See Sharon Run

Why would a suburban mother of three choose to head out across the desert - repeatedly?



Last year, Danville resident Sharon Kovar ran a few races. Eleven, to be exact, three of which were ultramarathons. It’s a challenge to decide which was her most impressive finish: placing first for women in a 100K race across desert terrain in Tunisia or placing second in a race in Namibia that covered 100 miles. To offer some perspective, the latter is roughly like running from Concord to Sacramento and then back again.

By the way, Kovar is 45. And while the rest of us were lolling poolside this summer, she was training for her favorite annual race, a 50-mile jaunt in Canada with a daunting name: The Stormy. It features an elevation gain of 4,000 feet—about the height of Mount Diablo—and an obstacle called the Nine-Mile Hill, which begins 30 miles into the race. Listening to Kovar talk about her experience at her first Stormy, you get the sense that she actually relished that hill. “I ate boiled potatoes at the top,” she remembers. “They were amazing. And, I ended up passing 14 people in the last 11 miles. I thought, ‘This is where it’s at.’ ”
 

To the average person, the kind who has purchased maybe one pair of running shoes in the last decade, Kovar seems like some wild exotic creature with unfathomable, fascinating habits. Like, say, the Arctic tern, which flies from its Arctic breeding grounds all the way down to Antarctica for the southern summer, then back to the Arctic, covering about 24,000 miles in a year. The bird has no other choice; it is hardwired for this feat.
 

But, what about Kovar, a suburban mother of three, who didn’t even join the ultramarathon circuit until about four years ago? Who won her first 50K race, the Dead Sea ultramarathon, at the ripe old age of 42? How does she do it, and—more important—why? What makes her so different from the rest of us? What, in fact, makes Sharon run?

A number of theories had to be investigated before a full picture emerged. Let’s start with the possibility that caffeine plays a role. Within a minute of welcoming me into her New England–style contemporary home near Blackhawk, Kovar offers up a chai latte. Why not? “Do you want a shot of espresso in it?” she asks. She’s blonde, blue-eyed, and slim (she would be). This alarming-sounding drink, the so-called dirty chai, is her own creation. It helped win her a Starbucks Customer of the Month award not long ago, a distinction she finds just a bit embarrassing.

“Caffeine is my vice,” she says with a laugh. “I won’t lie.”

But, it’s clearly not her fuel because instead of racing off into the golden hills beyond her house, she settles onto a couch to tell war stories while George, her black Persian, preens at her feet. She starts with that first ultramarathon in Jordan. The temperature was over 100 degrees by the end of the race, and the course was loaded with hills, the descents almost worse than the ascents. “Your quads completely burn out,” she says. The Dead Sea shimmered in the distance as she raced across the hot sandy terrain. Of all the horrors she has described, the sand sounds the worst.

Not at all, she says. “Sand is really forgiving on your body. You almost buy yourself more time running on sand.”

It’s hard to imagine anything forgiving about running 50 kilometers at one go, but so be it. Passing the marathon mark at 42 kilometers, she realized she’d done it in three hours and 11 minutes, her best time ever. Then, she caught up to a Jordanian runner who told her she was first among the women. They ran in tandem alongside the Dead Sea.

“I hit a wall,” Kovar says. Her muscles were breaking down. There were no more water points for the runners; the Dead Sea’s salty water was just a taunting mirage. In the oppressive desert air, it was hard to catch a breath. The strength she’d worked so hard to develop was waning.

But, with the Jordanian man’s encouragement, she pushed past that wall. After she crossed the finish line, she never saw him again. “It was bizarre,” she says, shaking her head. Then, suddenly—or since we’re talking about running for three hours and 54 minutes, maybe suddenly is the wrong word—she was being greeted as a winner. And was hooked on the peculiar world of ultramarathons.

Now that she’s taken me to the finish line, I ask Kovar to backtrack, to explain how she acquired this strange habit of long-distance running at a point when many in her age group are coming to terms with middle-aged spread.

Kovar grew up in Saratoga, where she ran track and cross country at Saratoga High. Living in Contra Costa in her twenties and thirties, she ran only recreationally, without any deep ambition, maybe a handful of miles to keep in shape. “She’d run to Starbucks,” Amelia Tess Thornton, one of her closest friends, says jokingly. Kovar was too busy working and raising children. From her first marriage—to her high school sweetheart—she has her son Drew, 22, who just graduated from San Diego State University, and a daughter, Courtney, 21, who entered her final year at UC Santa Barbara. From a second marriage, she has another daughter, Taylor, who is 14.

When her children were young, Kovar shouldered much of the family’s financial burden, handling the responsibility with aplomb. She was divorced with two toddlers when she started working for Gap, which she had moved to after enrolling in an executive training program at Macy’s and climbing the ranks there. At the clothing company, she adapted Ken Blanchard’s best-selling One Minute Manager program to Gap language and became a district manager. In 1997, Chevron came calling, asking her to apply those management techniques to training some of its overseas teams.

