The extraordinary true story of the 10-year-old girl who ran 3:49-per-kilometre to win first female at the Niagara Falls International Marathon last weekend has caused quite a stir. Should a little kid be running that fast? Is the child being too aggressively pushed by her parents? In Canada, might we see something like they witnessed in Cincinnati, where a 6-year-old ran a nearly nine-hour marathon at the Flying Pig? The remarkable Sawyer Nicholson, of Stouffville, Ontario, pictured, who has won two of her last three 5K road races—beating adults—sees no problem with her results.
“I don’t want to try a marathon,” she says. “It’s too long, like a long car ride but, for me, a 5K is really fun.”
Nicholson has raced three 5Ks in the past six weeks and took first female in two out of three; she also nabbed first female at the Oasis Zoo Run, finishing in 19:25. Speaking with the young runner and her father, who started his eldest out running during the lockdown, both father and daughter seemed happy and well-adjusted. Sawyer, an avid soccer player who sites Jessie Fleming and Steve Prefontaine as her heroes, plays on her soccer team and runs 5K two or three times a week at a pace where she’s able to maintain conversation.
“I used to try and get PBs in 3Ks during training, but now I really only run 5Ks at a pace where I can talk, around 4:30,” she says, and it brings to mind the Kenyan style of running: where the more you run, the slower you go on your easy days—saving your greatest efforts for speed work and race day. Sawyer, who might spend one day a week at the track and says warming up and staying hydrated help her prepare, gets most of her speed work from soccer and has no magic beans in her arsenal besides a great attitude.
The night before a race? She eats pasta. The morning before? A protein bar. “Before a race, I don’t like to have too much in my stomach,” she says. And what do you do about nerves? “To calm my nerves I try and push it to my feet so I run faster,” she says. “It just makes me excited.”
My children are 11 and 8-years-old and both 5K veterans. What they couldn’t believe, when meeting Sawyer over Zoom, was how she controlled her paced. My 8-year-old asked her, what even was your pace? “I wanted to go for like between 3:45 and 3:50-per-kilometre and my first one was 3:43, then 3:50 and then 3:50 and then 3:54 and then 3:40, so my average kilometre was 3:49.”
My son couldn’t imagine being so disciplined (and neither could his marathon running father) and Sawyer does not run with a pacer. She tracks herself on a tiny Garmin.
“She seems to have some uncanny internal clock,” said her dad.
Diane Chesla, co-race director of the Niagara Falls International Marathon, says Sawyer seemed happy at the race and totally in control of herself, and in the zone. “She had her backpack in the start chute and she put it aside—she was running up and down to warm-up and doing leg swings,” says Chesla. “She was totally focused. She seemed very confident and didn’t need anyone else to tell her what to do.“
It’s not often that a 10-year-old takes first female in a 5K—twice—and her story is still being written. They don’t make carbon-plated shoes that fit Sawyer Nicholson, who is just over 4-feet-tall and wears size one shoes. She says she’d love to go to the Olympics and thinks she can get faster. For now, however, just days before her eleventh birthday, she has her eyes set on just enjoying the ride.
“When I went to get my bib in Niagara, the guy couldn’t find it and he was like, ‘Are you in the elite section?’ I thought about it, ‘Oh, am I?’ He was joking, but then we started talking and he was like: ‘Hey, maybe you’ll win your age group!’ I said, ‘Hey, maybe I’ll win the whole thing,’” Sawyer says with a laugh. “Turns out, he knew the girl who placed second and that’s been my approach to racing. It’s fun and I don’t really do much talking—I show them.”