Don't stress yourself out so much that you can't embrace every mile that you're in."
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On race day in February of 2020, she was just shy of her personal marathon best, clocking a time of 2:44.18, and she finished in 110th-place in the professional women's field at the U.S. Olympic Trials in Atlanta.
Even though she did not quite hit the time she was gunning for, though, Sanborn said she felt more optimistic about her future.
"If I were able or able to take a step back and figure out internally 'What do I need around me to foster an environment for me to thrive?'
"If I could figure those pieces out, then I could really nail down the marathon the right way."
And nail down the marathon she did.
Almost two years later, at the Chevron Houston Marathon in 2022, she had a breakthrough. Sanborn dropped nearly 11 minutes off her personal best, running 2:33.37 and taking 11th overall in the women's field.
For comparison, her high school 5,000 meter personal best of 18:47 translated to 6:02 mile pace. She ran the marathon less than six years after graduating high school and averaged 5:52 mile pace.
"This is where I feel empowered and fearless to continue to achieve the things that I want to achieve, and it's a place where I love the process of that training," she said.
A few months later, Sanborn ran in the 2022 Boston Marathon, where she was in the professional women's field.
She held on for 26th and produced a time of 2:40.16.
More recently, she finished 12th at the USATF 20K Road Championships on Sept. 5 in New Haven, Connecticut. She ran a time of 1:09.23.
While her difficult experiences remain a part of her, Sanborn says she has found her circle in the marathon community and believes she's only going to continue to grow.
She says she works through her trauma every day.
Some days are harder than others, she says, but running has been the constant in her life: It's never stopped being a tool for her to explore and challenge herself.
As she reflects on what has happened since that first half-mile race in elementary school, her advice to her younger self is simple.
Good enough is good enough.
Follow Kate on Instagram @k8_sandy and Twitter @k8_sand.
Cover photo credit Justin Hall, @justin_yall