In short order, she was pulling 28-day shifts at a Chevron facility in Kazakhstan (then, for 28 days off, she’d rejoin the kids, who lived in Danville with family). The only way to get exercise was to run the perimeter of the company’s compound. Around and around she went. Still, it wasn’t serious; it was mostly a means of killing time in a place without a lot of diversions.

Then, in 2001, she underwent what for her was a seismic shift. She married her third husband, a Chevron executive, quit her job, and moved with him to Vancouver. The working mother who had always been the breadwinner was suddenly a corporate wife, living in a new town, in a new country. She now had an empty Day-Timer and a husband who worked long hours. “I had no friends,” she says candidly. “It was a tough transition. … I thought, ‘I’ve gotta do something for me.’ ”

Plenty of people would have gone shopping or to the spa, instead of taking Kovar’s route of seeking solace on Canada’s running trails. She began working with Carson Souter, a former college football player turned fitness trainer, and discovered that she had not only a capacity for endurance, but a talent for it. “I was in good shape,” Kovar says. “I had strong lungs and strong legs, and I was seeing success fast.”

“I knew right off the bat that anything Sharon wanted to do, she could do,” Souter says. As long as she was willing to do the work, he told her that age was not a hindrance; many ultramarathoners fall in the 30 to 50 age range. He shifted her training into high gear, putting her on a program that developed all aspects of her athleticism, from working on her core to weight training and stretching. “We used to just basically thrash her,” he says.

By the time her husband was reassigned to Kuwait in 2004, she’d run nine races in Canada, including a half marathon in one hour and 34 minutes. She confided to Souter that she wanted to run ultramarathons in desert conditions. “I told her, with your mind-set, you are capable of doing so much,” he remembers. “But, you have to evaluate how much time this will take because training is a full-time job.”

Kovar told him it was her number one goal, and he began writing training programs for her. Not surprisingly, motivation was never a problem. She presented him with a list of 18 races she wanted to do; he countered with a list of five, on the grounds that it was better to do fewer races at 100 percent of her potential than many at 80 percent.

“Sharon has always been like a go-go-go person,” Souter says. “She would probably run a thousand races in a month if she could. My job has been to sort of control that tendency and get her to train efficiently.”

After that first victory at the Dead Sea ultramarathon, Kovar registered for more ultramarathons in the Sahara, Tunisia, Namibia, and Senegal. More hot places, more places where it seemed ordinary mortals would never want to take on the task of running for five hours straight—unless they were being chased by a wild animal.

Kovar shows me pictures of herself surrounded by sand, running, always running, looking tanned and as buff as a 25-year-old. Her home office is filled with medals and ribbons and a head-sized trophy from Tunisia that looks like something out of a George Lucas movie (it’s called a Desert Rose, a big clump of fossilized minerals). She’s even claimed running is “so easy. Once you’ve got your shoes on, you just go.”

Still, her capacity for endurance seems inexplicable. So, I ask to see her running shoes. Perhaps they hold the answer—or evidence of magical properties. Probably they were hammered together by Swiss podiatrists working in a secret alpine location. Obligingly, she leads the way to her closet upstairs. If she thinks this is a weird request, she doesn’t show it. Because even though Sharon Kovar has the neatest, most precisely organized house I’ve ever been in, she appears to be the opposite of uptight.

While it’s true that there is a closet entirely dedicated to running and workout clothes, there are only three pairs of shoes inside, and they are nothing special. In fact, her Vasques look strikingly similar to my own. She explains that after an ultramarathon, a pair of shoes are just “done.” And not worth saving as trophies? Well, keep in mind that she logged a total of 385 competitive miles in 2007 alone. That would be a lot of dirty old trophies.

When she bends over to put the shoes back in their place, she reveals the top of a tattoo. Not a dainty one, either, but a scrawl that covers a substantial part of her back.

Maybe it’s the sign of a secret past involving punk rock and wild living. Demons! She must be driven by demons. Actually, no. The ink represents her solidarity with her oldest daughter. “It says, ‘I believe’ in Arabic,” she says. “Courtney and I got them together.”

The phrase represents a compromise between them. “My mother really wanted to get the word courage,” Courtney explains. “Her dad was very solemn and soft-spoken. He didn’t speak very often, but when he did, we all listened up. And, one of the things he always said was, ‘Sharon, just have courage.’ ”

Clearly, Kovar listened to her father’s advice. Her third marriage is ending—too many international moves in too short a time—but Kovar is facing the disappointment with courage. “He’s a good guy,” she says. “Maybe too much like me,” she adds. Which is to say competitive, driven, independent. There’s no bitterness in her voice. She just keeps going. When it comes to endurance, she is hardwired.

“Think about somebody with her drive to succeed having to face up to that,” her friend Thornton says. “That is tough on anybody. You take somebody with her level of dedication and focus, and wanting to be successful and to win, and then having to admit that this isn’t going to work.” Her voice trails off. “I’ve been through one divorce. I can see where running is a release.”

To maintain her strength, Kovar runs five days a week, for a total of about 45 miles. When she’s preparing for a race like Canada’s Stormy, she steps it up to seven days a week and covers about 80 miles. Every day she does a different drill, working on speed or hills or tempo. Even in these intense times, Thornton says that Kovar remains accessible to friends and family.

“Although she’s certainly extremely focused, even when she’s training, it’s not like she’s a jerk about it,” Thornton says. “Some of these elite runners, I don’t know how to say it, but they aren’t as balanced.”

In addition to training, Kovar works for Fuelers Snacks, a local company that makes healthy kids’ treats. Before that, she worked three days a week at Now We’re Cooking, a Danville company teaching people how to premake healthy family meals that can be reheated on a busy weeknight. She was a customer first and, in typical Kovar fashion, dropped by to say how much she loved what the business was doing and offer a few suggestions for improvement. Soon, she was behind the counter herself. She has also appeared in an advertisement for Cytosport, the Benicia-based sport drink and energy bar company. The ad shows her running on sand dunes, with the tagline “Sharon Kovar at the office.”

Finally, what it comes down to is that I am going to have to go running with her to really understand what makes Sharon run. I debate whether it would be kosher to follow Kovar on, say, a mountain bike. “I’ve tried that,” says Thornton with a laugh. “But I don’t think I could keep up with her, even on a bike.”

On the appointed day, I arrive at Kovar’s house, finding her clad in a white sport tank and black shorts, looking relaxed and utterly beautiful. “Just an easy loop,” she says, waving her hand in the air as if we’re going for a stroll in the park. The first thing I notice is that she can talk and run at the same time with no discernible change in her voice. There’s no heavy breathing. “This loop is only four miles,” she says, gesturing at the rolling terrain ahead. Only, I think, huffing alongside her. Meanwhile, there’s no visible exertion on Kovar’s part.

She points out houses in a nearby neighborhood—the one where writer Terry McMillan used to live, the home of one of the Golden State Warriors—and wrinkles her nose at the ones that are just too big and ostentatious. When I confess that I am going to have to walk up a hill, she cheerfully matches my pace. I have to ask: “Do you ever have to walk?” She shakes her head.

“You can’t,” she says ruefully. Walking is clearly the preamble to stopping, which is something she does not do. On one of her races in the Sahara, she tripped in the dark, hurting her foot. Unbeknownst to her, she’d actually cracked a bone. The next day, she was back on the trail, with her foot taped up. “I ran another 66 kilometers on that foot,” she says.

I shudder: Four miles may just be the death of me. How can anyone keep this up for four straight hours? Or five?

“Because you’re at peace,” Kovar says. “It’s how I get lost. It’s my world. It’s my peace.”

As we run together along valley paths ripe with wildflowers and long grasses, I notice that Kovar has a habit of reaching out to grab the foliage as she passes. It’s a playful, childlike gesture, speaking to the joy of her connection with the earth she’s running on. Suddenly, I know exactly why Sharon runs. It’s not just her peace—it’s her fun. Who wouldn’t want miles and miles of that?


Kovar’s Numbers

Age: 45
Weight: 121
Height: 5’ 6”
Body Fat: 11.2%
Heart Rate, Training: 135–145 beats per minute.
Heart Rate, Racing: 150–160 beats per minute.
Water Intake:
1 liter per 10 miles.
Calories Burned: 600–700 per hour for first three hours, 750–1,000 per hour after that.
Longest Run, One Day: 50 miles in nine hours, 12 minutes.


Training Regimen

Every Morning: 200 abdominal crunches.
Six Days a Week: a 60–90 minute trail run.
Once a Week: Core and stability strength training at the gym; a longer run of up to three hours.



Fast Food

Breakfast on Race Day: A banana, a bagel with peanut butter, and a cup of black coffee.
Pre-race Snack: One ounce “goo” (energy supplement gel) 45 minutes before race time.

During a Race: Kovar “re-goos” every 30–45
minutes until the five-hour mark, and then switches to the supply of almonds, Jelly Bellies, and imported gummi bears stashed in her sports bra.
After a Race: “A cold beer and a hamburger are a perfect meal.”


Soundtrack

Warm-Up Act: Kovar begins every race listening to “Sandstorm” by Finnish DJ Darude.

  
Headliners: Mostly contemporary rock and beats: Timbaland, Dave Matthews, John Mayer, Avril Lavigne, Gomez, La Ley, The Fray.
 

Mary F. Pols is a freelance writer based in Alameda. Her memoir, Accidentally on Purpose, was published in June.

 

Faces